Youth Aflame (1944)

The juvenile delinquency subgenre was one of the evergreens of exploitation cinema. Every generation thinks the kids coming up behind them are just the wildest, most wanton monsters that ever existed, and the subject makes for an easy mix of sensationalism and mildly taboo titillations. In a cinematic realm known to be boldly transgressive of social norms and mores, it is unfailingly amusing that the rather conservative “Get off my lawn!” was one of exploitation’s loudest and longest lasting rallying cries.

From 1935 to roughly 1965, a host of B movie producers kept cranking out films that were as identical as McDonalds hamburgers. The flavors of moral panic and the fashions would change (jazz and liquor giving way to hot rods and tight sweaters) but the films would always work on the same basic engine.

Teens (read: not a day below 25) would be tempted by some combination of forbidden things that dared look like they might actually be fun. Sex, drugs, queerness, multiculturalism, or music with a beat you can actually dance to were all on the permanent naughty list.

At least one character (usually the designated hero, but not always) abstains from the debauchery, but is such a sanctimonious prat it is impossible to root for them, even on the rare occasions they are right. The wayward and their exploits provide the more salacious content that actually got asses in the seats.

That brings us to today’s film. A tale of two sisters, one as pure as the driven snow, the other headed toward the slush of late nights and stiff drinks. Let’s get into Elmer Clifton’s 1944 melodrama, Youth Aflame:

This particular print is billed under the alternate title of Hoodlum Girls. The film was shot in 1942, released in 1944. Amazingly, prints were still kicking around the bottom of double features 15 years later, as the copyright date for the retitling is 1959. Youth Aflame/Hoodlum Girls outlived its own director, as Elmer Clifton died of a brain hemorrhage in 1949.

Meet Katy White (Joy Reese). She has been lying in state at the Receiving Hospital of the Police Department (as per the prominently placed signage). In the innocent days of 1944, I suppose people believed the police would have actual reason to want to help someone heal.

In any case, she briefly comes to from her coma/shock at the wartime ban on nylons/whatever. She shrieks about someone having a gun. Katy then notices her sister Laura (Kay Morley) at her bedside,and mumblingly chastises her about being too pretty to do the things she did, whatever those were. Framing device established, Katy daintily passes back out to cut to our first flashback.

Laura sneaks through the girls’ shared bedroom window after a late night of dancing and drinks with Mr. Al Simpson. Katy promptly lectures her about staying out late, having a drink and accepting the gifts of liquor and the rather fetching slip Laura is currently wearing.

Laura wants to drop out of school and marry Al. Katy, greatly overestimating the job market for women once the war ended, thinks Laura needs a diploma so she can afford to buy her own things

Not only is she a scold, but Katy had it backwards. Laura could ONLY do what she’s doing because she’s so pretty. A full night of dinner, drinks and dancing, new lingerie AND home in time to not wake dear old Daddy? Well played.

After a few more of Katy’s parent defending bedside confessions of a terminal kiss ass, we cut to our next flashback. Katy and Laura are being raised by their bank guarding single dad. He has no issue brandishing one of his work guns at the table, but scolds Katy for picking it up because “guns aren’t for girls”.

Half the neighborhood shows up to interrupt the family’s breakfast, including Mr. Al Simpson (who is just as much of a sleazy lech as you’d expect), some random guy who likes to spout factoids, the student body president from school, and a policewoman following up on Laura’s report of a skirt being stolen from her locker. Mr. White is nonplussed by all of this, until the female police officer shows up, because “police work is a man’s job”.

When Mr. White wanders back off to the living room to make an itemized list of all the other things puny ladybrains can’t do, Mr. Simpson takes the opportunity to suck face with Laura, and inform her that if she REALLY loves him, she’ll steal one of Daddy’s guns for his unspecified “business”.

Katy and the wholesome jars of mayo she calls friends help Madame Policewoman set up a milk bar called the JIVE club to keep the local teens out of trouble and on their way to the appropriate calcium intake. Because B pictures always need some insulation to hit minimum feature runtime, we watch along with the squares as some dork in a car salesman sport coat drums tunelessly for 5 minutes out of a 57 minute film.

Laura steps in for all of us when she sneaks off to a real bar (smart), to pass on the gun to Al Simpson while trying to convince him to marry her (not so much). At least the filler entertainment at the real bar is three pretty ladies who do some legitimately impressive acrobatics in heels.

While Katy and her squad of suck ups butter up Ms. Policewoman with tales of how she saved them at a critical time in their lives, where their nerdier friends “could have gone either way”, the intrepid investigator notices Laura is not amongst her fawning fans.

