So Young, So Bad was released close on the heels of Caged, one of the greatest women-in-prison films ever made. It bears some striking similarities to Caged. So much so, that it made me wonder if the memo to Jack Warner from producer Jerry Wald about Virginia Kellogg’s 1948 story Women Without Men (the original concept that led to the film Caged) ever found its way out of the Warner Bros. offices and So Young, So Bad was conceived as a quickie cash-in. It’s not just the basic plot, either. Several details from Caged are repeated in So Young, So Bad, like pregnancy behind bars and a contraband pet whose death leads to a full-blown riot.
So Young, So Bad was directed by the soon-to-be-blacklisted Bernard Vorhaus with uncredited assistance from Edgar G. Ulmer, “the poet of Poverty Row,” who directed one of my favorite films of all time, Detour (1945).
The most obvious difference between Caged and So Young, So Bad is that the former takes place in a women’s prison while the latter takes place in a reform school, the Elmview Corrective School for Girls. The other big difference is that Caged focuses on the female inmates’ experiences, while the main protagonist of So Young, So Bad is Dr. John H. Jason (Paul Henreid), a progressive man who fights against the inhuman punishments meted out at Elmview. Dr. Jason is strongly reminiscent of the reform-minded Dr. Kik in The Snake Pit (1948), which was about the primitive conditions in most mental institutions at the time of the film’s release.
I enjoyed So Young, So Bad, but it really pales in comparison with Caged, and not just because of its lower budget, more amateurish acting, and choppier pace. By focusing on Paul Henreid’s character, So Young, So Bad fails to do what Caged did so effectively; it fails to put the viewer in the shoes of the women behind bars who suffer barbaric treatment at the hands of their jailers. So Young, So Bad certainly shows us the cruel and unusual punishments handed down by the head matron, Mrs. Beuhler (Grace Coppin), but by focusing on Dr. Jason and his relationship with the sympathetic assistant superintendent Ruth Levering (Catherine McLeod), we are always kept at a distance from the young women in the reform school.
So Young, So Bad is probably most notable for featuring two talented and strikingly beautiful young actresses who would go on to much greater fame and success — Anne Francis and Rita Moreno. This was Moreno’s first role (she’s listed in the credits as Rosita Moreno), and Francis had only had uncredited film roles and parts on TV before So Young, So Bad. (I first noticed her on television in 1949 on the Suspense episode “Dr. Violet” with Hume Cronyn.) I thought that Moreno and Francis were the best parts of So Young, So Bad. It’s worth seeing for their performances alone. They were both very young and still finding their way as film actors, but they both have a magnetic quality that can’t be denied. The old cliché “you can’t take your eyes off them” certainly applies here.
There are also a few amazing moments in So Young, So Bad that stand out because most of the film is shot in such a straightforward fashion. It’s tempting to credit noir master Edgar G. Ulmer with these bits, or perhaps the cinematographer, Don Malkames, but who knows? Maybe Vorhaus had a few flashes of brilliance, like the decision to frame the shot of a girl who has committed suicide by hanging herself as a shadow below the shadow of a multi-framed window pane so it looks exactly like she is hanging from a spider’s web.
So Young, So Bad would make an interesting double-bill with Caged, but if you only have time to watch one, go with Caged.