Teen Films


The output of teen films into the early 1950s was rather meager, although America's fascination with juvenile delinquency (JD) never disappeared altogether. In 1949 two significant JD films began to renew interest in the cinematic subgenre: City Across the River intended to shock its audience by directly addressing the problem of teen crime, and Knock on Any Door further explored the connected elements of society that breed delinquency. Yet these films were tame compared to the ephebiphobia (fear of teenagers) that swept the country in the mid-1950s, in the midst of the appearance of rock 'n' roll music and the booming postwar economy.

The Wild One (1953), despite featuring characters past their teens, was the first in a torrent of JD films, which became ubiquitous by the end of the 1950s. In 1955 two of the most powerful JD films appeared: Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle . Rebel spoke about current teen tensions in sincere tones rather than didactic monologues, and, with the death of its star, James Dean (1931–1955), just days before its release, it had an automatically profound marketing campaign. The ensuing veneration of Dean as an icon of young coolness—and his performance as Jim Stark, which embodied that image—made the film an indelible symbol of youth in the agonizing process of self-discovery and the forging of identity. Blackboard Jungle used the more typical scenario of an inspiring teacher who tries to gain authority over his delinquent charges, although some of them are beyond reform. The film was significant not only for its use of rock music, but for its integration of nonwhite teens into the story, which enabled it to make a searing statement about uniting against tyranny.

Then followed a plethora of films that dealt with teenage delinquency and rebellion in alternately crazy and compassionate fashions. Few of these films, Teenage Rebel (1956), Untamed Youth (1957), Juvenile Jungle (1958), Riot in Juvenile Prison (1959), This Rebel Breed (1960), Wild Youth (1961) garnered even a fraction of the attention that Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle received, and they were for the most part formulaic. Most of these films served as fodder for drive-ins and movie theaters that had difficulty booking films from the major studios, and the main reason exhibitors continued screening them was to bring in the lucrative teen crowd.

One studio in particular, American International Pictures (AIP), was quite adept at attracting that crowd. AIP began in 1956 and soon capitalized on the JD craze ( Reform School Girl , 1957), and then the beach movie movement of the early 1960s ( Beach Party , 1963), as well as the youth protest films of the later 1960s ( Wild in the Streets , 1968). In many ways, AIP showed the larger studios that appealing to the young (especially male) crowd was the least risky of cinematic options, and studios have been following that logic to this day. Although this strategy may have worked financially, it yielded an abundance of artificial, fanatic, and often idiotic depictions of teenagers.

AIP can be given only so much credit for establishing specific subgenres of teen films, which were proliferating at many 1950s studios eager to address adolescent concerns in whatever way seemed to resonate with youth. There were by this point at least five styles of teen films that would persist into the 1960s. Hot-rod movies like Hot Rod Rumble (1957) or Joy Ride (1958) catered to teens' fantasies of speed and adventure. The rock movie, with music that was louder, more sexual, and more racially diverse than that of previous generations, also became a great vehicle for exploring teen rebellion. Examples included Rock, Rock, Rock (1956), Don't Knock the Rock (1956), Carnival Rock (1957), and Go, Johnny, Go! (1959). The teen beach movie essentially picked up where the rock movies left off, with an emphasis on music, partying, and sexual stimulation, as in Gidget (1959), Where the Boys Are (1960), Muscle Beach Party (1964), and Beach Blanket Bingo (1965). Horror films appealed to youth as well, likely because so many of them featured characters dealing with bodily changes, alienation, and anger, as in I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), Teenage Monster (1958), Bloodlust! (1961), The Crawling Hand (1963), and Teen-Age Strangler (1968).

The teen melodrama was a category of teen film that had very little coherence but a nonetheless distinct identity. These were films that took adolescent conditions seriously, rather than bundling them together with juvenile high jinx or fads. Tea and Sympathy (1956) was one such film, dealing implicitly with the subject of teenage homosexuality, of which a seventeen-year-old boy is "cured" by an understanding older woman. With Eighteen and Anxious (1957), Unwed Mother (1958), and Blue Denim (1959), the studios began addressing the controversial yet not uncommon problem of teen pregnancy. Teen melodramas became even more relevant as they became less repressed, taking on further adolescent conflicts: racism in Take a Giant Step (1959); sexism in Billie (1965); interracial dating in West Side Story (1961); sex education in The Explosive Generation (1961); mental health in Splendor in the Grass (1961) and David and Lisa (1962); sexual deviance in Peyton Place (1957), A Summer Place (1959), and Lolita (1962); and family problems in All Fall Down (1962), Take Her, She's Mine (1963), and Under Age (1964). Despite their earnest themes, however, most of these films did not (or could not) get at the deeper psychological and sexual issues affecting their characters, and often offered conservative and shallow solutions to their problems.

