I am not the only person unduly fascinated by a series of eight cheap, forgettable films released by Monogram Pictures between 1946 and 1948, all starring a malleable cast of diminutive, fully adult actors dubbed the Teen Agers. Podcasts and conversations have convinced me that the Teen Agers films hold a rare fascination for certain people. These people, like me, have been around the block a few more times than necessary on bad movies, and know more than a little bit about 20th century film. There’s something remarkable in the sheer mediocrity of the Teen Agers movies: their transparent disposability, their utter superficiality, somehow becomes intriguing, even unique.
The fact that these movies are still around is itself a puzzle, as they were not created to survive. Yet they did, and we can watch them, long after everyone involved in them is dead and gone. Art that should have expired but didn’t has a strange aroma, like vinegar and deserted libraries, difficult to hold in your nostrils and interpret, but sharp and unsettling. I’ve smelled it on art from all over the 20 century, from Virginia Woolf to Flash Gordon. It squeaks like Styrofoam under pressure, and it cracks like Bakelite when dropped from a decent height.
These are not good movies. They are not memorable or worthy, and they don’t even offer much useful information as cultural artifacts. Yet something about them stuck with me — and not just me, but others. I want to figure out what it is.
Let’s break up the first sentence of this essay, for context.
Monogram was a prominent Poverty Row studio in midcentury Hollywood. Poverty Row is/was a term of art referring to small, independently operated studios that produced mostly B pictures from the silent period until the breakup of the major studios some 40 years later. Sometimes these companies came and went in a matter of months, and sometimes they operated for many years; occasionally they evolved into major studios (Columbia Pictures) or were absorbed by other companies (Liberty Pictures). Should I fail to offer enough information about this ecosystem, there are whole books about Poverty Row.
eight films between 1946 and 1948
This is not an error. Monogram turned out films like Detroit turned out cars. In 12 years, the studio made 48 films about the Bowery Boys. Forty-eight! The Teen Agers films seem positively sparse in comparison.
diminutive, fully adult actors
None of the main cast of “teens” was taller than 5’7”, and main heartthrob Freddie Stewart was only 5’5.” The shortest of them, Frankie Darro, who would later inhabit the carapace of Robby the Robot for Forbidden Planet (1956), was nearly 30 when he was cast as a Teen Ager. June Preisser, aged 26, had already married and given birth when she signed on for the films.
There is nothing wrong with short actors, and it’s something of a grand tradition to cast actors in their twenties for teen roles. They’re easier to work with — more stable, better skin, not subject to pesky labor laws — and if they’re short, you can cast taller actors to make them look younger, which seems really weird as I type it out, but is absolutely a strategy the Teen Agers films employed. The particular angle these films took on adolescence makes the illusion of youth more interesting than usual.
dubbed the Teen Agers
I’m not the first or best person to tell this sociological story, but the idea of teenagers, as a discrete phase of life between childhood and adulthood, has not been around for long. Prior to the 1940s, teenagers were, culturally, like little adults with more innocence and worse judgment. By the 1950s, movies like Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause hypothesized that this phase of life had meaning and boundaries. Again, there are a ton of sociological reasons for this — national changes in labor practices, education infrastructure, etc. — but those aspects aren’t as relevant to this essay as the simulacra of those years: how teens appeared in media. Portrayals of “the American teenager” were coming into existence, a new phenomenon, as the Teen Agers films were in production. This matters to how they operate.
A good deal of popular midcentury film and radio, almost all of which has faded into obscurity, provided precedents for Monogram’s work. Two teen characters popular in the late 30s and early 40s, Andy Hardy and Henry Aldrich, were touchstones, as were the Bowery Boys, who evolved across 20 years from gangsters to rascals. Surely there was a lot more art like this, and I just don’t know about it; I’ll tell you what I do know so I can get on to the Teen Agers films and why they’re so weird.
