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The Forgotten: The Young and the Horny

Helmut Kautnet arranges a moving, beautiful melodrama of American high school life in the fifties.
David Cairns
If you've used up all the available Douglas Sirk melodramas, why not try The Restless Years (1958), directed by Helmut Kautner (pronounced "Koit-ner")? It's a small town tale, focusing mainly on the teenage populace, but spreading out to follow their interaction with parents and teachers.
"This is a dirty, little, gossipy small town. And I ought to know because I was born here. People here are jut like a herd of sharks that turn on a crippled one and kill it." So says salesman James Whitmore to his son, a fresh-faced John Saxon, and he appears to be right, giving the film the social criticism dimension that Sirk's films likewise weave beneath their emotionally turbulent tales.
The producer is the flamboyant Ross Hunter, who needs to be considered a kind of co-auteur of many Sirkian tales, only he should be credited for the dumber, soapier elements, his writers and directors for the irony and subtext, while the Universal music department of Frank Skinner, and the cinematographers, in this case Ernest Lazslo, who can really rock the widescreen format, bring the necessary lushness to bear.
Kautner isn't nearly as celebrated as Sirk, but he's hugely interesting: perhaps his timing was bad. He stayed in Germany under Hitler, though no stain of Nazism attached to him, and his films were uniformly unpopular under the regime: too defeatist. He made only a couple of US films, this and A Stranger in My Arms the following year, then high-tailed it back to his homeland. Hollywood's loss.
The star also has Sirk connections, though Sandra Dee had not yet appeared in Imitation of Life. Dee has had an odd post-career career: from miniature box office titan to Grease lyric ("Look at me, I'm Sandra Dee / Lousy with virginity.") "She's like a demented chipmunk made of dough," remarked a startled friend of mine, but she's also quite touching in a plastinated way, once you get used to another era's bizarre fashion in teen glamor.
Her doll-like prettiness is affectingly used here: a true innocent, her character is torn between her neurotic, over-protective mother (Teresa Wright, who had been playing teenagers herself not long before), cliquish classmates, pushy pursuer Jody McCrea (her Gidget co-star, son of Joel) and the sensitive Saxon. Well-meaning schoolteacher Virginia Grey (there's always a well-meaning teacher) tries to help the lonely outcast fit in, without fully understanding the kind of shark academy she'd be fitting in with.
The town of Liberty (well, you don't want to be too subtle) has aspects of Twin Peaks, Paton Place and King's Row, while the idea of taking teen problems seriously arguably comes from Rebel Without a Cause. Here, however, the really tragic figures are the adults, trapped in their private hells (the women, Grey excepted, are either mad, alcholic or the Lady Macbeth of air conditioning sales; but their husbands are clods). The jeopardy for the teens is ending up like their parents (most undoubtedly will).
Visually, the film is astounding: it's such a shame film history provides such a narrow window for the mass-production of 'Scope films in black and white. At times it's like a teen noir (Lazslo also shot Kiss Me Deadly around this time) and Kautner brings a wild, probing restlessness to the camerawork, with impulsive movements from the younger cast triggering adjustments which don't so much follow the actors as react, often counterintuitively, to their blocking. It's like lens and stars were all magnetized, a complex dance of attraction and repulsion playing out across the wide plane of the frame.
The movie is also very good on the manipulativeness of teenagers (a sociologist of the day proposed that teenagers are psychologically no different from grown-ups, only with no useful work to do: discuss), and the small dramas that seem so big at the time, because they are.
It's like Carrie, only the gentle characters have no telekinesis to protect them. At high school, the only special power is shittiness.
***
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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