BR: Blue Denim (1959)

June 22, 2018 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  April 17, 2018

Genre:  Drama

Synopsis: A teen couple must grapple with an unexpected pregnancy, and the repercussions of seeking an abortion.

Special Features: Isolated Stereo Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and




You could argue that when Fox chose to adapt James Leo Herlihy and Willam Noble’s eponymous play a year after its 1958 Broadway run under the stage direction of wonderboy Joshua Logan (Picnic), it was an attempt to transcend the wave of sordid, exploitive teen-centric dramas which packed upbeat music, titillating behaviour, and cleavage for younger audiences. Denim was also the antithesis of Fox’s own Bernadine (1957), the super-clean musical-comedy-drama where everything ends swell for the somewhat troubled teens, headed by Pat Boone.

Denim also seems like a genuine attempt to return to the social problem dramas that appeared early in the decade, namely tormented & reckless teens in Rebel Without a Cause and unruly brats in The Blackboard Jungle (both 1955); and after Otto Preminger fought to have the words “pregnant” appear in The Moon Is Blue (1953), it seems one could finally have kids say the word “sex” onscreen, although the topic of abortion was still strongly verboten.

Herlihy & Noble’s ’s play dealt with two high school kids in Dearborn, Michigan, and whose fondness escalates to a moment of passion with shocking consequences. Three months following their union, Janet (Carol Lynley) tells Arthur (Shane’s Brandon deWilde) she’s pregnant, igniting the fear of parental rage, social isolation, and the hopes & dreams of Arthur’s engineering studies crashing to pieces until the only solution is the most desperate and the most dangerous: coughing up $150 for an abortion.



Arthur’s pal Ernie (Warren Berlinger) reluctantly acts as mediator and pays off the contact who will summon the doctor’s nurse and a car that’ll whisk Janet to a secret location where the dour deed will be done. The play reportedly had Janet going through with the procedure and remaining close to Arthur, whereas director / co-writer Philip Dunne and writer Edith Sommer’s film script scraped the word “abortion” from the film’s lexicon, had Ernie decry the procedure as murder, and Janet being ‘rescued’ when the fathers of both teens find the remote cabin and save her from likely death.



As a social drama circa 1959 for mass cinema audiences in the U.S., Denim is very much of its time, and one can feel the writers struggling to retain the play’s sharpness while reshaping material to appease censors and iron out the structure into a more familiar narrative. The most fascinating aspect is seeing how the parents move from being fairly clueless of their kids’ issues to taking responsibility for being negligent – not seeing signs of stress and concern, and in particular, Arthur’s parents realizing they completely failed to allow any time to actually listen to their son.

The film’s message is more Listen to Your Kids than Teach Them to Respect Sex, and it is fascinating to see the parents accepting criticisms from Arthur and Janet in spite of the shocking events of the last 24 hours. Being presumptuous of what’s best for the teens is shared by both families: the film begins with Arthur’s dad (Macdonald Carey) euthanizing the family dog while he’s at school and denying him a final farewell to the best friend he’s had since age 3; and Janet tears into her father (perpetual screen daddy Vaughn Taylor) whose hunger for his dead wife has pushed him to shelter, shape, and hope his daughter will evolve through nurture over nature into a purer version of her mother.

They’re unusual scenes for giving time for the teen characters to react, rebel, and reason, and Denin doesn’t fall flat on its face as a creaky old Problem Drama is due to Lynley, who reprised the same role she performed in the original stage production, alongside Berlinger as Ernie. Taking over the role originated by Burt Brinckerhoff, deWilde, in his first ‘mature’ role,  is okay as Arthur – he’s a bit too much of a golden boy, but that flaw also works for a boy who doesn’t take the seriousness of Janet’s decision to abort with grievous sincerity. The two leads were around 16 during filming – closer to their characters’ age than Berlinger, who was 21 – but it’s Lynley who sustains the intelligence, innocence, and good nature of Janet, and when she’s not onscreen for a long stretch, the film dips in gravitas.

Berlinger’s own screen persona is heavily nuanced, making him steal scenes with already dryly funny lines, and later when Ernie and Arthur’s friendship is pushed to its limits; he’s maybe too good for the role, and his lone weak scene is a contrived student dance where Ernie ‘sings’ with a girlfriend never seen before or after the chaperoned shindig. (It’s no surprise Berlinger went on to become a prolific and memorable scene-stealing character actor, often tightly suited for cynics, blowhards, and wise guys in films and countless TV series. Film fans will recognize his face purposely because he looks like a seasoned wise-ass.)

Ernie is also the film’s conscience, initially moving from corrupter – smoking, gambling, and drinking beer in the unfinished basement of Arthur’s home – to admitted liar, and being victimized by his best buddy as a punching bag before he settles a score, gets Arthur to ‘do the right thing’ with Janet at the end, and returns stolen money.

Denim is an easy film to ridicule – it’s an A-level After School Special expanded to feature length – but its virtues exceed the blatant flaws, such as the parents who seem as daft and clueless as 1980s equivalents, where the kids’ problems have morphed from pregnancy, peer pressure, bad grades, and drugs & alcohol to fighting monsters, gremlins, and glowing aliens.

The kids also have more than palpable respect for their parents: Janet doesn’t want to break her father’s heart and cause him sorrow, so her guilt from deceiving him is believable; and Arthur scolds pal Ernie for saluting and playing up military clichés with his father because it makes the family head a bit of a buffoon, which just isn’t proper.

Less well treated by the filmmakers is Arthur’s mom (Marsha Hunt, from the noir classic Raw Deal) who remains a pinched cliché, crying a lot and pushing a slice of toast so her son has some energy amid the whole abortion fracas.

Leo Tover’s cinematography is appropriately soft and stark when required, and Bernard Herrmann’s score is a very curious work that generally supports the drama, but is tied to a main theme that’s half Marnie (1964) and Vertigo’s (namely the love theme for Alfred Hitchcock’s haunting thriller, released the same year as Denim).

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray marks the film’s premiere release on Blu (Fox issued a prior MOD DVD-R), and includes a stereo isolated music track. The non-anamorphic trailer has Joan Crawford (no doubt shot during a break while filming The Best of Everything) urging us to see a tale of “lost innocence,” and among the samples scenes is a deleted segment in which Janet shows a book on pregnancy to Arthur in the local library.

Julie Kirgo’s liner notes champion the film’s genuine pluses, and contextualizes Denim within the period and still-relevant conflicts of any woman’s right to her body. Pity there was no chance of getting Lynley to reflect on the film, or Kirgo adding her thoughts in a commentary track, as done for TT’s Blu of what’s maybe Lynley’s best dramatic film, Otto Preminger’s psychological thriller Bunny Lake is Missing (1965).

Philip Dunne’s writing career included the social dramas Pinky (1949) and the stealth religious critique The Egyptian (1954), but as director Dunne’s output was fairly lean, consisting of just 10 films, including The View from Pompey’s Head (1955), the WWII drama In Love and War (1958), Elvis stretching himself in Clifford Odets’ Wild in the Country (1961), and the fluffy thriller Blindfold (1966), his last film.

Edith Sommer’s sparse screen filmography including The Best of Everything (1959), Jessica (1962), and This Property is Condemned (1966). James Leo Herlihy’s other filmed novels include All Fall Down (1962) and Midnight Cowboy (1969).



© 2018 Mark R. Hasan





External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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