The month of August coming to a close can mean only one thing, high school season is upon us and to kick things off let’s look back to this drive-in classic. It’s chock full of songs that had me aching for a 50’s rock’n roll soundtrack featuring Bill Haley and the Comets. What we do get are wanna be tough guys in black leather jackets with slicked down hair while racing around in their custom designed hot rods. Let us not forget the gals either giving it there all to look like the next Sandra Dee or Tuesday Weld and just hoping the most popular jock in school is going to ask them to the prom.
Which brings us to a classic John Ashley time capsule, High School Caesar from the not so prolific writer/director/producer, O’Dale Ireland.
Aside from an appearance in the Paul Newman/Patricia Neal classic, Hud, John Ashely will forever be identified with B films. From the Beach Party movies and low budget horrors such as Frankenstein’s Daughter to the Blood Island pictures he made in the Philippines, Ashley’s films are never dull and this tale of a wanna be gangster doesn’t disappoint when it comes to outright campy fun.
Reggie Perkins kicks off the fun with the title track recorded on Raynote Records. From there it’s jeans, leather jackets and a beating as Ashley and his cohorts extort a few dollars from a fellow student. Turns out John’s a two sided coin. In the eyes of the school principle he’s an upstanding young man while in reality he’s a bully and maybe even worse. John’s running for school president and intends to win by sheer force and shady tactics. He’s got Lita the brunette on one arm and eyeing up Wanda the blonde as well. Lita played by Daria Massey who scored an “introducing” credit is the principle’s apprenticing secretary. She’ll come in handy when John needs favors.
With the election rigged, John’s in control of the school. He’s got a protection racket going, he’s skimming money off the Friday night dances (.25 cents a head) and he’s hawking school tests for five or ten dollars depending on the subject. Believe it or not he’s scoring a cool 75 per week. No not 75K or even $750. This is 1960 and we’re talking a solid $75.00. After expenses and paying off his goons, he might have twenty five or so all to himself. Not bad considering what the cost of living was when Leave It To Beaver was still on the airwaves.
John’s a Jekyll/Hyde type. He’s a rich dude’s kid but has no parental guidance. He lives a life of luxury with a maid who thinks she’s Aunt Bea and a butler he verbally abuses while his parents travel overseas. On the plus side he does have his pal Crickett to follow him around like a puppy dog. He’s made him the honorary treasurer for the student body which is all rather amusing considering Crickett has no idea what’s owed him when John tells him to pocket 10% of the weekly $75 take.
A crack in the criminal world of this High School Caesar is going to surface when our leading man gives out orders for Wanda the Blonde played by Judy Nugent to make herself available for his pal Crickett who has designs on the lovely lass. She’s not interested and has a boyfriend of her own who stands up to the would be Johnny Rocco. Like many pint sized criminals of the movies, Ashley just wants to belong but has to be in charge at the same time.
Still to come are some drag races that will lead to a fatality and another crack in Ashley’s world. Still, he’ll roll those shoulders and comb that hair to keep up appearances as if he’s the reincarnation of a young Jimmy Cagney. What happens when Ashley turns his back on poor Crickett and goes after Wanda the Blonde himself? It won’t sit well and might even lead to a classic Shakespearean fade out, “Not you to, Crickett?” accompanied by the telling lines of Perkins song on the soundtrack when the sirens are closing in, “High school Caesar, You’re gonna get it in the end.”
Yes it’s all tame by today’s standards and you honestly have to wonder how Ashley would have fared if he found himself in the Class of 1984.
While I can’t speak for you, I grew up watching the Beach Party movies on TV as a kid. That probably had less to do with Frankie and Annette and more to do with the likes of Peter Lorre and Vincent Price who would turn up in these cheesy teenage flicks that saw John Ashely playing second fiddle to Frankie Avalon. With all due respect to Frankie, I’d much rather watch John Ashley flicks today after discovering his horror line up including all those he starred in and produced over in the Philippines. Acting titles include Beast of the Yellow Night and The Mad Doctor of Blood Island. Not to be overlooked are his producer credentials. They include low budget fodder like The Twilight People and Savage Sisters but I’d be unfair if I didn’t point out his associate producer credit on Apocalypse Now before moving into producing popular television favorites like The A-Team and Walker, Texas Ranger.
High School Caesar has a charm to it that still resonates today as can be found in a scene for scene remake put together by The Chillicoth High School Drama Department if you’d care to use the search engine over at youtube to have a look.
I found it rather surprising that Ashley didn’t record the title track himself. He’d recorded a number of rock’n roll songs by this point so I’ll leave you all with some musical highlights from Mr. John Ashley.