Written by Margaret at The Film Detective
“Most girls want to be good. But they must be told more than that.”
Oh, the more things change, the more they stay the same. "High School Girl" (1934) is a cautionary tale involving teen sexuality and unwanted pregnancy, with all the usual trappings of a scare film designed to set rowdy teens on the straight and narrow. But there’s a twist—this time, the fault lies not with the teens themselves, but with their parents! For 1934, this notion was fairly progressive, seeing as Americans were breaking their daily fast with Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and graham crackers, both developed initially as foods to curb the sin of masturbation in young men.
Here’s the story: Beth, a model student and all-around “good girl,” starts going steady with a boy named Phil, who wants desperately to put the moves on her. Phil is routinely thwarted by Beth’s sense of shame and guilt around matters of passion, perhaps instilled in her by her domineering mother, president of the local Parents’ Organization, who crusades against immorality and vice in the community. The only adult who seems to notice that local kids are sorely misinformed when it comes to sex is Beth’s biology teacher, Mr. Bryson. He takes it upon himself to incorporate a unit on sex education (or “moral health,” as it’s called in the film) into his curriculum, and is promptly dismissed from his post when the Parents’ Organization finds out and intervenes.
Meanwhile, despite her initial resistance, Beth finds herself pregnant by Phil and terrified. Her brother, with the help of Mr. Bryson, secures her a spot in a hospital up north, where she receives an abortion, and where a final showdown between Mr. Bryson and Beth’s mother finally reveals the true enemy of the tale: the parents who neglect to teach their children the facts of life, thereby sending their children down paths of ruin.
"High School Girl" (1934) is one of those non-exploitative exploitation films sold to the public as an educational film, where (rather impressively) all the frankness has been scrubbed from the dialogue even though the plot revolves around sex, unwanted pregnancy, and abortion. Though the writers don’t necessarily deserve an Oscar for Best Screenplay, props go to Cecelia Parker and Helen McKellar, playing mother and daughter at odds when it comes to morality and the right to accurate biological information. Parker can summon the tears and existential dread when called upon, while McKellar delivers an infuriating portrayal of a woman who truly believes the poor are to blame for their own misfortune, and yet refuses to clue her children in on things like sex and birth control (Sample dialogue: “You’re my mother. Why can’t you talk frankly to me?” “Because I know what’s best for you.” Seems legit.).
In the midst of today’s national battle over access to birth control and comprehensive sex education, this film stands as a stark reminder that some things never change. Too many parents balk at the idea of having to explain sex to their children, and so say nothing. Too many American schools implement an abstinence-only curriculum, and then punish and shame students for experimenting and making avoidable mistakes when it comes to sex and their bodies, or worse yet, blaming them when they become victims of sexual assault.
The American sex education movement has its origins in the military during World War I, where the rampant scourge of syphilis and gonorrhea threw the ranks into crisis mode. This spurred schools to implement similar programs, assisted by educational films such as the American Social Hygiene Association-produced "The Gift of Life" (1920). Support for such programs has waxed and waned over the 20th and 21st centuries, with the major argument centered around whether or not to allow the federal government to involve itself in such affairs. Fear of too much knowledge is at the forefront of the opposition’s stance, as they worry it may lead today’s children to engage in activities beyond their maturity level. But to assume today’s children have different urges than those that came before is to make the first mistake. Perhaps Mr. Bryson’s final-act speech sums it up best:
“The children of today have not changed. They’re just as you were: wanting the same things, running the same risks. It’s conditions that have changed. And the trouble is that your children know no more now than you did then. It’s that that should be changed, but in this case you neglected your opportunity. What has happened to Beth has happened to thousands of girls, not because they didn’t know anything about life but because they didn’t know enough...They haven’t changed, they’re not bad; they are just human, like yourselves.”