The juvenile delinquency film (1951-1959)

By Matt Martin
When World War 2 finally ended, Americans were ready to face a hope-filled future, which they thought meant vacations on the moon, teleportation, and nuclear-powered everything. No one had considered the rise of Rock’n’Roll, an endless cold war, and the domination of entertainment by a growing youth culture. From this grew a new kind of film for a new breed of teenager: the juvenile delinquency film.

Films about teenage lifestyles go back to the twenties. These early films were cautionary propaganda aimed at the increasingly worried working class parents. Usually, these were simplistic and direct, often in a fake documentary tone, aimed at drug scares (like Reefer Madness or Cocaine Fiends) and sex panic (like Sin in the Suburbs or Bad Girls go to Hell). However, it wasn’t until the fifties that these juvenile delinquency films (or as they are known to the kids, J.D. flicks) were marketed to the teenagers themselves.

To most Americans at the time, youth crime was an urban problem, safely locked away in larger inner cities far from growing suburbia. That all changed when a young, sneering, indifferent Marlon Brando led a vicious gang of bikers to destroy a small Midwestern town just for the hell of it in the 1954 film The Wild One. Suddenly juvenile delinquency could happen anywhere. Kids were fascinated, and parents were appalled, even terrified. In addition, as parents overreacted, their kids had new “bad boy” images to emulate.

While The Wild One got the ball rolling, it was Richard Brooks’ gritty, disturbing Blackboard Jungle that gave it speed. Portraying the collapse of an inner-city school from gang warfare and featuring Sidney Portier in one of his first roles, it faced constant public criticism and became one of the earliest films to be deemed “dangerous” with an all-too-familiar rallying cry: the film will actually cause crime. Many powerful figures of the time, including U.S. ambassador Clare Booth Luce, publicly fought to bury the film when it was accepted to the Cannes Film Festival. Of course, one of their main objections was the film’s use of the song “Rock Around the Clock” in the opening scene, making Blackboard Jungle the first film to ever contain Rock’n’Roll. Not surprisingly, it became a smash with young audiences everywhere, making MGM an unexpected massive profit and cementing in the major studio’s minds the rising importance of teen-marketed films – a trend that dominates the studio system today.

Then came the cultural mushroom cloud that was Rebel Without a Cause. It’s elements are legend: James Dean’s heartbreaking performance of a juvenile delinquent in the making; Nicholas Ray’s tight, almost theater-like direction; the surburban, conformist, wasteland setting; the condemnation of the collapsing American family. Moreover, it virtually created the classic car death-race known as “chicken”.
Teenagers embraced the film like gospel, copying it’s every detail, further blurring the line between media and culture. Even though James Dean would make only two more films before his untimely death, he would forever be one of cinema’s most well known personas because of Rebel. He would become the face of ‘50s disaffected youth.

Finally, the J.D. flicks had a rapt audience, and teenagers flocked to the literally hundreds of imitators that followed. Elvis Presley would soon embody the Southern version of the juvenile delinquent as a rockabilly criminal in the 1957 film Jailhouse Rock, further merging J.D. flicks and Rock’n’Roll. This, and other films, fed the growing youth discomfort, both reflecting and creating the discontent and fear they felt in post-war America. As fifties idealism became sixties radicalism, these very same teenagers would embrace the counterculture as an escape from the suburban doom and decay they saw on the screen.

Check out these other fun, violent, angst-ridden films that helped shape the rebellion of the Baby Boomers: High School Confidential, The Cool and the Crazy, Hot Rod Girl, High School Hellcats, Teenage Doll, Juvenile Jungle, and Ed Wood’s low-budget masterpieces, Jail Bait and The Violent Years. Have a blast, Daddy-O.

Matt Martin has written movie reviews for the St. Louis Post Dispatch and is co-owner of Black Lodge Video, located on the corner of Cooper and Evelyn. Black Lodge is the largest video store in the eastern US and is a faithful CYCA membership sponsor.

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