'Teen Movies: American Youth On Screen' (Short Cuts Series) By Timothy Shary London: Wallflower Press, 2005. ISBN 1 904764 49 5. 125pp. £12.99


'Children, Cinema & Censorship: From Dracula to the Dead End Kids' By Sarah J. Smith London: I.B. Tauris, 2005. ISBN 1 85043 813 7. 237pp. £16.99

This review essay first appeared in the June 2007 issue of SCOPE- The Online Journal of Film Studies

There is no doubt that, despite youth being arguably the most important film audience, films concerning it and the effects films have upon it have oft been neglected. Indeed, compared to other social or historically-based studies, youth finds itself greatly under-represented, both in terms of general histories and theoretical approaches. These two books attempt to redress the balance, but each has a different focus- the former provides a brief history of youth within films, the latter a far more detailed amalgamation of children, cinema and their relationship to censorship.

The author of Teen Movies: American Youth On Screen himself identifies the problematical nature of the ‘Short Cuts’series- ‘a book such as this can only offer an overview and evaluation of past practices’(p.109). That this comes at the end of his book produces an effect akin to that of eating a rather forgettable meal and being told during the coffee that it was prepared by the third choice chef- you had already made that same deduction but it was nice of your host to admit it. Thus, the words ‘overview’and ‘evaluation’are appropriate to the point of summing up Shary’s book rather neatly and conveniently, something he does to many teen films across many years by giving them the ‘film guide’treatment. What starts out as a promising investigation into the under-researched and unjustly neglected area of ‘teen movies’swiftly becomes a chronological synopsis of such films- and, in this vein, becomes sadly less and less readable.

Although recognised as both a coherent cultural group and a specific cinematic audience since the 1950s, the teenager has found their portrayal on screen lacking in most critical film analyses. Whilst attempting to set the record straight, Shary constantly acknowledges his predecessors, a habit that ultimately becomes frustrating- his voice is only heard as a whisper amidst the resounding echoes of previous critics who have made the ‘teen movie’their focus. True, such critics as David Considine (1985), Thomas Doherty (1988), and Jon Lewis (1992) have made many useful points (Doherty’s book Teenagers And Teenpics is a seminal work on the genre of teen movies, for example), but they have not drained the teenage movie well of water. Thus, there would be mileage in a critical study which provides an overview of the ‘teen movie’with an in-depth discussion of specific examples. Shary’s book does not really do this, but instead flits swiftly between examples of the genre spanning the 20th Century and into the 21st. The result is a book that, whilst useful to the casual reader interested in the genre’s development, proves a frustratingly distant experience for the critic searching for a greater degree of analytical depth and interaction with the films themselves.

I have referred to the ‘teen movie’partly because this phrase features in Shary’s title and partly to disassociate this review from other studies (such as Doherty’s, which coins the term ‘teenpic’). In essence, the teen movie can be loosely defined as a film that depicts characters supposed to be in their teenage years, who bring with them the trials and tribulations of the age that marks them as not still children but conversely not yet adults. That the audience for a ‘teen movie’is a teenage one is almost a fait acompli, but not all the films Shary discusses were aimed at the same audience the films themselves portrayed on screen, for example My Own Private Idaho (Van Sant, 1991). Thus, there is a curious discrepancy between pre. 1950s films that included teenage characters (such as the Andy Hardy series) and those made during the early 1950s that led the genre towards the exploitation film and spawned many sub-genres like the beach movie and the hot-rod film.

Although Shary admits limiting himself to ‘exclusively US teen films’(p.3), his study begins with L’Arroseur Arrose (Lumiere, 1895) before going on a whistle-stop tour of representations of American youth on screen pre.1949. This is rightly abbreviated, for it marks the era discernible for its very lack of awareness of a coherent social group- the teenager- which the 1950s would embrace and subsequently exploit. Throughout the first of five chronological chapters of the ‘teen movie’, Shary usefully discusses several series of films (such as the Andy Hardy movies and those starring the Dead End Kids- later The East Side Kids and later still The Bowery Boys) as well as individual films. He does, however, make some surprising omissions- there is no mention of young teenage characters such as Anne of Green Gables (George Nichols Junior, 1934), or Henry Aldrich for example. There is also the difficulty (which Shary does not really address) of children in films being of sometimes uncertain age- and to some extent the definition of teenagers themselves: taking the usual definition as including those aged 13-19, one could theoretically include any film featuring juvenile cast members in a book such as Shary’s.

Once Shary enters the 1950s, however, the book realises its raison d’etre and incorporates references to many films dealing with teenage characters. Although Shary contextualises the genre with succinct comments relating to socio-economic developments in the post-war America that paved the way for the ‘teen movie’, his discussion of the films within this era are rather less satisfying, incorporating an annoying habit of summarising the plot so each development ends up reading like an excerpt from a film guide. Thus, what starts out as a useful and very readable overview of the origin of ‘teen movies’slides lazily into a plot summary exercise as the book develops, which to some extent removes the curiosity factor from such exploitation films that the film industry of the 1950s produced. Shary refers to ‘the JD fixation’(p.18) which is not (as could be supposed) an instinctive reaction to the James Dean phenomenon, but that of ‘juvenile delinquency’. This leads the author on to refer to films falling under this socially-reprehensible banner, but the motivation for the critic to watch these films is largely inherent in their structure- will the bad male lead end up in reform, jail, or meet their death in unsavoury circumstances? Too often does Shary answer this question as part of his documentation of this most unusual of film genres, thereby demystifying the very films he documents.

The golden age of the ‘teen movie’in the 1950s should also provide much material for Shary’s book, but it is instead an opportunity lost. The comments on rock and roll films are lamely summed up as ‘teen characters defending the music and dancing as a form of expression’(p.31), whilst the films themselves, argues Shary, promoted ‘a few rising stars in the music field’(ibid.) What the author seems reluctant to recognise is the immense lasting value of such films (whose plots had ‘little variation’, ibid.) in showcasing the unique roster of talent that existed in the mid-late 1950s through to the early 1960s. Therefore, although not perhaps as enlightening in their portrayal of teens as later or earlier films, the rock and roll sub-genre is arguably the most important. It is this slightly aloof approach to his analysis that causes Shary’s style to become vaguely irritating- it is inevitable, as even Shary says, that in a book like this (a mere 125 pages including index) ‘teen movie’ground is merely raked over and not fully dug, but it is lamentable nonetheless. This lack of specific detail and close textual analysis becomes a greater problem as the book progresses, because some films are more fully dealt with whereas others are all but ignored.

This rather arbitrary approach reaches its zenith in the fourth chapter of the book, which discusses ‘subgenres and cycles’(p.83) : ‘the slasher film’, ‘the sex craze’, ‘youth by John Hughes’, ‘teen tech’, ‘the revisionist teen film’, ‘the African-American crime cycle’. Here, certain films are ushered forth as Exhibit A- illustrative of the very subgenre or cycle under scrutiny- but others are brushed under the cinematic carpet with astonishing sang froid. Thus, there is room for lengthy discussions of WarGames (1983), River’s Edge (1987) and Boyz N The Hood (1991), but those that do not fit into the cosy generic boxes are ruthlessly dismissed from view. Larry Clark’s compelling Kids (1995) merits just a few lines of critical scorn whilst Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) is amazingly mis-read as ‘vapid’.

As Shary’s book moves towards its previously cited semi-apologetic conclusion, other key films are missing: where is Rob Reiner’s nostalgic masterpiece Stand By Me (1986) for example? This even seems to fit in where some others do not- it is surely a highly significant revisionist teen film. There is also a curious lack of focus on stars- no River Phoenix (A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, 1988), Johnny Depp (Cry Baby, 1990) or Leonardo DiCaprio (The Basketball Diaries, 1995). These stars did not, of course, appear in just the named teen movies but several, making their omission a more serious matter if the range of Shary’s book is to be taken seriously. However, all is not lost- ‘the good news is that American teen films have generally improved in quality since the Second World War era’(p.109). Although probably comforting (possibly more so if the meaning was clearer here- does Shary mean the representations have got better, the production values of the films themselves or something else besides?), this leads on to a rather jingoistic summation which does not, as is befitting of the book as a whole, challenge but meekly state an ideal.

In contrast to the broad sweep of Timothy Shary’s book, Sarah J. Smith- in Children, Cinema & Censorship: From Dracula to the Dead End Kids confines herself to exploring waters which, although seemingly shallower, are more fully plumbed. To be fair to Shary, his book did not attempt (nor succeed) in being a detailed study of one particular moment in the ‘teen film’genre, but an overview of its history. Smith, on the other hand, states her case systematically very early on- she aims to provide ‘an extended, detailed case study of the controversy over children and film in 1930s Britain’(p.5). In her book’s seven chapters, she does exactly that, by utilising a huge range of both primary and secondary sources. One of the main interest points in Smith’s book is her reference material from Lancaster University and the Scottish Film Archive- interviews with ordinary people who actually went to the ‘pictures’and were significantly influenced by them. Thus, a strong sociological ambiance is created surrounding cinema-going in the 1930s, which is used efficiently to support Smith’s conclusions.

However, before she attempts to draw any conclusions from her material, Smith usefully outlines the issues under discussion by justifying two questions- ‘why the 1930s?’and ‘what is a child?’This rational approach marks the whole book, and makes it very coherent, which, in turn, makes her arguments that bit more compelling and convincing. After a well-researched chapter on cinema regulation 1895-1929, Smith makes two points important for the rest of her book- that British regulation of children’s film should not be seen in isolation from practices in other countries and, more crucially, ‘evidence’.strongly suggests that the principal driving force behind the early regulation of cinema was concern regarding the influence of the medium on children’(p.44). Thus, censorship, Smith argues, was not really guided by worries over the influence certain films would have on social morality but by the concern over the impressionable young.

Given the general misgivings about the effect films have on children (even in the present-day), it would be all too easy from our 21st Century viewing platform to criticise the 1930s ‘do-gooders’as being overly prescriptive and punctilious. In actual fact, as Smith highlights, putting desired theory into workable practice proved remarkably difficult, especially so with the coming of sound. The advent of the ‘talkies’meant two main things: cutting was made trickier (as the soundtrack was often adversely affected) and the uses of sound could enable further ‘unsuitable’content to be foisted on children. With these difficulties being surmounted by the Hays Code not being fully operational until 1934, the ‘pre-code’films made life harder than ever for the protectors of child morality and demeanour. The cycles of films that resulted from film production in the early 1930s (Smith cites gangster, sex and horror) are little different to the profusion of ‘sequels’in today’s Hollywood in terms of commercialisation. In other words, if a formula succeeded in attracting an audience, why change it?

Although the problem of popular exotic Hollywood genre films had persisted since the early 1910s, the violence (gangster), lasciviousness (sex) and frightening nature (horror) of these three early 1930s film genres caused concern to reach its apex, and led to increasingly pragmatic if ineffective regulation. Thus, debate surrounded the usefulness of the ‘A’certificate (which, although intended to push cinemas towards not admitting unaccompanied children to films thus designated, was not rigidly enforced- Smith cites a survey which found that just 2 in 3 local urban authorities complied with the ‘A’ruling). The problem was that the three cited genres did not only pose the biggest ‘risk’to children- they theoretically posed the biggest profits to an industry that, whatever its other aims and objectives, is in business to make money. It is this seemingly irresolvable battle between commercialism and morality which underlies this period, making it and the films that defined it that much more fascinating.

In 1931, the same year as the ‘A’certificate survey took place, a film was released which ‘was a pivotal film in the children and cinema debate in Britain’(p.70)- James Whale’s Frankenstein. This film stoked the fires of indignation amongst those eager to protect childhood morality and caused the additional ‘Horrific’label (first applied to Carl Dreyer’s classic Vampyr later that same year) to be applied to certain horror films. Crucially, this certificate banned children from seeing such films, and marked a slight detour from the path of protecting child morality to concern over the psychological effects of severe fear/trauma which could be brought about by such horror films. But, despite this shift in emphasis ‘it would appear that the key developments in the regulation of cinema and censorship’.were directly related to specific concerns regarding the impact of film on young people’(p.76). Therefore, as concern rose, increased regulation was brought in and films more suitable for children became popular, such as the literary adaptations of the mid.-late 1930s like Treasure Island (1934) and Captains Courageous (1937).

One of the main strengths of Children, Cinema & Censorship is its structure- the book is a tightly organised sociological study which makes a hypothesis before citing the following chapter to enforce the points made. A good example of this is Chapter Four, where Smith argues that the concern over cinema in 1930s Britain ‘did not constitute a moral panic in the classic sense’, having previously defined what a ‘moral panic’actually is and how applicable it might be to cinema-going in the 1930s. It is links like these that help to make the book’s narrative logical and its arguments persuasive.

Chapter Five, for me, explored relatively new territory in a fresh and exciting way. Entitled ‘Children As Censors’, it takes the view that children made choices of what to see which effectively ‘self-censored’the more ‘horrific’productions as they ‘made deliberate decisions regarding the films they wished to see (or avoid)’but, as Smith points out, they ‘were informed decisions’(p.126). Therefore, the child audience cannily used the plethora of cinema fan magazines and studio publicity to work for them in organising their viewing habits, as opposed to the Hollywood machine dictating what would be consumed, as might be supposed. The primary sources used to support Smith’s hypothesis here are entertaining and fascinating, especially with hindsight. Jesse Boyd, a Lancashire cinema fan, was adamant in her tastes- ‘knock-about comedy didn’t appeal to me. Hates? Shirley Temple- ugh- sickening, simpering BRAT’(p.128). Given that Miss Boyd is talking about a sub-genre and a star now thought to have been universally popular at the time, the historical relevance of such a statement is startlingly refreshing. It does, though, endorse Sarah Smith’s view that ‘film choices were made by children in the 1930s’.to reflect their personal preferences and moods’(pp.138-9), but this is no different, of course, to the way today’s youth get used to the concept of ‘choice’at a very young age, whether the items under scrutiny be films or Frosties. The chapter also incorporates references to films that children then (as now) should not have seen but somehow still managed to, such as Outward Bound (1930), summed up by Ralph Hart (whose Mother had taken him to see it) in four words- ‘it gave me nightmares’(p.121). Therefore, the pleasure/displeasure link is evident, as children went to see films they liked, avoided those they didn’t, and sometimes saw the films they were frightened of through their fingers. This link with having an intense empathetic engagement, devoid of cynicism and radiating childhood credibility, is picked up in the next chapter, possibly even more dynamic than the last.

In this, her book’s penultimate chapter, Smith refers to the ‘afterglow effect’.a continuing emotional reaction to films, often expressed through re-enactments on the way home’(p. 147). As children we all experienced some sort of fantasy world where we became the hero/villain of the film we had just seen, even if for a short while. This blurring of the fiction/reality divide is present as early as 1919 in a Just William story entitled ‘William Goes To The Pictures’, where our eponymous hero brings the world of the cinema into his everyday sphere with typically disastrous results. The vital importance of ‘living the lives that they [children] had seen on the screen just before’(p.148) cannot be overstated, for it complimented the ‘cinema culture’that led to the collecting of film star photographs and memorabilia- the very immersion into one part of adult society that was accessible to even the very young. As well as this positive contribution to society, cinema-going was also viewed with some distaste in its encouraging of British children to mimic Americanisms and slang- ‘I liked to copy expressions used by my favourite actors, and use them often’(p.150).

Although citing such interview material makes Smith’s book that much more uplifting, contextualises the topics and makes them more readable, I feel the significant influence she shows cinema had over children then (and still has to this day) goes against her own argument of ‘bogus scapegoating’(p.2). This refers to her reluctance to lay the blame for horrific incidents involving children at the door of popular culture- Smith feels that an excuse is looked for, a scapegoat (film/ TV and so on) found, and the guilty media sentenced without trial. The pendulum of influence cannot swing both ways simultaneously however: there is a clear link between activity on the silver screen and childhood influences that can not be chosen arbitrarily whenever the occasion suits.

In concluding her book, Smith refers to ‘the many ways in which they [children] allowed film to penetrate and permeate their lives’and ‘the sense of autonomy among children’(p.173) which caused yet another worry related to ‘the socialisation of the young’(p.173). It is somewhat reassuring to note this concern with then, as now, new media technologies, a pastime which could prevent children from ‘normal’peer interaction and outdoor activities.

As Children, Cinema & Censorship draws to its conclusion, a sense of deja-vu is created by pages 174-5, which echo (sometimes in identical words!) some of page 2, which does detract from the valuable final few pages of text. However, Smith’s overall thesis had been pretty much consistent- that censorship in the 1930s was not motivated by a desire to raise general moral standards of the working classes (as has almost become part of a prevailing ideology) but resulted from a concern for child welfare. Ironically, Smith also recognises a problem that was prevalent in the 1930s and that has persisted to the present day-’in reality children frequently evade such attempts at regulation’(p.175). Thus, the children who now lie about their age to participate in adult pursuits of any nature have their predecessors in the 1930s youths who would seek to gain illicit entry to films they were not legally entitled to see.

The consequences of children’s film viewing in the 1930s were twofold: restrictive (regulation and censorship) and productive (cinema clubs, film societies and films made specifically for a young audience, such as those produced by the Children’s Film Foundation) (p.177). Smith closes her book by posing the intriguing question of the motivating purpose of regulation. Was it, she asks, a form of protection or a form of control? That the question is asked without being answered suggests that maybe Smith herself is unsure or she is planning to address that very issue in another publication or she prefers to keep her readers active and their cognitive juices salivating.

These two books are very different but seem to agree on one thing- the making of films with, for and about youth keeps cinema itself fresh and evolving. If films with appropriate content can be made there is no reason why the continually changing youth of the world cannot be maintained as a target audience for film-makers and ensure the cinema itself stays young as a result.

'Teen Movies: American Youth On Screen' is published by the Wallflower Press.

Wallflower Press website


'Children, Cinema & Censorship: From Dracula to the Dead End Kids' is published by I.B. Tauris.

I.B. Tauris website