Movie: The Boy with Green Hair (1948)

Isn’t it great how a movie, an album or a book can come along and completely subvert your expectations?  Going into 1948’s The Boy with Green Hair, I thought it would be incredibly goofy, or at least have a sci-fi element to it. 

Instead, this sweetly good-natured tale is a plea for compassion and understanding.  It also wants us to care about the less fortunate in the world and to help them from our position of privilege.  This could very easily have been a dry and ham-fisted affair, but the messages are almost subversively wrapped in a confection of humor and light drama. 

An impossibly young Dean Stockwell stars as the lad who wakes one morning to discover he has astroturf-colored tresses.  In one of those weird bits of happenstance, I saw this movie in quick succession after seeing him as a young adult in The Careless Years and, before that, as a much older man in Backtrack.  The weird thing is, I saw each of these without knowing beforehand he was in them.

Stockwell is shockingly good in this, especially for how young he was.  When we first see him, he has a world-weariness beyond his years.  This is when the police have picked up the now-bald Stockwell and try to get some information from him.  He had obviously been running away from home, and he refuses to even give them his name.  Robert Ryan then takes over and the boy opens up more to him.  Still, the lad is a bit of a smartass, such as when he’s asked to start his story from the beginning: “At the beginning, I was born.”

In flashback, we will learn how his parents exited his life when he was just a baby.  There will be a succession of stills of houses taken front-on, and these cold images are the best means I can think of for conveying the loneliness of being passed off from one family to another.

His final home will be with Pat O’Brien, as “Gramp”.  The highly charismatic O’Brien nails this role, as the first person to not just open his home to the lad, but also his heart.  The rapport between the two is great.  There’s one bit I especially like where O’Brien is about to leave for his nightly shift as a singing waiter, telling Stockwell not to be afraid of the dark as, “There isn’t anything there that wasn’t there when the lights were on.”

There’s also a musical moment I could have done without, but it still has its charm.  In that, we see Stockwell’s imagining of when O’Brien met a king, played by Walter Catlett.  It is interesting how this exaggerated tale is presented through the skewed perspective of a child.  It reminded me a tad of 5000 Fingers of Dr. T.  Alas, this song isn’t as good as any of the numbers in that picture.  Still, it is better than the appalling title song over the opening credits for this movie—that, and the opening credits are written in a similar style to the contemporary Comic Sans font.

The anti-war and pro-compassion themes start creeping in courtesy of a conversation Stockwell overhears between grownups shopping in the general store.  “I think we ought to stop fighting each other, and start trying to understand each other”.  There’s also a collection drive at his school for war orphans.  What Stockwell doesn’t realize at this point is he is actually a war orphan.

Not long after this, Stockwell wakes to discover he’s permanently wearin’ o’ the green wig.  It’s not a bad wig, really—it’s just that no amount of hair dye could result in such a green color.  It nearly glows, it’s so strong.

The first kids who see it thinks it’s pretty awesome.  Then the adults start getting suspicious and begin turning their kids against him.  They think he is some sort of subversive, as if he dyed his hair on purpose.  I wonder if these people would have spontaneous aneurysms if they were alive today and could see how the general populace has hair in every conceivable color.

Stockwell is visited by the spirits of the war orphans from the posters at his school.  They inform him his hair turned green to draw awareness to their plight and remind people those wars could have been prevented.  I’m not entirely sure why people would come to that conclusion without Stockwell telling them explicitly, but I guess this isn’t that different than the various ribbon decals people put on their cars for a wide variety of causes.

Blame starts to fall on various parties believed to be responsible for this transformation, if it is natural.  Business for the milkman, in particular, is suffering.  So now there’s all this pressure for the boy to cut his air, which is how he ended up bald at the start of the picture.

One of the things I found most interesting about The Boy with Green Hair is it is directed by Joseph Losey.  His attraction to unusual material would show itself strongly in the 1960’s, helming such movies as Modesty Blaise and BOOM!  Those films have their own unique charms, even if they are not widely appreciated.  With this earlier film, we get to see what Losey would do with material equal parts quirky and heartfelt.

Dir: Joseph Losey

Starring Dean Stockwell, Pat O’Brien, Robert Ryan

Watched on Warner Archive blu-ray