Dangerous Years

7 December 1947

Marilyn’s First Speaking Part

Marilyn was twenty-one years old when she performed her scenes for Dangerous Years‘ director, Arthur Pierson. Married at sixteen to Jimmie Dougherty in order to avoid returning to life in a Los Angeles orphanage, she had already been a wife for four years and a divorcee for one. Watching her perform as Evie, a teenager waiting tables in a soda shop restaurant juke joint, the Gopher Hole, is interesting to say the least. She plays alongside Scotty Beckett and Dickie Moore of Our Gang fame, and Billy Halop, one of the original Dead End Kids who later became Bert Munson, a recurring character on the situation comedy, “All In the Family”.

Billy Halop plays Danny Jones, an orphan and the alpha-male leader of a teenage gang consisting of Willy Miller, played by Scotty Beckett, Gene Spooner, played by Dickie Moore, Leo Emerson, played by Darryl Hickman, Tommy MacDonald, played by Gil Stratton, Jr. and Doris Martin, played by Ann E. Todd. Doris is the only female in the gang. She is in love with Danny because he is real cool and always has money. Danny’s gang of misguided children engage in mostly petty crimes until Danny decides to burglarize a local factory. The well-liked high school history teacher and Boy’s Club organizer, Jeff Carter, played by Donald Curtis, gets wind of Danny’s plans and decides to stop the crime. When he confronts Danny during the burglary, a struggle for Danny’s gun ensues, causing it to discharge, killing Mr. Carter. All except Willy Miller beat a path back to the Gopher Hole where Doris awaits to provide them with an alibi. Willy, who provided transportation to the burglary in the form of his father’s clearly identified business truck, was so frightened by what transpired at the warehouse that he ran home, leaving the truck at the scene of the crime.

Once home, Willy encounters his surly father. Having discovered Mr. Miller’s truck, the police soon arrive with stern faces, details and questions. Initially the frightened Willy denies any involvement in the burglary but his father does not believe Willy’s denial. Dear old dad smacks his son in the mouth and then proceeds to beat a confession out of the now terrified boy behind a closed bedroom door. The police do not stop the beating; they smoke cigars and admire Mr. Miller’s whiskey cabinet. Willy’s cries and his piteous begging, the sounds of the beating as it is heartlessly administered by dear old dad, are disturbing.

Police officers arrest all the remaining gang members at the Gopher Hole. Since Danny is an adult, he stands trial for the cold-blooded, first-degree murder of Mr. Walker. The movie devotes about three quarters of its running time to Danny’s trial, recounting the events of the burglary and the murder in the form of flashbacks during the testimony of each participant. Each youngster recounted a life of neglect and abuse at the hands of their parents and each admited that they were drawn to Danny because he treated them differently: he was kind to them and bought them many possessions that their parents could not afford. When they were with Danny, they admitted, they also felt important.

The prosecuting attorney, Edgar Burns, played by Richard Gaines, has a daughter, Connie, played by Anabel Shaw, who was visiting South America when the murder and arrests occurred. In court to visit her father one day, she recognizes Danny and approaches him in the courtroom. She introduces herself as “the little girl who was always with” him at the Clifton orphanage. He does not acknowledge any memory of her but nearby reporters overhear what she says to Danny and they want to hear her story: they didn’t know that Edgar Burns’ daughter had spent part of her life in an orphanage.

In the judge’s chambers with Connie, Mr. Burns explains that he fell in love when he was nineteen and convinced a young woman named Cynthia to marry him. His family did not accept Cynthia; so they had the marriage annulled. She disappeared without telling him she was pregnant or where she was going. Problems during childbirth would prove fatal to Cynthia but she coerced a promise from Anna Templeton, presumed to be a nurse present at Connie’s delivery, never to reveal Connie’s birth to her father. Anna and Connie ended up in the orphanage with Danny where he became Connie’s brother surrogate and protector.

When Connie became ill, Anna forgot her promise to Cynthia and contacted Edgar, who claimed his daughter and delivered her to a special hospital for treatment. Once cured of her illness, Connie explains, she tried to contact Danny but she never received an answer to any of her letters. Finally Anna notified Connie that Danny, a runaway, could not be found. Connie then makes an impassioned plea to the judge: Danny is really a good person and she wants to help him. Unfortunately, the judge tells her, she can’t.

But wait; there’s more. Anna Templeton appears with a large plot pretzel.

During a contentious meeting with Danny, who obviously does not like Mrs. Templeton, she reveals that Cynthia was not really Connie’s mother. She was Danny’s mother, and so Edgar Burns is actually Danny’s father. Connie was a foundling who became ill and needed help. Mrs. Templeton called Edgar Burns and lied as a means of providing the help Connie needed. Mrs. Templeton tells Danny that she has been ill recently, apologizes for causing his lousy life and assumes all the blame for Mr. Carter’s tragic murder. Anna causes a chaotic scene in the courtroom by announcing she has information vital to Danny’s defense; but when she takes the witness stand, Danny confesses to the murder to prevent her from telling the truth about his paternity. During the chaos, Mrs. Templeton dies in the witness chair and the secret that Danny Jones is actually Danny Burns virtually dies with her.

Still protecting Connie, Danny decides not to reveal his true identity. In the end, the jury convicts him of first degree murder, and he appears before Judge Raymond to be sentenced. Before the judge announces Danny’s punishment, the defense attorney attempts to mitigate Danny’s crime by explaining Danny’s sad life to the judge. Danny’s attorney blames his client’s behavior and the murder on Danny’s life as an orphan, his life without love and affection, without caring parents and a stable home. Should a young man like Danny, one who suffered through such a lousy childhood, a lousy life, be judged the same as persons who experienced just the opposite? Should any of the other tormented and neglected children involved in the crime be severely judged? That’s the question.

Danny receives a life sentence. As court officers lead him from the courtroom, after a brief conversation with Connie and Edgar, the identity of his son still unknown to the prosecuting attorney, the music, the lighting and the entire timber of the movie transforms Danny into a hero.

Despite the incredible plot pretzels and the many holes and unanswered questions caused by them, Dangerous Years is not a bad movie, and it’s worth watching just to see Marilyn in what is actually her first real speaking part. The acting has some high moments, some low moments and the story tumbles headlong into soap-opera-like melodrama near the end. While blaming disinterested, abusive parents for their off-spring’s criminal behavior has some validity as a theme, considering the number of movies made since 1947 that espouse a similar Liberalesque view of all crime, it’s a bit hackneyed and inane. The following quotation from Judge Raymond crystallizes the view:

Mr. Miller, your disgraceful actions cannot be tolerated in this day and age. Look at your son, sitting here afraid of the very sight of you. Lonely for the companionship you denied him. Forced out into the street to find that which wasn’t in your home or your heart. Look at him and realize it was you who forced him out of your house. But for you, he wouldn’t be here.

But Marilyn, herself an orphan for all intents and purposes who did not choose a life of crime, stands as a testament to that view’s inanity. How easy it is to blame the criminal’s circumstances and not the criminal. After all, the gang members consciously chose to follow Danny when they could have chosen otherwise. In fact, Mr. Carter presented Danny with an opportunity to work for the Boy’s Club and aim the boys in the right direction but Danny refused. Given the opportunity to choose right over wrong, Danny chose wrong. As usual, the Liberalesque argument ignores the victim, the fact that Mr. Carter lost his life, that Danny killed him. This version of “it really ain’t my fault” was produced seven decades before refusing to accept the responsibility for one’s choices and one’s actions became fashionable, expected, and even profitable. Perhaps this movie stands as harbinger of the irresponsibility and unaccountability that would develop over the ensuing decades.

