SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: THE CHILD AS CATASTROPHIC FRIEND
This is the ninth chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.
The child as catastrophic friend
A ‘special friendship’, then, needn’t necessarily be very welcome to the adult party at all, but can be inflicted on him willy-nilly by the child. On occasion the man will simply be the long-suffering object of catastrophic pre-pubertal energy, as best illustrated by “Good ol’ Mr Wilson” in the “DENNIS THE MENACE” TV series and films. Whether or not Mr Wilson nursed a soft spot for his neighbour’s son (discounting bruises), he was the perpetual butt of Dennis’s pranks and master schemes. It was a symbiotic relationship that took a grim toll on the host organism. Jay North inhabited the role on TV, the personal choice of creator cartoonist Hank Ketcham, but North was a talent of meagre dimensions, to be blunt, and his repertoire of two expressions (surprised and smug) soon grew tedious on the eye. He lingered in the role well past his sell-by date.
What was by no means his fault was that the original Ketcham persona of Dennis – directly comparable to Richmal Crompton’s “JUST WILLIAM”, though several years younger – had his teeth filed down for TV. He was a scamp, a prankster in the early silent film tradition, meaning no harm but certainly meaning mischief. The network dolts decided their viewers would not be amused by a naughty boy wreaking havoc about him, and recast Dennis as a little-goody-two-shoes, a “helper” whose best intentions led to chaos. The two big-screen incarnations of William (Dicky Lupino in 1939, William Graham in 1947) were similarly emasculated. And even earlier to the screen came several Penrods (Wesley Barry in 1920, Ben Alexander in 1925, Leon Janney in 1931, Billy Mauch in 1937). The direct precursor of both William and Dennis, Booth Tarkington’s imp (unknown in the UK) suffered the ultimate indignity of being demoted to a supporting role to his elder sister for the fey Doris Day musicals “ON MOONLIGHT BAY” (51) and “BY THE LIGHT OF THE SILVERY MOON” (53). Now mysteriously called “Wesley” and gloriously played by Billy Gray, the Penrod episodes are the only amusing part of those films.
Another cardinal example was “THE RANSOM OF RED CHIEF”, filmed in 1911, 1952 (as one segment of “O. HENRY’S FULL HOUSE”), and 1977, in which a kidnapped scamp becomes the bane of his kidnappers’ lives until they have to implore his parents to take the wretched child back. This was redemption of the wrongdoer by a different means, the child as society’s secret weapon to bring them to heel, but it was also, less endearingly, an early foretaste of King Brat, the untouchable, unlovely 1990s child with an immense conceit of himself, regarding all adult life as an insect species whose wings may be plucked off for the sheer spite of it. Small boys in O. Henry’s day were not immune to adult control, which is what made his story comic, or counterintuitive. Many small boys today do not know the meaning of adult control, and that is amusing to no one.
The King Brat trend in American cinema – so commonplace now we scarcely even notice it – can probably be traced back to “THE BAD NEWS BEARS” (76). Sassy kids had been on the screen even before the talkies, and were certainly well in evidence by the 1930s (Americans called it “being fresh” in those days), but always there was the trusty standby of a good spanking or a trip to the woodshed to correct these little eruptions of disrespectfulness. By 1976 such disciplinary notions were already marked as dubious, counter-productive, needlessly cruel. So we began to see young children slinging taunts and abuse at adults, teachers, parents with complete impunity, and “grounding” entered the vocabulary as a limp substitute for punishment.
This may seem an inherent contradiction – deploring those screen Williams and Dennises for subverting the boy’s function as Lord of Misrule, then bemoaning more recent cinema for giving him free rein – but the mischief of boys in earlier decades was a healthy, exuberant show of resistance to the regimen imposed upon them, a proof of spirit which did not imply contempt. King Brat is a different creature altogether, scarcely constrained by any regimen at all, in school or in the home, and his mocking of adult values expresses a conceit of self that simply has no time for other people. He is the direct product of lassitude without firm guidance or, in a phrase the politicians are fond of spouting, of “rights without obligations”, and that way madness lies. Children do need boundaries – and good manners – if they are to grow into adults with any sense of a contract with society around them. No contract, no society.
“THE BAD NEWS BEARS” attracted a deal of flak for that very reason (Walter Matthau the long-suffering butt of his no-hoper Little League team), but by the time Macaulay Culkin arrived on the scene as the planet’s most famous child in “HOME ALONE” (90), his total disdain for the adults around him passed without remark. It was “wrong” for adults to slap children because this “legitimated violence”, yet 8-year old Kevin McAllister is seen gleefully inflicting violence on “the wet bandits” and it was all just good fun, “TOM & JERRY” style. Audiences hooted loudly, then wondered why they were having such difficulty managing their own brood at home. The word “attitude” began to creep into general parlance, something that was mandatory to the survival skills of being “street smart”. It became “cool” to be obnoxious, insolent, defiant, even to people twice your own size. And not for the first time, life began to imitate art even faster than art could imitate life, as Paddy Chayefsky warned in “NETWORK”. Good manners were abolished along with the cane and the school paddle, but all in the interests of “protecting” the young. So the seed was planted for a society that would soon be clamouring for protection from the young, and teen street violence would escalate to new levels. Was there any connection here at all? Perish the thought.
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PJ, 14 July 2021
There's a book to be written about "brat-worship" in Hollywood, and in American culture generally. I think the female brat is a good deal worse than the male, and is worshipped more abjectly.