When I was a lonely, nerdy little boy in peril, I learned important survival tips and got cheap therapy from seeing movies about other young ones who were having a hard time. Sometimes I saw them on TV and sometimes in theaters. Now, besides the ways I used to experience them, they exist on DVD and online. You can legitimately watch them gratis. Most Public Libraries have a large collection of classic films available for checkout.
There are thousands of movies about little ones enduring pain and suffering. It’s a time-honored way to make audiences identify more deeply with the characters. We all used to be children, and learning to deal with fear and danger is part of growing up. Children often perceive themselves as being under threat. When we watch these kinds of films, whether the difficulties are real or imagined, it’s cathartic. It validates our feelings and empowers us. Our inner child can say, “See? I wasn’t making it up!” We can move forward to defeat our own monsters.
As with my other list-based posts, I’ve tried to consciously avoid choices like The Wizard of Oz, the Terminator movies, Life is Beautiful, and other well-known and current titles in order to write about treasures you may not have seen before.
Oliver Twist (1948)
Many of the truths that have seen me through the worst of times, I learned from reading stories written by Charles Dickens. Dickens began his career as a journalist, but before that he had to overcome the dangers that accompany poverty. Most people know the film and the musical based upon Oliver Twist, but David Lean directed my favorite version, his second Dickens-based movie. Some objected to the production because Fagin, the old man who trains street boys to be thieves, is an anti-Semitic stereotype. That is true, but Fagin is only one of many antagonists in the story, the most likeable one. The real villains are the same as in most Dickens tales, ignorance and want. Lean coaxed an incredible performance from nine year-old John Howard Davies, who went on to a long career in British TV as a producer and director of comedies including Monty Python, Fawlty Towers and Mr. Bean.
Wild Boys of the Road (1933)
When economies fail, many of those hit hardest are young people. During America’s Great Depression, thousands of homeless teens took to the roads and rails, trying to find work and survive any way they could. This courageous, pre-Code film has a tacked-on happy ending demanded by studio boss Jack Warner, but until that last minute miracle it’s an effective exploration of the hazards of wealth inequity. It was the only major role given to female lead Dorothy Coonan in her 15-year acting career, but it worked out all right. She and director William Wellman were married 40 years, and they had seven children together.
Visages d’Enfants / Faces of Children (1925)
In my review of The Artist, I wrote about the acting style in silent films seeming over-the-top because the actors were stage-trained. A few directors were ahead of their time in understanding how to use the intimacy that cameras create, and how to help performers scale back from ACTING to behaving. Jacques Feyder was one of them. I didn’t see this as a child, but when I did in the 1990’s, I was amazed at how modern and direct the performances were. The wife of a mayor in a small, alpine village dies, leaving two small children. He can’t cope with both his municipal duties and childrearing, so the mayor remarries right away to a widow with a daughter. The mayor’s younger daughter accepts the blended family, but his older son isn’t through grieving for his mother. He acts out, tricking his stepsister into going out in bad weather for a lost doll. When it appears she has been lost to an avalanche, the young boy is consumed with guilt. It’s an incredible allegory about the power of maternal love, both agonizing and redemptive.
These next three films about war orphans emerged from the context of World War II, a clearer kind of conflict than those we fight today. WWII provided us with big personalities as characters in the drama we told ourselves was happening, but as in every war (or every broken home), it is children who suffer most viscerally. These movies showed the war through their eyes, helping adults to face their own pain. The first two films earned Oscars for the juvenile actors. The third won Best Foreign Film.
Journey for Margaret (1942)
Although it is constructed as a propaganda piece, the quality of the performances by Margaret O’Brien and William Severn as children orphaned in the London Blitz elevates the experience of watching it far beyond ordinary expectations. This is a movie about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from back when the term for it was “shell shock”. Miss O’Brien’s ability to express the pain of loss is astounding. This was her first starring role, but also the last film from W.S. Van Dyke, one of MGM’s most reliable directors. He had helmed Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932), four Thin Man movies, six Nelson Eddy/Jeanette MacDonald hits, and a little thing with Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable called San Francisco (1936). He was dying from cancer as they shot, and there’s a sense of hope emerging from darkness in this prescient film, released 10 months after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Search (1948)
This was the first film for both Montgomery Clift and his nine year-old co-star Ivan Jandl, who learned his English lines phonetically. It’s a story of a young Auschwitz survivor and his mother, who is searching for him in refugee shelters. Many of the scenes between the boy and Clift’s character, a soldier who shelters him, were improvised since neither actor spoke the other’s language. Adding to the authenticity was the choice to film in bombed-out, unrepaired areas of German cities. The child actor, a citizen of the Soviet bloc, was not allowed a travel visa in order to accept the special juvenile Oscar he had earned.
