When we think about the social unraveling that occurred in America, we seem more or less fixated on the mid to late sixties, a psychologically fragile time in which our great compact seemed to fissure as stress upon stress was laid atop it and harder and harder scar tissue began to form in the place of the great, gaping wounds left by multiple assassinations, riots, and Vietnam. The seeds of this breakdown were sown in the postwar years in which men came home from the war, some with psychological issues, and then created children who would then have to deal with the silent trauma in their own way by dropping out and tuning in just as the sixties began to ripen.
But floating between these two extremes were those of the Silent Generation who, too young to serve their country themselves, watched their fathers go off to war and then had to grapple with the reality of the absent parent who, in some cases, would not return, or, in other cases, would return in a form almost unrecognizable to the people who stayed behind. World War I was the first war in which medical advances allowed us to reckon with the physical damage of combat and World War II was the first in which we had to confront with the difficult sociological damage of combat. That it was met with relative silence and was internalized in such a way that it often resembled a pressure cooker was a definite contributing factor in the fracture between the generations that occurred later.
To the young men drifting through those times, Elvis Presley and James Dean were identifiable outlets; figures who cut through a lot of social layers and captured the imagination and set the cultural tone. But where. Elvis was idolized, Dean was impersonated. Maybe it’s because Dean didn’t seem quite as beamed in from another planet like Elvis did, or maybe because Dean appealed to so many because of his unique mix of sweetness, brooding, and sexual danger. And, given his premature death in 1955, Dean’s presence looms a little longer precisely because he remains forever young and frozen in time; he never went to Las Vegas and became bloated and not pretty.
The spirit of Dean hangs over Robert Altman’s debut feature, The Delinquents, like an unwelcome ghost. Shot in 1955 but not released until 1957, the enterprise was the result of a local Kansas City producer wanting to cash in on the juvenile delinquent movies that were printing money out in Hollywood, and local talent Robert Altman wanting to move from the industrials he was making for the KC-based Calvin Company to actual feature films. Whether Altman was ready for such a thing is another call entirely as The Delinquents is a movie that feels like two parts of an educational film that you might have seen in junior high in the late 50’s. It concerns itself with the doomed romance between Scotty and Janice (pre-Billy Jack Tom Laughlin and KC local Rosemary Howard, respectively), two high school kids who are having trouble taking their relationship to the next level because Janice’s totally square parents feel that a girl of sixteen is FAR too young to be going steady and, naturally, explicitly forbids them to see each other.
Enter a gaggle of rough young thugs, led by the smarmy Cholly (Peter Miller), and counting among its members, slippery punk Eddie (Dick Bakalyan). After involving innocent bystander Scotty in a drive in rumble, Cholly hatches a plan to help his new buddy out. He’ll pose as Janice’s date and will bring her to Scotty after picking her up. And, of course, this leads to all kinds of trouble which includes a police raid on a party in an abandoned house, a lot of booze, a gas station robbery, an attempted assault, and, finally, a knife fight.
Containing a wild mix of passable and stiff performances, a lurching narrative, and a helplessly terrible and moralizing wraparound monologue that was tacked onto the film without Robert Altman’s knowledge or permission, The Delinquents more or less banished the filmmaker to the world of television where he sharpened his skills, most notably on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Whirlybirds. The Delinquents is also notable for the weirdly intense performance given by Tom Laughlin as his style aggressively clashes with the very beige Rosemary Howard exactly in the same way that predates the identical awkwardness that would materialize when he would insist on casting Delores Taylor, his non-actress wife, in gigantic, difficult roles in his stupid Billy Jack movies.
I suppose there is a camp quality to be had with this kind of thing. After all, deep in the third act, Laughlin’s method acting gets so out of hand that it looks like he permanently damages Dick Bakalyan’s cervical spine when he drags him down to the ground in something that looks like a headlock that would get you thrown out of most wrestling matches. And in the film’s climax soon afterward, a hotted up Laughlin gets into a fight with Peter Miller’s character that looks like it wasn’t completely covered or cut correctly. The result is a lot of jagged editing which has Laughlin oscillating between looking like he’s going to either destroy or vomit all over Peter Miller before finally coming to a head with Laughlin launching Miller into the side of a refrigerator.
Add in some fun Kansas City locations, a painless running time of just around 75 minutes, and the tacked-on monologue regarding morals and American values and this MIGHT just be someone’s cup of tea. And, regardless of the result (which isn’t completely unwatchable and was good enough to land him a job with Hitchcock) it’s also hard to ignore that Altman beats Cassavetes to the big screen by two years with his independent feature, netting writing, producing, and directing credits. For every independent filmmaker who owes a debt to Cassavetes, some of that gratitude should be directed toward Robert Altman.
James Dean factors in more appropriately and explicitly in Altman’s next outing, The James Dean Story, which was assembled and created during the editing phase of The Delinquents. Also released in 1957, The James Dean Story has a whole lot of regional documentary charm but it also veers a little towards the style of Errol Morris being pieced together by solemn narration and the raw, unvarnished takes of some talking heads, the audio from secret recordings, and liberally sprinkled with brooding passages about misgivings, griefs, and the inability to conform.
The James Dean Story is really a telling piece of material from the time that might be a little more reflective and dour than it was envisioned to be. Sure, the subject matter had perished in a terrible car crash and died far too young but, for 1957, it’s just a little honest and just a tad unflattering which showed that the postwar generation were more interested in getting down to the truth and not some James Dean magazine on film that might not tell the whole story. Buried in all of this was the generation expressed existential angst; who are we, really?
One thing that Robert Altman really seemed to understand is that celebrities do oftentimes come from humble beginnings and that they are as much a part of the American portrait as steel workers, teachers, and farmers. And while watching this piece, one sometimes wonders how much Altman identifies with James Dean as he was only six years Dean’s senior and, like Dean, sprung out of the middle of America and, most importantly, both were nonconformist iconoclasts. Altman would explicitly revisit Dean’s legacy in his 1982 adaptation of Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,anexamination of the nature of celebrity, pop culture, and the empty promises that come with investing in the memories of people you really don’t know.
Robert Altman would disappear into Hollywood hack work for a whole decade before reemerging in 1968 with his first big studio picture, Countdown. And, in what would become true Altman form, he clashed with the studio (specifically Jack Warner) and was fired from the project before editing could be completed. A literal quote from The James Dean Story reads “the more they criticized, the more he refused to change.” This is said, of course, of James Dean but over time, it could also be as easily applied to Robert Altman.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain