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Because They're Young
He's been called "America's Oldest Teenager." Many only remember him from his stints as part of December 31st New Year's Rockin' Eve or via reruns of the classic $10,000/$20,000/$50,000/$100,000 Pyramid game shows. However, Dick Clark will be forever known as the host of one of television's most beloved (and influential) adolescent dance party, American Bandstand. Begun in Philadelphia in the early '50s, it was eventually bought up by national powerhouse ABC and, from 1957 to 1989, it ruled youth culture. Featuring the hit (and soon to be hit) songs of the day, along with celebrity interviews, budding high school romances, and enough awkward acknowledgments of changing tastes to make Steve Allen's head spin, Clark masterminded a wide open window for an underserved demographic that would soon rule broadcast and cable corporate modeling. So naturally he would branch out and try his hand at other media ala Howard Stern. In 1960, he got a chance to star in an adaptation of the popular Harrison High novel. Retitled Because They're Young, it would represent the first tentative steps in a mostly hit or miss movie career. In the case of this Peyton Place of the classroom, the cheesy taste of success is present and accounted for.
Neil Hendry (Clark) has just been hired on at Harrison High, a school run with dictatorial efficiency by a principal (Wendall Holmes) who doesn't cotton to teachers getting emotionally involved in their students problems. Of course, this causes our hero some concern, considering he lost his last job for the very same reasons. Immediately, Neil falls for former teacher/current secretary Joanne Dietrich (Victoria Shaw), discovering her reasons for leaving the classroom in the process. Along with his own issues involving an underage charge - a nephew named Eric (Stephen Talbot) - our lead learns of the various problems experience by a few of the undergraduates. They include a tough kid named Griff (Michael Callan) desperate to go straight, a transfer athlete (Warren Berlinger) with a slut waitress mother and a hard crush on the resident 'girl with a reputation' (Tuesday Weld), and a couple of clueless lovebirds (Doug McClure and Roberta Shaw) who believe they have found a permanent partnership. As the year goes on, Neil must face the demons of his past while recognizing just how far his helping hands can reach.
Get ready to feel bad - really bad - about loving a manipulative melodrama as much as you will adore Because They're Young. By definition, this shouldn't work. Not at all. Dick Clark is an odd choice for any movie role, let alone the overly involved teacher still smarting from a tragedy (and a professional miscalculation) in the past. He's not the father figure type, though he's saddled with one of those TV typecast tykes who's all big eyes and toed-headed tears, and his history as a big time celebrated college quarterback is constantly challenged by the Bandstand host's lack of significant physicality. And yet thanks to the many kitchen sink machinations in the script, as well as a Central Casting collection of overripe adolescents (the criminal loner, the bad girl, the dopey cheerleader, the equally lunkheaded jock) we get a pre-Beatles break from all the juvenile delinquency and cautionary exemplifying. Instead, this is a movie that moves along at a wicked pace, wearing out its welcome over one socially questionable concern before lightly leaping to another. It's all very pot boiler plate, and all so very soap opera satisfying.
Indeed, this is not a comedy. Nothing here is presented as remotely funny or farcical. Yet looking at the problems facing these teens some 50-plus years ago, one can't help but laugh. Only Griff has a real issue, dealing with the obvious homosexual leers of his older man partner in crime, the local butcher. Their scenes really sizzle with unspoken gay undertones, from the constant presence of man's meat hands on the boy's body (never in a lewd or crude way, mind you) to the fact that the obvious predator lives in one of those "swinging" bachelor pads where every aspect of the decor screams "FRONT!" As the movie makes its case, as we watch Griff attempt to turn his life around while all around him conspire to keep him juvenile and delinquent, we get emotionally involved. Similarly, Weld walks a fine line between victim and 'va-va-va-voom' as the bad girl who can't catch a break. Again, her story is all suggestion and allusion, a year away from school arguing for a vacation at a home for unwed mothers. Only Warren Berlinger gets a recognizable burden - a whore of a mom who throws her favors away on cheap thrills and even less expensive liquor. Like all personal car wrecks, we can't help but watch.
Still, this is Clark's movie and he succeeds in centering it. Using some of the empathy that would earn him a legion of under-20 fans, he comes across as caring and considerate. While we never actually see him teach, his classroom demeanor is authentic and his desire to help his students genuine. When forced to act like a parent to his unhappy nephew, he's a tad less effective, and don't even ask about Clark as a leading man type. Co-star Victoria Shaw often looks embarrassed to be seen in the same romantic scene with him. Clark is just too goody two shoes to come across as raging with untapped male lust. No, he's better at being the buddy to all the uncomfortable and awkward teen types traipsing around Harrison High. Some of the girls even go pre-Lady ga-ga over him. In fact, he's so hip, he even brings along artists like Duane Eddy and James Darren to up the Billboard factor. Still, it's the melodrama that draws us in, keeping us clued in until the one handkerchief resolution of various storylines. As the high point of Clark's career in front of the camera, Because They're Young is a guilty groovy pleasure. It's formulaic, but a lot of fun in the process.
As part of the MOD configuration, Sony does a great job with this title. The black and white image is excellent, remaining true to its monochrome tenets while looking more or less mint. There are few scratches or age spots, and the 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer does a terrific job of modulating director Paul Wendkos light to dark dynamics. Indeed, some have suggested that the last act of this film follows the noted noir aesthetic of the late '50s, and with this print, it's not hard to see.
Sadly, little can be done with the thin and tinny Dolby Digital Mono mix. Granted, it is getting pumped through two speakers, but only the dialogue seems settled within the limited range. When Eddy and Darren show up, their musical spots are underwhelming in the worst kind of AM radio modulation.
A trailer - which does a really good job of selling the film - that's all.
Like a last minute reprieve from the Governor of Goofy Starring Vehicles, Because They're Young is a heartfelt if often unintentionally hilarious hoot. It's got Dirk Clark, hair slicked and resolved amplified hoping to make a difference among a stock collection of Tinseltown teen types. It's kitschy, campy, and above all, craven in its desire to dig into your cynical subconscious and release the high minded heroism in all of us. Earning an easy Highly Recommended rating, this is the kind of rarity the new direct to DVD MOD movies are noted for unearthing. Unless you grew up in the era, you might not ever know of this unusual offering. Even with someone as eternal as Clark, a movie like Because They're Young is soundly stuck in its own time - and our enjoyment is the better for it.
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