Book Review: Teenage Confidential, An Illustrated History of the American Teen

IMG_1197 Teenage Confidential: An Illustrated History of the American Teen by Michael Barson and Steven Heller is described on the back cover blurb as a visual tour of teen culture as portrayed in books, movies, TV and advertising. I can attest to the visual appeal of this book, as I’ve had it in my collection for a few years now and often stared at the fabulous pictures. But I never read the history of teen culture in here until now, and found it an interesting overview.

The authors pin the start of popular youth entertainment at Booth Tarkington’s 1916 novel Seventeen (made into a 1940 Jackie Cooper movie) followed by The Hardy Boys novels in the 20s. They describe how the teen movie/superstar phenomenon reaches full steam from 1936 on, with Deanna Durbin saving Universal from bankruptcy, and the Andy Hardy series churning out instalments through WW2. They call this the era of the KleenTeens; fun, pleasant, inoffensive and only mildly or comically troublesome youth.

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By 1941 youth marketing is profitable, so young ladies get a magazine, Calling All Girls, a periodical full of stories, etiquette, recipes, gadgets, fashion, beauty and comics featuring strong female heroes like an aviatrix or spy. Seventeen magazine arrives in 1944, reaches a circulation of 1 million readers, and is overflowing with product ads targeting these kids who have more and more spending money.

Along with the shopping came a different expression of independence. The authors show that concerns over wild youth were present back into the 1800’s with unchaperoned horseback rides and similar frolics or misbehaving causing widespread consternation. And let’s not even start on the Jazz Age partying as seen in such films as Our Dancing Daughters (1928). But with the Great Depression came greater desperation, and an underclass of wayward street youth, as reflected in gritty films like William Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road (1933).

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The authors discuss how this bubbled under until WW2 strengthened a distinct teen culture which pulled further away from adults. With fathers off to combat and more mothers in the workplace, society was seeing “war problem youth,” unsupervised kids and teens who were bonding through their own subculture and drifting into more delinquency. The authors cite some 1943 magazine articles full of startling statistics about youth crime, sex offenses and runaways. RKO head Charles Koerner bought the rights to one of these pieces and turned it into Youth Runs Wild (1944) starring Bonita Granville. Poverty Row studios like Monogram and PRC would do even more to mine this sensational, edgy tabloid material, and the book has several attractive pages of the lobby cards and posters for these and similar movies.

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By the end of the 40s, the bad behaviour content machine snowballs. The Amboy Dukes book sells 2 million copies, Hot Rod magazine starts fueling dreams of fast cars and independence, and adult concerns escalate over gatherings like sock hops and slumber parties. Juvenile delinquent (JD) paperbacks and films are hot properties. To feed reader and audience demand, companies even reach back to reissue and adapt works from the 30s, as in the case of They Live by Night (1948) based on the 1931 book Thieves Like Us. JD lit is a booming business into the 50s, and only gets more daring with titles like H is for Heroin. By the time Stanley Kramer’s The Wild One (1954), the huge impact of teen culture is undeniable.

The authors look at two 1955 movies showing the generation gap and the changing target demographic. The Blackboard Jungle is the first movie to use a rock and roll soundtrack and inspires many copycat films. However, it comes from the point of view of an adult frustrated by teen antics; no jury would convict him of throttling his students. Hollywood quickly realized what seems obvious in retrospect, that to attract a teen audience, they would do better to show them a movie from their point of view, something where they aren’t judged for wallowing in their rebellion and the understanding of their friends, something like Rebel Without a Cause.

The next year, Alan Freed is the first rock and roll personality to anchor a movie–Columbia’s Rock Around the Clock–months before Elvis debuts on screen. Though Elvis shakes movies up in 1957, military service keeps him away from 1958-60. The authors say that neither his movie career nor the dangerous rebel current in teen culture ever recovered from this loss of momentum. Dick Clark and American Bandstand, Sandra Dee and Gidget are examples of the next trend, the sanitized and diluted wholesomeness that found its last gasp in the Beach Party movies (see the book I reviewed on that subject here) before Beatlemania and hippies shaped what was cool or square.

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There’s a fun chapter in this book about how teens learned about the facts of life from the media over the years. From romance comics and magazines or from the lyrics of Ricky Nelson and Dion, they could learn what to do on dates. Even more explicit were the “Instructionals,” short films existing since the 1920s, with titles like Shy Guy (starring Dick York). The authors compile a list of the best tips and still from these films, including rules on petting, going steady, the birds and the bees, how much a boy should spend on a date and what a girl should ask her crush to see if he’s husband material.

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Teenage Confidential is a pleasant history of the film, music and media of teens and the social forces that produced it. It’s full of beautiful images on nice glossy paper, and has one or two page sections spotlighting subjects like Frank Sinatra as a teen idol, Archie Comics’ gals, James Dean, the 1958 Rock and Roll riot at Boston Arena, a catalog of tragic and doomed “puppy love” songs, a glossary of teen slang and a coda looking to the future (from 1998, when this was published) which the authors deem promising thanks to the teen oriented fare like 90210, Clueless and Cameron Crowe’s movies.


This review is part of the SUMMER READING CLASSIC FILM BOOK CHALLENGE hosted by Raquel at Out of the Past


11 thoughts on “Book Review: Teenage Confidential, An Illustrated History of the American Teen”

  1. This looks really interesting — I appreciated the photos as it’s the graphics that sell it for me. The WWII issue ties in really well with the Gale Storm movie I reviewed a few days ago, WHERE ARE YOUR CHILDREN (1943). I’d not had any idea previously about unsupervised juveniles being a significant wartime issue. Very interesting.

    Thanks for a great review!

    Best wishes,

    1. It has a surprisingly detailed overview for what looks like a thin book (fine print). I wanted some more detail in certain sections, like that WW2 issue, it’s not something I’d heard before either but they cite a few articles discussing that. Very nice images, I love the rockabilly fashions on those JD covers 🙂 . Thanks!

    1. You’re hip to the lingo! That’s a fun page, nice to see how teens having their own language never changes even though the words do. Thanks!

    1. On one of the the other pages they have someone who doesn’t pay their way on a date is a “drag” — I never knew that was the origin.

  2. I find the history of teen culture endlessly fascinating. This looks like a book I’d definitely want to read. Thanks for the review and all the excellent detail.

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