By Patrick Crain
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. The seeds of this, of course, were sown in the postwar years in which men came home from overseas 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 but 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 James Dean filled this gap better than Elvis. Maybe it’s because Dean didn’t seem quite as beamed in from another planet like Elvis did or maybe because Dean remained forever young, perpetually romantic and frozen in time; an almost perfectly preserved artifact of his time. By turns dangerous and sweet, sexual and brooding, Dean was the perfect icon due to the ability for men to see him through whatever prism they chose.
The spirit of James Dean hangs over Robert Altman’s debut feature, The Delinquents, like an unwelcome ghost. Shot in 1955 but not released until 1957, two years after Dean’s death, 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 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 due to Janice’s square parents feeling that a girl of sixteen is far too young to be going steady and forbids them to see each other.
Enter a gaggle of rough young thugs, the ranks of which contain Eddie (Dick Bakalyan) and led by Cholly (Peter Miller). 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 house party, a lot of booze, a gas station robbery, an attempted assault, and, finally, a knife fight.
Containing a mix of passable and stiff performances, a lurching narrative, and a helplessly terrible and moralizing wraparound monologue, the Delinquents more or less banished Altman to the world of television where he honed his skills, most notably on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Whirlybirds. It is also notable for the weirdly intense performance Tom Laughlin gives, clashing with the helpless Howard in the same way that predates the exact same awkwardness that would materialize when he would insist on casting Delores Taylor, his non-actress wife, in gigantic, difficult roles in his worthless 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 Popeyeing Miller to the moon against 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 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 and netting writing, producing, and directing credits. For every independent filmmaker who owes a debt to Cassavetes, some of that gratitude should be directed toward Altman.
James Dean factors in more appropriately and explicitly in Altman’s next outing which was assembled and created during the editing phase of the Delinquents. Also released in 1957, the James Dean Story has the regional, documentarian feel of a Charles B. Pierce film though it also curiously enough seems to veer a little towards the style of an Errol Morris documentary at times as the film is mostly pieced together with solemn narration and the unvarnished and raw takes of some talking heads, some secret recordings, and sprinkled with brooding passages about misgivings, griefs, and the inability to conform.
But the James Dean Story is really a telling little piece of material from the time that might just 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 just who they were more than they wanted a magazine on film that sold the image of Dean that might not tell the whole story. Buried in all of this was the generation expressed existential angst; who are we?
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 older than Dean and likewise sprung out of the middle of America. Both nonconformist iconoclasts, it’s hard to imagine that Altman didn’t see a lot of himself in Dean. Over time, he would revisit Dean’s legacy, most explicitly in his 1982 adaptation of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean as he examined 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 another decade before reemerging in 1968 with his first big studio picture, Countdown from which he was fired by Jack Warner. 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 it could also be as easily said of Robert Altman.