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Love Pre-code movies? This one's a winner, a collegiate morality play that couldn't come up with a real ethical or moral principle to save its soul. Produced by David O. Selznick during his brief stay at RKO, 1932's The Age of Consent proclaims its subject matter up front. Boring lectures about cell mitosis are for the birds -- the movie begins with a dapper college lad honking his car horn to let his date, still attending her biology class, know he's outside and eager.
Hollywood movies about college life were always more fantasy than fact. Until WW2 college was basically for the rich and truly gifted students not intimidated by social factors from pursuing higher education. But the movies made college life seem like an endless parade of fraternity parties, football games and joy rides in cars. A contemporary review in the New York Times had this to say: "It is unlikely that modern students will recognize themselves in the sub-sophomoric speciments of college men and women in The Age of Consent. But the problems are real and the film presents them with some understanding." From our perspective a full eighty years later, nobody seems to have seen this show with clear eyes.
At a Midwestern college, undergraduates Betty Cameron and Mike Harvey (Dorothy Wilson & Richard Cromwell) are having romantic problems. The social emphasis seems to be focused on wild times, as evidenced by the eager beaver Duke Galloway, who uses his new car to offer rides to passing co-eds, hoping for a hot date. Mike pressures Betty to get more physical, and she resists. He thinks the right thing for them to do is quit school and head to a job he can get in California. Betty balks at this plan too -- what about the future they've both worked for? He feels like a louse and she feels like a failure. When they argue, Mike lets himself be picked up by an attractive local girl, waitress Dora Swale. Mike walks her home, only to find that her father works nights and that she's got some liquor hidden away. Meanwhile, Betty has listened to the advice of her teacher Barbara (Aileen Pringle), a spinster. Years before, Barbara told her boyfriend to wait and their love affair fizzled. Betty rushes to tell Mike she'll leave with him after all, only to find him roped into a forced marriage to Dora. Mr. Swale (Reginald Barlow) insists that Mike do right by his daughter even though they don't love each other. Everything looks hopeless when Betty decides to go on a fateful car ride with Duke.
The Age of Consent begins with a great montage of determined young
We wish that the Betty and Veronica comic books could have been turned into Pre-code movies, as they seem to have been set in a college atmosphere just like this one but minus the smutty attitudes. Smooth operator Duke might as well be the egotistical Reggie Mantle. Duke gives Mike a razzing outside the soda shop:
Duke: I wish you'd train your women to be on time when I have a date with them.
Mike: I can lead 'em to your trough but I can't make 'em drink!
They talk like that almost all through the picture. A couple of exchanges between Mike and the "interested" Dora go on for a dozen clever comeback lines.
The story is pretty much a universal one, about kids who don't want to wait and think that quitting school and getting married will bring them instant happiness. Changing moral attitudes have frankly relieved some of that pressure. UCLA's dorms went co-ed (men and women living on the same floors) just after I left. Sproul Hall went from the Animal House asylum I knew to a mostly calm environment. Guys didn't act so crazy when women were around to witness their idiocy. And the girls had no qualms about calling security.
In The Age of Consent the boys wear ties and sport coats and the girls have hemlines below the knee. Mike takes his whining problems to his professor, David Mathews, the film's Voice of Reason (John Haliday). But Mathews is no comfort. It was he that proposed to Barbara twenty years previous. Barbara claims that her life was ruined because she didn't say yes. Talk about crossed signals, The Age of Consent basically says that hormonal students should chuck fourteen years of education and go shack up. If David Mathews hadn't been level headed, where would our academics come from? This script, and I fear the culture of 1932, assumes that anybody over 40 is over the hill and completely asexual because the women can no longer have children. Since marriage is about procreation there's no reason to get together.
So we see Mike and Betty suffer and struggle. Each gets into a terrible trap before the story resolves itself. "What is important is love," the show claims, but what we see proves little. And we never find out if Dora and Mike's dalliance results in a Blessed Event. The Age of Consent eliminates all the usual side issues -- parents, job prospects, personal responsibility, familial promises or traditions, poor Dora's needs -- to keep its one issue in the clear. As for the "big seduction" that steers Mike in the wrong direction, all Dora has to do is pause in a doorway and adjust a stocking to make him come running. If he's that easily diverted, I don't feel like betting on Betty's chances for a successful marriage.
Funny and daring, The Age of Consent has an attractive young cast given excellent direction by Gregory La Cava. Eric Linden assays a great make-out king; his later claim to fame would be a bit in Gone With the Wind as a panicked amputee-to-be. He's also James Cagney's cocky younger brother in The Crowd Roars and the star of Are These Our Children?, a juvenile delinquency picture that I hope the Warner Archive resurrects sooner than later. Good-looking Richard Cromwell was borrowed from Columbia. Five years later he played the young Southener that blows away George Brent in a duel in Jezebel. Director La Cava secured two very personable actresses as his leading ladies. Arline Judge was an RKO contract player of distinction, who seems to have encountered no star-making opportunities. The big actor's story in the show is Dorothy Wilson, who was working as an RKO stenographer when she was encouraged to try out for the part. La Cava chose Dorothy and she gave such a polished performance (and photographed so well) that she was offered an RKO contract. Her subsequent career was no skyrocket; the only other picture I've seen of hers is the Merian C. Cooper production The Last Days of Pompeii.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Age of Consent is a good-looking transfer of a movie impossible to see unless one haunts the darker hours of TCM Cable Television. The picture's in nice shape, especially for an RKO show of this vintage. Pre-code fanatics are still starved for 'hot stuff' even though the WAC has made many Warners and MGM pictures available. Universal has put out a few Pre-codes of its own along with some hot Paramount titles. But we hear tantalizing reports of vintage Columbia and Fox shows... that have yet to appear.
Anyway, I can definitely recommend The Age of Consent as a winning back-to-school title. I should think that a college crowd would love it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Age of Consent rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.