Andy Hardy was portrayed by Mickey Rooney in a series of 16 films from MGM, which generally revolved around the character getting himself into social or financial trouble and then finding his way out. Originally the films were written around Andy’s family, but Rooney proved such a draw that his character became the whole point. Henry Aldrich began life on the stage, moved to radio, appeared in 11 films from Paramount, and spent four years on television before finally being assumed into family sitcom heaven. He can’t easily be distinguished from Andy Hardy. Each character is a high-schooler of unspecific age whose behavior is sometimes that of a mini-adult and sometimes that of a boy, depending on plot convenience. Henry Aldrich is often cited as a predecessor for Leave It to Beaver and other foundational sitcoms.
(Those 1950s sitcoms, whence decades of TV sprang, didn’t come out of nowhere. They came out of radio and plays, ur-texts that we can barely enjoy anymore, so many iterations have come and gone since then. It all seems basic and childish, sketches on the cave wall.)
And then there’s the Bowery Boys. In 1935, a play called Dead End cast a bunch of young actors to play New York street kids. It was a huge hit, and United Artists hired the original stage cast for the film of the same name (1937). The actors became known as the “Dead End Kids,” and they made a handful of films for Warner Bros. before rebranding as the Little Tough Guys, and then the East Side Kids, and finally the Bowery Boys, all while moving studios, changing membership and causing trouble. In 1946, they wound up at Monogram, where they continued making films until the franchise ended in 1958. Dead End was a serious drama, but the Bowery Boys films evolved gradually into slapstick. As the films got cheaper and quicker, they got less and less serious. I think this evolution pertains to what the market demanded during the 20 years the Bowery Boys films were being made, as well as what could be written and delivered quickly as they moved down the studio ladder toward Monogram. All that has bearing on the Teen Agers films.
But the main reason I’m writing about the Bowery Boys is to introduce the notion of a Poverty Row repertory company — a group of actors Monogram gathered and pumped for obscene amounts of work until they were no longer useful or profitable.
Of course every studio had a menagerie of actors they liked to parade across their movies like puppets on a series of stages; that was the point of having contracts, and contract players. Teaming the same actors in multiple films, one after the other, has persisted from the silents to the Coens. James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart played essentially the same two guys opposite each other in a handful of indistinguishable gangster films in the early 30s. Christopher Guest rotated the same little company of brilliant improvvers among his films in the 90s and 00s.
This happens a lot.
But Monogram, in the 1930s and 1940s, did something slightly different. The studio created little gangs of actors with varying talent and made them play the exact same characters in one uninspired scenario after another. There is no name for this, as it’s not a saga of films with meaningful time and character progression (i.e. Star Wars, The Godfather), nor is it a rotation of contracted actors in different screenplays that strongly resemble each other (i.e. the Cagney/Bogart situation). Nor is it a franchise centered on a single character who gets recast from time to time (James Bond, Doctor Who). It’s just a monotonous run of content without beginning or end.
That’s a perfect transition into puzzling over what the Teen Agers movies are for, but first I have to address the movies themselves.
There are eight Monogram films that use the Teen Agers: Junior Prom, Freddie Steps Out, High School Hero, Vacation Days, Sarge Goes to College, Smart Politics, Campus Sleuth and Music Man. The first few films revolve around seven Teen Agers: Freddie (Freddie Stewart), Dodie (June Preisser), Betty (Noel Neill), Lee (Warren Mills), Roy (Frankie Darro), Jimmy (Jackie Moran) and Addie (Judy Clark/Ann Rooney). Subsequent films dropped one character after another; only Stewart, Preisser and Neill appeared in Music Man. The plots of these movies involve hijinks, misunderstandings and music (Stewart was blessed with a honeyed, near-countertenor croon, and Monogram was clearly positioning him for bobby-soxer stardom that never arrived).
Junior Prom (May 1946): Freddie and Jimmy compete to be class president, and to win Dodie’s heart. Jimmy has hardly a chance on either of these quests.
Freddie Steps Out (June 1946): Freddie’s doppelganger, a famous singer, goes missing. This one’s unusually plotless; seemingly half the runtime is actors yelling “Whose baby is that?”
High School Hero (September 1946): The high school football team’s secret weapon is Dodie. A horny female singer named Chi Chi is involved.
Vacation Days (January 1947): The gang goes out west after their teacher inherits a ranch. The plot relies on backstory — old grudges, hidden crimes, another doppelganger.
