Frank Borzage's 1932 motion picture Young America is an interesting take on the street urchin drama, casting the rebellious delinquent as a misunderstood do-gooder with an overly strident moral relativism.
Tommy Conlon (DeMille's Sign of the Cross) stars as Art, a boy with the reputation of being the "worst kid in town." (I'm not sure if we ever learn what town, but it appears they only have one police officer, so you can see how a tag like that might stick.) When we meet Art, he is being called before a judge in juvenile court because he stole a car. He claims the alleged joy ride was really to save the owner getting a ticket for having parked by a fire hydrant. The judge (His Girl Friday's Ralph Bellamy, giving a fine performance) doesn't entirely buy the story, but thinking reform school would do the boy more harm than good, he lets Art off with a warning.
Art's trial date is also the day a concerned local citizen, Edith (Doris Kenyon), is shadowing the judge so she can report on juvenile justice to her women's club. She takes a liking to Art, thanks in part to later good deeds, and when the boy gets in trouble again--this time for stealing medicine for his best friend's grandmother (Beryl Mercer)--Edith offers to become Art's guardian. The judge agrees, much to the consternation of Edith's husband (Spencer Tracy), who also happens to be the owner of the pharmacy that Art and his buddy (played by the director's son Raymond) broke into. If the boy can stay on the straight and narrow, and reject old acquaintances, he won't locked up; one screw-up, however, and it's off to juvie.
Young America was based on a stage play by John Frederick Ballard, and it offers a slight but otherwise charming story. The narrative is a quiet appeal to lend an ear to the nation's youth, many of whom (it suggests) just lacked guidance and a good home. Borzage (A Farewell to Arms) avoids any direct moralizing, however, letting the near-cartoonish divide between Edith and her gruff husband serve as the Young America's opposing viewpoints. Tracy had already perfected his grouch-with-a-heart-of-gold routine, so if there was anyone who could have sold a good turnaround here, it would've been him. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the movie's final act relies on an implausible turn of plot to make the old coot see the light.
Despite its occasional mawkish indulgences, however, Young America is an entertaining little movie. It offers a quaint view of American small towns, and likely served as a template for many family movies to follow.
Part of the Fox Cinema Archives manufacture-on-demand program, Young America is a made-to-order disc lacking in frills or a full image restoration. The movie is shown in its original full-frame with a black-and-white picture and a mono soundtrack. Some of the elements are worse for wear--a jumpy cut here, a little hiss and pop there--but overall is watchable and clear. Resolution isn't overly sharp, but decent enough without any egregious artefacting or jagged lines.
Frank Borzage's 1932 drama Young America is a solid morality tale from the early talkie error, brought to life with fine performances by stars Spencer Tracy and Ralph Bellamy, as well as by young actor Tommy Conlon, playing a kid who just can't catch a break. The story can be predictable and overly sentimental, but Borzage's assured direction sees it through. Recommended.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.