Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Trailer Tuesday: COOLEY HIGH (1975)

Directed by: Michael Schultz
Written by: Eric Monte
Starring: Glynn Turman, Lawrence Hilton Jacobs, Garrett Morris, Cynthia Davis.
Produced by: Steve Krantz (for AIP).
Music by: Freddie Perren.

Do you want to know the importance of franchises in motion pictures? George Lucas had a massive hit movie which is largely forgotten today and ends up a footnote in his career... a hit film that changed pop culture and opened the door for other huge hit films that imitated it or were inspired by it... a hit that is alluded to in other films and gets a whole subpolot in Brian DePalma’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE and surely spawned BACK TO THE FUTURE. But because there wasn’t really any potential for a franchise and the sequel they tried to use to cash in on the massive success of the original flopped (the original’s concept was only good for one story, as opposed to STAR WARS which was originally planned as a 9 film series but still left room for dozens of other films like the upcoming YOUNG JABBA and the next film in the current trilogy). Elton John’s hit “Crocodile Rock” only exists because this film created that mass change in pop culture that brought back the music from the 50's and early 60s. I’m talking about the film that spawned the HAPPY DAYS TV show, that huge hit AMERICAN GRAFFITI. I was in High School when it came out, and suddenly every school dance was 50's themed, Prom and Homecoming Dance, and what kids were wearing - we were all dressed the way our parent’s dressed when they were in High School! The film’s sountrack (of old 50's and 60s’ hits) went Triple Platinum and landed at #10 on the Billboard charts (the STAR WARS album didn’t make it to the top 100... though the disco version of the theme song was a hit single). Did STAR WARS change music or fashion or slang?

The tagline for AMERICAN GRAFFITI was “Where were you in ‘62?” and the film we are going to look at this week takes place two years later in a galaxy far, far away - instead of the suburban high school experience with school dances and cruising and malt shops, we get the urban high school experience. It was also a hit and spawned a TV series (WHAT’S HAPPENING), launched a bunch of careers, and created one of film’s greatest unsolved mysteries...

Where were you in ‘64?

The Chicago Projects?

This Black urban version of AMERICAN GRAFFITI swaps joy riding in stolen cars for cruising, the Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago for suburban tract homes, a crappy diner (Martha’s) for the malt shop, Garrett Morris for Terry McGovern as the favorite teacher, a new girl in school for that girl in the white T-Bird, and Motown hits for The Beach Boys and Buddy Holly.

Preach (Glynn Turman) and Cochise (Lawrence Hilton Jacobs) are best friends and seniors at Edwin G. Cooley Vocational High School. They’ve grown up in the slums, and are likely to stay in the slums unless some miracle occurs. The miracle for Cochise comes in the form of a possible basketball scholarship to some college - he’s the star player in their high school and if he can get out of the projects and into some college he has a chance. Preach would also like to get into some college, but despite being probably the smartest kid at Cooley, he doesn’t apply himself - skipping class constantly. Preach is a dreamer - a writer and poet. Black kids can get basketball scholarships, but poet scholarships? What college needs a bunch of Black poets to win anything? So Preach sees graduation from High School as a possible dead end... and that scares him. There’s a great scene where Preach tells the others of his dream of going to Hollywood and becoming a famous writer, and they laugh at him. Preach blows up and says he won’t work in any factory for the rest of his life. But he knows he probably will.


The film opens with a comedy scene where Cochise wakes up Preach so they can head to school, and we get most of the background on these two characters. I have a Script Tip in rotation about how every film, no matter the genre, is a drama by default. A comedy film works because there is drama underneath, and this film uses the conflict of their situation to create comedy. And like the current hit GIRLS TRIP, after a series of funny episodes the drama underneath comes to a head and things that began as comedy slowly turn more dramatic. But that’s after we’ve had a bunch of laughs as we become friends with these characters.

