Blue Denim, Philip Dunne

The Abortion Discord Sewn into Faded ‘Blue Denim’

Today’s discord and desperation over abortion in America has roots in Philip Dunne’s faded Blue Denim, one of the first Hollywood films to address the issue.

Blue Denim
Philip Dunne
20th Century-Fox
30 July 1959

In Truman Capote’s 1965 non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, Kansas teenager Bobby Rupp was the last person alive – aside from the killers – to see the Clutter family before their senseless murders. Rupp vividly detailed his visit to the family farmhouse that Saturday night. He was the high school sweetheart of 16-year-old Nancy Clutter, who walked Rupp to the driveway before he headed home. As he recounted to Capote, “We talked a while, and made a date to go to the movies Sunday night – a picture all the girls were looking forward to, Blue Denim.”

That was 1959, the last year of the last decade of so-called “American innocence”. Currently idealized by the MAGA movement, 1950s America is deemed a morally uncomplicated era – for some. For all, the topic of abortion was not in the daily headlines. It wasn’t on the ballot. It was a crime. Abortion was an unspeakable, shameful taboo.

That reality amplified the buzz surrounding Philip Dunne’s 1959 teen romance, Blue Denim. It was a serious film about high school lovers, pregnancy, family dysfunction, and abortion, although the Motion Picture Production Code prohibited that word. 

Besides being an unpalatable word in America’s seemingly placid ’50s, abortion was criminalized and frighteningly unsafe. As doctors were prosecuted for performing them, abortions went underground into often less skilled hands. Estimates of Illegal abortions in America in the 1950s ranged from 200,000 to 1 million per year, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Blue Denim, starring Carol Lynley as Janet and Brandon DeWilde as Arthur – naïve adolescents facing an unwanted pregnancy – was shocking and controversial at the time. The film is based on a Broadway play by James Leo Herlihy, and its title was inspired by the essential teen clothing of the day. Afraid to tell their emotionally inept parents about the pregnancy and too young at 16 to get married, Janet and Arthur arrange for an illegal abortion. 

Save for a pie-in-the-sky ending, Blue Denim spooked its teenage audiences. But over five decades later, in a post-Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization America (which undermines every woman’s right to safe and legal health care), scaremongering is relentless. The overheated debate over abortion has inexorably altered America’s political landscape. The forceful push for draconian bans on abortion is creating a moral panic.

Such repressive attitudes today evoke memories of Blue Denim, which I first saw on late-night television as a high schooler in the mid-’70s. I lived in New York State, where abortion was actually legal three years before Roe v. Wade made it a constitutional right in 1973. Blue Denim is one of those films you don’t forget.

The recent discord and desperation over abortion in America has its roots in Blue Denim, one of the first films to address the issue. Consider the recent news cycle:

  • California congresswoman Barbara Lee’s recent revelation of getting a back-alley abortion in Mexico as a teenager recalls Blue Denim’s most harrowing scene: Lynley’s Janet is blindfolded by a sinister-looking attendant en route to her abortion at an unknown setting.
  •  Vice President Kamala Harris’ historic visit to a Planned Parenthood in Minnesota – the first by a president or vice president to a clinic providing abortion services – is a reminder that Planned Parenthood began advocating abortion law reform in 1955. In Blue Denim, set in neighboring Michigan, the tabooed term is referred to as an “illegal operation”.
  • The legal battle over access to the abortion pill mifepristone can be traced to Blue Denim’s era, which offered few contraceptive options. The birth control pill was not approved by the Food and Drug Administration until 1960.
  • Bill Bradley, the former New York Knicks star and U.S. senator, disclosed in Michael Tolin’s 2024 documentary, Rolling Along: Bill Bradley, that a woman he was dating in the 1960s became pregnant unintentionally. When she opted for an abortion, Bradley frantically tried to find someone to do the then-illegal procedure. The woman, unbeknownst to him, proceeded to suffer a badly botched abortion in Kansas City.

    They met by happenstance at an airport nearly 20 years later, both long married by then. Bradley told her he had children, but she said she never did. “We both stood there staring at each other, thinking the same thing,” Bradley said.

Ultimately, Blue Denim‘s Janet is spared a similar reality. The film’s ending is sanitized, or Hollywood-ized, as the Hayes Code pressured its producers to change the plot from the stage version, in which Janet goes through with the abortion. In the film, the previously out-of-touch parents intervene at the 11th hour. Janet and Arthur go off together to get married and live with a relative while waiting for their baby to be born.  

At its release, Blue Denim provided a sensitive portrait of teens in trouble. It was not a referendum on abortion or adoption, which was never considered an option. It was more of a commentary on an increasing lack of communication between teens and adults.

In one of the film’s touching scenes, and reflective of the fear and confusion involved in terminating a pregnancy, Arthur catches Janet in the school library, reading a medical book. It is opened to a chapter about pregnancy. “But they don’t tell you how to stop it,” she sobs softly.

Sixty-five years since Blue Denim‘s release, they don’t tell you how to stop politicizing it.