The 1967 film Teenage Mother won the recent reader poll, squeaking past at the last minute due to my husband’s shameless promotion. He gets the
credit blame for this post, as he wanted to watch ME watching this film, just for my reactions. I had some. 😉
My DVD copy of this film is from Something Weird Video in Seattle, with a “special edition” DVD. Something Weird promotes itself as “the very best in exploitation cinema,” and that rings true for Teenage Mother. The back of the DVD case has Handsome Harry Archer’s complete review of Teenage Mother, which opens with stating it as a “textbook example of classic old-school exploitation.” The film was directed by Jerry Gross, who would later direct the cult classic I Spit on Your Grave.
Here’s the basic plot, such as it is: A new health teacher is hired to teach sex education in a high school and gets blamed when a student turns up pregnant. Except the student isn’t actually pregnant. She just told her boyfriend that so that he wouldn’t leave her and go off to medical school. Winners, all. And there’s footage of a live birth at the end. And an extended musical interlude in the middle. Cue the sweet anticipation!
As my husband said:
When you have a 70-minute film and only 40 minutes worth of plot, you HAVE to fill it with musical interludes and a live birth at the end!
To be clear, this movie is NOT good. It is bad. I knew it would be bad. But the question in my mind was this: Was it SO bad that it would turn out to be awesomely bad? Unfortunately, NO. But as my husband quipped:
It’s the kind of bad that almost feels like a cultural moment.
The film starts off with footage of a stock-car race. Because WHY NOT.
Introducing the books and the school librarian:
Fifteen minutes into the film, the coach gets to introduce the new health teacher, Miss Erika Petersen (Julie Ange), who dives straight into the required and supplemental texts for the new “anatomical biology” course.
Fun fact: This film was the film debut of Fred Willard, who plays the coach!
Miss Petersen: Two texts are required reading for this course. The first, Moreline’s (?) Basics in Human Anatomy is the best for our line of work. In fact, most colleges use it today. This will be supplemented by Caracola’s (?) Adult Sexual Behavior. Both of these books have been ordered, and we should have them for you early next week.
Miss Petersen: If any of you would like to do additional reading on this subject, I strongly recommend Saucer’s (?) Male and Female. I’m sure your school library has a copy available.
Tony [a student]: I’ve already checked the library, and Miss Fowler, the librarian, told me it wasn’t available.
Miss Petersen: That’s very interesting, Tony. I didn’t know you knew of this book.
Tony: Well, I’d like to become a doctor. In fact, our family physician Dr. Wilson told me to read this book last year.
Miss Petersen: And Miss Fowler didn’t know of the book? Well, it’s fairly recent. Perhaps she didn’t notice it in the book publisher’s catalog.
Tony: She knew of it. She said it was indecent for our library.
[classroom erupts in laughter]
Miss Petersen: Nonsense. At least 90% of all colleges and universities have this book in their libraries, and as many as 50% of all high schools. I’ll discuss this matter personally with Miss Fowler.
The bell rings, ending this scene after a couple of minutes.
Editor’s note: There were no captions available, and the actress’s “European” accent (dubbed?) makes it hard to understand the authors’ names she was saying, which explains why I put in question marks beside names in the quotations above. I couldn’t find any record of the first two books she mentions in this scene. Also, in the scene above and in the later scene with the school librarian, Miss Petersen clearly states the supplementary book, Male and Female, is by an author whose last name sounds like “Saucer” and that it has been newly published. I searched WorldCat — ’cause y’all know I would, right?! — but could not find any book published by that title in the late ’60s by an author with a similar last name. There was, however, a well-known text in this field, Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World, written and published in 1949 by Margaret Mead. And interestingly, there was another edition of this book published by Penguin in 1967, the same year of this film. So why use the same title but change the author? Just another question among many when it comes to this movie!
School library scene:
At almost half an hour into the film, we get the library scene. It’s a very short scene, lasting a minute or less. But it is memorable. I have also nicknamed the school librarian “Fowler the Scowler,” as you shall soon see why.
The scene begins with a wide shot of the school library — the film was filmed at East Rockaway High School in Long Island, so I assume this was also their school library — and the school librarian (an uncredited role) is checking in or filing cards in card catalog drawers. The school library is (surprisingly?) filled with lots of students and lots of books.
Miss Petersen walks in, and they make nice for about 5 seconds.
Miss Petersen: Good morning, Miss Fowler.
Miss Fowler: Good morning, Miss Petersen. Can I be of some assistance?
Miss Petersen: Yes, one of my students, maybe you know him, Tony Michaels. He told me he was unable to find Saucer’s Male and Female on file here. You do have the book, don’t you?
Miss Fowler: Most certainly not.
Miss Petersen: Why not, Miss Fowler? It’s one of the most standard texts on anatomical hygiene.
Miss Fowler: It’s a filthy book.
This outburst and Miss Fowler’s high-pitched exclamation catch the attention of nearby students! Miss Fowler clears her throat.
Miss Petersen: Filthy?
Miss Fowler [in a lower voice]: Yes, filthy! I wouldn’t allow one of our students to even leaf through it. The illustrations are positively vulgar.
Miss Petersen: They only show the beauty of the human body.
Miss Fowler: Teenage children are not meant to see such things.
Miss Petersen: That’s just the point. These youngsters are not children any longer. Their bodies are the bodies of young adults, with all the needs and desires of young adults.
Miss Fowler: I wouldn’t know about that. [turns her head and looks down, rapidly blinking her eyelids]
Miss Petersen: Apparently not. These young people have the right to know about the facts of life. which you say they cannot read. This is a free country, Miss Fowler.
Miss Fowler: That book has never appeared in this library and never will, as long as I’m here.
Miss Petersen: Let’s hope that’s not too long.
“Fowler the Scowler” then adjusts her glasses and goes back to filing her cards, an even more pinched look on her face. She ends as she begins the scene, as an uptight, sexually repressed librarian whose mind is closed to new ideas. An uplifting cinematic message for all librarians. 😦
I put together a collage of facial expressions to illustrate the reason for my “Fowler the Scowler” nickname of this school librarian:
Town meeting and attempted censorship:
The rest of the film delves into the Tony’s relationship with his girlfriend, Arlene Taylor (played by a real-life Arlene, Arlene Farber), the one who lies about being pregnant in order to trap her boyfriend. She attempts to run away, and her friend confesses the (fake) secret pregnancy to Arlene’s dad, who somehow has the clout to call an immediate “town meeting” at the high school in order to get Miss Petersen fired.
Here’s one memorable line from the town meeting scene, in which the principal defends his decision to hire Miss Petersen:
If your daughter became pregnant, it wasn’t because of anything she read in a book.
Oddly, “Fowler the Scowler” is NOT at that meeting, which I found disappointing. A missed opportunity! In my head, it would have been an awesome ending to have Miss Fowler also join the attempt to get Miss Petersen fired — and then the reverse happens! It would close the loop on Miss Petersen’s final words in the library scene, that she hopes it’s “not too long” before Miss Fowler is gone.
And that’s what this film does: It makes a real-life librarian root AGAINST a reel librarian.
In the excellent and thorough reference book on reel librarians, The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999, which I reviewed here in this post, the Tevises sum up the censorship message of the film and the ultimate contrast and conflicting messages of the school principal and the school librarian:
Teenage Mother is one of the few films that confronts the topic of sex education materials in secondary schools. Although the principal of the school is progressive, the librarian scorns the value of sex education. Without the support of the librarian, whose responsibility includes obtaining the appropriate learning materials to support instruction and student research, the program’s success is problematical. The film depicts the librarian as the high school’s moral watchdog who uses her power to censor library materials. (p. 122)
Spinster Librarian role:
So what role does Miss Fowler play in this film? I would say most definitely the Spinster Librarian character type, with her uptight manner and closed-minded outlook on collection development. The midpoint of her conversation with Miss Petersen — the self-confession of “I wouldn’t know about that” in response to the health teacher’s remark about the body’s “needs and desires” — clinches the deal.
Also, all of the stereotypical physical traits are there: an older white woman, hair pulled back in a bun, glasses on a lanyard, high-necked blouse, etc. Even though her time onscreen is short, “Fowler the Scowler” is memorable, landing her librarian role and film in the Class III category.
The 30 seconds of “Fowler the Scowler” in Teenage Mother almost rival the 30 seconds of Spinster Librarian infamy in the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life.
Final review and trailer:
Here’s an excerpt from Ian Jane’s DVD Talk review of the film:
Preaching to its audience from a fairly lofty perch, the picture purports to deliver a social message about why kids should abstain or at the very least play it safe, but it’s been made so cheaply and marketed with such a sleazy, hyper-sexualized marketing campaign (be sure to watch the trailer which completely misrepresents the film in every way possible) that all of that gets thrown aside. Why? Because it’s obvious that all of this build up and moralizing was simply an excuse to bust out some really graphic footage of a baby popping its way out of some gooey female genitalia.
And finally, I’ve linked to that spectacularly misleading trailer below. I usually like to begin a film analysis post with a trailer, but this trailer needs to come AFTER the film, not before. Also, this trailer IS graphic — as it warns, it includes footage of the live-birth scene from the end of Teenage Mother.
- Jane, Ian. “Exploitation Cinema: Teenage Graffiti & Teenage Mother.” DVD Talk, 9 Sept. 2009.
- Teenage Mother. Dir. Jerry Gross. Perf. Arlene Farber, Frederick Riccio, Julie Ange, Howard Le May. Arrow Films, 1967.
- Tevis, Ray, and Brenda Tevis. The Image of Librarians in Cinema 1917-1999. McFarland, 2005.