As America limped through the Great Depression in a haze of cigarette smoke, bridge games, and bootleg liquor, the teens were going bad. Per the usual, it was the girls going astray that was the real cause for concern. In the 1930s, Hollywood zeroed in on someone to blame for the country’s collective delinquency: bad mothers.
Finally permitted to vote, liberated from unsatisfying marriages by a surge in divorce rates, and increasingly able to hold their liquor, cool moms were everywhere, flirting and quipping and flaunting their brash lifestyles before their teenaged children’s astonished eyes.
What sort of impact might these “bad mothers” have on their impressionable young daughters?
A duo of teen-sploitation movies explore this theme: The Road to Ruin (1934) and Mad Youth (1939), both directed by good ol’ boy Melville “Buddy” Shyer of Tennessee. In both films, the stories of two girls are contrasted: a bad blond girl with a bad blond mother, and a mousy brunette girl with a good frumpy mother.
In The Road to Ruin, the mousy brunette is the hero and the bad blond is the side character. By day, Mrs. Monroe, the bad mother, is a severely proper matron who spends her waking hours in ladylike pursuits (presumably bridge) while impatiently awaiting a divorce from her estranged husband.
But at night, Mrs. Monroe hits the town to drink and smoke cigarettes and tell dirty traveling salesman jokes with her sophisticated friends while her high school aged daughter, Eve, drinks and smokes cigarettes and reads dirty literature with her mousy brunette friend.
Meanwhile, a few years spent traveling down the bad mom highway has brought the mother from Mad Youth to a curious state of affairs. In this film, it’s the bad blond and her bad mother who take center stage. Like mid-1930s Mrs. Monroe, this cool mom is a bottle-blond who tends to confront her similarly coiffed daughter while wearing a grand black hat.
But life is a bit different for this late-1930s mother. She has obtained her longed-for divorce and has evolved past casual affairs with the men of her peer group to straightforwardly purchase the company of professionally single gentlemen.
The drama begins as this middle-aged bad mother (whose name, Mrs. Morgan, is confusingly similar to Mrs. Monroe of The Road to Ruin) prepares for an evening of bridge. As the gay divorcée makes arrangements over the phone it becomes clear that she is on the phone with an escort service from which she frequently hires young men to liven up her nocturnal bridge parties. She settles on a “European.”
“I want some of the things I was cheated out of by a loveless marriage,” she asserts.
Mrs. “Mad Youth” Morgan is certainly making the most of her divorce. She even hits up her daughter for the allowance she gets from her dad to pay the gentleman-for-hire. In exchange, this cool mom gives her daughter permission to host a liquor-soaked house party while she’s out with Mr. Right Now.
Her daughter, the titular Mad Youth (whose name may or may not have been mentioned during the course of the film), appears to be out of high school. Her age, like her name, slips by just like the years of boozy partying that her mom has indulged in. One thing is clear: When she gets the house to herself, she has bigger plans than inviting a mousy brunette over for a tame evening of illegal libations and banned literature.
In The Road to Ruin, the audience is obliged to image the shenanigans that the bad mother gets up to during her evening jaunts. But in Mad Youth, the viewer gets to follow the cool mom along to her “bridge party” (surely an orgy) and meet her gigolo. Disappointingly, the bridge party really is a bridge party, populated by stuffy elders in staid evening wear. Thrillingly, the gigolo really is a gigolo.
The Gigolo claims to be 28 (don’t laugh) and a foreign prince or some such nonsense. The Gigolo is a diffident sort of fellow. He is not, he informs Mrs. Morgan, a common whore.
“I’m supposed to play bridge,” he sniffs. “And be charming generally. My agreement says nothing of throwing in love and necking.”
Mrs. M. subtly offers him more money for more action, and he sniffs his refusal even more subtly.
Back home, Mad Youth cleans up the detritus of her junior bacchanalia, which included a rousing game of strip poker. Just as her mother returns home, she throws herself into an armchair and feigns sleep. In creeps Mom with her by-the-hour paramour. Apparently she finally hit The Gigolo’s price because he’s all hers, tuxedo, sniffing, and all. Mad Youth pretends to wake up, The Gigolo leers at her, and Mrs. Morgan urges the two to “get acquainted” while trots off to find whatever alcohol Mad Youth’s pals have managed not to drink with which she will stiffen The Gigolo’s resolve.
Meanwhile in the world of The Road to Ruin, Eve’s mousy friend has met a man who is remarkably similar to The Gigolo.
He’s practically the same person. But his source of income is a mystery…for now.
Eve lives it up with her teen boyfriend at parties arranged by the mysterious tuxedoed suitor. Her mousy friend has fallen hard for The Gigolo’s Twin and eventually winds up at his apartment where she drinks a cup of something that is definitely not coffee before succumbing to his charms.
In Mad Youth, The Gigolo, too, is keen for the teen. Inside what appears to be a law firm, The Gigolo’s pimp berates him for rejecting Mrs. Morgan’s lucrative job offers, while he sulks Europeanly. The pimp insists The Gigolo call her up for a date: “You’re young. You’re healthy. I don’t think a little necking more or less will hurt you.” According to 1938’s The Good Housekeeping Marriage Book, this means he doesn’t have syphilis.
The Gigolo sullenly phones Mrs. Morgan. But it is her daughter who answers. The Gigolo was told to call the number and ask for a date, which, under the watchful eye of his pimp, is exactly what he does. On the other end of the line, Mad Youth smirks and agrees.
During their evening out, Mad Youth drinks and drinks and drinks, passes out, and is lugged home by The Gigolo over the protests of her friends. Back at The Gigolo’s apartment, it seems that Mad Youth is about to meet the same fate as Eve’s brunette pal.
But no! Mad Youth returns to consciousness just as The Gigolo offers her a cup of genuine coffee and the news that she will be having no sex tonight. He’s going to take her home as soon as she sobers her up.
The Road to Ruin girls for their part sally off to yet another wild party where they play strip poker, take a midnight swim, and are busted by the cops. They are immediately bundled off to the local youth correctional facility where they are given syphilis tests. Mousy girl’s clean, but bad blond Eve has the dreaded disease.
“Mrs. Monroe is out of town,” the jailer sourly states, so Eve is stuck in juvie for the duration.
Mad Youth and her mousy brunette gal-pal also get caught sneaking around at night to meet men. The brunette is banished to darkest Iowa, from which she flees only to become ensnared in white slavery. Mad Youth tries to bust her out of the bordello, but is trapped herself. The Gigolo rescues Mad Youth before she begins her prostitution gig, then he decides to quit the pay-to-play life and make an honest man of himself by marrying her.
In The Road to Ruin, bad blond Eve lands on her feet. Cured of syphilis and out of juvie, she’s free to resume her life of savvy debauchery. A far bleaker fate awaits her brunette friend, however. She is pregnant.
Inside what appears to be a law firm, her lover chats with a man who’s trying to set up something remarkably like the Mad Youth mom’s evening “bridge parties,” complete with paid companions. It is at this moment that we learn that the mousy girl’s lover is a pimp. His solution to her little problem is a trip to a seedy abortionist who seems all too accustomed to the pimp showing up with a random teen on his arm. The young lady swiftly contracts an infection and dies in a brazenly symbolic Christ-figure pose, her arms akimbo, her good mother weeping at her side.
So who was to blame for the fate of these innocent teen girls?
The mothers, a juvenile corrections officer in The Road to Ruin assures us, trusted their daughters “blindly, like too many mothers. Our boys and girls today need more than trust.”
In Mad Youth, it is The Gigolo who presents the thesis of the movie. “You American mothers, with your bridge parties and your beauty shops and your silly flirtations! Wasting your lives and neglecting your duties. Letting your children run wild for a lack of sensible parental supervision!”
However, the real take-away from both films is markedly different: Having a cool mom rather than a good mother is actually better. Here’s why.
Both of the girls with bad mothers are smart, cynical, and immune to coercion. Both end up perfectly fine at the end of the film. Neither of them have sex when they don’t want to, neither of them become pregnant, neither of them die. In fact, both of these “bad” girls are rewarded with happy lives by the closing credits: Mad Youth marries her lover, and Eve is off to live with her father, a radiant smile on her face.
The girls with good mothers, on the other hand, are not dealt with gently by the big, bad world. The mousy brunette in The Road to Ruin falls in with a pimp, is arrested as a “sex delinquent,” and dies from a botched abortion. Mad Youth’s brown-haired buddy for her part falls in with a lady pimp, is enslaved in the illegal sex trade, and is completely forgotten after The Gigolo rescues his bad blond dream girl.
Indeed, looking at the plot of both films, it appears that the real threat to the youth of the 1930s was mousy brunette teens with good mothers. Without these naïve, easily-led-astray friends, Mad Youth would have never have ventured across the threshold of the girl-snatching bordello, and Eve would have continued partying on her own terms with her high school boyfriend, sheltered from the machinations of the pimp and his louche adult associates.
Also, leaving the accidental moral subtext of the plots of both movies aside, the bad daughters are far more interesting as characters. They get the best lines:
When The Gigolo calls Mad Youth out for pretending to be asleep after her wild teen party, he smirks, “Faker.” And without missing a beat, she hisses back, “Gigolo!”
When Eve wants to go make out with her gawky high school lover in private, she quips, “Come on, Boyfriend. Let’s go places and do things. The company bores.”
There’s the moment when The Gigolo grudgingly telephones Mrs. Morgan for a date and her daughter answers brightly, “Oh, hello. Sure I remember you. You’re the gigolo.”
After several rounds of strip poker, Eve’s doomed friend decides it’s time to go. “It’s getting late. You better get dressed now,” she ventures. “You won all my clothes!” Eve retorts with a sly grin.
And then there’s the moment when, confronted by the chivalrous, not-date-rapist Gigolo, Mad Youth perfectly articulates the thoughts of the viewer in the most meta fashion, “There must be something wrong with this script.”
Both girls are also able strip poker players. It’s always strip poker in these Depression-era “shocker” movies. And yet, bridge was the far more popular card game at the time.
At the end of the day, the real question that both The Road to Ruin and Mad Youth leave us with is this: Why strip poker? Why not strip bridge?