Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Adventures in Blu-ray: The Delinquents (1957)

“They try to tell us we’re too young…” That lyric from the classic Nat King Cole song has special resonance for young Scotty White (Tom Laughlin) …because the parents of his best girl, Janice Wilson (Rosemary Howard), have requested that he no longer date her.  It’s not that Scotty is an inappropriate suitor for Jan’s attentions—they just feel that a girl her age (she is sixteen, going on seventeen—as another song goes) shouldn’t be “going steady.”

Despondent, Scotty cracks under the strain of his teenage angst and goes on a three-state killing spree.  No, I’m just kidding about this—but he does hook up with a crew of young lawbreakers more than up to that particular task at his local drive-in.  Bill “Cholly” Charters (Peter Miller) and his gang step in to keep Scotty from taking a right pummeling from some other rough boys (even though Cholly’s pal Eddy [Richard Bakalyan] is responsible for the event that snowballed into the fracas), and a grateful Scotty allows Cholly to help him out with a bit of dating subterfuge: Cholly will masquerade as Jan’s new boyfriend, and pick her up at her home to take her to the movies.  Once they’re out of sight from her folks’ house, Scotty will take the baton from Cholly and continue the date portion of the evening.

Cholly snows Mr. and Mrs. Wilson (James Lantz, Lotus Corelli) with a yarn about working as an apprentice stockbroker (that reminds me: I should probably invest in hoodlum futures), and once he’s collected Jan, he persuades Scotty to attend a “party” that’s scheduled to be held at a seemingly abandoned house in the woodsy part of town.  Janice isn’t particularly wild about the idea…and her instincts prove right on the money: there’s drinking!  And dancing!  To raucous hopped-up jazz music!  Why…it’s almost as if this new crowd that’s adopted our young lovers are…delinquents!

Before he became the critically-acclaimed director of such films as MASH (1970), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), and Nashville (1975), Robert Altman held the megaphone on a low-budget teensploitation flick known as The Delinquents (1957), filmed in Altman’s hometown of Kansas City, MO (depending on the source, the budget ranged from $45,000 to $63,000).  Motion picture exhibitor Elmer Rhoden, Jr., president of the Commonwealth Theaters chain, wanted to reap some of that sweet, sweet drive-in cash and hired Bob (who had been making industrial films and docs locally for The Calvin Company) to tackle the project; Altman scouted locations, cast the film, and cranked out the screenplay (inspired by j.d. movie successes like The Wild One, Blackboard Jungle, and Rebel Without a Cause) in about a week.

Many of Delinquents’ actors were local Kansas City-ians of Altman’s acquaintance (his then-wife Lotus Corelli plays Mrs. Wilson, while their daughter Christine essays the role of Sissy, Scotty’s kid sister) but Bob and Elmer made a pilgrimage to The Golden State to find more practiced thespians who could play the three male leads.  Peter Miller, who portrays Cholly, had not only appeared in Blackboard and Rebel but had on his resume Forbidden Planet (1956) and Crime in the Streets (1956).  Character veteran Richard “Dick” Bakalyan (as Eddy) had his first important dramatic film turn in Delinquents; he would later appear in such films as Von Ryan’s Express (1965) and Chinatown (1975)…but he’s probably best known as “Cookie” in the Walt Disney Studios’ “Dexter Riley” trilogy: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969—though he’s called “Chillie” in this one), Now You See Him, Now You Don’t (1972), and The Strongest Man in the World (1975).  (Andrew “Grover” Leal humorously refers to Dick as Disney’s “Everyhench.”)  In addition, Bakalyan graces the cast of The Cool and the Crazy (1958), also produced by Rhoden, Jr. and directed by TDOY idol William Witney.

The star of The Delinquents (as Scotty) was Tom (Tommy) Laughlin—it was not, as previously reported, his feature film debut (Laughlin was also in These Wilder Years and Tea and Sympathy), but it served as an important launch pad for a motion picture career that would later be defined by the 1967 biker classic The Born Losers and cemented by 1971’s Billy Jack (Tom plays the same character in both movies), a film that has an inexplicable cult following.  (Laughlin’s Billy Jack is a man dedicated to teaching peace and non-violence by beating the stuffing out of anyone who looks at him cross-eyed.)  Billy Jack was such a monster box office hit that it led to a slate of follow-ups: The Trial of Billy Jack (1974), Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977), The Return of Billy Jack (1986), and Billy Jack at Waikiki (1990).  (Um…I think this last title may be incorrect; I may have it confused with a “Ma and Pa Kettle” vehicle.)  In later years, Altman might have regretted selecting Laughlin for his movie; the two repeatedly clashed during the making of Delinquents, with Bob memorably describing the star as “an unbelievable pain in the ass.”

Absent the problems with Laughlin, Altman’s film went smoothly: The Delinquents was put together in three weeks, and the finished project was picked up by United Artists (for $150,000) for distribution, ultimately earning a nice return of $1 million.  But Bob wouldn’t look upon his debut feature with fondness in later years; UA altered the ending and included some sappy Crime Does Not Pay-like narration at the movie’s conclusion, which the director didn’t find out about until he attended a preview of the movie.  Delinquents played mostly at drive-ins, but it did attract the notice of The Master of Suspense—who hired Altman to direct episodes of his TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (and that led to future assignments on boob tube classics like The Millionaire and Combat!).  Still, when London’s National Film Theatre put together a retrospective of Altman’s work in January of 2001, The Delinquents was noticeably absent (a program note stated that Altman preferred that it not be seen).

Is the movie terrible?  No, it isn’t—unless you have loftier expectations from a drive-in teen flick.  What’s very impressive about The Delinquents is the level of professionalism present in such a low-budgeter; Altman demonstrated with this debut that he was a talent to watch, even though devotees may be disappointed at the lack of a film signature…save for a free-wheeling party scene that previews Bob’s fondness for free-wheeling improvisation.  The acting may be amateurish at times (this tends to happen when you use amateurs) but the black-and-white photography is a standout (cinematographer Charles Paddock noted that Altman suggested he watch The Asphalt Jungle to emulate its style) and again, the overall product is quite polished.  (The music from KC’s own Julia Lee and the Bill Nolan Quintet Minus Two in the opening nightclub scene is first-rate, too.)

The Delinquents makes its Blu-ray/DVD debut today, courtesy of Olive Films—“a boutique theatrical and home entertainment distribution label” (according to the company) that has made many their releases available to this humble scrap of the blogosphere (thanks to Bradley Powell) to review from time to time.  Fans of Robert Altman (and believe me—there’s an army of them out there) will want to add this to their video shelf so that they can truly appreciate a major filmmaking talent learning his craft.

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