Bright Lights Film Journal

Molls with Claws: Three Classic Girl Gang Movies: Girl Gang, Teenage Doll, Teenage Gang Debs

Fay Spain in Teenage Doll

These “dolls” paved the way for the riot grrls of the ’80s – but were too busy kicking ass to notice

Cultural memory is often about as fragmented as a 1950s prom dress, but fortunately, movies gives us persuasive evidence of some cultural trends. Such is the case with that hoary artifact of the 1950s and ’60s, the girl gang.

The riot grrrl of the ’80s is a direct descendant of the trashy “hellcats in hotpants” who enlivened many an exploitation in postwar America. It seems that some of these gals didn’t find June Cleaver or Margaret Anderson quite the proper role model; no doubt because they couldn’t imagine June or Maggie stealing their sisters’ boyfriends, rumbling with rival gangs, murdering their fellow gang members, robbing their parents, enjoying gangbangs, and of course smoking weed and shooting smack. These girls wanted thrills that couldn’t be found in the foolish fantasies of conformist, middlebrow America.

One of the earliest tributes to these “thrill-hungry sensation seekers” as the ads claim is the bluntly titled Girl Gang (1954). This film reeks of Ed Wood, and for good reason – it stars Wood stalwart Timothy Farrell as the horny heroin dealer who enslaves young girls, and it was produced by George Weiss, who gave us Glen or Glenda? The girl gang is not the driving force of this film; they’re mere titillating window dressing, with only a couple of scenes of robbing and killing and fucking. (They do have a nice moment where they convince a “good girl” to get gang-raped by “five boys” as part of her initiation, though, typical of the world of the film, she agrees too quickly for us to believe she’s the naïf the film says she is.) Girl Gang is most effective as a primer on heroin addiction, and any would-be junkie can learn every nuance of how to get high on smack from the accommodating filmmakers.

If Girl Gang showed that the genre hadn’t quite found its stride, Roger Corman’s Teenage Doll (1957) gives us a wonderfully economical, almost anthropological view of the grrrls in their natural habitat – the street. Corman does far more with this material than might be imagined, thanks to a superior script by Charles Griffith and stunning noirish black-and-white photography by Floyd Crosby (who shot Murnau’s Tabu in 1931). In an opening worthy of Sam Fuller, a dishwasher at the back of a slummy restaurant inadvertently dumps dishwater on the dead body of Nan Baker, one of the “Black Widows.” Of course, the Widows, led by Hel (Fay Spain), must take revenge on the rival “Vandalette” who killed her. Each Widow gets a brief scene to explain herself – “Sure I was weaned on a 38!” one screams at her sister – but the group is threatened with internal discord and their own ennui, which they express at the drop of a skirt.

Corman crams what might be a two-hour movie into this 66-minute mini-epic, sketching the lives of each of the Widows and showing what drove them to the gang. In Hel’s scene, she verbally demolishes her loser father for cheating on her abused mother. Ultra-tough Lorrie (Sandy Smith) calls everybody a “dumb square broad,” including the crippled little sister she keeps in a squalid tenement room. The film’s promise of “not a pretty picture” is especially evident here, when Lorrie tosses a box of old crackers to the obviously starving kid, who devours them hungrily as her bored sister looks on. One of the film’s taglines appropriately evokes the ethos here: “Teenage dolls …  hunting down any girl who dares break their jungle code!”

Teenage Gang Debs was made in 1966, but as impresario Johnny Legend says, “could have been made in the ’50s.” This amazing independent feature immediately tips us off that it’s a woman’s world – only the female stars’ names are in capital letters. The top “deb” here is Terry Fiore (Diane Conti), a beautiful, predatory “Manhattanite” who systematically screws and then dispatches the top brass of a Brooklyn gang called the Warriors. She seems especially peeved when leader Johnny insists on carving his initials into her tits after he’s fucked her. “Nobody carves me up!” she seethes, shortly before arranging Johnny’s demise.

Diane Conti as Terry is the quintessential early riot grrrl: gorgeous in black capri pants, teased black hair, a venomous smile, and of course black mascara that must have been applied with a trowel.

For Terry, sisterhood is not as powerful as it should be, as she goes after the other women as much as the men. This riot grrrl plays no favorites. In a typical scene, she demands that all male gang members rape Annie, one of the sisters she’s deposed. “She’s dirt!” Terry shrieks. “Show her!” In another sequence, she influences the IQ-challenged Nino to murder one of his old pals who was trying to escape from the gang.

Like the other two films, Teenage Gang Debs was shot in gritty black-and-white, on mostly real locations, giving an authenticity lacking in more upscale takes on the “juvenile delinquency” problem of the time. And of course, there’s appropriate music to punch, kick, stab, and shoot up to – in this case Lee Dowell’s “Black Belt,” where the brainless, violent teens take time off from their rumbles to start a new dance craze, which, sad to say, never quite caught on.