Child Bride (1938)
Part of the Weird Cinema DVD Box Set
There are many qualifiers for great acting, but versatility might be the most important. Sure, some performers have made whole careers off of one character (Linda Blair) or a singular screen persona (Bruce Willis), but the most admired of the lot often excel in a variety of roles. Big-name stars love to take on gritty, controversial roles which will earn them critical plaudits and adulation for their bravery. It helps them shed any preconceived notions about their presumed lack of talent after starring in the umpteenth romantic comedy, YA adaptation, or action blockbuster. But, what is an actor to do when they're cast as an irredeemable monster? A loathsome creature of unrepentant evil? There are tons of likable villains and even horrible folks who somehow gain a semblance of audience sympathy despite their actions. Let’s not forget that more than a few Academy Awards have been given out to performers who played villains, or at least anti-heroes. I haven’t gotten angry at a film in quite a while based on what a character does onscreen. I can get pissed at a film for being boring and wasting my time, but what actually happens during the film? That’s another matter altogether. Remember, film is a collaboration, so the actor is merely playing a character that was dreamed up by a writer, directed by a director, filmed by a camera crew, and presented by a producer. Everyone is complicit to different degrees. I felt that anger full force with 1938’s Child Bride.
As a fan of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, this film had been on my radar for some time as the one movie Mike and the bots refused to do on their show. Now that I’ve seen it, I understand why. I admit that for the first 30 minutes I could practically hear the riffs. The wonderfully cruel jokes and the savoring of the actor’s/filmmaker’s ineptitude. The earnest but unintentionally funny opening crawl that gets stuck halfway on the screen. A book with the title “Child Marriage is a Crime” right above our heroine’s bed. An amateur actor forcing himself to laugh in the worst way possible. Then…as Jim Carrey's Riddler once said, “The real game begins.” I must have wrote ‘fuck’ and ‘disgusting’ in my notes ten or twenty times. There are films that wallow in their depravity, like A Serbian Film (2010), which I rather enjoyed, and then there’s repugnant trash like Child Bride. Child Bride tries to have it both ways and one of those ways is horrifying. The movie acts as a screaming indictment of the inhuman practice wherein much older individuals marry children. This would be fine, but the film also wants to appeal to literal perverts and presumably child molesters with a scene of such stunning exploitation that it puts other genre efforts to shame.
Again, the first half hour of this film is relatively innocuous. Sure, there’s mention of child marriage, but it’s all talk and not only that, it’s people complaining that soon it will be outlawed. Watching these scenes unfold, I made the very wrong assumption that the title was merely an outrageous exaggeration to drum up business and the film was really about a grown woman trying to stop the actions of these “back yonder folks.” Nope, things are going to get much, much darker and much more depressing.
We meet Jennie (Shirley Mills) as she wakes up in the cabin she shares with her Ma (Dorothy Carrol, in her only film role) and her father Ira (George Humphreys, the resident bad ass and also only screen credit). They live in the Ozarks on Thunderhead Mountain and it’s a tight-knit community, closed off from modern thinking and fancy city folk.
Somebody’s poisoned the metaphorical waterhole when a teacher returns to educate the children and community about the evils of child marriage. She’s a good teacher too because Jennie chastises her fellow classmate Freddie (the hilariously inept Bob Bollinger, another actor making his debut and swansong) for not studying his spelling book. Jennie is hardcore about spelling. Birds flutter around the rafters of the schoolhouse, shitting on students and books while Miss Carol (Diana Durrell, holy shit, another one and done performance! This movie killed more careers than Showgirls) grills these poor hillbilly kids. Freddie is off by one letter for ‘milking.’ Give the kid a goddamn break! His dad was just shot! Oh, by the way, his dad got shot, but it literally leads to nothing and is never mentioned again.
