Cruisin’ for a bruisin’
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This was near the height of the Corman mania that swept through so much of film culture in the 70s. Some critics likened him to Jean-Luc Godard, and his interview figured prominently in Kings of the Bs, one of the first mainstream books to recognize the B-movie as legit cinema. By the late 70s I’d seen most of Corman’s pictures; the then-fresh anecdotes of threadbare budgets and insane shooting schedules (three days for The Terror! two days for Little Shop of Horrors!) constantly whetted the appetite for more. But I felt that Teenage Doll stood apart from the rest, and, emerging from the Strand late that afternoon, I considered it to be Roger Corman’s best picture.
I’m not so quick to make such blanket statements anymore, and, revisiting Teenage Doll thirty-two years later, I find not a diamond, but rather gaudy costume jewelry, the kind that entrances the eye with light and reflection, the ear with jingles and jangles. It’s no one’s ‘best’ film, but rather a relic that speaks from a time both foreign and obsolete. It opens with a promise to tackle pertinent social issues — disgruntled adolescents, clueless parenting, drunken neighbors — but seems to exist merely for a climactic showdown in which the actors playing the girl gang members display no aptitude for pugilism while their male counterparts mug uncontrollably, some engaged in that pinched, lemon-sucking facial expression only James Dean could pull off with any success.
The original trailer
It stars June Kenney, making her big screen debut after a brief run of TV guest spots (Boston Blackie, The Loretta Young Show, The Public Defender). With her fidgety, goody-two-shoes demeanor, petite frame, blonde hair and pronounced eyebrows, she’s Dorothy McGuire-lite. Here she accidentally kills a member of the Black Widow gang (the corpse is supplied by full-lipped beauty Abby Dalton), and flees from punchy head Widow Fay Spain and her loyal minions (among them a young Ziva Rodann), knowing she’s due to be taught the proverbial ‘lesson’ via a knuckle sandwich from what the ads call “hellcats in tight pants.” Mama Mia!
He made plenty of teen exploitation, westerns and gangster pictures, but Corman’s métier was horror and science fiction, so it’s interesting to see how he navigates through the squalid, low rent housing and bop-noir back alleys of Teenage Doll without the beneficial eye candy of paper-mâché monsters and space vampires. The screenplay was written by Charles Griffith, author of more than a dozen Corman pictures (including the funny, irreverent Bucket of Blood), who had a knack for creating full bodied characters with distinctive quirks, and well-rounded situations that generally remain compelling. In Teenage Doll he opens on the corpse and gradually reveals the cause of death in relation to the neighborhood teens, eventually zeroing in on the guilt, stifling family life and makeshift sentencing imposed upon Kenney’s jittery schoolgirl.
It’s difficult to imagine today, but teenagers were virtually nonexistent in the cinema prior to the 1950s. There were, of course, sundry Mickey Rooney sitcoms in the ‘40s, where the plucky kid fumbles his way into manhood; and twenty years’ worth of Dead End (1937) derivatives starring Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall and the other members of the Dead End Kids as teen slum dwellers who evolved into overripe caricatures called The Bowery Boys. But teen angst as a theme didn’t jell until The Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause (both in 1955), their sullen adolescent characters pained by mystery (self-pitying? crybaby?) agendas (“No one understands me!”), one set in the inner city, the other in suburbia.
Distancing itself from America’s post-WWII economic recovery and the exodus of whites to those suburban bedroom communities, Griffith’s screenplay floats in seedy urban confinement, its characters weathering lifestyles more in tune with the Great Depression. We visit each of the Black Widows’ homes to be hit by squalor, ignorance, anger, frustration and poverty. Adults are portrayed as philanderers, alcoholics (we run into several old school winos), or tight-lipped cops (guided by the thousand-yard stare of actor Richard Devon doing his best Joe Friday). Slightly more upscale, Kenney’s character lives in a nicer house, albeit under the martial rule of an overzealous dad; and whose mother has been psychologically pounded into submission — her odd introduction in Teenage Doll is something out of a David Lynch movie.
Despite the low budget, Corman brought together an interesting assortment of actors who excel during Griffith’s extended scenes of heated, wordy confrontation. Fay Spain is Cagney-intense: in a scene where her character chews out her father, it’s like watching Cody Jarrett Tommygun his way through the Actor’s Studio. Another vignette focusing on two sisters (one a Black Widow, the other a sell-out about to “date” her old, fat and bald employer for a plate of caviar), he juxtaposes the soft beauty of twenty-five-year-old Barboura Morris (a Corman regular) with Colette Jackson, whose hard, angular sultriness suggests a hybrid of Patricia Arquette with Fairuza Balk. I don’t know what happened to Jackson, other than she died in 1969 at the age of thirty-five. But she’s got a raw presence here that makes me want to see more.