How were these tensions and contradictions manifested in specific films? In this section, I consider the three Hollywood films that effectively initiated the JD cycle: The Wild One, Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause. These are all very well-known, and have been the subject of extensive critical commentary, so I will refrain from offering detailed summaries here. Rather, I would like to contrast the three films especially in terms of their point of view, and how they construct the figure of the ‘delinquent’.
The Wild One, directed by Laslo Benedik and produced by Stanley Kramer, was released in 1953. It stars Marlon Brando (aged 28 at the time of filming) as Johnny Strabler, the leader of a leather-clad motorcycle gang, the Black Rebels. The film is based on a true story about a small California town called Hollister that was apparently terrorized by such a gang – a story that was written up by the journalist Frank Rooney for Harper’s Magazine in 1951. Despite this basis in fact, the opening title is keen to reassure viewers:
This is a shocking story. It could never take place in most American towns – but it did in this one. It is a public challenge not to let it happen again.
The claim recurs in Johnny’s opening voice-over: ‘it couldn’t happen again in a million years’, he says. But the voice-over also reveals a little of the outcome of the story: after referring to ‘the whole mess’ and ‘the trouble’ that occurred, he tells us:
Mostly I remember the girl. I can’t explain it, a sad chick like that. But something changed in me, she got to me…
As this implies, The Wild One, like many JD movies, is ultimately a story of redemption. On one level, Brando’s Johnny is charismatic, cool and sexy. He appears to spend his life (or at least his weekends) travelling aimlessly from place to place with the gang: ‘you just go’, he says. He is a natural leader, whose authority is unquestioned by the other members; and he easily outfights the leader of a rival gang. He speaks in a kind of hip jive talk, and his drawled one-liners are like comic epigrams – most famously, of course, in the exchange with a local girl, who asks ‘what are you rebelling against?’ ‘Whatta you got?’ he replies.
Johnny’s contempt for authority is clearly part of his appeal. He defines himself as an ‘outlaw’, and refuses to make a deal with the sheriff to leave the town quietly – ‘nobody tells me what to do’. The sheriff is represented as weak and ineffectual: the other inhabitants urge him to run the gang out of town, accusing him of being ‘too soft-hearted’. The vigilantes eventually take matters into their own hands and beat Johnny up just as he is about to leave: ‘someone needed to beat some respect for law and authority into him’, one of them says. Yet this authoritarian approach ends in disaster when they knock Johnny off his bike, causing the death of an elderly resident.
However, the ultimate judgment on Johnny is delivered by Kathie, the girl he meets in the town bar (and who happens to be the sheriff’s daughter). Despite her conventional appearance, Johnny is attracted to her, in preference to the more available biker girls who are pursuing him; but at least initially, she dismisses him as a ‘fake’. At one point, Johnny apparently rescues Kathie from being assaulted by other members of the gang, but his initial romantic overtures towards her are clumsy and violent. Meanwhile, throughout the movie, he spends a good deal of time clutching a trophy, which the townspeople believe he has won at a motorbike contest, but which is actually stolen: it is a kind of emblem of his lack of authenticity. Towards the end of the movie, the sheriff finally asserts himself, telling Johnny:
I don’t get your act at all. And I don’t think you do either. I don’t think you know what you’re trying to do, or how to go about it.
In the final scene, Johnny returns to the bar, where he presents Kathie with a gift of the stolen trophy, before driving off. As evidence of Johnny’s redemption, this conclusion isn’t wholly convincing: the sheriff’s authority has already been undermined, the trophy is stolen in the first place, and we don’t see any kind of romantic consummation between Johnny and Kathie. Even so, all these things work to undermine any potential identification with Johnny: he is undeniably cool, but he is also somewhat of a phoney.
Ultimately, the reasons for Johnny’s ‘delinquency’ are not explained. Brando’s method-acting performance is all about troubled frowns, distant stares and mumbled complaints, but there is little indication of any psychological or sociological causes of his behaviour. The authoritarian response of the townspeople is clearly rejected, but the more ‘soft-hearted’, liberal approach of the sheriff is also less than effective. In the end, it would seem that only romantic love can redeem the likes of Johnny – although this too seems faintly implausible.
