The Boy With Green Hair (USA, 1948) ***
Directed by Joseph Losey. Written by Ben Barzman and Alfred Lewis Levitt from a story by Betsy Beaton. Produced by Stephen Ames. Executive producer, Dore Schary. Photography, George Barnes. Editing, Frank Doyle. Art Direction, Ralph Berger & Albert S. D'Agostino. Music, Leigh Harline. Cast: Pat O'Brien (Gramp), Robert Ryan (Dr. Evans), Barbara Hale (Miss Brand), Dean Stockwell (Peter Frye), et al. An RKO studios production. In Technicolor. 82 minutes.
A war orphan suddenly acquires green hair and becomes a pariah.The film was made near the start of the Un-American Activities Committee (and the MacCarthyite) witchhunts. It was director Losey's (1901-1984) first feature. And writer Barzman's (1911-1989) last work in Hollywood. Blacklisted, he continued in Europe, where soon Losey also exiled himself. At 1983 retrospective in France, Barzman said that he had been impressed by the first two Hollywood films against antisemitism, Crossfire and Gentleman's Agreement. Though he had started out to write about war orphans and the evils of war, the script expanded into a fable on racism and discrimination.(For the producers it was also good publicity for Technicolor).
People ask, in the movie, as voice-off: "Would you like your sister to marry someone with green hair?" Slowly the young hero understands that his peculiarity is no accident, that he is one of the chosen to tell the world about the horrors of war. One of his lines was "War is bad for children" which later became a Peace movement slogan "War is bad for children and all living things." According to Barzman, Howard Hughes , who had bought the RKO studio, wanted Stockwell to add: "That's why we need the strongest army, air force and navy in the world," but the young actor refused. Both Barzman and Losey had impressive careers abroad.
The film was produced by humanitarian-idealist Dore (i.e. Isidore) Schary (1905-1980) and for several years a major force in Hollywood. His prolific record (as producer as well as script-writer) included many a "liberal" movie. It was quite a contrast with the record of right-leaning Howard Hughes.
The plot in some detail:
At a police station cops ask a kid with shaven head to give his name. He stays mute. Enter doctor Robert Ryan who manages to make him speak after treating him to a milkshake and hamburger. The boy's story is told in flashback.
In World War II, young Peter's parents had gone to London to help children. They were killed during the Blitz. The boy was not told of this, but was shuttled from relative to relative, with no success. Finally he goes to his grandfather, former vaudevillian Pat O'Brien, who is very sweet and super-Irish -- though his strong accent comes and goes.
[We get, alas, treated to one of his singing numbers, and another one later, with kids in a car, as they go around collecting things for war relief. O'Brien is also supposed to be a singing waiter, but we see none of this. On the other hand, Nature Boy ("There was a boy..." etc) the signature song of the film, is rather corny but at the same time it does stay with you.]
The boy decides to stay with grandpa, is rather happy, has nice Barbara Hale as school teacher Miss Brand. School walls have photos and posters of war relief, especially of kids affected by war. A classmate tells Peter that a boy in a photo looks like him. "He does not" says Stockwell. "Yes, he's also a war orphan like you." Peter has a fit, beats up the other kid,-- and is told the truth by grandpa.
He's happy again. One morning, as he is washing his hair, it turns green. This curiosity makes townspeople uncomfortable. (The milkman loses customers as some say that the milk did it). Parents tell kids to shun Peter, since the green may be catching. Kids mock him.
Miss Brand tries to help. Peter runs away, is chased by kids. One of them, treacherously, has him give him back his glasses, then grabs him). He escapes, meets a "tableau vivant" of kids from posters, where one tells him his hair is a mark to tell people that war is bad for children.
He goes around preaching this, which makes people even more uncomfortable. He then shaves his hair. In many ways this low-budget movie is naive, because it is on the "childish" side, and, as I remember it, a bit slow. Yet it is undeniably touching and a big contribution to tolerance. Stockwell is obviously the star; O'Brien comes second in importance; Hale's and Ryan's parts are small.
On top of the anti-war message, the movie opposes antisemitism, racism, discrimination, and, overall, being suspicious of people who are "different." Of course, in the punk days to come, green hair would have caused no stir at all !!! Additional Notes:
1) Barzman had a co-writer (whom he did not mention in Paris, but that's par for course!). I cannot tell what the other writer's contribution to the script was.
2) Both Barzman and Losey were confirmed liberals -- hence different, like Peter. And one of Barzman's five earlier films was the fine, patriotic, World War II, John Wayne vehicle Back to Bataan (1945)
3) Director Losey had started with stage productions. His big hit in New York theater was Bertolt Brecht's Galileo Galilei, which --significantly-- also tells of the astronomer who was also "different." The Italian genius (1564-1642) among his many astronomical discoveries, had insisted, against Copernic's theory, that the earth circles around the sun. This upset the current - and religious - beliefs that the earth was the center of the universe and everything moved around it. Getting in trouble with the Church authorities, Galileo was forced to recant. But, it is said, on his deathbed he exclaimed "E pur, si muove!" ("Still, it moves!")
4) Losey went on to a multi-faceted film career in the UK, France and elsewhere abroad. In cinephile circles he was, and still is, considered one of the greatest film-makers anywhere.
5) Videos of this film are hard to find. At Chicago's Facets Multi-Media, my best source, it is at this writing ( 6 October 1999) out of print as a sales item. But one can call (free) the rentals department at 1-800-532-2387 to see if this title is available for rent.