Friday, March 9, 2012

The Boy With Green Hair

The Boy With Green Hair is a moving, unique fable that deals with the aftermath of World War II through the perspective of a young boy whose life had been irrevocably altered by the war. Peter (Dean Stockwell) was orphaned by the war, although nobody bothered to tell him; he was passed from one relative to another, each of them eventually having some reason why he could no longer stay with them, all of them perpetuating the illusion that someday his parents would return from Europe and he'd be reunited with them. Finally, he goes to stay with Gramp (Pat O'Brien), not his real grandfather but some older relation or friend of the family, one more place for Peter to live, for however long. With Gramp, Peter finally starts to settle down, to realize that he might have a semi-permanent place to stay and be happy: Gramp is a perfect companion for a little boy, a former entertainer who's always cheerful and always has far-fetched, fanciful stories to tell. But the war's grim reality still haunts the boy, and when he finds out that his parents are actually dead, that he's a war orphan just like the poor children that his school class has been helping with donations and fliers, it shakes him and changes him in a strange way.

He wakes up one morning and his hair has turned green. The film then becomes a parable dealing with the effect of war on children, as Peter faces ridicule at school and fear from adults, who wonder if the effect is contagious and might spread to their own children. Peter has been marked out as different, because subconsciously he wants to be noticed, he wants people to know that he's different, that he's a war orphan, someone marked in a very profound way by the war. At one point, he imagines that he is haunted by other war orphans — obviously projections of his own mind — who tell him that it's good to be noticed, that it's good to have people paying attention to him. Because, of course, so many of these tragically affected boys and girls are not noticed, their plight forgotten. Peter cannot be ignored in this way, and though he's initially horrified by the green hair, he soon comes to think of it as a sign with great meaning, a visible reminder of the horrible effects of war.

This was the first film for director Joseph Losey, an unlikely but also somehow appropriate start to his career. This bright, blunt children's movie is unique in that it focuses so intensely on the perspective and inner life of a child, privileging his reactions and his thoughts about his own experiences. The adults in the film, even the well-meaning Gramp and a kind teacher (Barbara Hale), try to understand but can't fully grasp what this boy is struggling with, and eventually even Gramp, who tries to put a good spin on the new hair color at first, gives in to the community's pressure and encourages the boy to shave his head. This is a great betrayal, a failure to recognize how much this symbol means to Peter, how much it means for him to be able to embrace his difference and use it to spread his anti-war message. The head-shaving scene is staged with the townspeople anxiously looking on, and the mood is tense and melancholy, with each lock of green hair that falls from Peter's head increasing the somber mood in the observers, who seem deeply ashamed of what they've done by the time Peter's scalp has been shorn to a shiny bald cleanness.

The film's message is bluntly delivered but nonetheless affecting, perhaps because the war was still so fresh when Losey made this in 1948. In one scene, Gramp and Peter reflexively flinch when they hear a plane go rattling by overhead. Gramp reassures the boy by saying that it's just a mail plane that must have a heavy load, but he doesn't seem so sure, and his words hide the fear, rational or not, that the plane's cargo is actually a bomb. In another extraordinary scene, Peter, before his hair turns green, goes to the grocery store and overhears two women talking about the war and their fears that there will be more wars to come. As is often the case in this film, the adults are filmed from the shoulders down, so that Peter, below their level, can't see their faces. It's a good way to convey the child's eye perspective of a boy scurrying about, unnoticed, while the adults converse, unmindful of the effect their words are having on Peter. It's as though they don't even know he's there, but their terror about nuclear war and more young people being sent off to die is affecting him deeply, especially when they explicitly reference him, expressing their fear that his generation will also grow up to be sent off to war. Peter, startled by this grim speculation about his future, drops the milk bottle in terror, but the adults don't realize what has happened, and they only laugh affectionately at his clumsiness.

This adult obliviousness is a big part of the film. Peter, in his youthful naïveté, wants to break through the adults' seeming certainty that war is inevitable, to convince them that there's no reason to go to war and kill more young people and their parents. He's the logical one, the one who reacts to the horror and losses of war with the common-sense proclamation that there shouldn't be any more wars, but he's met with head-patting condescension and blank stares when he delivers this message. He can't understand: why does nobody else seem to agree with him that war could or should be stopped?

The film's polemics provide a hint of what was to come for Losey, who would never flinch from politically engaged cinema, a fact that would send him into exile following the McCarthyite purges of Hollywood. But The Boy With Green Hair was different, both from Losey's later work and from virtually everything else in Hollywood, because it was so focused on these issues as they pertain to children. Because of that focus, it can approach complex, emotionally fraught issues with the simplicity and directness of a child. The film's aesthetics mirror that simplicity, cutting away the excess to emphasize Stockwell's naïve performance in tight closeups. Stockwell delivers a very charming performance, capturing the extreme shifts in mood that the confused Peter goes through; in a more unguarded moment, he makes funny faces in the mirror, but more often he's overcome with wide-eyed fear. As a children's parable about war, loss, and hope, The Boy With Green Hair is a memorable and moving work that uses its surreal central conceit to explore some surprisingly weighty emotional subtexts.


Sam Juliano said...

"Stockwell delivers a very charming performance, capturing the extreme shifts in mood that the confused Peter goes through; in a more unguarded moment, he makes funny faces in the mirror, but more often he's overcome with wide-eyed fear. As a children's parable about war, loss, and hope, The Boy With Green Hair is a memorable and moving work that uses its surreal central conceit to explore some surprisingly weighty emotional subtexts."

I just last week saw Stockwell deliver a charming performance during the period when he made GREEN HAIR. It was in William Wellman's turn-of-the-century boys' school yarn, THE HAPPY YEARS. Though known mainly for his perverse turn as 'Ben' in Lynch's BLUE VELVET, some of his finest work remains what he accomplished as a child, and Losey's maiden work contains one of his best. (as you persuasively note) I completely agree that this is a hugely affecting work that makes good on it's surrealist premise, and one that exhibits a potent World War II influence on the director. THE BOY WITH THE GREEN HAIR may not respresent Losey at his absolute finest, but it's a buffo first film, and one that will always provide meaningful reference points when assessing his canon.

Typically you've written with insight and descriptive bravado.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Ideally double-featured with Ozu's Record of a Tenement Gentleman
-- another very affecting film about war orphans.

Sam Juliano said...

I love that Ozu proposition for sure.

I'd add Clement's JEUX INTERDITS as a most memorable addition to this grouping.

Ed Howard said...

I'll have to check out those Wellman and Clements, and that Ozu is one I haven't gotten to yet either.

It's a bit strange seeing Stockwell as a kid in light of Blue Velvet, but he's very good here.

I'm agreed, Sam, that this isn't one of Losey's best, but it's certainly a fascinating and distinctive debut.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Losey hits his stride wiht M and The Big Night. But by then he had his bags packed for the UK.
Had HUAC not intervened he was up to direct

(wait for it)

High Noon