Youth Films: From “We” to “Me”

Films let future generations see what youth cultures were like in the past and allow for a comparing and contrasting of times between then and now.  Youth films are a great visual history book to see how much things have changed between two eras of youth culture.  This blog will compare the collective society of the 1940s barnyard musicals starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland to the more individual society of the 1980s youth films such as John Hughes’ Ferris Buellers Day Off.

While the Second World War was raging on in Europe and Asia, people on the homestead over there or in North America had to join together in a collective effort to win the war.  To get the most out of every piece of material, governments of the Allied countries called for scrap drives for any kind of rubber, metal, and even rags and cooking fat.  Here is a snippet of what was collected and what the scrap was being used for.

            This is the collective spirit the youth who watched the Rooney-Garland musicals grew up in.  Technically, “youth films” and the “teenager” didn’t officially rear its acne-inflicted face until the 1950s, but there is no denying the Rooney-Garland musicals were made for youth audiences and starred great youth actors.  So why doesn’t film history reflect that?

These musicals were often set in the youthful world of high schools, neighbourhoods, and colleges.  The content of the musicals dealt with the concerns of youth: romance, fitting in, growing up, parents.  Compared to the “Brat Pack” films of the 1980s or the popular “gross-out” comedies youth enjoy so much today, these kids out-mature the preferred protagonists of modern youth films by leaps and bounds.  Even if they are cheesy  – and that’s part of their charm – they teach a lot of lessons youth these days need to learn; lessons of helping one another out and working for what you want (oh, heaven forbid).

            The plots and crises of the musicals reflect the collective nature of the society in which they were filmed.  The driving motivation behind the plots in Rooney and Garland’s musicals all had to do with helping others.  In Babes in Arms (1939), the children of vaudeville players put on a show to prove to their parents and other adult nemeses that they are capable of working together to successfully be in showbusiness.  Money raised to go to Chicago in Strike Up the Band (1940) was donated last minute to a friend in need of surgery.  Of course, the young philanthropists were justly rewarded in the end.  The reason to put on a show in Babes on Broadway (1941) was to send poor, city kids to summer camp.  Lastly, the grand show in Girl Crazy (1943) was to raise support for Rooney’s college that was threatening to close.

Working Hard

All of these collective efforts paid off in the end.  Helping one person in the community benefitted everyone else.  The close of the plots resulted in life lessons being learned and some maturity rightfully earned.  Despite the hardships the characters of these musicals may face, they know they can rely on their neighbours to help them through it.  These films can be seen as an analogy to winning the war.  If we all stick together and work for the same cause, then we will win.  God knows it was not an easy time to grow up in and every effort was made to keep the morale high, and these musicals worked.  Rooney was crowned king of the box office from 1939-1941 and Garland shot into superstardom.

After this came the beach bums of the 1950s, the sexually free youth of the 1960s, the rock ‘em sock ‘em Rockies of the 1970s, and this brings us to the second half of the blog: the youth of the 1980s.

The 1980s saw a surge of popularity in teen-flicks.  These were comedies or coming-of-age films.  A notable youth film from this decade is Ferris Buellers Day Off (1986).  I’m not going to criticise this film – I love it – my point is to compare the individual society of the 1980s to the 1940s and show how it affects the behaviour of the characters.

In Ferris Buellers Day Off, Ferris plays hooky and drags his hesitant best friend, Cameron, and girlfriend, Sloane, along with him.  Together they run into mischief and enjoy the day for themselves.  Set in a society that promoted individuality and worshipped the Material Girl, the film is about a quest of self enjoyment before venturing off to the adult world and college.  When Ferris spots Cameron’s stepfather’s Ferrari, he begs Cameron to let them take it for a joyride.  He does not take Cameron’s hesitation and nervousness into consideration.  Ferris is concerned only with the high quota of fun he expects himself to have on his day off.  When the car is accidentally destroyed, Ferris does not receive the discipline he deserves but gets off scot-free when Cameron decides to face his stepfather alone.

 Since the society of the 1980s and today focuses on the individual’s wants and needs, Ferris’s amusing antics cause a lot of trouble for Cameron and his sister.  If this film was made in the 1940s with Mickey Rooney as Ferris, Judy Garland as Sloane, and Freddie Bartholomew as Cameron, Mickey and Judy would have  successfully put on a show to repair the car.  It seems a little unrealistic, but the collective youth culture of the 1940s would have helped their friend who was in a jam.  The appeal for realism from the 1960s onwards prevented the utopian vision of a collective society in films, focusing instead on the individual.

The societies in which the characters of these films were conceived in determine how they treat their peers.  In the 1940s, people were more willing to help out their neighbour.  Also, there was a need for escapism during those dark days, so a bunch of kids performing a professional show in a BARN of all places was perfectly acceptable to believe.  Society changed by the 1980s and people were more concerned with themselves.  As good as the youth films of the 1980s are, the concerns of the individual are placed before the well-being of the other characters.  Around thirty years after the 1980s, society is still concerned with the needs of the individual but enough time has passed for us to see how much has indeed changed.  In this jaded youth’s opinion, the representation of the youth in film as changed drastically since the 1980s, for the worse.  Since film is a visual history book, perhaps we as a society should take a look back to these cinematic gems and improve ourselves and learn how to help each other out.  After all, today’s youth are tomorrow’s leaders and filmmakers.