High School Confidential! (1958) is a favorite of outré film buffs, mainly for its absurdly overripe hep-cat dialogue, twice-in-a-lifetime cast (Sex Kittens Go to College, also by the same tasteless producer, bests it slightly), and outrageous attitudes toward drug use and prevention.
It was, to say the least, hardly the kind of film one would normally expect from blandly middle-of-the-road MGM. Modestly produced for around $532,000, the picture reunited workmanlike director Jack Arnold with producer Albert Zugsmith, both formerly under contract at Universal. Zugsmith inexplicably landed a couple of major and semi-major titles there, notably Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind (1956), Arnold's The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and Orson Welles's Touch of Evil (1958), all excellent movies. But then just as quickly Zugsmith showed his true colors and taste for the most crass forms of exploitation. High School Confidential! was the most entertaining of films reflecting this new direction, soon followed by The Beat Generation (1959), Sex Kittens Go to College (1960), The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1960), Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962), and Fanny Hill (1964). Somewhere in there Zugsmith found time to also produce a terrible adaptation of Gus Edson and Irwin Hasen's popular comic strip, Dondi (1961).
Arnold's career was likewise schizophrenic at this point. He had spent most of the 1950s alternating between Westerns, middling thrillers, and sci-fi films, the latter the genre for which he's best remembered. After working again with Zugsmith at MGM he next was hired by another ex-Universal producer, William Alland, for The Space Children (1958) over at Paramount, then returned to Universal for one last Western, the not-bad No Name on the Bullet (1959). He then surprised many with The Mouse That Roared (1959), a typically droll small-scale British comedy starring Peter Sellers in one of his first leading roles. After that, Arnold seemingly closed that door to became a prolific television director, working in myriad genres though specializing in innocuous comedies. He made few films after that, the better-known being several ‘70s Blaxploitation entries.
(Spoilers, as if it mattered any.) High School Confidential! is a crime melodrama-juvenile delinquent picture built around a familiar premise: its protagonist infiltrates some high-stakes criminal enterprise, convincing even the audience that he's up to no good. Near the end it's revealed he's on the side of the law and working deep undercover. When I first saw High School Confidential 30-odd years ago at a drive-in movie night-type screening, the large college audience booed loudly when it's revealed Russ Tamblyn's character is working on behalf of the police. "Narc!" shouted the displeased crowd.
As it was produced independently, it's possible the rights to High School Confidential! reverted to Zugsmith at some point, or possibly Paramount bought it outright around the time they produced the expensive but badly-done It Came from Hollywood (1982), which prominently features clips from this film. In any case, the transfer of this produced-in-Panavision (through advertised as CinemaScope) camp classic is generally good.
The movie opens on the campus of Santa Bella High School, with Jerry Lee Lewis (as himself) belting out the film's title song from the back of a flatbed truck, banging away on the piano in his signature style. I guess he was passing through.
Also pulling into campus is self-styled big shot Tony Baker (Russ Tamblyn), a transfer student brazenly predicting he'll be top dog on campus before the day is out. As if to prove the point, he flirts with pretty but marijuana-addicted Joan Staples (Diane Jergens), the girlfriend of J.I. Coleridge (John Drew Barrymore), leader of the street toughs. In class, troublemaker Tony interrupts English teacher Arlene Williams (Jan Sterling), boorishly disrupting the class with his supposedly jive comments until she orders him to the principal's (Charles Halton, good in his last role) office. The class, however, is entertained by Tony's foolishness, and even more so by J.I.'s beat poetry-type monologue about Christopher Columbus.
The bulk of the story concerns Tony's efforts to "graze some grass" as well as "'H,' coke, goofballs, and all the caps you have," to sell to his classmates. Sporting a big wad of cash he soon learns J.I. is working for a mysterious supplier known only as "Mr. A."
Unlike Zugsmith's later films - Sex Kittens Go to College is practically unwatchable, car wreck though it is - High School Confidential! is "entertainingly bad" rather than simply terrible. The plot moves at a reasonable clip, one outrageous bit of dialogue follows another, and the stunt casting all work to keep it interesting. The film is highly derivative: Jan Sterling's part reminds one of Blackboard Jungle (1955), the far superior MGM film that helped inspire, badly, High School Confidential!, and there's a drag race, decently staged, reminiscent of Rebel Without a Cause (also 1955).
Mamie van Doren, in imminent danger of bursting out of her tight sweaters, plays Tony's alcoholic aunt, Gwen, who in several scenes tries seducing him. She's largely disconnected from the rest of the narrative, and I never did figure out exactly what she's doing in the film. As Tony is really Mike Wilson, I assume this means Gwen really isn't Mike's aunt after all, which might explain how these scenes passed the scrutiny of the Production Code. But if she were not his aunt why would Tony/Mike partner with such a sloppy, horny drunk?
In another scene, a poetess (Phillipa Fallon) wows a coffee shop full of teens and beatniks with verse that had that college crowd I saw the film with years ago howling in the aisles. One excerpt: "He coughed blood on this earth. Now there's a race for space. We can cough blood on the moon soon. Tomorrow is dragsville, cats. Tomorrow is a king-sized drag."
The stunt casting extends to several areas that have nothing whatsoever to do with the movie's story. John Drew Barrymore, son of John (and father of Drew), Charles Chaplin Jr., (as Quinn, a policeman working undercover as a waiter), and William Wellman, Jr. (son of the director, as a member of J.I.'s gang) are in the cast. The Chaplin connection extends to Jackie Coogan, former child star of Chaplin Sr.'s The Kid (1920), as Mr. "A." During this time Coogan often played villains, and he's actually pretty good in several scenes. Michael Landon, fresh from I Was a Teenage Werewolf, turns up as a wholesome varsity lad, and sharp-eyed viewers will spot tall redhead Nora (aka Naura) Hayden (The Angry Red Planet), uncredited, among the high schoolers in the film's poolside sequence.
Video & Audio
Most other studios abandoned Fox's Bausch & Lomb CinemaScope lenses in favor of Panavision superior product, but until 1958 were contractually obligated to bill everything under the CinemaScope trademark. High School Confidential! was among the first films to bill both CinemaScope as a trade name and Panavision as the lens providers. The black-and-white, 2.35:1 image is strong if a bit dirty here and there. The mono audio, English only with no subtitle options, is likewise strong. No Extra Features.
Not good but a whole lot of fun, High School Confidential! is Recommended, Daddy-O.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.