Not many movies have a colored fabric for their title. I had to think back sixty years to try to figure out the point of this one. Clearly, the title of Blue Denim is supposed to suggest blue jeans. If memory serves, this item of clothing was primarily worn by teenagers back in those days, not like today, where adults commonly wear them too. And though the first baby boomers had not quite reached their teenage years in 1959, movies featuring rebellious adolescents getting into trouble were becoming a regular feature at the cinema. And so, the point was to indicate that this was a movie about teenagers. But then, we might ask why the title of this movie isn’t Blue Jeans, which almost was the title for a while. Well, the movie was based on a play, and my guess is that “jeans” was just too lowbrow, whereas “denim” gave it some tone, and so the movie eventually followed suit. But the title Blue Denim is more than just a synecdoche for teenagers. It is also a displacement from the subject of the film, which is abortion, something unmentionable in the movies at that time.
When the movie begins, Arthur (Brandon De Wilde) has found out that while he was at school that day, his father took his dog to the veterinarian and had it put to sleep. Art realizes that the dog was old and sick, but he is upset that his father didn’t discuss it with him. The lack of communication between teenagers and their parents is a theme of this movie, and this is the first instance of it. Unfortunately, it is not the last. These failure-to-communicate scenes are excessive and irritating, the worst parts of the movie.
This scene with the dog also prepares us for the idea of abortion. Though it was just a dog, putting it out of its misery is euthanasia, killing something for its own good, typically toward the end of life. Abortion is killing something at the beginning of life, more for the good of the mother than the unborn child, though sometimes for its sake as well. And, of course, whereas it was a dog that was euthanized, only humans have abortions. Nevertheless, the one sets the mood for the other.
A little later, Arthur’s best friend, Ernie, comes over on the pretense that he and Arthur are going to do some studying together. In particular, he is going to help Arthur with biology. Arthur’s mother wants to know what biology is. Well, it’s the study of life, of course, and it is hard to believe Arthur’s mother would have to ask. The conversation becomes awkward, however, and Ernie dances delicately around the subject. You see, in this movie, biology is the study of sex. Thus informed, Arthur’s mother says she is glad Arthur is shaky in the subject.
In any event, it’s all a ruse. Ernie and Arthur go down to the basement whereupon Ernie produces beer and cigarettes, which they consume while playing poker. Did you ever notice what great hands people get in the movies? This is ordinary draw poker, and on the first hand, Ernie has aces up, but Arthur wins with three sixes. In any event, while playing they act tough and use profanity. Of course, not much profanity was allowed under the Production Code, still in force at that time, so we hear the word “damn” a lot.
Ernie deals the cards fast and slick. He’s obviously been around and knows a thing or two about the ways of the world, about which he holds forth for Arthur’s benefit. He speaks disparagingly of the man Arthur’s older sister is going to marry, referring to him as a loser. “These days it takes talent to learn how to slip and slide around,” he says. “Do you know at school, one out of six guys is going steady? One out of six, trapped! It’s one thing for a guy to go way out, but these guys ain’t never gonna get back.”
I never thought of going steady as being the end of a teenager’s freedom when I was in high school, but Ernie apparently sees it as the stage just before an official engagement. But then, he allows that maybe it’s for the best that Arthur’s sister is getting married, that the dentist she is going to marry is probably saving her from the evils of this world. “Some old white slaver could have come along and picked her off like a naked grape.” Arthur laughs at the idea, but Ernie continues: “This town’s full of it: gambling, dope, prostitution, smuggling, illegal operations.” There it is, the euphemism for abortions. This gets Arthur’s attention. Ernie tells of how a guy he knows got his girl in trouble, and he was the one who had to steer him to a doctor who would perform the operation.
Enter Janet (Carol Lynley) through the cellar door. Ernie realizes that three’s a crowd, so he leaves. After a little conversation, Arthur and Janet kiss for the first time, and they are so inept at it that their noses get in the way. It’s hard to believe that they will soon have sex, but before the week is out, they do, especially after Arthur drops the tough guy act and admits that he has never been with a girl before. Since they only do it one time, the real life the chance of her getting pregnant would be low. But since this is a movie, we know it’s a certainty.
Three months later, Arthur finds out the truth when he catches Janet reading the chapter on pregnancy in the library. He goes to Ernie for help. Now it’s Ernie’s turn to drop the tough guy act. He lied about being the guy who steered another fellow to an abortion doctor. Moreover, he tries to talk Arthur out of it, saying it’s illegal, it’s murder, and it’s dangerous. Janet might die, he argues, because these abortionists are inferior doctors. Still, he knows enough to set things up. Earlier, Janet asked him to write a note in her father’s handwriting excusing her from the class she cut to go to a movie. After Arthur steals a check from his father’s checkbook, Ernie forges that to get the money to pay for the abortion.
Ernie and Arthur send Janet on her way alone, at the insistence of the nurse who blindfolds her. Then Arthur’s father finds out about the forged check and the reason for it. There is a lot of melodramatic rushing around trying to find out where the doctor is in order to stop the abortion, accompanied by a Bernard Herrmann score. It reminiscent of the score for Vertigo (1958), made the year before, so I guess a little of it bled into this movie. In the play, Janet has the abortion, but the Production Code would not allow for that, so she had to be rescued in this movie.
After Janet is rescued and brought back home, her father and Arthur’s parents talk about how Arthur and Janet will have to get married. Arthur’s father talks about how his son will have to give up all hope of becoming an engineer or a lawyer. And we know from an earlier conversation Arthur had with Janet that he wanted to be somebody and not a nobody. In fact, it’s even worse than not going to college. Arthur will have to drop out of high school. Arthur tells his father that he can get a job working in a filling station.
However, when Janet recovers from the sedation that the abortion doctor had administered, she says she does not want to force Arthur to marry her, that it was her fault she got pregnant. They leave it at that for a while. Later, Ernie tells Arthur that Janet is leaving town to go live with her aunt. Presumably, the idea is to have the baby where no one knows her and then give it up for adoption. Now we have another melodramatic scene of running around trying to catch up with Janet on the train so that she and Arthur can get married instead.
Let us reflect on this for a moment. We understand why Janet was prevented from having an abortion in the movie version of the play. But exactly what is wrong with her giving the baby up for adoption? That way, she could resume high school the following year, and Arthur could go to college. And they could still get married. And yet, in the entire history of abortion movies, Juno (2007) is the only one I know of in which the girl gives the baby up for adoption. All I can figure is that in this movie in particular, and in other abortion movies in general, it is considered wrong to have the baby and give it up for adoption. Unlike an abortion, doing that has never been illegal, no one has ever said it was murder, and it is no more dangerous than giving birth as a married woman. And yet, we sense that this must in some way be taboo as well, as if it is a repudiation of motherhood and the blessed event.
All right. So, the abortion is out and giving the baby up for adoption is out. Arthur and Janet will get married. I thought that at the end, Arthur’s parents would tell their son and Janet they will support them, letting the couple live with them while they put Arthur through college. But that doesn’t happen. Their future is as bleak as the “straightjacket” Arthur’s father says it will be, recalling Ernie’s earlier remark about being trapped. In every other abortion movie I have ever seen, if the girl has the baby, she typically marries the father, and they live happily ever after. If she has the baby without marrying the father, she still lives happily ever after. This is the only one that ends on a sour note.
Apparently, there was a need for compromise. On the one hand, the abortion is prevented, allowing for a partially happy ending where the couple will get married and keep the baby; on the other hand, the movie needed to condemn premarital sex and show that it has bad consequences, thereby precluding the possibility of a completely happy ending.