Movie Madness and/or Mania: Back Door To Heaven (William K. Howard, 1939)

The 1950s might have been the golden age of Juvenile Delinquent movies, but the concept stretches back to the 1930s: Dead End and its subsequent spin-offs, and William Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road dealt with teenagers on their own during the Great Depression, treated as social problems that the community had to take responsibility for.

William K. Howard’s highly sentimental and tonally bizarre B-movie might just have the most sympathetic and doomed JD of all time.

Opening in the 1920s in (the apparently actual town) St. Mary’s, Ohio, as dedicated school teacher Miss Williams (beloved character actress Aline McMahon) is preparing for the grammar-school graduation of her one-room school house. It seems that most of her students live in poverty, but Miss Williams is hopeful that this particular class shows great talent, promise and ambition, conducting graduation exercises that highlight her students’ musical, artistic and oratory talents and encouraging them in there chosen career paths: “In this modern world, girls have careers, too!” she assures aspiring singer Carol Evans.

Frankie Rogers is a good egg but is from the wrong side of the tracks with a couple of drunken louts for parents. Desperate to impress his teacher with some talent on graduation day, he breaks into the local hardware store and steals a harmonica, as well as $7.00 out of the cash register. When the sheriff shows up at school, it is reluctantly- he knows that Frankie has never really had a chance, but the store’s owner is insistent. Together he and Miss Williams accompany Frankie to the train station where he’ll be shipped off to reform school.

Some years pass, and Frankie has grown into a somewhat doughy teenager (???) who is now played by 41-year old Wallace Ford. It’s clear that Frankie is still a good egg but seems to have never caught a break in life, at the mercy of a corrupt system, who gets five more years slapped onto his sentence when he stands up for another convict against a brutal prison guard.

By the time he is paroled, it is well into the Depression, and the only advice he’s given as he’s put out on the street are the same useless platitudes about being responsible for his own success that the adults were giving him back in St. Mary’s as a child.

Miss Williams’s faith in her students has remained unshakable, as she happily receives birthday wishes from Carol and her other former students, sharing chipper news with her friends about how that long-ago class has found success in art, music, and law. Miss Williams’s voiceover plays over a montage of where her students actually ended up: the lawyer is getting evicted from his apartment for non-payment of rent, the musician working behind a soda fountain, the artist trading pin-up art in exchange for booze at a big-city bar. She notes that Carol (now played by another reliable B-movie actress, Patricia Ellis) is rumored to have become “a great actress”, but we see her rehearsing in a seedy nightclub.

Miss Williams knows that Frankie has spent his time away from St. Mary’s in prison, but still has a soft spot for him, treasuring his letters.

After an indeterminate time spent hoboing with his fellow parolees, Frankie gets a sentimental urge to return to his hometown. Upon his arrival, he finds a family of black sharecroppers living in the familial shack, and in a surprisingly sensitive scene for 1939, he sits down and chats with the mother, learning that his father is long-dead, and his mother was committed to the state psychiatric hospital. He hesitates to ask after Miss Williams, fearing more bad news, but is relieved to learn that she is still alive, although his classmate-turned-banker Charley Smith, as president of the school board,  has unceremoniously retired her.  After a visit with Miss Williams, he goes to see Charley at the bank, to convince him to give her the job back. Even grown up rich-kid Charley seems to have a sentimental attachment to Frankie, offering to loan him money and help find him work. Frankie turns him down, heading again to the big city, where upon his arrival he catches Carol’s nightclub performance, right before the show closes, leaving her unemployed.

No matter how hard he tries to do the right thing, Frankie is followed by a cloud of doom: trying to prevent his parolee friends from pulling a store robbery, he is instead fingered when the manager is killed. Carol reads the news of his arrest in the morning paper, coinciding with the arrival of an invitation from Charley to attend a class reunion back in St. Mary’s.

Frankie’s other friends haven’t forgotten him, either- when down-on-his-luck lawyer John (an early role for Van Heflin)  reads the news about his old friend, he is moved to go to Cleveland and defend him at trial. In the plot turn that really shows that talent and ambition are not nearly enough, there is no miracle: John is in over his head and loses the case. Frankie is remanded to death row. With Carol, John decides to take Charley up on his invitation and go to St. Mary’s to see if he can use his wealth and influence to help Frankie.

Charley is initially unbearable, seemingly having brought his friends together to show off and brag about how he was the only success out of the whole class. As the group gathers in the old school house, he tells them that it is going to be torn down to make way for a new country club golf course.

Improbably, Frankie escapes during a prison riot and makes a beeline for St. Mary’s. He encounters the group in the schoolhouse and says his good byes assuring them they had done all they could for him. He leaves, and John and Carol stand at the window, cringing as they hear the gun shots in the distance.

As I said, the film’s tone is just plain weird, alternating dreamy, fatalistic passages that seem inspired by French poetic realism, with standard B-movie action (sometimes intercut within the same scene).  The passage of time is erratically depicted, and it is unclear whether it is because of budget shortfalls or part of Howard’s artistic vision and message about nostalgia. It’s not a musical, but there are a number of musical numbers.

Ford acquits himself nicely, even as a 40-year-old teenager. His character is saintly, but he’s never obnoxious about it. It’s notable for its especially downbeat message: childhood promise and good intentions will get you nowhere in life.

Availability: It seems to be in the public domain, and available through several streaming services, including YouTube. Alpha Video released a not-great quality DVD.

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