Starring Russ Tamblyn, Jan Sterling, John Drew Barrymore, Mamie Van Doren, Diane Jergens, and Jackie Cooper
My rating: ★★ stars
Camp classic of youth gone wild masquerading as an anti-drug screed.
High School Confidential! exists in a world where stars are irrelevant. It’s not a good movie. In many instances, it’s laughably bad. Yet, the filmmakers recognize the film’s shortcomings, and they seem to be laughing along with us, making for a fun, if guilty, good time.
The film opens with the hit theme song performed by Jerry Lee Lewis, appearing on the back of a flat-bed truck during the credits. This upbeat tune sets the mood for the film, letting the audience know not to take it seriously. It repeats at the film’s end, undercutting the moralizing that’s sprinkled throughout the film.
When High School Confidential! was made, any film that showed high risk behavior had to present a didactic message about the evils of that behavior—in this case, drugs.
When new student Tony Baker (Russ Tamblyn) shows up for his first day of school, he immediately begins prowling for a drug connection. He doesn’t have a hard time finding one because the school is rife with marijuana smokers. Even the popular nice girl, Joan Staples (Diane Jergens), is hooked on reefers. Parents turn a blind eye to this blight of illicit drugs. “Not my kid!” they say, despite warnings from authorities.
The 1950s were a time of persistent anxiety—about communism, about nuclear holocaust, about space exploration. So anxious was the time that society began to fear its own children, whether in the form of rising filiarchy (a word William H. Whyte, Jr. first used in the 1950s to criticize the changing role of children in the family from compliant to dominant) or juvenile delinquency. Even the U.S. Senate joined in this worry bandwagon by launching an investigation into the problem of juvenile delinquency. According to High School Confidential!, juvenile delinquency is rampant. The only good, decent student at the high school is football captain Steve Bentley (played by the wholesome, angelic Michael Landon).
Steve may be a nice guy, but gang leader J.I. Coleridge (John Drew Barrymore) certainly isn’t. He snarls and sneers his way throughout the movie. Tony is surprised (but the audience isn’t) to discover that J.I. is the major marijuana connection in the school. Tony is interested in more than a little “Mary Jane,” as the film takes pains to point out is a nickname for marijuana. He wants a heroin connection, so J.I. hooks him up with the mysterious Mr. A (Jackie Coogan). Coogan wonderfully oozes malevolence, giving the best performance in the movie.
Unlike Jan Sterling, who plays sympathetic English teacher Miss Williams, Coogan finds the right level of camp to bring to his performance. Sterling, who is too good of an actress for this film, plays her role straight. In her scenes with Tony, for whom Miss Williams develops a little yen, Sterling seems to be channeling Deborah Kerr in Tea & Sympathy. She does a decent approximation of Kerr, but it’s all wrong for the film. Particularly incongruous are Sterling’s scenes with Mamie Van Doren, as Tony’s Aunt Gwen (by marriage). Gwen, who is Tony’s guardian, makes no secret of the fact that she’s hot for Tony…or anyone really. Van Doren and her character exist entirely in the world of camp. They can’t be taken seriously, and Sterling makes the mistake of trying to.
This film takes little seriously. Even in its moralizing moments—for example, when it stresses the belief that marijuana is a gateway drug for hard drugs—the presentation is so ridiculously over the top that the audience can almost see the filmmakers winking at them through the screen. Jody Fair, a common presence in teen exploitation films of the era, plays Doris, a friend of Joan’s, who has moved past marijuana to heroin. Doris acts as warning of what could happen to Joan and all nice girls if they get too deeply into drugs. She’s last seen writhing in the agony of withdrawal as Mr. A pressures her into prostitution.
While the element of camp is what makes the movie fun to watch, the film takes its campiest moments too far. It offers a parody of beat poetry that goes on a few beats too long. Particularly painful is J.I.’s monologue about Columbus’s expedition to the Americas done entirely in what the writers seem to think is teenage argot, but actually is not at all the way anyone has ever talked. The monologue goes on and on, painful moment after painful moment. Barrymore’s father could keep an audience interested in long monologues, but the son just makes the viewers start writhing in agony like poor Doris the longer he speaks.
I can dismiss these issues as the kind of flaws viewers have to put up with when enjoying a movie for its camp qualities. However, the one problem in the film that’s hard to overlook is the implied rape scene near the end of the movie. The superficial idea behind this scene is again a moralizing one—to show that drugs have bad consequences even for innocent people and that drug dealers are very bad guys. The tone, however, suggests that the filmmakers are trying to pile one more bit of sensationalism into a movie that includes everything from a drag race to a gang rumble. It’s as if they’re trying to be as outrageous as possible to undercut the seriousness of the film. But rape is serious business. While the public wasn’t as sensitive to the issue in 1958 as we are today, the film can at least be fairly criticized for brushing off the incident almost as soon as it happens. That’s just bad storytelling.
Similarly, 1930s star Lyle Talbot shows up briefly as a crooked lawyer offering to get Tony off on a possession charge, but he, and the storyline, is never heard from again. Maybe plot coherency is too much to ask for from this kind of movie.
High School Confidential!, for the most part, can be enjoyed on an ironic level, with viewers appreciating the film’s outrageousness, its quaint depiction of teenage delinquency, its blatantly disingenuous moralizing, and its general campiness. However, I can’t fully recommend the movie because too much of it is just a drag.