I was young when I first saw West Side Story (1961). I was captivated by the colors, the romance, and the choreography that so elegantly depicted the inner turmoil of the characters. As much as I was drawn to the doomed romance, as much as I tried to will a happier ending with each viewing, the thing that always stuck with me were the juvenile delinquents themselves, their untamed anger and resentment, their pure passion. They were misfits and so I loved them. As I grew up, I became casually aware, through Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and the James Dean infatuation required of my teenage years, that West Side Story was not a solitary case. Rather, it was a response to a larger social phenomena and a clear descendant of a genre of films made in the previous decade—the juvenile delinquent film.
During the 1950s, the juvenile delinquent became one of the most potent images of dissatisfaction and destruction. The era was filled with fear about what the juvenile delinquent meant and many films, in a bid for relevance, sought to tackle what was rapidly becoming one of the most pressing social issues. These films usually fell into one of two categories and had very different approaches to their subject matter. Big budget studio productions, which starred recognizable actors, took their subject matter very seriously, and saw it as their duty to educate the public on the growing threat of juvenile delinquency. Many of these films begin with an introduction that rolls onto the screen with the credits. In these introductions, the films assert that although the audience is watching a work of fiction, the problem of delinquency is real. They speak of juvenile delinquency as an “infection”, an illness or disease spreading rampant throughout American communities. The alarmist rhetoric of these introductions thus position the film as a piece of almost documentary-type social realism, a public service announcement made for the benefit of its audience, all adults. But for all their moralizing and hand-wringing about the state of the youth of the country, what these films failed to do was adequately express the ways in which institutions, previously believed to be unshakable, were failing the youth. Contrary to the random and seemingly senseless violence that the juvenile delinquents of these films enacted, the reality was that the things that the older generations had previously regarded with respect and loyalty, praise and veneration, were failing them and they knew it. They were able, in that prescient way that adolescence has, to see that the institutions that their parents had respected almost to their own dissolution, were false, and they acted accordingly. In contrast to this attempt to document, condemn, and restore order, the low-budget B films on the same subject were meant for one thing only—entertainment. These films were marketed towards the very teenagers they depicted and their sole aim was money. Youth was a new market to tap into. These films were usually made as part of a double feature, the purview of the drive-in, and other places of mid-century adolescence. Juvenile delinquent movies thus served a dual purpose as both entertainment and as warning and signify disparate concerns: the delinquent as social ill in contrast to the booming commercial value of the delinquent and the teenager within society.
In Blackboard Jungle (1955), a young and idealistic teacher named Richard Dadier, played by Glenn Ford, joins the staff of a high school where juvenile delinquency runs rampant to the point that the other teachers have become resigned to their apathy. The film opens on a schoolyard, ringed by a wrought-iron gate. Within the gates, the students, mostly boys, are seen rough-housing and dancing. There is a frenetic, manic, and uncontrollable energy to them. A woman walks by. She is blonde. Dressed in a blouse buttoned up to her neck and a skirt. The boys instantly notice her. She is beautiful. They push themselves into the gate, hands reaching out to her, whistling. Her pace quickens, her fear palpable. She seeks escape from the scrutiny, the threat. So begins a trend within the film—exposing the predatory behavior of the boys and their threat as one specifically aimed towards women. This continues in a later scene when a young female teacher is almost raped by a student and again when Dadier’s wife goes into early labor because one of the boys is sending her anonymous letters insinuating that her husband is having an affair. Within this film, women stand for the trappings of society, the morals, the structures that appear to keep everything in place. They are wives and mothers or they work, but only if they are young and unmarried. They symbolize the home, the family, stability, respectability, purity—the very things that were so venerated by mid-century America. If the juvenile delinquent poses a threat to them it means that, by extension, he is posing a threat to the morals and ideals ingrained in our society. The juvenile delinquent thus becomes an existential threat to the very fabric of mid-century life. They were striking out violently at the most deeply held beliefs and structures and had to be, within the confines of this film, restrained and altered back into respectable boys.
But this was an alarmist film based on an alarmist principle—that there was a new random and senseless violence of the youth that led students to attack teachers in alleyways and steal full delivery trucks. And thus, everyone was frightened—the juvenile delinquent appeared to pose a threat to all the notions that the older generations had grown up with. But more than that, I think many of these films signify a shift in culture as represented by the juvenile delinquent. The juvenile delinquent is emblematic of changing social values, shifting demographics and interests, as can be seen, for example, in their veneration of rock ‘n’ roll, a music that shocked their parents. Rock ‘n’ roll is the ultimate symbol of rebellion, it always has been and it was for the juvenile delinquents. They heralded the beginning of a new conception of adolescence—the first true teenagers. Previously, teenagers had just been thought of as children who were believed to be children until they were adults. There was no in-between stage where they were regarded as anything else. As the 1950s wore on, a new set of pastimes and media was directed solely at them, and the youth of the era was able to express themselves in myriad ways that had never been available to them up until that point. And because of that, they became repression completely discarded. Refusing to remain unheard, the frustrations of an uptight era were now let out in a resounding howl that, in turn, shaped the way we, today, view an entire era.