Monday, November 3, 2008

I Accuse My Parents (PRC, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

When Charles finally did arrive at 9 we ended up watching a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of a film called I Accuse My Parents, which judging from the title seemed like it was going to be a heavy-breathing cheapo 1950’s juvenile delinquency movie. Instead it was a rather mild 1944 “B” from PRC which begins with the protagonist, James Wilson (Robert Lowell), on trial for manslaughter. The judge who’s hearing the case — there is no jury — asks James why he hasn’t offered a defense and if there’s anyone besides himself he holds responsible for his legal predicament, and he says, “Yes. I accuse my parents.” (“We have a title! We have a title!” the MST3K crew chanted at this point.) The film then flashes back to explain just why he accuses his parents and how he got to the point where he’s on trial for killing someone; he’s a high-school senior, about to graduate with his class, and he’s won a prize for the essay he’s written about how wonderful his home life is and how loving and self-sacrificing his parents have been.

In what obviously passed for irony in the minds of the writers (Arthur Caesar, story; Harry Frazer and Marjorie Dudley, script), his real home and family life aren’t like the description in his essay at all: mom (Vivienne Osborne, the superb villainess of Supernatural and The Phantom Broadcast) is an alcoholic and dad is a compulsive gambler who comes home only long enough to chew out his wife for not having a decent dinner ready for him, then tears out to play poker with his buddies. He gets a job in a shoe store and immediately forms a mad infatuation with his first customer, nightclub singer Kitty Reed (Mary Beth Hughes, top-billed and showing at least a little of the form she’d bring to her marvelous femme fatale role in The Great Flamarion a year later), who works at a joint owned by Charles Blake (George Meeker), her no-good gangster boyfriend. Blake tricks Jimmy into running up a debt he can’t pay on his shoe clerk’s salary and then making him work it off by running errands for his criminal enterprises, and meanwhile Kitty romances Jimmy on Blake’s orders to keep him on the hook — only, this being a grab-bag of Hollywood clichés, she falls in love with him for real.

Eventually Blake assigns Jimmy to drive the getaway car in a robbery that goes awry and results in the killing of a night watchman, and Jimmy confronts Blake in the nightclub office and they both reach for the gun (Maurine Watkins, call your plagiarism attorney!); Blake is fatally shot and Jimmy flees town. On the lam he goes into a hamburger joint, intending to stick it up, only its proprietor has the morals of Gandhi and the psychological perception of Freud: he offers the kid a hamburger, gets him to give up the gun, and offers him a job as long as he agrees to accompany him to church every Sunday morning, where he ushers. (The obvious implication the writers were going for is that this character is giving Jimmy the love, understanding, attention and moral guidance his biological parents should have and didn’t.) Then the scene dissolves back to the trial, where the judge lets him off the hook with two years’ probation and gives the parents a stern talking-to.

I Accuse My Parents could actually have been a fairly good movie if the writers had been at all alive to the potential depth of their subject — if they’d done more with Jimmy’s obvious compulsion, judging from that fantasy family life he described in his essay, to depict his home as considerably better and more supportive than it was — and if it had had a better director than slovenly old Sam Newfield, whom I once described as “the Stephen King of directors, who seemed more interested in how fast he could make them than in how good they were.” As it stands, though, we really don’t have much sympathy for Jimmy because he’s brought down to a criminal past less by his parents than by his own stupidity, lying and naïveté. Indeed, that was the main aspect of this movie the MST3K crew made fun of, chanting “Liar!” every time one of the characters became one and, in one of their interstital segments, doing a crude mobile showing all the things wrong with Jimmy’s character: “lying,” “stupidity,” “no backbone” and (emblazoned on a papier-machê model of scissors) “bad hair.”

In another segment they had Gypsy (the robot with a hoarse female voice and the one they excluded from the movie theatre so she couldn’t comment on the films) lip-sync to the film’s soundtrack performance of “Are You Happy in Your Work?,” one of three songs by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans (just about the only people associated with this movie who did go on to biggers and betters!) sung by Mary Beth Hughes in her role as nightclub singer (though the actual voice was probably someone else’s), and they prefaced the film with an Encyclopedia Britannica educational short called Truck Farming, which didn’t mean selling produce off the backs of trucks (or, for that matter, planting Tonka models in the ground, adding water and sunshine, and harvesting full-sized trucks nine months later) but large-scale industrial farms with chemical fertilizers and pesticides (for which the MST3K comments took on an unexpectedly environmentalist edge — “This is when they thought DDT was safe”).