(1957)1.5Bruce EderThe late producer and American International Pictures co-founder Samuel Z. Arkoff once explained AIP's approach to teen-exploitation movies in the 1950s, "We told a kind of story similar to what the major studios like Warner Bros. did with movies like Rebel Without a Cause, except that we were aiming specifically for the teenage audience, so we gave them a happy ending." Reform School Girl is a case in point, a very serious film -- especially in its first 20 minutes -- which was done with the cooperation of the California Youth Authority. Director Edward Bernds was mostly known for his comedy work; a former sound man, his career as a director was spent mostly at Columbia Pictures and primarily with the Three Stooges. On Reform School Girl, he had a chance not only to direct but also to write a movie, and the result -- within the context of the inevitable clunkiness of a low-budget production in this period -- was a pretty good juvenile delinquency-crime drama, with some unexpected elements of incest and suppressed lesbianism thrown into the dramatic mix. That's a long way from the Three Stooges, and all of those elements combine to make Reform School Girl an unexpectedly good (or, at least, surprisingly not bad) picture. The quality of most of the acting is closer to, say, Charles Haas' Girls Town, than to Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause, and the script isn't great, but the earnestness and sincerity are surprising, and Gloria Castillo is pretty affecting as the victim of the vile family and social forces around her. The other performances mostly aren't as good as hers, although Edd "Kookie" Byrnes, playing the villain, shows an extraordinary amount of charisma and energy in a nasty role, and it's easy to see how and why he quickly rose to television stardom just a little bit after making this movie.
The inherent trashiness of Reform School Girl is redeemed by the sincere performance of Gloria Castillo and the matter-of-fact direction of Edward Bernds. Castillo plays mixed-up teenager Donna Price, who is shipped off to a girl's reformatory when she is involved in a fatal car crash. Actually, Donna is innocent, but she refuses to reveal who was driving. Only when the culprit (a pre-77 Sunset Strip Edward Byrnes) reveals himself to be a total piece of excrement is Donna able to extricate herself from her dilemma. The film served as the movie debut of Sally Kellerman, cast as a butchy inmate. Reform School Girl was remade for television in 1994 as part of Showtime cable's "Rebel Highway" series.