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College Confidential (1960) was one of producer Albert Zugsmith's several attempts to mine the same sort of exploitation (and sexploitation) territory that brought him great success with the film High School Confidential (1958). The latter project had the backing of a major studio no less (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), a highly competent director (Jack Arnold), and a diverse and eclectic cast, a Zugsmith trademark. His follow-ups for MGM included The Beat Generation (1959), Girls Town (also 1959), and Platinum High School (1960). Going independent, College Confidential was produced by a partnership of Zugsmith and husband-and-wife team Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows, and distributed by Universal Pictures, the studio where Zugsmith had his greatest successes, including Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind (1956) and Arnold's The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).
For College Confidential Zugsmith took on the directing chores and provided the original story, based on an actual California incident in which a college professor found himself in hot water for administering a social survey among his students which included questions on sexual mores. If Zugsmith wanted to sensationalize the topic for his movie (while covering his bases by making the sensationalism itself the crux of the story), then he could do no better than lead off with real-life columnist and broadcaster Walter Winchell saying, "at 11:00, just two minutes from now, a trial will begin that may shake American education. This case has been likened to the celebrated Scopes monkey trial, when the teaching of Evolution in the schools was being judged. Now, it is SEX on trial, and that is a subject which concerns everyone."
Following this pre-credits sequence, we see a car speeding through the nighttime suburbs under the opening credits and a blaring, punchy jazz score (by Dean Elliott). From the car is dumped blonde bombshell college student Sally Blake (Mamie Van Doren), who must then explain to her parents (Elisha Cook, Jr. and Pamela Mason) why she was out until a quarter to three in the morning on a school night. During a high-pitched, screaming back-and-forth (a high-point of the movie and a virtuoso performance between Van Doren and Cook), Sally finally lies to her parents. She had been out late with boyfriend Marvin (Conway Twitty) but instead tells her folks that her sociology instructor at Collins College, Steve Macinter (Steve Allen), had taken advantage of her at his house in the guise of asking her questions for his sociological survey. Mr. Blake confronts Macinter the next day, but his alibi is backed up by his fiance Lois (Theona Bryant) and her father and Steve's department head, Professor Henry Addison (Herbert Marshall). Later, Macinter continues his study of his students by bringing a 16mm movie camera to the lake where the kids are swimming and cavorting. There he meets Betty Duquesne (Jayne Meadows), a reporter who is investigating an anonymous letter sent to her paper to protest Macinter's methods. Macinter explains to her, and anyone else that will listen, that his 20-page survey only partially asks about sex, but also covers topics like morality, religion, and language. The kids all come to Macinter's cozy pad on a Friday night to have fun and watch the movies shot at the lake, but the punch bowl has been spiked and Macinter proceeds to get drunk. To make matters worse, the reel of movie film ends with seemingly pornographic images, which cause the kids to flee and Macinter to be arrested. The resulting hearing in front of town magistrate Sam Grover (Mickey Shaughnessy) draws national attention, and brings in Winchell as well as other real-life columnists Earl Wilson, Louis Sobol, and Sheilah Graham. (When Sally is brought to the stand, Winchell tells his radio listeners that Miss Blake is "the Mamie Van Doren-type"!)
College Confidential was one of seven films that Mamie Van Doren made with Zugsmith. Contacted for this article, Van Doren told TCM, "It was not my favorite of all the films I did with Zuggy. He was trying to follow up on the success of High School Confidential, and, like all such sequels, it fell short." Nevertheless, Van Doren certainly sets a highly-charged tone for the film in the opening sequence. In the book Atomic Blonde: The Films of Mamie Van Doren (McFarland), co-author Barry Lowe has justifiable praise for the emotional scene between Sally and her father: "Sally, realizing her diversionary tactics to protect her boyfriend's identity are not working, changes from a dominant position (on the staircase standing up to, and over, her father) to the more subservient one of sitting on the stairs. She changes tack and plays the teen girl in danger but safe because of the way her parents have brought her up. The about-face works and the parents buy it."
Story writer and director Zugsmith seems to have trouble in College Confidential in having it both ways. In most of his "youth pictures" he veers more towards the sensational in his hollow examinations of social issues, which, of course, makes for a much more fun and honest exploitation picture. As Lowe points out, though, in this instance "...the film pulls its punches, never daring to transgress the morality it is, in part, criticizing. The questionnaire is rather preciously described in academese as 'a social study of college-age youngsters and their reactions to a mechanistic environment that's poised with one foot in space and the other on the brink of nuclear destruction.'" Lowe points out other phony sensationalism presented in the script, such as the fact that "...the college kids never get to partake of the spiked fruit punch at the professor's party. Macinter imbibes freely himself; it's a plot point as he's a reformed alcoholic, but the kids are kept away from the cocktail so they are not corrupted by the filmmakers; the 'dirty' movie they witness and to which they have an aggressive (and totally unbelievable) aversion turns out to be fake." Lowe also notes the irony that 50 years later, Prof. Macinter would not have much of a leg to stand on: "...his behavior toward his students, filming them in swimming costumes, giving them free access to his house when he's not there, and having student parties for them, would severely compromise him today."
