Dangerous Years (1947)

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The various DVD-R archive series from the major studios over the last decade have certainly helped to get many forgotten films back into the public domain, and also replaced poor quality bootleg copies with pristine ones.  Some of the films involved have been revered classics, others are not so – and yet sometimes just as interesting in their own way.

Dangerous Years (1947) is one of those not-very-good and yet interesting films.  It is chiefly remembered today for being the first film appearance of a young Marilyn Monroe (centre. below), playing a waitress in a couple of scenes and, it should be said, with a very different voice to that which we are used to!  Monroe’s appearance alone would make the film an interesting curio, but the presence of Billy Halop (here called William) and Scotty Beckett add to the film’s worth for fans of 1940s cinema.

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The film, which runs only just over an hour, is a heavy-handed tale of young men going astray during the “dangerous years” of adolescence.  Billy Halop plays Danny Jones an older boy (“of voting age”) who heads/controls a gang of sixteen and seventeen year olds who carry out robberies and, of course, one night it all goes wrong and somebody gets killed.  The rest of the film is dedicated to the court trial of Danny, together with flashbacks to the night of the crime.

The younger members of the cast manage to make the most of their clumsily-written, clichéd roles of naïve troubled kids with hearts in a story with far too many twists and turns, but it is the adults who drag the exercise down, barely speaking a line that doesn’t come across as contrived.  Clearly intended as something of a morality tale, the film comes across as remarkably preachy and one only can wonder what youngsters at the time thought of what they were seeing.

And yet the cast still makes it intriguing.  Billy Halop plays the central role of Danny in his first (and only) major role after four years away from the screen, after fighting in World War II.   While Halop performs well, much had changed during those four years.  His youthful looks had disappeared, and here he looks considerably older than his twenty-seven years (see above, left).   He is, in fact, almost unrecognisable.  It would be his last major role in a film, only intermittently on screen afterwards, and then only in small or uncredited roles.  In the 1970s, he would have a recurring role in All in the Family, but looked two decades older than the fifty-something man that he was (see below, right).  He died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-six.

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Also of interest is the appearance of Scotty Beckett, who played the young Al Jolson in The Jolson Story just the year before (below, right).  This was his last film before being signed to MGM for what must have seemed at the time like the opportunity to forge a career as a leading man (he had been a prolific child actor).  Here he steals the show as the troubled son of an abusive father, somehow adding an element of realism to the clunky dialogue and turning his role into a foreshadowing of the type that Sal Mineo would play during the mid-1950s.  However, his career at MGM would be short-lived as his behaviour became erratic and he was arrested for drunk driving.   After earning a part in Rocky Jones, Space Ranger on TV in the 1950s, he was arrested again, and subsequently fired.  As he left showbusiness, more arrests followed, and he passed away at the age of thirty-eight.

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Dangerous Years might well have been a prophetic title for the times that were to come for three of its stars, all of whom would die young:  Marilyn Monroe, Billy Halop, and Scotty Beckett.   However, while the film is hardly a masterpiece, 20th Century Fox have to be applauded for rescuing it from complete obscurity with their good quality archive release (a far cry from the barely watchable version that could be seen on YouTube prior to the DVD issue).  Despite its heavy-handed approach, it is certainly interesting to see how the talent of the young stars make it still watchable – two of which were already approaching the end of their cinematic careers, while the third was only just embarking on hers.

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Jeremy Spenser

 

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It’s interesting that the Network label have chosen to use the appearance of Jeremy Spenser as one of the selling points on the packaging of the DVD of Wonderful Things (1959), which was released last week – he “smoulders” apparently. It’s a film that hasn’t been seen for decades, it seems, and, having just watched it, we haven’t really missed a great deal. The script is limp, Frankie Vaughan makes a strangely unlikeable lead, and the songs are less than stellar. The one thing that makes the film watchable is Jeremy Spenser, in a supporting role as Vaughan’s brother. Even saddled with a clunky script, dodgy accent, and what appears to be an inability to button his shirt up, it is Spenser to whom our eyes are drawn whenever he is on screen.

Many will be asking “who is Jeremy Spenser?” Well, Spenser started out as a British child actor, progressed into a teen heart-throb, made a move towards leading man material, but then fells into smaller and smaller film roles before disappearing from the screen altogether. Following roles in Summertime (1955) and It’s Great to be Young (1956), it looked as if Spenser would make the transition into leading man material easily. But his career seemed to falter after Ferry to Hong Kong (1959).

Perhaps his best-remembered role is It’s Great to be Young, a charming little British semi-musical from 1956 featuring John Mills as a music teacher who gets the sack for playing piano in a pub, only for the kids at the school to stage a sit-in in the gym in order for him to be reinstated. Spenser plays the boy who masterminds the sit-in and sets the screen alight with slightly tongue-in-cheek youthful exuberance. The film was outdated by the time it was released (the kids love jazz not rock ‘n’ roll), but that doesn’t matter. It’s a sweet little film, and one that was shown with great regularity on UK TV during the 1980s and early 1990s.

He is slightly less successful in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), in which he stars alongside Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe. Spenser plays a young king, but the reserved nature of the role didn’t really suit him (not that I have ever liked the film much anyway). One could argue his sympathetic portrayal of Miguel Hernriques, an officer on board the Ferry to Hong Kong was one of the few redeeming features of that film – one in which Orson Welles gives an almost ridiculous performance. The romance between Curd Jurgens and Sylvia Syms is unrealistic, and Spenser’s portrayal of the vulnerable young officer is about the only thing that rings true in the whole film.

And then it was over, it seems. Over the next few years, his name slipped further and further down the credits of the films he appeared in, until his final appearance in Fahrenheit 451 in which he literally is seen eating an apple – and nothing else. What appeared after that appears to be a mystery, although the internet does come up with various theories and a forum or two has a member who claims to know Spenser and tells us he is alive and well. A couple of people report having played chess with him a decade or so ago.

In the end, his whereabouts now is unimportant (providing he is happy and healthy, of course). What is known is that when Spenser’s brother, David (also an actor), passed away in August 2013, The Guardian reported that Jeremy was still alive.  What’s clear even from a relative dud such as Wonderful Things is that a fine actor, and even greater screen presence, ended his career (or had it ended for him) much too soon, and just at the point when it should have blossomed. It appears that even working with the likes of Vivien Leigh, Marilyn Monroe, John Mills, Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles and Dirk Bogarde couldn’t guarantee a successful career. Or perhaps it was playing supporting roles with those luminaries which caused the problem in the first place. We shall probably never know. However, when I saw this portrait of him recently, I realised he is clearly the greatest screen Dorian Gray that never was.

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