Kind of a sub-genre of the juvenile delinquent movies of the late 50’s and early 60’s is the girls-in-prison genre. Often we would end up with a good girl who wrongly ends up in a prison or boarding school ruled over by evil old ladies. Today’s movie definitely fits into that mold, with two minor changes. First of all, the film is British. Second, it’s in colour (yep, with a “u” to honor the queen and all). It’s 1961’s “So Evil, So Young.”
As the film begins, two teenage girls, Lucy (Jocelyn Britton) and Claire (Bernice Swanson), are in the process of robbing the safe of a wealthy family. Apparently, Lucy used to work for the family so she knows just where to find the family jewels. However, they are interrupted by the butler, who recognizes Lucy but not Claire. Lucy clunks poor Jeeves on the head before they make their escape, but the butler is able to report Lucy after he comes to.
But remember, Claire wasn’t spotted by the butler so she keeps the jewels. Lucy, on the other hand, is caught by the cops. But rather than turn in Claire, Lucy decides to name a girl named Anne (Jill Ireland) as her accomplice. This is to exact revenge on Anne who has been dating Lucy’s ex-boyfriend, Tom (John Charlesworth). She even plants one of the stolen necklaces in Anne’s coat pocket. Both young ladies end up being sent to Wilsham, a prison, but not a prison, for teenage girls.
The Matron at Wilsham (Joan Haythorne) is a strict but understanding woman, however, the head warden, Miss Smith (Ellen Pollack) is as evil and power-hungry as they come. She seems somewhat sickly, hobbling around with a walking stick, but she is quick to find any way to make life horrible for the girls. The slightest offense will land the girls in solitary confinement or with their sentences extended. Though Wilsham has no bars or fences, the threat of these punishments keeps the girls from trying to escape.
Anne has trouble adjusting to life in prison at first…between Lucy making things difficult and the simple fact that Anne never did anything wrong to start with. Though Miss Smith doesn’t trust Anne, Matron eventually gives Anne a job working as her secretary. This just makes the other girls more jealous.
One small bright spot for the girls comes when longtime inmate Mary (Sheila Whittingham) learns that she is due to be released in a few days. The girls even throw her a party one night after lights out. But the fun is short-lived when Miss Smith walks in. She singles out Mary for punishment, locking her in solitary and threatening a 12 month extension of her sentence. The next day, Mary is found…having hung herself. This launches a riot with the other girls who mercilessly attack Miss Smith. Anne, however, keeps her nose clean as she is working to gather leads that will point her to Lucy’s real accomplice and get her released.
Juvenile delinquent movies are lots of fun and “So Evil, So Young” is no exception. The highlight of the film has to be Ellen Pollack as Miss Smith…a truly despicable and nasty character. It’s interesting, the woman can barely walk…I’d bet any of the young ladies in the prison could easily overtake her, yet they live in total fear of her. And we the audience don’t question this because Pollack’s portrayal is quite scary. When Mary hangs herself, Smith fakes remorse but you can see behind her eyes that she believes the girl got what she deserved. This is one of the best evil prison warden performances I’ve seen!
The story really does draw the viewer in. I really did end up caring about Anne being cleared of the charges and seeing the other girls rise up against the evil Miss Smith. So, my only complaint about the film is that the ending is not as satisfying as I had hoped. The story is wrapped up very neatly and quickly in the last few minutes of the film. What’s worse, though, is that our villain never really gets her comeuppance. In the end, Miss Smith still comes out of the situation fairly unscathed. I suppose some would say that is the mark of a true villain, but I was desperate for her to get a taste of her own medicine.
I admit, when I started watching this film, and heard the British accents coming from the cast, I was a bit worried. I guess I wasn’t sure if proper British society could manage a good teens in trouble flick. But the Brits managed to create a stellar entry in the juvenile delinquent genre! Long live the Queen!