Bite Size: Mad Youth (1939)

By 1939, the Hays Code had cracked down on Hollywood. High profile scandals had been making front page news since the 20s (from the death of Virgina Rappe to the murder of director William Desmond Taylor) , and the dawning of a new decade did little to diminish the moviegoing public’s appetites for racy material, from Mae West’s bawdy wisecracks to overheated Cecil DeMille historical epics full of some rather scantily clad starlets. When religious groups and the moral majority grew increasingly loud regarding the perceived “immorality” of mainstream films, Hollywood instituted a campaign of self censoring production guidelines that would hold for the next three decades.

As always, this left exploitation cinema to pick up the slack in the celluloid sins department. 1939’s Mad Youth is chock full of the snappy innuendo, daring peeks of skin and (comparative) sexual frankness of its bigger budget pre Code cousins, with just enough of a “moral” for plausible deniability of prurient interests. Like many other exploitation films before and since, it was cut to suit local markets by both state censor boards and local projectionists more familiar with the amount of scandal their localities could bear.

Lucy Morgan (Oscar nominated silent/early sound star Betty Compson) is a high living divorcee who spends more time with her social calendar than she does with her daughter, Marian (Mary Ainslee). Mrs. Morgan hires handsome young escorts from a local agency to accompany her to this parade of bridge games and club nights. To add brass to bad parenting, she even asks her daughter to loan her the cash to pay for her companions once her alimony check is all spent.

Marian, being a clever girl, uses the loan as a bargaining chip for permission to throw parties while her mother is otherwise engaged. While Mrs. Morgan is playing bridge and negotiating the price of “necking” with the handsome “Count” DeHoven (Willy Castello, a mainstay in many similar vice pictures), Miriam is tossing a rager full of booze, some pretty impressive jitterbugging, majorette routines(!?) and strip poker.

When Mrs. Morgan attempts to bargain for a freebie by inviting the Count to the house for a nightcap, he meets the lovely Marian, pretending to have fallen asleep waiting up for her mother. Their introductions are quite adversarial, given DeHoven realizes Miriam is just covering up her partying, and Miriam knows that he’s just another paid staffer for Mrs. Morgan. Despite the sparring, and Miriam’s idle dismissal of the gigolo, the chemistry between the two is obvious. Before long, DeHoven is secretly calling on Miriam free of charge, and avoiding Mrs. Morgan’s requests for paid assignments.

It’s almost comical how obsessed with sex nearly every character in Mad Youth is, apart from from the gigolo angle. It’s all very coded, but its a code you could crack with a ring from a cereal box. When Marian’s friends are parked down the block awaiting her to signal the start of the party, two are making out in the back seat. A cop comes to roust them out from making “googly eyes” ……only because it disturbs HIS necking with a young woman on a nearby park bench. This odd plot swerve is explained only with the following, retroactively hilarious, line:

“When a man wants to goo, he wants to goo, and I don’t want any lovebirds perched that close when I’m goo-ing!”

Cutting to Mrs. Morgan’s bridge game/bargaining session, even the gossip around the table is who’s zooming who, and exactly what sort of rides you might receive on a date with a car salesman. Mad Youth‘s adults are just as perpetually sexually frustrated as the teens. The principle difference is that the teens’ drinking, panty flashing dance routines and naked card games seem way more fun than bridge. As does the cafe where DeHoven joins Marian for an actual date, where the runtime padding includes more dancing and an ersatz bullfight.

This being 1939, all of this free floating horniness can’t possibly end well. Mrs. Morgan snoops through Marian’s diary, and discovers where the Count’s actual affections lie. This leads to a rather well acted standoff between the two women. Mrs. Morgan is both the worst kind of parent and the worst kind of trick. She truly believed Count DeHoven was going to marry her if she paid for enough of his time.

Mrs. Morgan then admits that she openly resents Marian, and never wanted her, blaming her daughter for her own lost youth and loveless former marriage. Marian, correctly pegging her mother as delusional, opts to move out. Rather than surprise her father and his new wife, she heads to Pittsburgh to join her best friend Helen.

Helen had written Marian about her unexpected wedding, to an unseen dreamboat from a correspondence club. However, when Marian arrives at the provided address, its a white slavery ring/brothel. The madam now has two beautiful young girls in her slimy clutches, and an unnecessarily racist caricature to help her keep them there.

White slavery panic was one of the most common scare tactics in early exploitation, but Mad Youth deserves credit for using some some fresh calculations to get to very common final answer. It also makes a sex worker the late in the game moral center of the film, and lets him be the hero of the day as he saves the girls. Sure, Count DeHoven renounces his former occupation, but just when you think the moralists have won the day, Mad Youth pulls one last cheeky reversal of the “immorality must be punished” ethos right as the credits fade.

While both statically shot and heavily padded as was typical of its budget and era, Mad Youth brings some fresh twists to a pile of early exploitation tropes, complete with a late career grand dame to class up the proceedings. For those unfamiliar with pre 1960/”classical” exploitation, this film would be a solid place to start. Director Melville Shyer was a veteran of the very early days of Hollywood (eventually helping found the Screen Directors’ Guild), and worked alongside some very established names. Accordingly, Mad Youth is livelier than many of its contemporaries, with a nice mix of mainstream style melodrama and exploitation’s censor evading obsession with sleaze smuggled into scare tactics.