Cult Film Status for Blue Denim?
Thoughts and Facts on a 54-Year-Old Brandon deWilde Film Given New Life via Cable TV and View-on-Demand
I remember vividly my first TV viewing of Blue Denim. It was in the early 1970s. I was just 17 and still in high school. It was Saturday night and I had spent the day on a bus trip to Cooperstown, New York, and the Baseball Hall of Fame. Everyone had gone to bed and the midnight movie was about to follow the 11 o'clock news. It was the weekend and I was game.
An opening score that was incredibly melodramatic and somewhat out of place for dismissal time at a small high school plays behind the opening credits. (I didn't realize it at the time, but Bernard Herrmann's Hitchcockian-score throughout the film will have you anticipating the next scene atop the summit of Mount Rushmore. Yes, he scored North by Northwest that same year, 1959!). The camera follows one boy in particular, Brandon deWilde, as he mounts his bicycle and peddles off. Switch to night as he exits the back porch door of his home to an empty dog house and begins to fondle its contents.
Okay. So far so good in relating to most every teen boy out there. But I think it was what followed that still to this day endears this film to so many current and former teenagers. In the next 10 minutes of the film the boy, the likable-looking Arthur, has 2 conversations regarding the recent euthanasia of his pet dog that "go over the head" of his somewhat distant father, words from an older more sympathetic, but sarcastic, sister and a concerned look from a caring mother.
Brandon deWilde with Warren Berlinger
He winds up hold up in his parent's basement with his street-smart best friend Ernie (played to perfection by Warren Berlinger), a retreat where they smoke, play poker, drink beer and curse up a storm. They are soon joined by Janet, Arthur's unofficial girlfriend (Carol Lynley).
It's timeless. Kids love this stuff! These are scenes being played out in parent's homes all over the country to this day with little variation. And what teenager didn't have a communication problem with their parents?
What followed in the film is also still being played out to this day. An unwanted teen pregnancy. Abortion was the only out. A 1959 film with the subject of then-illegal abortion was a pretty rare thing. Even though the word "abortion" was totally deleted from the script, it is all to well understood.
Blue Denim is based on a Broadway play written by James Leo Herlihy, the author of Midnight Cowboy and All Fall Down (Brandon played in that film adaptation as well). Brandon wasn't in the stage version of Blue Denim, but was chosen later for the film. It was a pivotal role for the then 16-year-old when filming began. It marks the end of Brandon deWilde's "child actor" status and elevates him to that of an adult. That was a bridge not often crossed by kid actors once puberty was reached. And to its credit, we are seeing actual teenagers playing teenagers here and not the 30 year olds that Hollywood often passed off as teenagers in films during that time. In 1953s The Wild One both Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin, referred to as "kids", were 29 years old during filming. Did they think we were blind?
And even though Carol Lynley has first billing in this film, it is clearly Brandon's, who appears first and has more screen time than anyone else in the cast.
The 89-minute running time of this black & white film still holds one's attention and, being somewhat dated, gives a few unplanned laughs as well. Even back in my 1970 TV viewing it was hysterical when Brandon deWilde's Arthur hides his face in shame in the sofa when he has to admit to Janet that he too is a virgin to a bevy of violins playing on the score. And funny, in an almost sick sort of way, is when Arthur and Ernie sell Arthur's bike and BB gun at the local junk yard to help pay for Janet's abortion. "We have all those empty bottles to round up", cries Ernie, as if paying for one's girlfriend's abortion by getting the deposit back on soda bottles was a normal thing! Having a sister with a fiancee with the first name of "Axl" is kind of cool as well. Sorry, Mr. Rose. The constant hair-combing is a clear-cut 50s Elvis/James Dean "I'm cool!" reference and Arthur's cuffed shirts and jeans are equally as dated.
By today's standards there is nothing to keep this film off the air or restricted to late-night viewing and, in fact, I would think parents would want their children to see this film. It plays out like one of those Army STD films that warn, "This could happen to you!". But understand; there will be laughing.
Undoubtedly, it is the fact that this film is in black & white that, more than anything, keeps it off of TV and DVD. From the standpoint of art, the unlit corners of Arthur's bulb-lit basement lair where the deed was done, the darkness of the closed high school library where Janet and Arthur read up on pregnancy and the night shadows that bounce off the black Cadillac that whisks Janet off to the abortionist would not play as well in color for sure.
It wasn't until many decades later, in 2010, talking with friends of Brandon deWilde that I learned more about him at this point in time.
We can all feel for Arthur and his naivety in the film. This film marks the end of Brandon's naivety in real life. Brandon and Carol Lynley became a Hollywood item for some while after Blue Denim was released, doing a good bit of touring together to promote it. It has been described as "first love" for the two 17 year olds, both virgins at the time as admitted by Lynley.
As smart and as quick-witted as Brandon became, I have been told that he made some bad judgment calls as to who he allowed into his "circle of trust". In Hollywood, people use people and tolerate them to that end. It could have emanated from the trusting nature Brandon was known to have possessed, or many other reasons, but professional people have related to me how Brandon was taken advantage of.
I have always been of the opinion he could have used a big brother. Arthur's best friend Ernie is there for him in Blue Denim (albeit with a push and a shove), but who was there for Brandon in real life?
After my initial viewing of Blue Denim I remember thinking, "I'd like to meet that guy some day". But it would never be. Less than two years later, Brandon would be gone. And now, more than half a century after its initial release, Blue Denim is playing more than ever on cable TV and video-on-demand attracting new legions of fans saying, "Who is that guy?". If in the course of their search they land here, they will know.
© 2011 TR
Film Score Monthly Releases Original Music Soundtrack of Blue Denim on CD
Post your comments on this article:
Warren Berlinger said on Sep 7, 2011 11:43 PM
Brandon was a very sensitive Actor. He was so young and inhibited by the content of the story. We worked together very well. It was a perfect match, being his Best Friend, for any relationship.
He was so innocent, at the time, Philip Dunne (Director) asked me to explain Abortion to him. Delicate, passionate and filled with emotion a unique moment for both of us. We became close while at Fox and shared many moments with that wonderful Carol Lynley.
He was an Actor destined to be or not.