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One of the most recognizable titles in exploitation film history, High School Confidential! (1958) delivers the goods, offering up such desirable B-movie elements as Juvenile Delinquency, Rock 'n' Roll, Drugs, Drag racing, and gratuitous Bad Girl scenes. It's no surprise that such a film would come from producer Albert Zugsmith he made his name in the exploitation field. Unlike many other B-movie producers, however, he was able to work with a variety of talented directors at a number of major studios. At this point in 1958, in fact, he had just come off a stint at Universal, where he produced Touch of Evil (1958), the Film Noir classic from director Orson Welles. While he was no Welles, High School Confidential! was directed by the very capable Jack Arnold. While at Universal the previous year, Zugsmith had also produced what was arguably Arnold's best film, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Although some viewers see unintentional humor in High School Confidential! today, is it clear that much of the beat-style histrionics and drug-fueled plot twists of the film are actually offered up in sly, tongue-in-cheek fashion.
The Rock 'n' Roll element in High School Confidential! is brief, but remains one of the most memorable of the 1950s. As the film opens, a flatbed truck is driving slowly in front of Santo Bello High School, carrying Jerry Lee Lewis at the piano as he blasts out the title song. At the same time, tough kid Tony Baker (Russ Tamblyn) muscles his way into a prime parking space for his first day at the school. He proceeds to make a pitch to take over the local gang, the Wheelers and Dealers, from leader J.I. Coleridge (John Drew Barrymore) and makes a play for his girl Joan (Diane Jergens) as well. Tony carries a switchblade and wads of cash, so he quickly becomes the Big Man on Campus. One teacher (Jan Sterling) tolerates Tony's anti-social behavior and observes his odd home life he lives with his over-sexed and inappropriate guardian Aunt Gwen (Mamie Van Doren). J.I. introduces Tony to the drug scene at school, and after proving himself in a drag race, Tony is allowed to meet Mr. A (Jackie Coogan), who runs the racket that supplies lower-level dealers with marijuana, heroin, and more.
High School Confidential! is breathtakingly audacious for a film that received such a mainstream release (through Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, no less). The movie's casual and honest depiction of heroin use might seem odd at first glance, but a look at the writing credits reveals that co-writer Lewis Meltzer had just come from a stint as co-scripter of the granddaddy of all serious explorations of drug abuse, Otto Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). It is quite a jolt to see an attractive high school girl in a heroin withdrawal writhing on the backroom couch of a drug kingpin, because only moments earlier we witnessed Mamie Van Doran purring seductively on the bed of her nephew while he changes clothes in his room! Such vivid contrasts in the film certainly seem intentional, and Arnold is skilled enough as a director to guide the actors toward the proper tone. As Bruce Eder writes in Marshall Crenshaw's Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock'n'Roll in the Movies, "The beauty of this picture is the knowing archness of its players. Each line of dialogue carries an oh-so-subtle nudge in the ribs; each is delivered for the greatest ironic impact. Coupled with the overheated lust of the female characters, this is a dazzling piece of exploitation filmmaking."
Actor Mel Welles has an additional credit in High School Confidential!, for "special material." (Welles, by the way, was a favorite of another low-budget producer, Roger Corman, for whom he played Mr. Mushnik, the keeper of The Little Shop of Horrors ). For this film, Welles wrote two memorable beatnik scenes. In one, John Drew Barrymore gives a hep-talk version of the story of Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella to history class while the teacher is away; in the other scene a cool beat poem is delivered by Phillipa Fallon as Jackie Coogan wails away on jazz piano. Here is a short sample:
They cry put down pot, don't think a lot
For what? Time, and how much you do with it
Sleep, man, and you might wake up
Diggin' the whole human race
Giving itself three days to get out.
Tomorrow is a drag, Pops
The future is a flake.
High School Confidential! features more eye-candy than just the female form; throughout the film Russ Tamblyn drives a gorgeous 1958 Imperial Crown convertible. Los Angeles-based car customizer George Barris wrote in his book Barris Kustoms of the 1950s, that, while roadsters and cool cars had been a staple of teen and exploitation films since the late 1940s, "High School Confidential! was one of the first to feature hot rods and customs built specifically for a movie. We built two 1948 Chevys with teardrop skirts, custom grilles, blanked outside windows, lowered suspension, and chopped tops." For the drag racing scene, Barris said, "We installed a roll cage in one of the ...Chevys, but the stunt driver, Gary Laufer, couldn't roll it. It was too low. There was no way he could get it over, so they dropped it from a crane to simulate the rollover. ...Today they'd have no problem rolling the car with their modern flip-over techniques which use cannons mounted in the floor." Despite the lack of a rollover, Jack Arnold shows considerable flair for the action scenes in the film; both the drag race sequence and a frenetic fight scene that concludes the picture are expertly staged and edited, and still pack a wallop.
Mamie Van Doran was a repeat-player in Albert Zugsmith films; she later called the producer "...way ahead of his time. He wanted to do outlandish things and I was part of that whole scene." In Marty Baumann's The Astounding B Monster, she tells of their first meeting: "...at Universal Studios, I was at lunch in the commissary, sitting with Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis. I'd heard about him he'd just been signed to do X number of movies and you always want to try and touch base with new producers, because if they have a script, they'll think of you. He came walking by and I said 'Hello, Mr. Smith.' Tony said, 'Why did you call him Mr. Smith? Why didn't you call him by his first name?' I said, 'I don't know him well enough to call him Zug.' It was just a real dumb blonde remark. Rock and Tony fell off their chairs..."
In 1960 Zugsmith produced College Confidential, also featuring Van Doran. This film was a sequel in name only, however, as the characters are different and the plot deals with a campus sex survey. As he did with High School Confidential!, though, Zugsmith assembled a wildly eclectic cast which included Steve Allen, Herbert Marshall, Rocky Marciano, Elisha Cook Jr., and Conway Twitty!
Producer: Albert Zugsmith
Director: Jack Arnold
Screenplay: Robert Blees, Lewis Meltzer
Cinematography: Harold J. Marzorati
Film Editing: Ben Lewis
Art Direction: William A. Horning, Hans Peters
Music: Albert Glasser
Cast: Russ Tamblyn (Tony Baker, aka Mike Wilson), Jan Sterling (Arlene Williams), John Drew Barrymore (J.I. Coleridge), Mamie Van Doren (Gwen Dulaine), Diane Jergens (Joan Staples), Ray Anthony (Bix) Jerry Lee Lewis (Himself), Jackie Coogan (Mr. A), Lyle Talbot (William Remington Kane), Michael Landon (Steve Bentley).
by John M. Miller