Why can't all the world's rebels be this well-mannered? M-G-M, through their M.O.D. ("manufacture on demand") Limited Edition Collection (now distributed through Warners' own M.O.D., the Archive Collection), has released The Explosive Generation, the 1961 cult teen drama starring William Shatner, Patty McCormack, and Billy Gray. For a cheap-jack exploitation number marketed as a rabble-rouser, The Explosive Generation can be distressingly fair-minded when it comes to exploring both the generation gap between affluent California parents and their increasingly pissed-off offspring, and the sexual politics between horny boys and girls. But good performances and tight direction keep this (now) exercise in nostalgia interesting.
California, U.S. of A., 1961. The good life. Clean-cut kids at Mason High School present an image of laughing, good-natured adolescents worried about nothing more than sock-hops, basketball games, and their Algebra homework, to their hard-working, well-heeled parents. Little do those preoccupied, oblivious authority figures realize, though: the kids are pent up, Dad. I mean, they've like...had it, you dig? Your rules and your hypocrisies just aren't cutting it anymore, see? Head trouble-maker is Bobby Herman, Jr. (Billy Gray), a wealthy, cynical little hep-cat who pressures his better-mannered friends like basketball hero Dan Carlyle (Lee Kinsolving) and Dan's virtuous girlfriend Janet Sommers (Patty McCormack), into having a naughty, forbidden good time at his father's beach house, following the school's big game win. Bobby wants to spend some "quality time" with Marge Ryker (Suzi Carnell), who's desperate to please him, so she lays a guilt trip on Janet, too, getting her to go along with the classic teen dodge of calling up the parents and lying about where they'll be staying for the night. Certainly horny Dan is all for this; it's about time that Janet "prove" her love for him.
Everything is everything, then, baby, once this "explosive generation" goes back to school in the morning―and why shouldn't it be, when they've got such a cool teacher like the "All High" Peter Gifford (William Shatner), who understands them and who talks to them just like they were real human beings? Only...Pete better be careful in what he wishes for, because once he asks these cocky kids what they really want to talk about for their next assignment (about the "real" problems facing kids today, like "parents" and "study habits"), perky Janet speaks up right smartly: sex. Cautious Pete demurs, telling the vocal students that that's a subject better discussed with their parents; however, when given the hypocrisy treatment by the kids, he reluctantly agrees to let them write down their questions about sex, anonymously, of course, and he'll read them out loud in class. Well, once word gets around the halls of the "Gifford Report," all hell breaks loose, leading to a final showdown of such sickening carnage and violence that broken, bleeding bodies will litter the grounds of Mason High (well...actually...that doesn't happen at all).
MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS WARNING!
When I was going to, um...film school (yeech), it was pretty standard at our profs' parties to scrounge up a VHS copy of something like The Explosive Generation so that the more pretentious students could sit around and laugh at it in that smug, condescending manner that they had for anything perceived (rightly or wrongly―usually wrongly) as an "easy" cinematic target. And to be honest, The Explosive Generation's delivery system of utterly innocuous B-exploitation conventions, circa 1961, can be amusing if you're feeling particularly superior that day. Right off the bat, when the title card comes up, superimposed over what looks to be Archie and the whole Riverdale High gang dressed for an ice cream social, it's difficult not to crack up when one thinks of today's "explosive generation" (you might feel a little sad, too, if you're not careful). So it's always difficult to experience a movie like The Explosive Generation in the spirit in which it was intended for its original audience. I'm sure there were some hip kids in the 1961 audience that laughed at the movie's too-earnest depictions of social protest, just as I'm sure there were other audiences of teens (particularly the put-upon girls out there) who took its up-front depictions of sexual peer pressure as hitting pretty close to home.
That being said...I wish The Explosive Generation had been at least a little more naughty, a little more jarring, in its tone. Look, I'm all for sensitive movies about parents and teens coming to an understanding about their feelings (actually...I couldn't care less. It just looks good to write that). But when I'm watching grade-B exploitation drive-in fare, even from 1961, I want at least a sense of depravity to some of the proceedings, even if the censors obviously wouldn't allow anything overt to happen on-screen. Put simply, The Explosive Generation is far too nice, far too often, in its illustration of misunderstood teens and their searching questions. It's the most polite story of rebel teens I think I've ever seen, and that's no compliment. The movie starts off on a promising note, with the allure of watching rich kids getting down at a drunken party, complete with scenic beachfront bungalow and beer bottles everywhere. Even better, when shapely Patty McCormack rolls off the couch and tries to bring in her friend Marge from the beach (who's just staring out into the ocean after expressing a desire to do anything to please Bobby...uh, oh), we know something went down that night...and maybe it will happen again (we also get a bit of high-octane rebellion when smart-ass Billy Gray dodges the cops along the twisty Malibu blacktops).
Alas, that's it, though, for cheap thrills in The Explosive Generation. Everything else that follows is done in quietly measured tones as everyone talks about responsibility, and peer pressure, and what a girl has to do to prove she loves her boyfriend, and what it means to be a teacher, and the responsibilities of a parent, and blah blah blah blah, before the curiously silent "rebellion" that marks the end of the film (didn't anyone at the time think it was not ironic but slightly silly to have a movie named The Explosive Generation end with all the kids going the silent Gandhi route?). Even the parents and other authority figures are portrayed as vaguely human in their frailties...which is all fine and good if this were a mellow ABC Afterschool Special. But it's not: it's supposed to be a bit of rough, a bit of exploitive teen pandering that pays lip service to "message" while delivering the real goods: kids having an immoral good time...and screw their insensitive parents if they don't get that. I don't want William Shatner sensibly caving into the demands of Principal Edward Platt, who sensibly outlines why his job is more P.R. work than educating. I don't want to hear that Janet actually was a "good girl" at the party and that this whole Magilla was for nothing, and I especially don't want to hear Dan, after he scored a triumph over the system with his non-violent protest, ask pretty please for Pete to stay on at the school, because having the "ability to change things is a big responsibility," and he doesn't want to make any more mistakes. All that even-steven, fair-minded good sense is "exploitation" how?
Still, director Buzz Kulik (the excellent Warning Shot and one of my favorite made-for-TV movies, Bad Ronald) does keep things moving smoothly along, getting in some sly digs at the self-satisfied Kennedy era of prosperity. When we first see Janet's mom (Virginia Fields), she's crowded in the foreground by her tangle of electric labor-saving devices which command more attention than her daughter's concerns. Kulik also lets the slick, funny Stephen Dunne have a fake cornpone accent for his used car salesman "Big" Bobby Herman TV commercials―a nice nod to the character's hypocrisy about being "real" with the kids. And Kulik lets Arch Johnson do what he does best―blow his stack―while giving us a funny little bit where he's immediately told to "shut up" by his bossy wife the minute he expresses an opinion. As for The Explosive Generation's performances, I may prefer to see McCormack as the steely-eyed little killer in The Bad Seed, or Shatner as, well...Shatner, but within the measured tones of the movie, both are quite good in creating believable moments of doubt and soul-searching as they move through screenwriter Joseph Landon's speedy set-ups. Billy Gray, playing the genetic opposite of his iconic good-kid Bud on the then-just cancelled Father Knows Best, comes closest to creating an exploitation-worthy character here, and he's a breath of fresh air as he wises-off left and right (it's hard to hear...but does he say, "Barf!" to his too-square print shop teacher?). He's got the right idea about the film (he looks vaguely sick and ticked-off in every scene), and along with the other solid performances, and good (if too calm) direction by Kulik, the tame The Explosive Generation still manages to generate interest.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.