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Blue Denim (AKA Blue Jeans) (1959) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

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Principal social theme: abortion

20th Century Fox. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Carol Lynley, Brandon de Wilde, Macdonald Carey, Marsha Hunt, Warren Berlinger, Roberta Shore, Nina Shipman, Buck Class, Vaughn Taylor, William Schallert, Michael Gainey, Jenny Maxwell, Juney Ellis, Grace Field. Written by Philip Dunne and Edith R. Sommer based on a play by James Leo Herlihy and William Noble. Cinematography by Leo Tover. Edited by William Reynolds. Music by Bernard Herrmann. Produced by Charles Brackett. Directed by Philip Dunne. B&W. 89 minutes.

Overview

One of the first films by a major studio to tackle the issue of abortion, Blue Denim can serve as a sanitized portrait of mainstream America’s attitudes toward the issue thirteen years before the Roe vs. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. It is based on a stage play that also starred Carol Lynley. Viewed today, the film seems very old-fashioned, but when it was initially released it was a popular success and was considered to be highly relevant. The film sparked considerable debate and stimulated a wide range of opinion. Boxoffice , for example, regarded it as being true-to-life and compassionate, whereas the New York Times dismissed it as clumsy and artificial.

Synopsis

The film opens with a quote from Samuel Butler’s novel The Way of All Flesh : “Youth is like spring, an overpraised season.” The plot centers on two typical, middle-class teenagers, fifteen-year-old Janet Willard (Carol Lynley) who has a crush on sixteen-year-old Arthur Bartley (Brandon de Wilde). Both of them are lonely, somewhat naive, and unable to communicate with their parents. Arthur’s father is Major Malcolm Bartley (Macdonald Carey), a retired army officer who looks at everything from a military point of view. His mother is mainly interested in Lillian, his older sister, and her engagement to Axel, the local dentist. Janet’s father is a widower, a gentle but stodgy college professor who frightens away Janet’s friends with his fussy, paternal attitude. As the picture opens, Arthur comes home from school to find that his father has put his elderly dog Hector to sleep. Arthur is hurt that since his father wanted to spare him the painful decision, he did not have a chance to say goodbye to his beloved pet. Arthur retreats to his basement clubhouse, where he rebels by playing poker, drinking beer, and smoking with his wiseguy friend Ernie. Janet later joins them and asks Ernie to forge an excuse slip for her to cut class. She complains that her father refuses to let her wear makeup. After Ernie leaves, Janet pretends to sprain her leg in order to sneak a kiss from Arthur. At the big basketball game, Arthur has a chance to score the winning basket at the end of the game, but he misses the shot. Janet walks him home and consoles him. When they agree to go steady, Janet asks Arthur about his experiences with other girls. He bluffs, pretending he is not a virgin. When she questions him further, he admits to lying. They go into the basement clubhouse and kiss, while the screen blacks out. Three months pass, and Janet learns that she has become pregnant. She explains to Arthur that she could never tell her father about her condition. In desperation they consider their options, such as sneaking off and getting married, but find they are too young to obtain a license. Arthur confides in Ernie, who is always boasting that he has helped other kids in trouble to find a good doctor, but his friend admits he was only bragging. They finally discover that the local soda jerk can arrange for an abortion. The cost, however, is $150. Janet, Arthur, and Ernie pool their money, but can only come up with $58. Arthur attempts to tell his parents about the problem, but they are so deeply involved in Lillian’s approaching wedding that they both brush him off. He steals a check from his father and persuades Ernie to forge Major Bartley’s signature. The “back-alley” abortion is arranged for the same day as the wedding. Janet is stoic until the car arrives to take her for the procedure. She then breaks down, hugs Arthur, and exclaims that she does not want to go. Arthur pleads to be allowed to accompany her, but is refused. After Janet is driven off, Ernie turns on Arthur, accusing him of cowardess for not enlisting his parents’ help. At the wedding reception, Major Bartley is approached by one of the guests, the bank manager, who is suspicious about the check he cashed for Arthur. After the reception, the major tries to talk to his son, who finally admits he is in trouble and begs for help to locate Janet and stop the abortion. After contacting Professor Willard, the major confronts the soda jerk and forces him to reveal where Janet has been taken.They arrive in time to rescue Janet just after she has been sedated. The doctor warns them of consequences if the law becomes involved. They take Janet home, where the major, his wife, and Professor Willard discuss the situation. Janet awakens and insists that she is responsible for what has happened, and she does not want Arthur to be forced into a marriage that might ruin his future. She decides on leaving town, moving in with her aunt across the country until her baby is born. The next morning, Arthur is stunned to learn that Janet has already left town by train. He tells his parents he is outraged that the decision was made for him behind his back, just like the euthanasia of his dog. He insists that he must take responsibility and marry Janet. His parents give their permission, and Ernie races his friend in the major’s car to intercept the train at the next town. Arthur boards the train and finds Janet sitting forlornly. He says, “Where did you think you were going?” and puts his arm around her as she smiles and puts her head on his shoulder while the film draws to a close.

Critique

The various social issues presented in Blue Denim are timeless, but the script’s approach seems dated even for the 1950s. The film takes it for granted that abortion is wrong, not on moral principles but simply because it is illegal. Ernie, the cool “Eddie Haskell” character is the only one who voices a strong opinion, calling it “murder” at one point. After Janet and Arthur conclude that it is the only possible option that would hide the truth from their parents, the main argument against abortion is largely a matter of health and safety. Later, Arthur becomes convinced that Janet will not survive. The script centers far more on Arthur rather than Janet, even though she logically should be the main focus. The ideal offspring, in the eyes of the Bartleys, is nineteen-year-old Lillian, who seems as bubble-headed as her mother and who is regarded as successful because she is going to marry a man of status. The possible role model for girls is limited and very stereotypical, with education being of only marginal importance. On the other hand, a complete education is essential for a boy to have any chance for success. When discussing the early marriage option, both the Bartleys and Professor Willard seem to convey an attitude that parents never financially help their children once they become married, even if it allows them to complete their education. Another weakness is the fact that little attention is paid to the future of the baby, with options such as adoption never being mentioned. The picture’s denouement is far too pat.

Despite the flaws and presence of closed-minded attitudes, however, the script does a fairly good job portraying the generation gap and exploring issues that were almost always avoided in mainstream films. They did this in part by making Arthur and Janet good kids, not wild or troublesome. The parents are not shocked that their children had sex, but rather that they did not come to them at the start. The production standards are fairly good. Carol Lynley, seventeen at the time of the filming, is exceptional and handles her role with great sensitivity, making Janet genuinely believable. Brandon de Wilde was also seventeen when he played Arthur, but he seems far less convincing than Lynley. The most memorable element of the film may be its soundtrack, composed by one of the greatest of screen performers, Bernard Herrmann. In fact, his lyrical and intense musical score is highly reminiscent of one of his greatest compositions, Vertigo , completed a year before his work on Blue Denim . His music smooths out some of the film’s rough edges, making the troubles of the screen characters appear more compelling. Philip Dunne’s direction is somewhat erratic, particularly in the scenes with the parents, but his scenes with the principals alone are empathetic and well handled. Blue Denim could serve as a focal point for discussion on the issues of abortion, teenage pregnancy, and parent–teenager relationships with a special emphasis on how these attitudes and issues have changed since the time of this picture’s release.

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