Teen Movies of the 50s, 60s, and 70s

Movies focusing on the trials and tribulations of teenage life have been popular for years, as Hollywood continues to explore the ever-changing realm of adolescence. Back in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, features on the lives of tearaway teens had never been more popular, as the industry began to explore issues that had never been discussed on-screen. 

From James Dean’s incredible turn in Rebel Without A Cause to John Travolta’s rise to superstardom after Saturday Night Fever and Grease, the importance of teen-centric movies can’t ever be denied. Let’s take a look at some of the finest examples from decades past. 


Saturday Night Fever

Released: 1977
Starring: John Travolta, Fran Drescher, Denny Dillon
Directed by: John Badham
Budget: $3.5 million*

 

The ‘70s were a big time for John Travolta. He went from unknown actor to a household name within a hot second, thanks to roles in Grease and Saturday Night Fever. John Badham’s 1978 picture went down a storm, going on to become a classic. 

Not only did the movie do incredibly well by bringing in $237.1 million against a paltry $3.5 million budget, but it also gave us one of the most iconic soundtracks ever. With songs like “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” and “More Than a Woman,” by the Bee Gees, this movie was always going to be a winner

East of Eden

Released: 1955
Starring: Julie Harris, James Dean, Raymond Massey
Directed by: Elia Kazan
Budget: $2 million*

 

Although he was only in the industry for a short time, James Dean left an impact on film that can’t be denied. Before he became a teen icon for his performance in Rebel Without A Cause, Dean starred in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden

Much like Rebel, Eden focuses on the lives of confused, disillusioned teens. Cal (Dean) feels like he is often pushed aside in favor of his brother, Aron. The story is based on the biblical tale of Cain and Abel. East of Eden holds the distinction of being the only picture to star James Dean that was released in his lifetime. 

West Side Story

Released: 1961
Starring: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Russ Tamblyn
Directed by: Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins
Budget: $6 million*

 

West Side Story may be one of the most popular musicals of all time, but it’s also one of the best movies of its kind. Screen adaptations often go awry, but Wise and Robbins hit the nail right on the head to tell the modern reworking of Romeo and Juliet

Natalie Wood was just 22 years old when she featured in the movie, marking her transition from child actress to budding superstar. The feature was a break-out hit, taking $44.1 million against a $6 million budget. Steven Spielberg is currently working on a new version, set to be released in 2020. 

National Lampoon’s Animal House

Released: 1978
Starring: John Belushi, Tim Matheson, John Vernon, Verna Bloom
Directed by: John Landis
Budget: $3 million*

 

Movies about college hijinks have always gone down well with viewers. In 1978, National Lampoon’s Animal House helped to kickstart the trend. The movie focused on a group of rag-tag fraternity brothers as they battled with the dean of their college. 

John Landis recruited the help of John Belushi, Tim Matheson, John Vernon, Verna Bloom, Thomas Hulce, and Donald Sutherland to get the feature off the ground. Despite how successful many of the actors would go on to be, only John Belushi was a well-known face at the time. While many critics weren’t overly thrilled, it still took in over $141.6 million. 

High School Confidential

Released: 1958
Starring: Mamie Van Doren, Russ Tamblyn, Jan Sterling, John Drew Barrymore
Directed by: Jack Arnold
Budget: $532,000*

 

High School Confidential was never going to go down in history as the creme de la creme of film making. It wasn’t groundbreaking, or even particularly good. In fact, it was laughably bad – and that’s why it’s so charming. 

The movie follows Mike Wilson, an undercover cop that tries to solve the age-old issue of drugs in a high school. Despite its critical failure, the movie did make the studio money. However, sequels released by the same writer tanked so badly that they lost MGM a pretty penny. Luckily for Zugsmith, he was contracted in.  

Beach Party

Released: 1963
Starring: Bob Cummings, Dorothy Malone, Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon
Directed by: William Asher
Budget: $300,000*

 

1963’s Beach Party started an entire franchise of movies and sequels starring teen icon Frankie Avalon alongside Disney starlet Annette Funicello. The pair were electric on-screen. The plot was both funny and intriguing, as an anthropologist starts to study California teens and their “mating habits.”

It was the perfect recipe for ‘60s audiences. Funicello was still under contract to Disney at the time and had to get Walt’s approval. He said yes, on the condition that she didn’t show her navel. The costume department solved this by putting Funicello in high-waisted bikini briefs. 

Gidget

Released: 1959
Starring: Sandra Dee, James Darren, Cliff Robertson
Directed by: Paul Wendkos
Budget: $650,000*

 

In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, there was a worldwide obsession with the beaches of California and that hippy, laid-back surfer aesthetic. It’s only natural that the studios wanted to capitalize on it, so many films were made paying homage to sun, sea, and sand. 1959’s Gidget was one of them. 

Sandra Dee plays the titular role of Gidget, a teen that finds herself slowly becoming part of a surfer crew. She falls for one of the members, Moondoggie, and spends her time trying to make him feel the same way. The character of Gidget proved so popular that there were two spin-offs, a short-lived TV series, and a telemovie. However, Dee never reprised the role.

Splendor in the Grass

Released: 1961
Starring: Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty
Directed by: Elia Kazan
Budget: $2 million*

 

Elia Kazan’s 1961 movie focuses on 1920’s Kansas and Natalie Wood as Deanie Loomis. Splendor in the Grass focuses on the then very real predicament of pre-marital love. At the time of filming, Wood reportedly had an on-set affair with her co-star Warren Beatty. At the time, she was married to Robert Wagner, but they were soon to separate.  

Unlike some of the other less serious teen movies at the time, Kazan didn’t shy away from serious subjects like abortion, substance abuse, and bullying. Wood received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress thanks to her efforts but didn’t win. 

The Blob

Released: 1958
Starring: Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut, Earl Rowe, Olin Howland
Directed by: Irvin Yeaworth
Budget: $240,000*

 

King of Cool Steve McQueen doesn’t seem like the kind of man that would star in a movie about a giant, extra-terrestrial blob, but thank goodness he did. The 1958 sci-fi horror didn’t have the backing of a big studio, but it didn’t need it in the end. 

The premise of the people-devouring entity that grows bigger the more it consumes was thrilling to audiences. It was enough to become an important piece of cinematic history. Against a budget of $110,000, the movie took $4 million, making investors a pretty penny. McQueen made a fatal error when he took $3,000 for the part instead of 10% share of the profits.