Rubbish weather yesterday so watched a couple of movies – one new and one old. The old one was a drama from way back in 1957, directed by Howard W. Koch (“Bop Girl Goes Calypso”, “The Girl In Black Stockings”), and was titled “Untamed Youth”.
The film opens with a young man being chased across fields by police cars before being taken into custody. Presumably one of the untamed youths of the title. Then we meet sisters Penny and Jane Lowe (Mamie Van Doren – “Girls Town”, “Guns, Girls & Gangsters” and Lori Nelson – “Pardners”, “Revenge Of The Creature”) who are en-route to appear in a show as they are both entertainers. Unfortunately for them, the girls are promptly arrested for skinny dipping and hitchhiking by a leering police Sheriff Mitch Bowers (Robert Foulk – “The Love Bug”, “Hell On Wheels”).
Appearing in court before the small town’s female Judge (Lurene Tuttle – “Psycho”, “Niagara”) the pair are quickly sentenced to 30 days and get to choose to spend the time either in prison or doing some healthy, paid work picking cotton. Unsurprisingly they choose the latter, seemingly easier, option.
When they arrive, along with a number of other convicts, at the cotton farm they discover that their wages will mostly be taken to pay for their board and food, leaving them with just a few cents each day. The owner of the farm is Russ Tropp (John Russell – “Rio Bravo”, “Pale Rider” – a man at ease with mistreating and sacking his workers for the slightest misdemeanor. He is also, secretly, married to the somewhat older Judge, who clearly adores him though we can see that it is purely business for the ambitious farmer.
Penny and Jane are put to work cotton picking, but not before they have entertained their fellow convicts / workers by belting out a tune – Jane sitting on a bunk and unconvincingly strumming at a guitar whilst her partly dressed and very voluptuous sister sings and dances.
Among the other young people being forced to work on Tropp’s farm are young blonde girl Baby (Yvonne Lime – “I Was A Teenage Werewolf”, “Speed Crazy”) and the oddly named Bong (Eddie Cochran – “The Girl Can’t Help It”, “Fury Unleashed”) – the latter of whom also gets to sing a number, “Cotton Picker”, which doesn’t give any clue as to just what a rock ‘n’ roll legend he would become.
Before long the Judge’s son Bob Steele (Don Burnett – “The Triumph Of Robin Hood”, “Tea And Sympathy”), returning from serving in the armed forces, goes to work for Tropp driving a combine harvester and finds himself becoming attracted to Jane.
Despite the long hours picking cotton those working on the farm don’t seem to suffer from too much fatigue as they spend their evenings singing and dancing with great enthusiasm and energy. This is presumably just a release from the hellish conditions under which they survive, as not only does Penny have to contend with the unwanted attentions of Tropp but also Baby collapses after working too long in the sun. Bob rushes her to a hospital but she dies and it’s revealed that she was several months pregnant. The injustice of it all becomes too much for Bob to bear and he goes off to tell all to his mother, but will she be able to see past her adoration of Tropp to believe what she hears?…
This is a strange movie to be honest. It’s kind of like musical-cum-social-drama wherein someone decided to string a bunch of inoffensive rock ‘n’ roll-lite singing and dancing numbers together with a plot involving a despicable man taking advantage of all-and-sundry in order to make his fortune?!
There is undoubtedly some cultural appropriation going on. I don’t know much about the history of cotton picking in the USA but most of what I’ve been able to find online suggests that the vast majority, if not all, of those doing the picking were African-Americans, whereas all of those in the film are White. Perhaps unsurprising given that there were still major racial divisions in American at the time. Adding to this, the closing musical number is a calypso – sung again by Van Doren’s character, supported by an entirely white group of men, all adopting some kind of Caribbean accent.
Incidentally, I gather that when rock ‘n’ roll started to take off the established record companies etc., whose business model saw them producing morally clean music for white audiences, tried to kill it off and one of the ways that they attempted this was by using calypso music (whilst replacing any social comment or sexuality in the lyrics with generalities about the Caribbean islands!)
Personally I find the current hysteria in certain quarters over cultural appropriation / misappropriation rather daft and overly politically correct to be honest. I have no doubt that there are cases where there can be genuine hurt caused but to say that one can’t take something from another’s culture would mean no white person could ever play jazz or the blues, for example, as the genres originated within African-American communities (just like the aforementioned calypso). Just my opinion, of course. Anyway, I digress…
At just 80 minutes this film entertains without outstaying its welcome, despite the feeling of being rather thrown together! Being a man of a certain vintage I’d have to confess that the talents of the (then) 26-year-old Van Doren – which may or may not include her singing(!) – certainly helped pass the time. Worth a look as a curio from another time…