Miss Carol’s longtime boyfriend is the assistant District Attorney Charles (Frank Martin with SIX IMDB credits! Practically a screen legend.), who is pressing the governor to turn Carol’s cause into law. Their first scene together is a study in awful melodrama coupled with poor acting. Assuming they must have done some theatre work, there’s constant turning away from each other with meaningful stares off into the distance. It’s hilarious and worthy of ridicule. The movie is very pro-education and these mountain folk are particularly opposed to their women learning anything from them big books without pictures. That Miss Carol is a rabble rouser always causin’ trouble. Somebody oughta take care of her…
That somebody turns out to be Jake Bolby (Warner Richmond, a prolific actor whose career was cut short by a horse riding accident), a character of pure, unadulterated evil. The scum of the Earth. A shining example of the darkness residing in the human soul. He’s the partner of Ira, who runs a still up the mountain, and demands money from the employees. The employees consist of a half-wit named Happy (Al Bannon, whose other credits include…nope. Nada) and Angelo, a little person played by the great Angelo Rossitto, whose brilliant career included the seminal Freaks (1932), of course The Wizard of Oz (1939), Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), the finally completed The Other Side of the Wind (2018), and his most prominent and famous role, The Master, or rather Master Blaster in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). To be honest, I thought the big guy’s name was Halfy, like on South Park, so I found it ironic that the tall dude had that name. They refuse Jake, who beats Happy up and manhandles poor Angelo. Enter Ira, who isn’t about to take any of Jake’s shit and proceeds to whoop his ass. This is also known as terminating a business relationship.
Already pissed off about shitting the bed in his business ventures, Jake organizes a posse of like-minded pedophiles and abducts Miss Carol in the dead of night. I must say, the night photography by Marcel Le Picard is very impressive for such a low-budget enterprise. This is the turning point of the film. This is the moment where the movie dips into darker territory and even becomes compelling. Durrell’s acting here is quite good as she’s dragged down the mountain. It must have been difficult not to swear as it feels like the natural thing to do. We soon find out that redneck justice for "meddlin’ in their backwoods ways" is to be tarred and feathered. I wasn’t certain where the movie was headed but this practically counts as a death march. Fortunately, Angelo hears her screams and warns Ira, who gets the drop on them at the last minute. And I mean, the last minute. They are literally stirring a boiling pot of tar. In a very amusing moment, Ira socks each of the abductors in the jaw one by one. They just stand there and wait to be hit. That satisfaction is short-lived since we move on to the most controversial and disgusting scene…
It starts out innocently enough as Jennie and Freddie are getting ready to swim in the water hole. There’s an effort to explore puberty without saying the word (let’s not forget that although this is a very off-the-grid independent film, people were upset that Anatomy of a Murder (1959) used the word ‘panties’). Jennie tells Freddie that they can’t swim together anymore because her body is changing and it’s not appropriate. What’s WAY more inappropriate is when Jennie starts to undress. She’s partially obscured behind bushes and trees and I assumed that would take care of everything, but then we actually see her chest. This. Is. A. Child. I was completely taken aback. There is no need for that and it could be done through suggestion. Instead, she goes skinny dipping completely nude and we see everything. Yes, according to the trivia Shirley Mills didn’t know how to swim so a local girl doubles for her in the swimming scenes. It’s very disturbing to presume that if she had known how to swim, the director would’ve had no qualms about her doing the scene herself. Besides that, it’s still Mills in close-ups splashing around with her dog, who I was hoping would bite Jake’s dick off at some point. And Jake is, of course, spying on her in his lascivious and gross way. There’s even some old lady who doesn’t even care that he’s doing it. Holy shit, these fucking people. Now MST3K has been known to make some edits to the films they cover. Just go to IMDB and you can find a review of the Soultaker episode where the actual director of the film explains how his film was mangled by MST3K for broadcast to make it appear more hilariously incomprehensible. I’m certain this scene is what made them decide that they simply couldn’t give this the Satellite of Love treatment. Even by cutting it, the rest of the movie isn’t much better, but it’s certainly just as disturbing.