Katy briefly redeems herself when she goes to the real club to warn her sister that the fuzz are on their way. She then ruins it immediately by switching back to her usual nagging. Now that Laura has committed to her plan of getting Mr. Simpson to marry her, Katy gives her a lecture that you “shouldn’t want marriage to get AWAY from home, but to build one”

In any case, Al Simpson is sick of Katy’s meddling, and he needs the gun still sitting in Laura’s purse. He spikes the punch at the JIVE ass club. Drunken fun ensues, and the squares even manage a jitterbug. Of course, the sound of joy means the cops come to shut it down.

Some more filler as we watch Laura and Al listen to a crooner that would embarrass Michigan J Frog. Meanwhile, one of Al’s cronies lures Katy into Al’s empty house, telling her that Laura is waiting for her there. Unsurprisingly, Al’s BFF is also what the parlance of the time would call a “masher”, and that I would call “deserving of a solid kick in the balls”.

Square jaw class president comes to save the day with some shadowboxing, followed by a perturbed Al and Laura. The exertion disrupts his Brylcreemed coif, but he manages to get both sisters out of the apartment.

Mr. White finally noticed his girls were missing, and Katy’s insurance salesman of a boyfriend gets a dressing down for the lateness of the hour and the proof of the booze.

The girls go to bed, and their usual bickering devolves into a catfight. In full coverage, borderline union suit style pajamas. This somewhat defeats the purpose of including a catfight that isn’t remotely necessary to the plot.

We’re coming in hot on the last of the runtime, and it won’t take much to resolve the main plot. Here comes the filler, where a girl we’ve seen for maybe 30 seconds in the whole film, gets a feature turn as a teen that attempts to attempt suicide for the guilt of imbibing. Dame Policewoman saves her with a lecture, and wore her best tissue ruffle tear absorbent blouse.

She then has a roundtable discussion with all of the “good kids” about how its their civic duty to snitch on the person who had the shitty taste to bother making White Russians out of all possible cocktails. The JIVE club must reopen to provide “congenial social gathering places” for the youth to learn to eventually become good providers and happy housewives.

Girls like Laura who like glamour, excitement or the remotest possibility of sexual agency? If all girls were like them, “there wouldn’t be any homes!”.

Speaking of, Laura has dressed up in her best imitation of a frontier madam to run away from home for good, another one of Daddy’s bank guarding guns in her bag. If this caper doesn’t make that Al Simpson marry her, NOTHING will!

No one notices for quite a while, as the earth shattering revelation that it was likely SOMEONE OLD ENOUGH TO BUY LIQUOR that spiked the punch is reverberating in the goody two shoes and useless authority figure community.

As for Daddy? He’s too busy ripping Katy’s Milquetoast McHearthrob a new one, again. In a brilliant(-ly stupid) countermove, Potato Salad With Raisins asks for Katy’s hand in marriage.

Then and only then do they notice Laura’s hastily scrawled note on a paper grocery bag. Mr. White, being consistently characterized, complains immediately at the waste of time and money it was trying to educate her feeble femmechild mind, and he once again harrumphs off to the living room to contemplate female uselessness and smoke cigars.

Surprising no one…..Al reveals he had no intention of marrying Laura…….

…..but Laura finally lives up to that ridiculous hat and pulls the gun on Simpson to make it clear, wedding bells or ambulance sirens…….

……luckily Katy and Mr. Suave Sweatervest arrive in the nick of time…….

….as Simpson and Laura struggle for the gun…….

…..but Wonderbread Thunder knocks Simpson clean out………

….only to find Katy passed out on the floor from the shock of none of this having sweet fuck all to do with her……

…..which explains all of her melodramatic swooning in the opener.

Once Mrs. Policewoman hands Laura, Al, and his flunky over to the jail wardens, she delivers quite the dressing down to Mr. White. Is it because of his blatant neglect of his own kids? The fact that not 1 but 2 unsecured guns got stolen out of his household? That he is clearly the worst security guard on the planet? His unbridled disdain for women?

Nope.
She lectures him on his lack of understanding of modern youth, who need good clean social entertainments in addition to home life, in order for delinquency tragedies like this not to happen. What qualifies as a good, clean social entertainment? You guessed it. Her god damned milk bar.

Cut to credits on a cautionary tale that may as well have been brought to you by the Dairy Farmers of America and the local 4H. Milk, milk, lemonade….on Poverty Row the fudge is made.

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