High School Confidential (Blu-ray Review)1 Sep, 2014 By: Mike Clark
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Stars Russ Tamblyn, Jan Sterling, John Barrymore Jr., Diane Jergens.
The same year that Russ Tamblyn headlined this once semi-notorious trash classic at MGM, he also had the title role in George Pal’s tom thumb at the same studio. This is what is known as diversifying your portfolio, and it wasn’t the only example. In 1958 as well, Leo the Lion & Co. went on a dilly of a fool’s errand by trying to revive the "Andy Hardy" series with the participation of Mickey Rooney himself, which probably didn’t do much to mute Louis B. Mayer’s Confidential-engendered screams from the grave once the neo-"Hardy" grosses came in later in the year. Apparently no such offended screams emanated from Rooney himself, who shortly thereafter went on to star in The Big Operator, Platinum High School and The Private Lives of Adam and Eve for Confidential producer Albert Zugsmith. And just to show you how convoluted all this was, Zugsmith (again, in the very same 1958) somehow produced two genuine masterpieces at Universal-International: Douglas Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil — though the latter, at the time, often played at the bottom half of double-bills, subservient to much lesser Universal releases of the day.
Now, back to Confidential, whose paperback novelization I owned at the time (I see it’s now bringing $75 on Amazon). This pot-inevitably-leads-to-heroin exposé howler often has enough going for it not to be one of those movies in which production trivia turns out to be far more interesting than what we see on screen — but get this. Just as the picture was going into release, one of its main selling points — Jerry Lee Lewis belting the title tune on a rally wagon in front of the title high school — hit a snag. Jerry Lee’s tenure as a national celebrity went down in flames by the revelation that he was married to his 13-year-old cousin. Perhaps this is why his Sun recording of “HSC” didn’t sell as well as his three immediately preceding all-timers — “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Great Balls of Fire” and “Breathless” — but it’s indisputably true that Jerry Lee’s sales and national TV gigs fell off the cliff beginning with this recording. Even so, nothing was going to keep me from buying a copy at age 10, in part because it had one of the era’s coolest 45 jackets: a large close-up blonde face shot of Lewis plus a horizontal co-star lineup in the back of said head of the movie’s principals — smiling and looking as if they’re getting along better than they do in the story.
This last issue is due to Tamblyn’s cheeky behavior as the new wannabe hotshot in school — flashing a wad of bills, cruising in his Caddy convertible and spouting hipster slang that was probably out of date by the time MGM released The Reluctant Debutante later that summer. The kingpin he wants to dethrone is played by John Barrymore Jr. — aka John Drew Barrymore, also the real-life father of Drew and son of who-do-you-think. JDB makes with the neo-lingo himself, which is a lot for their English teacher to endure (she’s Jan Sterling, in a ’50s respite from “been around” roles in The Big Carnival, The High and the Mighty and a couple prison dramas of widely varying merit). As with the teacher Dick Clark would soon play in Because They’re Young, Sterling wants to “reach” her students, who also include a daddy’s-little-girl played by Diane Jergens (she of the era’s most pronounced Olympic-sized-swimming-pool cheek dimples). Of course, in-denial daddy denies that his little baby is into reefer, which Barrymore and aspiring dealer Tamblyn are helping her to obtain, even though the cannabis is “stringing her out.” Meanwhile, Mamie Van Doren (she, as ever, of the tight blouse) plays the Tamblyn aunt who’s giving him room and board, and it’s best not to ask because I don’t understand it, either.
All of this is given more than adequately punchy CinemaScope framing by cult director Jack Arnold, who also did Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tarantula! (just out on a Region B Blu-ray), The Incredible Shrinking Man and (now, here’s a ringer) Bob Hope and Lana Turner in Bachelor in Paradise. What always keeps one watching is the patented gonzo casting one came to expect from Zugsmith, though this movie is a lot better than some of the really dreadful ones he produced. We get a pre-“Addams Family” Jackie Coogan, bandleader and brassy trumpeter extraordinaire Ray Anthony, a post-teenage-werewolf Michael Landon and Lyle Talbot in a step-up from his Ed Wood landmarks. Not here is Conway Twitty, whose only three acting roles (all for Zugsmith) came later.
This is a good party movie if your guests are in the spirit, and I have lent copies of it to friends over the years for evenings of camp revelry. I don’t think any of my buds had high school principals who’d have actually allowed Jerry Lee (and what used to be called his “Pumping Piano”) to deliver the title tune outside the school as the kids begin their day, which is what happens here. And certainly not mine, who was elderly and so skinny that he was universally called “Tojo” after the World War II Japanese prime minister (I later learned from much older alums that he’d carried this nickname even in the ’40s).
The principal here is played by wrinkled veteran actor Charles Halton in his final role, who more than holds his own with mouthy Tamblyn, have to say. There’s also a surprise ending with spoiler potential that’ll go undivulged here, though it’s no more or less ridiculous than the rest. What wasn’t a surprise — in fact, inevitable after this picture made money — is that Zugsmith not long after produced College Confidential, this one with Steve Allen, Jayne Meadows, Rocky Marciano and, by golly yes, Conway Twitty.