Sarge Goes to College (May 1947): A daft but friendly WWII veteran tries to settle into life at junior college, with the kids’ help. Unfortunately, the veteran is Alan Hale, Jr., aka the Skipper of Gilligan’s Island.
Smart Politics (January 1948): The corrupt town mayor tries to, at once, help the gang build a youth center and stop them from building a youth center. Novelty acts abound.
Campus Sleuth (April 1948): A murder occurs, and Lee tries to solve it, despite the body disappearing twice. Under an hour of movie here.
Music Man (September 1948): A songwriting team of two brothers breaks up and gets back together over girls, money and misunderstandings. This one isn’t set in the Teen Agers Cinematic Universe, but includes some of the cast of the prior films, so it’s lumped in with the other seven.
None of these movies are good. The plots are thin and predictable, the characterization is meaningless, the camerawork is totally unremarkable and the acting is middling at best. The early scripts are loaded with slang (terrif, drool-man, date bait) and the films depend on musical numbers — often set pieces recorded elsewhere and inset with transitions — and novelty acts: June Preisser’s self-taught acrobatics, a harmonica quartet, elastic-limbed dancers and Candy Candido, famous in an Urkelesque way at the time for the catchphrase — “I’m feelin’ mighty low” — to appeal. The comedy is of the take-my-wife-please variety, adjusted for a teen audience.
Freddie is a pretty standard juvenile hero: good kid, great singer, equal parts natural leader and sensitive artist. Dodie is written as a desirable girl next door, but Preisser isn’t quite pretty enough to pull that off; plus, Dodie’s temper and jealousy often make her obnoxious. Betty, Dodie’s sister, is a nerdy newspaper editor, and her priorities pull her away from romance and toward schoolbooks, which is obviously backwards for a girl in the 1940s. Lee, Freddie’s best friend, is comic relief — a dork with a store of one-liners and exaggerated facial expressions (except in Campus Sleuth, where he drives the plot, which is odd and kind of refreshing). Roy more or less provides hoodlum energy throughout the series; he’s scrappy and sometimes underhanded, interested in Betty but not in her brain. Jimmy is Freddie’s competition and foil — tall, athletic, as interesting and well-characterized as boil-in-the-bag rice. Addie is the third sister, and she’s essentially a convenience; she adds dialogue and plot contrivance as needed, with no character consistency. After the first film, she was recast, and after the third film she disappeared altogether.
A handful of other characters offer one thing or another to the series. A teacher, Miss Hinklefink, and a principal, Professor Townley, provide adult contrast or comic relief. Tiny, a soda jerk played by two different actors (like Addie), provides additional comic relief, if it can be called that, in the first three films. Monogram took full advantage of its actors, casting them as needed, continuity be damned. Donald MacBride appears as Lee’s father in Campus Sleuth and as the mayor and the mayor’s father in Smart Politics. Douglas Fowley (recognizable as the short-tempered director from Singin’ in the Rain) is a talent manager in Freddie Steps Out and the football coach in High School Hero.
All the Teen Agers movies contain musical numbers, and some of them roped in significant talent: Gene Krupa, Les Paul, Jimmy Dorsey. Multiple bandleaders and instrumentalists appear whose names are long forgotten, but who were likely recognizable in their day: Abe Lyman, Charlie Barnet, Eddie Heywood, Jan Savitt. This talent, juxtaposed with the novelties, give the movies a grab-bag flavor, as if Monogram was throwing whatever tiny water balloons of notoriety they could contract at the studio wall to see what made the biggest splash. Some of the songs are good, most of them are banal, and a few are can’t-look-away bizarre (“Mi Caballo” in High School Hero involves the singer, Isabelita, imitating a horse in both Spanish and English). All of them attempt to prop up the movies, since the usual load-bearing elements (plot, character, visual style) cannot. It’s possible that Monogram hoped one or more of these songs would catch on as a single, but I don’t believe any of them did.
On the whole, I’d describe the Teen Agers movies as desperately mediocre. Clearly Monogram had ambitions to sell the pictures, to distributors and audiences, or it would not have combined affordable talent with flash-in-the-pan novelty and splashed these dubious assets all over posters and lobby cards. That desperation to create a product oozes from the films, every minute of them. The flash, the surface appeal, is the point. Weak inner scaffolding makes this obvious. The scripts are meaningless; I cannot detect a single ounce of innovation in the writing. Characterization has minimal relevance to how the plot unfolds, when there is a plot. Even the slang feels like pressed and chopped language rather than something organic, something real.
The movies are, thus, disposable. They were created to be disposable, to increase Monogram’s bottom line and be forgotten in a few months. There is no reason to remember the dialogue, the performances, the camerawork, or even the songs beyond the length of time required to sit through the film. The movies are exactly that mediocre, and, crucially, Monogram did not create them with an ambition greater than earning a few bucks.
I have long wondered how to interpret disposable art that lasts beyond its intended expiration date. What do we do with the Teen Agers movies, which were no more intended to be seen 75 years later than a dinner cooked in 1947 was intended to be eaten in 2021? Surely we should not judge them by the standards of art made in the same moment that was built to last — Black Narcissus, The Lady from Shanghai. Monogram’s output cannot enter the ring with Orson Welles and remain standing; it’s not a fair fight. Any critical assessment should take these films’ disposability into account, but should it be done at all? What do these movies have to tell us?
Advertising, also intentionally disposable art, offers us anthropological information about the era whence it came. Do the Teen Agers movies do that? It’s hard to say, if only because it’s difficult to determine the level of artifice in the film and toward what it aimed. Monogram’s low budgets mean that the films’ costumes were probably more accurate to the way real people dressed than the clothes in more expensive films of the time. But the way the Teen Agers behave — was that meant to be accurate, or aspirational? Did kids dance politely and well at teen canteens (which did exist), or did they brawl and bully each other? Would a fine singer be more popular in high school then than he would be today? Or was it all so artificial as to be entirely divorced from the way young people lived, and thus an entertaining fantasy? Maybe the adults writing these scripts hoped they could actually shape teen behavior. Remember, the whole notion of the teenager was just coming into existence. But then, the obvious age of the “teens” makes the fantasy angle even stranger: they’re fresh-faced, but they don’t exactly seem innocent.
Compared to precedent media, the Teen Agers were squeaky-clean — friendly, naïve, free of smirks and irony. I suspect this is part of why the films weren’t as popular or long-lasting as their siblings, since the roughneck aspects of the Bowery Boys are part of their appeal. But this posture may offer some clues about the purpose of the series. The films were made and released immediately following the war, at a time when America was trying to put its psyche back together after a long, severe hardship. A little Up With People energy does not go amiss at a cultural moment like that.
Did Monogram make these films as entertaining fantasy deliberately, to distract? Did the war contribute to the meaninglessness of the Teen Agers films? Any content produced at a fraught cultural moment requires study for potential resonance. Maybe there is none in this case; maybe Monogram was just churning out junk by whatever means possible, and didn’t think too deeply about the psychic purpose it served for the audience.
I can’t answer any of these questions. I don’t know who these movies are for. Surely few adults could enjoy such thin films explicitly about young life; surely no actual teenage audience could enjoy them, either, as inane and unrealistic as they are. It would have been like asking me to watch weekly youth ministry pageants instead of My So-Called Life.
Whenever I’m faced with this question — Who is this art for? — and can’t come up with an answer, the art tends to be filler, like the bag of plain Lay’s chips at the party. It’s just there to make the snack table look full. People will eat the Cheetos and the salt and vinegar chips, because people like flavor, and will only turn to the Lay’s when everything else is gone. The Lay’s are marginally better than nothing.
The Teen Agers movies read like filler: like something, only just better than nothing, to put on the movie screen when required. The way Monogram changed and recycled the cast, the speed with which the films were shot/released and the general mediocrity of the whole endeavor are clues to its nature. No one was meant to see these films more than once. No one was meant to see them after about 1950.
In the decade after Monogram stopped producing Bowery Boys films, television stations came calling. The stations needed content they couldn’t afford to produce anew, for time slots that didn’t draw a lot of viewers. The Bowery Boys films were perfect for slots like this: natural filler, parked in times and places that needed content which was marginally better than nothing. I don’t know that the wider culture gained much from these films being on television for a couple of decades in spots that would otherwise just be dead air. They served a purpose as filler, but I think that’s about all.
This equation becomes painful when I consider the actors. The Teen Agers films were not for an audience, exactly, and they weren’t for art, nor posterity. They were for a bottom line. Where does that leave the living, breathing human beings who performed in them? If these people understand the nature of the contract they’ve made — if they understand that Monogram is almost never a first stop for talent, but instead a tar pit; if they recognize that their place in media history is a footnote at best, and are fine with that; if they contentedly accept their paychecks instead of dreaming and aching for stardom — then filler like the Teen Agers movies hardly harms anyone.
Noel Neill, who played Betty in seven Teen Agers films and Kitty in Music Man, is best known as Lois Lane in the original Adventures of Superman TV show. Of all the Teen Agers, Neill seems to have had the healthiest perspective on her job as an actor. She took a shrugging, at-least-it’s-good-fun attitude toward work and fame.
Perhaps that’s why she’s the only one to transcend the tar pit. Neither Freddie Stewart nor June Preisser ever made another film after Music Man. Warren Mills died by suicide. Frankie Darro drank himself to death. Their stories are sad and ugly, tales of disappointments huge to their sufferers but miniature and predictable to the world at large. Of course Freddie Stewart wasn’t going to be the next Bing Crosby; he was 5’5” and radio crooners were passing out of fashion. Of course Warren Mills couldn’t be a major comedy star; he had virtually no magnetism and undistinguished schtick. But these people did not see such bald, unkind logic when they looked at their own lives and careers. They saw talent and drive, and a willingness to work that Monogram tapped until it was dry. Their (minimal) talent was used to make filler, but they did not see it that way, which hurt them.
And it hurts me to think that these actors truly believed they could be somebodies if they gave their energy to material as poor and meaningless as the Teen Agers films. I hope that is not true. I hope there is mitigation in there somewhere, a lack of fooling oneself, when one sees there are no retakes for flubbed lines and the films are released two or three per year and the narrative logic doesn’t cohere and the songs and jokes are so bad. I hope the cast no more pretended that a week’s shoot for a Monogram film bore a relationship to decent filmmaking than they pretended these films depicted realistic teenagers. But striking this bargain in the first place, agreeing to sing and dance for Monogram for whatever they got paid, makes me doubt their intentions.
After watching these films dozens of times, after writing about them for thousands of words, I’m still awash with fascination for them — these dinky, drab little movies made a lifetime ago. I think they intrigue me so because they’re disposable art in a form I once considered permanent. At one time I couldn’t reconcile any movies as disposable, and seeing something that purported to be a movie, but was so artistically valueless, shocked me. Understanding the media distribution norms of the 1940s well enough to understand these movies as disposable art was, itself, a process. (That’s why this essay expends so many words on context. If we’re to understand how they operate, these films require loads of context: where they came from, what they’re capitalizing on, what was meant to be done with them.)
I comprehend that these are failed films. They are workmanlike and unambitious, which naturally slots them into a different category than the output of Welles and Wilder, but even in their proper category, they are not good art. The acting is sloppy; the comedy does not please; the sets are dingy; the directing and photography traffic in mediocrity. The musical numbers are the excuse for the film, or the film is the excuse for the musical numbers, but neither of them is solid enough to genuinely buttress the other. Everything about the films seems half-assed, especially their initial choices: casting, writing, music.
However, each film fails a little differently.
Junior Prom has an air of enthusiasm that does not match its hackneyed script, and some of its musical numbers (“Keep the Beat” and Eddie Heywood’s appearance) are clearly shoehorned for novelty. The songs that do fit the plot (“Trimball for President” and “Teen Canteen”) aren’t good. Nothing in this film relates to real life; its glaring artifice makes it impossible to take seriously, and yet hypnotic, like an MGM musical with a tiny sliver of the required budget and talent. These first couple of movies, though, do expend some time and money on numbers with choreography and choruses, while later movies drop the group numbers altogether. Less rehearsal time, fewer actors to pay.
Freddie Steps Out has just a whisper of plot, and even that revolves on misunderstanding. The characterization is off (Lee plays a harmful joke on Freddie which sets things in motion; Freddie loses his temper), the group number is awful and none of the other songs relate to the plot at all. Although the ballads make more sense in this film, given a character who is a professional singer, his resemblance to Freddie is a silly contrivance. This film plods through its paces in a tiresome way, with a rigid grin.
High School Hero demonstrates actual momentum, but its ideas are fatuous and inconsistent. Dodie is the football team’s secret weapon at practice, but then she shows up at the big game in a majorette outfit, so it’s as if the ruse was never actually going to play out when the stakes got high enough to matter. Chi Chi tries to seduce Freddie, but is rude and bratty to him at the same time. It’s not clear why he’s repeatedly visiting her, when it’s her boss he really needs to speak to (and only once, to ask a favor that never materializes). The songs are thin, strange and over-caffeinated. Generally, the movie throws a lot at the wall but none of it sticks.
Vacation Days is less a Western than it is Western-adjacent, involving clothes and clichés from the imagined West but little of its consequence. This makes it more fetishistic than fixed in a genre. The film seems to reach in its bag of Western Stuff to pull out another idea just when it runs short on plot or character: the boys go to a saloon, Freddie sings “Home on the Range,” Freddie rides a horse, the gang is involved in a holdup. This doesn’t really ascend to being a story, and it certainly doesn’t cohere into meaning. The movie has such shallow investment in its genre and its script that it reads almost as pastiche, but it doesn’t know that’s what it’s doing.
Sarge Goes to College is so packed with songs that it has little room for anything else. Yet its 63 minutes drag like hell. It’s not the only Teen Agers entry that refers directly to the war, but it’s the only one in which the war is a significant aspect of the plot or characterization, and this makes matters worse instead of better. Sarge’s intellect is unrealistically low, even for an Alan Hale, Jr. character, and both his comic scenes and his sentimental scenes are ineffective. Also, the whole film is about the show Freddie’s planning (he plans a show in nearly every film — sometimes this planning process is central to the film, sometimes not), but the movie ends before we see the show. No musical comedy does this. The show is always the third-act set piece. That’s the rule. If you’re going to break it, you better be doing something damned subversive, but in this case it seems like the production just forgot to put it in.
Campus Sleuth fails in a mundane way. It’s a comedy-mystery movie — we have now attempted a Western, a postwar film, a sports film and a family comedy in this series, so why not — but the mystery tangles in the middle so the audience can’t follow it, and the comedy doesn’t have enough backbone to succeed. Lee’s father is an abusive lunatic, rather than a character whose rage is funny; giving Lee the central part betrays how shallowly he’s been written. In all, Campus Sleuth feels like a pretty normal B picture that’s lesser than the sum of its parts. Nothing about it works, but all its failures are recognizable. Compared to the other Teen Agers movies, which feel so deeply weird, it’s almost a relief to watch.
Smart Politics tries a couple of framing gimmicks that it doesn’t have the sophistication to pull off. It opens with a Black maid singing a bluesy song about fixing the boss’s breakfast, which could be a decent way to set out the parameters of the story. But the character almost never appears again. The boss she’s fixing breakfast for is not the mayor, who is the main antagonist of the film, but the mayor’s father, who narrates the film to the audience, looking right at the camera and addressing the viewer. Such a device wasn’t uncommon at the time, but the Teen Agers movies have never done it before, and there is no explanation as to why this character, whom we’ve never met, knows so much about the story he unwinds. The veteran Teen Ager viewer surely knows more about Freddie and Dodie and Lee and Betty than he does, and yet he introduces them to the audience. The film also has a repetitive script, more novelty acts than previous entries, and musical numbers less organically integrated than ever before.
And finally, Music Man. It’s closer to an actual film than the others, since the characters are all adults rather than the same teens from the franchise. This means they’re not infantilized, and there’s less of a sense that these characters are trapped in a cage and prodded into performance. But it also means the film has to come up to par with other movies about adults, and it cannot. The scenes are too short, the comedy does not provide relief, the love triangle is unconvincing and the plot is very specifically about the struggle between brothers and collaborators to write music together. Such a narrow purpose means it’s difficult to connect to the story. It’s a paper-thin B musical, with the added anomaly of recontextualizing Freddie, Dodie and Betty into adult life under other names.
