Mary Coates (Jean Brooks) is moving back in with her parents. Her husband Danny (Kent Smith), a war hero, is in the hospital but will soon be released, and the family thinks their home will be the perfect place for him to recover.
When Mary arrives, though, she finds that the war has changed the neighborhood. With everyone either off fighting the war or working in the factories to contribute on the home front, there’s been a bit of a teen takeover in town. Mary’s young brother Frankie (Glenn Vernon), his gal Sarah (Tessa Brind), and their friends sort of do whatever they please… committing theft, going to nightclubs, and getting into all sorts of trouble.
Mary and Danny become determined to do their best to brings some order back to town, but it won’t be easy with the lure of late nights out and easy (but dirty) money calling the teens’ names.
Youth Runs Wild was produced by Val Lewton and directed by Mark Robson. The screenplay was written by John Fante, who also co-wrote the story along with Herbert Kline. Additional dialogue was contributed by Ardel Wray.
This film opens with a very fear monger-ish newspaper montage full of dramatic headlines about the “youth run wild”: gas station robberies, murder cases, vandalism, fighting. And then, with not a trace of subtlety, a truck backs into a post, knocking down a sign that says “DRIVE SLOWLY – WE LOVE OUR CHILDREN.” This opening tells us exactly what to expect from the film’s tone: very heavy moralism.
The film is very tame, pushing its message of reform through youth recreation and social clubs, but it is also nice to see a delinquency film where the teens get into actual trouble. In so many of these heavily moralistic films, the teens’ worst crimes are skipping breakfast and staying out past curfew. The fact that actual crimes are committed here makes the film seem a little less silly, even with its heavy-handedness.
Still, the film could also have been made a lot more engaging. The crime scenes themselves are pretty well-staged. A couple of them wouldn’t be out of place in a B-level noir. But much of the rest of the film is quite talky and preachy, with adults discussing the best methods for keeping kids out of trouble, and having heartfelt “let-me-help-you” chats with the teens.
One bright spot other than those criminal moments is actually Bonita Granville, acting all tough and playing a slightly more hard-edged version of the bratty character she portrayed many times elsewhere. Her character is Toddy, the girlfriend of a fella who deals in stolen cars and auto parts. Her performances were often a bit over-the-top, but she’s actually quite subdued here, comparatively. It’s one of the more interesting performances I’ve seen from her, and one of the film’s more realistic portrayals.
Youth Runs Wild offers a somewhat different take on the juvenile delinquency genre but is quite dreary in tone and honestly, a bit exhausting to watch, between that dreariness and the heavy-handed morals. It’s a well-intentioned film, for what that’s worth, with a good message of allowing teens to help themselves through creating their own organizations and following their own (non-criminal) interests. It’s worth a look if you’re particularly interested in WWII-era social dramas or seeing a very out-of-place entry into Val Lewton’s filmography, but otherwise, it’s probably skippable.