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Today, teenagers constitute a significant part of the film and cinema audience. The emergence of teens as the film’s target audience began in mid-20th century along with the post-war restructuration of Hollywood (Doherty 2010, p. 1) and other effects of World War II. To attract teenagers to the cinemas and drive-ins, the filmmakers opted to explore different genres and plots that would interest teens, as well as to represent the various aspects and problems of teens’ lives in their films (Jerslev 2008, p. 183). One of the features that many of the 1950s teenpics have in common is the main character’s troubled portrayal. In order to explore the notion of troubled teens in 1950s teenpics, I chose to focus on two films: The Wild one (1953) and I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957).
The American movie industry before the 1950s aimed to target a broad audience, such as families (Doherty 2010, p. 2). However, in the next two decades, the focus shifted to targeting teenagers instead and to producing movies that would capture the minds of teen audiences, even if they were not suitable for other viewers. This drastic switch was brought by the change to the studio system and the rise of television, Doherty (2010) says: “Since the 1950s, moviemakers have been forced to narrow their focus and attract the one group with the requisite income, leisure, and gregariousness to sustain a theatrical business” (p. 2). It was preferable for most families to stay at home and watch television instead of going out to a theatre.
Among other reasons for the sudden decline of the movie industry were the demographic changes and urban transformations brought by World War II. Whereas before the war, young couples constituted a vast part of the movie theatre audience, the fact that a lot of young men did not return from war had an adverse effect on the demand for movie theatres and romance films in particular. Suburbanization of the cities caused many families to relocate to the suburban areas with few movie theatres available (Jerslev 2008, p. 184). There was an option to increase the number of theatres in the suburban areas, but this required a major investment, whereas teenage audiences popularized a cheaper type of theatres: drive-ins (Doherty 2010, p. 92). Drive-ins were not that popular among adults, but teens quickly became appreciative of the idea and by 1959, drive-ins were just as popular as traditional theatres, particularly due to their low cost and privacy: “Suburban parents found that a night out with the kids wasn’t much of a night out, but for ‘the postpubescent set’ the privacy of a drive-in seating held tantalizing possibilities” (Doherty 2010, p. 92). Overall, the juvenilisation of the film audience offered many new opportunities for the filmmakers, both in terms of plots and genres and in terms of distribution channels. Attracting teen audiences allowed for the survival of the entire film industry during the time of severe competition with modern television and substantial demographic changes.
As the teenpics began to dominate the American film industry, the typical romantic or heroic portraits of main characters were substituted for the images of charismatic yet troubled youths: “The anomic screen teens […] expressed the rituals of personal risk (the chickie run in Rebel Without a Cause) and lawlessness (the crimes against property and person in The Blackboard Jungle), a fundamental rejection of adult American society” (Lewis 2005, p. 152). The teens on the screen represented everything that the new American teenagers were aiming to achieve – freedom, attractiveness, and fun. Lewis (2005) also argues that the violence and rebellious attitudes had a lot to do with the teens’ rejection of the adult population and the old order: “Young people’s tendency to form exclusive communities (gangs, clubs, cliques) […] revealed a disillusionment with an adult society that had failed to provide a community big enough, inviting enough to include them” (p. 152). The alienation, therefore, is also a major theme of many teenpics of the time: the characters are left to deal with their problems on their own with no help or guidance from parents of mentors. Contemporary teens could relate to this image well: whereas adults aimed to re-build their pre-war lives, teenagers had no indication of where to go or what to do with their lives. They were left with a goal to form a new society with modern values that would recognize the implications of the war but not perceive them as obstacles to the future development of the society. Both The Wild One (1953) and I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) explore the themes of alienation, lawlessness, and troubled teens and represent two distinct examples of teen-oriented films.
The Wild One (1953)
The Wild One is a 1953 Hollywood film starring Marlon Brando as Johny Starbler, a biker gang member who comes to a small town and develops a romantic attraction to Kathie, a quiet yet smart girl working in a local café. The film was directed by Laslo Benedek, who also directed Death of a Salesman (1951). The casting of the popular actor Marlon Brando for the main part has created a major hype around the movie prior to its release: “escaping a hubbub of fast motorcycling, cars crashing, mob fighting and shouting, Brando decelerates the mood, insolent and sportive, his eyes at once evasive and penetrating” (O’Donoghue 2007, para. 4). According to O’Donoghue (2007), it is the clash between Brando’s mannerisms and the film’s ostensible purpose to explore the notion of moral responsibility that creates an impression of The Wild One being a “transposed Western” (para. 6). Based on The Cyclists’ Raid, a story of bikers brutalizing the town of Hollister, California, the film continued the tradition of depicting violence and delinquency that had started in the 1930s (Simmons 2008, pp. 381-382).
The initial script was censored out of production; however, minor modifications to the script allowed to begin filming and to show the movie to a broad audience (Simmons 2008, p. 384). Despite the alterations, however, the film received a lot of criticism for its extensive depiction of violence (Simmons 2008, p. 384). At the centre of the critique was the film’s “ugly, debauched and frightening view of a … menacing element of modern youth” (Simmons 2008, p. 384). Many people felt as though the film would only be approved by the outlaw juveniles that would see their reflection in the main character (Simmons 2008, p. 34). Moreover, the distribution of the film to foreign countries was questionable due to the controversial representation of American values in the film: “Images of slums, poverty, greed, and racism did little to foster respect for America abroad. Teenage violence was even worse” (Simmons 2008, p. 35). However, behind the seemingly strong focus on violence and crime was the exploration of themes that were familiar and relatable to the teen audience of the 1950s, such as alienation and rebellion.
Despite being a member of a biker gang, the main character is distinguished right from the start. The movie begins with his voice-over, which clearly states that this is his story, not the story of the gang or the events that occurred in town. For the duration of the story, Johny is distinguished from the rest of the gang, not because he is a leader but rather because he does not fit with other bikers. For example, he is reluctant to break Chino out of jail until his friends convince him to do so. This scene makes it evident that Johny loves the biker lifestyle, but he is not that much of an outlaw in his heart as other bikers are. This is clear from his relationship with Kathie, who tries to understand him and who sees a different side to him. For instance, even though Johny and Kathie had a couple of pleasant interactions at the beginning of the movie, there is a scene in the bar where Johny speaks to Kathie’s father and deliberately acts rude, later telling the girl that he does not like cops. This is both an act of rebellion and an act of deliberate alienation: throughout the movie, Johny tries to push Kathie away in order to maintain his tough biker image. Despite having an opportunity to stay in town, he leaves Kathie in the end, continuing his journey with the rest of the gang, thus choosing loneliness and rebellious lifestyle over a quiet suburban life – a notion familiar to many American teens of the 1950s.
I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)
I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) is an exploitation film starring Michael Landon and directed by Gene Fowler Jr. The film became the most successful title of the production company American International Pictures (AIP) and generated an impressive box office of 2 million dollars (Doherty 2010, p. 131). Merging the genres of teenpic and horror film, I Was a Teenage Werewolf became one of the most prominent low-budget teenpics released in the late 1950s (Davis 2006, p. 55). As Doherty (2010) claims, I Was a Teenage Werewolf “owes most success to its title, timing, and perfectly executed exploitation campaign” (p. 132). More importantly, however, it offered an insight into the lives of teens and built awareness about the teenage subculture and tastes in the general audience (Doherty 2010, p. 132). The plot follows the story of a high school outcast Tony, who exhibits various behavioural problems and is transformed into a werewolf by a local psychologist’s experimental serum. In three transformations, Tony kills four people, including two school students and later the psychologist and his assistant. While still in the werewolf form, he is shot to death by the police.
I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) explores similar themes to The Wild Ones (1953), although, perhaps, not as explicitly. Focused rather on the action and the horror than on character exploration and development, the film aims to show the inside of the teenagers’ world and to address various age-specific issues, alienation and rebellion being among them.
The opening scene shows him being beaten up by a fellow student. Later on, it is revealed that Tony was the one who initiated the incident and that it was not the first time he had a fight with someone at school. However, despite his violent demeanour, throughout the film, Tony is depicted as a victim rather than as an offender. He is turned into a werewolf against his will, he is abandoned by his girlfriend, and his schoolmates only pay attention to him when he starts a fight. He is the definition of a troubled teen, which is why his image is somewhat relatable for the teenage audience.
Mistrust towards authority is one of the instances of rebellion that are shown in the movie, as a respected psychologist working with the police turns out to be a mad scientist running secret tests on his patients. The police itself is hardly helping the main character when he struggles to regain some self-control and to confront the scientist about the experiments. Due to the character’s loneliness, the resolution of the film is abrupt and tragic, even though the central villain is punished by death. A hot-headed teen falls victim to the system’s failure, which supports the urge for rebellion and change in the teen audience.
In spite of the differences in plot and setting, both stories answer to the needs of the teen population of the 1950s. Both titles explore the notions of alienation and authority struggle, which are familiar to the audience, and create an attractive picture to ensure the substantial interest. The structure and themes of both films target the teens specifically, with much less regard for other audiences, like families or older adults. This is justified by the sociocultural context of the 1950s, when the aftermath of World War II left teenagers as the most profitable target audience for the mass film industry.
Davis, H H 2006, ‘I was a teenage classic: literary adaptation in turn-of-the-Millennium teen films’, The Journal of American Culture, vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 52-60.
Doherty, T 2010, Teenagers And Teenpics: Juvenilization Of American Movies, Temple University Press, Philadelphia.
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I was a teenage werewolf 1957, film, United States: American International Pictures.
Jerslev, A 2008, ‘Youth films: transforming genre, performing audiences’, in K Drotner & S Livingstone (eds), International Handbook of Children, Media and Culture, SAGE Publishing, California.
O’Donoghue, D 2007, ‘The Wild One’, Cinémathèque Annotations on Film, no. 45, Web.
Simmons, J 2008, ‘Violent youth: the censoring and public reception of The Wild One and The Blackboard Jungle’, Film History: An International Journal, vol. 20, no. 3, pp. 381-391.
The wild one 1953, film, United States: Columbia Pictures.