High School Confidential! (Jack Arnold, 1958) is a film that explodes with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. From the first sounds of Jerry Lee Lewis’ vocals over the credits to the introduction of Russ Tamblyn as he steals another student’s parking spot, the film calls attention to its brash tone and delightful pop. One of the most noticeable aspects of High School Confidential! (something not all teen-sploitation films possess) is its rhythm. The resourceful casting, bold performances and nervy exploitation narrative give High School Confidential! a hum, tempo and pulse that allow it to maintain resonance today.
It is impossible to deny the opening credit sequence. Moving from a shot of the outside of a school to the inside of the school grounds, what we had assumed to be non-diegetic music all of a sudden takes form as Jerry Lee Lewis and his band on the back of a pick-up truck, Lewis playing piano with wild abandon, his beautiful blonde hair launching itself back and forth across his forehead, the eponymously named “High School Confidential” pouring forth from his lips. Teens surround the truck, paying tribute to the legendary rocker as the film moves forward.
While he didn’t know it at the time, High School Confidential! would be Jerry Lee Lewis’ last “day in the sun” for many years. Scandal hit him directly as the film was released and his career was never the same. But leading up to that point, things seemed great and director Jack Arnold was very interested in having Jerry Lee involved. He contracted Lewis to record the title track and make an appearance in the film. Ever since another MGM film, The Blackboard Jungle (Richard Brooks, 1955), had revolutionized the way people watched (and listened) to films with its use of rock music the film industry had realized that they had untapped potential at its beck and call. Arnold’s desire to include Lewis in the film and have the title song tie-in would certainly help the production reach their intended audience: teenagers, the ones with the expendable income.
Jerry Lee Lewis and his band went to the set and shot their scenes. The single was recorded in April of 1958 and the street date was to correspond with the film’s May release. This all went as planned but there was an unexpected snag: the release of the single and film coincided with the world finding out about Jerry Lee Lewis’ recent marriage to his cousin (and daughter of the bassist in his band) – 13-year-old Myra Gail. That whole “child bride” thing played better on the country charts than the rock charts so the single lasted longer there, but Lewis’ career suffered permanent damage. Radio stations blacklisted the “High School Confidential” single, and parents called to threaten all kinds of sponsor-boycotts if stations did play the tune. Jerry Lee’s tour was, of course, cancelled after only a few dates and he never fully recovered.
On the other hand, for a film that was based upon “social ills,” questionable morals and scandalous acts, it’s debatable about whether or not this incident hurt or helped the film. The Lewis connection may well have driven more teens to the drive-in simply based on the fact that he was now more controversial and what’s more attractive to a teenager than a great rock star? A great CONTROVERSIAL rock star!
Jack Arnold was happy as hell to be at MGM making this picture, even if it was just an exploitation flick in “social message” clothing. While he’d made great films at Universal (Creature From the Black Lagoon in 1954, The Incredible Shrinking Man in 1957), the pay was far better at MGM. He told Dana M. Reeves that producer Albert Zugsmith “wanted an out-and-out exploitation picture, a straight, preachy, message film – and if I could put nudity in it that would be great!” Of course Zugsmith was busy telling everyone else how devoted he was to the message and letting people know that he was a “crusader for justice.” He is quoted as saying, “I don’t make movies without a moral, but you can’t make a point for good unless you expose the evil.”
In his discussion of the film, Richard Crouse notes, “Zugsmith is unrepentant. He fills High School Confidential! with more hot-rod races, busty blondes in tight clothes, hip jargon and drugs than any drive-in crowd could hope for, while at the same time bashing them over the head with a moral.” The censors at the MPAA complained vociferously about Mamie Van Doren, saying “the characterization of the young law officer’s ‘Aunt’ is that of a sexually hungry person who is on the make for him constantly. It’s almost fair to call her a nymphomaniac.” Zugsmith responded with an acknowledgement that they would stick to the Production Code regulations… and then bumped up the scripted sex appeal a few more notches. On the other hand, the film maintains a firm (if heavy-handed) anti-drug message, supported by the voice-over narration at the film’s coda.
