High School Drag by Phillipa Fallon, 1958

This is the coolest freaking thing on the planet.

It’s a scene from High School Confidential, a 1958 film starring Mamie Van Dorn and Russ Tamblyn. From the IMDB plot synopsis: “A tough kid comes to a new high school and begins muscling his way into the drug scene. As he moves his way up the ladder, a schoolteacher tries to reform him, his aunt tries to seduce him, and the ‘weedheads’ are eager to use his newly found enterprise, but he has his own agenda. After an altercation involving fast cars, hidden drugs, and police, he’s accepted by the drug kingpin and is off into the big leagues. A typical morality play of the era, filled with a naive view of drugs, nihilistic beat poetry, and some incredible ’50s slang.”

A juvie piece of crap, in other words. But Russ Tamblyn isn’t bad – you probably remember him as Riff from West Side Story, and his daughter Amber was the star of “Joan of Arcadia” and spent one season as a geeky awkward genius intern on “House.” And Mamie is fun to watch is a sort of car-wreck kind of way.

But Phillipa Fallon – what can I say? This is her only scene in the move, and she steals it blind. There is a lot going on in this little scene, apart from the sexy and ahead-of-her-time Phillipa and her cool little beat poem:

1. The guy sitting at the table with his date is John Drew Barrymore, son of John Barrymore and Delores Costello, and father of the adorable Drew Barrymore. He later went completely crazy and ended up a derelict on the streets of LA with a long ratty beard and tattered clothes. In the last year before he died in 2004, Drew took him in and paid his medical bills despite the fact that he wanted nothing to do with her. Trekkie footnote: he was slated to play Lazarus in the putrid “Alternative Factor” episode of “Star Trek” in 1966, but he failed to show up on the first morning of the shoot and was replaced by Robert Brown. Barrymore was suspended by the union for six months for that little stunt.

2. The guy playing the piano is Jackie Coogan, former child star and future Uncle Fester on “The Addams Family.” (And, I was amazed to find out, one-time husband of Betty Grable!) He also was a glider pilot in WWII, flying General Wingate’s British troops behind enemy lines in the Burma campaign. Jeez. Oh, and his character here, Mr. A, isn’t just a piano player – he’s the town’s heroin kingpin. Nice work if you can get it.

3. The guy in the white jacket is Charlie Chaplin, Jr. His father, of course, starred with Jackie Coogan in The Kid (1921). Dead of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 42.

This scene became something of a cult classic a while back, and some guy, intrigued by our Phillipa, vowed to track her down and find out her story. Well, the story was ten times weirder than anyone imagined. I won’t try to paraphrase it, but you can check out the story of the long strange journey at his Phillipa Fallon blog. It’s in 9 parts – start from the bottom. Exactly the kind of weird detective work I adore.

And special added bonus: Phillipa’s ex-husband, Bill Manhoff, wrote a 1964 episode of “Petticoat Junction” that featured another beat poet. But – get this – the beat poet was Dennis Hopper, of all people, invited to the Shady Rest by Bobbie Jo Bradley (the original one, played by Pat Woodell). He recites his poem, Uncle Joe, Kate, Charlie and Floyd don’t get it, and Dennis sneers at them in the greatest line ever spoken in that sitcom: “It means this is a cemetery and you’re all corpses.” Then he gives Bobbie Jo a cancer stick. Cool beyond belief.

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