|'); document.write(''); //-->|
1932 is the year that the critically lauded director Frank Borzage made the classic version of A Farewell to Arms. Understandably overlooked is his second 1932 picture Young America, a heartfelt attempt to find sympathy for unfortunate kids that get into trouble. The storyline has more than its share of cliché moments, but nobody can slight Borzage's talent for pulling warm and human performances from his characters. Young America may not have the topical edge of Warners' Wild Boys of the Road but it's miles ahead of MGM's staggeringly phony Boys Town.
Boys Town Star Spencer Tracy has top billing in Young America but not the biggest part. William Conselman's screenplay is an adaptation of a play by John Frederick Ballard. Patient, conscientious judge Blake (Ralph Bellamy) does his best to help juvenile offenders mend their ways. Some need TLC (including a black kid) but he sees one polite faker who he knows is a dangerous junior gang leader. A court visitor from a women's club is Edith Doray (Doris Kenyon of The Man in the Iron Mask). She takes an interest in 13 year-old Art Simpson (Tommy Conlon), who has a bad habit: he borrows cars with the excuse that he's doing the owners a favor because they were parked next to fire hydrants. Art's aunt hates him so he hangs out in the shack of Grandma Beamish (Beryl Mercer), where lives his best friend Ed Beamish, or "Nutty" (Raymond Borzage). When the class thug sets upon the bespectacled Nutty, Art steps in. He not only loses the fight, he's also expelled again. Only classmate Mabel Saunders (Dawn O'Day, aka Anne Shirley) sees Art's side of things. Arrested while trying to get medicine for the sickly Grandma Beamish, Art is rejected by his aunt. Judge Blake has no choice but to send him to reform camp until Edith Doray offers to take on custodianship of Art, temporarily at least. Art wants to do good, but everything seems against him, especially Edith's husband Jack -- who happens to be the druggist whose store Art broke into.
Handsomely assembled in every respect, Young America is trapped by a formulaic plot. Director Borzage seems incapable of allowing a dull performance. Ralph Bellamy slouches and leans on his elbows while making personal contact with his juvenile charges, and young Tommy Conlon glows with an honest personality that makes him do the right thing, instead of the thing that'll keep him out of trouble. It's too bad that Tommy's pro performance didn't win him any plum parts.
Art likes to cobble together inventions, but swiping cars has understandably given him a rep as the worst kid in town. He's a stand-up guy when it comes to defending his nearsighted pal Nutty, a juvenile oddball who likes to perform little stunts like hypnotizing chickens (it's real). Art is at the mercy of women good and bad. His aunt hates his guts, and his intolerant teacher (Earth-mother Jane Darwell!) can't wait to get him out of her classroom. Cute little Mabel sympathizes, but can do nothing for him. The lovable Grandma Beamish is played by Beryl Mercer, James Cagney's sweet mother in The Public Enemy. But concern for Granma repeatedly puts Art in hot water. She's the one who needs the medicine he steals. When Nutty falls sick, she insists that Art sneak out to see him, breaking his word of honor to both the Judge and Edith Doray. Only Edith retains faith in Art, against the mounting evidence against him.
Of course, nobody ever lets Art fully explain his behavior, which is a major part of his problem. That's where star Spencer Tracy (finally) comes in. Convinced that Art is nothing more than a hoodlum, Jack Doray makes a fool of himself being rude to the Judge, and resists Edith's attempts to find the boy a job. When Edith moves Art into the house, Jack predicts disaster and eventually threatens to move out. But he's a good guy at heart, a fact proven when the plot goes into 'melodrama overtime', dragging in a store robbery and a high-speed car chase. Art is with the robbers... but why is he trying to run their car off the road?
Child star Tommy Conlin comes off the best, playing well against a schoolyard bully, and various females. He holds his own in a deathbed scene. Can't say the same for young Raymond Borzage in that scene, though. Despite the realistic handling of all events, the story turns aren't the most sophisticated. The sentimental ending advises that the path for an unhappy kid to regain his good standing in the community is to perform as the hero in a major crime. That's the kind of daydream solution that would never wash over at the more tough-minded Warner Bros. Studio.
The 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives DVD of Young America is a good encoding of this obscure show from the depths of the Depression. It seems to be in good shape, except for a couple of freeze frames created to cover up damaged film. The feature proper is followed by a minute or so of exit music over black.
I've been whining for hard-to-see Fox pre-code pictures for years now, and will be happy to review every one that the Cinema Archive series releases. Their previous Me And My Gal with Tracy and (swoon) Joan Bennett is a genuine winner.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Young America rates:
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
T'was Ever Thus.