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Wednesday, February 9,2011

The Screening Room

’Blue Denim’: 16 and pregnant, circa 1959

by James Sanford

These days, if you’re an unmarried teen expecting a baby, you might be in negotiations with MTV to star in the next season of “16 and Pregnant.” But half a century ago, girls who “got in trouble” didn’t publicize their condition. Just ask Janet, the jittery heroine of “Blue Denim,” which raised many an eyebrow when it hit theaters in 1959.


It’s interesting to revisit the film today as the battle over abortion funding continues, and you don’t even have to go to Netflix or iTunes to see it: Puzzlingly, “Blue Denim” has never been released on video or DVD, but you can watch it free of charge, in its entirety — with a few commercial interruptions — on Hulu (www.hulu.com).


Although teen delinquency tales were nothing new in the 1950s, “Denim,” based on a successful Broadway play, stood out from the crowd because Janet (Carol Lynley) and her sort-of boyfriend, Arthur (Brandon deWilde), were not hot-rodding hooligans. Sure, Janet cut a few classes, and Arthur smoked and drank beer with his supposedly worldly buddy, Ernie (Warren Berlinger), but they were basically good-hearted types who just had very bad luck.


One of the movie’s unusual angles is that Janet and Arthur aren’t deeply in love with each other; they’re barely even “going steady.” Instead of having Arthur pressure Janet into giving in, she actually seems to be the one who’s more curious about making love.


Although Arthur and Janet may “go all the way,” “Denim” demonstrates precisely what sorts of limitations were being imposed on filmmakers in 1959. The word “sex” was tolerated but, thanks to the regulations of the Motion Picture Production Code, abortion could not be mentioned. So Arthur, Janet and Ernie have to speak in euphemisms, even though there’s never the slightest mystery what they’re talking about. “Denim” is quintessential 1950s cinema, “boldly” addressing a provocative topic while simultaneously dancing around it.


While the approach is decidedly dated — and Bernard Herrmann’s booming, swoony score sounds like leftovers from his work on Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” — “Denim” deserves attention for at least attempting to approach adolescent sexuality without the usual sensationalism. Janet is a long way from the hip-swinging sirens in short skirts and tight sweaters that populated most of the other teenage tragedies of the time, and Arthur’s a painfully vulnerable kid who’s desperate for guidance that the adults around him can’t be bothered to provide.


Yes, even in the cozy, conformist 1950s, parents just didn’t understand. Arthur’s dad (Macdonald Carey, soon to be a staple of TV soap operas) is a former Army officer who can’t drop his military mindset. His wife (Marsha Hunt) is a dithering chatterbox not unlike the prissy, status-conscious types that used to irritate Donna Reed on “The Donna Reed Show.” Janet doesn’t have it any better: Her dad, a puffed-up college professor, keeps trying to force Janet to live up to the saintly image of her dead mother.


Even Ernie, who grudgingly helps them find “that doctor — for girls” who operates out of a cabin by the river, is completely on their side. When Arthur brings up the idea of abortion, wiseacre Ernie abruptly turns into a raging right-to-life advocate: “That’s a crime!” he gasps. “It’s murder!”


The finale of the movie deviates from the play, and you can feel screenwriters Edith Sommer and Philip Dunne straining to patch together an upbeat conclusion. What may have pleased audiences in 1959 might make today’s viewers extremely uncomfortable, however: “Denim” proves happy endings aren’t what they used to be.

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