Explosive Generation, The (DVD Review)18 Apr, 2011 By: Mike Clark
Available via Amazon.com’s CreateSpace
Stars William Shatner, Patty McCormack, Lee Kinsolving, Billy Gray.
“Bud” is bothered — or at least confused — by hormones. An almost grown-up Patty McCormack has graduated from The Bad Seed to the kind that, at least potentially, can leave you “with child” (as it used to be termed in Pearl Buck novels). And the high-school teacher who protects student rights when it comes to talking about sex is played by … Bill Shatner?
Not to oversell the result of what is something between a ‘B’-movie and a “shaky A,” but, in truth, a drama that sounds as if it’s going to be pure exploitation along the lines of Teenage Doll or The Cool and the Crazy has to rank among the more prescient movies of its decade or at least the early part of it. When the usual array of uptight parents try to put the clamps down on free expression here, their children organize a protest — just as this exact same generation would just a few years down the road. It looks as if this movie’s setting is California, given all the beach time these kids put in, so maybe they all ended up going to Berkeley.
After doing a ton of TV dating back to the mid-1950s, Shatner scored his first big-screen role here as a teacher who steps right in it when he launches a unit in class about topics that are bugging his students: money, grades, the expected. Or so he thinks. Turns out that just hours earlier, there was a beach house overnighter that a couple of the girls (McCormack included) were pressured by their squeezes into hanging around for — when just an hour or so previously, they’d all been dancing innocently to an instrumental version of the Bobby Rydell hit "Swingin’ School." Nothing really happened beyond presumably not brushing their teeth before retiring, but there’s that nagging question: should the girls have “proven their love?”
Given this minefield, Shatner’s character would probably prefer to discuss baseball’s new ’61 expansion teams — but goes along with written and submitted (but unsigned) questions by the class. At this point, the parents take over, and what a crew they are. McCormack’s mom is PTA president and wears far more pearls around the house (I’d guess a hundred or so) than June Cleaver ever did. Dad begins his day by growling that he wants breakfast immediately because he has to be out on the links. The father with the beach house greets the morning with a drink in his hand and a vaguely “what me, worry?” attitude — but knows that supporting the other parents will be good for his used car business.
The school is full of familiar faces, even beyond McCormack’s. Billy Gray, who had recently wrapped up six seasons playing Bud on “Father Knows Best” is the car dealer’s son; wouldn’t it have been great seeming him ask TV dad Robert Young on that fabulous series for advice on the best brand of condoms? Cast as McCormack’s boyfriend (and future leader of the protests) is Lee Kinsolving, who had just played the doomed Jewish youth amid a WASP-ish Midwest in the screen version of William Inge’s play The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Look not all that hard, and you’ll spot Beau Bridges (his first feature — and only one until 1968’s For Love of Ivy) in the classroom. Also there is a passionate Shatner supporter played by Jan Norris, whose looks are familiar. The very same month Generation was released, she also played a classmate in the greatest high-school romance movie ever made: the Inge-Elia Kazan Splendor in the Grass. Even Ed Platt as a reasonable principal (four years before TV’s “Get Smart”) seems handpicked, given his past screen tenure as James Dean’s juvenile case officer in Rebel without a Cause. Reasonable or not, there’s still one scene where he asks the assistant principal to do his dirty work (some things have never changed).
As student protests go, this crew of rebels manages to come up with a fresh variation both in the school cafeteria and at a basketball game (no fair divulging). And I like it that they take over the school printing office to create their protest literature — an amazing thing to have seen on the screen in 1961. Little more than a month after Generation came out, I took a movie-palace trip downtown for a Thanksgiving weekend twofer at separate theaters: John Wayne in The Comancheros at one movie palace and Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii at another. This is who ruled the Hollywood roost at the time — the Duke and Elvis — and cheeky rabble-rousers just weren’t showing their faces on screen. There’s even one scene here where Kinsolving demands free discussion on any subject — even (pause here for a “Mother of God”) the Draft.
Generation goes a little soft at the end when the parents do the same, but the movie is fundamentally concerned about free speech — and not any real advocacy of a literal swingin’ school. Shatner gives a restrained and respectable performance, but it would take TV to put him on the map — not just “Star Trek” but the famous 1963 “Twilight Zone” episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” The actor’s next big-screen lead came in 1962’s The Intruder, another low-budget effort with more merit than expected, though a famously notorious one to Roger Corman’s accountants. For what I think was the only time of his career, the most famed of all exploitation producers tried to make a serious message picture (about racial bigotry) and paid the price. Generation had a bit of a box office hedge; beach house overnighters never hurt.