Essential Question

How did movies help to introduce Rock and Roll culture to mainstream audiences in the 1950s?


As the influence of teenagers expanded in the 1950s, it did not take long for movie studios to tap into their fascination with Rock and Roll. Some historians argue that the first so-called “Rock and Roll movie” to cause a sensation was Blackboard Jungle (1955), a film depicting the struggles of a high school teacher with a class full of “juvenile delinquents.” The film famously opened to the sound of “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets. The song reportedly played at such a high volume that teenage audiences rose from their seats to either dance in the aisles or to vandalize the auditorium, depending on the media coverage. Blackboard Jungle sent “Rock Around the Clock” directly to the top of the Billboard charts, while the movie’s notoriety led to widespread censorship. The controversy only further increased public interest in Rock and Roll, and Hollywood was ready to meet the demand.

In the aftermath of Blackboard Jungle, many other films emerged that featured Rock and Roll culture and its world. Among these were musical films such as Rock Around the Clock—light on storyline and constructed mainly as a showcase for the top performers of the day. There were also films in which the singing star became the movie star, typified by the films of Elvis Presley. Movies including Jailhouse Rock drew large audiences who came to see Elvis sing his hits while playing dramatic—but always musical—leading men. And then there were films that did not feature popular music at all, but nonetheless managed to capture the Rock and Roll attitude—particularly when they told stories of teenage life from the perspective of the teens themselves. In Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean did not sing a note, but captured the internal struggles of adolescent angst on film as no one had before. Dean’s rebellious screen persona would become as emblematic as Elvis’ swiveling hips in defining the look of early Rock and Roll.

In this lesson, students assume the role of entertainment industry professionals responsible for marketing a selection of movies from the early Rock and Roll era. Following an examination of trailers, posters, newspaper articles, and the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, students will present to the class on the various stakeholders that helped shape the way Rock and Roll culture was introduced to mainstream movie audiences in the 1950s.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The various subgenres of Rock and Roll movies that appeared in the mid-to-late 1950s
    • Anxieties surrounding the release and popularity of the film Blackboard Jungle due to its depictions of race and juvenile delinquency
    • How the Production Code was used to monitor film content prior to the 1968 adoption of a ratings system
    • The specialized roles of various professional organizations in producing, marketing, and exhibiting American movies
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Analyze historical documents, periodicals, and film trailers
    • Make connections between a selection of films concerning Rock and Roll culture and concerns over the perceived threat of juvenile delinquency in the mid-1950s
    • Common Core: Students will work in groups to discuss the American film industry from a variety of professional perspectives, including those of the film studio marketing executives, record labels, the MPAA, and independent theater owners (CCSS Reading 1; CCSS Speaking and Listening 2)