Teen Films


The appearance of actual adolescents in movies was not common until the 1930s. By that point Hollywood studios had firmly established their grip on American culture, and even more so on their contract players. But they had difficulty in maintaining public interest in young stars, who inevitably grew out of their youthful charms. This was the case with one of the first teen stars, Deanna Durbin (b. 1921), whose success started at age fifteen in films such as Three Smart Girls (1936), One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937), and That Certain Age (1938). Then audiences became disenchanted with her films, and she retired from acting in 1948 at the age of twenty-seven.

Mickey Rooney (b. 1920), on the other hand, was one of the rare performers who retained his youthful demeanor for some time. His sensitivity was evident in realistic teen roles in The Devil Is a Sissy (1936) and Captains Courageous (1937), and he soon grew into far more prominent roles, showing range as both a cynical delinquent in Boys Town (1938) and as a plucky musician in Babes in Arms (1939). But Rooney's most endearing role was that of adolescent Andy Hardy, a character who became the optimistic antidote to the disturbing tensions among America's children on the eve of World War II. By 1939 Rooney was the number-one box office draw in the country. In just over a decade, he made fifteen films as Andy Hardy, with such telling titles as Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), Life Begins for Andy Hardy (1941), Andy Hardy's Blonde Trouble (1944), and Love Laughs at Andy Hardy (1947). The eleven-year run of these films, despite their whitewashed mythologies of youth, would be the most significant depiction of adolescent life in America until the mid-1950s, and no other teen character in film to date has enjoyed Andy's durability and popularity.

Other teenage performers who rose to prominence in the 1930s and 1940s include Rooney's recurring costar, Judy Garland (1922–1969) ( Listen, Darling [1938], Little Nellie Kelly [1940], Meet Me in St. Louis [1944]), and the striking Bonita Granville ( These Three [1936], The Beloved Brat [1938], Nancy Drew—Detective [1938] and three other Nancy Drew films, and Youth Runs Wild [1944]). The prevailing moral codes of the time, as well as the Production Code, dictated that onscreen teens would be focused on their families, schools, and friends, rarely displaying any adolescent angst over their sexual development, alcohol or drug use, or rebellious impulses.

James Dean in Giant (George Stevens, 1956), his last film.

The one controversial topic the studios did feel comfortable addressing was juvenile delinquency. In cautionary tales like Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and Little Men (1934), the studios showed young people how mischief could lead to much greater trouble. In fact, an entire series of films was built around this topic, beginning in 1937 with Dead End , which labored to show crime negatively, even though audiences were enthralled by its charismatic young characters who openly resent and combat the gentrification of their neighborhood. The film was such a hit that Warner Bros. developed more films around these so-called "Dead End Kids," and had an even bigger hit with Angels with Dirty Faces in 1938. Universal then took up the series, and in seven more films over the next four years the studio added new characters to the mix and dubbed them the "Dead End Kids and Little Tough Guys." None of these films was as notable as the first few, but in a curious parallel, Monogram began a different series in 1940 and later renamed the gang the "East Side Kids," even though most of the actors were now in their twenties. This series produced twenty-two films in six years, and in 1946 the actors embarked on yet another series with these characters, now called the "Bowery Boys," who had long since grown into adults. The series still remained a great success for Monogram, which released a remarkable thirty-one Bowery Boys films through 1953; Allied Artists carried on the tradition for another sixteen films until 1958. By that time a group that had started out as troubled teenage outlaws had entertained American audiences for over twenty years.

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