Boys in Brown (1949)
This story of life in a borstal – a sort of Scum for the 1940s – is entertaining if, and it’s a big if, you can suspend your disbelief for long enough to truly believe that the cast could actually be the inmates of a detention centre for young men. Let’s have a look at them:
|Left to right: Andrew Crawford (aged 32); John Blythe (aged 28); Jimmy Hanley (aged 31); Michael Medwin (aged 26); Richard Attenborough (aged 26); Alfie Bass (aged 33); Dirk Bogarde (aged 28) and Robert Desmond (just 21!!!!)|
The sight of these ‘boys’ in their uniform shorts is ridiculous and comical, although the scenes of their arrival at the institution ...
... contrasting their street clothes (the wide-boy uniform of broad shouldered jackets and baggy trousers) against the childlike uniform of the inmates ...
|Stanley Escane & Alfie Bass|
... allows the audience to understand how so many young criminals were little more than boys playing at being men. As Michael Medwin's character puts it, he's "a married man with two kids, back in rompers."
In an era which saw widespread consternation over juvenile delinquency (often blamed on the lax social constraints of wartime) and had experienced a post-war crime wave in which young criminals appeared less restrained about the use of firearms than their forebears, Boys in Brown was at least attempting to confront serious social issues.
|Robbery at a jeweller's shop - one of the 'villains' is Clive Dunn in an early role.|
The cycle of poverty and criminality are laid bare for the audience: Attenborough’s character, Jackie Knowles ...
... is unemployed and gets involved in crime in order to support his single mother, whilst Jimmy Haney's character was fostered from birth to a woman who is a drunk "and worse" - I think we know what that means. At the core of the film is the message about how difficult it is for youngsters who have been to borstal to settle back into society after their release, especially if they feel society has no place for them. When 20 year old (yes, you heard it right, Jimmy Hanley is supposed to be 20 years old) Bill Foster (Jimmy Hanley) ...
... is released early, he returns to a foster mother that doesn’t want him, to an area where criminality is common (as he tells the governor, if he goes straight "I'll be the only one in the street") and into workplaces where his background makes him the target of suspicion. These are the pressures that cause him to reoffend, return to borstal then begin to believe that the gap between release and rehabilitation is too far to be bridged.
Although the film doesn't mention it, there is an undercurrent of homosexuality that audiences would have spotted if they knew what they were looking for. Bogarde plays his role in an a manner that suggests he might be in borstal for committing homosexual acts. As he tells Richard Attenborough on his arrival at the borstal: "If you have a pal it makes it a bit easier. I could look after you." Although he mentions being a thief, he is the outsider among the group and his mannerisms set him apart from the others. Bogarde's performance is certainly far different from in his other roles of this period, suggesting that - regardless of how the role was written, he had intended to give the role a sexually subversive edge.
... and Dirk Bogarde as a dangerous young criminal:
Although both films have their similarities, in other ways Boys in Brown might be better compared with a film like I Believe in You (1952) in which a probation officer (Cecil Parker) tries to keep a young criminal (Harry Fowler) on ‘the straight and narrow’. Indeed, one might even put them together with Turn the Key Softly (1953) which deals with female criminals as they struggle to stay ‘straight’ following their release from prison. As a thematic trilogy we see the struggle to keep youths out of prison (I Believe in You), the attempt to balance punishment and rehabilitation (Boys in Brown), and the hardships encountered by ex-prisoners as they struggle to fit back into mainstream society (Turn the Key Softly).
All three films look at the differences between the unfortunate youngsters who fall into petty crime and those more hardened types who are wilfully criminal. The message in all is that young criminals need constant support if they are to be rehabilitated and fit back into society. These are messages that are as relevant now as they were in 1949.
It is interesting to note than on the mantelpiece of Jackie's home is a framed photograph of Attenborough:
This appears to show him wearing a leather jacket. I believe this is actually a still of him from the 1948 film London Belongs to Me, in which he had previously played a juvenile delinquent (who wore a leather jacket a times in the film).
Here's who else appears:
Barbara Murray, as Jackie's girlfriend:
Elspeth March, as Bill Foster's real mother:
Thora Hird as Jackie's mum (even though Hird was only 11 years older than her on-screen son, Richard Attenborough)
It's currently available on DVD from the good people at Moviemail ...
And the highly recommended website, Rare Film Posters, is currently selling this poster: