Youth Runs Wild (1944)

Youth Runs Wild (1944) is an inattentive parents and juvenile delinquency returning veteran social drama which takes an early look at the idea of juvenile delinquency, several years before the teen-boom began across America and emerged within the Hollywood movies of the post-war years.

The returning veteran aspect is unusual and not entirely noir in its outlook, as Kent Smith plays Danny Coates who returns wounded to his old working class neighbourhood and takes up a mission to keep the toddlers safe. 

As a kind of side-mission to this, he is obliged by the local oldie judge to take care of some teenage tearaways, but he doesn't seem to succeed at this, and the teenagers tear right off and into Juvenile Hall.

RKO tested two versions of Youth Runs Wild, Val Lewton's version and another in which several scenes had been cut, including one where an abused teenager killed his sadistic father. The final version seems to have been quite removed from Lewton's vision, but it might also be said that audiences were not quite ready for the subject of juvenile delinquency, not in the least during the War itself.

Youth Runs Wild (1944)

The final released version was the studio's cut and as a result, some of the actors listed in the credits do not appear in the finished film. Val Lewton later disavowed the final version of the film and attempted to have his name removed from it. 

Bonita Granville and Lawrence Tierney in Youth Runs Wild (1944)

Either way, the project produced a loss for the studio and was not a success. This might be due to the confusing of the main issues of World War II with a domestic issue that was not yet out of hand — while it also might have been the confusing of the central issue of juvenile delinquency, which was yet to be fully understood, with one sole factor, being parenting.

The concept of the teenager as a social force and so also a social menace was not yet fully fledged within the public mind, and when it did emerge the trope in general was that it was little to do with the parents, but more to do with social forces and the empowerment of teenagers as a group. Once teenagers had the monetary power to go the cinema in fact, this spiral may have begun in earnest.

Kent Smith in Youth Runs Wild (1944)

Edward Dmytryk, who had recently directed the rather sensationalised films Hitler's Children (1943) and Behind the Rising Sun (1943), was initially set to direct Youth Runs Wild, which at various time had the working titles "The Dangerous Age", "Look to Your Children" and "Are These Our Children?", but he left to direct Tender Comrade.

The film went into production under director Mark Robson, a regular in the Val Lewton unit. Youth Runs Wild was inspired by a photo essay that appeared in Look magazine in September 1943, but the magazine did not like the finished article and they refused to promote the film in the magazine, or even to allow their name to be used in the film's credits. 

The film's technical advisor, Ruth Clifton, was a teenager whose example of starting a youth recreation centre in Moline, Illinois, inspired others around the country to do the same thing. RKO tried to position the film as authentic by showing it to various state and local authorities concerned with juvenile delinquency, but none of them enjoyed it, even though one of the film's writers Herbert Kline was a noted director of documentaries about social issues. 

Juvenile hearing, returning veteran, marriage in Youth Runs Wild (1944)

All of this is despite the fact that Ruth Clifton herself does appear in a post-script to the film, in which America is warned about the possibility of an epidemic of juvenile delinquency, although when the film was brought to the attention of the U.S. State Department, they also expressed concern that focusing on juvenile delinquency during the war, might have a detrimental effect on national morale.

Perhaps they also felt that flashing up the words JUVENILE and DELINQUENCY in quick and repetitive succession at the start of the film might actually lead to create a problem that was only at that moment being warned of and had not in fullness emerged.

As an early stab at the juvenile delinquent genre Youth Runs Wild loses its way in placing the troubled youths of 1944 in an effective milieu. Unlike many film noirs from 1943 and 1944, Youth Runs Wild is set against the ongoing war, giving it a nagging sense of the real.

There are returning veterans with the main one returning on crutches and most fascinating of all, we are within a community that is working on munitions. World War II is all present in Youth Runs Wild (1944) in a way it simply is not in other films of its day.

Indeed, when World War II is in the movies of 1944 it is normally because the film in question is a propaganda vehicle. There are plenty Nazi fantasy and espionage movies, as well as the odd semi-documentary propaganda piece. 

There's none of the in Youth Runs Wild, which shows the down-home American civilians at work and play. The munitions workers come home after a day of war effort and clear the table for a card game, with a few beers as reward.

The women of the two families shown in  Youth Runs Wild, played by Elizabeth Russell and Mary Servoss are even shown wearing a Rosie the Riveter style headscarves, exactly in the mode of the ever-present icon of female wartime labour.

The notion of the juvenile delinquent, named explicitly at the start of Youth Runs Wild in a series of repetitive newspaper headlines which flash JUVENILE and DELINQUENT in fast succession, was not much on the public mind in 1944.

First of all the war put paid to most local social concerns, as people instead pulled together in the face of the common enemy. There is indeed a fair amount of such pulling together in Youth Runs Wild, which is a film that is as much news as it is narrative. 

The main young female character Sarah expresses a variety of concerns. She is expected to slave for her father and take over from her mother in terms of childcare, combined with the facts of growing up, leaving childhood and being a female in a demanding blue-collar family, where she is treated poorly and always second in line — "I need to have fun too" as she puts it.

Youth Runs Wild (1944)

The places and people that Sarah is drawn to and finds herself among do not represent the most wholesome aspects of adulthood — Rocky's, a rather sleazy joint where she irritates the owner by drinking malted chocolate instead of liquor — the exact same stunt pulled by Ralph in Running Wild (1954) exactly one decade later — and where the girls are sexualised and paid to pander to the male customers — euphemistically put by Bonita Granville's character as 'laughing at their jokes'.

Essentially, in fact, the girls appear to be escorts at Rocky's. The main young male character, young Frankie (played by Glen Vernon) is the soul that is in danger of falling into delinquent ways, although he hums and haws so much and seems so nervous of any authority that it is hard to imagine him ever going totally wrong.

Judge: Kids may sometimes be guilty of crime; but, its rare when it's their own fault. Neglectful parents, modern life, the breaking up of the home - they got so many reasons for trouble.

Involved in an abortive theft of some car tyres one evening, he is shot at by a watchman. Quite an idea by the way — that a watchman in a car lot will shoot to kill any thieves that attempt to steal car tyres from the lot. The watchman ends up accidentally shooting Lawrence Tierney, which is maybe why shoot-to-kill is not the best policy in guarding some parked cars. Tierney is not innocent of the crime as he is the wartime spiv behind this ring of tyre-thieves. But he turns up too late to stop the crime, and is shot for his trouble.

Sarah's character does present a socially real version of what is expected of young women however, and as well as being criticised by her family for almost everything she does, she is preyed upon by older men, in this case the charmingly sleazy Larry Duncan, played by Lawrence Tierney. He is the wartime racketeer, suggestive of the fact that any man of fighting age and fitness who is not at war — must be a criminal.

Are parents too busy? Youth Runs Wild (1944)

What there is throughout is a genuine sense that the youth requires protection, because if they don't grow up to be as sold as the conservative-minded adults of the era then society will wind up in trouble. Even as far as the very young are concerned the issues is raised that war is bad for children — how can parents work in a munitions factory and be expected to look after their children at the same time?

This becomes the mission of returning veteran Danny played by Kent Smith, who builds a kindergarten-style playground for the little ones in his yard, the least he can do to keep the young from going off the rails early, and at least keeping them alive as they don't have to play in the street any longer.

Comparing the juvenile exploitation movies of the 1950s, such as Running Wild (1955) and the most celebrated of them all Untamed Youth (1957) — both of which star Mamie Van Doren — to an early examination of juvenile delinquency such as Youth Runs Wild (1944) — the emphasis has entirely shifted.

Kent Smith in Youth Runs Wild (1944)

While Youth Runs Wild (1944) does concern itself explicitly with juvenile delinquency, it manages to confuse the notions of both delinquency and being juvenile enough so that a teenager turning to vehicle theft can essentially be grouped with the same set of issues that leads to toddlers running out in front of road traffic.

There is in fact one scene involving a car careering into a group of playing children that strangely leaves viewers wondering about what has happened, but it may be the case that the final editing left a lot of Youth Runs Wild up in the air.

Teen collapse in Youth Runs Wild (1944)

The notion then in Youth Runs Wild (1944) is so confused because the idea of the teenager had not fully emerged by this point, and there is no specific zone of being between childhood and adulthood — one steps from one into the next with no buffer period of painful examination or criminal temptation.

Indeed, the entire focus on the youth in Youth Runs Wild (1944) is on nurturing all children into safe and conservative living, even though with more than half of the adults being corrupted by either alcohol, sex, cynicism or poverty — or combinations of them all — Youth Runs Wild (1944) does somewhat stand alone, as it seems to suggest that children should be kept childish for as long as possible, 

So Youth Runs Wild does end up being propaganda — maybe nor full-on propaganda noir — but propaganda in terms of home-front pro-community action kind of propaganda, seeming to suggest that if parents spend all their time working and worrying about the war, then the children might suffer. 

Men and women work eagerly to help youth help itself. Our government knows that juvenile citizenship spreads faster than juvenile delinquency.

View from inside oxygen tent in Youth Runs Wild (1944)

The resulting picture is sincere perhaps, but not a fully effective attempt to address an emerging concern, the idea that absentee parents due to the war, might lead to problems with the children. The delinquents in question are the nicest teenage tearaways you could ever hope to meet, and the conclusion offers an extremely convenient solution — build youth centres to keep kids busy and out of trouble, and they will become the effective and upstanding citizens you want them to be. 

Danny Coates: I guess there's more to war than fighting. What it does to kids - that's just as much our job.

Mary Coates: But, they want people to work in defence factories, Danny. They can't work and take care of their kids at the same time.

Danny Coates: I know. There ought to be something we could do about it.

Theatrical poster for the American release of the 1944 film Youth Runs Wild.

Youth Runs Wild (1944) Wikipedia


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