This post is a proud part of the 2nd annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Be sure to check out more entries in the blogathon devoted to the legendary Barrymore clan.
Albert Zugsmith, the prolific producer whose output ranges from exploitation quickies like Invasion U.S.A. (1952) and Sex Kittens Go to College (1960) to the classier likes of Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956) and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), moved from Universal to MGM in the late 50’s, and subsequently unleashed upon an unsuspecting world High School Confidential! (1958). Through the MGM gates Zugsmith brought the talented director Jack Arnold (The Creature from the Black Lagoon, It Came from Outer Space), who had just worked with him on the classic The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Though Confidential was ostensibly another rock ‘n’ roll-fueled juvenile delinquent picture post-Blackboard Jungle, it was also rooted in fact: the true life case of a narc named Texas Joe Foster whose work undercover in Texas high schools was recounted in Time and the Houston Chronicle in 1951. Screenwriter Robert Blees (Magnificent Obsession, The Black Scorpion), learning of the story, wrote a screenplay laden with hep cat beat lingo so dense that it might as well be Clockwork Orange Nadsat. So daunting is this dialogue that actor/writer Mel Welles, who appears in the film and is credited with contributing “special material” (two Beat monologues), compiled a “DIG-tionary” to promote the movie’s release. Reflecting Confidential‘s own fascination with the language of These Kids Today, in one of the film’s first scenes, high school teacher Mrs. Arlene Williams (Jan Sterling, Ace in the Hole) is teaching her class slang, the blackboard marked with words like “doll,” “square,” and “scram.” You might wonder why she’s teaching her class slang; it’s a bit like that old Monty Python sketch where the Italian teacher tries to step through basic Italian phrases to a classroom full of Italians. No answer is provided. Like much of the film, the absurdity should not be questioned. Just like the opening titles sequence, in which Jerry Lee Lewis pounds out “High School Confidential” on a piano on the back of a truck idling down the street while teenagers look on.
Russ Tamblyn, who had appeared in Peyton Place (1957) and Tom Thumb (1958), takes on the James Dean/Marlon Brando role of the tough new kid in town: Tony Baker, a Chicago high schooler transferring to California’s Santa Bella High, who speaks this film’s tongue-twisting language more adeptly than anyone else, and is therefore well positioned to be the new king of the “wheelers and dealers.” He quickly identifies the one he needs to usurp: J.I. Coleridge, played by John Drew Barrymore, son of John Barrymore. (High School Confidential boasts a couple other significant sons in its head-spinning cast: Charles Chaplin Jr. and William Wellman Jr.) In the film’s opening, Baker talks to a fellow student about his prospects for ruling the roost:
“So J.I.’s the top stud around here, huh?”
“You get in with the wheelers and dealers and you’ll be a top stud yourself.”
“I got news for you man, before this crummy day’s over, every crummy stud in this whole crummy school’s gonna know who Tony Baker is. You see, I don’t join them, man, they join me. Do you dig me?”
“I dig you.”
“Now I’m putting it down.”
“Well I’m picking it up.”
The first thing Baker does is walk into the principal’s office and bark, “Where’s the warden?” Then he says to the secretary, “I’m looking to graze on some grass.” When she says, “What?” he backs off and says, “Okay, chick, I guess I dialed the wrong number.” He then starts to smoke weed right there in the principal’s office. (Although dialogue later on suggests it was merely a cigar.) When he finally heads to class, he immediately hits on the teacher: “Why don’t we cut out and go to your pad and live it up?” Rebuffed, he decides to offer a critique on her attempt to teach slang. “You know you could be the most, but all that old style jive you’ve got written on the board is nowhere. Take it from this stud, will ya? That stuff is strictly for the tinners that live around the block. Like if I were to say to this kitten here, if I were to say, ‘Let’s blow this joint,’ or ‘Let’s hop in my camp and take off for the casbah…'”
J.I. is the most popular kid in school, such that when the teacher briefly leaves class, he takes over and teaches everyone about Christopher Columbus in a Mel Welles-scripted monologue that the class eats up. It would become one of John Drew Barrymore’s greatest scenes in an all too short-lived career.
“Columbus, why man he was the hippest! Now one swingin’ day when Chris was sittin’ on the beach goofin’, he dug that the world was round. And with this crazy idea stashed in his lid he swung over to the royal pad to cut up a few touches with a cool chick, Queen Isabella – who was a swinger! Bell took a long look at him and said, ‘Christy, what is this jazz you’re puttin’ down about our planet being round?’ She said, ‘Everybody’s hip that it’s square.’ ‘The only thing square about this world are the cats what live in it!'”
Clearly, Tony has his work cut out for him in toppling a beat Goliath like J.I. But it quickly becomes apparent that Tony is out to make a big drug score. He seems to be in the right spot, as Santa Bella’s high schoolers are just as obsessed with smoking joints and shooting up heroin as they are holding late night drag races. (In Confidential, it is a given that pot leads straight to heroin.) So while Tony tries to work his way up toward J.I.’s supplier, a mysterious “Mr. A,” at home he tries to dodge the advances of his sexpot Aunt Gwen (Mamie Van Doren, Teacher’s Pet). “You looking for excitement?” she purrs. At this point I should tell you that she isn’t really his aunt, but the screenplay obfuscates this fact to such an extent that, as the CONELRAD Adjacent blog has pointed out, even Van Doren and Tamblyn have expressed confusion over what exactly was going on in their scenes together.
Late in the film it’s revealed that, remarkably, Tony is actually an undercover narcotics agent working with the police to bust “Mr. A” – a jazz pianist and drug dealer played by Uncle Fester himself, Jackie Coogan. There have been almost no clues to point toward this revelation, but here we are, Tony’s not really Tony, and when Joan Staples shows up in his bedroom one night desperate to “blast” on marijuana, she catches him listening to a recorded conversation with Coogan. “Who’s Mr. A?” she asks, but she doesn’t really care, now reduced to a promiscuous junkie in her desperate dependency on that most addictive of drugs: Mary Jane. But to J.I. she lets slip that Tony’s been wearing a wire, and the noose tightens, leading to a ridiculous shootout at the beatnik jazz club where Mr. A presides. An epilogue ties everything up with a censor-pleasing (or -mocking) bow: Tony, Arlene, Gwen, and her husband (magically restored, and apparently taming Gwen’s rampant desires), all driving in a convertible down the street while a narrator reminds us that the dangers we’ve seen are real and alive in high schools today. Indeed, Jerry Lee Lewis, who brought us that rousing title number, seemed intent on proving those dangers lurking out there by marrying his 13-year-old cousin right before the film’s release, bringing on an extra layer of seedy to this censor-baiting morality play. As Van Doren insists to Tamblyn in the film, “Relatives should always kiss each other hello and goodbye. Polite-like.”