From the master pen of Ed Wood Jr, a taut exploitationer promoting hot babes and, um, Christian family values?
US / 61 minutes / bw / Headliner, Dél Dir: Wm. M. Morgan Pr: Roy Reid Scr: Edward D. Wood Jr Cine: Wm. C. Thompson Cast: Jean Moorhead, Barbara Weeks, Arthur Millan, Theresa Hancock, Joanne Cangi, Gloria Farr, Glen Corbett (i.e., Glenn Corbett), Lee Constant, I. Stanford Jolley, Timothy Farell (i.e., Timothy Farrell), F. Chan McClure, Bruno Metsa, Harry Keaton.
We know this is going to be a somber movie centered on earnest social comment because, as four lovely young women take turns walking dismissively in front of a chalkboard that bears the words
there’s a portentous voiceover spelling out just the kind of moral lesson we should draw from the piece:
“This is a story of violence, of violence born of the uncontrolled passions of adolescent youth and nurtured by this generation’s parents, those who in their own smug little world of selfish interests and confused ideas of parental supervision refuse to believe today’s glaring headlines. But it has happened. Only the people and places have been given other names . . .”
After that, we open to a courtroom scene in which stuffy Judge Raymond Clara (Jolley) reproves father and mother Carl (Millan) and Jane Parkins (Weeks) for their deficiencies as parents. As if he were some kind of heavenly arbiter handing down a sentence from on high, he tells them they haven’t earned the right to take custody of a baby. At this point I confess I thought I was in for some sort of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) riff.
But no. My misapprehension was immediately corrected.
As we move inexorably into flashback, we hear Jane’s thoughts. Where could she have gone wrong? She always gave daughter Paula (Moorhead) everything she wanted, after all. Now I could see where this was going.
Sure enough, we witness Jane making out a blank check to Paula for what she describes as “mad money”—“Let me know how much you make it out for,” Jane adds, “so that I can keep my bank balance straight.” Then off she pops for some good-works commitment or other, leaving Paula alone for the evening. Carl isn’t there either, because his job running the local crusading newspaper keeps him out until all hours.
Paula (Jean Moorhead) sets up the next robbery.
And what might Paula and her pals Phyllis (Farr), Geraldine (Cangi) and Georgia (Hancock) be up to all those evenings when their irresponsible parents don’t have time for familial bonding, heart-to-heart talks and all the other things Jane later—too late!—realizes she neglected?
Why, they’re sticking up gas stations, that’s what.
On this particular evening, Paula strikes down the unfortunate gas jockey with such force that for a time the kindly doc (Keaton) thinks it’s touch and go whether the boy will live. As investigating Detective Artman (McClure) observes to his boss, Lieutenant Holmes (Farrell), “These aren’t kids. These are morons.” Back in my day, we knew how to be both at once.
Reporter Barney Stetson (Glenn Corbett), Lt. Holmes (Timothy Farrell) and Detective Artman (F. Chan McClure).
On the way home from this or some other stickup, the wild quartet come across a couple necking in the local lovers’ lane, Sheryl and Johnny (both uncredited). They partially strip Sheryl and tie her up with her own clothing, then force the luckless Johnny off into the woods at gunpoint to force him into an involuntary act that, unless Johnny’s a lot more stalwart than he looks—and whatever secret dreams he might have harbored—must have become progressively more impracticable as the night wore on.
Carl (Arthur Millan) asks reporter Barney Stetson (Glenn Corbett) about the beaten gas jockey . . .
. . . after another young man’s unfortunate experience.
The quartet take the couple’s watches and other valuables to their regular fence, Sheila (Constant, in a wonderfully sassy, hip-sashaying performance). Sheila tells Paula, leader of the pack, that there’s a way they could be making far more loot than by simply sticking up gas stations and robbing neckers. Sheila has a client who’s willing to pay wadsa money for school classrooms to be trashed. (We never do learn why. Couldn’t he simply run for the Texas Board of Education?)
The girls decide they’ll do the trashing after Paula’s birthday party.
Sheila (Lee Constant) tells Paula (Jean Moorhead) of the great new business opportunity.
Surprise, surprise, but neither of Paula’s parents can be at the party. Daringly, it’s going to be a pajama party . . . and there are going to be boys there. There’s lots of hefty, somewhat resolute smooching but, perhaps improbably, the pajamas stay on. In the midst of all this flagrant sin, one of Paula’s dad’s reporters turns up, Barney Stetson (Corbett), bearing the birthday gift that dad gives her every year, a new wristwatch bought for her by his secretary. She tells Barney it’s been years since either parent has managed to make it to one of her birthday parties. She is, you see, disregarded by her parents and thus alienated.
Paula’s boyfriend, a cheap, flashily dressed, switchblade-carrying punk called Manny (Metsa)—you can tell he’s bad news because he’s not in his pajamas—decides to pick a confrontation with Barney. It’s then that there occurs a piece of dialog that makes us realize why Ed Wood was so in demand in Hollywood as a screenwriter:
Manny: “I don’t like this guy’s looks.”
Someone’s boyfriend: “So why don’t you change them, Manny?”
The girls get rid of Barney and the various boyfriends, then go off to some primary school to do some badass trashing. They wipe all the writing off the chalkboard. They turn the seats over. Paula, inspired to heights of vandalism, throws the globe out the window. All in all, they do almost as much damage as the third grade on a bad afternoon.
Up turn the cops. Paula instructs her gang to open fire on them.
Unsportingly, the cops shoot back.
First Phyllis goes down, then Paula kills the cop who shot Phyllis, then Geraldine dies. The remaining two girls, Paula and Georgia, flee to Sheila’s home, where the fence refuses to help them—so Paula murders her. Paula and Georgia get involved in An Exciting Car Chase, at the end of which Paula drives into a plate-glass window, killing Georgia.
All of this while, Paula has been complaining of unusual cramps, and it’s beginning to dawn on us that maybe Johnny wasn’t such a wimp after all.
It’s also beginning to dawn on us that women back in the 1950s began to show signs of pregnancy a whole lot earlier than they do today. Unless I’ve got the movie’s chronology completely awry, it’s only about ten days or a fortnight since that infamous incident in the woods.
Paula (Jean Moorhead) gets the bad news: She’s guilty!
There’s more, there’s more, there’s more. Judge Clara gets not one but two more opportunities for ponderous moralizing. We learn that thrill-killing of the kind Paula engaged in is a product of a lack of self-respect, itself brought on by parental aloofness. Jane, in a moment of contrition, agrees:
“It’s all my fault. If only I hadn’t thought more of my outside interests than I did of Paula.”
Just to repeat: Guilty!
Later the judge is back again, spelling out to us the solution to, if not all of society’s ills, then at least the problem of juvenile delinquency:
“. . . only through general acceptance of higher moral values can we hope to solve the problem. The easiest way to bring this about is through a return to religion. If all people would join the Back to God Movement and train their children to respect the Ten Commandments or other moral laws laid down by all the great religions, it would soon bring delinquency under control . . .”
There’s a lot here that’s a bit rich. First, there’s the obvious reflection that, had Paula been some black kid out of Harlem over the age of ten rather than the lily-white daughter of money, there’d have been none of the psychobabblish ruefulness over what had driven her to murder, none of the “life sentence because of her youth.” But, second, we’re being lectured on morality and Christian family values by Ed Wood, who made exploitation movies and, later in his career, even hardcore porn.
His leading lady, Moorhead, was in no great position to preach Christian family values, either. The year before, as Jean Moorehead, she was Playboy’s Playmate of the Month for October 1955. (In the interests of science and eager to get me a glimpse of some Christian family values in the raw, so to speak, along I scuttled to the Playboy site to see the shoot—which I assume was more or less PG by today’s standards. Unfortunately, it was behind a paywall, so that ended the in-depth Noirish researches.) Christian family values aside, Moorhead is actually pretty good here, switching from fresh-faced innocent to hardbitten criminal and back again quite convincingly. This was her first leading role, after a bunch of uncredited ones; later classics in which she featured included Motorcycle Gang (1957), the same year’s The Amazing Colossal Man—in which she set some sort of benchmark in the role of “Woman in Bathtub”—Attack of the Puppet People (1958) and The Atomic Submarine (1959). She put an end to her screen career in 1960 but, so far as I can establish, is pleasingly still alive. A raise of the glass to her.
The Violent Years is one of those movies that falls short of the description “classic” by only about seven letters. In its own ineffably cheesy way, it’s very entertaining. It drew the attention of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1988, but that doesn’t mean much.
What Paula and her pals so foolishly forgot.