This is what happens when you let your teenage daughter go to the drive-in movies on a school night. Even if she is a good girl (and boy oh boy is this girl good), she will end up consorting with hooligans who hijack a carnival trolley, which naturally leads to having sex, getting pregnant, making appointments with back-alley abortionists, and then trying to drown herself in the surf. It is clearly an A to B equation. Teens are dangerous. They should be driven around in armored cars. And Saudi Arabia certainly has the right idea in terms of dating.
Too Soon to Love from 1960 is the Reefer Madness of teenage pregnancy. When you think that Splendor in the Grass, Elia Kazan’s film of the William Inge script, which covers much of the same territory but with far more sensitivity and daring, was just the following year, it is astonishing, the gap. These two movies are from two different worlds. Yes, teens must be protected from their impulses, from time to time. They are not yet adults, and a mistake when you’re 16 can have lifelong consequences. But Too Soon to Love is so overwrought, so melodramatic, that I would love to see it in a packed movie house at 11 p.m. in Greenwich Village. It would play as a comedy.
Jennifer West and Richard Evans play Cathy and Jim, two teenagers from a nice middle-class town. Jim works at the drive-in concession stand, and is applying for scholarships for college. Cathy is a shy blushing wallflower dominated by her Central Casting prudish strict parents. The film opens with a scene that is supposed to show how dangerous and scary kids are. They’ve run WILD, I tell ya! There’s a local carnival, and about 20 kids, all screaming and laughing, pile onto a trolley, and then drive off. Everyone is screaming and laughing. Two cops watch them go, and one of them shakes his head disapprovingly, and says, “Look at that.” Look at what, sir? Kids having fun? You should see the crap that goes on in high school in 2010, then you’d relax and realize how good you have it. The cops intervene and chase the trolley. Most of the kids flee into the night, whooping it up and laughing like the juvenile delinquents that they are. But Jim and Cathy are busted. They don’t really know each other at this point, but they are interrogated by the cops, as though they were caught smuggling Kalashnikovs in through the Canadian border. Cathy is near hysteria. She is always near hysteria. Poor Jennifer West plays this part at a high pitch throughout, and by the end, her tears no longer moved me. If you cry in every scene, dear, I stop noticing. Or caring. However! The cops are lenient and let them go, and the two of them find that they are bonded together from this awful experience. A romance blossoms. Which is not easy since Cathy’s father is strict (and rough, he slaps her around), and also there’s the fact that she’s such a good girl that any contact with boys sends her into a Victorian-era tizzy. However, Jim, a nice guy, takes it easy with her.
The script is explicit about what the problem is. He wants to sleep with her. She is nervous. He says stuff like, “Whatever you want to do is okay with me.” But hormones rule the day, and they end up sleeping together on the beach as the surf rolls in symbolically. Eventually, naturally, Cathy finds out she is pregnant. Horror and fear then ensue. Jim says he loves her, but Cathy is afraid of her father. What should they do?? Jim suggests at one point, hesitantly, “You know, you don’t have to have the baby.” She gasps. (But that’s nothing new. She gasps every line.) “What do you mean, Jim?” “I’m just saying that you don’t have to have it. There are doctors who do that sort of thing.” Suddenly, I felt like I was watching Vera Drake. Jim asks his friend, the barber, what he should do, and after some hemming and hawing, and also scolding (“You should have known better”), he gives him a name on a slip of paper of a woman who can “do it” for them. Jim goes to see the woman. She lives in a run-down tenement, naturally. She is played by Billie Byrd, an actress who had been around forever, and I immediately recognized her as the woman who played one of the crazy grandmothers in Sixteen Candles. She worked till the end. A wonderful actress, this is the best scene in the film, and it’s because of how she played it. Her apartment is a mess, upping the ante, showing the squalid world that Jim and Cathy have descended into. She stands at the sink, washing dishes, and interviewing Jim about his girlfriend. She’s seen it all. This young quivering nervous teen before her is nothing new. She doesn’t scold, not really, but you can see on her face that this whole thing is a distasteful business to her. If only kids today would have some sense. She tells him to be at such-and-such an address that night. They live in neighborhoods with wide streets and nice houses. Suddenly, they walk down an urban block with neon signs saying “COCKTAILS” and “GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS”. Drunk men stagger down the street. Floozy women stand around. Poor Cathy, who is such a good girl (you know how I know? Because she walks with her head down, and holds her books primly in front of her. That’s how I know) is terrified. And rightly so. The abortion scene is filmed like a horror movie, with a slow climb up a narrow stairway, the music crescendoing, and then there’s a terrible moment when they meet another couple coming down the stairs, obviously coming from having an abortion in that horrible place. The man has his arm around the woman, and when she steps into the light on the stairwell, you see her face and it’s from something out of a zombie movie. It actually is a chilling moment, although the movie plays at such a high pitch emotionally you get a bit exhausted from being horrified all the time.
