August 27, 2013
Falsely advertised as “The First Drama of Juvenile Delinquency to Reach the Screen”, Where Are Your Children (1944) was just another attention grabber for Poverty Row studio Monogram, who lured William Randolph Hearst into promoting their ruse. They took another tack with Kilroy Was Here (1947), leveraging the popular WWII graffiti meme into a college campus comedy starring the two ex-child stars Jackie Coogan (The Kid) and Jackie Cooper (The Champ). Though no-budget quickies, they were directed by the talented William Nigh and Phil Karlson (The Phenix City Story), respectively, the studio hiring a deep roster of talent both young and old. Both titles have been released in unrestored but watchable DVDs by the Warner Archive, and are fascinating documents of the resourceful Monogram standard operating procedure.
Juvenile delinquency had been a popular topic for bourgeois hand-wringing since the early 1930s, resulting in films like the RKO melodrama Are These Our Children (1931). Proving the conversation had shifted little since then, a 1943 issue of LOOK magazine ran a photo essay with the same title: “Are These Our Children? – Can We Keep Them Out of Trouble?”. The Val Lewton unit at RKO, fresh off of Curse of the Cat People(’44), exploited parental nightmares by adapting the essay into Youth Runs Wild (1944). Eager to leap onto the trend, Monogram set Where Are Your Children (’44) into production concurrently, drafting former child star Jackie Cooper as the lead, just before his induction into the Army.
The Office of War Information was wary of these lascivious message movies, fearing, as the AFI Catalog reported, that, “they could be used as anti-American propaganda by the Germans.” Eventually they were cleared “in the interest of homefront welfare”, due to the intervention of the director of War Services at the Federal Security Agency, Charles P. Taft. The influence of William Randolph Hearst also must have been felt, as he was running a series on juvenile delinquency in his chain of newspapers, and was eager to fuel the hysteria. He instructed his editors to support the release of Where Are Your Children?, guaranteeing positive reviews and long runs at theaters. It’s unclear why he threw his weight behind the cheaper production, but it has merit even beyond its historical curiosity.
Cooper plays a version of himself, a rich kid close to entering the army. Partying away his last few free nights at a hot jazz club, he spies a poor hash waitress (Gale Storm) across the street and pitches woo. When military duty calls, Cooper flees and forgets, but Storm carries a torch, and falls in with a rough crowd while trying to track him down. Murder and mayhem ensues.
In the nightclub scenes Nigh uses chiaroscuro lighting to create an atmosphere of furtive pleasure, as well as to hide the flimsy set. The joint oozes pheremones as jitterbuggers jiggle and Nigh pushes his camera close to a handle of bootleg rye hiding under a newspaper. When pockmarked teens exclaim, “let’s squirm, worm”, you know things are about to get dirty. As secretive decadance dominates the club, the diner is presented as transparent and pure. Storm is framed alone in the front window, as Cooper gazes from across the street. On the otherwise pitch black street, she seems to be performing on a stage built only for him. He considers it an invitation, and their flirt extends the performance. They practically dance out the door. When Storm is thrust into the teeth of the juvenile justice system, she’ll have to use fancier footwork to get out alive. Gutter girl Opal (Evelynne Eaton) is convinced Storm ratted her out, and corners her in a holding room brandishing a chair. Soon the whole joint erupts in chaos as a brutal brawl destroys every last splinter of wood in the area. A sexual release by other means, this violent spasm is a shocker even to modern eyes, and the requisite return to law and order doesn’t quite squelch its afterglow.
Kilroy Was Here (’47) is more straitlaced stuff, turning a ubiquitous bit of WWII graffiti into a plot hinge for an amiable college campus comedy. “Kilroy Was Here”, emblazoned under the figure of a large nosed peeper looking over a ledge, became a running joke for serviceman, who used it to mark their territory. A version even appears in the WWII Memorial in Washington D.C. Having entered the popular lexicon, Monogram decided to capitalize on it with a film, with the added bonus of teaming Jackie Cooper with Jackie Coogan, the two ex-child stars. That gave exhibitors multiple ways in which to promote it.
Coogan and Cooper play GIs and best friends who embark on diverging paths once out of the service. Coogan plays Pappy Collins, a streetwise scrapper happy to make his living as a taxi cab repairman. Cooper is the ill-fated Johnny Kilroy, eager to take advantage of the GI Bill and climb the social ladder. Kilroy goes to college, but is mistaken for the “Kilroy” the graffiti is based on, and becomes a local celebrity. This gains him entry into a blue nose frat and the attentions of gal reporter Connie (Wanda McKay). It also makes him lose touch with Pappy and his taxi hack pals, so the truth must be revealed.
Karlson is less inventive than Nigh with the Monogram limitations, framing everything in static master shots to keep ahead of the punishing schedule. There are odd bursts of energy here and there though, like a waltz in a parking lot and the stuffy frat ball that turns into a back alley slobberknocker. It was not enough to secure public attention. Kilroy Was Here was supposed to be the first of six in a series, but no sequels were ever produced. Where scary teens are eternal, inside Army jokes turned out to be ephemeral. No matter, as there were more films to make and trends to milk, as Monogram Pictures made 33 other movies in 1947.