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Once upon a time, a mainstream American feature had to have exceptional content to play around with the hot-button topic of unwed motherhood, like George Stevens' A Place in the Sun. Although there are exceptions to everything -- the tricky wartime comedy The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and the subversive 1950 film noir The Prowler -- American studio pictures presented a cultural image that pretended that sex out of wedlock was an unmentionable taboo. The late 1950s saw some breakthroughs in adult content for mainstream American movies, reflected in an odd flurry of often-exploitative rape scenes in everything from dramas to westerns. There also began a minor but significant trend of movies about young adults and teenagers 'getting in trouble'. Starting in 1957 or so, films like Unwed Mother, Blue Denim, A Summer Place, The Best of Everything and Love with the Proper Stranger tackled the issue of unwanted pregnancy with women and girls from various backgrounds.
I say all this because by 1974, when Peter Hyams directed the feature film Our Time, the subject had lost most of its shock value, commercially speaking. The Ratings System had made the movies open to just about every sex topic previously banned, provided that producers were willing to accept an "R" or an "X" rating, and the years 1969-1973 or so saw an upswing in adult movie "themes" that almost made hardcore pornography acceptable mainstream movie fare. Our Time was perhaps released five years too late, or too soon -- in 1974 almost every critical appraisal described it as Old Fashioned, a throwback to the Blue Denim days. That assessment is nonsense, as screenwriter Jane C. Stanton's movie takes place in 1955. It doesn't inject anachronistic sensibilities into its story of teens living under a different set of cultural rules. By 1980 the content of Our Time was being seen in After School Specials on TV. That doesn't make the movie any less relevant to us now.
The movie is an emotional coming-of-age story in a stuffy Massachusetts boarding school for girls called Penfield. Curious and adventurous best friends Abby Reed and Muffy (Pamela Sue Martin and Betsy Slade) are frequently written up with demerits for tardiness and talking after lights-out. The teachers at Penfield are mostly prissy martinets; some have keen noses for teen chicanery while at least one daffy old lady is so out of it that the girls at her dinner table can gossip about any subject they want to, including sex. Abby and Muffy are new seniors and are indeed so curious about sex that they're looking for the right opportunity to sneak through the school's watchful security to meet with boys. The conventionally pretty and graceful Abby has a steady fellow in the sensible Michael (Parker Stevenson). The couple makes careful, if somewhat amateurish, plans to get together in a hotel while claiming that Abby is visiting her grandmother. The more emotionally fragile and insecure Muffy feels frustrated and humiliated by the attitude of the boys at the heavily supervised school dances. She wants to be in control of something, and continually rejects the gangly, hound-dog loyal Malcolm (George O'Hanlon Jr.). Muffy helps Abby pull off her weekend with Michael, only to feel more unaccomplished and unwanted when Abby reports having a good experience. A boy that insulted Muffy at a dance writes her a friendly letter, and she invites him to a Christmas party. When it turns out that the boy wanted the invite for other reasons, Muffy is devastated. Taking Malcolm by the hand, she leads him to a car parked out in the snow, and demands that he have sex with her, right then and there.
The film was produced by Richard A. Roth, who enjoyed a surprise hit two years before with another period story of adolescent sex. Summer of '42 is now almost unwatchable, a noxiously false "nostalgic" look at a boy who loses his virginity to the gorgeous young wife (Jennifer O'Neill) of a soldier fighting overseas. The 'sensitive' soft-focus cinematography goes flat when we realize that the movie is exploiting a puerile male sex fantasy -- we just want to see O'Neill take her clothes off. Our Time is both more legit and less commercial of a proposition. The PG rating means no nudity or explicit sexual descriptions to exploit. When something funny happens, it's always a matter of character. The humorously determined Abby and Michael can't help but look ridiculously guilty when sneaking past the hotel clerk, and Abby climbs into bed wearing a plain cotton top under her carefully chosen "alluring" nightgown. Luckily for her, the practical Michael is prepared, having at least considered the issue of contraception.
Muffy's disasters never let up; the innocent and unprepared are always the ones to suffer. She goes into her first sexual encounter half in a rage, in an emotional state where she can't possibly have a good experience, let alone enjoy herself or find any understanding. Muffy isn't even seduced. Self-willed psychological pressure turns what is supposed to be a triumph into an auto-defeat, another setback for a girl who already sees herself as a chronic loser. Muffy could probably be the popular person she wants to be if only she could manage a better self-image. It's about this time that we realize how beautiful and deserving a person she is, and that the gawky Malcom is a perceptive fellow to be in love with her. If only he had the self-possession necessary to throw on the brakes, rather than follow Muffy in her weakest hour.
If only ... Our Time recognizes that pre- media savvy kids raised in sheltered confusion are going to make awful mistakes, like thinking that it's impossible to become pregnant "the first time". Even the naturally graceful Jenny of An Education has some glaring gaps in her knowledge; it's just lucky that she's so protective about her sex life. From this point on Our Time gives a very straight account, without exaggeration or undue emotional fireworks, of what it might be like to seek an abortion in the relatively puritan America of 1955. An honest doctor has no advice but for Muffy to take the problem home to her parents, an alternative Muffy is determined to avoid. He is sympathetic, but he abandons her just the same. Michael's 'highly recommended' plan looks at first like a horrible scam that involves both girls driving off with an unsavory stranger who demands full payment up front. And just as things seem hopeless, Muffy is delivered into the hands of a fellow who calls himself a medical student, who has a clean room set up and seems to know what he's doing. The relief is heavenly, until...
