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Friday, August 22, 2014


When two great tastes go together, it can create something magically delicious. Thus, when someone back in 1958 had the bright idea of mixing the cool-cat teen angst of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE with the old-fogey paranoia toward the dreaded marijuana of REEFER MADNESS, out hopped the hipster hoot HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL (1958) to tickle our cinematic taste buds.

The film declares its intention to lure the nation's youth by opening with none other than Jerry Lee Lewis belting out the rockin' theme song from the back of a truck that's toodling slowly by the titular institution. Following closely behind is bad-boy new kid in school Tony Baker, played by Russ Tamblyn (who still had the highs of WEST SIDE STORY and the lows of DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN in his future).

Russ looks like the kind of guy girls used to beat up back in high school, but here, he's the most bad-ass thing to hit the hallowed halls of Hop-Head High since ducktails and saddle shoes. Why, he even pulls out a "reefer" in the Principal's office! No doubt about it, this slang-spoutin' kid's a rebel.

We then get a load of the rest of the cast, and it's a doozy--Jan Sterling as Miss Williams, the hot teacher with the heart of gold, Diane Jergens as gullible student Joan, who's being led down the path of marijuana addiction by the creepy J.I. (played by Drew's dad John Drew Barrymore), and--as Tony's aunt, "Gwen Dulaine", no less--the torpedo-chested blonde bombshell Mamie Van Doren.

There's also Jackie "Uncle Fester" Coogan (continuing his upward climb from dreck like MESA OF LOST WOMEN to better material that would also include THE BEAT GENERATION and SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE, which reunited him with Mamie van Doren) as local drug kingpin "Mr. A", Charles Chaplin, Jr., Mel Welles of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, William Wellman, Jr., Ray Anthony, Ed Wood regular Lyle Talbot as a shady police inspector, and the previous year's "Teenage Werewolf" himself, a pre-"Bonanza" Michael Landon. (I haven't found Gil Perkins or William Smith yet.)

Our boy Tony wastes no time demonstrating to everyone how tough and super-cool he is, and letting it be known that he's in the market to deal some weed to his classmates in need. This gets him introduced to Mr. A, but first he makes a little time with both Miss Williams and the jittery Joan, who is fast acquiring a marijuana monkey on her back. Of course, there's also the expected run-ins with various tough guys from school including J.I. and his gang of jock-types known as "The Wheeler-Dealers", whom Tony smirkingly blows off by waving his switchblade around.

In lieu of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE's nerve-jangling "chicky run" is a nocturnal auto race that ends with Tony and Joan being hauled in by the cops when Tony's bag of reefers pops out of his hubcap, which we could've told him was a dumb place to hide them right before an auto race anyway. The fact that there's a horrifying car crash in which the driver emerges bloodied but unharmed (and even smiling cheerfully) seems to tell young viewers that such dangerous activities are okay as long as they remain unsullied by the evil weed.

An incessant amount of jive lingo is the order of the day for these young punks. "Man, you sure told off the fuzz in the pokey!" "Crazy!" "What a drag--you bugged this jam like a real L-7!" There's a coffee-house hangout reminiscent of "The Purple Pit" from Jerry Lewis' 1963 hit THE NUTTY PROFESSOR in which hot jazz is accompanied by some of the worst beat poetry ever recited by kids who appear to be in their 20s, and in some cases 30s.

When Joan tries to light up at their table, Tony lets her have it: "Hey, you torchin' up? Now don't be a drag, kitten--we don't wanna get caught with the reefer again! I had enough of the pokey and all that jazz." But even here, the mood is on the brighter side of sleazy, and by the last fifteen minutes or so the whole thing starts to resemble an episode of a high-end 50s cop show, including a brawl and a shoot-out.

When Tony finally gets a meeting with Mr. A, Coogan deftly lays on the sleaze as he describes how poor Doris, suffering in agony from heroin withdrawal in the next room (the inevitable result of smoking reefer), wouldn't cooperate with his offer to turn her on if she'd work in his "nice little 'home' upstate. But--heh--she wants to be a 'lady.'" At this point Tony definitely seems to be in over his head and looking at a forecast of unexpected danger with the possibility of scattered bullets.

The film boasts the usual solid direction by 50s superstar Jack Arnold (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, and numerous other classics) and the DVD print displays good, crisp quality for the most part, albeit a little rough and imperfect in spots--which, with a movie like this, is just the way I like it.

Arnold seems to have a ball directing some of this fun-filled stuff, especially one sparks-filled dialogue scene between competing blondes Mamie Van Doren and Jan Sterling in which super-slinky Mamie delivers her sassy, hardboiled dialogue with dazzling aplomb. Later, she's like a female barracuda as she tries to seduce her "hunky" nephew Tony, cooing "What's cookin'?" as he gets dressed and telling him he'd better "tell that Staples kid to drop dead!"

The DVD from Olive Films is in 2.35:1 widescreen with English mono sound. No subtitles or extras.

HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL may deliver pretty much the same "marijuana leads to ruin" message as REEFER MADNESS, but not nearly as stridently or with as strong an intent to shock or scare. There's a bizarre curtain call ending in which the narrator assures us all is well and that from now on, "Joan will confine her smoking to regular cigarettes." But a final blast of that theme song by Jerry Lee Lewis seems to portend a little something called "the 60s" that was just around the corner.

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