Sunday, December 28, 2008

Two 1950’s Educational Films: “As Boys Grow … ” and “Gang Boy”

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

I put in the DVD I’d recorded the night TCM showed The Road to Ruin and ran the next three items on it, a feature (well, 58 minutes anyway) from 1941 called Escort Girl and two really quirky shorts, As Boys Grow … and Gang Boy. As Boys Grow … was a bizarre educational film from a company called “Medical Arts Productions” that began with a high-school track coach (or at least an actor playing one, Joseph Miksak) working out his boys on the field and then calling them together for a series of lectures on sex, reproductive organs and the other strange glandular changes that are happening to his charges as they reach puberty -— a term he’s asked to define at several times during the film, a question he consistently ducks.

This film was clearly noble in purpose, and was surprisingly explicit for 1957 — particularly when one of the boys confesses to another that he’s had a wet dream — though the stylized diagrams that are brought on that supposedly illustrate sex organs are spectacularly inept: the one of a woman’s uterus and vagina looks like an automobile hood ornament from the period and the drawing of a penis just had me thinking how many anonymous artists working on bathroom walls have done a better job depicting one. The fact that the kids were played by the Boys’ Clubs of San Francisco probably made the whole thing seem “Gayer” than it really was!

Gang Boy was a 1954 film from Sid Davis Productions in badly faded color (so badly faded it looked like a modern-day past-is-brown depiction of the world of 1954!), allegedly inspired by a real-life truce between Los Angeles street gangs but actually filmed in Pomona, where a Latino gang and a white gang have a few tiffs that are threatening to explode into all-out gang war when a sympathetic police officer brings them together and negotiates a truce. The film was produced and photographed by Sid Davis and written, directed and edited by Arthur Swerdloff — who apparently had to move heaven and earth to keep the bits of dialogue in synch since Davis had shot it with a silent camera, though technically this is better than several Mystery Science Theatre 3000-quality features we’ve seen in this regard!

The only credited cast member is Curly Riviera as Danny, the head of the Latino gang, who also narrates the movie and describes himself as a troubled kid wronged in unspecified ways by society — Swerdloff’s script is modishly (for the period) sociological in terms of explaining why boys join gangs, but the film resolutely avoids any but the vaguest explanations of what happened to Danny (or anyone else in the film) that would lead him down the gang path. (There’s a hint that Danny joined a gang because of the way his psyche had been twisted by anti-Latino racism — but in that case, why did the white kids in the film join gangs?)

What’s most interesting about this movie is the physical atmosphere of 1954 — particularly the agricultural life (the gang members make money by picking oranges or green peppers) and the cars of the period — and the low-tech weaponry available to the gangs: when they’re not beating each other up with fists they have axes and baseball bats but nothing nastier … a far cry from today’s drug-fueled (and drug-funded) gangs that have ready access to firearms, including fully automatic weapons!