Many juvenile delinquency “message” films of the 1950s announced that they were “based on a true story.” Accompanying advertisements reassured the public that what they were about to see was a “frank exposé” and the “naked truth!” The more outrageous the plot, the more likely the film would play up the “documentary” angle in order to excuse the shocking content. For exploitation producers like Albert Zugsmith, Sam Katzman and Roger Corman this was the rule and not the exception.
Oddly enough, High School Confidential! actually was based on a true story. Texas Joe Foster was an undercover narcotics officer working out of Houston, busting different drug gangs in public high schools. It was very 21 Jump Street. His story got published in a few newspapers and then made its way to screenwriter Robert Blees. Blees, whose credits included such brilliant titles as The Glass Web (Jack Arnold, 1953) and Magnificent Obsession (Douglas Sirk, 1954), pitched High School Confidential! to MGM and the deal went through almost immediately. By 1958, a pitch like this was hot, even to a major like MGM.
According to some extensive research done by Conalrad, it was a pretty tough push/pull operation between screenwriter Blees and producer Zugsmith. Imagine if you will, a writer who reads a fascinating story in the Houston Chronicle that he thinks would make for a great crime film. Then imagine a producer whose forte was exploitation films under the guise of morality tales. There was bound to be friction. Blees had interviewed Foster, gotten deep into the undercover cop subject, was sure the film could be high-caliber. Zugsmith was a master of exploitation films and knew what could sell. He was going to make money no matter what. Blees was thinking classy story telling, Zugsmith was thinking bullet bras and reefer madness.
At least Blees is credited for the actual story behind High School Confidential!, since the process of writing the script became extremely messy and chaotic. Blees was sending memos to Zugsmith in July of 1957, but not receiving responses. He submitted the first few treatments and was joined in the writer’s room in September by Lewis Meltzer. Meltzer was brought in for recommendations but ended up assisting perhaps more than Blees would have liked. Mel Welles, a Roger Corman regular and writer for comedian Lord Buckley, provided some of the “special” material (mostly the “beat” style scenes and “hepcat” moments in the coffee house). If the film seems a little disjointed in the narrative, it may be due to the fact that the writing “team” was made up of a potpourri of creatives, some with different goals than others.
High School Confidential! is a genuinely enjoyable movie. The cast alone will make your jaw drop. Of course there is the magnificent Mamie Van Doren playing “Aunt Gwen.” It’s better off if you don’t ask any questions about her part within the narrative and just revel in her performance. When asked, neither she nor her “nephew” Russ Tamblyn were certain of what or why her character was actually part of the plot. Russ Tamblyn plays Mike Wilson aka Tony Baker, the undercover cop at Santo Bello High School there to break up the drug ring. The “Wheelers and Dealers” are the teen gang that Wilson/Baker must infiltrate, led by J.I. Coleridge (John Drew Barrymore). Look closely at those gang members – you’ll see William Wellman Jr. as well as the real Texas Joe Foster! If you miss Texas Joe as part of Coleridge’s gang, here he is on a fun episode of “To Tell The Truth,” promoting High School Confidential!
High School Confidential! may initially seem slightly awkward, but give it a chance. It has a killer car chase, a damn good fight scene with Michael Landon at the helm and Jackie Coogan plays a helluva drug kingpin!! It is perfect Midnight Movie material and the cult following that it has developed is considerable. But it has that audience for a reason: it’s actually a really good movie. Some “B-movie” fare seems to get judged on a recently developed model of “so bad it’s good.” This is a foolish standard and has no critical value. It takes a fun film like High School Confidential! and rejects the production history, disregards Mamie Van Doren’s smoldering performance, and trashes the enjoyability of Russ Tamblyn. It is far better to be able to examine the nuances of a film than to dismiss it as “so bad it’s good.” High School Confidential! is a rock’n’roll exploitation good time that makes sure to warn you that pot leads to heroin and then death- are you REALLY going to miss that?