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The Forgotten: “Mad” Vorhaus and the Bad Girls

A sympathetic shrink tries to reform a reform school in Bernard Vorhaus’s thoughtful Girls-In-Prison melodrama.
Okay, it's not earth-shaking, but So Young, So Bad (1950) kept me watching, sometimes goggling. It's the penultimate film of quota quickie master Bernard "Mad" Vorhaus, who made cheap and often very skilled work in the U.K., moved to the U.S. and made The Amazing Mr. X, a really stylish and entertaining thriller shot by the great John Alton, then made this, and got blacklisted the following year. He had already left the U.S., having seen the way the wind was blowing, but aside from shooting second unit on William Wyler's Roman Holiday, Vorhaus made only one more movie, an Italian flick called Finishing School which seems to be impossible to get at present. He went into house renovation back in the U.K. and did alright at it, I believe.
So, one doesn't necessarily expect earth-shaking from a B-movie talent like Vorhaus, but he was capable of splendid work, making up for budgetary shortfalls with bold, crazy choices, including unexpected bursts of expressionism (The Last Journey, 1935, a runaway train group jeopardy movie, exemplifies his commitment to wildness) which perhaps explain how he acquired the nickname of "Mad."
And that eccentricity shows itself several times in this movie. Paul Henreid is a psychiatrist hired by a home for wayward girls, who sets about trying to reform the cruel system. But his sympathetic attitude to his charges is undermined by the corrupt director (Cecil Clovelly, who hadn't made a film since the Barrymore Jekyll and Hyde in 1920, which sometimes shows a bit) and a brutal warden (Grace Coppin in the Faye Emerson Caged part: Nurse Ratched with more muscle).
There's some semi-inadvertent satire of Henreid's position as hero, since he's elevated from knowing about what life is really like for the girls: when he prescribes gentle treatment for them, his orders are always cruelly misinterpreted. Finally he gets wise and starts to fight back, enlisting the help of a colleague (Catherine McLeod) had been worn down by the system. Their argument about how trying to work within a corrupt system inevitably corrupts you, staged on a carnival carousel, is the smartest bit of writing: no surprise to learn that at least one of his co-writers, former actress Jean Rouverol), got blacklisted too.
"You can break your heart for just so long."
"Then you begin to compromise."
"I do what I can within an existing framework."
"One compromise after another until you're fighting on the enemy's side."
All yelled over a hurdy-gurdy's churning melody as Henreid bobs up and down on his hobby-horse.
As well as being a late film by Vorhaus, this is an early one, providing roles for fresh talents Anne Jackson, Anne Francis and Rita Moreno. All are good: Jackson and Francis are strikingly fierce, even feral, Moreno vulnerable and sweet. She's still being billed as Rosita at this point; the fourth main girl is another cutie, but Enid Rudd didn't go on to much else, and I maintain that's because she was called Enid Rudd.
Like all women-in-prison films, this has a touch of sadism to it. While condemning viciousness, it's guilty of wallowing in it a bit. There's a prolonged scene where rebellious teens are blasted with a fire hose by Coppin, and Jackson has to save Rudd from rape in a flashback that's filmed with expressionist brio but doesn't really need to be there—it's the only flashback within the film's framing structure which is a flashback in itself. The tobacco-drooling assailant's sweaty ECU is horrific, but doesn't altogether escape the charge of directorial salaciousness.
The Jackson-Rudd friendship can be read as possibly gay: Henreid seems to view it as unhealthily close, since Jackson makes all the decisions for both. But he doesn't break them up, which is a relief, he just tries to bring more parity to the partnership.
With slightly cheesy dialogue in places—"Would you mind very much being the wife of an unemployed psychiatrist?"—and a too-ready willingness to resort to unnecessary narration, this at first seems like it might be a slog, but it really picks up as it goes, and since injustice is such a hot-button theme ("When a child says, 'This isn't fair,' the child can be believed" —A Man for All Seasons) you have to keep watching, I find. And you get rewarded by a scene of Anne Francis arguing with a baby.
***
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.
Thank you for the article, David! Out of curiosity, I had a look at the Italian State Censorship file of Vorhaus's "Finishing School / Fanciulle di lusso" and it appears that, due to the pressures of high-rank politicians, the movie was heavily censored. According to these politicians, the movie could incite class hate and offend the US (there are some bad American characters in the film, apparently) and Switzerland (where the film is set). They also said the film was too naughty. Sounds interesting!

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