Combustible Celluloid
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With: Russ Tamblyn, Jan Sterling, John Drew Barrymore, Diane Jergens, Mamie Van Doren, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Anthony, Jackie Coogan, Charles Chaplin Jr., Michael Landon, Burt Douglas, Jody Fair, Phillipa Fallon, Lyle Talbot, Robin Raymond
Written by: Robert Blees, Lewis Meltzer
Directed by: Jack Arnold
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 85
Date: 06/13/1958

High School Confidential! (1958)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Too Cool for 'School'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The driving force behind High School Confidential! is the great Albert Zugsmith, who not only produced The Incredible Shrinking Man and several other "B" movie classics, but also produced masterpieces like Orson Welles' Touch of Evil and Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels. Additionally, he was a director and made movies like Confessions of an Opium Eater. This movie, one of his great achievements, is perhaps better seen than described. You won't quite believe it. It's genre exploitation at its finest.

High School Confidential! -- note the exclamation point -- is a juvenile delinquent movie, but with a twist. Normally, these movies involve teenage kids (played by actors in their twenties) racing cars, going out with girls, sometimes doing drugs and generally getting into trouble. Russ Tamblyn plays the new kid in school, a cocky, care-free devil who either offends or charms everyone around him; either way, it's no skin off his nose. He proceeds to win the popular girl, Joan (Diane Jergens), away from the leader of the "Wheelers and Dealers" club (John Drew Barrymore), and gets under the skin of a young teacher (Jan Sterling). At home, his voluptuous aunt (Mamie Van Doren) -- presumably an aunt by marriage -- tries to seduce him. But, nothing is as it seems.

The movie is absolutely lunatic. It has an anti-drug message wherein a girl becomes addicted to marijuana, and trembles with withdrawal when she can't get another puff. (It's the old Reefer Madness effect, wherein people who actually know will laugh hysterically.) Moreover, anyone in this movie who uses marijuana is doomed to jump straight to heroin, wherein they will truly suffer the tortures of the damned.

The movie's cast is to die for. We have both William Wellman Jr. and Charlie Chaplin Jr. as well as Charlie Chaplin Sr.'s once-famous co-star, Jackie Coogan of The Kid. We have John Drew Barrymore, the less famous son of John Barrymore and father of Drew Barrymore. We have young Michael Landon, fresh from I Was a Teenage Werewolf, but yet to become a huge TV star. We have Lyle Talbot, of Plan 9 from Outer Space. Finally, we have two second-level 1950s icons, blonde bombshell Mamie Van Doren, and Jerry Lee Lewis, who famously and incredibly opens the movie singing the title song from the back of a moving flatbed truck.

They are given incredible dialogue, punctuated with all kinds of deliciously dated slang. One scene in a club includes a semi-famous poem read by Phillipa Fallon ("Tomorrow is a drag, man, tomorrow is a king-sized bust.") Another scene has Barrymore telling the story of Christopher Columbus in "Beat" language ("One swingin' day when Chris was sittin' at the beach, goofin', he dug that the world was round.").

Director Jack Arnold (Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man) holds all this and the kitchen sink together and moves it at a proper "B" movie pace, never letting things get stale or drag on too long. In the end, the patchwork masterpiece that emerged may have been a movie of its moment, but it's also an incredible time capsule of hilarious strangeness that's worth preserving and revisiting.

I originally saw this ages ago on a widescreen laserdisc, but Olive Films has now given it a great Blu-ray release, with Jerry Lee Lewis's music exploding from the screen.

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