Rebel vs. Darling: The Power of the Teenage Movie and it’s impact on culture and the monetization of merchandise.

Paper by Lewis Mash.

With the United States coming out of World War II in the 1940’s, there was a change in social climate, an increase in leisure time, a soaring economy and a celebratory sentiment echoing through America and the Hollywood film industry that was strangely experiencing decreasing box office gross receipts with the emergence of Television. This made the industry fertile for new experimental genres and a more liberal playing field. Until the 1950’s there was a much-underrepresented culture, the teenage pop culture that was almost non-existent. I believe that my research will prove that the teenage movie not only documented the teenage lifestyle but also simultaneously shaped it and drove revenue to teenage products through placements and Hollywood would be forever changed by this thriving brand of cinema that has produced the Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010, 300.5 Million) and 21 Jump Street (2012, 138.4 million gross revenues ), according to www.filmsite.org. To prove this point I will look at and analyze 1950’s teenage culture and two pivotal films, Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and Gidget (1959).

“When World War II came to an end, a new Hollywood seemed all but inevitable. The nation was on the verge of drastic social changes that promised to to have a significant effect on the future if filmmaking and film going. (Lewis, pg 193) Prior to the 1950’s the teenage culture was caught in a limbo with very little representation in cinema and somewhat lacking identity. With the expectations to tow their weight after the war, most teenagers looked to their parents to model themselves after and leaned further away from individualism and more towards responsible individual spending. Teenagers got jobs in order to help out and have fun money but spent very little on clothing fashions and the term “teenager” was not coined until the advent of the teenage genre in the 1950’s. This left the average teenager to be, exactly that, average. There were films such as Our Gang and The Little Rascals to showcase the much cuter youth of the time and since most young people were regarded as adults in training and to take their rearing more responsible, cinema seemed to jump right over the formidable teenage years and straight into early 20’s life where most young people were already married and very much resembled mom and dad already. (onelastdancefom.wordpress.com)

As Janet Harbord states, “…caught within paradigms of social tradition and a discourse of radical futurism…at which old paradigms of taste are influenced by a new concern,” (Film Cultures, Harbord) plainly, this was a gold mine waiting to be tapped into and in the early 1950’s there was the emergence of the teenage film genre, both in Hollywood and Internationally, with a wind all of teenage themed movies including The Wild One (Marlon Brando, 1953, USA), Summer with Monika (1953, Harriet Anderson, Sweden) and then later, the second wind of Blackboard Jungle (1955, Glen Ford, USA), which culturally impacted Rock N’ Roll with it’s unprecedented inclusion of “Rock around the Clock,” soundtrack during the credits, by Bill Haley and His Comets, grossing 8.1 million at the box office (iMDB) and then Rebel Without a Cause (1955, James Dean, USA), grossing 4.5 million box office (iMDB).

There was clearly an audience and changing social climate as evidenced by these initial responses and proceeds but there was also the nagging questions of, how much would this new thriving teenage movie market impact the culture, how much would the culture impact the market and would the teenage market be a reflection of the culture, or a propaganda influence on teenage behavior? This was first addressed in 1955 when Italy and the United Kingdom refused to show the film before edits were made, citing that the movie would influence teenagers to be delinquents. (Wheeler, 155)

As early as the 1930’s, when movies like “Refer Madness” were released, the teenager, when represented, always seemed to certain recurring themes and these early films were not always positive but rather warnings and echoes of disastrous teens gone wrong. Wikipedia defines the teenage film genre in this way: Teen film is a film genre targeted at teenagers and young adults in which the plot is based upon the special interests of teenagers, such as coming of age, first love, rebellion, conflict with parents, teen angst or alienation. Often these normally serious subject matters are presented in a glossy, stereotyped or trivialized way. For legal reasons, many teenage characters are portrayed by young adults. Some teen films appeal to young males while others appeal to young females. Films in this genre are often set in high schools, or contain characters that are of high school age. Sexual themes are also common, as are crude forms of humor.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teen_film).

Much like Blackboard Jungle where a teacher must deal with a violent and unruly teen at an inner city high school, Rebel Without a Cause is about a misunderstood and troubled teen with seemingly loving parents who’s underlying dysfunction is evident in the behavior of their wayward son who gets in trouble wherever they move to. The film’s protagonist, Jim, we find immediately at the film open, drunk and disorderly, in the street, looking at a windup monkey toy. He is immediately confronted by the police who round him up and the movie takes us quickly into the police precinct, a place that Jim is no stranger to, where most good people would instantly get the sense that Jim is on the wrong path.

In this troubled environment Jim finds his two friends Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo). These are three teenagers in desperate need of each other, finding each other in an unlikely place where parents would be expected to tell their kids to not find their friends. A loaner, a lost girl and a gay neglected teen would form a bond through a rough turn of events that would be shaped by knife fights, bullying, a game of chicken that would end with one teenager dead and them at the end of the movie, with Jim and Judy falling in love, Plato would be the teen casualty sacrifice, gunned down by police outside of the Griffith Observatory, when he tried to make a run from police with an unloaded gun.

In these early formidable years of the teenage exploitation movie, we see a boom in teen fashion and a culture shift where teenagers are thriving forward into new waters as consumers who demand individuality and thus the genre and the culture seem to lend themselves to one another. It almost becomes unclear which is leading the other as the two almost seamlessly integrate but one thing that becomes clear is that the newly coined term, “teenager,” refers to a civil structure, a pyramid of popularity that could almost be deemed, “survival of the coolest.”

Suddenly the race was on. James Dean was slowly calculating his moves to jockey for position in his new high school with a tough crowd and to get the girl that he wanted, but had to take her away from the toughest guy in school. He was willing to say whatever, as when challenged to a “Chicken Run,” to which he replies, “It’s what I live for,” only to ask Plato, “what’s a chicken run?” Ice runs through his veins in the face of danger to prove to the group of tough kids that nothing would rattle him and his signature leather jacket would reinforce his tough loner image. This character would translate and drive millions of kids worldwide for generations to come to model this behavior and most importantly to consume this brand, from the signature hairstyle that became the most popular hairstyle of the 1950’s, to the red jacket, the leather jacket, the dangled cigarette that drove cigarette sales, the blue jeans rolled up, the white t-shirt, to the defiant resistance to unwanted authority figures.

What constituted, “being cool,” was now officially defined and the future of what would be central to the teenage experience would now forever be defined. The teenager was thawing out and a caveman no more. Rebel Without a Cause was hot in color to give the teenage viewer the full experience in vivid, bigger than life, color. I see this as fitting, because the teenage life was no longer a black and white existence. After Rebel without a Cause the teenage life was a fantasy of reality, full of color and oozing with life.

Over the next four years the teenage film would take over cinema, with teenagers making up the largest viewing audiences, because they were making their own money and jobs and had the extra time to go to movie theaters and the emergence of the drive-in theater made it a popular place to take a date and have the privacy to drink or make-out or have sex. This new consumer would drive Hollywood to keep supplying them with fresh new material that related to their age demographic and by 1959 there were 24 major teen movie releases, dozens of smaller releases and Television was now following suit to meet supply and demand to entertain this cash-cow.

In 1959, Columbia hit the jackpot with the release of Gidget starring Sandra Dee. This was a new, much more upbeat spin on teenage trouble. Unlike the middle class rejection of Jim in Rebel Without a Cause, or the inner city troubles of Gregory in Blackboard Jungle, Gidget is the middle class darling, who’s troubles are much more mundane on the surface, yet all to serious in reality. Gidget is a good girl, cute but also a Tom Boy who innocently walks wide-eyed into unlikely situations that could be chalked with problems and trouble, yet her positive outlook on life seems to always lead her through unscathed when good people always seem to step in just at the moment when she could be in real trouble to bail her out, instilling a message that good people are all around us and that the efforts of bad people will fall futile as good people, like angels, will watch over us.

On the surface it looks as though Gidget’s problems seem to be simple and almost laughable, compared to that of Jim in Rebel Without a Cause, but this movie actually comes as a reflection of middle class teen life and also relieves pressure from a stressful teen culture while serving us the chilling reminder that these teenage stresses of popularity and acceptance were driving a new suicide epidemic. In the 1950’s the male suicide rate for males skyrocketed to 21.2 suicide deaths per 100,000 residents and females rose to 5.6 suicide deaths. For males this number would not be topped until 1990 and for females would peak in 1970-1980 and would not be matched again until after 2010. The stress of this new drive for pop culture came at a cost.

With the arrival of Gidget we see a new system for teen branding and commercial branding. The surfer lifestyle is literally outlined and surfboard sales, the beach lifestyle and bathing suits would reach American homes thrusting beach vacation destinations into prominence like never before. New catch phrases and slangs would become integrated into teenage pop culture and though the filming is cheap and the acting substandard, the returns on these movies would be huge.

In Gidget we see a girl who is told that she cannot surf because that is a sport for boys. Gidget refuses to take no for an answer and determined to use her girl power to prove that she can hang with the boys. Gidget goes home and in a pivotal scene begs her parents for a new surfboard. The movie basically indoctrinates and teaches kids who do not work, how to get a larger allowance and how to get mom and dad to cave to your demands. This is Hollywood at it’s best. While audiences were arguing the impacts of negative behavior in character like Jim and Greg, the sly little Gidget goes under the radar and picks mom and dad’s pocket to the tune of billions over the next five decades. Gidget teaches the teens of the world how to work the parent controls to fill the cash tills of America’s department stores. The more the teens watch the movies, the more the Hollywood studios make them and the more that the audiences consume the products that they see, the more that retailers and manufacturers want to place the products in these films.

Over the next two decades there would almost seem to be a parallel world of teenage movies that stem from these two schools of thought. One, much darker, like Rebel Without a Cause and one group, an anti type, much more like Gidget, with brighter colors and decorated themes. In the 1960’s there would be movies like Splendor in the Grass and Easy Rider and then a slew of surf themed movies that are too numerous to name, including two Gidget spin-offs and a TV show adaptation.

In the 1970’s there would be much more of the same, The Lords of Flatbush and The Warriors and the anti themed Summer of ’42 and Freaky Friday. In the 1980’s there was The Outsiders, The Breakfast Club and the anti types like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Goonies.

In short, the Hollywood film industry would forever change with the advent of the teenage film genre, in the 1950’s, which would reflect and simultaneously drive the teenage pop culture lifestyle and still continues to do so. We can clearly trace this evolution to it’s apparent post world war II boom and draw some very important discoveries from these studies and perhaps gather insight into today’s pop culture when detailing trends and making important predictions about which new trends and products will become prominent from fashion to music, to food trends, to video games, to which social networks will become the new standard. Questions like why did Twitter skyrocket to it’s peak in 2013 at 33% of social media use, only to drop 24% in 2015? Or why did Facebook drop from 33% to 14% of teenage users in the same time period while Instagram went from 17% to 32% in that time range. There is much to be learned and these films offer much insight.

Citations

Books

Lewis, Jon. Amercian Film: A History. New York: Castle House, 2008. Print

Harbord, Janet. Film Cultures. London: Sage Publications, 2002. Web.

Dixon, Wheeler W., and Gwendolyn Audrey. Foster. A Short History of Film. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2008. Web.

Websites

Filmsite.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

“One Last Dance.” One Last Dance. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

“Gidget (1959).” IMDB. Amazon, n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

“Blackboard Jungle (1955).” IMDB. Amazon, n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

“Rebel Without a Cause (1955).” IMDB. Amazon, n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

“List of Teen Films.” Wikipedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

“How Teens Are Spending Money.” Business Insider. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

“Deaths by Suicide per 100,000 Resident Population in the United States from 1950 to 2014, by Gender.” Statistics.com. N.p., 2014. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

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