Preach and Cochise cut class along with two of their friends, Pooter (Corin Rogers) and Tyrone (Joseph Carter Wilson), and bumper surf on the back of the bus - hanging on to the outside! - across town to the zoo, where they hop the turnstile, con a girl at the snack shack into giving them some popcorn and candy bars, and just have a fun day goofing off that the zoo. Preach and Cochise have a method of cutting class without getting caught by returning for the last class of the day, so all of the fun they have is kind of against a ticking clock and sometimes it looks as if they aren’t going to make it. In their goofing off, a gorilla throws poop at Pooter - and a big bunch of poop gets stuck to his sweater. No matter how much he tries to clean it off, some of it’s still there. When time runs out, they hop the turnstile on the elevated train and head back - but Pooter’s gorilla poop sweater quickly clears the train car.

When they get to school, there is a chance for Pooter to sweet talk a cute girl, but the sweater ruins it. This film has a great tone - even though the background is the gritty city, the kids get into the usual high school trouble and have all kinds of fun. They are looking for love... and sex... and go to house parties where they break into the liquor cabinet. They have the standard High School romantic issues - Preach is going out with Sandra (Christine Jones) and fears she might get pregnant and he’ll end up as a factory worker instead of a writer. Where Cochise has his future mapped out with college and maybe an NBA career, Preach is a gambler - both with his life and his spare change. He’s constantly throwing dice with guys who are trouble.

Like a pair of neighborhood kids who have “Just Said Yes To Drugs” and “Just Said No To School”, Robert (Norman Gibson) and Stone (Sherman Smith) who are interesting antagonists, since they are childhood friends of Preach and Cochise whose lives have turned to crime. If Preach loses too much money to Robert and Stone, they won’t hesitate to beat the crap out of their childhood pal. It’s an interesting dynamic and kind of sums up the story. Nostalgia and fun... with a hint of danger in the background. In between Preach & Cochise and Robert & Stone is Damon (Maurice Marshall) who is a wanna-be gangster. Damon is a good kid who sees crime as the only future where he’s not broke. Preach is both well read and literate, and a gambler - which brings him into contact with dangerous people.

And gambling at Martha’s Diner is where Preach and Cochise first see the new girl at school, Brenda (Cynthia Davis), who is beautiful and aloof and smart as a whip. AMERICAN GRAFFITI had the blonde in the T-Bird (Suzanne Somers) who was the ideal but unattainable dream girl, and here we have Brenda. She’s out of *everyone’s* league.

But when the guys go to a house party on Friday night, Preach spots Brenda and makes a play for her (hoping Sandra doesn’t notice). Brenda is impressed that he is a poet and writer... but just when you think things are going Preach’s way, Damon starts a fight that pretty much destroys the house. The girl who threw was worried that her parents might find out... and now the door to the bathroom has been broken off its hinges!


Preach and Cochise leave the party and Robert and Stone pull up in a Cadillac they borrowed from a friend - would the guys like to go for a drive? Sure! Preach ends up behind the wheel, and they drive around town having a great time. When they stop at a light next to a police car, Robert and Stone tell Preach to be cool... the car isn’t exactly “borrowed” - it’s stolen. We go from comedy to more serious - but still fun. Preach jumps the light, the police give chase, and now we have a comedy car chase - but with serious repercussions if they are caught. The car chase goes through a series of amusing obstacles, ending when they drive through a warehouse and the police car chasing them gets picked up by a forklift! As the two police officers demand that the forklift driver lower them, Preach and Cochise and Robert and Stone zoom away... laughing at the two cops.

On Saturday Preach, Cochise, Tyrone and Pooter study for a history test... get bored... and decide to go to the movies. But the guys are broke - so they go up to a couple of hookers pretending to be cops, “busting them” and confiscating all of their money. Unlike the movie scene in another High School coming of age movie, DINER, there is no popcorn bucket with a hole in it... but there is a fight Pooter accidentally starts which causes them to race out of the theater.

The story has an episodic structure, with comedy scenes like the zoo and the house party and the car chase and the hookers and movie fight loosely connected together - each is a comedy adventure in Preach and Cochise’s life. One of the issues is that the episodes don’t really add up to anything and don’t escalate in any meaningful way. AMERICAN GRAFFITI has a character arc for each of its characters, and the scenes with each are pieces of those larger arcs. Here we get pieces... that are amusing and have you laughing, but don’t seem to be building to anything larger - even though there is something larger.


That changes around halfway into the story when Preach and Brenda hook up. After several scenes where we think it might happen and then it doesn’t, and we’ve given up on this potential romance, