Screening the Hollywood Rebels in 1950s Britain explores the relationship between classic American films about juvenile delinquency and British popular youth culture in the mid-twentieth century. The book examines the censorship, publicity and fandom surrounding such Hollywood films as The Wild One, Blackboard Jungle, Rebel Without a Cause, Rock Around the Clock and Jailhouse Rock alongside such British films as The Blue Lamp, Spare the Rod and Serious Charge. Intersecting with star studies and social and cultural history, this is the first book to re-vision the stardom surrounding three extraordinarily influential Hollywood stars: Marlon Brando, James Dean and Elvis Presley. By looking specifically at the meanings of these American stars to British fans, this analysis provides a logical and sustained narrative that explains how and why these Hollywood images fed into, and disrupted, British cultural life. Screening the Hollywood Rebels in 1950s Britain is based upon a wide range of sources including censorship records, both mainstream and trade newspapers and periodicals, archival accounts and memoirs, as well as the films themselves. The book is a timely intervention of film culture and focuses on key questions about screen violence and censorship, masculinity and transnational stardom, method acting and performance, Americanisation and popular post-war British culture. The book is essential reading for researchers, academics and students of film and social and cultural history, alongside general readers interested in the links between the media and popular youth culture in the 1950s.
The mid-years of the twentieth century witnessed a moral panic about juvenile delinquency in the USA and the United Kingdom, and this anxiety was expressed and explored in both Hollywood and British films. This book is a transcultural reception study of key American films that commented on juvenile delinquency and youth culture, including The Wild One, Blackboard Jungle, Rebel Without a Cause, Rock Around the Clock and Jailhouse Rock. The book examines the changes made by the British Board of Film Censors, the ways in which these films were evaluated by British critics and the meanings that Hollywood stars such as Marlon Brando, James Dean and Elvis Presley generated for British film fans. By comparing British and American films featuring teenage delinquents, the book demonstrates the gradual eastward, transatlantic passage of the ‘rebel’ trope and shows how it influenced and disrupted British cinema and popular youth culture. In addition, it argues that the excessive censorship and generally poor critical reviews in the British media demonstrate the wider suspicions of foreignness, teenage consumerism and mass culture that were circulating at the time. These classic films and their iconic stars continue to generate scholarly and critical interest but no other book has re-visioned the Hollywood stardom of Marlon Brando, James Dean and Elvis Presley in Britain.
Chapter 1 contextualises Marlon Brando’s early stardom in Britain to re-evaluate why the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) chose to impose a fourteen-year ban on The Wild One. Conversely, it chronicles how some local authorities and private clubs overturned the ban and screened the film. Brando’s early persona as a wayward but talented stage-trained actor, who became a Hollywood ‘anti-star’, meant that he occupied a unique position in cinema. This partly explains why the BBFC was overly concerned with releasing a film that allied an established and forceful method actor with reckless juvenile delinquency. The censor board publicly defended its decision to ban the film (deny it a certificate) through recourse to the excessive screen violence. Confidential records demonstrate that British film censors actually considered Brando’s screen delinquent to be too ‘attractive and imitable’ and worried that the film was a blueprint for yet more ‘organised hooliganism’ by British Teddy boys. Through an analysis of Marlon Brando’s early popularity, sustained by his persuasive interpretation of method acting techniques, his kudos with film critics and his appeal to British film fans, the chapter demonstrates that Brando’s stardom was the major factor behind the controversial decision to ban the film. Paying close attention to the aspects of mise en scène which heighten Brando’s sexuality and sympathetic qualities, the chapter demonstrates how his screen delinquent emerged as an admirable anti-hero – a far more complex and enduring character than anticipated, which surpassed even Hollywood’s expectations.
Chapter 2 explores the British reception of Blackboard Jungle. As the first Hollywood film to use a rock ’n’ roll soundtrack and comment on juvenile delinquency in secondary moderns (the equivalent of the American high school), the censors anticipated that impressionable Teddy boys would imitate the violence perpetrated by the screen delinquents against their teachers. Thus, the censors not only deleted scenes they considered excessively violent but also worked to lessen the glamour surrounding the delinquents by removing many of their American idioms. As the chapter shows, the film’s lasting legacy was its theme song, Rock Around the Clock, which began a rock ’n’ roll craze in Britain (and globally). In its exploration of the production and exhibition history of this Hollywood film, the chapter also finds parallels in the Max Bygraves film Spare the Rod (1961), billed as the ‘British Blackboard Jungle’, to demonstrate the extent to which the censor inhibited realistic adult British cinema. In addition, Glenn Ford’s and Vic Morrow’s British stardom is reconstructed to demonstrate the deliberate merging of their on- and off-screen personas to authenticate their film characters: dedicated teacher and teenage gang leader, respectively. Hence, Ford was promoted as educated and urbane, and happily married; and Morrow, in his screen debut, as a forthright Method trained actor from New York’s Lower East Side. Morrow’s credibility was largely undermined in the British press and by many cinemagoers for his emulation of the established and highly acclaimed Marlon Brando.