By contrast, Blackboard Jungle (directed by Richard Brooks from the novel by Evan Hunter, and released in 1955) is much more explicitly a ‘social problem’ film. Before the opening credits, over a soundtrack of military drumming, the following message scrolls:
We, in the United States, are fortunate to have a school system that is a tribute to our communities and to our faith in American youth.
Today we are concerned with juvenile delinquency – its causes – and its effects. We are especially concerned when this delinquency boils over into our schools.
The scenes and incidents depicted here are fictional. However, we believe that public awareness is a first step toward a remedy for any problem.
It is in this spirit and with this faith that BLACKBOARD JUNGLE was produced.
However, as the message fades into the opening credits, the drumming gives way to Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’ – a tune that is not used elsewhere in the film, and seems to have been included in the hope of increasing its appeal to the younger audience. (It may well have been this, rather than anything about the film itself, that prompted the teddy boy ‘riots’ that occurred on its release in the UK.)
Unlike the other two films considered here, the central focus of Blackboard Jungle is not on the delinquents, but on their teacher, Richard Dadier (played by Glenn Ford). The narrative follows Dadier as he confronts a recalcitrant high school class in a racially mixed, working class area of the city; and it also follows him into the staff room, and into his home. We are told about the home environments of his students, but we do not see anything of them. The narrative is driven by questions about Dadier’s dedication to his task: will he become disillusioned and leave the teaching profession, or will he at least move to an easier, more middle-class school ‘where the children want to learn’ (an opportunity he is offered by his former professor)? In parallel with this is an element of suspense introduced right at the start of the film. Dadier’s wife is pregnant, but she has previously lost a baby. She narrowly avoids a car crash and subsequently comes under pressure when one of Dadier’s students sends her anonymous messages alleging that her husband is having an affair with one of the other teachers: Dadier is afraid that she will lose the baby once again.
The narrative of the film is essentially a series of tests of Dadier’s dedication. He saves a woman teacher from being assaulted, he and a colleague are attacked in the street, he witnesses some of his students stealing a newspaper truck, and his class smash up the math teacher’s treasured collection of jazz records. This all causes him to question himself, but he does not give up. He adopts modern teaching methods, using a tape recorder to record his students’ stories, and appears to be having some success with a debate that takes place after he has shown them an animated film of Jack and the Beanstalk – an approach that even seems to impress one of his most cynical colleagues. However, he also gives voice to bitterness about the teachers’ lot, at one point comparing their poor rates of pay with those of other groups of workers.
Ultimately, when his son is born (and survives a difficult birth) and his wife urges him to continue, Dadier decides to re-dedicate himself to the profession, as the sounds of New Year celebrations play on the radio. Highly sentimental as this may be, the film provides a powerful endorsement of the idealistic mission of inner-city teaching. On one level, Dadier is a familiar ‘teacher hero’. He claims that he wants to ‘help shape young minds’ and to ‘sculpt lives’, and he struggles to achieve this: yet his dedication is not seen as self-righteous, and the working lives of teachers are by no means glamourised.
All this implies that the film is constructed from Dadier’s point of view. Some of his students display the brooding menace of Brando’s Johnny Strabler – especially the ultimate villain, Artie West (played by Vic Morrow). On one occasion, West appears to justify himself with the claim that he has no hope for the future; but, like his fellow delinquents, he is ultimately presented as a coward – ‘you’re not so tough without a gang to back you up’, Dadier tells him. In the final classroom confrontation, his supporter Belazi is actually impaled with an American flag, before they are both marched downstairs for the punishment they clearly require.
However, with the possible exception of Gregory Miller (played by Sidney Poitier), we learn very little about what motivates these students. The debate about the causes of delinquency, and the potential treatment of it, is placed in the mouths of the adult characters. Dadier’s professor offers a mea culpa: ‘we at the university were to blame – we did not prepare the teachers to teach certain children of this generation…’ Later, a police officer offers a more extended historical account:
I’ve had lots of problem kids in my time, kids from both sides of the tracks. They were five or six years old in the last war. Father in the army, mother in the defence plant. No home life, no church life, no place to go. They formed street gangs… Maybe the kids today are like the rest of the world: mixed up, suspicious, scared. I don’t know, but I do know this. Gang leaders have taken the place of parents, and if you don’t stop them…
The policeman is interrupted before he can finish, but the onus is clearly placed on dedicated teachers, effectively to take the place of parents. The issue is not so much poverty, but the failure of the family.
