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Savant has a big interest in '50s teen angst movies, when "kids too young to know" had to navigate a consumer culture that glamorized instant sexual gratification while also warning Jack and Jill to keep it zipped. Standing apart from pictures that concentrated on hot rod delinquency, this raging hormones subgenre took its cue from TV dramas concerned with the problem of teen pregnancy and under-aged marriage. A few even considered the danger of backstreet abortions. For that I recommend a little seen but excellent teen "shocker" called Unwed Mother. In the intervening fifty years the subject of teen responsibility has been exploited by every fundamentalist and reactionary fringe movement in need of a sensational headline. Back in 1957, when the media promoted the idea that teens threatened all of Western Civilization, some of these movies presented reasoned arguments about Middle American realities.
The Careless Years is one of a small number of program pictures made by Kirk Douglas's Bryna productions as part of his United Artists deal that started with The Indian Fighter. Through UA, actor/producer Douglas tapped into the promising talent Stanley Kubrick and left the production of the contract-filling The Careless Years to his producing associate Edward Lewis. The director is Arthur Hiller, a TV neophyte shooting his first feature. Three years later Douglas would take credit for breaking the blacklist, but on The Careless Years Lewis's name appeared in place of the blacklisted John Howard Lawson and Mitchell Lindemann. A political leader among Communist intellectuals, Lawson was building an impressive list of credits when the HUAC cut his career off at the knees. His last credited film writing assignment was in 1947. The Writer's Guild corrected the official credits of The Careless Years in July of 1998, twenty years after Lawson's death. Was Lawson's covert employment by Bryna evidence of Douglas's opposition to the blacklist? Or were the banished writers hired because they could be hired under the table and paid a pittance?
The only political angle in The Careless Years is its acknowledgement of economic reality. The basic story sees thoughtful Santa Monica High student Jerry Vernon (Dean Stockwell) in dire need of a girlfriend. He crashes a party for some wealthier kids and feels rejected when the hostess Miley Meredith (Natalie Trundy) declines to dance with him. But a relationship begins when he volunteers to help wash the dishes. Jerry and Miley continue to date one another and soon face the usual pressures. Jerry wants to go further; Miley's resistance is not helped by the attitude of her sexually active friend Harriet (Maureen Cassidy). Intercepting a note from Jerry asking Miley "not to say no", Miley's concerned mother Helen (Barbara Bilingsley) presumes the worst. When the kids mention getting married after graduation, the Merediths hurriedly announce a long summer vacation. Jerry's father Sam, a tough steelworker (John Larch) is brokenhearted at the thought that his son is passing up the opportunity for a better education and a decent job. When Miley's parents lay down the law, the kids make plans to elope -- and Jerry forges his father's signature to get access to the $400 set aside for his college education.
The Careless Years is about 'nice' kids in a familiar pickle, even though its teens aren't pregnant and haven't yet done the deed. Thanks to the playing of the two leads and Hiller's careful direction, key dramatic scenes have the sting of reality: when the young lovers get to the point where nobody's at home and a bedroom awaits upstairs, even Miley is tempted. The confrontations with her parents are excellently written and performed. The inexperienced Jerry idealistically thinks that his honesty and forthrightness will carry some weight. When Miley broaches the subject with her parents (and aunt and uncle), her arguments are laughed at.
The parents don't exactly have it easy: if they blow a fuse the kids might indeed run away. Jerry has no knowledge of what it really means to slave for survival wages. He faults his father for lecturing him about the Depression, not realizing that hard times forced many ambitious men to give up their ambitions. Jerry says that 'jobs are everywhere,' but Sam Vernon knows that good jobs are not. Miley's much wealthier parents don't want to see their daughter crushed by failure -- she shows plenty of character but has never had to do without anything.
The Careless Years respects its young teens, who are anything but careless. Miley and Jerry consider themselves adults because they reject the reckless and amoral behavior around them. Helen Meredith is concerned that Miley might be doing the things she reads in shocking novels, a concern aggravated by Miley's acknowledgement that some of the high school kids are engaged in premarital sex games. In an interesting touch, Miley keeps a picture of Joan of Arc over her bed, an indication of her commitment to virtue. (Actually, the picture appears to be of Ingrid Bergman as Joan of Arc.)
Natalie Trundy is excellent as the sweet and responsible Miley, who is afraid to lose Jerry but must put her foot down to tell him that "this is wrong." This may be Dean Stockwell's closest James Dean impersonation. Frankly, Jerry's sudden outbursts at his father and Mr. Meredith are more credible than Dean's theatrical pouting and whining in similar scenes in Rebel without a Cause. When Jerry finally bursts out of his polite shell, he's a dynamo. Not only that, Stockwell's eyes show a change when he returns after a month spent picking up jobs on the road. He's gotten a taste of life on the economic fringe, and has gained a new respect for his father's position.
Familiar tough guy John Larch is excellent as Sam Vernon. We know Jerry is in trouble when he punches dad in the face -- Larch decks the kid the way so many heroes got to kayo Larch in crime films. The Careless Years came out one month before Barbara Billingsley struck gold as the Ideal Mom in TV's Leave it to Beaver. Billingsley played June Cleaver with intelligence and humor, suggesting that she had a life of her own beyond making peanut butter sandwiches while wearing pearls. Her concerned mother in The Careless Years is a similar woman from a more clearly defined well-bred background. June Cleaver let dad handle the rough edges with their boys. Helen Meredith has no intention of letting her daughter make any bad decisions, even if she tries not to use her parental authority. 1
The worthwhile thing about The Careless Years is that its issues haven't gone away. I can see modern teens laughing at the "rock" music the kids are supposed to be dancing to at Miley's party, but I can also see some of them recognizing our culture's lost innocence, as represented by a pair of good kids who must carry the weight of teenage sins on their shoulders. Jerry and Miley are honest characters and The Careless Years owes no apologies.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection's DVD of The Careless Years is a very good transfer that suffers from MGM Home Video's usual flaw with B&W films made after 1954-'55: incorrect Aspect Ratio. The 1:85 film has been transferred full frame, leaving acres of irrelevant image area top and bottom. A widescreen monitor can be adjusted to properly reframe the film, but the sharp image becomes a little softer. Otherwise the picture is in great shape. The amusing title tune sung by Sue Raney predates the teen glop melodies sold in glossy shows like A Summer Place that exploit teen angst for maximum sordid sensation.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Careless Years rates:
1. Mrs. Meredith reminds me of my own modest dating experience. Motherly poise and politeness were intimidating weapons against young men like me -- they served notice that a single false move might be my last. It never occurred to me that a girl might tell her mother everything that happened on a date. Back then, you dated the girl, you dated her mother too. Miley's Mom in The Careless Years is much nicer than a couple of the upscale harpies I encountered, who surely couldn't understand why their girls responded to my puppy-dog affections. Don't think that I was ever ahead of this silly game; none of these thoughts ever occurred to my simpleton brain until years later.
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T'was Ever Thus.