None of these films is so bad as to be laughable. In the following decade, Edward D. Wood, Jr. would astonish the world with his incompetence, Bert I. Gordon would poorly convey his wondrous imagination to the screen and Roger Corman would begin drafting the most checkered filmmaking resume imaginable. Their bad movies became filler that behaved the same way as the Teen Agers series, as they finished out a double bill or made a middling profit at the drive-in. But Wood and Gordon and Corman all had more ambition than skill or money, which causes their movies to fail spectacularly, making a huge splat, rather than falling noiselessly into the gray desert of mediocrity. The operating principle in the Teen Agers movies — bad, but not painfully so; competently but indifferently created — was once a distinction too fine for me to draw.
The more I have watched these movies, the more I have marveled at them, and the more I consider them a breed apart from other films of the time. They don’t quite do the same things as their Aldrich/Hardy/Bowery peers (they are not as comfortable to watch, and the teens’ behavior is proscribed in a different way), and they cannot compete with their noir and war and Western contemporaries. They don’t portray teenagers accurately, but they also don’t portray them quite like the art that preceded or followed did. They appear minimally influenced by the war that had just ended, but perhaps their disposability is, in fact, all about that war. At times, they seem desperate to succeed, but they were never intended to be good; they were only intended to be, to exist, to serve a small and temporary purpose and then to vanish.
It’s quite difficult for me to reconcile this intention. Perhaps that’s why the films have such a grip on me.
Only by spending a good chunk of my adult life on the internet have I begun to grasp that very little art will last. The more content comes and goes, the more trends rise and fall, the more I tweet, the more I understand this with my gut instead of resisting it, fearing it, pleading for preservation and sanctifying archivists. (My obsession with this has something to do with mortality, I think, but that’s a subject for a much more personal essay.) I have written articles that I do not intend to save until the end of my life; I have written blog posts better dissolved into their component bits. But applying this understanding of impermanence to film is an extremely difficult mental project for me. Nitrate film deteriorates into flame, but modern film has a base of polyester — that unnatural polymer which, in its molecular composition, will outlast stone and wood and iron. How can anyone put film in a camera and assume this act will be forgotten?
Part of me wishes the Teen Agers films had been lost after all, so I wouldn’t have to think about them. I wouldn’t have to acknowledge their flaws while searching and scrabbling for whatever it is that makes them intrigue me so. I wouldn’t have to consider the heartbreak of those stars, what they hoped and what did not come to pass, perhaps because they sold their time to a studio that didn’t value film as a lasting medium. I would be able to grieve, without complexity, for all the film and TV from the 20th century that’s been lost forever due to decay and obscurity, instead of realizing a more complicated truth: plenty of that stuff is not worth grieving.
We can’t always make sense of what gets saved from the fire, or why. No one watches Scarlet Street, a sexy, violent, funny, devastating noir by Fritz Lang, but The Maltese Falcon, which drags in places and has a painfully moralistic ending, remains a classic. Nearly all of Johnny Carson’s earliest episodes of The Tonight Show are lost forever, but the Teen Agers films are still available. I don’t think any of this is unfair, or inexplicable, or karmically sound. It just is. But it’s hard for me to bear. Isn’t what we gain from keeping everything, despite the unwieldiness and the intellectual near-impossibility of keeping everything, more than what we gain from discarding any of it? How else are we going to keep in touch with the culture that shapes us, the culture that we shape?
The problem, specific to the Teen Agers, is reconciling what was meant to be lost with the fact that it’s still here. All those Styrofoam Big Mac containers sitting in landfills, intact, 40 years on. What does it say about us that such things remain, while books and films decay?
The paradox of the Teen Agers films is that we can still see them. Parsing out their context helps us understand them, understand their intended meaninglessness (and how they likely have meaning nonetheless). But nothing can unravel the riddle of the films remaining available at all — now, and maybe, unintentionally, forever.
Katharine Coldiron (@ferrifrigida) is the author of SPD bestseller Ceremonials and a forthcoming monograph on Plan 9 from Outer Space. Her work as a book critic has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, NPR and elsewhere. Her work as a film critic has appeared in Bitch, Bright Wall/Dark Room and Video Librarian. Find her at kcoldiron.com.