Sunday, October 8, 2017
HIGH SCHOOL CAESAR
High School Caesar - now streaming on The Film Detective's classic movie app as part of our "Juvie Jungle" collection - came at the tail end of Hollywood's fascination with juvenile delinquents. The JD trend was strong from 1955-1960; one could hardly enter a theater or drive-in without seeing a bunch of young hoods slouching around on the screen like cut rate James Deans. Though very few of the titles could be regarded as classic cinema, they certainly had a recognizable style and charm. But before we go into High School Caesar, a bit of retro movie history might be in order.
Within weeks of the release of Rebel Without A Cause (1955), schlockmeister "Jungle Sam" Katzman charged into the teen market with an energetic little flick called Teenage Crime Wave. Katzman always had an uncanny sense for picking trends, and other low budget movie producers usually followed his lead. Thus, with an encouraging nod from Katzman, a floodgate was opened for teen gangs, teen werewolves, teen cavemen, teen psychopaths, and teenage gun girls.
Many of the JD films were released by American International Pictures, the veritable chop shop of moviedom founded by lawyer Samuel Z. Arkoff and theater manager James H. Nicholson, but Allied Artists and Howco International were in the game, too. The titles were often better than the actual films. A few samples: Juvenile Jungle (1958); The Cool and the Crazy (1958); Reform School Girl (1957); Teenage Wolf-Pack (1957); The Cry-Baby Killer (1958); Teenage Thunder (1957); and the wonderfully named Lost, Lonely, and Vicious (1958). Who could resist?
The formula was simple. There would be plenty of dancing, a few fist fights, a drag race or two, and some ersatz rock 'n roll. No big stars were needed, because the trend was the star.
Still, the most obvious influence on the JD genre was the old Warner Bros. crime movie, as our tough delinquents usually came to a bad end and learned, as their gangster predecessors had learned, that crime doesn't pay. High School Caesar (1960) was an obvious callback to the Edward G. Robinson 1931 crime classic, Little Caesar. You can almost imagine the filmmaker's thought process: Let's remake Little Caesar but cast it with teenagers!
John Ashley stars as Matt Stevens, a rich brat who takes over his high school by employing some goons to intimidate his classmates. Matt doesn't throw many punches; he likes to be the brain behind the muscle. As the adverts shouted, he had "more rackets than Al Capone," everything from shaking kids down for protection money, to supplying test answers for a fee.
All goes well for Matt as he bullies his way to becoming class president. But when the other kids realize he ran a rival off the road and didn't take the blame for the boy's death, his little kingdom begins to crumble.
Ashley is fascinating as Matt. His hair is greased back and immaculate, a brilliantined cross between James Dean and Dracula. His speaking voice is just short of an Elvis Presley drawl, but he has the cocksure self-awareness of a Ford salesman. He wears clothes and jewelry like a fashion plate, and can dance at the local hangout like he's auditioning for American Bandstand. He's the whole package, the teen embodiment of Eisenhower-era swank served up for the drive-in crowd.
The unique twist is that Matt comes from a wealthy family. He's not some street hood; he has a maid and a butler, and a hot new car. He's a sensitive soul, too. When he fears his parents have forgotten him while they vacation in Europe, he falls on his bed and weeps. Even the coin he's constantly flipping, like a gangster, was a special coin that belonged to his dad, another symbol of the poor little rich boy who is alienated from his parents.
Compared to a lot of JD film villains, Matt gets off easy; instead of being shot by cops or dying in a highway crash, he's simply abandoned by his once loyal followers. Of course, when he's face to face with one of the good kids, he can't do much to defend himself. He takes a few punches to the mouth, and ends up crying alone in an empty parking lot. For a while, though, Matt seemed cunning enough to get away with murder.
Ashley (1934 -1997) went on to have a steady career in beach party movies and on television, and even served as an executive producer on such cult titles as The Big Doll House (1972) and Black Mama, White Mama (1973). As he matured he grew less interested in acting and began working behind the scenes, most notably as a producer of The A-Team, where his voice was often heard as the show's narrator.
In real life, Ashley was an Oklahoma boy who found his way into the movie business while vacationing in California. A buddy from Oklahoma State University brought him onto the set of a John Wayne movie, and it was Wayne who steered Ashley to a job in television. From his earliest days as an actor, Ashley leaned towards schlock. He once said, "This is a terrible thing to admit but maybe the key to my success with exploitation films is that I always LIKED those movies, and I never had any real reason to turn them down. I just enjoyed doing them."
His acting ledger wasn't entirely lowbrow; he gave a commendable performance in Martin Ritt's highly acclaimed Hud (1963), holding his own in a cast that included Paul Newman, Melvyn Douglas, and Patricia Neal.
High School Caesar was the second of three features by O. Dale Ireland, an independent filmmaker who also gave us Date Bait (1958) and Drag Strip Riot (1960). Ireland filmed it in his old home town of Chillicothe, Missouri during the spring of '59. It was quite an event when it premiered at Chillicothe's Bent Bolt Theater that September, setting a one day attendance record for that venue. The cast included a mixture of beginners and semi-professionals - many were local Chillicothe kids - but the real standout aside from Ashley is Daria Massey as Lita, Matt's long suffering female accomplice.
With her dark hair and eyes, plus a figure that seemed designed by rocket engineers, Massey could steal any scene she was in. Though the credits say "introducing Daria Massey", she'd been working as an actress and model for a decade, including a featured role in Sabu and the Magic Ring (1957) and was nearly at the end of her career by the time of High School Caesar. She'd pack it in after playing a sexy island babe on an episode of McHale's Navy in 1963.
High School Caesar also benefits from a rockin' soundtrack. The title song is performed by Reggie Perkins in a hiccuping rockabilly style, while Reggie Olson and Johnny Faire offer up tunes that are surprisingly cool, considering these were simply songs dreamed up for a quickie soundtrack.
By the way, the High School Caesar music score by Nicholas Carras, a boppin' hybrid of rock and jazz, can be heard on a fabulous 2-CD set called Juvenile Jive, put out by the Monstrous Music CD label in 2010. Carras' score for Date Bait is also included, as is Gerald Fried's jazzy score for High School Big Shot. Carras was a sort of low budget movie maestro, scoring dozens of drive-in gems, including Frankenstein's Daughter (1958) and The Astro Zombies (1968). Carras was given a producer's credit for High School Caesar, and had a much longer career than most of the cast; he worked up until 1991 when, at age 76, he scored Mission: Killfast for cult director Ted V. Mikels.
As for the J.D. movie genre, the trend was doomed to die of overexposure. Jerry Lewis was quick to parody the style in The Delicate Delinquent (1957), and by 1961, when delinquents were singing and dancing in West Side Story, it was evident to all that teen punks had lost their edge. But it sure was fun while it lasted.
Get a glimpse of the JD jungle by watching High School Caesar on thefilmdetective.tv. Our classic movie app is available on Roku, Amazon Fire TV, iOS, and Apple TV. We're also showing such teen gems as Girl Gang, Anatomy of a Psycho, and Teenage Strangler.