I’m a sucker for any film starring Tuesday Weld. Ditto any high school/teen angst/juvenile delinquent flick from the fifties and sixties. Toss in American radio and TV personality Dick Clark in his dramatic film debut and musical appearances by the “King of Twang” Duane Eddy and Because They’re Young (1960) becomes essential viewing.
The movie isn’t better known or mentioned in the same breath with the more famous teen flicks of its era like Blackboard Jungle (1955) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955) because it lacks the defiant attitudes and emotional intensity of those films. Nor is it as deliriously entertaining and over-the-top as Roger Corman’s Teenage Doll (1957) and Jack Arnold’s High School Confidential! (1958). Yet Because They’re Young has its good and bad points which I’ll present in the 0-100 rating system Dick Clark used for new 45 singles played on his “Rate-a-Record” segment of American Bandstand.
Opening Credits (Rating: 90)
Because They’re Young has a promising open with the introduction of Dick Clark (who gets a movie star closeup and headliner screen credit) as a high school teacher. We see him pulling up in his convertible in front of his new gig, Harrison High, with his young nephew in tow (we get the tragic backstory later). Then Eddy’s rousing instrumental version of the top forty theme song kicks in and for a moment, it sounds like we’re being prepped for an urban western as Eddy’s rendition conjures up memories of Shane and other “walk proud” frontier themes (You can hear a slower, ballad version by James Darren later in the film, but more about that in a minute). Visually, the open might not have the artistry of a Saul Bass title sequence but Eddy’s theme song is matchless and you can strut to it.
The cast credits that roll by are an encapsulation of fifties pop culture. Besides Clark, the popular host of ABC’s American Bandstand which began its national TV syndication in 1958, there’s Michael Callan (who won Golden Globe’s Most Promising Male Newcomer for this), Tuesday Weld, Roberta Shore, Doug McClure, Victoria Shaw, Warren Berlinger, James Darren and Bobby Rydell (who doesn’t appear but we hear his voice on the radio crooning “Swingin’ School”). On the production side is composer John Williams – yes, the John Williams of 52 Academy Award nominations and 5 Oscar wins (Fiddler on the Roof, Jaws, Star Wars, E.T., Schindler’s List) – director Paul Wendkos (who helmed three Gidget movies starting with the original 1959 Sandra Dee hit) and producer Jerry Bresler who is better known as a songwriter and composer, scoring best-selling songs like “Johnny Angel,” “Five Guys Named Moe,” and more.
After such auspicious beginnings, it’s an up and down ride to the end but consider The Plot (Rating: 50)
Despite the sensationalistic ad campaign and trailer, Because They’re Young is a candy ass version of Blackboard Jungle with Dick Clark as Neil Hendry, a more benign Glenn Ford. He’s a bright, idealistic teacher rebounding from a disastrous student teaching experience where he got too involved with the problem students and was dismissed as a result. We also learn he was once a star quarterback – yeah, right – whose promising football career was brought to an end by a car wreck that killed his brother and sister-in-law. Now he’s out to prove himself to a strictly by-the-rules principal and rival faculty members and win custody of his orphaned nephew at the same time.
Despite his breezy, confident manner, however, Neil is damaged goods and so are most of the students depicted in the film; their various subplots dovetail into a story arc connected by Clark’s concern and attempts to help them all. He’s the perennial do-gooder, treating his problem students more in the manner of a psychiatrist or social worker but when his own past is probed by the curious, he gets hostile and defensive. In one of his more dejected, manic-depressive moments, he says, “Golden boys get tarnished pretty quickly once they’re dented.” Yep, damaged goods.
Still, Neil’s problems are minor compared to say, Griff Rimer (Michael Callan), the school hoodlum who is being recruited for a local crime ring run by the neighborhood butcher out of his tiki lounge bachelor pad. Or Buddy McCalla (Warren Berlinger), who suffers from an inferiority complex made worse by an absent father and an alcoholic slattern of a mom (Linda Watkins). Or Anne Gregor (Tuesday Weld) who is struggling to be virtuous after transferring from another high school where her reputation was sullied after having sex with Griff. There is also Ricky (Roberta Shore), who is being pressured to give up her virginity by Jim (Doug McClure). Even Joan (Victoria Shaw), the principal’s cool, collected secretary who falls for Neil, has a deep, dark secret. You can count on each one of them getting their big confessional moment in this soap opera-like morality tale which feels strangely conservative and ends on an unconvincing happy note with all the loose ends tied up. It fails as drama but as a case study of fifties attitudes, it’s often fascinating.
Tuesday Weld (Rating: 85)
Easily one of the most underrated actresses of her generation, Weld was the rare sex kitten who projected intelligence, a sly wit coupled with a wicked sense of humor and a suggestion of a wild streak, qualities that were given free-rein in films such as Lord Love a Duck (1966) and Pretty Poison (1968). In Because They’re Young, she is saddled with a cliched role but lights up the screen every time she’s on it. The scene where Michael Callan forces his way into her house to have his way with her and how she handles it is testament to her excellent instincts as an actress. You can see why Stanley Kubrick once considered her for the role of Lolita even though she was too old for the part by the time the film was made.
Dick Clark (Rating: 50)
The art of becoming the perfect television host is not an easy one to master but Dick Clark has created a prototype that is hard to top. Relentlessly cheerful and energetic with a smooth, articulate style, Clark doesn’t appear to have an ounce of insincerity or cynicism in him. It’s quite possible that Dick Clark, the TV and radio host, is his greatest creation and performance. While his feature film debut in Because They’re Young is not an embarrassment, it’s not memorable in any way either. He is earnest at best and barely registers in scenes where he has to display a volatile emotion such as anger. Usually, the director wisely cuts away from Clark in moments like this or distracts the viewer by having the actor throw something. Always works. Actually, this film might have worked well in 3-D as most of the male characters occasionally explode and throw things.
The other negative is that Clark has no sexual chemistry with Victoria Shaw, which is crucial for their subplot of warming to each other and becoming intimate. Turn up the heat, it’s frosty in here! Clark would attempt another dramatic role after this – The Young Doctors (1961) – but mostly concentrated on hosting TV game shows and events such as yearly New Years’ Eve presentations live from NYC’s Times Square and the American Music Awards. Clark did have numerous guest star cameos in TV series as well and had one more major film role in 1968 as a backwoods criminal and explosives expert in Killers Three, which he also produced and co-wrote. Has anybody seen this? From all reports, his acting hadn’t improved substantially since Because They’re Young.
The Music (Rating: 65)
Besides the great opening instrumental by Duane Eddy, the guitarist also makes an on-screen appearance in the high school dance sequence. He is cleverly introduced as a pair of hands playing the guitar in closeup before the camera pulls back to reveal him and his band, the Rebel Rousers, launching into “Shazam!”, another huge hit for the group (which was co-written by Lee Hazlewood). Eddy was handsome enough to be a movie star and even tried his hand at acting in a few supporting roles such as A Thunder of Drums (1961), the biker flick The Savage Seven (1968) and Kona Coast (1968) as a character named Tiger Cat, but luckily stuck to a recording career and we’re glad he did.
Eddy’s performance of “Shazam” overcompensates for the other two musical selections which are lame bubblegum pop and includes the aforementioned “Swingin’ School” by Bobby Rydell, which is used over a very stilted montage of high school life at Harrison High and was a top 40 hit at the time. The other number is a vocal version of “Because They’re Young,” which is slowed down into a sappy whitebread ballad that will make you gag and yell at singer James Darren to go back to acting, which he did eventually. His cameo appearance is actually one of the creepier moments in the film because of the effect he has on the students. The dancing couples start to sway as if in a hypnotic trance while they listen to the insipid lyrics and become zombies before our eyes, projecting their future as middle-class suburbanites whose ideas of love, morality and role models were formed by movies like this.
Memorable Moments (Rating: 60)
The vignette-like structure of Because They’re Young would be a challenge for any director to pull off since there are far too many subplots for a standard teen exploitation film. Robert Altman in his post-M*A*S*H* years would have been the ideal director for this sort of thing but wouldn’t have bothered. At least Paul Wendkos brings some style to the unwieldy narrative and makes some unusual creative choices for the staging of certain scenes. For instance, in the brief scenes of Anne’s homelife we see her dejected, henpecked father but never the shrewish mother. Only her nagging voice is heard, making disparaging remarks about her husband and daughter, and it sounds very much like the hateful voice of Norman Bates’ mom from Psycho.
As for Michael Callan’s delinquent character Riff, his problems stem from his tightly wound father played by Philip Coolidge, one of Hollywood’s more sinister looking character actors. He’s particularly loathsome here and in I Want to Live! (1958) and William Castle’s The Tingler (1959). More peculiar, however, is Callan’s relationship with Chris (Rudy Bond), the grocery store butcher who lures him into an armed robbery scheme. Chris’s interest in the troubled lad is highly suspect from the get-go. Is he a substitute son? A potential moneymaker for his criminal activities? Or a gay crush? It all ends badly, of course, and for a while, the movie seems to be headed in a grim film noir denouement complete with a knife fight, stabbings, and a squad of armed police rushing around the dark halls of a deserted high school by night. Composer John Williams heightens the tension in these passages with conga drum cues.
Last but not least, there is something sordid and unhealthy in the scenes between Buddy and his pathetic mother. When he is finally confronted with her trampy behavior, he flees and has a semi-breakdown, even recoiling from his girlfriend Anne with, “Don’t touch me. You’ll get dirty just like me…just like my mother is…” Later Buddy’s mother has her own breakdown scene in front of Neil confessing her failure as a single mom and it’s one of the few scenes in which character actress Linda Watkins gets to unleash that distinctive raspy voice of hers.
Of course, the dialogue is frequently unintentionally funny with Clark spouting bits of wisdom like, “Look, we don’t love people because they’re perfect. If we did, you’d soon find out there’s nobody to love at all.” All of the above touches help make Because They’re Young more interesting now than it probably was during its original run and is one of the reasons I’ve devoted an entire post to a movie that is mediocre, instead of an established classic or neglected gem. Think of it as pop cultural anthropology. So, if you are at all interested in the late fifties/early sixties and the way people talked, thought and behaved within the context of a Hollywood movie about high school life, Because They’re Young is a great place to start. Sometimes you might be surprised at what you find.
Because They’re Young was unavailable on any format for many years until Sony Home Entertainment made it available as a DVD-R with no extras in May 2011. In June 2015 Mill Creek Entertainment released the film on DVD as part of their 55th Anniversary series.
Other links of interest: