Pros: It’s amusing in a way and could never be made today; Shirley Mills is a trooper and delivers a decent lead performance
Cons: Boring and technically inept; overblown message; questionable motivation and approach
From the golden age of exploitation comes one of the most infamous films of the 1930s, Child Bride. Harry Revier, who first came to prominence as a director of silent films and later made a handful of these exploitation “scare pictures,” wrote and directed this warning and social awareness piece about child marriage, a practice that, when this film was made in 1938, was still legal in some jurisdictions. The story here falls in line with the usual Reefer Madness-style cautionary tale: taking place in a backwoods town in the Ozarks, pre-teen Jennie Colton finds herself the object of affection for a much older man who blackmails Jennie’s mother into allowing him to wed the girl. It becomes difficult to determine whether or not Revier was seriously trying to make a film in protest of this great “social injustice” or just producing an eye-opening piece of trash that skirted past film censorship boards by being made independently and having supposed educational value.
Numerous exploitation films of this type included things that were unacceptable in mainstream cinema (i.e. nudity, drug use, violence, etc) in the name of educating an audience about “pressing social issues of the time.” Frequent topics of discussion were drug (ab)use, and “sexual hygiene” but the educational value of most exploitation films was questionable at best – it’s scary to think that films like 1945’s Mom and Dad (“You actually SEE the birth of a baby”) provided sex education to a generation of younger Americans. Many people just went to see these films (some of which were accompanied by a carnival side-show like presentation) precisely because they contained elements that couldn’t be seen elsewhere – nudity was a major selling point. Along those lines, Child Bride’s main claim to fame is a section in the middle of the film that includes a brief topless shot of the then-twelve-year-old child actress Shirley Mills and a rather lengthy skinny-dipping scene.
Honestly, the attention this scene has received over the years is almost ridiculous: it’s much ado about nothing, but in an American society that’s seen its share of scandals over the concepts and interpretation of obscenity laws and what constitutes child pornography, it’s no wonder Child Bride would have caused a firestorm. Without a doubt, the nudity from an underage actress in the 2001 French film Fat Girl is more eye-opening than anything here, mostly because of the (sexual) context of that nudity, but in a society that’s frequently had an odd relationship with sex, a naked pre-pubescent child is something to talk about. In the end though, I’m more shocked that Mills’s parents – and the actress herself – would be OK with doing a nude scene in Child Bride than with the (rather harmless) nude scene itself.
The notoriety that was achieved by featuring any nudity (let alone from a pre-teen) ensured it would be a staple on the exploitation circuit for years, but the film is pretty awful. Characters here all fall into well-established stereotypes, which is particularly true among the rural townspeople. These folks all come across as the typical hotheaded (and perverted) hillbillies carting around jugs full of moonshine, ogling young girls, and ready to throw punches at the drop of a hat. Once a (by comparison) progressive teacher is introduced to the mountain town, the stage is set for a culture clash. Obviously, it’s this teacher, who’s urging her politically-inclined boyfriend to push legislation that aims to abolish child marriage, who is the “moral crusader” character of the film fighting for sake of the children and puppies and snowflakes and sunshine. And of course, the townsfolk view this “uppity” teacher as stepping on their local traditions, so they concoct a plan to “let her know who’s boss in this here town.” I had a chuckle when one local declared that the new teacher’s ideas were the cause of him “losing the kid” that used to be his wife. Just wow.
It almost seems like the villagers’s problems with the teacher may be due to the simple fact that she’s teaching their kids to spell – I expected at any minute one of the hillbillies to be delivering a speech that went something like “SPELLING? Who needs it” just to cement to the viewer the fact that these people are clearly not up to speed with regard to modern cultural standards. The character of the “redneck” has been seen time and again in cinema, but the portrayal here does seem to border on being offensive. Any notion of this film’s subtlety in its messages is tossed out within two minutes of its start when, after the standard exploitation film prologue that explains that Child Bride’s purpose as a film is to bring an end to this diabolical practice of child marriage, Revier has his camera pass by a book entitled Child Marriage Is A Crime that’s sitting on young Jennie’s bookshelf. Because that seems like exactly the book a 12 year old would be reading. The “good Christian” audiences seeing this film for its “daring expose” would probably have liked the contrast to the forced marriage situation that was provided by the teacher and her boyfriend, who are engaged in a “normal” celibate relationship (that feels really cheesy in the way it’s handled here). Meanwhile, a group of pregnant “teens” (most of whom appear to be in their late twenties minimum) hang out on the village’s porches and scowl in the couple’s general direction.
Despite a few enjoyably ludicrous scenes scattered throughout the picture (I love a scene early on that features gratuitous abuse of a dwarf – played by famous “little person” actor Angelo Rossitto), it’s the end of Child Bride (when Jennie finds herself facing an arranged marriage to a skeezy older fellow) that has the film going off the deep end. After a discussion about courtship, the much older man Jake Bolby (after watching Jennie’s earlier nude swim and nearly drooling at the sight) hands Jennie a toy doll and explains to her that she’s about to become his wife. Come again??!? Later, we see the actual marriage itself and it is AWKWARD! – particularly when little Jennie seems to be consulting with (and prodded by) her mom for every answer she’s providing during the ceremony. And let’s not even start with the “wedding night” scene that climaxes the film…. This picture just couldn’t be put together in this day and age: though quite earnest in its message, I’d have to seriously question the way in which Revier went about making the picture (to say nothing about his lack of ability as a filmmaker).
What we’re ultimately left with here is an “Ed Wood Bad” level film that boasts atrocious dialogue, goofy acting by a cast of (mostly) unknowns, screechy, melodramatic music and an absurdly over-exaggerated message. Oh, it also just happens to have a nude 12 year old thrown in for good measure – hey, just cause Revier wants to gawk at a nude child doesn’t mean he wants to marry one… Apparently, this film was rejected by the writers of Mystery Science Theater 3000 not because it didn’t fit their standards of ineptitude (it surely does), but because the film was “disturbing” and probably too controversial for them to even touch. I’m somewhat astonished it’s even available these days when the concepts of child pornography and pedophilia are such hotbed topics, but the film (which has now fallen into the public domain) can be seen around the web in its uncut entirety and also is featured uncensored on the Alpha Video DVD release (some versions of the film perhaps rightfully have been edited to exclude the nude sequences). Though many people would likely be quick to judge this film, inevitably, viewers would be more concerned in watching it with the lack of quality than with a few seconds of bare flesh. Nowhere near as much fun as efforts like the off-the-wall Maniac from 1934 or the infamous anti-marijuana films Reefer Madness, Marihuana, and Assassin of Youth also from the mid-’30s, Child Bride may be of interest to curious viewers or connoisseurs of bad movies, but the majority of audiences would be better served wasting their time elsewhere.
Alpha Video, specializing in cheapo DVDs of public domain films, has a decent-quality but expectedly scratchy full-frame version of the film that’s uncut. No extras. This film also be seen in its entirety on many locations around the web as it is a public domain wonder.
2/10 – A few fist fights and bloodless violent scenes
2/10 – Adult subject matter, but no profanity. Numerous priceless dialogue exchanges – and one “pay attention or you’ll miss it” racial exclamation that’s fairly off-color
0/10 – It says a lot about how we are as a culture that this film and its brief, nonsexual shot of a topless pre-teen has ensured the film’s lasting popularity/notoriety. A perfect example of the “Streisand Effect.”
8/10 – A very bad movie about a shocking subject containing nudity from an underage actress. Definite cult value.
“Now listen Jennie…I’mma gonna be your husband. And you’ll wanna be nice to me cuz if you don’t, you know what’ll happen…”
Original Film Trailer: