Sunday, July 4, 2010

HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL! The Complete History


PART I: AN APPRECIATION
"High School Confidential! will shock you and, I hope, alert you."
-- Dr. Stuart Knox, from the original prologue to High School Confidential!
Of the dozens of juvenile delinquent (J.D.) movies released during the 1950s, there is only one that achieves true, beginning-to-end, jaw-dropping, exploitation greatness. That film--High School Confidential!--was released in 1958, three years after the heavy-handed message picture double whammy of Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause. Of course, without its hugely popular cinematic forebearers, it is doubtful that a major studio would have taken a chance on screenwriter Robert Blees's edgy pitch about an undercover narcotics officer infiltrating a drug ring at a typical American high school. But one did. As Mr. Blees told CONELRAD in a rare interview, he and his agent "received a favorable response [from MGM] almost immediately." The 85-year-old screenwriter explained, "they were trying to change their image; they were trying to get with it." And "get with it," they did. Less than a year later, Blees's story--albeit significantly dressed up by the Albert Zugsmith exploitation machine--was in theaters nationwide. More than a half century later it is a genuine classic.

High School Confidential! crashes onto the screen with a rollicking title sequence that sets the tone for the wild ride that awaits the audience. From out of nowhere, Jerry Lee Lewis--in all his 1950s glory--appears atop a music truck that is rolling slowly through a suburban street. Like a rock 'n' roll Pied Piper, Lewis's motorized concert attracts a growing number of music crazed teens until the truck stops to allow a full-on dance party to break out. The whole spectacle doesn't make much sense, but it throws the viewer off balance and serves as the perfect opening for a movie that defies all expectations.*

From the moment that Tony Baker aka Officer Mike Wilson (played by Russ Tamblyn) drives up to Santa Bello High School and shuts down another student over a parking space ("You've got 32 teeth, buster, wanna try for none?"), the torrent of slang-infused dialogue rarely ceases during the film's 85-minute running time. Baker immediately accosts rich girl Joan Staples (played by Diane Jergens) with an obnoxious pick-up line: "Hiya, sexy, you look real cultured. Let's cut out to some drag and eat pad." She can barely respond with "Oh, wow," before her boyfriend, J. I. Coleridge (played by John Drew Barrymore), shows up. "Cool it," he says to his new, less than impressed rival. Barrymore, who has the best role of his troubled career as J. I., looks like Sun Records-era Johnny Cash and about ten years past his graduation date.

It isn't long before Baker has defeated a contingent of J. I.'s gang, the Wheelers and Dealers, in a locker room switchblade showdown. The young detective is now on his way up the drug dealing ladder to the film's inevitable conclusion--a confrontation with heroin kingpin, Mr. August, better known as Mr. A (played by former child star and future Uncle Fester, Jackie Coogan). Along the way, Baker humiliates the school administration with his impudence, fends off the advances of his lonely "aunt" (played by Mamie Van Doren), and burns rubber in a drag race. He also runs into reformed Teenage Werewolf, Michael Landon (as Steve Bentley) in a letterman sweater who asks him if he wants to join his clean-cut social group, The Rangers. "No, I'm looking for a different kind of action," Baker explains. He informs another student that he's "looking to graze on some grass." It is not until the last third of the film that the audience is clued in to the fact that the new kid in school is an undercover cop. 

But there are some tell-tale signs that hint at Baker's real purpose, such as when he takes a protective interest in a classmate / heroin addict named Doris (played by Jody Fair). Joan expresses shock when the track marks on Doris's arm are exposed after an incident at a pool party. "I thought she was just a weed-head like me," Joan exclaims. Baker replies with a censor-appeasing line as he comforts poor, out-of-it, Doris: "She was--she graduated. Don't look so surprised. Look, do you want me to spell it out for you? If you flake around with the weed you're going to end up using the hard stuff."

There are wonderful sideshows to the main throughline of the drug trafficking story that elevate High School Confidential! high above other J. D. movies of the era. These plot diversions include J. I.'s classroom jive speech about the discovery of America ("Columbus, why, man, he was the hippest!") and Phillipa Fallon's beat poem ("What is truth?") at the local teen hangout where, bizarrely, Mr. A moonlights on piano. 

Perhaps the funniest, most surreal scene in the entire movie is when Baker's teacher, Miss Arlene Williams (played by Jan Sterling), stops by his house to have a conference with his sultry "aunt" about her "nephew's" insolent behavior. Mamie Van Doren's "Aunt" Gwen Dulaine, in a tight sweater and holding a drink, takes immediate offense:
GWEN: Look, Miss Dimple Toes, if you people at the school think Vic and me--Vic is my husband and he's out of town on a job--if you think we're raising a juvenile delinquent, say it.

MISS WILLIAMS: No, Mrs. Dulaine, we...

GWEN: Don't double-talk me. You've got me pegged as a no-good relative.

MISS WILLIAMS: The only reason I came here...

GWEN: Come on, honey, don't draw diagrams with me. I'm no idiot child. I just don't believe all the stuff the papers said about wild reefer parties and fates worse than death in the bushes at night. I know Tony even if he's only been living here a short while. He's practically a grown man who wants to get a bang out of life just like you and me. 

MISS WILLIAMS: I think if Tony's interests were channeled then...

GWEN: There's nothing to channel. He's healthy and normal and full of fun. You know what I mean, too. Don't tell me you never rode a hot rod or had a late date in the second balcony. 

(Looking over at the prim and proper teacher) 

...Or maybe you haven't.   
Later in the film, when Gwen visits the teen hangout, J. I. acts as a proxy for a large segment of the audience when he leers at her and says, "This is an aunt? Boy, she can chaperone our next dance any time. Any time."

These scenes are about as logical as Jerry Lee Lewis riding through town on the back of a truck belting out his latest hit, but they help make Confidential! the masterpiece it is.

Of course, the movie also finds room for social commentary including a scene in which the Santa Bello High faculty learn about marijuana and its supposed link to heroin. Later, the audience is introduced to Joan's parents--an older, well-to-do couple who are too busy boozing it up to notice that their daughter is a "weed-head." There is also a scene at a police station where cops gripe about how the ignorance and pride of parents puts them in an untenable position when "good" kids go bad. The handling of the "message" material is so over-the-top, that it blends in perfectly with the general absurdity of the film.

In the end, with the help of Michael Landon and his wholesome club / football team, Baker takes down Mr. A and his operation. And, after a crying jag, Joan literally breaks a joint in half to demonstrate her independence from grass. The movie wraps things up with a ludicrous coda narrated by the uncredited voice actor, Paul Frees, over footage of a cleaned up Officer Mike Wilson driving a convertible loaded with characters Arlene Williams, Joan Staples and Gwen, happily reunited with her husband. Frees's words, pronouced with the gravity of a newsman, seem calculated to confer some measure of legitimacy on all of the hysteria that has occurred during the previous 85 minutes:

You have just seen an authentic disclosure of conditions which unfortunately exist in some of our high schools today. But now Arlene will teach in a school that has cleansed itself of its ugly problem. Joan confines her smoking to ordinary cigarettes. Gwen's problem is also solved, her husband came home. For some of the people in our story it didn't have a happy ending. Mr. A and Bix are serving five years to life. J. I. and his boys are in reform school. But the job of a policeman like Mike Wilson will not be finished until this insidious menace to the schools of the country is exposed and destroyed.
With that bit of business out of the way, a reprise of the movie's rocking theme song plays over the end credits. Twenty years later, David Cassidy would pick up the undercover high school narc mantle for a short-lived television series spun off from an episode of NBC's Police Story.

It just wasn't the same.

 

PART II: THE PRODUCTION HISTORY
"The initial reaction to it was sensational. Right off, everybody claimed I was some kind of dope-user who was out of his head."
-- Albert Zugsmith, the Los Angeles Free Press, 1975
THE MAN BEHIND THE BADGE: The Origins of High School Confidential!

High School Confidential! did not begin life as a slang-packed howler. Believe it or not, its inspiration was, as Hollywood likes to term it, "real life." Specifically, the story of a Houston undercover narcotics officer named Texas Joe Foster. The dramatic story of the cop's busting of drug gangs in several Texas public high schools was first recounted in an article entitled "Teacher's Nightmare" in Time magazine in 1951. The newsweekly did not identify Foster by name for fear of compromising his work, but a few months later the man himself granted an on-the-record interview to the Houston Chronicle. The Chronicle published a more extensive story of the agent's exploits which got picked up by the wire services.

J. I. Staley, an oil heir, who lived in Houston and who followed the Foster story, told his screenwriter friend, Robert Blees, about it. The grateful scribe paid a kind of backhanded homage to Staley's contribution by naming one of the lead villains after him--John Drew Barrymore's J. I. Coleridge. When asked if Staley, who has since passed on, was aware of the honor, Blees told CONELRAD: "Of course, oh, yes. And he threw a big party in Houston [when the movie opened there]."

Unbeknownst to Blees, and long before he attempted to interest MGM in Foster's tale, the story was dramatized on the television anthology crime show The Man Behind the Badge. Future Psycho star Anthony Perkins portrayed the Foster character. Aside from the typical TV section notices in newspapers, the September 5, 1954 broadcast did not have much of an impact. Foster, who had at some point, had come out to Los Angeles to exploit his adventures beyond the news media, could not have been thrilled by the muted reaction. There was a second life to Foster's fame, but it was developing, for the moment, off camera.

THE PITCH

Correspondence from late 1956 in the Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA) Production Code File on High School Confidential! proves that there was at least one other person in the film industry besides Blees who thought Foster's exploits deserved a the deluxe feature film treatment. In a letter to the MPAA, a producer from Allied Artists named Ben Schwalb (Queen of Outer Space, Dig That Uranium and many other B picture credits) asked for Code guidance on adapting the less-than-wholesome story of Foster's investigations. Attached to his letter was a re-typed version of the original 1951 Time magazine article referenced earlier. Geoffrey Shurlock of the Production Code wrote back with some boiler plate citations from their regulations concerning the depiction of drug addiction on screen. This letter marked the last time Schwalb's name was mentioned in connection with the project, but the high ranking censor, Mr. Shurlock, would write many more memos to MGM about High School Confidential! 

Robert S. Blees, a plain-spoken man originally from Lathrop, Missouri, was born in 1925 and wasted little time getting into the movie business--he started out as a junior writer at Warner Brothers in the early 1940s. By the time he was pitching the story of Texas Joe Foster in 1957, he already had an impressive list of credits including, most notably, the screenplay for the 1954 Douglas Sirk remake of Magnificent Obession starring Rock Hudson.

At MGM, Blees, with his agent by his side, laid out his proposed concept to story editor Marge Thorson and shortly thereafter they received word that they had a deal with the studio. Blees confirmed to CONELRAD that MGM was the only studio they tried to sell the "property" to.

"MEMO FOR THE FILES": GETTING STARTED

On July 8, 1957 Blees sent a memo outlining how he viewed the characters "shaping up" in his story to the new project's producer, the larger than life Albert Zugsmith. He was doing this in order to get Zugsmith's input in advance of MGM's legal department getting involved in the issue of rights clearances. Many of the characters were drawn from Foster's actual experiences and Blees wanted to know what his limitations were before diving headlong into his story treatment. The writer was not going to be basing his script solely on the public record accounts of Foster's investigations. Blees had extensively interviewed the former undercover officer about the details of this work and he had a lot more knowledge of the events than what had been previously publicized. One anecdote that Foster related to Blees about a device used to fake a heroin injection wound up being reworked for a critical scene in the movie.

There is no record of Zugsmith's response, but a few days later Blees sent another memo, this time to the story editor, Ms. Thorson, with a list of the actual people who were involved in Foster's investigation. He included a carbon copy for a man named Fred Houghton, who presumably, was then part of MGM's legal department. He later became Director of the studio's Business Affairs division.

On July 16th Blees sent Zugsmith a memo that provided the storyline for half of the film. At this nascent stage, the project was titled "Crazy Mixed-Up Kids." In the document, Blees describes the central Foster character--eventually played by Russ Tamblyn--as having sideburns, wearing Stacy-Adams shoes and generally looking "hip."

In August and September of 1957 Blees wrote several iterations of the treatment (a pre-script narrative of the movie) and Robert Vogel, MGM's liaison with the MPAA, dutifully absorbed the feedback from the censors. Mr. Shurlock and his colleagues seemed most alarmed by the character that would eventually be "embodied" by the incomparable Mamie Van Doren. The part, as originally conceived, was an oil rigger's amorous widow named Gwen Dulaine who provides room and board--in the guise of an "aunt"--to the Foster character. There was no such real life model for Gwen, but certain elements of her personality--including her sexually aggressive nature--can be found in the "moll" of one of the actual drug pushers that Foster dealt with. This mattered little to the censors who vented their concerns over the fictional Ms. Dulaine in a September 13, 1957 "memo for the files": 
The characterization of the young law officer's "Aunt" is that of a sexually hungry person who is on the make for him constantly. It's almost fair to call her a nymphomaniac. 

The author of the memo added that "Mr. Zugsmith, the producer, protested in a conference on this script where he recognized and acknowledged these problems, and would make every effort to avoid Code difficulties in the preparation of the screenplay." Of course, Zugsmith, a skilled public relations veteran, knew how to humor the MPAA while preserving what he knew would help sell tickets at the box office. Indeed, the character as portrayed by Van Doren is even more of a "nymphomaniac" in the released film than she is in the treatments and scripts.

An enduring mystery of the final, released version of High School Confidential! is the filmmakers' intent behind the character of Gwen Dulaine. Or, put more directly, who is she and why is she always trying to seduce her "nephew"? The confusion is well earned because, aside from two late-in-the-game, tossed off bits of dialogue, there is no full explanation of her purpose. Specifically, the scene in which Baker/Wilson makes contact with Police Commissioner Burroughs (played by Ned Weaver) and the official asks, almost as an afterthought, "How's Gwen behaving?" Baker/Wilson replies with a laugh, "Oh, that aunt bit's getting pretty rough." A couple of scenes later, as Baker/Wilson is rushing out of the house to make the critical heroin "buy" from Mr. A, he pleads with a drunken Gwen to watch after Joan who is in his bedroom. "This is important to Burroughs," he says, indicating that Gwen is one of the few people aware of the investigation and his role in it. It is easy to see how these fleeting references would fail to register with viewers--past and present--because of all the salacious dialogue ("Relatives should always kiss each other hello and goodbye...") that occurs between the characters during the first two-thirds of the movie. Indeed, as we will see later, "Gwen" confused not only the censors and the critics, but Tamblyn and Van Doren, too.

"SPECIAL MATERIAL": The Screenplay

In September of 1957 another screenwriter by the name of Lewis Meltzer was brought on board to work on the script. Meltzer, whose major credit at the time was co-writing the adapted screenplay for the 1955 Frank Sinatra addiction film, The Man with the Golden Arm, would later co-write the script for Zugsmith's 1959 production, The Beat Generation. His first action on the job was to make some rather modest recommendations based on a reading of the writing that had already been done. According to Blees, the new writer took over "more than I liked," but, in the end, the two men shared credit for the final screenplay.

Two of the movie's most memorable scenes, however, belong to neither man, but rather to Mel Welles whose name appears in the opening credits next to the words "Special Material." Welles, a Roger Corman stock company player, and a writer for the cult comedian Lord Buckley, penned the slang-soaked set pieces delivered by John Drew Barrymore and Phillipa Fallon, respectively. He also plays Mamie Van Doren's soused date, Bill O'Flair, who gets karate chopped by the Russ Tamblyn character. When asked how the Barrymore and Fallon recitations came to be inserted into the script, Blees laughed and said, "I have no idea how that came about."

Welles, who is perhaps best known for his role as the florist shop owner, Gravis Mushnick, in Corman's original 1960 version of Little Shop of Horrors, had experience with the hep talk of the Beat Generation. The year before High School Confidential! he played Sir Bop, an aging hipster talent agent, in Corman's Rock All Night. Welles would later reveal that the Sir Bop character was originally written for Lord Buckley, but that when the notoriously unreliable entertainer "disappeared," before shooting, he played the role himself. The versatile writer/actor wrote glossaries of slang that were released in conjunction with both Rock All Night and Confidential! The first compendium of jargon was entitled Sir Bop's Unabridged HIPtionary and the second was called The High School Confidential! DIGtionary (the latter booklet contained the misleading cover credit "Compiled by Albert Zugsmith").


A fourth writer, Franklin Coen, came onto the project in January of 1958 to perform what the Hollywood Reporter called a "polishing job." Coen's name appears on a "Script Changes" version of the screenplay dated January 15, 1958. In this iteration, the character of the beat poet, eventually played by Phillipa Fallon, is described as male and "colored." By the January 20th version of the screenplay, the sex of the poet had changed and the reference to race had been dropped.

Albert Zugsmith himself contributed to what he called the "maximum authenticity" of the film by learning, first hand, about the drug and beatnik culture before production. As he told the Los Angeles Free Press in 1975:
Because my knowledge of pot was restricted to what I had learned about it back in the thirties when it was legal, I started researching this film six months before we started shooting. I wanted to get how the kids really felt about pot; to find out what happened to kids who used it.
Zugsmith went on to talk in the article about how he went out on drug raids with the Los Angeles Police Department and how he also spent time with Larry Lipton (a West Coast Beat fixture and the father of the host of Inside the Actors Studio, James Lipton) who helped get him into "all the private pot parties in Venice").

The final version of the script on file at the Academy Library is dated February 11, 1958, just a few days before the production began. Since Zugsmith did not take screenplay credit on any of the drafts, it is impossible to know whether his research experiences were ever incorporated into the final film.

Throughout the screenwriting process the censors weighed in with their concerns over dialogue (they took particular exception to the word "stud"), violence, drug use, and, especially, the overheated "aunt" character. The last cautionary memo dated January 10, 1958 was for the MPAA files to document a telephone conference with Robert Vogel. In addition to their oft-repeated complaints from previous correspondence, the censors added the following objection that reads like a blanket indictment of High School Confidential! for the unrest of the 1960s:
...There is an element of disordliness on the part of the youngsters in the school, and particularly down at the police station, which could easily create a spirit of disrespect of law and order which might be socially dangerous.
"I HATED IT AT THE TIME": The Production

Over the weekend of February 15-16, 1958 busy MGM contract player, Russ Tamblyn, had just returned to Los Angeles from England where he had been filming the title role in George Pal's tom thumb. He immediately began work as the jive-talking undercover narc Tony Baker, aka Officer Mike Wilson, on the Culver City set where High School Confidential! was in production. In 1991 Tamblyn recalled for Filmfax magazine that "They literally picked me up from the airport and drove me to the studio. We started shooting the day I got back." The rush may have been due to the fact that tom thumb's principal photography took longer than expected because of the star's bout with the flu.

The presumably weary Tamblyn was less than thrilled to be trapped working on a B movie. He had, after all, just been nominated for an Academy Award for his supporting role in Peyton Place. He found out this good news on February 18th, just a day or two into shooting Confidential!        

Tamblyn recalled his attitude about the film and his bewilderment over the "aunt" character in the aforementioned Filmfax interview:
To tell you the truth, I hated it at the time. My agent and I both thought the script was terrible, and he tried to get me out of it, but the studio threatened suspension if I didn't do the picture... And no one has ever figured out what Mamie Doren's character was. She's my aunt? It was weird.
Van Doren had a more enjoyable experience, but she was as mystified as her co-star about their morally ambiguous on-screen relationship. She is quoted in the book Atomic Blonde: The Films of Mamie Van Doren as saying: 
High School Confidential! was one of my favorites. It was my first movie with MGM. I met the leading man Russ Tamblyn, I met him the same morning I had a kissing scene with him. It's not easy to walk into a scene early in the morning just from bed and you walk in and you've got this very passionate sexy scene with your nephew. Supposedly he was my nephew in the movie. I don't know who was looking at the movie and let that go by.
Director Jack Arnold, who had worked with Zugsmith the previous year at Universal on The Incredible Shrinking Man, was not thrilled with the subject matter of Confidential!, but relished the opportunity to be working at MGM. As he told author Dana M. Reeves for the 1988 book Directed by Jack Arnold, "For one thing, they paid better." Arnold added that Zugsmith was unequivocal about his vision of the film, "Zugsmith wanted an out-and-out exploitation picture, a straight, preachy, message film--and if I could put nudity in it that would be great!" Arnold's widow, Betty recalled in a 1993 Filmfax article that her husband "thought it was a very lightweight, nothing picture, but he did the best he could with it."

At some point during filming in March, the famed gossip writer, Hedda Hopper, dropped by the Confidential! set and was introduced to Texas Joe Foster who was playing a non-speaking role as one of John Drew Barrymore's aging thugs. "I asked Joe how he could act like a teenager," Hopper wrote in her syndicated column. He replied, "It takes one to catch one." Left unsaid was that Confidential! was about the furthest thing imaginable from a "method" acted picture and Foster looked ridiculous in his part. The media savvy producer, who had undoubtedly engineered the visit, rewarded Hopper for her anticipated puffery. She duly noted the gesture in her piece: "When I left the set Zugsmith presented me with a lighter. Now that's the kind of producer I like."

