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'50s teen flick flashback

’50s teen flick flashback — John Waters’ ”Cry-Baby” revives the genre, covering ground paved by ”Jailhouse Rock” and ”American Graffiti”

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Leather jackets, switchblades, thrill-crazed hot rodders — these are just some of the staples of a once endangered cinematic species: the ’50s teen flick. The genre’s having a resurgence, courtesy of John Waters’ Cry-Baby. On video, it never went out of fashion. Here are some examples featuring pointy brassieres, the Big Beat, and those sullen, ducktailed guys that the good girls wanted bad and the bad girls wanted worse.

Rebel Without a Cause (1955, Warner)
James Dean plays drag-strip chicken, rumbles with Dennis Hopper, and more or less defines blue-denim angst in the first (and best) of Hollywood’s alienated-youth pictures. The years have been unkind to this seminal ’50s movie —the two crucial adult roles are played by the future leads of Gilligan’s Island and Get Smart. And the pop psychology motivations seem a little naive. But what remains of director Nicholas Ray’s look at teen turmoil still packs a wallop. A-

Jailhouse Rock (1957, MGM/UA)
If you’re looking for cool, here’s Elvis Presley at his absolutely arctic. The King plays a rock singer who’ll stop at nothing to get to the top. By making the character an ex-con, screenwriter Guy Trosper makes clear the teenager-rock & roll-delinquent connection. Best scene: Presley singing You’re So Square (Baby, I Don’t Care). Best line: ”Honey, it’s just the beast in me.” A-

The Wanderers (1979, Warner)
Director Philip Kaufman, who seems to specialize in adaptations of difficult books (The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being), does a respectable job of filming Richard Price’s novel about teen gang life. His success is due, in part, to his terrific cast (Karen Allen and a young Ken Wahl of TV’s Wiseguy, among others) but more because he never condescends to his material. Despite a fanatical preoccupation with the details of its Bronx milieu — clothes, cars, music — The Wanderers never degenerates into nostalgia. Instead, Kaufman treats rumbles, backseat encounters, macho rituals, and male bonding as the life and death matters they seemed to be. The result: A cult picture that deserves its cult. B+

Dino (1957, Republic)
Unlike his Rebel Without a Cause costar Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo never came to terms with the psychedelic ’60s and, as a result, he’s remembered for embarrassing guest shots on TV shows such as The Name of the Game. Still, in his glory days, Mineo was the McCartney to James Dean’s Lennon. He’s at his post-Rebel best in this melodrama scripted by The Defenders creator Reginald Rose. A-

King Creole (1958, Key)
Elvis Presley had his last good part (as a rock & roll punk) in this slick adaptation of a Harold Robbins novel. The King fights with his square dad, makes nookie with quintessential ’50s babe Carolyn Jones, and wails Trouble, Leiber and Stoller’s ultimate bad-boy anthem. And for that final touch of credibility, he gets to rumble with one of the screen’s first teenage troublemakers: Vic Morrow of Blackboard Jungle fame. A-

The Violent Years (1956, Rhino)
It’s all about a ’50s girl gang (for a change) that organizes petting parties, vandalizes high schools, and kidnaps cops. This apogee of cinematic nihilism takes the “live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse” ethos to extremes. Scripted by Ed Wood Jr., better known for his Plan 9 From Outer Space and Glen or Glenda? — a bit of information that will in no way prepare you for the weirdness of the product. B-

High School Confidential! (1958, Republic)
Mamie Van Doren as a dope pushing, B-movie siren and a young Jerry Lee Lewis pumping out the title song as the credits roll are just two reasons to rent this delirious piece of teen exploitation. Others include: a soliloquy by genuine Hollywood delinquent John Drew Barrymore; a drag race almost as cool as the one in Rebel; and against- type performances by Addams Family and Bonanza stars Jackie Coogan and Michael Landon. A-

American Graffiti (1973, MCA)
George Lucas’ first big hit has a lot to answer for: If it hadn’t been made, Garry Marshall never would have inflicted TV’s Happy Days on an unsuspecting nation. But viewed dispassionately, it remains a beautifully observed look at pre-Beatle, pre-Vietnam teen culture. It’s especially notable for Paul LeMat’s portrayal of an aging delinquent. Still cool despite the changing times, he cruises around like an over-the-hill gunfighter with an attitude. When an early Beach Boys song comes on the radio, he snarls, “I hate that surfing s—. Rock & roll’s been going downhill ever since Buddy Holly died.” A requiem for an era couldn’t come any neater. A

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