[20 April 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
With his passing this week, it’s almost impossible to lay out the importance of Dick Clark to both the music and televisual mediums. From the early ‘50s, when he introduced rock ‘n’ roll to millions of suburban households via American Bandstand through his Me Decade tenure as the people’s populist producer (responsible for classic game shows like The $25,000 Pyramid and Grammy alternative American Music Awards), he was a cultural constant. Today, his empire’s broad reach includes country, daytime television, and the annual celebration of the passage of time in Manhattan, New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. While wannabe Clark Ryan Seacrest seems poised to assume the reigns of said Times Square spectacle, the rest of the “world’s oldest living teenager’s” legacy remains tied directly to sound and the small screen.
Except, Clark did make a small dent in another arena - cinema. Oh sure, he was never a star, nor did he accidentally produce a blockbuster of Oscar winning film, but during his earliest hyped heyday, the MC and DJ was seen as viable leading man material, believe it or not. By 1960, Clark had survived the move to syndication, specious accusations from the government (he was investigated as part of the 1959 sweep of music industry payola) and the introduction of live acts on the Bandstand showcase (though they still lip synced to the popular records of the day). Viewed as the calmest voice amongst those both supporting and censuring the era’s delinquent juveniles, Clark soon found himself starring in one of those maudlin, made for parents explanations of adolescence, Because They’re Young.
Bolstered by a hit instrumental of the title track by Duane Eddy and speaking the kind of social gobbledygook that passed for psychological subtext, the film centered on a former football star (Clark) returning to teach at a high school run with dictatorial efficiency by a principal (Wendell Holmes) who wants his instructors to remain emotionless and distant. This will be hard for our hero, Neil Hendry, since he just got fired from his last job for that very thing. There’s also some baggage involving a nephew that he is court ordered to care for.
Almost immediately, Neil falls for a sympathetic co-worker (Victoria Shaw) and must deal with the rising tide of unrest on the campus. Apparently, most of the students have troubled lives, including a tough kid named Griff (Michael Callan) desperate to go straight, a transfer athlete (Warren Berlinger) with a slut waitress mother and a hard crush on the resident ‘girl with a reputation’ (Tuesday Weld), and a couple of clueless lovebirds (Doug McClure and Roberta Shaw) who believe they have found a permanent partnership.
Since he was surrounded by a capable cast and not asked to do much more than fill in for an adult voice of reason, Clark’s turn in Because They’re Young showed promise. HIs incredible popularity also bolstered a desire to continue featuring him in films. Next up, another manipulative melodrama known as The Young Doctors. This time, Clark was moved down the marquee quite a bit. Fredric March and Ben Gazzara played the two lead physicians who faced a generation gap in both communication and critical skills. Filled with idealism and medical mumbo-jumbo, our young gun wants to force the failing head medico into early retirement. Clark rounds out the bottom as a fellow MD with a pregnant wife.
As with any flash in the pad fad, studio suits soon learned that Mr. American Bandstand was more valuable as TV presence than as part of the big screen experience. He went on to appear in episodes of Ben Casey, Burke’s Law, and Perry Mason, almost always as the optimist or the hip new face of fading ‘50s Establishmentarianism. It would be seven years between movie roles, and Clark would actually have to produce the picture to get himself involved again. 1968 saw him attempt to tap into the growing exploitation/drive-in market with three efforts - Psych-Out and The Savage Seven, along with the hillbilly oddity Killers Three. The first two movies were nothing new (Psych dealt hippies and the Haight-Ashbury scene, Savage was a biker flick). But Killers saw Clark playing a backwoods nutjob who, along with his partner, robs a bootlegger, murders several people in the process and then goes on the lam while Sheriff Merle Haggard (yes, the country music legend) chases him cross country.
Again the material didn’t match the man and Clark returned to a position behind the scenes. Throughout the ‘70s he would focus on television, finding niche categories to cater to while expanding his Bandstand influence. By his next movie production, the low budget horror romp The Dark, Clark was no longer invested personally. Instead, he was a monetary monolith, a name that some sought as for his expertise, connections, and undeniable wealth. Until his death, the entertainment tycoon would occasionally dabble in film, picking unusual projects (The Power, Night Shadows, Catchfire) before focusing almost exclusively on his ever-growing collection of surreal TV specials (Superstars and their Moms, The Black Gold Awards, Bloopers and Practical Jokes).
Yet it was his take-over of the tired Golden Globes in 1983 which marked Clark’s true lasting legacy when it comes to cinema. While a longstanding landmark among industry types, the Oscar also-rans were, by this time, seen as scandal-ridden, silly, and completely out of touch. Controversy continuously rocked the Hollywood Foreign Press, peaking with the announcement of then no-talent Pia Zadora as 1981’s Newcomer of the Year. Routinely scolded for putting their trophies up for sale, many saw Clark’s connection as a way to directly compete with the Academy (as he did with the AMAs and The Grammys). Instead, the producer passed minimal judgment, altered few of the organizations flaws, and watched as it morphed from slighted to serious awards season benchmark over the course of three decades.
Knowing that star power meant ratings, which equaled excessive advertising dollars, Clark did make sure that celebrities had a reason to show up for the ceremony. Unlike the stoic, stuck-up Oscars, The Golden Globes were about the party - the free food, the upscale goodie bags, the endless alcohol. Like People magazine to Time, it concentrated more on the public perception of what the win signified and less on some long lasting aesthetic judgment. While still slightly laughable today, the Hollywood Foreign Press are now viewed as the actual opening volley in determining the yearly accolades. While Clark did little except give the awards a much needed shot of everyman entertainment, he clearly saved a seemingly sinking ship (recently, he was sued by the HFP over the issue of ownership).
So, no, his impact on movies was not as massive as his influence in other areas of popular culture. No one will be arguing over his turns in Because We’re Young or Killers Three as they do his tenure as perhaps the only legitimate multimedia voice of five distinct generations. His legacy in celluloid will always be marked by missed opportunities and managerial overreaching. For all the good of the Globes, his myth remains securely attached to America’s living rooms and radios. In the end, what Dick Clark meant to the movies was minor. That didn’t make it any less meaningful, however.