Jeux Interdits / Forbidden Games (1952)
This brilliant French postwar fable examines death with such honest simplicity it has alternatively shocked and moved audiences for decades. It begins with an attack on unarmed, fleeing civilians that kills a five year-old girl’s parents and her puppy. She wanders the road with the body of the dog until a farm boy takes her in. He teaches her the rituals of burial, and together they begin sanctifying the bodies of dead animals and insects, creating a cemetery in miniature. This is their way to process the senseless loss of lives around them. The score features a haunting romance for solo guitar that has become part of the standard curriculum for classical students today.
Invaders From Mars (1953)
I remember well the feeling of vague dread I had about Cold War dangers as a child. I didn’t understand the political ideologies, but I had a sense there were great conflicts over secret weapons happening somewhere out of sight, and that Communism was capable of changing thinking people into robots. Those fears provide the underscore for this movie, one of the earliest and best to represent them by using aliens as proxies for the red menace. Later examples include Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Blob (1958), but telling this story from the point-of-view of a young boy who witnesses what appears to be a meteor falling amplifies the nightmare effect. People go out to investigate, return as automatons, and of course, no one believes the boy when he tries to warn others.
Night of the Hunter (1954)
I’ve referred to this film in several previous posts, because it’s such a personal favorite. I believe it’s a unique combination of fairy tale structure, biblical allegory, German Expressionist pictorial style and magical realism. An escaped convict gives his young son a fortune in stolen money to hide, but his soon widowed mother is wooed by the convict’s former cellmate, a psychopathic preacher/serial killer played superbly by Robert Mitchum. It’s all up to the boy, who must run, hide the money, and protect his little sister from the killer tracking them. The only film directed by Charles Laughton, it has a beautiful music score that weaves from folk songs to horror cues. “You know, when you’re little, you have more endurance than God is ever to grant you again. Children are man at his strongest. They abide.”
Les Quatre Cents Coups /The 400 Blows (1959)
This first film from Francois Truffaut legitimized the Nouvelle Vague style and helped make “the auteur theory” familiar worldwide. It’s a semi-autobiography about an ordinary boy who, after being labeled by his parents and school a troublemaker, drifts into juvenile delinquency. When we discussed it in middle school, my teacher pointed out that “drop-outs” could be more accurately called “push-outs”. I never forgot that. Over the next 20 years, Truffaut used the same actor to play the same character in four more films about his transition into adulthood and maturity.
A Taste of Honey (1961)
Here’s a terrific example of what a young girl inspired to write about the kinds of things happening in her own life can produce. Irish playwright Shelagh Delaney wrote this, her first play, at age 18, and adapted it into a screenplay at 20. Tony Richardson directed both the first production of the play, and then the film. It’s a gem in the style called “kitchen sink realism”, the goal of which is to find the true beauty in lives of squalor. Jo (Rita Tushingham) and her mother are so poor they have to keep moving to stay a step ahead of rent collectors. She’s full of anger and imagination, but she’s also naïve and gets pregnant from a short relationship with a handsome black sailor. Her only friend and protector is a gay student named Geoffrey (Murray Melvin). The play and film broke a lot of barriers, and it’s easy to love these characters even while feeling sad for them.
Hand in Hand (1961)
I’ve decided to give this list a heartwarming conclusion. Friendship is the cure for the diseases of racial and religious bigotry. In this sweet little story of a Catholic boy and Jewish girl who are best friends, they surmount the barriers adults try to place between them. Children instinctively understand that all humans have more in common than the differences imposed by culture, and this film illustrates that truth without being preachy or overly sentimental. The two friends overcome rejection, misunderstandings of each other’s faith, parental pressure, and just a wee bit of danger when they run away in a dinghy.