Joseph Losey’s feature debut, The Boy With Green Hair aroused attention because it was such a peculiar little socially-conscious fable, emerging as it did during Dore Schary’s brief, adventurous span as head of RKO, and in a period when postwar Hollywood was releasing more or less heavy-handed message pictures on racial and ethnic prejudice.
The opening scene gives a shock reveal: a bald little boy in a police station. This is Peter (Dean Stockwell), an ordinary American lad whose parents were killed in London during WWII, during which the film is set. In flashback, he tells a friendly doctor (Robert Ryan) about how he got shuffled among various relatives until he came to live with “Gramps” (Pat O’Brien), a singing waiter who’s actually no relation to him. Apparently social services were very informal back then, especially in movies. Gramps may not have any legit claim, but he showers the kid with Irish-accented blarney and even gets a fantasy musical sequence with co-star Walter Catlett.
After making friends with the local kids in the classroom of beautiful Miss Brand (Barbara Hale, later famous as Perry Mason’s TV secretary), Peter faces the repressed truth about being an orphan. In combination with dialogue he overhears about “the world blowing up” (the development of atomic bombs), his sense of trauma and loss triggers a psychosomatic reaction that turns his hair green—if we try to explain it logically, that is, as this is never spelled out in dialogue. The door is also open to believe he’s telling a whopper, since he does tell lies.
In the movie’s most disturbing twist, friends and acquaintances instantly turn on him as an object of suspicion and difference, although Miss Brand helps in a sensible scene that implies a message about racial prejudice within an all-white classroom. This was the subject of Betsy Beaton’s original 1946 story, although the film altered the focus to pacifism. The American Film Institute’s website documents contemporary reports on the behind-the-scenes kerfluffle of interference from new studio boss Howard Hughes and the departures of producer-writer Adrian Scott and director Edward Dmytryk, who were briefly associated with this project after their successful Crossfire. Schary quit RKO before the movie was finished; the producer is Stephen Ames.
The film’s oddest scene appears to be a fugue state in which Peter is visited by war orphans from the school’s posters. They explain that his hair is the color of spring and hope, and this makes him a special messenger to tell the world that war is bad for children so that everyone should think of peace. The scene ends with Peter breaking the fourth wall and staring directly into the camera for a moment. Telling the world seems defeated by the movie’s poster campaign, which implores “Please don’t tell why his hair turned green!”
The green hair is such a beacon in this Technicolor film (shot by George Barnes) that it tends to obscure any well-meaning message about war orphans, no matter how obvious, in the script by Ben Barzman and Alfred Lewis Levitt. Rather, it becomes an agonized little movie about difference itself, and bucking the crowd by standing out in society. Although Peter capitulates to what his culture demands, he regrets it and hopes to grow up to be a troublemaker.
Leigh Harline’s score leans heavily on introducing Eden Ahbez’s mystical song “Nature Boy” (“a very strange enchanted boy”), sung by a chorus during the opening credits; it immediately became a hit for Nat King Cole. Also in the picture are Samuel S. Hinds, Regis Toomey, Charles Meredith, and David Clarke as townsfolk. Among the kids are Dwayne Hickman, Teddy Infuhr, Russ Tamblyn, and Richard Lyon and Ann Carter as war orphans.
The only signs of Losey’s stylistic interest in composing actors within architectural structures are some business with the front stairs outside Gramps’ second-floor apartment and the use of various house fronts to symbolize Peter’s relatives. While Losey would be blacklisted and relocate to Europe successfully, Schary went to MGM and continued to produce message pictures for several years, including the mystical The Next Voice You Hear. To encourage the propagation of proud misfits, The Boy with Green Hair is available on demand from Warner Archive in a decent transfer; it could use an expensive restoration that it probably won’t get.