I remember seeing Our Time on cable TV probably a year after its near-invisible theatrical release, and promptly forgot its generic title. I remembered thinking it was pro- Women's Choice and pro- Roe vs. Wade, but I was wrong. Our Time remains especially relevant because it sticks to the facts of a particularized case without making wider claims to the full truth of the matter. Things like this happened back in the 50s with more frequency than we'd like to admit. Coop up all those girls away from boys in that petrified school, and some of them will behave like POW's bent on escape. Unless you put them in physical chains, some young people are going to get together in any way they can. Even then they'll find a way. 1
The teachers of Penfield wouldn't dream of informing their pupils about the simple facts of life -- the scandal would force them to close their doors. When a girl is clearly agonizing in her bed, the school nurse thinks nothing of it -- until she pulls back a blanket and sees that her patient has already lost half the blood in her body. 1955 seems to be a perilous year for an adventurous, curious and yes, foolhardy girl to be growing up. And these are upscale kids, not anti-social burnouts from miserable neighborhoods.
The film presents an even better lesson about the awful perils of back-alley abortions. The 'medical student' has a great bedside manner, yet when the procedure is done he looks almost as wiped out a Muffy, with sweat dripping from his face. It doesn't augur well, to say the least. From our perspective it's easy to watch Muffy, Malcom, Abby and Michael making all these bad decisions, and to simply remark how stupid and ignorant they are. Any social worker can tell you that plenty of tragedies like this still happen all the time. Along with kids purposely getting pregnant for crazy reasons I can't fathom, pathetic youngsters continue to make the same old mistakes, too. 2
Our Time is acted by an ensemble that continued to fairly visible careers. Ex- model Pamela Sue Martin began in Buzz Kulik's To Find a Man, playing, of all things, an unwed mother who has an abortion. After a showy role in The Poseidon Adventure she got more attention in Buster & Billie and moved on to star billing in The Lady in Red. Martin's fan base concentrates on her TV work in the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew series, and a memorable role in Dynasty. Both Parker Stevenson and George O'Hanlon Jr. were part of the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew series as well, an unusual coincidence. Betsy Slade is an accomplished stage actress whose film career seemingly did not continue much further, which is a bad break for us. I've read contemporary reviews that don't like her performance, which to me seems crazy. Muffy is as tough a character to play as one can imagine for a young woman, and Slade pulls it off beautifully.
Actor Robert Walden adds to his gallery of offbeat performances with his role as the abortionist, who may or may not know what he's doing. We don't like the way the guy toys with his tools, as if he hasn't worked with them before. The scene has a strange, unreal quality, as Muffy seems more relaxed and content than at any other time in the show: she's finally taken a strong personal step, and her problems finally seem to be working out.
Director Peter Hyams went on to a number of higher profile pictures but this remains my favorite of his. He gets some really superior performances on film, even if his style is almost consistently flat. About the only visuals that can be commented on are a couple of long tracking masters in the school chapel, and they seem like technical exercises. Hyams' main distinguishing aspect is that he served as cinematographer on a number of his movies, starting with 1984's 2010: The Year We Make Contact.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Our Time is a good transfer of this average-looking picture, supposedly taking place in New England but reportedly filmed in part elsewhere (probably for the non-Winter scenes). Colors are good. Opticals are on the soft side, and the film opens with an awkward extended freeze frame. With much of the dialogue recorded in echoey rooms, some is a bit hard to make out. But the audio track sounds fine for Michel Legrand's unobtrusive music score. No trailer is included. Our Time is so restrained when it comes to on-screen sexuality that I should think it an excellent movie to give impressionable girls some perspective on how different things were way back when -- and also how some reckless behavior hasn't changed at all. 3
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Our Time rates:
1. My background was plenty strict, and we sure as hell did. The 1968 I knew seemed like the 1950s.
2. For the record, I find Blue Denim to be well-intentioned, but weighed down by a compromised final act where the parents of Brandon de Wilde and the preggers Carol Lynley take on the illegal abortionists as if they were storming the beaches on D-Day. I still admire the presumed exploitation quickie Unwed Mother, which to me comes off as accurate and sensitive to the plight of its confused heroine, played by Norma Moore. Her Betty Miller hasn't the benefit of the social advantages of the girls of Our Time.
Hi Glenn, Enjoyed your review of this nearly-forgotten film. I myself attended an all-boys prep school for six years (although my years were 1965-71). The film accurately depicts those forced, artificial exchange dances with various all-girls prep schools. That was still going on in the mid-1960's!
When the film was released, some read it as a pro-abortion film, and some read it as an anti-abortion film. I don't feel that the film had a particular political agenda, but was instead a plea for tolerance. In other words, it wasn't the "black or white" film that some wished to consider it.
I attended it first run at a downtown hardtop theater in 1974, and then caught it at a drive-in theater as "late" as 1976. When it aired on network TV some years later, the title was changed to Death of Her Innocence, and there were numerous cuts made to it.
I seem to recall that the film was mis-marketed by Warner Brothers. The trailer preview I saw back in the day attempted to paint it as a warm and fuzzy nostalgia piece, which did the film a disservice. I suppose that the studio wished to target the healthy American Graffiti audience.
Reading between the lines, I believe that Betsy Slade was considered a front runner for the title role of 1976's Carrie, which would have provided another "misfit" role for her. I have heard that she advanced to the final audition level, but was "blown away" by Sissy Spacek's reading at that point in time. I can only speculate how successful she might have become if she had gotten Carrie.
Funny, but some of my favorite film actresses have been "misfit" types. I'm thinking of Catherine Burns (Last Summer and Red Sky at Morning) and Amy Wright (Wise Blood and Girlfriends and Inside Moves). -- John Black
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