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Life Begins at 17; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

Originally released Jul 1958
Written by Richard Baer

Directed by Arthur Dreifuss

Starring Luana Anders, Mark Damon, Dorothy Johnson, and Edd “Kookie” Byrnes

My rating: ★★★ stars

On the surface, an insignificant teen movie but, upon more consideration, a surprisingly relevant indictment of toxic bro culture.

This movie would seem to be a trifle. It’s a 74-minute, barely B-level, teensploitation movie from 1958. Surprisingly, it’s relevant today, more relevant perhaps than it was 60 years ago. It’s a searing indictment of toxic bro culture that 60 years later still permeates our society. I doubt that was the filmmakers’ intention, but artistic production doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Art mirrors society regardless of intentionality. And, despite the modern parlance, toxic bro culture has existed for a long, long, long time. What is “toxic bro culture”? It’s easier to recognize than define, but it involves a combination of male privilege, entitlement, peer pressure, hyper masculinity, entrenched gender roles, and socially approved sexism.

In the film, steel scion Russ Lippincott (Mark Damon) seeks to win the affections of beauty queen Elaine Peck (Dorothy Johnson, a former Miss Oregon and the first runner-up for Miss America in 1956) by romancing her unattractive, unpopular sister Carol, played by Luana Anders, (a favorite actress of Roger Corman, whose untimely death from cancer in 1996 led Jack Nicholson to dedicate his Oscar from As Good as It Gets to her). Why Russ thinks his plan would work is hard to explain and unimportant. But it’s selfish and cruel. There’s pathos in the scenes where Carol flourishes with the attention she’s getting, the audience knowing she’s being exploited merely to get to her sister. That Russ wants Elaine only because it would increase his cachet among his peers shows his attitude toward women: they are objects to be acquired and displayed for the approbation of other males.

Elaine wants to be wanted that way. She gets her self-worth from the approval she gets from men, but that’s the way the world is set up. Carol only gets attention from her parents once a boy shows interest in her. The girls’ worth, even to their family, comes from their ability to be desirable objects to men. Elaine becomes petulant and envious when Carol appears to get a boyfriend who is better looking, richer, and more attentive than her own steady, Jim (Edd Byrnes, a couple of months before he became “Kookie”), a mere shoe salesman but a genuinely kind man. Both Carol and Jim are good, empathetic people and would make a great couple. I almost want them to drive off in the sunset together and leave Russ and Elaine to make each other miserable.

Almost. While that ending might be satisfying on one level, it leaves unchallenged the idea of toxic bro culture that defines Russ’s behavior and Elaine’s self-image. Because this is a teen romance at heart, it must have a happy ending, and, in this case, a happy ending means that Russ and Elaine must be saved from themselves and the world that defines women as objects for men to use and display to get approval from a patriarchal society.

When Elaine sets up a situation that would allow Russ to make a play for her and he does, there’s something almost perfunctory about it. They’re playing the roles they’re expected to play. When Russ is with Carol, he no longer puts up an act. He becomes honest and vulnerable, at least about himself—he avoids mentioning that he plans to dump her in favor of her sister. Carol, although unaware of his intentions, manages to understand that Russ is trapped by the world of toxic bro culture. She sagaciously asks him, “Don’t you do a lot of things you’d rather not do but you do them because they’re expected of you?” After some overly earnest and slightly cringe-worthy dialogue, Russ admits, “I do so many things that I don’t want to do that I don’t know what I do want to do.” He’s a victim of social system that exalts people like him. The power he has from wealth and position traps him into maintaining that power by following a set of expectations from his peers and other men in positions of power.

Russ develops real affection for Carol, but his immersion in toxic bro culture doesn’t allow him to admit it to his cohorts—they’re not actually friends. At one crucial moment, the boys discover Carol’s stockings in Russ’s pocket—Russ and Carol had been wading in the lake—and, with actual physical violence, force him to conform to their expectations and say he slept with Carol. He pleads with them, “What if I said it’s not true?” Their response, “We wouldn’t believe you.” And, so he acquiesces. Mark Damon is a good enough actor to show Russ move from presenting his natural, unguarded self into the role he’s expected to play. Sickeningly, he allows Carol’s stocking to be displayed in his dorm room like a trophy of conquest. He’s guilty and embarrassed but too afraid to stand up to a culture that has trapped him, even though as a rich, attractive, intelligent, white young man, he should have power. Toxic bro culture victimizes even its participants, promoters, and perpetuators.

Luana Anders is particularly good when Carol uncovers all of Russ’s lies and machinations. Despite being considered the ugly sibling, Carol is quite lovely, but Anders projects a wealth of raw emotion lying beneath Carol’s gentle surface. Her hands clench in fists and her previously banked emotion bursts free. Her revenge is devious. She hurts him by trapping him more completely in the situation he’s at once made and allowed himself to be drawn into. I see a hint of Olivia de Havilland’s Catherine Sloper (The Heiress) in Carol here. Like Carol, Catherine is considered unattractive and is exploited by a manipulative suitor. I can imagine Carol saying Catherine’s famous line, “I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters.”

When Russ’s father finds out that his son has been accused of having improper relations with a townie girl, he’s not upset; after all, “boys will be boys.” When Russ brings up the fact that he’s opened himself up for a statutory rape charge, his father simply replies, “You have nothing to be ashamed of. This whole thing can be smoothed over.” That’s privilege. By now, Russ knows that it’s toxic, but he doesn’t know how to fight it.

Ultimately, the film doesn’t know how to work through the problems it’s created for the characters, and everything is resolved too neatly. Russ promises to tell his cohorts to go jump in a lake. The couples live happily ever after. How the characters get to that point is never addressed because the problem is simply too difficult to solve in 74 minutes. Heck, it’s been 60 years since this movie came out, and the problem of toxic bro culture is as bad as ever. Maybe that we’ve realized it’s a problem enough to give it a name is a step in the right direction.


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