High School Confidential April 3, 2017
Offensive as I find it that there was a time during which smoking joints and shooting up heroin weren’t much differentiated and in which movie studios figured that producing films featuring characters who speak like people starring in a Diablo Cody penned pulp novel was a good idea, I like 1958’s High School Confidential. I like the way it amplifies the dangers of teenage rebellion first touched upon in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause and intermixes them with the delusions of Reefer Madness (1936-39). The way bad boys and bad girls don’t look all rough and tough but instead pass by like Tab Hunter and Sandra Dee wearing black eyes and carrying around switchblades. The way sexy aunties, shapely teachers, and juvenile kittens exist with the offhandedness of freshly-baked tabloid filth.
Indeed, High School Confidential is one of the worst movies ever made. But it’s inferior not in an Ed Wood kind of way but in a way that embodies the cons which come along with severe datedness. This movie only could have been made in the late 1950s, could only have been distributed by a flagging major movie studio thinking they had a game-changer on their hands, and could only have starred Russ Tamblyn and Mamie Van Doren and seemed appealing. It looks and feels like a feature created by crusty old men who thought they knew a thing or two about the youths of their day but actually didn’t. It wears the aesthetic of a fed-up Hollywood tired of figuring out how to pander to the kiddies.
And yet in its nearly six decades of existing in the public sphere, High School Confidential’s allure has broadened, if not in the ways it originally intended. Now among the 100 films listed in John Wilson’s The Official Razzie Movie Guide, chosen as a result of its undeniably being so bad that it’s good, it’s a howler best enjoyed when viewed with a large group. It’s crucial that there be someone to turn to when a one-liner is thrown out into the open and we’re forced to process what we’ve just heard.
In the film, we find our protagonist in Tony Baker (Tamblyn), a young punk who’s been in high school so long he no longer has to worry about getting in trouble with the fuzz for drinking underage. After the film’s intro gratuitously sees Jerry Lee Lewis, as himself, with a backing band rolling out ballsy tunes in the back of a pickup truck, the picture transitions into Baker’s arrival at the high school wherein much of the movie’s action takes place.
Though a transfer student – apparently his former school couldn’t handle his restlessness – that doesn’t stop him from deciding that he’s immediately going to present himself as the high’s top dog. With a smirk frozen on his face, he sasses administration, challenges the status quo, and openly flirts with his homeroom teacher (Jan Sterling). By the end of the day, he’s the new kid on the block who all students without much personal individuality immediately gravitate toward.
This causes problems with nearly everyone, especially J.I. (John Drew Barrymore), another tenacious lionheart threatened both by Baker’s insistence on being the premier wild child around and also by Baker’s interest in his girlfriend, the pot addicted Joan (Diane Jergens).
By the film’s end is it revealed that Baker’s intentions are much more complicated than we initially believe, but I think High School Confidential is at its most entertaining when it takes on the stance many youth-fearing elders wore thin during the period in which the movie was made. This is predominantly a piece that exaggeratedly warns of the dangers of rock ‘n’ roll, beatniks, pot, heroin (deservedly, I guess), and, to some extent, breaking free of the comforts of trite suburbia. And that preachiness is delightful to behold. The ways the movie’s resident “squares” overanalyze the direction they believe teenagers are headed (the scene gliding over a staff meeting is especially funny) are absurd but humorously stoic, and the way the film ultimately decides that peace can be restored if a joint is traded for a cigarette and if a nympho is provided with a steady man is playful.
But High School Confidential works so well as camp because everyone involved seems to be having fun with the material. Van Doren is a hoot as Baker’s randy “aunt” who’s always trying to seduce her nephew since her traveling husband is unable to “please” her. Barrymore is able to see the ludicrousness of his character and plays with the conventions of teen movie villainy. (He even delivers one of the strangest monologues in cinematic history with a grin, and that’s something to cherish). But Tamblyn is the movie’s greatest asset – despite not much looking like a troublemaking, skirt-chasing, pot-smoking agitator, he delivers his lines with his tongue firmly in cheek, and that subtle knowingness helps define High School Confidential as a film you’d be wiser to laugh with. B