Sunday, April 27, 2008

Teenagers on Trial

There's an RKO Screenliner short from 1955 called Teenagers on Trial that shows up from time to time on TCM. Tomorrow would be a good day for it, since TCM are showing a bunch of movies from 1950-1960 about wild adolescents, but unfortunately it doesn't seem to be on the schedule. Unsurprisingly, it's also not on DVD.

The Blackboard Jungle is probably the best-known of the "troubled teen" movies airing on TCM on Monday, but it's not the one I'd like to recommend, as it's already available on DVD. Instead, I'd prefer to point out a movie you'll have to watch on TCM, because it's not out on DVD: Because They're Young.

Dick Clark stars as a history teacher in his first teaching job. As a young teacher, he cares about his students, perhaps a little too deeply; he has yet to develop the cynicism that the older, more experienced teachers at his school have. The students have varying degrees of troubles, from a girl who doesn't get along all that well with her sick mother, to a boy who finds out a disturbing secret about his mother, and another boy who falls afoul of the law. There's also a climactic knife fight between two of the students. Along the way, there's also a concert for Clark to host: having gained fame as the host of "American Bandstand" on TV, the producers probably cast him for his affability with the teenagers and included the musicians because Clark more than any producer would be likely to have a good idea of what sort of music the youngsters of America enjoyed.

The movie is OK, although Dick Clark isn't that good an actor. He tries hard enough, and because of his likeable nature from "Bandstand" (and what we now know of he similarly likeable nature as the longtime host of the "Pyramid" game show and presenting "New Year's Rockin' Eve" for many years), it's easy to find yourself wanting to like the guy. But he just doesn't have the range necessary to achieve the emotional depth his character needs. It also doesn't help that this is material that had been seen before in better movies like The Blackboard Jungle, and would be seen again in better movies like To Sir With Love. Still, Because They're Young is a worthy document, not only for the chance to see Dick Clark the actor, but also for the snapshot of American youth in 1960. In some ways, the problems of today are worse than those 50 years ago, but the fact that they had problems 50 years ago, and suggested the same "solutions" that are suggested today (if you get hold of a copy of Teenagers on Trial, you'll see that throwing gobs of money at the problem of overcrowded schools was suggested -- and how has that worked?) implies that perhaps we shouldn't get too exercised about the problems, or excoriate those who don't call for spending more money "for the children".

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