Barrymore, Texas Joe Foster, Norman Grabowski, William Wellman Jr.

The weekly movie production charts of the trade publications and the local Los Angeles newspapers document that High School Confidential! completed principal photography around the middle of March of 1958. Aside from the delayed start because of Tamblyn's illness in England, there are no indications in the public record of any major production problems. There were a few minor issues such as casting and title changes. For instance, the veteran of many gangster movies, George Raft, was originally signed to play Mr. A, but was replaced by Jackie Coogan at the last minute. There is no published reason for why this change occurred. There is a brief mention in a February 5th Hedda Hopper column announcing the casting switch and news that Raft was "off to Florida." In retrospect, it is hard to imagine anyone but Coogan delivering the line, "I tried to tell that chick that no hophead ever becomes a lady."


The only other known hitch that the producers had to overcome was the securing of the film's wonderfully tabloid-ish title. Throughout the screenwriting process, the movie was known by a succession of names: "Crazy Mixed-Up Kids," "The Texas Joe Foster," "Teen-Age Project," "Co-Ed Jungle," "Juvenile Jungle," and, finally, "High School Confidential!" Because the journalists Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer had a popular series of books with "Confidential" in the title ("New York Confidential," "Chicago Confidential," etc.), the title that MGM wanted for its movie had to be licensed from Mortimer and the estate of Lait (who died in 1954).

Regardless of his reputed attitude towards the project, it appears that director Jack Arnold fulfilled his producer's initial wish list for the film in all respects...including the nudity. In the Production Code File for High School Confidential! there is a memo dated November 28, 1959 regarding the Australian censor board's demand for "all shots of Jan Sterling's breast be deleted from reel 8" of the film. This "European" print was clearly not the one submitted for the American Production Code Authorization (P.C.A.).**

On March 28, 1958, the MPAA provided to MGM's Robert Vogel a form entitled "Analysis of Film Content" which concluded that the nudity-free domestic cut of High School Confidential! had, among other redeeming attributes, a "moral" ending and was worthy of the coveted P.C.A. approval. The P.C.A. Seal Number assigned to the film was 19002.

But Zugsmith did not merely have to please the MPAA censors to get his picture to the big screen - he also had to satisfy Harry J. Anslinger, the longtime Commissioner of the Treasury Department's Federal Narcotics Bureau. According to the previously cited Los Angeles Free Press interview with the producer, Anslinger insisted that the negative effects of marijuana be depicted in the film or the production would be shut down. The "head federal narc," as Zugsmith referred to Anslinger, also demanded that a prologue warning of the dangers of pot be appended to the beginning if the film. Unfortunately, this mandated caution ("While parents sleep, their children are being turned into addicts") delivered by Dr. Stuart Knox of the Los Angeles County Medical Association is not included on the home video releases of the film.

ALBERT ZUGSMITH COMES HOME: The World Premiere


The May 29, 1958 High School Confidential! world premiere in Atlantic City, was a homecoming, of sorts, for a local boy who had made good. And Albert Zugsmith, who had experienced his first brush with show business as a talent booker/publicist for teenage bands while still attending Atlantic City High School, milked his triumphant return for all that it was worth. Indeed, the producer even received a Key to the City from Mayor Joseph Altman. The Chamber of Commerce president Michael J. Fiore thanked the studio and the stars (Jackie Coogan, Jan Sterling, Diane Jergens and Charles Chaplin Jr. walked the red carpet; Russ Tamblyn was, by this time, in the Army) for using the film's grand unveiling for the benefit of charity--The Atlantic-Cape May Chapter of Cerebral Palsy, Inc. Of course, Fiore also expressed his gratitude directly to Zugsmith. At the end of his proclamation, Fiore turned to the rotund producer and said, "To you, our own hometown boy, we wish success all the rest of your days."

The Atlantic City Press newspaper gushed about the premiere during several days of coverage remarking on every aspect of the film's debut. On May 30th, the paper breathlessly listed many of the local officials and business owners who attended the gala screening at the Apollo Theatre the night before. Unfortunately, the writer failed to capture the mayor's reaction to the film's risque slang dialogue and Mamie Van Doren's form-fitting wardrobe.

High School Confidential! opened to general filmgoers in Atlantic City and the New York market on May 30th, the same day as Andy Hardy Comes Home, MGM's attempt to reboot their profitable teen franchise The stark differences between the two youth-centric releases did not go unnoticed by the press. Zugsmith, who almost certainly upset the higher-ups at the studio, was quoted in one article dismissing his in-house competition's chances against his picture at the box office. He then added, in the same interview, a possible slap at Blackboard Jungle, "And we'll have greater moral impact. We use no soapboxes, no preaching--just realistic entertainment. But I'll bet that any kid who sees it will think three or four times before taking his first puff on a marijuana cigarette."

The following year, Zugsmith and Andy Hardy himself, Mickey Rooney, would collaborate on a movie, The Private Lives of Adam and Eve, that cast Rooney as Satan and Confidential! poetess Phillipa Fallon, in a small part, as one of his sexy minions.

"DOPE FILM IS A BIT GROGGY": The Reviews     


Like most cult films, High School Confidential! was not universally embraced when it debuted. Some critics took obvious shots at the slang and some dismissed it out-of-hand as a shoddy piece of work. Perhaps it was the conformity of the Eisenhower era or perhaps it was because the reviewers were "squares," but relatively few recognized the movie's inherent greatness.

The New York Times' critic took particular offense at Phillipa Fallon's tour de force of recitation: "At one excruciating point, to jazz accompaniment, a young brunette drawls a poem that has about as much coherence as a cat fight."

In the movie review section of its June 20, 1958 issue, the now defunct Commonweal magazine praised Andy Hardy Comes Home but trashed Zugsmith's J.D. epic. As a capper to the critque, the reviewer fretted with some good reason that "with its youthful cast and hep talk, High School Confidential! may unfortunately attract young people." Time magazine reviewed the movie in hipster jargon and concluded, "Man, it's terrible." The Los Angeles Examiner offered a mixed assessment under the headline "Drug Film is a Bit Groggy." What perturbed this particular critic was that the serious "blight" of drug addiction was obscured by the "brazen inanities" of the screenplay. Naturally, a lot of the reviewers commented on the curious presence of Mamie Van Doren as Russ Tamblyn's "aunt." Jack Moffit of the Hollywood Reporter wrote, "...his aunt repeatedly attempts to ambush him from behind a heavily laden sweater..."

There were a few brave reviewers who championed Confidential! including Selma Wilcox of Los Angeles' Citizen-News. Ms. Wilcox minimized the importance of the hip dialogue: "It's a message picture--which is O.K., if it's done well. And this has a lot to offer parents, and their teenage sons and daughters. The jive talk may bug the older cats who aren't hep - but they'll get the picture."

Geoffrey M. Warren of the Los Angeles Times wrote that "in its own right it's a modest achievement and certainly the best of its kind to come out of a glutted market." Mr. Warren also commented that "Mamie Van Doren, as Tony's most unlikely aunt, contributes remarkable scenery."

Unlike the humorless reviewer at the New York Times, David Dyer of the Beverly Hills Citizen got what Ms. Fallon was doing and dug it thoroughly, "...but what I want to know is, who was that chick who sang in the nightclub sequence? She was so riotous, I thought her bit was worth the price of admission alone." Dyer also loved Ms. Van Doren: "I thought she gave the funniest performance of the year, but I'm still not sure I was supposed to laugh or not."

             
LOOKING BACK

Critic David Dyer's professed uncertainty on whether to "laugh or not" at High School Confidential! neatly summarizes the film's lasting kitsch appeal. In hindsight, it seems unfathomable that it was ever intended as a serious expose on the problems of drug addiction, but according to stars Jody Fair and Russ Tamblyn it was. Fair, who plays the teenage heroin addict, Doris, told CONELRAD in a 2008 interview that the subject matter was treated very seriously on the set and that it was in this spirit that she approached her character. Tamblyn's response to this line of inquiry was conveyed by his wife in a letter to CONELRAD in 2007. Quoting her husband directly, Bonnie Tamblyn wrote: "No, they were not intending on making a comedy! They were trying to get a message across but it just ended up like Reefer Madness." Mr. Tamblyn will no doubt have more to say on the matter when his memoir is published.

The gritty, true life elements of Texas Joe Foster's story are very much in evidence in screenwriter Robert Blees's original storline that he submitted to Albert Zugsmith back in 1957. It was the colorful producer and other writers under him who amplified the slang, sex and drugs to transform it into what it is. Unfortunately, Zugsmith, who passed away in 1993, is not around to answer questions about the sincerity of the "message" of the movie. He did, however, offer a strange defense of the film in the Los Angeles Free Press article. The producer stated, rather unconvincingly, that it was a "well researched, realistic study of marijuana...We felt that the subject of pot should be analyzed and handled in a realistic manner and that we should not take sides on it... We tried to make the best, most realistic picture we could under the circumstances, but the narcotics people raised too much hell...unfortunately I didn't have final control." The writer of the Free Press piece, Michael Caton, was so confused by some of Zugsmith's statements that he questioned whether the producer had ever seen his own movie.

Zugsmith's convenient excuses for why his film fell flat in the realism department are a bit hard to swallow coming from such a skilled practitioner of sensationalism (his marching orders to his director to crank up the exploitation do not aid his credibility). Indeed, what speaks louder than his words is his film legacy. And the producer left behind an especially rich canon of films that point to one undeniable motive: the bottom line. In other words, it seems logical that the man behind Invasion, U.S.A., The Girl in the Kremlin, and LSD, I Hate You, among many other titles, would be more than happy to sacrifice whatever seeds of realism that existed in the original Confidential! storyline for box office cash. And with an $8 million return on a $517,000 budget investment, the tried and true strategy worked.

Albert Zugsmith circa 1975
Regrettably, whatever remains of the primary production files for High School Confidential! are locked up in the vault at the corporate headquarters of Turner Entertainment in Atlanta, so it is difficult to know with certainty what government pressures were brought to bear on MGM to alter the film. However, CONELRAD is awaiting a response from the National Archives and Records Administration on the question of whether any of the Federal Narcotics Bureau files mention High School Confidential! We will update this article when we receive a response.

Without question, the best publicly available explanation for the tone of the movie is found in the previously mentioned book, Directed by Jack Arnold. Arnold detailed his creative goals to author Dana M. Reeves:
I never intended to kid the film, I just set out to tell the story. The picture's "message" wasn't all that profound, and if I'd done a straight, preachy, drugs-are-terrible movie, who would have come? I had to put an edge on it. It wasn't exactly comedy; I just pushed parts of the story until they were bigger than life. I was in a crazy mood, but I'd be lying if I said I made it deliberately tongue-in-cheek. Besides, I didn't know anything about dope; I had to assume the script was right. Now I know it wasn't, and that the business about marijuana leading to heroin is silly.
When asked by CONELRAD how he feels about High School Confidential! becoming a "cult classic" enjoyed by generations of audiences, screenwriter Blees is conflicted: "That's always very pleasant, of course, but I've written better movies...Outside of it becoming a cult classic, I wasn't very proud of what Zugsmith and Meltzer did with it."

And Russ Tamblyn's 1991 Filmfax interview captures the star's bafflement over the ever increasing appeal of the film:
What's still very strange to me is that High School Confidential! has become a very popular "cult" film while Peyton Place has been completely forgotten... Peyton Place was a class-act movie and nobody cares about it, while Confidential, a B movie with dumb lines and a silly plot, has continued to grow in popularity. I mean, in the film some girl is sitting in the cafeteria, shaking because she didn't get her marijuana. It was stupid! Just a really silly film...
With all due respect to Mr. Tamblyn and Peyton Place, it may be just a "silly" film, but it seems that, unlike most movies that fade away after their first weekend of release, High School Confidential! is here to stay. Aside from the few years that followed its initial run, Confidential! has never really been out of circulation. In 1963 it was reissued under the title The Young Hellions and by 1965 it was playing on local television stations across the United States. In the mid-1970s it became a staple of crowded midnight shows on New York City's 42nd Street and at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles. In the 1980s it was released on videotape and, finally, in 2004 High School Confidential! was issued on DVD in all of its widescreen magnificence. Could selection for the Library of Congress's National Film Registry be far behind?

Not bad for a cheap little exploitation film.




 * The film's hit theme song was written by Ronald Jay Hargrave (1929- ), a bit-part actor and singer-songwriter who, with the help of comic Lou Costello, earned a recording contract with MGM in the mid-1950s. In early 1958 Hargrave was asked by MGM to pen the theme song for High School Confidential! Around the same time or soon after, Jerry Lee Lewis was signed to record the song and appear in the film performing it (the part of the musician existed in early versions of the script, so the role was not, as many have assumed, written specifically for Lewis after his signing). According to the book Rockin' My Life Away by Jimmy Guterman, Sun Records owner Sam Phillips arranged for Lewis to record Confidential because it had been another teen oriented film--Jamboree--that helped make Great Balls of Fire a huge hit in 1957. Lewis recorded multiple takes of Confidential at Sun in Memphis and then went out to Los Angeles with members of his band to film his part. According to a rockabilly website biography of Ron Hargrave (which cites three reputable sources including Lewis expert, Bill Millar), Hargrave is solely responsible for the authorship of the theme song. This is reflected as such on the original single label, but Lewis received co-writer credit on the copyright through a deal made by Lewis's manager, Oscar Davis. The same biography states that the theme for High School Confidential (SUN 296 b/w Fools Like Me written by J. Clement and M. Maddox), released in May of 1958, was Hargrave's biggest seller as a songwriter. The song went on to become one of Jerry Lee Lewis's most popular hits and, indeed, it is included on all of his various greatest hits compilations that have appeared throughout the years.

 
** Zugsmith's thoughts on nudity as a selling point for American films in the European market are detailed in an October 29, 1958 newspaper article by Associated Press writer Rob Thomas published in  the Newark Advocate under the headline, "Claim Nudity In Movies Is For Overseas." In it, the producer states: "We can't compete with the French and the Italian unless we give them more realism overseas." The article goes on to state that Zugsmith was attempting to promote alternate cuts of three of his films including High School Confidential! According to the Advocate story and contrary to the Australian Censor Board's claim, it was actress Jody Fair who appears "stripped to the waist" in Confidential!, not Jan Sterling. 

CAST


Russ Tamblyn: Tony Baker / Officer Mike Wilson
Jan Sterling: Miss Arlene Williams
John Drew Barrymore: J. I. Coleridge
Mamie Van Doren: "Aunt" Gwen Dulaine
Jackie Coogan: Mr. August
Ray Anthony: Bix
Charles Chaplin Jr.: Quinn
Burt Douglas: Jukey Judlow
Jody Fair: Doris
Michael Landon: Steve Bentley
Charles Halton: W. O. Robinson, High School Principal
Helen Kleeb: Miss Dodge
Lyle Talbot: William Remington Kane
Phillipa Fallon: Poetess
Mel Welles: Bill O'Flair
Robyn Raymond: Kitty
William Wellman Jr.: Wheeler Dealer
Ned Weaver: Police Commissioner Burroughs
Norman Grabowski: Flat Top
Texas Joe Foster: Henchman
Jerry Lee Lewis: Himself
Paul Frees: Narrator
Dr. Stuart Knox: Prologue narrator (cut from home video releases)

                
REFERENCES 

This comprehensive history could not have been written without the kind help of the people who consented to be interviewed. Therefore, special thanks is owed to screenwriter Robert Blees and actors Jody Fair and Russ Tamblyn. CONELRAD would also like to thank Ned Comstock of the University of Southern California's Cinema Arts Library for help in accessing the script files for High School Confidential! Thanks also to the always helpful staff at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The following is a full list of the resources relied upon by CONELRAD to present the foregoing article.  

BOOKS


Atomic Blonde: The Films of Mamie Van Doren (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2008) by Barry Lowe

Dig Infinity! The Life and Art of Lord Buckley (New York: Welcome Rain Publishers, 2001) by Oliver Trager

Directed by Jack Arnold (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 1988) by Dana M. Reeves

High School Confidential (New York: Avon, 1958) by Morton Cooper (a novelization of the film based on the screenplay by Robert Blees and Lewis Meltzer). Note: The copyright page from this paperback acknowledges that the title was licensed through Lee Mortimer and the estate of Jack Lait who were co-authors of a series of books that used the word "Confidential" in their titles, including "New York Confidential" and "Chicago Confidential."

Kings of the Bs (New York: Dutton, 1975) edited by Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn

Interviews with B, Sci-Fi and Horror Movie Makers (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 1988)  by Tom Weaver

Roger Corman: The Best of the Cheap Acts (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 1988) by Mark Thomas McGee 

INTERVIEWS

Robert Blees, interviewed via telephone by Bill Geerhart on June 10 and 11, 2010

Jody Fair, interviewed via telephone by Bill Geerhart on January 11, 2008

Russ Tamblyn, responded to CONELRAD's inquiry via his wife, Bonnie Tamblyn in a letter to Bill Geerhart dated September 25, 2007

MAGAZINE / NEWSPAPER ARTICLES  


"Texas: Teacher's Nightmare," Time magazine, December 3, 1951

"Texan Tells How He Fingered Dope Peddlers In Six Cities," Big Spring (Texas) Herald, January 24, 1952

"Undercover Agent Tells How He Cracked Narcotics Ring," Abilene (Texas) Reporter-News, January 24, 1952

"TV Program Notes For the Week," Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette, September 5, 1954

"Assignments," Hollywood Reporter, January 21, 1958

"Tamblyn's Flu Bout Elongates 'tom thumb,' Hollywood Reporter, February 6, 1958

"Before the Cameras," Citizen News (Los Angeles), February 22, 1958

"Before the Cameras," Citizen News (Los Angeles), March 1, 1958

Hedda Hopper Column, Los Angeles Times, March 5, 1958

"Before the Cameras," Citizen News (Los Angeles), March 8, 1958

"Young Actor's Induction Date Is Postponed," Kerrville Times, via Associated Press, March 19, 1958 by Bob Thomas

"Before the Cameras," Citizen News (Los Angeles), March 22, 1958

Hedda Hopper Column, Altoona (Pennsylvania) Mirror, March 22, 1958

"Hiptionary Needed to Understand Teeners," El Paso Herald-Post, March 27, 1958 by Erskine Johnson

High School Confidential! Review, Hollywood Reporter, May 29, 1958 by Jack Moffitt

"World Premiere Cast Arrives In Town Today," Atlantic City Press, May 28, 1958

"Film Premiere Here Has Hollywood-Like Glitter," Atlantic City Press, May 30, 1958

"Screen: Young F.B.I. Spy; Russ Tamblyn in High School Confidential," New York Times, May 31, 1958 by Howard Thompson

"Dope Picture Will Battle Andy Hardy At Box Office," Fresno Bee, via Associated Press, June 1, 1958 by James Bacon

"Cinema: Man, It's Terrible," Time magazine, June 9, 1958

"The Screen: Wholesome and Otherwise," Commonweal, June 20, 1958

"Dope Film Is a Bit Groggy," Los Angeles Examiner, June 26, 1958 by Sara Hamilton

"High School' Expose Drama of Delinquency," Los Angeles Times, June 26, 1958 by Geoffrey M. Warren

"Old Cats Get Theme Even If Jive Bugs," Citizen-News (Los Angeles), June 26, 1958 by Selma Wilcox

"Are These Our Children" Saturday Review, June 29, 1958

"H.S. Confidential Aims at Pure Sensationalism," Beverly Hills Citizen, July 7, 1958 by David Dyer

"Claim Nudity In Movies Is For Overseas," Newark (New Jersey) Advocate, October 29, 1958

"High School Confidential! The Insidious Marijuana Menace," Los Angeles Free Press, October 24-30, 1975 by Michael Caton

"Russ Tamblyn Before Twin Peaks--The Artist as a Young Man," Filmfax #27, June-July, 1991 by Sharon Lind Williams

"Jack Arnold's Life Beyond the Camera," Filmfax #37, February-March, 1993 by Betty Arnold


SPECIAL COLLECTIONS

The University of Southern California Cinematic Arts Library:

High School Confidential! Script Collection File

The Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:

High School Confidential! Clip file and American Film Insitute Catalog entry
High School Confidential! Script Collection File
High School Confidential! Production Code File
High School Confidential! Press Book





3 comments:

Lee_bits said...

It is an enigma how media actually works. In this movie, everyone in high school looks as if they are actually in junior college. Nothing in the depictions of high school reflect reality.

I am told this movie is best viewed, of course I am told, under the influence of a mild hallucinogenic.

I am told.

fiftieswesterns said...

What a great piece on a movie I dearly love.

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