Hollywood – Heroes or Hoods

Actors Marlon Brando and James Dean were the quintessential rebels idolized by the teenagers of the Fifties. While the 1950s silver screen lit up mostly with the typical Hollywood fare of Westerns and romances, a handful of films shocked audiences by uncovering the dark side of America’s youth- in “JD ‘juvenile delinquent’ films.”

Marlon Brando played the leather-clad leader of a motorcycle gang that ransacks a small town in 1953’s The Wild One. The film terrified adults but fascinated kids, who emulated Brando’s style. 1955 saw the release of Blackboard Jungle, a film about juvenile delinquency in an urban high school. It was the first major release to use a rock & roll soundtrack and was banned in many areas, both for its violent take on high school life and its use of multiracial cast of lead actors. Perhaps the most controversial and influential of these films is 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause. Another film about teenage delinquency (the main characters meet at the police station) Rebel is not set amid urban decay, but rather in an affluent suburb. “And they both come from ‘good’ families!” the film’s tagline screamed. Ironically, the film made it clear that the failure of those very families was to blame for the teen main characters’ troubles. Juvenile delinquency was no longer a problem for the lower classes; it was lurking in the supposedly perfect suburbs. Once again parents were outraged, but the message could no longer be ignored. The film earned three Academy Award nominations and propelled James Dean to posthumous but eternal stardom. (“Troubling Teenagers: How Movies Constructed the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s,” David Buckingham) https://ddbuckingham.files.wordpress.com/2017/10/troubling-teenagers.pdf

The Wild One (1953) 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 Wild One is considered to be the original outlaw biker film, and the first to examine American outlaw motorcycle gang violence. The film is based on a true story about a small California town called Hollister that was apparently terrorized by such a gang.

The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (BRMC) with the symbol of a skull above two crossed pistons on the backs of their leather jackets ride into the small California town of Wrightsville and party, irritating the solid citizens who become vengeance-crazed vigilantes. Johnny Strabler (Brando), head of the gang, falls for local girl Kathie and reforms, but takes a beating from the locals. 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. 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 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.

The BRMC gang continues to cause havoc by drag-racing their motorcycles on the main street for beers. One of the gang members tells everyone to race for Bleeker’s, the local saloon: “Last guy to the door of that joint buys beers. Last guy in buys.” During the drag race, they force a  resident old man’s car to careen out of control, and one of the bikers breaks his ankle when he collides with the car. Just as they are beginning to depart, another outlaw biker gang arrives, led by a crazy, vulgar biker named Chino (Lee Marvin) – a former member of Johnny’s gang, who broke away and formed his own rival group (the Beetles). The dirty, ape-like, loud-mouthed, cigar-smoking, stubbly-faced Chino taunts his ex-leader by stealing a trophy off Johnny’s bike (and putting it on his own bike’s handlebars) and issuing crude insults. The bar owner encourages their beer-drinking and invites them into the bar and restaurant.

Together, the gangs drink copious amounts of beer; talk jive, much to the confusion of the local squares; dump garbage into the street; chase after young local girls; hop on pogo sticks; ride their motorcycles indoors; and generally upset the resident population. Through much of these shenanigans, Johnny remains on the periphery, more concerned with Kathie (Mary Murphy), the daughter of the Police Chief (Robert Keith). Eventually, the townspeople organize into a militia to take back their town, focusing their attention on Johnny. But, in their attempt to corner him, their attack leads to a deadly accident.

Kathy asks Johnny where he is going. Johnny has no real answer to this question. The best he can muster is that “we just go”-that is, there is no direction. But Kathy is also adrift. She feels trapped in her small town existence, telling Johnny of her dream that someday a stranger will come into the cafe, order a cup of coffee, and rescue her from this boring life. She asks Johnny for his trophy, but when he fails to give it, she runs away proclaiming that she wishes Johnny had some direction or that she was going someplace. She concludes that the whole situation is just “crazy.” In the final scene, as evidence of Johnny’s redemption, Johnny returns to the bar, where he presents Kathie with a gift of the stolen trophy, before driving off.

Ultimately, the film’s intended message against youth and biker gangs backfired. Instead of creating awareness and inciting fear, American culture clung to Brando’s image and Johnny’s line, “Whaddya got?” Rebelliousness turned into the hallmark of rock & roll culture and a subset of teen cinema; it was innate to the new market of teenage consumers of the 1950s.

