director Harry Revier
In the world of Exploitation cinema, there is the notorious and then there is the NOTORIOUS. Notoriety is absolutely what Exploitation film seeks out. The whole shock value is really just to get you to see the damn film. Some Exploitation is almost all in the marketing, the product is virtually secondary. But then some Exploitation lives up to its promotion, shocking at the core.
To be honest, there is not actually anything shocking at the core of Child Bride. It’s a low-budget film that actually strives to help turn the public tide against child marriage, which was variant state by state back at the time of the film and apparently still a well-accepted thing among some microcultures. Men shouldn’t be able to marry 12 year olds, they are children, let them be.
Well, none of that is particularly controversial, probably not even back in 1938 with all reformist sensibilities seeking to outlaw child marriage were probably not finding immense push-back. What is controversial and would still be to this day is the extending nude sequence featuring the then 12 year old Shirley Mills, stripping down and skinny dipping.
Really, again, it’s not lurid. It’s a twelve year old girl naked and then swimming.
It’s the irony and the context that make it sleazy. During the scene, she talks innocently with her pal Freddie about how she has come to learn that now that they are changing (entering puberty), they shouldn’t go swimming nakedly together anymore. Freddie is bummed out, innocently, while the evil, lascivious Jake Bolby looks on at the young girl getting thoughts into his head to take her as a child bride.
So the film is notorious for featuring a naked 12 year old girl, in long, contemplative shots, while preaching about how young girls should not be lusted after and forced into marriage. The further irony to my mind is simply that while the contrast is puerile, the actual scenes are sort of natural, sort of chaste, and innocent. I guess it’s only how one reacts to a naked 12 year old girl, I suppose that makes it potentially sleazy.
I was brought to mind of the sweet scene in My Life as a Dog (1985) where the young Melinda Kinnaman, who has been pretending to be a boy, shows her bare chest to her friend Ingmar. It’s not exploitative in the least. And it made me wonder about European attitudes towards nudity versus the more puritanical American attitudes. It actually also made me wonder about other films that feature underage nudity, where exactly lines are crossed from art into true exploitation. And I was also brought to mind of Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby (1978), which notoriously featured a nude 12 year old Brooke Shields. Exploitation. Or art?
Well, Child Bride is definitely an Exploitation film. It ran the Exploitation circuits for years and cashed in on its “lurid” content despite its ironical message.
The film itself is not so godawful as one might assume. Shirley Mills is actually very good in her role as Jennie Colton, child bride. Mills went on to a reasonable career in cinema including a role in John Ford’s 1940 The Grapes of Wrath. I kind of liked the parts of the film shot around the small country people, this caricature hillbilly culture.
It’s strange how contemplative an Exploitation film can make one.