Friday, February 27, 2009

Review – The Soul of Youth

February 27, 2009

The Soul of Youth – U.S., 1920

William D. Taylor’s The Soul of Youth begins in a dimly lit, shadowy room. There, two young women are striking an unholy bargain. One woman is pregnant, but for reasons that remain unexplained doesn’t want the baby; the other is childless but for reasons that are not exactly charitable wants the baby. In the child, she sees a golden opportunity, the chance to trap her corrupt, mobster boyfriend Pete in holy matrimony or at the very least to achieve financial stability for the rest of her life. Money exchanges hands, and the deal is done. At the hospital, the woman gives birth, but is apparently so uncaring that she doesn’t even inquire as to whether she is now the mother of a son or daughter. Her health poor, she soon passes away, having essentially – or so the intertitles want you to believe - resigned her newborn to a life that is devoid of both parents and love. For the baby’s new mother, Maggie, fate is equally tough. Her benefactor Pete does not fall for her ruse, and after getting roughed up and told that the relationship is over, Maggie tells her maid to get rid of the baby. The maid does so by bringing the child to St. Agnes Cradle and leaving it on the doorstep.

The rest of The Soul of Youth details the fate of this young child, a baby boy who is given the name Ed Simpson. We reconnect with Ed years later at the orphanage, where according to the intertitles and the testimony of the matrons working there, Ed has succeeded only in becoming the worst child in his class. However, what we see of Ed does not entirely match what we read about him or what the bossy, aggressive women working at the orphanage say about him. If Ed is so bad, then why is he the one being picked on? Why do we see him bravely defying the orders of his caretakers to rush upstairs and save a young child from drowning in a bathtub? Why does he take on a throng of his peers just to rescue a stray dog from being mistreated and then clandestinely care for the dog? These do not seem to be the actions of a child without a moral compass or of the kind who will not amount to anything. Perhaps then the film is intentionally misleading us, showing us a character that even the film’s narrator tragically misjudges. However, a film such as this only works if Ed is such an awful character that any transformation he undergoes is surprising and heartwarming. By showing Ed as secretly having a heart of gold, the film removes the element of surprise and weakens any later revelations.

Ed’s eventual transformation is part of a larger story. Pete, now a corrupt politician running for mayor, reappears. We also meet Robert Hamilton, Pete’s opponent and complete opposite. Pete is leading in the polls, and the future looks bleak for Hamilton. If only they had something concrete on Pete, something that would make him drop out of the race quietly. If only he had scorned some young woman earlier in life, and now that woman wanted revenge. Also entering Ed’s life is Mike, a homeless boy selling newspapers to get by, and Vera, Robert Hamilton’s eldest daughter, a young lady with a heart of gold. She takes one look at Pete and seems to sense a kind heart underneath what everyone tells her is the exterior of a boy who will only end up in jail. When hearing that Ed is an orphan, Vera asks him sweetly if he has anyone to love him. Ed in turn asks what love is.

The Soul of Youth would be forgettable if it were not for the bleak picture it presents of the day’s youth. The way the movie presents it, practically an entire generation of young, less affluent boys was simply abandoned by society, and having to fend for themselves, formed gangs that committed crimes not out of personal desire for wealth but as a matter of survival. In the film, we see children who break into trains looking for watermelons, a young boy who steals a quarter to buy his mother some flowers because she is always crying. When Ed sees a woman drop her purse, he rushes to scoop it up. Instead of trying to return it to its rightful owner – which wouldn’t have been unexpected at this point in the film - Mike makes a mad dash for the safety of his flimsy wooden home. There, Ed and Mike envision waiters bringing them all of the food they could possibly desire. Finally, with their ill-gotten gains, they’ll be able to eat well. It’s hard to condemn children in these situations, and for their sake, it is a relief to see real life Judge Ben Lindsey make an appearance in the film, for he recognized that children such as these, in spite of their crimes, were still in fact children and should therefore not be punished in the same manner as one would punish an adult.

In the end, however, The Soul of Youth is too predictable to recommend whole-heartedly. As expected, Ed is revealed to be not such a bad guy after all, and even his harshest critic warms to him. It is not surprising that fate brings Ed back in contact with Pete, yet a scene that everyone knows is coming carries significantly less emotional power than one that catches the audience unaware, no matter how powerful a particular moment may be. This is sadly true for the film’s climax. The film is helped, however, by its actors, who each give strong, believable performances. I particularly liked Lewis Sargent’s performance as Ed Simpson. Also worthy of mention is Ernest Butterworth, who plays Ed’s best friend Mike. The two of them share a camaraderie that comes across as both authentic and strong. In addition, Claude Payton is perfectly menacing as Pete Morano. If the script had been a bit tighter and the film not taken the side of child criminals so sympathetically, the film may have aged better. As it is though, it remains only somewhat interesting. (on disc one of Treasures from the American Film Archives III: Social Issues in American Film)

2 and a half stars

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