The Explosive Generation (1961)

The Explosive Generation (1961)

Tagline: “They look like kids—but they want love like adults!”

Choice IMDB keywords: Rebellion; Young Love; School Board

Director: Buzz Kulik

Plot: A young, hep, dreamy William Shatner plays a high-school teacher whose students tire of scintillating discussion topics like “health and hygiene,” “careers for girls,” and “18-year-old vote.” They want classes that address what’s really going on in their lives, the kind of stuff they rap about with their buddies out of class: papers and cars and money. One girl is bold enough to plainly state what she and her friends are really interested in: sex. 

When Shatner says the class already teaches about sex in “health and hygiene,” the impetuous student says she doesn’t care about venereal disease or how babies are made. She wants to know the real deal on what really matters, issues like how far a girl should go with a boy just to be popular.

A swinging cat like Shatner, who fills every line with unintended sexual overtones, is not about to deny his students an opportunity to learn just how far a girl should go with a boy just to be popular, so he asks his students to fill out a survey articulating their most pressing concerns. It’s no surprise that all those pressing concerns involve sex. 

The sex survey threatens to reveal a secret with the power to blow the school apart: Some of its students crashed at a friend’s house together after a party, instead of returning directly home to their parents! Add the bottles of beer the men held in their hands while they stiffly danced with their dates, and you have an explosive situation for an explosive generation. 

The president of the PTA isn’t having it. “Sex survey, indeed!” she sniffs, when her daughter dismisses Shatner’s survey as “nothing.” “Would you call a teacher having students fill out a sex questionnaire nothing?” She’s even more horrified when she discovers the question her darling daughter asked: “Is it wrong for a girl to prove to a boy exactly how much she loves him?”

The survey quickly brings to light an epidemic of the age: unmarried teenagers sleeping over at beach houses. Everyone at least agrees on a root cause behind the epidemic of amorality: Shatner and his progressive ways. When his principal asks him to apologize, he’s apoplectic. “A-pol-o-gize?” he asks incredulously. He isn’t the apologizing or retreating kind. 

Shatner won’t back down. His dramatically articulated passion soon makes him a pariah among parents and faculty alike, even as it endears him to his equally passionate, sincere students. The stakes eventually grow so high, it can be difficult to remember that the whole kerfuffle boils down to someone asking just how far a girl should go with a boy to be popular.

The conflict between the students and the faculty leads to a rally that foreshadows the widespread societal unrest that rocked the ’60s. The fat-fingered police chief even threatens to turn his firehose on students whom, it should once again be noted, are fighting for the right to ask questions about sex. They’re sexual revolutionaries so meek, they barely seem sexual at all. For an explosive generation, they’re incredibly mild. Their most explosive tactic here is the silent treatment, which they extend to all their teachers in protest of Shatner’s suspension. The teachers are less than pleased: “Isn’t chemistry hard enough without all this foolishness?” ponders one particularly vexed science teacher. 

Finally, the boycott works and Shatner is reinstated, a minor and forgotten victory of the sexual revolution in a minor and forgotten film.

Key scenes: William Shatner raps thoughtfully with his students without noticing the giant boom mic hanging at the top of the frame. 

Then, an innocuous classroom interaction is depicted in the most hysterically melodramatic terms imaginable.

Later, the students pretend to be ghosts to frighten the school janitor away from discovering that they’re printing up fliers protesting Shatner’s treatment by the school board. 

When that doesn’t work, the students show off their sub-par chanting and sermonizing skills in defense of their beloved teacher.

Can easily be distinguished by: Its jazzy score, black-and-white cinematography, ripped-from-the-headlines premise, and melodramatic treatment of the meekest sex scandal imaginable. Also, the bedroom eyes Shatner gives his entire class, male and female. 

Sign it was made in 1961: A husband angrily demanding “Where’s breakfast? I tee off in an hour!” indelibly carbon-dates this as a time capsule of a pre-sexual-revolution, pre-feminist era, as does the insanely mild nature of Shatner’s alleged transgression. 

Timeless message: Freedom of speech should be defended even if it delves into prohibitively sordid subject matter, like how much a girl should do with a boy just to be popular.

Memorable quotes: At the notorious party that opens the film, a high-school student needles his date, “Do you want some brew, shrew? It might loosen you up and get you swinging a little!” 

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