Chapter 3 is concerned with the posthumous fame of James Dean, who predeceased the theatrical release of Rebel Without a Cause. Evoking the discourses of Americanisation, the chapter argues that the BBFC not only wanted to reduce excessive screen violence but also to remove the American vernacular from the film. They tried to mute the excessive emotionality of Dean’s interpretation of method acting, fully accommodated in his role as the high school rebel, Jim Stark. The chapter chronicles the protracted dispute between the BBFC, which believed that Dean’s portrayal of a middle-class delinquent was unnecessarily glamorous, and Hollywood producers who believed that the newly modified British version of the film did not warrant the restrictive X certificate. Furthermore, the chapter illustrates the ways in which the British media (reluctantly) accommodated the teenage fascination for the dead Hollywood star in a blaze of publicity, which matched, then surpassed, the reaction of Rudolph Valentino’s fans to his sudden death in 1927. By focusing on British Deanagers – as his fans were named –this chapter presents an alternative fan history. British teenagers expressed sincere, heartfelt reactions – even despair – for Dean’s loss. Planning pilgrimages to his birthplace, imitating his fashion and style, writing poetry and plays about him, British Deanagers adulated the dead American star in spite of the opposition (and bemusement) of an older generation. The chapter uncovers the British media’s determined ‘campaign’ to juxtapose American Deanagers as ‘morbidly obsessed’ and prurient whilst recasting British fan reaction as cool-headed, intellectual and non-sexual.
Chapter 4 reconstructs the stardom of Bill Haley to explore the ‘rock ’n’ roll riots’ that accompanied the first screenings of Rock Around the Clock in British cinemas. The film was a low-budget feature that showcased many of the most popular rock ’n’ roll musicians and performers of the day. The British Board of Film Censors considered the film ‘harmless’ and classified it ‘U’ (Universal) for family audiences to enjoy. Nonetheless, screenings of Rock Around the Clock caused the dreaded ‘organised hooliganism’ that British censors had worked so hard to avoid. In time, the censors were accused of being ‘oblivious’ to the ‘intoxicating’ effects of the exciting ‘live’ performances of Haley and the Comets; the media sensationalised localised outbreaks that pitted Teddy boys and girls against cinema managers and police. The chapter argues that ‘riots’ were the logical outcome of the censors’ generational disconnection from British teenagers and their enthusiasm for rock ’n’ roll. The BBFC was widely criticised by the press and prominent members of the clergy for failing to anticipate and avert these public disturbances. Proving a phenomenal success at the box office, Rock Around the Clock introduced mainstream audiences to rock ’n’ roll. The chapter provides a timely exhibition history by recounting the interactive in-cinema behaviours of British teenagers, which anticipated the participatory screenings of cult movies. Furthermore, a homely appearance and scathing reviews did not hinder Haley’s rise to fame; he toured the UK with his Comets. In this way, his British stardom demonstrates the unflagging ‘power’ of the teenage consumer.
Reconstructing the discursive surround of his early film appearances, Chapter 5 demonstrates that Elvis Presley was promoted in Britain as ‘the rock and roll rebel of the screen’ and as Marlon Brando’s and James Dean’s logical successor. Focusing on the films, Jailhouse Rock and King Creole, the chapter illustrates that Presley was reformulated as the archetypal juvenile delinquent imbued with the popular currency of rock ’n’ roll music. Ensuing public censure of Presley’s music and sexualised performance style invigorated the discourses of Americanisation. In contrast to the amiable Bill Haley, who had recently made a nationwide tour of Britain, film (and music) critics disliked Presley and reported concern over his anticipated (and dreaded) live performances. The chapter demonstrates that Presley’s British fame was developed and sustained by the purchasing ‘power’ of his young fans in spite of (and because of) the widespread criticism and apathy of an older generation. As such, the chapter considers Presley’s stardom as the glorification of a humble American working-class ‘Teddy boy’ adulated by ordinary teenage consumers. In addition, the chapter argues that the blueprint of his fame (and his enormously successful branding) was used by entrepreneurial producer-managers to nurture and develop a new stable of British talent. Adam Faith and Billy Fury, among others, became popular for their proletarian qualities. Regional or cockney accents no longer hindered careers in the performing arts but, rather, recommended emerging stars to those teenage consumers with surplus income, eager to worship home-grown heroes.
The book’s in-depth analysis of six case studies, comparisons to other British and Hollywood films on similar themes, demonstrates the currency of juvenile delinquency during a period of intense media interest in the teenager. In its wider application, the book offers a British history of several iconic Hollywood stars: Marlon Brando, James Dean and Elvis Presley. By exploring their influences and impact on British fans and their disruption to British culture, the book historicises the discourses of Americanisation and teenage consumerism. The conclusion explores some of the legacies of the Hollywood rebel trope, and argues for the ways in which elements and motifs were assimilated into New Wave cinema with representations of Angry Young Men, as a popular and emergent British masculinity (Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, for example). The chapter also extends previous arguments that Elvis Presley’s success as a rock ’n’ roll rebel offered a ‘blueprint’ of fame, forming the basis of many imitative careers, including those of Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard, each hailed as ‘the British Elvis Presley’. The epilogue argues for the cross-cultural exchange that followed Presley’s career and star meanings in Britain (his impoverished childhood, his spectacular success, the degenerative effects of rock ’n’ roll) and the Beatlemania that pervaded American popular culture in 1961. Spearheading the British invasion, the Beatles, with their proletarian origins and rebellious iconography (their irreverent interview style and ‘mop tops’, for example) confronted American conservativism and generated discourses of cultural protectionism.