Starring June Kenney, Fay Spain, and John Brinkley
My rating: ★★★ stars
Interesting, wonderfully photographed film about a middle-class girl finding danger when she ventures to the wrong side of the proverbial tracks.
Roger Corman’s Teenage Doll opens with the image of a dead body. Middle-class Barbara Bonney (June Kenney) has just inadvertently killed Nan, a member of the girl gang The Black Widows and her rival for the affections of Eddie Rand (John Brinkley), the leader of a gang called the Vandals. The film follows Barbara as she attempts to reach Eddie at his hideout before the rest of the Widows catch up to her to take their revenge.
The film effectively takes suburban Los Angeles and turns it into a noirish, nightmare world that the heroine must navigate to safety. Film scholar Gary Morris argues that, in Corman’s films, bleakness and hopelessness permeate the world, which is “surrounded by collapsing social institutions and death.” Indeed, in Teenage Doll, the romance, which threatens social boundaries, leads to death (of Nan) and the destruction of Barbara’s path in life.
Soon into the film, the story eradicates all illusion of safety. When Barbara arrives at the Vandals’ hideout in an automobile graveyard, she finds Eddie with yet another girl. She begs him for help while he insults and humiliates her in front of his gang. The world he represents, like the auto lot itself, is seedy and dangerous and filled with decay. In the 1950s, the working class male in the teen film was usually associated with delinquency and crime.
Instead of subverting class boundaries as many later teen films will do (for example, Grease [LINK] and Reckless [LINK]), this film affirms the need for class boundaries and the supremacy of middle class values. In a key exchange, Barbara asks Eddie how everything has gone so wrong. He responds, “You did one thing wrong. The worst thing anybody can ever do.” When she asks him what that is, he says, “You stepped out of your class.”
According to Corman, the filmmakers of Teenage Doll deliberately engaged the concept of “rivalry between the classes in the suburbs.” Barbara’s home life, though her mother is silly and her father angry and oppressive, contrasts sharply with the blue collar or no collar homes of the Widows. Hel (Fay Spain), the leader of the Widows, sends the girls out to procure money in case they have to buy off Eddie. Here, we get a series of vignettes about the lower class home lives of each of the Widows. The most poignant is the one featuring Lor (Sandra Smith). She goes to her home, basically a hovel, to take the money her fugitive father has sent her, money meant to feed her little sister, who, filthy, crawls pathetically on the floor crying because she’s hungry. Lor tosses her some saltines and leaves her alone in the desolate shack.
Corman is noted for making inexpensive exploitation films, and this film is no exception. The cheapness of the film comes out most obviously in the quality of the acting. None of the leads delivers a strong performance, with Kenney especially seeming awkward and false. One of the film’s key scenes, where Barbara is psychologically tortured by a sadistic member of the Vandals (Jay Sayer), is undermined by overacting, particularly by Sayer. Of all the actors, Brinkley comes off as the most natural on screen.
Despite the low-cost nature of the film, Corman employed a notable cinematographer, Oscar-winner Floyd Crosby (Tabu, High Noon). Crosby’s brilliant expressionistic photography effectively morphs the suburban landscape into a hostile, threatening, and alien environment.
What’s most disappointing about Teenage Doll is how conventional it is in the end. Ultimately, as with mainstream films of the era, it affirms the dependability of middle class life and the importance of structure and patriarchy. Class boundaries are maintained. The breakdown of rules, borders, and institutions is something to be feared and rejected. Until the end, though, the film takes the viewers on a journey as Barbara stumbles out of conventionality and into something frightening but, yet, at the same time, far more exciting.