Young America

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 29, 2015

There’s some strange do-gooder stuff going on here, with the film generally, and especially with Ralph Bellamy’s kind of weird judge business. (For a clue about what and why, check the date of the film’s release.) They’re talking straight to us, and their aim is to teach us a lesson. This results in some of the directness and awkwardness so often a characteristic of didacticsm. On the other hand, this is a Frank Borzage picture. And for me, at this point in his career, whatever he says goes. This sermon works, for the reasons that the best sermons always work. The issues are presented clearly, but not so clearly as to be inhuman, or to ignore complexity and fallibility. The dramatic details are convincing, authentic. And they take their time in laying out those details. When a preacher comes in from the outside and insists and uses salesman tactics you resent it. When your parent, or child, or loving and long-term neighbour invites you to come to Jesus, you listen.

This Tommy Conlon kid is really good, and he’s a lot of what makes the movie work. The other thing that makes the movie work is the crafty strategy by which they enlist our sympathies on his behalf. Everyone says and thinks that he’s irredeemably bad. The plot drags him through all sorts of situations—brawling, breaking and entering, rank disobedience—that seem to prove the point. But at the beginning of the film the judge tells the oblivious lady (who is standing in for us) that it’s the times, and the economy, and that we must go beyond appearances. And he also talks to the child, and treats him with courtesy. That sets the tone for everything that follows. (What would be the social and moral consequences if we were to follow suit?) After that every untoward act is introduced by its complex causes. The child always means well, but he’s inexperienced and doesn’t always choose wisely. Furthermore, in this Depression, what chance does anyone have? It’s the grown-up’s job, and it’s the government/society’s job too. New Deal! New Testament! They’re the same thing, they’re saying.

Young America has  a kind of radical structure too. The boy is the protagonist, and our empathetic draw. But we identify with his sponsors, with the well-meaning woman and the skeptical man. (Spencer Tracey, in that crazy Man’s Castle mode.) By this Ballard and Borzage establish a moral—not dramatic—identification. This is a parable, not a yarn, or an exercise in self-affirmation. Here’s you, and here are the people you have been judging so unrighteously. Here’s their real situation, and here’s what you ought to do. Arthur and Nutty’s friendship is quite remarkable. (Nutty is played by Borzage’s little brother!) Their estrangement is really convincing—good on child psychology, courage, stubbornness—and really heartrending. Their reconciliation, with all of its Dickensian contrivance and sentimentality, is tremendously powerful. Once again, there’s authenticity underneath the sermon. Is the ending ridiculously implausible? Well, so are the ideas of mercy, justice and righteousness. Good one!