The sexual liberation that found its way to college campuses in the 1960s found its way to teen films soon thereafter, as in the devastating Last Summer (1969), a mature portrait of four teens whose repressed sexual tensions lead to assault and rape. The Last Picture Show (1971) also presented surprisingly sexual teens, in a 1950s setting no less, ruefully commenting on the American conditions of youth throughout the postwar era, during which sex often seemed an empty experience and marriage a simulated salvation. Ode to Billy Joe (1976) was one of the few teen films before the 1990s that explicitly addressed adolescent homosexuality, albeit in tragic terms. And in Rich Kids (1979), a boy and girl attempt to reconnect their broken families by acting out what they perceive to be adult activities, including intercourse.

Even as these films were telling teens that contemporary romance was nothing but trouble, a number of films were offering young men a more redemptive image of teen conditions in the past. Summer of '42 (1971) was a young male fantasy of sexual validation without lingering responsibility. American Graffiti (1973) enticed its audience to celebrate the supposed nostalgia of an era that was only eleven years earlier, before the fun of the 1950s faded into the cynicism of the 1960s. Grease (1978) also hearkened back to the 1950s, yet avoided confronting the teen troubles that were so prevalent in films from that era.

b. Marion, Indiana, 8 February 1931, d. 30 September 1955

James Dean's breakthrough came when, in his early twenties, he gave profound performances playing teenagers in East of Eden (1955) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Before he could thoroughly enjoy the fame these films brought him, his life was tragically cut short in a car accident. His final film, Giant (1956), had not yet been released. Dean's untimely death seemed to assure him everlasting status as a cult figure for youth.

Dean was born in Indiana but moved with his family to Los Angeles at the age of five. When his mother suddenly died four years later, he returned to the Midwest and lived with his aunt and uncle on their farm, returning to L.A. after high school in pursuit of an acting career. Taking the advice of one of his first teachers there, James Whitmore, he made his way to New York City, where he won praise on stage. In 1952 he was accepted into the prestigious Actors Studio, where he learned the Method approach for which he would become well known. As he moved through various plays on and off Broadway, he had occasional small (uncredited) parts in films like Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952) and appeared in television shows such as Studio One (1952–1953) and Danger (1953–1954). After a lauded appearance in the Broadway production of The Immoralist in 1954, Dean earned a screen test for East of Eden at Warner Bros., and then moved to Hollywood in early 1955 to work on Rebel .

Dean became the first performer in Hollywood history to earn a posthumous nomination for an Academy Award ® , as Best Actor in East of Eden ; the next year, he became the only performer ever to be nominated for a second posthumous Oscar ® , as Best Actor in Giant . Even though Dean had only three starring roles to his credit over this brief period, his image as an emotional, expressive, and tormented young man soon made him an icon of his era. Over the next generations, young male stars tried to emulate his cool tension, affecting his style and attitude. His legend would be further augmented by the dozens of biographies written about him and the many films made about his life. Indeed, there are more films about Dean than starring Dean, including The James Dean Story (1957), James Dean: The First American Teenager (1975), James Dean and Me (1995), and James Dean: Race With Destiny (1997)


East of Eden (1955), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Giant (1956)


Bast, William. James Dean: A Biography . New York: Ballantine, 1956.

Dalton, David. James Dean, the Mutant King: A Biography . San Francisco: Straight Arrow, 1974.

Howlett, John. James Dean: A Biography . New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975.

Riese, Randall. The Unabridged James Dean: His Life and Legacy from A to Z . New York: Wings/Random House, 1994.

Spoto, Donald. Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean . New York: Cooper Square, 2000.

Timothy Shary

While other films in the 1970s also resorted to nostalgic depictions of boys navigating manhood, such as Cooley High (1975) and The Wanderers (1979), films

James Dean.

about girls in the 1970s showed them as increasingly erratic and unstable as they ventured toward womanhood. The clearest manifestation of this trend was Carrie (1976), in which the title character uses her tele-kinetic skills ultimately to kill everyone around her before killing herself. The movie became a provocative warning about the latent power of girls living under oppressed conditions. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976) presented another homicidal girl, and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1977) endeavored to show the torment of a teenage girl in a mental hospital. Clearly, boys were having more fun in their recollection of the past than girls were in their experiences of the present.

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