What does all the preceding have to do with Marilyn’s performance? Well, now that you’ve asked, absolutely nothing. Evie has no real function in the movie save one of human set decoration, like many of the characters Marilyn would portray during her rise to fame. Dangerous Years would be the same movie with or without Evie’s encounter with Gene Spooner, whom she tags “small change”. Even though Marilyn is on-screen just briefly and delivers but a few lines, she effectively conveys that Evie has a snarky contempt for the youngsters who frequent the Gopher Hole. She may not be chronologically older than her peers but she is psychologically older. She displays more interest in the older Jeff Cater. Even so, Gene thinks they have an after work date, which is odd considering he’ll soon be burglarizing a factory. Evie’s not so sure: she just might be too tired. When he pressures her about their alleged date, she informs him the tray she is carrying “weighs a ton.” After all, she’s a working woman. She has more important matters to deal with in her life than an after work date with an adolescent. Later in the scene, while sitting at a table with Doris, Gene summons Evie by calling her miss. She is obviously bemused by his attempt to derogate her. After he orders two double cokes, she asks: “Who’s paying?” He answers: “I told you I got money.” Her voice is tinged with ridicule when she says: “And now you’re blowing it on two cokes. My my.” She turns the tables on Gene, belittles and even chides him for his irresponsibility, wasting money on something as frivolous as cokes. When she returns with Gene’s order, she virtually demands a ten cent tip. She’s there to earn money, not to be friends with children.

Even in this small, early roll, it’s obvious Marilyn has the ability and understands how to reveal a character through facial expressions and body language, an ability she would continue to develop and use to memorable effect in later roles. In spite of her obvious acting abilities, Dangerous Years was the final movie in which Marilyn appeared during her initial year at Fox. Her fourteenth billing, in a movie crediting sixteen, meant nothing. Her contract was not renewed. For Marilyn, that rejection was a life changing event.

Cast Notes

Most of the teen-aged cast members who appeared in Dangerous Years went on to live relatively normal lives. Some would continue to act and some would move on to other careers.

When Scotty Beckett appeared in Dangerous Years he was just 18 years old. Even so, he had already appeared in eighty films, both shorts and full length, as a child actor. He had thirteen more films to make before retiring from acting. Once retired, he tried selling real estate and used cars and twice he enrolled in college with plans to become a doctor. His life was marred by arrests for public drunkenness and DUIs, drug possession and passing bad checks. In 1959, he sustained a fractured hip and skull when he crashed his car crashed into a tree, leaving him partially disabled. Finally in 1968, he admitted himself into a nursing home: he had been severely beaten. Not long after entering the home, he was found dead, a bottle of pills and a note nearby. He was 38. The circumstance surrounding the beating were never explained and although an autopsy was performed, the Medical Examiner never declared an actual cause of death. The assumption has always been suicide.

Dickie Moore made over one-hundred film appearances in his thirty year career, including Oliver Twist, The Life of Emile Zola, Madame X, Sergeant York, Heaven Can Wait and The Song of Bernadette. After his acting career ended, he began a public relations firm that he owned and managed for forty-four years. Apparently, Dickie and Darryl Hickman will appear as themselves, of course in yet another documentary, in the apparently endless parade of documentaries about Marilyn, one to be entitled What Ever Happened to Norma Jean. Unfortunately Dickie died in September of 2015 at the age of 89. He and actress Jane Powell were married during the last twenty-seven years of his life.

Before appearing in Dangerous Years, Billy Halop had already appeared in twenty-five movies, including 1938’s Angels with Dirty Faces alongside James Cagney, Pat O’Brien and Humphrey Bogart. Billy struggled with alcohol addiction most of his life. He became a registered nurse and appeared regularly from 1971 through 1975 on the television sitcom All in the Family as cab driver Bert Munson. Billy died of a heart attack in 1976 at the age of 56.

Darryl Hickman appeared in sixty-two films, both shorts and full length, as both child and adult actor, including The Grapes of Wrath, Meet Me in St. Louis, Island in the Sky, Network and Sharky’s Machine. Darryl’s brother, Dwayne, starred in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis on CBS. Darryl is alive and currently living in Hollywood.

Gil Stratton continued acting for a few more years, appearing in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 as Cookie with William Holden and Otto Preminger in 1953. In 1954, he was hired by Los Angeles’ KNXT-TV and eventually became a renown sportscaster for CBS, winning five local Emmys and seven Golden Mike awards from the Radio-Television News Association. He died at the age of 86 from congestive heart failure.

Ann E. Todd was the ripe old age of 16 when she appeared in Dangerous Years. After appearing in forty films, including Destry Rides Again, Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet and How Green Was My Valley, she retired from acting in 1953 to become a teacher and a librarian. Ann died in February of 2020 and the age of 89.

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