If Blackboard Jungle refuses any explanation based on social class (these things happen on ‘both sides of the tracks’), it does explore the question of race. One of Dadier’s first moves in attempting to win the control of his class is to seek the support of Gregory Miller. If Artie West is the ‘bad delinquent’, who ultimately proves to be beyond redemption, Miller is the ‘good delinquent’, who can be saved. Being black, Dadier tells him, is not an excuse for failing in school; and right at the end of the film, Miller responds to Dadier’s encouragement by agreeing to stay on at school for a further year. Meanwhile, however, Dadier runs into trouble when he uses racial slurs in an attempt to counter the prejudice and abuse he sees happening among his class, and receives a strong lecture from the school principal. Although he is not guilty in this case, he later gets into a confrontation with Miller and unthinkingly calls him ‘you black –‘ – only to be consumed with remorse. In a particularly striking scene, we see him joining Miller and his black friends as they sing a version of the spiritual ‘Go Down Moses’ in preparation for the school’s Christmas concert. Significantly, Miller urges them not to syncopate (or ‘jazz up’) the melody, implying the need for a ‘respectable’ version of African-American culture. In all these respects, the film’s treatment of race is decidedly liberal, although it needs to be understood in its time: the Brown v Board of Education decision that ended racial segregation in US schools took place only two years before the film’s release, and was still being massively resisted in many Southern states.
Like The Wild One, Blackboard Jungle was a highly controversial film, and underwent close monitoring from the Production Code Administration. While the violence (especially the beating of Dadier and his colleague) may be relatively explicit for 1956, the central concern appeared to be that younger viewers might emulate the delinquent characters, especially Artie West. While Brando was clearly older (and intended to be so), Artie and his gang were definitely teenagers (although Morrow was in fact 26 when the film was released). The Administration’s director Geoffrey Shurlock also worried that the film might purvey a negative image of America’s schools for international audiences, although ultimately there was very little direct censorship imposed. Nevertheless, Shurlock received more criticism for his approval of this film than for any of the others he endorsed during his first five years as Director. Along with The Wild One, the film went on to be cited in submissions to Senator Kefauver’s Senate committee as evidence of the harmful effects of the movies – although it appears that the Senator himself was unconvinced. Such anxiety seems particularly strange in this case, given the film’s adult focus and point of view: it clearly says much more about the motivations of those involved in the debates rather than about the film itself.
Rebel Without A Cause (directed by Nicholas Ray and also released in 1955) is probably the
most celebrated of these films, but it is strikingly different from the others. Shot in colour and in Cinemascope, it appears quite melodramatic by comparison with the low-key black-and-white of the other two. Unlike Johnny Strabler and Richard Dadier’s students, the central character Jim Stark (played by James Dean) is clearly middle-class, and the setting is affluent suburbia. In the opening scene, we are introduced to Jim and two
fellow students at his new high school, Judy and John (also known as Plato): all of them been picked up by the police for various infractions. Later there is a knife fight, and the famous scene of the ‘chickee run’, in which hotrod cars are driven off a cliff, with fatal consequences. Yet the film’s explanations of these forms of delinquency are essentially psychological rather than sociological.
Jim’s problems, clearly flagged as the film proceeds, essentially derive from the tension between his parents. His father is seen as emasculated, and in a later scene, he is famously wearing a frilly domestic apron – ‘you thought I was mom?’ he asks, as if we didn’t quite get the point. According to Jim, his mother and grandmother ‘make mush out of him’, and the father doesn’t have the ‘guts’ to stand up to them. Meanwhile, Judy (played by Natalie Wood) is the victim of her father’s confusing signals: he calls her ‘a dirty tramp’ for wearing slightly sexy clothes, and still wants her to be his ‘little girl’, yet he rejects her (and indeed hits her) when she seeks affection from him. Plato (Sal Mineo) is possibly the most disturbed of the three: his parents have divorced after years of fighting, and although he is supposed to live with his mother, she is rarely present. He responds to his abandonment by torturing and killing animals; and there are small indications – which attracted the attention of the censors – that he might be gay (he has a picture of Alan Ladd in his locker at school, whatever that may signify…).
Delinquency, in this quasi-Freudian account, is essentially a consequence of the dysfunction of the family – and, more specifically, of the parents. Jim, Judy and Plato all struggle to communicate with their parents: Jim repeatedly screams at them in anguish, ‘you’re tearing me apart!’ and ‘you’re not listening to me!’; Judy wanders off alone at night, apparently because she is ‘seeking attention’; while Plato claims that ‘nobody can help me’. While Plato has received psychiatric help from a ‘head shrinker’, Jim’s parents have had to move house several times when he has got into trouble at school. All of them, it would seem, are fundamentally in need of love, although in Jim’s case he also needs to find a certain masculine strength – the quality his father is so sorely lacking. He repeatedly urges his father to ‘stand up for me’ and to give him a ‘direct answer’ to his questions, but he fails to do so until the very end.
The three characters eventually come together to form a kind of surrogate family. Jim and Judy apparently discover that they love each other within 24 hours of first meeting, while Plato clearly wants to adopt both of them as his surrogate parents. In the closing scenes, Jim clothes Plato in his iconic red jacket, and shortly afterwards, Jim’s father (having discovered the need to be ‘strong’) puts his own jacket around his son. To some extent, Jim and Judy are integrated back into the normal, middle-class family; but they leave together, and there is no reassuring voice of adult authority to reassert order at the very end of the film. As James Gilbert argues, it is as if the ending, in which the adults suddenly recognize their own failings, is too contrived to be plausible.
On top of this vaguely psychoanalytic explanation of delinquency, there are occasional signs of a more fashionable, existentialist view. Judy in particular is fond of cool nihilistic remarks: when Jim asks her where she lives, she says ‘who lives?’, and later in the movie she describes herself as ‘just numb’. When Jim asks his rival Buzz about the reasons for the ‘chickie run’ – ‘why do we do this?’ – Buzz responds with a Brando-esque ‘you gotta do something, don’t you?’ A key scene takes place during a school visit to a planetarium, where the students are told about the potentially imminent destruction of the universe, and learn that humans are essentially alone – a theme that is reasserted in the closing scenes, where the characters return to the now-empty planetarium.
Rebel Without A Cause does have several points of similarity with the other two films I have considered here. As in The Wild One, it is romantic love that brings about Jim’s redemption, although here it also leads to the reassertion of the family – a family in which Jim has learned to be a real man, unlike his father. As in Blackboard Jungle, there is also a benevolent, liberal authority figure, in the form of a police officer named (surely not coincidentally) Ray. Here again, we find the ‘good delinquent’ who is capable of redemption, as opposed to the ‘bad delinquent’ who must be punished, or in this case simply killed off (as is the case both with Plato, who is too damaged to survive, and with Buzz, who seems to have very few redeeming qualities to prevent him from plunging over the cliff).
Nevertheless, the basic perspective of the film is quite different. Aside from Ray, the adults in the film are all represented in very negative terms – as in some way failing to live up to their responsibilities in respect of their children. Even Ray is absent at a crucial time when Jim comes looking for him towards the end of the film. The focus is very definitely on the three young characters. We see the world from their point of view, and in several respects they are glamourised. As the critic Thomas Doherty argues, James Dean as Jim Stark had a ‘representative power’: he was ‘the first American teenager’ – at least in the movies.
Each of these films was massively successful at the box office, and each spawned a legion of imitations, as well as some more considered representations of delinquency, in the years that followed. Merely the titles reflect what Thomas Doherty calls the ‘exploitation’ in these movies: controversial topics were filmed on a low budget, accompanied by sensational promotion targeted specifically at the teenage audience. Teenage Crime Wave, Teenage Thunder, Teenage Rebel and Teenage Doll all appeared within a year or two of the films I have discussed here, and they were swiftly followed by Teenagers from Outer Space, Dragstrip Riot, Juvenile Jungle, Riot in Juvenile Prison, Live Fast – Die Young, The Rebel Breed, The Cool and the Crazy, High School Confidential, High School Hellcats, Hotrod Rumble, Hotrod Girl, Untamed Youth, Young and Wild, and many, many more before the decade was out. Rather than following this road, however, I would like to take a sideways step, to look at a selection of British films that sought to address the same kinds of issues.