“…but what I want to know is, who was that chick who sang in the nightclub sequence? She was so riotous, I thought her bit was worth the price of admission alone.”
-- Excerpt from Beverly Hills Citizen review of High School Confidential!, July 7, 1958
Stealing a B-movie masterpiece like High School Confidential! is not an easy thing to do. The 1958 juvenile delinquent picture is brimming with amazing and bizarre set pieces like John Drew Barrymore’s hep cat history lesson (“Columbus Digs the Jive”) and Mamie Van Doren’s bit as an amorous “aunt” lecturing a prim school teacher on the virtues of “getting a bang out of life.” But when the bohemian goddess Phillipa Fallon strides on screen for a few short minutes to recite a nihilistic poem that neatly captures the Cold War angst of the day, she literally owns the film. Not only are the kids in the movie’s teen hangout transfixed by her presence, so too are viewers who watch the scene more than fifty years later on YouTube and DVD.
The poem, “High School Drag,” was written by the incomparable Mel Welles (1924-2005), a writer/director/actor who is perhaps best known for his role as Gravis Mushnik, the flower shop proprietor in Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors (1960). Welles was recruited for Confidential! by its producer, Albert Zugsmith, to add some of the hip lingo and drug slang that is so prominently featured the picture. In fact, Welles, who also has a small acting part in the movie as Van Doren’s soused date “Bill O’Flair,” earned a screen credit for “Special Material” for his contributions. The cinematic renaissance man explained to film historian Tom Weaver in 1988 that he was chosen to help punch up the script in this manner because “I was an expert on grass in my day.” In addition to Welles’ reeferific bona fides, he also wrote for the legendary “hip” comic / monologist Richard M. “Lord” Buckley (1906-1960) and helped create one of the comedian’s most famous bits, “Gettysburg Address.”
As reflected by the quote that leads off this article, Fallon’s idiosyncratic delivery of Welles’ boptastic words made an immediate impression on viewers. Indeed, more than one film critic took particular note of her mesmerizing scene at the time of Confidential’s initial release:
“A recitation to jazz accompaniment by Phillipa Fallon is fascinating…
-- Excerpt from Hollywood Reporter film review, May 28, 1958
“There’s one scene at the hangout where a gal in the crowd gets up and delivers a way-out word-jazz routine…may start a big new fad.”
-- Excerpt from Hollywood Citizen-News film review, June 26, 1958
“Mel Welles has contributed two pieces of special material, one of which, an existentialist poem recited by Phillipa Fallon, is a standout.”
-- Excerpt from Variety film review, May 28, 1958
“Highlights of the story are a drag race with Tamblyn and Diane Jergens living it up, an existentialist poem by Phillipa Fallon to jazz accompaniment in a weird off-beat joint and John Drew Barrymore delivering a class soliloquy on Ferdinand and Isabella.”
-- Excerpt from Los Angeles Examiner film review, June 26, 1958The incredibly square Howard Thompson, who wrote about the movie for the New York Times, is one of the few people who just didn’t get the magic of Phillipa. In the critic’s May 31, 1958 review he wrote “At one excruciating point, to jazz accompaniment, a young brunette drawls a poem that has about as much coherence as a cat fight.”
Decades after Confidential’s premiere, music compilation producer James Austin recognized the brilliance of Welles and Fallon all over again and included “High School Drag” (which was also released by MGM in 1958 as a 45 single) on Rhino Records’ box set “The Beat Generation” issued in 1992. Writer Barry Alphonso paid tribute to Ms. Fallon’s star power in his insightful liner notes for the set:
“Phillipa Fallon’s one shot at screen immortality came when she portrayed the ‘poetess’ in HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL. And if she subsequently sank from sight, at least she leaves behind the wigged-out recitation of ‘High School Drag.’ Playing the sullen hipsterette to the hilt, Fallon dishes out choice non sequiturs to a yowling crowd. ‘Turn your eyes inside and dig the vacuum,’ she sneers imperiously. More than two decades later, the surly likes of Lydia Lunch and Sandra Bernhard would (unknowingly?) tread the same path as the forgotten Miss Fallon.”2006 plea to our readers for help in finding the missing actress fell on deaf ears. This lack of progress forced us to launch a “kitchen sink” research crusade to learn as much about Ms. Fallon as humanly possible.
After many false starts and down-the-rabbit-hole leads, our two-year investigative effort finally gained traction and gradually we were able to piece together all of the important biographical facts of Ms. Fallon’s eventful life. Of course, it would be unfair to ask the reader to set off on this lengthy biographical reading assignment with the false expectation that it might conclude with a living, breathing Phillipa Fallon. It doesn’t. Ms. Fallon led a life full of elusive twists and turns that did not end happily. But, if you’re like us, on some level you probably had a hunch that this was the case. Knowing that there is finality to the erstwhile Beat Poetess’s life in no way diminishes this strange, weird story (you'll see what we mean). If you’ve come this far, why not continue the journey?
COMING NEXT: ORIGINS