(From a review in Hollywood Reporter) “It is hard to accept as a reflection of American mores a tale that revolves around conflict between young, seemingly hopped-up ruffians and the mob lynch law spirit of the community’s staid, respectable citizens, with the police helplessly standing by the gang of motorcycle hoodlums. They sweep into a small town and proceed to take it over, halting all traffic, brawling in the streets and committing acts of stupidly pointless vandalism. A local bully arouses the men of the town and they capture Brando, giving him a terrific beating. Before the general hysteria is lulled, a man has been killed, and Brando faces lynching from which he is rescued by the arrival of the county sheriff (Jay C. Flippen) and his men. Flippen soon restores order and the town settles back to normalcy as the young vandals ride out, presumably to continue their depredations elsewhere.”

“Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots,” The Cheers (1955) (A song about motorcycle gangs; a spoof on the stereotype) https://youtu.be/qTdVaU5O9x8

He wore black denim trousers and motorcycle boots
And a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back
He had a hopped-up ‘cicle that took off like a gun
That fool was the terror of Highway 101

Well, he never washed his face and he never combed his hair
He had axle grease imbedded underneath his fingernails
On the muscle of his arm was a red tattoo
A picture of a heart saying “Mother, I love you”

He had a pretty girlfriend by the name of Mary Lou
But he treated her just like he treated all the rest
And everybody pitied her and everybody knew
He loved that doggone motorcycle best

He wore black denim trousers and motorcycle boots
And a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back
He had a hopped-up ‘cicle that took off like a gun
That fool was the terror of Highway 101

Mary Lou, poor girl, she pleaded and she begged him not to leave
She said “I’ve got a feeling if you ride tonight I’ll grieve”
But her tears were shed in vain and her every word was lost
In the rumble of an engine and the smoke from his exhaust

Then he took off like the Devil and there was fire in his eyes!! He
Said “I’ll go a thousand miles before the sun can rise.” But he hit a screamin’ diesel
That was California-bound”
And when they cleared the wreckage, all they found

Was his black denim trousers and motorcycle boots
And a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back
But they couldn’t find the ‘cicle that took off like a gun
And they never found the terror of Highway 101

Blackboard Jungle (1955) is an urban melodrama about teachers and juvenile delinquents clashing in a New York City vocational high school in the 1950s. The movie is credited with popularizing rock & roll music nationally because the opening credits were shown with Bill Haley and the Comets playing “Rock Around the Clock,” a Hollywood first. (After the film’s release, “Rock Around the Clock” went to number one on Billboard’s Pop charts, where it remained for eight weeks.) The film’s introductory monologue stated: “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.”

The central focus of Blackboard Jungle is not on the delinquents, but on their teacher, Richard Dadier (played by Glenn Ford), a war vet who gets a job teaching in a tough inner-city school. Dadier is an idealist; he honestly believes he can make a difference with the kids. The narrative of the film is essentially a series of tests of Dadier’s dedication: 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.’ The story 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.

Dadier is faced with a problem class that includes wise guy black student Greg Miller (Sidney Poitier), calling him Chief; a repulsive gang leader Artie West (Vic Morrow), a surly career criminal type who sneers at the teacher and calls him “Daddy-O”; Puerto Rican class clown Morales (Rafael Campos); troublemaker Belazi (Dan Terranova), a member of West’s armed robbery gang; and an assortment of other juvenile delinquent types. He is called to save 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 smashes up the math teacher’s treasured collection of jazz records. We are told about the home environments of his students, but we do not see anything of them. But Dadier hangs in, fights off charges of racism, directs the school Christmas play, and almost loses it when he learns his wife received threatening letters from his students and she gives birth prematurely. Dadier also has to disarm switch-blade yielding West in a classroom outbreak in order to gain respect and control of the class.

Things get tied up in a nice neat knot as the cynical teacher learns the kids are human and can be taught, Poitier learns to believe in the system and remains in school for his senior year to pursue his talent in music, and Ford finally reaches the kids by showing them a movie and motivating them to use their imagination.

“Rock Around The Clock,” Bill Haley and His Comets (1955) https://youtu.be/aUgAxGaPXe4

One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock, rock
Five, six, seven o’clock, eight o’clock, rock
Nine, ten, eleven o’clock, twelve o’clock, rock
We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight

Put your glad rags on and join me, hon’
We’ll have some fun when the clock strikes one
We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight
We’re gonna rock, rock, rock, ’til broad daylight
We’re gonna rock, gonna rock, around the clock tonight

When the clock strikes two, three and four
If the band slows down we’ll yell for more
We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight
We’re gonna rock, rock, rock, ’til broad daylight
We’re gonna rock, gonna rock, around the clock tonight

When the chimes ring five, six and seven
We’ll be right in seventh heaven
We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight
We’re gonna rock, rock, rock, ’til broad daylight
We’re gonna rock, gonna rock, around the clock tonight

When it’s eight, nine, ten, eleven too
I’ll be goin’ strong and so will you
We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight
We’re gonna rock, rock, rock, ’til broad daylight
We’re gonna rock, gonna rock, around the clock tonight

When the clock strikes twelve, we’ll cool off then
Start a rockin’ round the clock again
We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight
We’re gonna rock, rock, rock, ’til broad daylight
We’re gonna rock, gonna rock, around the clock tonight

Rebel Without a Cause (1955) presents the maladjusted teenage issues in the context of middle class suburbia. The director, Nicholas Ray, wanted to focus on disillusionment and anger among teens from seemingly comfortable, stable homes. The central character Jim Stark (played by James Dean) is clearly middle-class and the setting is the stereotypical suburban subdivision.

In the opening scene, a police station in Los Angeles, the audience is introduced to Jim Stark, who has been arrested and taken to the juvenile division of a police station for “plain drunkenness.” At the station, Jim meets John “Plato” Crawford (Sal Mineo), who was brought in for killing a litter of puppies, and Judy (Natalie Wood), who was brought in for curfew violation. These adolescents are all from middle class homes, and the viewer quickly learns that their antisocial behavior is rooted in the failure of their parents to follow the middle class values extolled by television’s stereotypical suburban families.

According to Jim, his mother and grandmother ‘make mush out of him (his father)’, and the father doesn’t have the ‘guts’ to stand up to them. Meanwhile, Judy is the victim of her father’s confusing signals: Judy’s father is incapable of dealing with his daughter’s budding sexuality; 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 physically hits her) when she seeks affection from him. Plato, whose father abandoned the family when he was a toddler, is possibly the most disturbed of the three. His parents were divorced. Although he is supposed to live with his mother, she is rarely present, leaving him to be raised by the housekeeper. As the movie proceeds Plato latches on to Jim as a father figure, while Judy needs a mate with whom she can express feelings once reserved for her father

The film’s primary focus is on the difficulties between Jim and his parents, who do not assume the proper gender role models for the 1950s. Jim’s father (Jim Backus) is dominated by both his wife and his mother, who lives with the family. Jim’s father is seen as emasculated, “mealy-mouthed, wishy-washy, self-deprecating parent.” In one scene, the father is wearing a frilly domestic apron over his business suit. Thus, there is no father who knows best available to Jim, although he does have the guidance of the juvenile officer, Ray, who seems to understand the problems confronting the teens. Ray represents the therapeutic state, which seeks to help individuals adjust to society.

Jim does have a problem being accepted on his first day of school in a new town. In order to initiate the new kid at school, Buzz, the leader of a gang at the high school, slashes a tire on Jim’s car. The argument at school turns into a knife fight won by Jim. After losing the knife fight, Buzz challenges Jim to a “chickie run” to regain his honor. Confronted by a gang who challenged his manhood by calling him “chicken,” Jim turns for advice to his father, who is shown at home wearing an apron and preparing a meal for his wife. His father was no help at all, which left Jim to his own devices. He decides that he has to accept the challenge.

During a “chickie” run, two drivers use stolen cars for a drag race at a nearby seaside cliff. They drive the cars at full speed toward the cliff, and the first one to bailout of the car is the “chickie.” That night Buzz plunges to his death when the strap on his jacket sleeve becomes entangled with his door-latch lever, preventing him from exiting the car in time. As police approach, Buzz’s gang flees, leaving Judy behind, but Jim patiently persuades her to leave with him and Plato. The rest of the movie deals with Jim, Judy and Plato trying to deal with the consequences of the “chickie run.”

