Sophie Evans (Anita Page) is set to marry the man she loves, Alfred (Norman Foster). Sophie’s sister, Marge (Marian Marsh), is taken by the idea of romance and weddings, and hopes she’ll soon find her own true love, though she’s just a teenager.
After the death of Marge’s father, she goes to work as a seamstress in order to help out her mother (Emma Dunn). She’s sick of being poor and working so hard for such mediocre pay, but she has at least found a bit of romance with Jimmie (Regis Toomey), a grocery truck driver.
Though Marge loves Jimmie, she worries that financial stress could eventually ruin their relationship. She grows envious of girls who find rich beaus and are showered with glamorous gifts. Meanwhile, Sophie finds that married life is more difficult than she expected, especially when her family grows and her husband has some career trouble.
Under Eighteen is a pre-code drama of the pressures of poverty, the wish for a better life, and the steps that some gals are willing to take to improve their station. The film was directed by Archie Mayo and as well as the above-credited cast stars Warren William.
Nothing says “wealth” like a pool party that involves women competitively diving for a jeweled necklace. The contrast between the lush lifestyle of William’s character (Mr. Harding) and Marge’s tenement apartment life is very successfully showcased with this over-the-top party scene.
There’s a little bit of sauce in the film (“Why not take off your clothes and stay a while?,” Harding asks Marge at the pool party) but not as much as you’d expect from a pre-code about rich men who exchange lavish gifts for “romance.” There’s also, of course, a certain level of melodrama brought on by Marge’s romantic complications and troubles.
This type of story seems to have been quite common in the early ’30s — moralistic tales warning girls of the dangers of going after men for money, rather than just sticking it out and working hard through the Depression. The Easiest Way (1931) is one example that immediately comes to mind, perhaps because it also stars Anita Page in the role of the sister who marries for love rather than money, only to find her life in shambles soon after. Under Eighteen is a pretty light take on the same premise (sometimes too light, given the social issues touched upon), with one almost-criminal twist but a very happy ending.
Neither film is what I’d consider to be a great one, as noted in my review of The Easiest Way. That one offered a standard love triangle with little audience investment, while this one is mostly a story of a girl’s wishes to get out of poverty and to help her sister do the same. However, I did find Under Eighteen to be worthy of a watch for the performance of Marian Marsh, who does very well in her role and has quite a charismatic screen presence. I also appreciated the fact that Sophie’s struggles made it clear to the viewer just why Marian was questioning her relationship with Jimmie, and why she was willing to get mixed up with Harding. The film does deliver some interesting social commentary.
So, I can’t say I recommend Under Eighteen too highly but it’s worth a watch if you like the films of Marian Marsh or Warren William, and have a subscription to Warner Archive Instant (where it is available for streaming). The score: 2.5/5