Child Brides of the Ozarks and Beyond, by Michael H. Price
Sixty-five years after a double-edged sword of a movie called Child Bride of the Ozarks professed to indict the custom of underage marriage – while courting a leering, voyeuristic audience, naturally – the issue remains urgent. Last month’s raids upon a polygamist sect in Texas demonstrate that such persistence, involving girls scarcely into their teens, belongs as much to the presumably Civilized World as to the more thoroughly well-hidden corners of the planet: The Yearning for Zion Ranch had hidden in plain sight, a Third World concentration camp, bunkered in alongside Mainstream Amerika.
Meanwhile in the Dominant Culture, a Florida-based plastic surgeon named Michael Salzhauer has published a cartoon-storybook testament to female objectification called My Beautiful Mommy (Big Tent Books) that purports to “[guide] children through Mommy’s [cosmetic] surgery and healing process in a friendly, nonthreatening way” – nonthreatening, that is, until one grasps the deeper message: Looks are everything, and you get what you can pay for. The greater objective would appear the preconditioning of a next generation of face-lift addicts: Better start saving up now, girlie, and maybe develop an eating disorder as a prelude.
So which sector, or sect, is the less civilized? The backwater zealots who propose to wait out the Apocalypse in round-robin conjugal confinement with “brides” young enough to be their granddaughters? Or the proponents of glamour-at-a-price?
Dr. Salzhauer’s idealized Beautiful Mommy, as pictured on the cover of that scrofulous little book, calls to mind nothing so much as an over-glamorized Britney Spears or Miley Cyrus, perhaps a Bratz-meets-Barbie: Never too young to aspire to such artificiality, never too old to lay claim to it, given a loaded checkbook. Photographs from the Yearning for Zion round-up suggest nothing so much as some 19th-century agrarian-society re-enactment, but the forcibly modest attire of the young women involved conveys an aspect more ominous than bucolic.
About that movie…
My lingering impression of Harry Revier’s Child Bride of the Ozarks has hinged more upon featured player Angelo Rossitto (1908–1991) than with any social-agenda implications. Rossitto, a pioneering dwarf player of Old Hollywood, had reminisced fondly about Child Bride during a series of late-in-life interviews for the Forgotten Horrors film-history books. George Turner’s and my chapter on Child Bride in Forgotten Horrors 2, in turn, deals as much with Rossitto as with the picture itself.
“I especially liked the part I was lucky enough to get in a little picture called Child Bride,” Rossitto told us in 1990. “That was one that could’ve been just the usual creepy-dwarf business” – and indeed, the advertising campaign emphasizes Rossitto’s grotesque make-up – “but they let me do some things with it. Unusual, that a picture will let a little guy step in and save the day.”
Exploitation producer Raymond Fridgen made Child Bride as a roadshow attraction, for release outside the conventional film-distribution channels. As such, the film was issued without a Production Code Administration Purity Seal – destined for those smaller theatres that occasionally ran adults-only shows, for burlesque houses, and for four-wall situations in which the distributor would rent (literally speaking) the four walls of an auditorium for as many weeks as the film could draw a crowd.
Unlike many others of its kind, Child Bride boasts competent work from Hollywood-based professional tradespeople. More surprisingly, the film presents a fairly realistic story – a sort of poor-relations composite of 1941’s Swamp Water and Tobacco Road, with foreshadowings of Elia Kazan’s once-notorious Baby Doll (1956) – and captures the naturalistic horror that comes with the territory among inbred and isolated communities. The tale is related grimly, with scant conscious humor, although laughter might be a sensible response to Frank Martin’s foppishly enacted city-slicker romantic lead and the overplaying of a courageous schoolteacher by Diana Durrell (who was the wife-to-be of producer Fridgen).
The cast is peopled largely with unknown players, but Warner Richmond, well cast as the lustful villain, was a veteran of the 1921 filming of Tol’able David and a popular bad-guy presence in Westerns and serials of the 1930s. The title player, Shirley Mills, fares well enough in a difficult role, displaying a defiant mettle to offset her more demeaning moments of conspicuous nudity. (Mills had appeared as Ruth Joad in John Ford’s 1940 filming of the John Steinbeck novel The Grapes of Wrath.)
Likewise familiar, though more as a memorable presence than as a marquee name, is two-foot-ten Angelo Rossitto, who had graced the screen since the waning 1920s and claimed a prominent role of heroic vengeance in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). During the 1940s, Rossitto also operated a busy newsstand at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Wilcox, made a run for mayor of Los Angeles (“finished seventh in a field of eight, yes, I did,” he told us) and appeared now and again as a skulking accomplice to career badman Bela Lugosi. Child Bride bills Rossitto under a pseudonym, Don Barrett, although his character bears the name of Angelo.
Child Bride finds Shirley Mills playing Jennie Colton, schoolgirl daughter of a moonshiner (George Humphreys) whose business partner, Jake Bolby (Warner Richmond), also serves as the town bully. A schoolteacher, Miss Carol (Durrell), begins a campaign to end the hill-country tradition of grown men marrying young girls, with the help of her fiancé (Martin), a lawyer. Bolby orders the abduction and torture of Miss Carol. Angelo, who works at Bolby’s whiskey still, provokes a raid to rescue the teacher.
Bolby kills Jennie’s father and threatens to accuse Jennie’s mother in the slaying – the better to claim the girl as his wife. A schoolboy (Bob Bollinger) with a crush on Jennie threatens to kill Bolby, but Angelo intervenes and guns down the bootlegger. None too soon. Miss Carol’s efforts are rewarded with the passage of a law banning child marriage.
“It all became very real to me,” Shirley Mills said during the 1990s. “The only hard part was displaying fear of the villain [Richmond] because he was so kind and considerate to me … [but] suddenly he became very ominous because of his own acting ability.”
Filmed considerably earlier than its formal release date in January 1943 (Mills recalls a shooting schedule in 1938), Child Bride feigned a socially influential position consistent with the lofty objectives of its schoolteacher character. The film was hardly in such a position, however, and Raymond Fridgen was more interested in selling tickets than with advancing reforms.
Fridgen went through the motions of applying for a Purity Seal, but the film industry’s Production Code Administration refused the credential. Of course, nudity and rude misconduct abound, not to mention the overriding air of degeneracy implicit in the very title. Then, too, Hollywood’s built-in censorship machine would have preferred to see Rossitto’s character punished for his murderous act of heroism: No penalty, no Purity Seal.
Although director Harry Revier paces the yarn briskly, he dwells nonetheless upon the earthier details of backwoods life. A particularly queasy element is a skinny-dipping sequence for Shirley Mills – this, for the benefit of any viewers who might have entertained the same perversity that the picture condemns. A similarly glaring dual standard occurs in a prologue stating that the producers seek to improve the lives of the mountain folk, and that no disparagement is intended. Oh, yeah, right. Such excesses are, even so, tied to what dramatic strengths the film possesses, in an unusual display of integrity among pictures of this slum-cinema class.
The film’s professed interest in derailing a demeaning tradition proves to have been no such thing – not back then, and certainly not in the enlightened (term used advisedly) here-and-now. The present day’s comparable situations, from reclusive U.S. outposts to foreign provinces to a metastasized resurgence of mass-media objectification, render a rediscovery of Child Bride of the Ozarks all the more unnerving, as much a prophecy as a crass relic.
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price is responsible for the Forgotten Horrors series of movie-history books, from Baltimore’s Midnight Marquee Press. Price’s arts-scene commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com, and in the Times Leader of Wilkes–Barre, Pa.