Oct 24, 2015

The Life of Riley: Bullying Boys into Girl-Craziness

Before World War II, teenage boys were expected to be concerned with the gang, or with one special pal, and think of girls as "poison."  Those boys who expressed an interest in girls prior to graduating from high school were ridiculed by their peers as pansies and Percies, evaluated by school psychologists, and subjected to tense heart-to-heart talks with their parents.

But after the War, the image of the adolescent masculinity shifted from "woman-hating" to "girl-crazy," and some of the long-running radio teenagers who had previously been concerned solely with paper routes and bad report cards suddenly began casting longing glances at their female schoolmates.  You can find the exact date: Chester Riley’s son Junior (Scotty Beckett) on  Life of Riley in January 1948; The Great Gildersleeve’s wisecracking nephew Leroy (Walter Tetley) in March 1949; and Ozzie and Harriet’s eldest son David Nelson in November 1951

Left and below: in 1948, MGM arranged for  Scotty Beckett (later Corky of Gasoline Alleyand his friend Roddy McDowall to go on a "see, they're not gay!" double date with Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Powell, but they seem to have ended up cuddling with each other.

The teenage boy had to be bullied, cajoled, and if necessary forced into girl-craziness; it could not be taken for granted.

In the January 1948 episode of The Life of Riley, for instance, blustering working-class family man  Chester (William Bendix) is horrified to discover that his fifteen-year old son, Junior, plans to bring a boy to the big New Year’s Eve dance.

He tries to explain about “the birds and bees,” sexual difference, but Junior insists that he already knows about “all that jazz.”

So Chester puts his foot down: there are “boy people” and “girl people,” he argues, and “boy people” should only take “girl people” to dances.  “Don’t you like girls?” he asks in a timid, hesitant voice, afraid of the possible answer.

When Junior admits that he likes girls “sometimes,” Chester takes charge, forcing the boy to break his same-sex date and telephone the boss’s daughter.  She is noncommital, so Chester forces him to call the offspring of another VIP (resulting, of course, in two dates for the dance, both impossible to break).  He is as hysterical in his insistence that Junior should like girls as fathers of the pre-War generation were hysterical in their insistence that their teenage sons should not.

Chester continued trying to "encourage" his son into girl-craziness when the show moved onto television, and Scotty Beckett was replaced by Lanny Reese (above) and even the obviously-grown up Wesley Morgan (left).