Monday, August 26, 2013

Chld* (for Child*)

An early scene in the Depression-era film Child Bride shows a young schoolteacher in the Ozarks quizzing her pupils on their homework. A one-room, ragtag assemblage of Appalachian children, even their spelling mistakes leave a lot to be desired: "binh" and "banbhish" for banish, "cataloqe" for catalogue, "motian" for mountain, "milkging" for milking. These kids have a lot on their minds besides getting an education, as do the makers of this so-called "educational" film, who state their intentions clearly at the outset: "Here is a page from the Book of Life ... The characters are real people who live deep in the heart of Thunderhead Mountain. In dramatizing life among these 'back yonder' folks, we aim neither to ridicule nor to defend their mode of living ... and if our story will help to abolish Child Marriage, it will have served its purpose..." The film was denied a "certificate of approval" by the Hays Production Code due to both its supposedly immoral subject matter and a nude swimming sequence involving twelve-year-old actress Shirley Mills (also known for playing Ruthie Joad in The Grapes of Wrath). It was distributed independently of the Hollywood system, but was still banned in many areas across the country. Some critics have called the swimming footage gratuitous and even exploitative, a cynical choice that works to undercut the movie's very theme, but I think it effectively serves two purposes. It allows the girl's lecherous hillbilly wannabe-husband to peep at her in various stages of undress, and it demonstrates an innocent, age-appropriate summer activity for the prepubescent Jennie and sweetheart Freddie, in clear contrast to the ugly "child bride" scenario waiting in the wings. While most of this film is really pretty bad, I was blown away by the scene in which Jennie's actual "old man" threatens her mother, forbids her to see Freddie, tries to bribe her with a store-bought baby doll, and plants a less than toothsome kiss on her literally pouting lips. The moment in which she tells the guy that she'll "try" and be good, and then dashes the doll to the ground as he retreats, redeemed the entire film for me. There were 37 hits on Chld* (for child*) in OhioLINK, and "too many records found for your search" in WorldCat.

(Jennie Colton, played by Shirley Mills, in a still from Child Bride's infamous skinny dipping scene, from Wikimedia Commons.)

Carol Reid

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