Cathy and Jim can’t go through with it, it’s too awful, and then Cathy tailspins into depression, staring out at the surf, that surf that once rolled in around her symbolically as she lost her virginity, and yearns for oblivion. She speaks of death. (She gasps of death).
These are serious issues, and obviously the movie has its heart in the right place. This is what happened when kids got pregnant and they had nowhere else to go. This is what happens sometimes. But every scene is a climax, every scene is played at the highest level of intensity, and very early on it tips over into Melodrama.
As part of my new Chronological Jack series (although I’m already out of order, I will do my best to not skip around), Too Soon to Love features Jack Nicholson in what is a glorified-extra role. He plays Buddy, an unrepentant juvenile delinquent, who cruises around in his hot rod, and behaves like a douchebag every time he is onscreen. He is the real bad boy, whereas Jim is a nice kid caught up in a bad situation with a girl he is in love with. But Buddy is beyond redemption. He has the first line in the picture, and it makes me laugh, because I can see Nicholson working his ass off. I may be projecting, but here is what I saw: a young actor, psyched that he was in a movie, doing what the part demanded of him, and chewing the scenery in a drawling sociopathic way. It’s hysterical.
His first line? The kids all jam onto the carnival trolley. He’s in the front seat. He sort of drums his hands on the front of the trolley, in a lackadaisacal manner (“showing” how over everything he is, how he’s just in things for the thrill), and calls to the driver, “Come ON. Let’s get this show on the ROAD!” Then he randomly looks over his shoulder behind him. This is an actor aware of the camera. He knows what his job is, he knows the “attitude” he needs to project, the over-it impatient rebel without a cause, looking for speed, looking for action. So he does it in that line, with a bombastic self-consciousness that will end up serving him well, later once he has more confidence as an actor. Nicholson always knows what the story is. Even here, when he is telegraphing every single second to the audience: “Look what a BAD AND WILD DUDE I AM.” It’s charming. I would never look at this performance and think, “That is a star in the making”, and that’s kind of charming too and makes his eventual journey in the late 60s and 70s even more amazing to me.
Nicholson’s only other big scene takes place at the drive-in.
Teens gather there to make out and make trouble. Cathy has to sneak out of the house to go meet Jim. She goes with two other girls, girls who are more Rizzo-types, girls not so hysterical (in the classic sense of the word) about sex. They’re a bit more realistic and like making out with guys, and that’s the whole point of going to the drive-in. Cathy thought they were there to watch the movie! She gasps in horror. What else is new.
Jim is busy at work at the concession stand, and Nicholson and two of his friends cruise through the parking lot looking around. Nicholson’s next line in the film is, again with the random scanning of the eyes, “I see a lot of parking, but I don’t see any ACTION.”
He’s an ACTOR. ACTING. In a MOVIE! He exudes excitement about that. Nicholson and his bad buddies end up moving in on Cathy and her two Rizzo friends.Cathy sits primly in the back seat, staring up at the screen. Obviously a newsreel is playing. We hear a portentous voice: “SEPTEMBER, 1951. KOREA.” At that moment, Nicholson slides into the back seat beside Cathy, a wolfish leer on his face, and at that very moment, a loud gong sounds, part of the newsreel, clearly, but used here to tell us, in case we didn’t get it, “Uh-oh. Cathy’s in trouble.” Too Soon to Love doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone, and that is part of the fun of it. We already know Buddy is a bad guy, because of how he said his first line in the movie, lazily drumming his hands and scanning his eyes around randomly, and we also know he’s bad because he cruises around in a hot rod. It was a simpler world then, apparently. Villains were immediately apparent. So do we need a gong to sound there, as though Buddy is a kung fu Bad Guy?