Fearing that Jim will squeal to the cops and in revenge for Buzz’s death, Buzz’s gang beat up Plato. Plato then arms himself with a gun for protection and joins Jim and Judy at a deserted mansion to which they have fled when they found their parents unsympathetic. Buzz’s gang finds the trio at the mansion. The frightened Plato shoots one of the gang and is, in turn, fatally shot by the police.

In the end, Ray and Jim have failed to rehabilitate Plato into the consensus values of 1950s society. But, it is still possible for Jim and Judy to be reintegrated into the community. As the film concludes, both Ray’s advice and Jim’s efforts to form his own family have finally captured the attention of Jim’s parents. After Plato’s body has been removed, Jim turns to his parents and says, “Mom, Dad, this is Judy.” Placing a protective arm around Judy, who has now found the proper subject for her affections, Jim leads her away. As Jim’s mother starts to protest, she is immediately silenced by a stern look from Jim’s dad. Reduced to her properly submissive gender role, she smiles at her husband, who also places a protective male arm around the shoulder of the woman he loves. Traditional gender roles have been reestablished, and all is well.

Rather than a rebel seeking to confront the system, Jim is in reality a conformist desiring to embrace traditional social values. He wants to be accepted, to see his parents find their traditional roles, and to find a proper mate so that he may begin his family and establish his own place within the affluent society. Eschewing any type of rock music background, the film teaches that the system works and that, indeed, there is no cause for rebellion. 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. The theme of the film is that delinquency is essentially a consequence of the dysfunction of the family – and, more specifically, of the parents.

Censors in Memphis, Tennessee, banned “Blackboard Jungle” for its violence; others, including New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther, the Girl Scouts, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, denounced the film. “Rebel without a Cause” also generated a negative reaction in various quarters, such as the Chicago police, who ordered some scenes to be cut from the film and the city of Milwaukee, which banned the film. “To the majority of Americans, confronted with news of gang wars, Elvis, and drag racing, there were only two kinds of kids: the good ones and the bad ones,” Richard Staehling recounts, with some hyperbole. “The same stereotypes emerged in films, only in exaggerated form. The wild-youth-kid stereotype was of a bum who rode around in his hot rod, half-crazed from drugs and liquor looking for a chick to [fool around with], a store to rob, or another car to drag; discourteous, greasy, irresponsible, and mean. In short, he was un-American and nobody’s kid.”

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: “Teenage Crime Wave,” “Teenage Thunder,” “Teenage Rebel” and “Teenage Doll” all appeared within a year or two of the films. 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.

James Dean died in a car crash on Sept. 30, 1955, four weeks before the premiere of Rebel Without a Cause. His death ensured the film’s commercial success and merged him forever in the popular eye with the movies’ most beautiful, brooding rebel. Phil Ochs’ song “James Dean of Indiana” (1970) is a devastating, masterfully told tribute to James Dean, Ochs’s ultimate movie hero. Ochs paints the rise and fall of Dean – “he played a boy without a home, torn with no tomorrow” – through the eyes of an adoring fan, in the final stanza revealed to be Ochs himself. Drawing subtle parallels between Dean’s rise to fame and his own, Ochs questions the psychological toll of stardom and the cult of personality surrounding dead celebrities. https://youtu.be/nhkdJkRZgz8

It was on an Indiana farm in the middle of the country
Growin’ in the fields of grain, Jim Dean of Indiana
His mother died when he was a boy, his father was a stranger
Marcus Winslow took him in, nobody seemed to want him
The hired man sang like a storm, sometimes he’d beat him
‘Cause he would never do the chores, he was lost in dreaming
He never seemed to find a play with the flatlands and the farmers
So he had to leave one day, he said to be an actor
Once he’d come back to the farm with starlets from the stages
They locked themselves inside his room, the people turned their faces
A neighbor ran from the movie house, chickens they were scattered
He swore he saw upon the screen, Jim Dean of Indiana
He played a boy without a home, torn with no tomorrow
Reaching out to touch someone, a stranger in the shadow
The Winslows left for the movie town, they drove across the country
They hoped that he would stay around and they hoped he would be friendly
He talked to them for half an hour but he was busy racing
He left for the Grapevine Road, they left for Indiana
Then Marcus heard on the radio that a movie star was dying
He turned the tuner way down low, so Ortense could go on sleeping
It was not until they reached the farm where the hired man was waiting
The wind rushed silent through the grain, it was just as they had told him
They buried him just down the road, a mile from the farm house
That is where I placed a flower for Jim Dean of Indiana.