by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Charles and I also screened the film College Confidential, one I’d been curious about since I’d caught a bit of it on TCM one Friday night and an unlikely movie produced and directed by Albert Zugsmith, who in cooperation with great directors had made marvelous films at Universal-International like Written on the Wind, The Tarnished Angels and Touch of Evil. Alas, shortly after that Zugsmith decided that he didn’t need people like Douglas Sirk or Orson Welles and he could direct his productions himself — resulting in High School Confidential, a movie I haven’t seen since the 1970’s but which I recall as a slovenly production whose only saving graces were exciting sequences of Jerry Lee Lewis performing the title song at the beginning and end of the film.
College Confidential was marketed as a follow-up, since it had a similar teen-exploitation theme and shared at least one major star (if you could call her that) with its prep predecessor: Mamie Van Doren. She plays Sally Blake, daughter of Ted (Elisha Cook, Jr.) and Edna (Pamela — Mrs. James — Mason), who in the opening scene gets let out of one of the big-finned cars popular in 1960, when this film was made, at 2:45 a.m. after a wild night of parking and petting (and it’s a measure of how dated this film is that those are the words used in the script by Irving Shulman, adapted from an “original” story by, you guessed it, Albert Zugsmith himself) with her boyfriend. To avoid getting him pinned with the blame, she lies and says she spent the night with Professor Steve “Mac” MacInter (Steve Allen, top-billed and a co-producer of the film), a sociologist at Collins College who’s doing a research project on teen attitudes towards morality, including but not limited to sexual morality. The professor is being sponsored by the head of the Collins sociology department, Henry Addison (Herbert Marshall — whose presence here puts Mamie Van Doren one degree of separation from Greta Garbo!), and is also engaged to Addison’s daughter — though she breaks off the engagement when she catches the professor in his office, with the door locked, with exchange student Gozo Lazlo (Ziva Rodann).
As utterly unlikely as it would seem that the sexual union of Elisha Cook, Jr. and Pamela Mason would wreak Mamie Van Doren on the world, the genetic unlikelihood of her putative parentage is actually one of the most entertaining things about this quirky movie, which for the most part achieves bad-movie brilliance and occasionally flirts with serious issues about sex, censorship and the pitfalls of traditional morality. Mac meets up with New York Times reporter Betty Duquesne (played by Allen’s real-life wife, Jayne Meadows, who occasionally shows signs of the power she brought to her marvelous portrayal of the villainess in The Lady in the Lake pre-Allen 13 years earlier), who received an anonymous letter alerting her to the student-professor sex going on at Collins under the guise of “sociological research,” and the crisis builds to a head when so many allegations are made against Mac that he’s actually put on trial by local magistrate Sam Grover (Mickey Shaughnessy) on charges of corrupting the morals of youth. In fact, that’s where the movie begins — with a courtroom (actually the main space of Grover’s general store, which is how he makes his living) filled to the brim with real-life reporters and columnists of the day, including Walter Winchell (on the downgrade as a journalist but soon to make a quirky comeback as the narrator on the TV series The Untouchables), Sheilah Graham (who puts Mamie Van Doren one degree of separation from F. Scott Fitzgerald!), Louis Sobol and Earl Wilson, all there to cover a case they’re comparing to the Scopes trial.
The hearing — a preliminary proceeding to determine if there’s enough evidence against Mac to refer to a grand jury, which will then consider an indictment and a subsequent trial in which Grover rather oddly calls a “real court” — turns out to be something of a fizzle even though we’ve already seen the event on which most of the charges are based, a party Mac gave at his beach house for the students involved in the survey in which he was supposed to serve them non-alcoholic punch and show them the movies he’d taken earlier of them at play at the local lake (“played” by Ray Corrigan’s Hollywood ranch), only somebody spiked the punch and spliced a porn movie at the end of the lakeshore footage. Though he’s not supposed to testify, Mac makes a speech in court about advancing knowledge and all the misunderstood scientists and researchers of generations past; he also confesses that he’s a recovering alcoholic — he’d done a previous research project among homeless people and, in order to gain their confidence, had drunk along with them until he was addicted — and in a “surprise” ending Charles guessed and I didn’t, it turns out that the whole thing was masterminded by Sam Grover, who wanted to start a controversy so all those famous people would come to town and launch his daughter Fay (Cathy Crosby) on a screen career — a career she doesn’t want because, as she whines, “All I want is to get married!”
College Confidential is a film very much of its time — though the U.S. remains as screwed up in its cultural response to sex now as it was then — and it’s variably acted: Mr. and Mrs. Allen actually bring real authority to their preposterous roles, Elisha Cook, Jr. (playing a legitimate departure from his usual small-time crook roles) takes the acting honors among the rest of the cast, and Mamie Van Doren acts credibly in some scenes but blows her believability by whining, moping or screaming through others (she was hardly in the same league as her role model, Marilyn Monroe, but she wasn’t totally untalented either); Conway Twitty sings a song and a much wimpier pop-rocker of the era, Randy Sparks, sings two songs — one of which quite obviously took its melody from “Down by the Riverside,” presumably Zugsmith exploiting something that was already in the public domain, which led me to joke to Charles, “I liked it better with the original lyrics” — plus a reprise (the fact that the less talented musician gets more screen time is typical of the way Zugsmith’s self-directed projects consistently wasted the talents attached to them); and the lakeshore footage at least allows both cheesecake and beefcake fans some glimpses of nubile young flesh (though the males are wearing the loose-fitting shorts of the day and therefore you get little or nothing in the basket department).
It’s a movie that probably had more potential than was realized — it’s clear from Irving Shulman’s clunky writing why Nicholas Ray fired him from Rebel Without a Cause and replaced him with Stewart Stern! — and even within the strictures of the Production Code and the prevailing mores c. 1960 could have made some statements about academic and sexual freedom and been a lot more interesting than it was, but it’s still a nice, engaging bit of good clean dirty fun — though the funniest line of the film is an “in” joke: when Sally Blake, played by Mamie Van Doren, takes the witness stand Walter Winchell describes her as “a Mamie Van Doren type”!