The story you are about to see is about violence and immorality – teenage violence and immorality. Children trapped in the half-world between adolescence and maturity, their struggle to understand, their need to be understood.
Perhaps in this rapid progression into the material world, man has forgotten the spiritual values which are the moral fibre of a great nation: decency, respect, fair play. Perhaps he has forgotten to teach these values to his own. He has forgotten to teach his children their responsibility before god and society.
The answer may lie in the story of the delinquents, in their violent attempt to find a place in society. This film is a cry to a busy world, a protest, a reminder to those who must set the example.
These portentous words are intoned over the opening titles of Robert Altman’s first film The Delinquents, shot in 1955 but not released until 1957. In fact, they are preceded by a pre-credit sequence, which begins with the black rhythm and blues singer Julia Lee entertaining the entirely white clientele of a bar. When a group of young people enter and attempt to buy drinks, they are told to leave because they are under age. After a tense confrontation, they eventually depart, smashing the window behind them, and the credits begin.
The trailer for The Delinquents strikes a rather different tone. Over scenes of violence, sex, drinking, vandalism and jive dancing, it promises to show ‘the screen’s most shocking portrait of the babyfaces who have just taken their first stumbling steps down Sin Street USA.’ ‘Here,’ the trailer continues, ‘is a picture that dares to put on film the ravaged lives in the adolescent jungles of America today…’ Likewise, the publicity posters screamed: ‘The hoods of tomorrow! The gun molls of the future! The kids who live today as if there’s no tomorrow!’
The film was shot in suburban Kansas City, Altman’s home town, and its central character is Scotty, a rather clean-cut middle-class young man. When his girlfriend’s parents forbid the couple to be together (for reasons that are not fully explained), he resorts to deceiving them, with the help of the nefarious group introduced in the opening scene. Scotty’s rapid descent into crime seems partly accidental, and partly a result of the evil intentions of the group: he is forced to drink a bottle of whiskey, and then left to take the blame for the killing of a gas station attendant, assaulted with a pump nozzle during a bungled robbery. Scotty is essentially a victim of bad luck rather than the product of a poor social environment – although what motivates the ‘delinquents’ who lead him astray remains quite unclear.
Nevertheless, the film’s conclusion is unequivocal about the need to deal with the problem:
Violence and immorality like this must be controlled and channeled. Citizens everywhere must work against delinquency, just as they work against cancer, cerebral palsy, or any other crippling disease. For delinquency is a disease. But the remedies are available: patience, compassion, understanding, and respect for parental and civil authority. By working with your church group, with the youth organization in your town, by paying close attention to the needs of your children, you can help prevent the recurrence of regrettable events like the ones you have just witnessed. You can help to beat this disease before it cripples our children, before it cripples society.
From what we know of Altman’s subsequent career, as a kind of anti-establishment auteur (his films include MASH, The Long Goodbye and Nashville), it is tempting to read these inflated words as a kind of parody. For, like most juvenile delinquent films of the period, The Delinquents is a movie that wants to have its cake and eat it. Despite the claims of its marketing campaign, it is hardly salacious; but it does nevertheless provide the forbidden pleasure of witnessing violence, immorality and other such ‘regrettable events’. However, this is framed by assertions about the film’s moral and social purpose, and by warnings that such actions should not be admired or emulated.
Disclaimers and moral warnings to concerned older citizens (the ‘you’ of the last quotation) of the kind I have quoted were almost de rigueur in such films, at least in the mid-1950s when they first appeared. Like many of the other texts I have considered in these essays, these films seem to have a dual address: they are targeted both towards young people and towards adults – and in this case, towards adult authority figures as well as to adult viewers in general. As such, they tend to offer contradictory messages. And as we shall see, these contradictions reflected the film industry’s attempt to deal with the conflicting economic and social demands that were being placed upon it at the time.
The JD films, as they have come to be known, were a movie ‘cycle’ of the kind that was characteristic of Hollywood in its heyday. (Perhaps the most obvious precursor, both in terms of theme and approach, were the gangster films of the early 1930s.) Successful breakthrough films spawned countless imitators, often with remarkably similar titles, seeking to cash in on box office success. Inevitably, it’s hard to draw a line around them: studies of such films (such as McGee and Robertson’s book The JD Films) tend to blur the boundaries with other Hollywood cycles such as rock-and-roll movies, or films about beats or other counter-cultural groups. Yet not all films featuring youth crime, or even ‘delinquent’ or anti-social behaviour (such as drug-taking or violence), are necessarily ‘juvenile delinquent’ films. Hollywood was making movies about youth crime throughout the 1920s and 1930s – Ronald Reagan’s appearances as a caring social worker in the Dead End Kids series are particularly notable in this respect; and of course there have been countless films on the topic over the past fifty years. What distinguishes the JD films of the 1950s – and is apparent in the quotations from Altman’s film – is the explicit framing of such behaviour as a social problem – a problem that requires both explanations and remedial actions to prevent it.
In this essay, I’ll be exploring how the social problem of juvenile delinquency was defined and constructed at this time, and the ambivalent ways in which the film industry tried to respond. I will look fairly briefly at the three breakthrough films that effectively initiated the JD cycle in the United States – The Wild One, Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause – and subsequently at a group of British films that have not been so widely discussed. I’ll look at three films from the end of the 1940s and early 1950s that preceded the Hollywood cycle, and then in more detail at Violent Playground, a British film released in 1958. As I hope to show, these films offered some distinctively different perspectives on the issue of delinquency – albeit ones that were equally riven by tensions and contradictions.