Steve Allen was no stranger to film acting, having starred in The Benny Goodman Story (1956), but in 1960 he was at the end of his run on The Steve Allen Show (1956-1960), his prime-time Sunday night sketch comedy program, and he was justly worried about taking on such a serious role. Just prior to the movie's release, Allen told an Associated Press reporter, "In the warm-up before our TV show, I usually answer questions from the audience. One lady asked me the name of my newest picture and when I replied 'College Confidential,' the studio audience howled. Just the mere mention of the title got a bigger laugh than any of the jokes on the show. I didn't know we had made a comedy. I took the role because it offered a chance at some serious acting."
On his website "Trailers from Hell" director Joe Dante remarks that Steve Allen was an odd choice to play the lead, but admitted that Allen was "...the hippest guy on TV. He had a show opposite the least hip guy on TV, who was Ed Sullivan. But all of us kids thought that Steve was pretty cool - he had people like Lenny Bruce on his show, he was a contributor to Mad Magazine, and I was always a big fan of Steve Allen. I actually worked with him on a picture once, and asked him, 'What were you thinking when you made College Confidential?' And he said, 'Well, they told me it was going to be so progressive,' and I guess that was the bill of goods that Al Zugsmith sold to Steve to get him to do this along with his wife Jayne Meadows."
While not a musical, College Confidential, like most of Zugsmith's other films, is peppered with musical numbers. Randy Sparks performs two songs: "Playmates," and the folk-calypso-inspired title track, the lyrics of which were written by Steve Allen himself:
Hey, it's strictly confidential, keep it under your hat,
Yeah, you shouldn't go around discussing things like that.
Call it adolescence or whatever you please,
It's fundamental, like the birds and the flowers.
And that's why we go to college.
(Allen was a prolific songwriter, and had previously penned lyrics to George Duning's "Theme from Picnic," from the 1955 movie). Sparks was a solo singer-songwriter and had already appeared in musical parts in the films Thunder Road (1958) and The Young Land (1959); he went on to found The New Christy Minstrels in 1962. Conway Twitty actually enjoys a meaty acting role in the film and only performs one song, the rocking "College Confidential Ball," on acoustic guitar at the Professor's party. None of the Allen, Sparks, or Twitty songs, however, were on the College Confidential soundtrack album released on the Chancellor label. That release consisted of the film's jazz score by Dean Elliott, which featured some of the best West Coast jazz players of the period. Despite the high regard for this score, the vast majority of Elliott's other film and television scoring was done for animated cartoons.
Critical reviews of College Confidential were scarce, but in the New York Times, Howard Thompson wrote that "Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows are such personable, alert performers that it is truly painful to find them co-starring in a piece of movie claptrap like College Confidential. ...In a picture best described as punk, Mr. and Mrs. Allen do very well indeed." Thompson compares the film to High School Confidential, saying "the students this time seem even more adolescent, apparently never touch a book, continually grasp each other instead, or slither around mouthing a kind of steamy, beatnik jargon. The leaders are Ziva Rodann, Conway Twitty... and that pneumatic leftover from High School Confidential, Mamie Van Doren. ...The sight of Mr. Allen and Miss Meadows... intelligently sauntering through the picture is as diverting as it is exasperating. May they not be aboard the next time Mr. Zugsmith launches a new 'Confidential' vehicle, like a loud, rusty fire engine."
Zugsmith was to stay in a "College" mode, however, if not a "Confidential" one. His next release was another independent production, Sex Kittens Go to College (1960), distributed by United Artists. This film marked the return of Van Doren, Twitty, and Mickey Shaughnessy in a Zugsmith film, co-starring with Tuesday Weld, Louis Nye, Jackie Coogan, and Vampira.
Producer: Albert Zugsmith
Director: Albert Zugsmith
Screenplay: Irving Shulman; Albert Zugsmith (story)
Cinematography: Carl E. Guthrie
Music: Dean Elliott
Film Editing: Edward Curtiss
Cast: Steve Allen (Steve 'Mac' Macinter), Jayne Meadows (Betty Duquesne), Mamie Van Doren (Sally Blake), Rocky Marciano (Deputy Sheriff), Mickey Shaughnessy (Sam Grover), Cathy Crosby (Fay Grover), Herbert Marshall (Professor Henry Addison), Conway Twitty (Marvin), Randy Sparks (Phil), Pamela Mason (Edna Blake), Elisha Cook (Ted Blake), Theona Bryant (Lois Addison)
by John M. Miller