The Fractured '50s in Black-and-White Cinemascope (2): Blue Denim

The Fractured '50s in Black-and-White Cinemascope (2): Blue Denim

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Mar 28th 2018

The generation gap between teenagers and their adult mentors cropped up in many movie variations throughout the decade. Those that commanded more attention were of the variety exemplified by the two signature James Dean movies of 1955, East of Eden (a John Steinbeck adaptation set in an earlier era) and Rebel Without a Cause (a current-day view of rebellious youth acting out in borderline law-breaking behavior). But the troubles of parents and children who had grown distant and found it achingly hard to communicate could manifest themselves in works that spoke in softer, yet no less effective and compassionate, voices. When one example of the latter variety, 1958’s Blue Denim, co-written by James Leo Herlihy, a friend of Tennessee Williams, and William Noble, opened on Broadway on Herlihy’s 31st birthday under Joshua Logan’s delicate direction, it was welcomed by The New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson as “a moving play” that, despite a perceived lack of poetic finesse that might have transcended its more literal style of naturalism, was “original; in the last act it is overwhelmingly dramatic. It touches on family relationships that are unseen but deeply felt in a time of crisis.” The crisis was a pregnancy involving two neighboring teens who in the throes of first love and their anxiousness to grow up fast engaged in lovemaking with an unintended consequence. The characters’ dilemma was conveyed with sufficient precision and sensitivity that the then-taboo word “abortion” went unspoken but nonetheless remained an option, and audiences could yet perceive the basically caring instincts of the two families facing the ramifications of an unguarded moment and being forced out of their generation-based complacency to view each other in a new light and cross the emotional chasms that had opened up between them. 

Hollywood would tackle Blue Denim (1959) the following year, with tactful revisions implemented: an abortion – the word still not uttered – could still be considered but ultimately not enacted. Yet the power of the material still hit home. Veteran director/co-writer Philip Dunne, adapting the play in collaboration with Edith Sommer (who had penned the play A Roomful of Roses involving parent/teenager conflicts, adapted into the 1956 film Teenage Rebel, and would also co-write the screenplay of the 1959 career-women ensemble drama The Best of Everything, a Twilight Time title), carefully preserved the tone of disjointed family relationships, powerful romantic attraction and hard-won understanding without setting up any evocations of “juvenile delinquency” or “everlasting shame;” this particular “social issue” problem would be sorrowfully confronted but supportively overcome. Helping to calibrate Blue Denim’s poignancy on screen were the lead performances of Brandon de Wilde and Carol Lynley, both 17, as the central couple. De Wilde spent the decade growing up on screen from The Member of the Wedding (1952, also a TT title) and Shane (1953) through Good-bye, My Lady (1956), Night Passage (1957) and The Missouri Traveler (1958); Blue Denim proved a touchstone career marker alerting us to the assured adult work that lie ahead in All Fall Down (1962), Hud (1963) and In Harm’s Way (1965). In what was her third movie but really her Hollywood breakout, Lynley, who originated her part on Broadway (Atkinson thought her “honest and winning”), captures every yearning, adventurous nuance of uncertain adolescence (The New York Times’ movie guy Bosley Crowther found her “tender and poignant”). Also brought on board from the Broadway production, 21-year-old Warren Berlinger (who’d already been in the aforementioned play A Roomful of Roses and movie Teenage Rebel and won a Theater World Award for his work in the five-month run of Blue Denim) offers a memorable balance of comic bravado and heartfelt resignation as de Wilde’s braggadocious buddy, whose worldliness is a sham but whose personal loyalty is not. Also starring Macdonald Carey, Marsha Hunt and Vaughn Taylor as parents shaken out of their humdrum complacencies to really talk to their children, Blue Denim is also distinguished by its lyrical and intense score by the legendary Bernard Herrmann, lushly capturing the euphoria, turbulence and intensity of young love. TT’s hi-def Blu-ray showcases it on an Isolated Music Track, which also includes several cues not in the finished film. Derived from a recent 4K restoration, it debuts April 17. Preorders open April 4.