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Thursday, May 05, 2016

Where Was This In Cult-Mad 60/70's?

Took Years, But I Finally Found Touch Of Evil at Low End

Zugsmith Zooms as Welles Wilts

I had for long time challenged the notion that Touch Of Evil was "dumped" by Universal to bottom of double-bills, seeking instance where Orson Welles' last American-directed film got buried beneath other attractions. Finally came amusement pages from Steubenville, Ohio dated July, 1958, where Touch Of Evil rode unmistakable back seat to High School Confidential, both produced by Albert Zugsmith. It was the Paramount Theatre's call as to which would clinch ticket sales. Clearly, this showman saw High School Confidential as the drawing card. Had he talked to brother exhibs who had run both? It was certainly common practice then. Chances are he got word that Touch was a cluck, and Confidential was the one to bet on. Comparing the two in summer 1958 made for easy choice. High School Confidential had sex, drugs, rock and roll, and kinship to smash hit that was Blackboard Jungle two years before. Touch Of Evil had sex, drugs, and Charlton Heston. It wasn't, and isn't, near as much fun as High School Confidential. The Paramount's school-out crowd was teen-kid heavy. Suppose they stuck around for Touch Of Evil, or did usher staff get chance to dust seats and peel-off gum? Orson Welles had made clear an exploitative intent in memos to Zugsmith, but final analysis saw Zuggy with clearer instinct for trash and how best to package it.

Zugsmith and Welles hit it off, had in fact much in common, but like most OW ties with producers, this one would be broken. Could it have been the letter sent by Welles to a British film journal (picked up and re-printed by Variety) in which he excoriated Universal and supervisory staff? Or maybe Zugsmith simply ran out of patience, as had others like Desi Arnaz who tried to help Orson regain Hollywood footing. And proof, after all, was in the pudding, High School Confidential produced for a measly $550K, bringing back $606K in profit after score of $1.9 million in worldwide rentals. As all movies were generated for payoff purpose, I'd say High School Confidential hit bulls-eye of a market as it was in mid-'58, a peak year for juve embrace of delinquent drama, tacky monsters, and rock/roll of indiscriminate origin or merit. How could Zugsmith, then in his late-forties, connect as necessary to youth's culture? His High School Confidential "Dig-tionary" was one way, a two-color booklet Zuggy-compiled (well, he's credited, anyway) and made up of "over 100 hip-talk phrases" as heard in the film. 1,000 copies could be had by exhibitors for only $4.75! Could any have survived? ... because I'd sure like one.

High School Confidential came out on Blu-ray from Olive. It looks great, is in Cinemascope, and has camp and drug scares enough to whoop up any campus gather, if indeed, there are still such things. I remember when Reefer Madness was all the hipster rage, but that one got dull in a hurry, and it took toke-pass through the rows to rev up runs. So where was High School Confidential during all this? Did colleges run this purest fix of all? I just checked Twyman, Films Inc., Swank, and Audio-Brandon catalogues from the 70's and didn't see High School Confidential in any of them. MGM distributed Zugsmith's independently made feature in 1958, but Metro would not retain the negative. It would revert to Zuggy, who evidently put quietus on further circulation (I couldn't even find television availability for the US). What a bet Zugsmith missed (he lived to age 83 in 1993) by not spreading High School Confidential far/wide as a midnight revival or college staple. It could, and should, have beat Reefer Madness to a shag mat.

Just the title is a hook, let alone its glossary of wise-off phrases, some I'd like to retain ("Why don't you go play in traffic"), others better wiped from memory. The casting is all-star by measure cultists would apply, Russ Tamblyn insufferable up to point we realize he's undercover for vice-busters, though unmasking as a narc might cost his character votes among present-day iconoclasts (and who'd look at High School Confidential except ones at least pretending to that?). John Drew Barrymore, before his own wig-out and desert wanderings, is quite good as junior exec of dope dealers, his recite in hip terms of the Columbus voyage a highlight to play in tandem with Dad's Richard III speech from The Show Of Shows. Anyone tried such a pairing? It would make a nice ten minutes. I shouldn't be surprised to see Jackie Coogan again excellent. What is unexpected is fact he never got applause enough for how good he always was. Round out with Mamie Van Doren, Lyle Talbot, Ray Anthony, and Jerry Lee Lewis, and you have a thing irresistible.


Blogger MikeD said...

Why didn't Russ Tamblyn have a bigger career? Or maybe he did and I just missed it. I remember seeing him in 'Tom Thumb' and 'How the West Was Won' way back when at the movies and now he shows up on TCM in big films like 'Cimarron'. And of course there's 'West Side Story' and '7 Brides'. But it seems to me he kind of disappeared while still young until he showed up in 'Twin Peaks. I did read an old interview with him once where he said someone (his agent?) told him that if he went off to make 'The Long Ships', it would ruin his career. That couldn't be it, could it? Was it the crumbling of the studio system? Just another "what happened" mystery to me, like George Peppard and, as you mentioned a couple of months ago, Rod Taylor.

8:28 AM  
Blogger john k said...

I'd say Russ had quiet a career.
Apart from Jack Arnold he was directed by such diverse talents as
Cecil B DeMille,Robert Wise,Anthony Mann,Joseph H Lewis,William Castle,Ishiro Honda,
Al Adamson,Fred Olen Ray,Neil Young and Quentin Tarantino.

Olive Films Blu Ray's of Zugsmith's THE BEAT GENERATION and THE BIG OPERATOR are
worth checking out;although both flawed they have great black & white 'scope and
once in a lifetime casts. Sure wish someone would write a book on Zugsmith.

10:06 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

I ran High School Confidential as a camp classic at some point, I'm pretty sure during my time booking at the University of Kansas or possibly the series I started later in Wichita. Probably the former though. It certainly could have been marketed more as a midnight movie sort of thing, as you say it's considerably more entertaining than many things that were (e.g., The Horror of Party Beach), but to be honest, a lot of the studio distributors weren't really that good at pitching their titles that way. It was more the province of smaller distributors such as New Line who, long before Tolkien or even Freddy Krueger, handled John Waters' films as well as one offs like Viva La Muerte.

12:43 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

My favorite Zugsmith time waster is CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER allegedly from, I thought, Thomas De Quincy, until I saw it and heard Vincent Price say, "Thomas De Quincy lived in London. I, Gilbert De Quincy, live in San Francisco." It was a rapid roller coaster ride straight down and never once coming up for air so bad it is really bad. He got more than he bargained for in Orson Welles who took pulp and transformed it into totally unappreciated gold. I love the way TOUCH OF EVIL electrifies an audience. It is a roller coaster ride straight up with every note played perfect. Now I have to get HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL just so I can post these ads around Toronto. This will be fun.

5:46 AM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

Can't review Tamblyn's career without mentioning the classic THE HAUNTING (1963), directed by Robert Wise.

8:30 AM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

The segment that seems to pop up a lot from this is Phillipa Fallon's 'Beat' poetry.

2:02 PM  
Blogger lmshah said...

Okay John, so on your recommendation, I pull out HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL and give it a look, and I can't say it has REEFER MADNESS beat in any way, shape, or form, and REEFER MADNESS is shorter. Russ Tamblyn is as annoying as he always is, Mamie Van Doren is inserted into this movie with a sledgehammer, not enough Jerry Lee Lewis. Old veterans Jackie Coogan, Lyle Talbot and Charles Halton (in his last role) come on and make their scenes work by sheer professionalism. John Drew Barrymore does do a good Elvis voice, but the Lord Buckley ripoff Christopher Columbus monologue eats up footage for no good reason. And I keep watching Jan Sterling as the schoolteacher knowing full-well she can tough-babe every other female in this thing out of the frame so why is she playing the goody-two-shoes? I keep hoping she will suddenly light-up a cigarette and slap the whiny pot-head rich girl Diane Jurgens and tell her to get a life.

It's not even that wacky a Zugsmith pic, it's like MGM making REEFER MADNESS, blandardization strikes again! One final irony, when I tossed the DVD onto the refile stack, it landed on the disc of GIGI that was also going back to the shelves, what an incongruous pairing I thought to myself, until realizing that they were both MGM moneymakers for 1958.


2:30 PM  
Blogger lmshah said...

Oh yeah, I also forgot the final film-buff irony, Charles Chaplin Jr. playing a cop trying to arrest Jackie Coogan, looks like THE KID went bad after-all, well, what do you expect after being raised by a tramp?


2:46 PM  

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