Better Living Through Bad Movies.
Because They’re Young (1960)
Directed by Paul Wendkos
Written by James Gunn, based on a novel by John Farris.
Tagline: “Whoever you are, you’re in this picture! Because this tells of youth’s challenge to grown-ups who can’t understand!”
Based on the tagline, this film was a seminal influence on the early works of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.
But let’s meet our cast of characters:
Dick Clark is a new history teacher, a “ﬁrebrand” who believes in really talking to teens, asking them meaningful questions like what they think of the new single by The 1910 Fruitgum Company. But this school doesn’t allow gum, so Dick is in for trouble.
Joanne, the principal’s secretary, is an uptight, sexless spinster known around campus as “The Snow Queen.” She’ll be Dick’s love interest.
Shy, awkward Buddy. He worships his mother, who, unbeknownst to him, is a blowsy drunk who “dates” guys for a bottle of tequila. Buddy will be having some emotional problems in this movie.
Ricky is a cute, wholesome cheerleader who can’t wait to get married to boyfriend Doug McClure, while Doug is a red blooded, boneheaded football player who can’t wait to get into Ricky’s pants. “Don’t give me that malarkey about cold showers,” he says. Doug will be learning a few things about sex in this movie.
Tuesday Weld has already learned a few things about sex. Her shrewish mom thinks she’s a slut, but Tuesday avers, “I am not going to be a scarlet woman! I made a mistake! It won’t happen again!” Or will it?
Griff has a bad reputation, a worse attitude, and a history with Tuesday (she used to be his regular Tuesday night thing). He’s your typical suburban JD, a rebel without a brain.
So, let’s begin our movie. It’s the ﬁrst day of school and already Dick has been called to Principal Woodman’s ofﬁce because he doesn’t like Dick’s casual way of dealing with the Sweathogs. Secretary Joanne begs Dick to do things by the book, that book presumably being “Blackboard Jungle.” While it looks like something is brewing between Dick and Joanne, the kids give the romance a “3,” saying that it doesn’t have a good beat, you can’t dance to it, and Joanne is frigid.
Dick shows his heroic idealism at the big event of the year, the Honor Society Dance. First, he makes them admit all the students, not just the ones with honor. Then, when some young toughs from Hoodlum High try to crash it, Dick won’t let the football players trounce them. Joanne offers to call the police, but Dick nixes that too—he will handle it. And he does, by telling the hoods to leave. They
sneer “Says who?”
“I do,” Dick answers ﬁrmly. So, the gang departs, intimidated by the stern dance-show host. Or maybe they realized that James Darren was about to burst into the title song now and were afraid he might get through the entire thing, without being Raptured in mid-chorus by the Time Tunnel.
Later than night, Doug McClure gives Ricky his school ring, and then kisses her. Ricky pushes him away and ﬂounces off—she is not the kind of girl who goes to ﬁrst base, and especially not when it’s a base on balls. When Doug returns to the gym, Dick can see something is wrong—but he tactfully averts his eyes from Doug’s groin. Doug whines that Ricky is supposed to love him, but she won’t,
and stuff. Dick tells him to think about it from her perspective—and to take a cold shower.
Joanne is jealous of all the attention Dick is paying to Doug’s…problem, and warns Dick that he can’t give so much of himself to his students. At least not with the authorities pressing charges. But Dick says he can’t change, because being a teen messiah is just who he is.
Now it’s report card time. Griff got good grades, and it’s the talk of the school! Doug and all the cool kids are really impressed with how nicely Griff’s conforming these days. We learn why when he tells Tuesday he modeled himself on Eddie Haskell just for her. He turns off the lights, throws her on the couch, and kisses her passionately. Sleazy music plays and he says hungrily, “Let’s take that ride
now!” But Tuesday doesn’t want to ride Griff’s Wild Mouse, since it’s cheap, tawdry, over in two minutes, and leaves her feeling nauseous. She pushes him off and orders him out. Griff is furious to have fake-changed his life for her. He immediately goes to Chris, the butcher at Safeway, and the town’s criminal mastermind and signs up for a life of crime.
Chris invites Griff to a felony scheduled for that weekend. Chris and teen henchman Patcher have a big heist planned, and Griff can be the getaway driver. But when Chris sets off the alarm at the wiener and cold cuts warehouse, Griff gets scared and runs, leaving the ruthless Chris and the homicidal Patcher to
trudge home with link sausages draped around their necks.
Meanwhile, Buddy comes home unexpectedly and ﬁnds Mom entertaining Otis, the town drunk. Buddy is horriﬁed to learn that any man can have his mother for a bottle of cheap wine, so he runs away from home. He winds up at play rehearsal, where he weepily conﬁdes in Tuesday that mom really isn’t a saint.
She puts a comforting hand on his shoulder, causing him to yell, “Don’t touch me! You’ll get dirty, just like me! Just like my mother!” Griff, who was hiding in the shadows, pops out to tell Buddy that Tuesday is already as grimy as Buddy’s mother, and it’s a ground-in grime that leaves her with Ring Around the Hymen.
This totally destroys Buddy’s faith in virginity, so he pummels Griff, then throws him down the stairs and runs away. Again!
Dick is suspended for having taught Buddy history, which is probably what caused him to go berserk. The FBI initiates a shoot-to-kill search for Buddy, but just then, a student rushes in with vital evidence: it’s Tuesday’s library book, and it has blood on it! DNA testing reveals that Tuesday went all the way with Griff, and so Buddy was justiﬁed in beating the crap out of him. Joanne tries to get Tuesday to come forward and save Buddy, but Tuesday hysterically explains that her mother thinks she’s a tart so she has to get away to drama school! But if anyone knows she’s impure she will never be admitted, since the acting profession has very strict moral standards.
Griff, jealous of Buddy’s and Tuesday’s bad mothers and the opportunities they provide for big, dramatic scenes, shouts at his father, “You never did care about me!” and storms out of the house.
Dick ﬁnds Buddy and tells him sympathetically that it’s always a shock to ﬁnd out that your mother is the town’s cheap ﬂoozy, but hey, nobody’s perfect. Mom and Buddy hug and cry, and Buddy gets a contact high from her breath.
Tuesday resolves to confess and save Buddy from the death penalty, even if it means she’ll never get her SAG card. But when she and Dick arrive at the principal’s ofﬁce, they ﬁnd that Griff has already cleared Buddy. So, Tuesday’s reputation is safe and she can play a virgin in Dobie Gillis without anyone being the wiser.
Doug and Ricky reﬂect that they have learned a valuable lesson from all this: never have sex, because it only leads to violence, shame, and overacting. Doug says half-heartedly, “We can still have fun,” as he and Ricky sublimate through weenie roasts or something.
But just when everyone’s problems are solved, Patcher shows up and tries to kill Griff. The two boys have a knife ﬁght in the biology lab, considerately avoiding the big aquarium that modern movie teens would feel compelled to break.
Patcher stabs Griff, but Dick, who was a football star at Neurasthenic University, tackles Patcher, thus proving that while history is all well and good, it’s sports that really matter. As the police take Patcher away, Principal Woodman calls an ambulance for Griff, causing him to say in amazement, “What you do you know? You guys give a damn!” Even better, the knife-ﬁght cured Joanne’s frigidity, and she symbolically embraces Dick, and all that Dick stands for. The End.
Thanks to Because They’re Young, we now know that back in the early Sixties teenagers were all in their thirties, so normal adolescent angst was often complicated by erectile dysfunction, or osteoporosis. But perhaps a more eye-opening element is the ﬁlmmakers’ conviction that the proper way to treat erotophobia is with a shiv-wielding rumble.
Our understanding of human sexuality is still incomplete, but it is clear that Because They’re Young was largely responsible for inspiring the Sexual Revolution. Its inﬂuence was apparent the very next year, when West Side Story was released, and countless potential spinsters found their career plans to be cold and unresponsive ruined by the musical’s climactic knife ﬁght. No longer able to effectively sublimate, America’s sour-faced secretaries and purse-lipped librarians found that the merest suggestion of an attempted stabbing rendered them moist and febrile, and before the decade was out, these same prissy, bun-wearing killjoys were dofﬁng their cat-eye spectacles and rolling around naked in the mud at Woodstock. There are even some who claim Because They’re Young paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1964 when its bold therapeutic approach was adopted by The Black Rebels, made later that same year, and released with the tagline, “Switchblade ﬁghts and civil rights!”
So while Because They’re Young may not have much to offer in the way of handling teens, it does have much to teach us about curing vaginal dryness and eliminating the poll tax.