Director: Harry Revier
Stars: Shirley Mills, Angelo Rossitto, Warner Richmond
Schoolteacher in a rural community campaigns to stop the practice of older men marrying young, underage girls.
Child Bride from 1938 is a rather notorious film… and I had selected it for an episode of Live Nude Geeks. Don’t bother looking for the episode – it wasn’t archived (purely for technical reasons though – it didn’t record – there wasn’t a moral reason). Ending what was themed as “Kid’s Month” with a movie even the crew of Mystery Science Theater 3000 wouldn’t touch because how dirty it made them feel was a bold decision. I don’t feel the need to justify this decision or explain it other than sayint that the film served as a tasteless punchline. Instead, let’s take a look at the movie itself.
The Politics of Child Bride
Child Bride, I suppose, had the well-intentioned purpose of bringing attention to the issue of child marriage and putting an end to the practice. The film starts with some on-screen text explaining this intent and among the first shots is a book entitled “Child Marriage is a Crime.” Is it a crime? Well that depends on your definition of the word “child.” Most civilizations consider a pre-pubescent child “off limits” and sexual desire for them is met with severe punishment. The question of child marriage, however, arises in those years of early puberty – 12 and on – physically able to bear children but not considered an adult. Every state in the USA has a different age of consent ranging from 15 to 18. In addition, most places allow a minor to apply for emancipation and be legally considered an adult. With the age of consent, emancipation or parental approval, children in the United States can get married as young as 14. A few years ago a Morman sect in Texas still practicing polygamy with older men marrying several young girls came under accusations of child abuse. It was discovered, however, that while the girls were underage, every act was consensual, girls were at an age to give consent and parental approval was acknowledged – nothing legally defined as child abuse had taken place. Certainly there are physical and social problems that arise with sex at a young age, but for a nation that makes a hit show out of something like 16 and Pregnant it would seem that any moral objective Child Bride hoped to impart was unheeded.
Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Kevin Murphy described the setting of Child Bride as “Crackerville” which is an apt description. The film takes place in a rural community in the Ozark mountains where every person looks like the inbred banjo-picking kid from Deliverance. Miss Carol (Diana Durrell), the teacher at the town’s one-room schoolhouse, is determined to put a stop to the practice of child marriage. These ignorant mountain folk (and they are portrayed as ignorant to the fullest extent) don’t like this woman bringing her fancy book-learnin’ and trying to change their way of life. A group of these “concerned citizens” organize a lynch mob and drag Miss Carol out to be tarred and feathered. A midget intervenes (don’t ask because I don’t know) and Miss Carol leaves – knowing to never again change these mountain fold and their long standing policy on child brides.
How to Riff Child Bride
There are some humorous moments that arise in Child Bride that alone make fodder for riffing. There’s a midget who gets tossed around a few times, some fun pratfalls with farm animals, and even an enjoyable (though prolonged) sequence where pigeons in a school are pooping on students’ text books. Void of context even the noted shot of a young girl in a wedding dress next to one dirty looking man is good for a laugh. The acting is overly melodramatic and easy to mock. The way the film presents its cast of ignorant mountain folk is also ripe for a few laughs. If one assumes that a film made from 1938, during the early years of the Hayes Code, would never dare touch upon the subject of child sexuality then maybe Child Bride could make for an entertaining riff. Having watched one-reel, hardcore stag films from the era, I should have known better. Child Bride was independently produced and distributed and marketed as “educational” – the restrictive Hayes Code did not apply. Child Bride had carte blanche to show whatever it wanted.
The only way one could present a successful riff of Child Bridewould be to somehow remove the context from most of its scenes. A husband and father, drunk from another night of sharing homebrew with the boys, comes home to slap his wife around for a bit. The wife murders him in self-defense but the neighbor who witnessed this doesn’t want to see it that way. He blackmails the family – promising to keep his secret in exchange for the 12-year-old daughter’s hand in marriage. The situation itself is repugnant but each scene individually can be over-the-top enough to make for some good jokes. Looking at the segments instead of the whole, it would be no different than riffing parts of Peyton Place. There is a scene where this older man attempts to court his young fiancee by giving her a doll to play with. Visually it makes for a fun joke and on its own the scene can be made funny by neglecting to mention the entire scenario this is a part of.
The marriage itself is absurd. The young girl looks goofy in a miniaturized wedding dress standing at the barnyard alter next to a yokel in his battered hat and overalls. Thankfully their marriage is never consummated and the new husband is shot down by a midget sniper (yes, a midget). Each moment works on its own as a dirty little Hooterville soap opera – it’s only in acknowledging the entire situation these scenes amount to does one venture into the realm of tastelessness.
Well, not every scene can be looked at this way. There is THAT notorious moment….