There’s a storm brewing and Ira’s been drinking. He overhears unsubstantiated gossip about Jake fooling around with his wife, so what does he do? He stumbles home and in a drunken rage beats the tar out of her. He knocks her unconscious and then passes out on the bed. Jake creeps past the motionless Ma and into the bedroom. It’s all very rough and the tension only breaks when Jennie discovers her mother and asks simply, “Is Daddy drunk again?” It’s said so matter-of-factly that it’s pretty funny. Jennie tries to get her father to bed but soon discovers that he’s been killed. Keeping the death off-screen is a nice touch, lending the scene some real drama. With Jake’s plan now in motion, he conveniently enters the cabin and blackmails Ma and Jennie, insisting that Ma must have killed him and he’ll make it look like an accident as long as he can marry Jennie. Practically in shock, Jennie walks slowly outside as the storm breaks. It’s a beautifully shot sequence, practically artistic, with Jennie framed in the doorway and lit by the lightning.
Ira is discovered and buried. Jake stands across from the girls at the funeral, hat in hand, while Angelo eyes him suspiciously. Stuck in an impossible situation and facing a choice between jail and losing her daughter, Ma agrees to let Jake marry Jennie. He tries to make nice with Jennie by giving her a doll, then he dares to kiss her. This shot was obviously a lot longer but gets broken up by a cutaway to the eavesdropping Freddie. Jake’s toothless smile before kissing Jennie is…not cool.
A ticking clock goes into effect as Freddie runs off to ask Miss Carol for help. The scene would have a bit more urgency if Freddie weren’t a terrible actor and not reading off of cue cards. Miss Carol can’t do anything and we move on to a deeply depressing wedding scene where the reverend asks Jake if he will take this “girl-child” to be his wife. Fuck me.
Shirley Mills is heartbreaking in this scene and her mother can’t even bear to look at her when Jake takes her away. There’s a small but devastating moment where Jennie looks at her mother and realizes that she’s powerless to do anything. Jake and Jennie (other than the pedophilia, that’s a cute couples name) literally walk off into the darkness. Ma is alone, crying in the dark.
Charles nails a notice on Miss Carol’s door. The law has been passed and marrying anyone under eighteen years of age is now illegal. She asks when it went into effect and Charles says three days ago. That stupid asshole took three days to tell her?! Of course, now we think she’ll realize there’s still time to stop Jake from raping Jennie, but instead she does absolutely nothing at all.
Freddie is super pissed and is gearing up to kill Jake. Jake wants to get straight to bed but fortunately Jennie needs to say her prayers, giving Angelo, in quite a surprise, enough time to shoot Jake, sparing Freddie from having to make the kill. I guess Master-Blaster runs Barter Town now. Jake’s comments about getting into bed and blowing the lamp out is all we need to figure out what almost happened.
This was the first property infamous producer/presenter Kroger Babb would trot out along with his most famous production, Mom and Dad (1945), which would rake in millions and end up being added to the Library of Congress years later. No such luck for Child Bride, however. Part of writer/director Harry Revier’s IMDB bio reads, “Little is known about his life until 1914.” That seems about right for the director of Child Bride, The Slaver (1927) and Lash of the Penintentes (1936). This was his last feature and he certainly went out with a bang. It’s upsetting that this film, for all it’s poor acting and awful subject matter, is competently made with a slow beginning that ramps up midway and doesn’t let up for a moment. I’d be happier if it were riddled with technical errors which distracted me from the story, but it’s undeniably watchable. The DP shot a great deal of Bowery Boys films and lends an authentic look to its mountain denizens and locations.
The best performances belong to Shirley Mills and Warner Richmond. Mills would go on to have a decent career in several films, sometimes credited and sometimes not. She nearly always played smaller roles and will be best remembered by respectable folks for John Ford’s towering The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and by trash mongers like me for Child Bride. Richmond’s performance is amazing. It is 100% unapologetic and very brave. There’s never a wink toward the audience and his scenes with Jennie carry a real sense of danger. If only he’d been given a role like this in a prestige picture, maybe he’d have gone on to become a more famous actor. For now, he has 143 credits to his name and luckily, Scarface (1932) will be much more fondly remembered than Child Bride.