Twentieth Century Fox Cinema Archives has released Blue Denim (1959) on DVD, an entertaining melodrama about Janet and Arthur (Carol Lynley and Brandon De Wilde, respectively), two teenagers who decide to get an abortion after Janet gets pregnant. The disc has a nice transfer that shows off the film's anamorphic widescreen frame and well-balanced black and white tones. The film dances around the very word abortion, but the direction it takes its characters is to the point and surprisingly without sentimentality.
Arthur Bartley and Janet Willard are two teenagers who grew up together in the comfort of the kind of idyllic community that seems only possible in 1950s domestic dramas. After having known each other through childhood innocence, Arthur and Janet "go steady," a result of which is Janet's subsequent pregnancy. The true dilemma for both kids occurs in the form of their inability to reach out to their emotionally unavailable parents. Help only comes in the form of Arthur's wisecracking friend Ernie (Warren Berlinger), who lives in the same idyllic small town yet talks in a film noir tough guy vernacular. Ernie's unintentionally funny tough guy truism are the only pieces of practical advice that Janet and Arthur receive, regarding the problem of whether or not Janet should get an abortion. The kids' isolation from the comfort and guidance of their parents is meant to express the kind of youthful disenfranchisement that was prevalent in films like Rebel Without a Cause.
Blue Denim's sympathetic treatment of its two teen protagonists is established in the very first scene of the film, where Arthur seeks understanding and emotional comfort from his distant father (Macdonald Carey), a stiff ex-military Major who can't understand why Arthur simply won't "straighten up". Arthur asks for comfort over the sudden death of the family dog, but Major Bartley remains out of reach. Marsha Hunt's portrayal as Mrs. Bartley is hilariously empty-headed. As the archetypal 1950s housewife, she ponders while absent-mindedly knitting, "What is biology?" when her son tells her which subject he's studying. Arthur and Ernie proceed to the basement, where they smoke cigarettes and gamble. Blue Denim's naive attempt at youth authenticity is funny and charming.
Arthur's and Janet's relationship is convincing because Lynley and De Wilde approach their roles from a naive place. Even without Bernard Herrmann's overly emotive score, the weight of the teens' relationship, with all of its ups and downs, is conveyed nicely by De Wilde's benign teen boy when he plays against Lynley's innocent and helpless girl.
The film's melodramatic center lies in the notion of innocence lost due to a teen pregnancy, which is best expressed by dough-eyed Lynley as Janet. Unlike contemporary moral pandering surrounding abortion issues, Janet is never judged negatively for her initial decision to get an abortion. Some of the best dramatic moments in the film are between Janet and her college professor father. The emotional aloofness between Janet and her father mirrors the relationship Arthur has with his father, but Janet must contend with her father's demand that she should be more like her dead mother.
Arthur is placed at the center of the script's melodrama, but as a character, he can only advance the story so far. Two-thirds of the way through Blue Denim, with Arthur's sister's bridal party as a backdrop, Arthur struggle and fails to tell his parents that Janet is on her way to get an abortion. Arthur becomes ineffectual as a character and is unable to advance the plot because, as his wise-cracking friend Ernie points out, he lacks the guts to simply confront his parents and say he needs help because he got a girl pregnant. For the sake of the story, Arthur's crippling inability to admit to anyone that he got Janet pregnant is frustrating because his indecision stalls the plot. The viewer is left only with Arthur's display of weakness, which is never redeemed. After the film ends, Arthur learns no greater lesson about courage or reaching out for help when it's necessary. Blue Denim tries to fill the teen melodrama shoes created by films like Rebel Without a Cause, but De Wilde lacks the edge that James Dean brought to his roles.
Without giving away many plot details, it is Ernie who has the guts to reach out for help, and it is Arthur's supposedly emotionally distant father who races through the night to rescue Janet from a back alley abortionist. Arthur simply waits nervously in the back seat. The film contends that abortion is wrong, but its pro-life message is not weighed down with the political and religious baggage surrounding discussions about abortion.
Arthur argues with Ernie at one point that abortion cannot be wrong if the fetus has no name or heartbeat, but Ernie simply shoots back, "But it's alive." Later, Ernie argues with Arthur that abortion is wrong because the procedure is performed illegally, and a doctor may easily make a mistake. The film's stance against abortion, a word that is curiously never uttered in the film, comes from a practical position involving the safety of life.
Without being preachy, the film also takes a stance not only against abortion but also the idea of teen pregnancy itself. Regarding teen pregnancy, Arthur's father says gravely near the end of Blue Denim, "These kids out themselves in a straight jacket for the rest of their lives."
Blue Denim director Philip Dunne lacked the visual flair of contemporary filmmakers like Nicholas Ray and Douglas Sirk, whose melodramas were punctuated with emotionally visceral images. Great melodramatic moments in Blue Denim involve Janet and Arthur struggling to come to terms with their lost innocence and the emotional state in which their pregnancy has left them. While staid in some parts, the emotional conviction that both actors bring to these moments make the film engaging.
Audio: The DVD has a basic but clear 2.0 stereo soundtrack. There are no pops or the kinds of distortion a viewer may associate with older films. The sound spreads nicely across multispeaker systems.