"Nice" School Walls
A TEACHER'S NIGHTMARE!
A TEENAGE JUNGLE!
For all the supposed order of the 1950s, it was at bottom an age of anxiety.
Communists, dope fiends, beatniks, rock 'n' roll singers -- untidy forces
threatened to rend the well-pressed social fabric. Not the least volatile
of the era's dark agents could be found right at home, in the person of
the hormone-addled American teenager.
Where there's fear, there are movies. The Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without
a Cause appeared in 1955, and soon the teens-in-trouble film had become
as much of an epidemic as juvenile delinguency was supposed to be: within
a few years High School Big Shot, High School Hellcats, Teenage Bad Girl,
Teenage Crime Wave, Teenage Rebel and Teenage Wolfpack all came to the local
Rialto. Many were made under the pretense of eternal vigilance, but everyone
knew the real point was vicarious unwholesomenss, and that the films were
aimed less at concerned parents than at their adolescent spawn, recoiling
from the dullness of their elders' lives.
"Today 85 percent of moviegoers are under 21," said producer Albert Zugsmith
not long after the release of his High School Confidential, one of the best
of the genre. "What these kids of today want to see is a dramatic solution
of their own problems enacted by players of an age in which they identify
Before Zugsmith entered the film business, he'd been a newspaper reporter,
editor and publisher, as well as a press agent and broadcasting executive,
and in Hollywood he combined a newsman's eye for a good story with a businessman's
nose for a dollar. The films he produced, including Invasion U.S.A., The
Beat Generation and Girls' Town, were rarely hailed as art (Orson Welles'
Touch of Evil was a notable exception), but they made money. "I pick my title
to get 'em into the theaters," he told Hedda Hopper. "I feel an obligation
to give the public what it wants. High School Confidential was a true-to-life
yarn and presented the dope problem in such a shocking fashion it scared
the pants off those viewing it." The former reporter researched his subject,
talking to teens and narcotics officers; beat poet Larry Lipton took him
to pot parties in Venice, California.
Even-handedly directed by Jack Arnold (The Incredible Shrinking Man, The
Creature from the Black Lagoon), the film is awash in the requisites: hot
rods, jackknifes, beat poetry, flouted authority, rock 'n' roll (Jerry Lee
Lewis pounds out the title song from the back of a flatbed truck), a glimpse
of teenage lingerie, extreme close-ups of tightly clad backsides. Yet compared
to exploitation films of the high-tolerance '90s, High School Confidential
is strangely austere and (with risible exceptions) effectively underplayed.
Hardly a voice is raised, hardly a brow perspires. (Coolness was a virtue
then.) Jackie Coogan is quietly sinister as the local drug lord. And Russ
Tamblyn -- who, as Riff in the film of West Side Story, would create a punk
for the ages -- is appealingly disrespectful as the new boy in town, spouting
hip metaphors and showing a new side at every turn. Is he a self-important
jerk? An aspiring pusher? Or just misunderstood?
In fact, few characters in the film are what they first seem -- they're
all keeping secrets, if only from themselves. This stab at complexity makes
the movie less of a joke than it might have been. And though drugs are depicted
as evil (a cautionary prologue was tacked on at the order of U.S. Commissioner
of Narcotics H.J. Anslinger), sex and rock 'n' roll are virtually endorsed.
"Don't tell me you never rode a hot rod or had a late date in the second
balcony," sexpot Mamie Van Doren upbraids teacher Jan Sterling.
Cast here as Tamblyn's "aunt," Van Doren (who'd modeled for pin-up artist
Alberto Varga) doesn't advance the story so much as derail it. Less a character
than a force of nature, she's on hand mostly to slink, purr, pout and wrap
herself like cellophane around her unresponsive nephew. ("This is an aunt?"
someone finally asks.) If anything in High School Confidential is gratuitous,
it's Mamie; yet she's delicious every second she's on screen. "I was always
playing weird types in weird pictures,' she later remembered. Several were
Predictably, the film raised hackles. Though Variety found the story to
be told "skilfully and with compelling effect," other reviewers were as
disturbed as Zugsmith expected them to be. Film Review declared, "The film
is itself a social evil" and decried its "ghastly nihilism" and the suggestion
that "the primitivism of urban polyglots has become the American norm."
That's as half-baked as anything in High School Confidential -- and not
half as entertaining.