Yes. We do.
Because otherwise, we, that pesky audience who dares to have a mind of its own, might think: “What is the big deal? Teenagers make out at the drive in. No need to stop the presses for that one. Relax.”
He comes on strong, and it’s a violent scene. Cathy resists. He attacks her. She pushes him off her. He sneers, “Don’t make me play some big scene.” and then attacks her again. He plays this real, and it actually is effective. She’s saying No, dude, in no uncertain terms. At one point, she pushes him off her and says, with as much gumption as she can get up (she doesn’t gasp this particular line, and I fell over in amazement at her range), “Don’t you ever brush your teeth?” Go, Cathy.
Nicholson is good in this scene. He has a real sense of danger about him He doesn’t care that she resists. Her resisting turns him on. He is not even surprised when she resists. He picked her for that reason. And then, suddenly, the door of the car opens, and there is Jim, who came out from behind the concession stand at just the right moment (naturally). He pulls Nicholson out and punches him in the face.
They start to fight. It is nasty, involving biting, and holding someone pinned down so you can punch his face, rolling around on the pavement. Teens gather around, cheering on the action. Their faces crowding in are filmed in a slow pan, again meant to be terrifying. Look at how wild teens are. Look at how savage!! You’d think they were watching Christians being torn to shreds in the Coliseum. A fight is entertainment for them. And that is bad news for our entire society. Lock your doors. Teens are on the loose, and they’re INSANE!
Nicholson, beaten and battered, wins the fight, hands down. He fights dirty. He seems shocked when Jim punches him in the nose, and there is a very strange close-up of Nicholson’s bloody face, his hand feeling the blood dripping … as though he were unaware that a bloody nose would be part of getting into a fight after assaulting a good girl in the back of a car, as a gong goes off. Why are you so shocked, Buddy, that your nose is bloody? With your sociopathic behavior, this can’t be the first fight you’ve been in!
No matter. Nicholson is shocked. And angry. He goes back into the fight with more ferocity than before, beating Jim to a pulp.
I don’t mean to be mean, boys, but is Cathy really worth it? She only speaks in a gaspy hysterical voice, her father is a nutbag who won’t let her do anything, and she cries constantly. You’re 17 years old, boys. You should hang out with Rizzo girls who may be a bit easy, but at least you don’t always need a handkerchief ready to daub away their randomly falling tears. It is most certainly Too Soon to Love.
But, as the poster tells us, it is also Too Late to Turn Back.
It’s hard to make your stamp as an actor. It is hard to build a meaningful career. An actor may be good, but if he doesn’t find the part, he won’t make an impact. Plenty of actors have very good careers without ever having “the part”. But Nicholson, here in 1960, is almost a decade away from big zeitgeist-level fame. And here, in Too Soon to Love, it is obvious he is not ready for it yet. He does an okay job with a ridiculous cliched part, but he’s not a star yet. He has a long way to go. One of the reasons I admire him so much is that fame came to him relatively late. He was not a teen idol. He wasn’t a careerist, although acting mattered to him a great deal. He wanted to work. And so he did. The craziness of the Roger Corman experience helped him loosen up a bit, which was very fortunate, and it was through Corman that so many good things ended up happening. Too Soon to Love pre-dates all of that. You can see the difference. Nicholson here is aware of what he is doing, concerned with making an impression, and acting up a storm. He’s not natural yet. He’s not “in” himself yet. There are a couple of roles that come before this one where he is able to show what he can really do (like I said, I will do my best to go in order, but that’s not always possible). But that is more because the part is good (I am thinking of 1958′s The Cry Baby Killer).
It takes some people longer. Some actors have that “thing” very early. They have it instinctively. Perhaps they couldn’t build a career from such natural talent, but they own themselves in a way that far exceeds their years. This is movie magic. You never know who is going to “have it”. Nicholson does have it, but it took him some time to find it.
Nicholson is the kind of actor, specific and strange in many ways, that needed the part to launch him. He was never going to be a typical leading man, even though he is very handsome. He’s too odd for that, there’s something slightly ominous about him, as though he is laughing at all of us squares. He would never have fit in with a more conventional career route. It’s nice to see him stumbling his way to greatness.