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One of the first things film adepts do when discovering yet another blacklisted writer or director, is to look up credits to see whether these supposed subversives were, as claimed, cramming Hollywood movies with Stalinist propaganda. In most cases one will find that individual talents were persecuted not for what they created, but for what HUAC and other witch-hunting opportunists believed they were. Dalton Trumbo was outspoken with his opinions, but one won't find much in the way of political rhetoric in his movies.
Joseph Losey directed five Hollywood pictures before fleeing to a second career in England. His The Lawless is a scathing indictment of racial inequality and mob hysteria in a California farming town, the kind of 100% accurate show that might now be slandered as a "hate America movie". Losey's The Prowler is about an ambitious policeman who murders to get a piece of the American Pie and "make money while he sleeps". It seems a direct attack on the capitalist system. But Losey's first effort is a curious admixture of child psychology, war relief promotion and pacifist lectures, wrapped in parable commenting on the nation's willingness to demonize citizens that dare to stray from conformist politics.
Unlike Losey's American noir thrillers, 1948's The Boy With Green Hair takes the form of a children's movie. Its star is the 12 year-old Dean Stockwell, already a pro actor with ten films on his resume. Young runaway Peter Fry sits in a courtroom as Robert Ryan's doctor /psychologist grills him with friendly questions. All of Peter's hair has been shaved off. The doctor gently goads the bald boy into telling his story. Peter was shunted between aunts and uncles when his parents were stuck overseas. He eventually ended up with Gramp Fry (Pat O'Brien), an ex- performer and magician. Rather humorless and suspicious, Peter likes his new teacher (Barbara Hale) but reacts emotionally to his school's promotion for aid to European war orphans. He discovers that his parents are dead, and that he is a war orphan himself; his schoolmates poke fun at him. But then Peter's hair unaccountably turns bright green overnight. The green practically glows, and it won't wash out. Being "different" soon causes Peter to be ostracized by his fellow students. Girls stay away because his green hair might be "catching". The milkman complains because his customers are worried that his milk is responsible for the green hair. Although Gramp Fry defends Peter's right to be different, neighbors and authority figures insist that the offending hair be cut off. Isolated and confused, Peter has a fantastic encounter that reveals the meaning of his hair color, and why he needs to show it proudly. But everyone else demands that he shave it off.
The Boy With Green Hair is an engagingly child-like parable. Movies told from the point of view of children with problems aren't very numerous. The film version of Steinbeck's The Red Pony is a realistic tale about a farm boy, interrupted by odd fantasy sequences. A prominent precursor was RKO's child psychology-conscious The Curse of the Cat People; its child star Ann Carter has a small but important part here. Peter Fry's grandfather appears in a barely-motivated dream sequence that looks like something out of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. The ghostly children that Peter encounters in a forest clearing have obviously sprung to life from the posters of war orphans on the wall of his school classroom. Although those fantasies have psychological explanations, Peter's green hair does not -- it's a pure symbolic placeholder for anything that might turn one into a social pariah, a "dangerous" outsider who represents unpopular ideas.
Peter of course resists. He discovers that his true calling is to make the world aware of the need to stop war forever. The ending is ambivalent about what color his hair will be when it grows back, but the boy is committed to his pacifist mission. The liberal cause will be carried forth by a new generation.
In 1948 anybody suggesting that America back down from its aggressive military posture was looking for trouble, and that includes people making "cute" movies about boys with green hair. The openly leftist Ben Barzman was one of the first film writers to be blacklisted; his next job came two years later in England on Edward Dmytryk's Give Us This Day. According to the comments on the All Day DVD, the pro-labor anti-capitalist Give Us This Day was picketed so aggressively that it never really opened in the U.S.. These Hollywood liberals did not hide their opinions. Norma Barzman said that her husband knew that John Wayne did his own stunt work, and had purposely written dangerous action into his movies (Back to Bataan?). It may have been a joke, but he bragged that he hoped Wayne would break his neck!
The Boy With Green Hair is not at all subversive, but it does have sort of a nagging, "now I'm going to teach you a lesson ..." attitude that might irk some viewers, and not only conservatives. Little Peter Fry seems blessed with adult intuition, and phrases crop up that could come straight from a pacifist activist's handbook. One of the lines from the film is very close to the 60s mantra "War is not good for children and other living things". It's a good movie with which to observe the genesis of modern liberal message making -- sincere but somewhat manipulative. Those that demand that "dangerous" liberal opinions be kept out of entertainment fail to recognize that the overwhelming majority of commercial films present strong conservative messages by asserting that all is well with society. Complacency is dangerous too.
With his troubled brow and serious attitude, Dean Stockwell is simply excellent at portraying moral indecision in an 11 year-old. 1 The film's adults act like Sesame Street denizens on painkillers, all relaxed and subdued. They're granted plenty of time to appreciate Peter's ways and become concerned about his hair color. Barbara Hale (later famous as Della Street on TV's Perry Mason) seems somewhat aloof when Peter is singled out for grief by his peers. She takes an almost creepy census of hair color in her classroom... a bunch of brown-haired kids, a few blondes, one redhead and one with green hair. The audience gets her point, but would her students? Nowadays kids are being sent to Kindergarten with dyed-green hair, but in 1948 it was a shocking idea, the kind of daring break with normality that Dr. Seuss would exploit for children's books like The Cat in the Hat.
Forming a juvenile version of the lynch mob in The Lawless, Peter's school friends force Peter to run for his life. In a gesture that surely links up with the treachery of postwar politics, a pursuer begs Peter to help him find his lost glasses. When Peter does, the kid immediately attacks him again. This feeling of violence and insecurity is incompatible with children's fare, and the movie pinpoints one of the causes when Peter asks his Gramps if the whole world is going to blow up. The age of atomic terror has just begun.
Robert Ryan is limited to a guest walk-on but Pat O'Brien is quite good as the softhearted Irish grandfather. His blarney talk is never too thick. Better yet is the way Barzman has Gramps quietly take Peter's side against intimidating authority figures. Life is complicated in this "children's story" and problems can't be wished away with a song. The movie accepts the fact that being unpopular is a good thing because average people are uninformed and unenlightened. I can see conservatives arching their backs and hissing over this superior attitude, if they indeed perceived it at the time. Peter is a quiet rebel, and the status quo demands conformity.
Director Joseph Losey keeps the action and blocking so simple that the film sometimes resembles a "Dick and Jane" book. People assume their places and say their lines, or stroll slowly from one neighbor to the next, having little conversations along the way. The expense of Technicolor probably had something to do with the simplified style ... after lighting and setting up, fast cutting and fancy camera moves might have simply been too expensive. Curiously, Losey would later make, for England's Hammer pictures, one of the best and most politically radical Science Fiction films ever, (These Are) The Damned (soon to be released on DVD by Sony). The weird anti-nuke story is about nine or so mutated children impervious to radiation but highly radioactive themselves. They're being raised in secret to repopulate the Earth when the (inevitable) doomsday arrives. The thematic similarities to The Boy With Green Hair bridge the wide gap of style and genre between the two films.
The Warner Archive Collection's DVD-R of The Boy With Green Hair is a very good Technicolor transfer that might even boost the color from original levels -- it's very attractive. It looks as if Losey's art director sprayed some drab Southern California trees and grass with paint to make the colors pop. RKO's logo comes up in B&W, indicating that the studio had apparently not yet filmed a color version of its logo in 1948.
The movie's music became more famous than the film itself. Eden Ahbez' mysterious song Nature Boy is sung over the titles by a choir and heard as underscore throughout. Nat King Cole's cover version (which really should have been in the movie too) became one of the singer's biggest #1 hits.
The disc has no trailer and no extras but the curious can find plenty written about Joseph Losey and this picture in books and on the web. It's a childhood favorite of many.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Boy With Green Hair rates:
1. Connecting the resolute little scout Peter Fry with Dean Stockwell's later sicko freak in David Lynch's Blue Velvet kinda raises chills on my spine. Now imagine a montage of little Peter cut to Roy Orbison's In Dreams (I Walk Alone) -- young Dean Stockwell's precociously troubled looks might come off as very disturbing in that context.
1. From associate and advisor Dick Dinman, 3.02.10:
Colorful logo? If I'm not mistaken both earlier RKO pictures Sinbad the Sailor and The Spanish Main featured the RKO logo in color. --- DD.
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