Young America (1932)

19 12 2008

A bit of a step down from After Tomorrow but for the most part, another really good film from Borzage. Thankfully, this is nothing at all like that movie, its closet companion is probably King Vidor’s The Champ but its nowhere near as great. Like Vidor’s movie, this is an early “socially-conscious” film that was made from time to time in the pre-code era. It is pretty remarkable that Vidor and Borzage were given permission to make such transgressive, “proto-glue sniffing” works within a studio. Really all you had to do was throw a star in. In this case, it’s Spencer Tracy who gets top billing for what is ultimately a glorified cameo role.

The real story lies with the juvenile delinquents, specifically Arthur Simpson, who is introduced as the meanest kid in town. The film opens with a tracking shot that doesn’t seem to be following anything in particular, yet ends up in the office of Judge Blake (a young Ralph Bellamy) who invites Edith Doray to attend a trial. She notices Simpson, who the camera shifts its focus to. We begin to see Simpson’s daily struggles and tribulations. Many of his crimes can be explained quite easily, yet the boy does nothing to defend his innocence. He gets expelled from school due to a fight that was provoked by a school bully who had been picking on Mabel, a possible love interest for Arthur that never develops. His aunt kicks him out of the house, which forces him to move in with his best friend, Nutty and his grandma.

Most of the “poverty” sequences seem like more pragmatic episodes of “Our Gang” but that’s perfectly fine with me. Again, it is easy to see Borzage’s influence on the Japanese. In this case, I’d imagine Ozu probably would have taken a thing or two out of his film. The young troublemakers here do everything from hypnotizing chickens to stealing cars, which certainly shares a connection with the lifestyles of the children in I Was Born But…, which I often credit as being one of the first “glue-sniffing” films, a term which comes from the favorite past time of the kids in Hector Babenco’s Pixote.

Borzage’s protagonist is unlike the characters in the aformentioned films because he is seen as completely innocent. Everything he gets in to trouble for is really the result of a deed that had good intentions yet when taken out of context, looks like a criminal act. Nutty and Arthur are caught robbing a medicine shop, but their reasoning is completely rational – they were getting medicine for Nutty’s grandma, who has been the perfect customer to the shop for many years. In other words, Arthur is a martyr, which seems a little bit silly to me. I’m fond of Borzage for calling attention to these kids, but I can’t help but find their portrayal (as saints) to be more insulting than glorifying. Overall, this is a fine film, but not quite as great as its thematic brethern.

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