Of all the subgenres of exploitation filmmaking, the field of Juvenile Delinquency is perhaps the most neglected. In a weird way, it is fitting, considering the subjects of such features (and many short films, to boot) were usually just as ignored by their onscreen parents. And in the instance of 1949’s Bad Boy, the casting of renowned World War II veteran Audie Murphy (in his first starring role) as a troubled youth with a bad temper and no sense of remorse for his many antisocial behaviors is only more appropriate. Though Murphy had received every military combat award for valor by the U.S. Army and even medals for heroism from the French and the Belgians, too, his childhood had to be cut short after his father skipped town and Murphy himself dropped out of grade school to support his family.
His mother passed away while he was in his teenage years, prompting him to put his skills with a rifle to use by enlisting (with false documentation, it should be added), where his obvious frustration over the loss of his parental figures came in handy on the battlefield. And while many psychologists would agree this wasn’t the best course of action for a sad and lonely young man today, this was long before anyone thought about the repercussions for giving an angry kid a gun. It’s no wonder that Mr. Murphy later suffered from PTSD (long before it was given such a delicate name), although one cannot entire wonder if his time spent in the military ‒ which is still eager to recruit lost young people straight from high school, usually under the misrepresentation that they will never go anywhere in life otherwise ‒ is entirely to blame.
After all, Audie did work in Hollywood for a spell ‒ and that town has been known to kill more people than war itself!
Here, the one-man army from Texas ‒ at the insistence of the Lone Star State’s theater owners, mind you ‒ is cast as one Danny Lester, a runaway orphan of 17 (in Texas, naturally) who isn’t afraid to go out guns-a-blazin’ if he has to. And he certainly tries to do so one fateful evening, following the clumsy robbery of several rich hotel guests engaged in a private game of gambling. This leads Danny into the gentle arms of Marshall Brown (the great Lloyd Nolan), who oversees a nearby Variety Club boys’ home, housed way out in the middle of nowhere (much like Texas itself). After pleading with the (surprisingly female) judge presiding Danny’s case, Brown takes on the task of tending to the troubled youth in an effort to find out what makes him such a hothead and, hopefully, reform the poor, Godless youth.
Of course, such an endeavor proves to be more of a chore than usual for Mr. Brown and the other residents of the ranch, from the hard-nosed Chief (James Gleason), who badly wants to reduce Lester down to his component pounds of flesh, and the semi-reformed boys themselves (and which includes such notable “child” actors as latter-day Bowery Boys leader Stanley Clements, Out of the Past‘s own Dickie Moore, and former Saturday matinee serial sidekick Tommy Cook). Jane Wyatt (you know, Spock’s mum) is cast as Nolan’s well-to-do wife, whom our young antagonist develops an undeveloped crush on. Were it an adult-oriented film, they would surely become friendly with one another in the biblical sense; if it was an exploitation movie, Lester would rape Mr. Brown and send her hubby on a plight for revenge.
Fortunately for (most of) us, Bad Boy is a family movie. The very premise of the film ‒ apart from Texan businessmen making a bundle off of the suffering of a true American war hero, that is ‒ is to imply that no one is beyond salvation for their indiscretions amongst society. There was no such thing as PTSD or mental illness in the late ’40s (the state of Texas still refuses to believe in that psychobabble poppycock to this day), and as Lloyd Nolan goes to the trouble of tracking down Murphy’s problematic past, he uncovers the brutal truth that will eventually set the poor kid free and undoubtedly onto a path to God. Although, for the social engineering record, it should be noted Bad Boy‘s only religious character ‒ Danny’s stepfather (Rhys Williams) ‒ is by and far the worst human being in the entire film.
Martha Vickers (who started out in several Universal Monster movies and had a prominent role in The Big Sleep), Selena Royle (yes, the mother from Robot Monster!), and Jimmy (not Johnny) Lydon also star in this engaging, well-made (if completely incorrect by today’s medical/mental standards) film, with William F. Leicester (aka William Lester) playing the part of Audie Murphy’s loose cannon pal on the outside. Robert Hardy Andrews takes most of the credit for the story and screenplay, and German-born Kurt Neumann handles the direction (one can only hope that Murphy’s PTSD and Neumann’s heritage did not clash on-set). Paul Sawtell provides the score to this Allied Artists mini-masterpiece, which makes its home media debut here via the Warner Archive Collection.
This Bad Boy is presented in its original 1.37:1 Academy aspect ratio, and the transfer is just as enjoyable to bear witness to as is the feature film itself. There are no special features included with this offering from the Warner Archive Collection, though it should go without saying the mere fact that this was Audie Murphy’s groundbreaking debut as a leading motion picture performer ‒ giving a darn good turn, too ‒ is enough to warrant the attention of many veterans and all of us who just like a good ol’ juvenile delinquent pic from the past. After all, even old youth such as these need our support if they’re to grow up to be respectable, responsible adults. If that doesn’t convince you, consider this: shortly before his death in 1971 at the age of 45, Audie Murphy was offered the part of serial killer Scorpio in Dirty Harry.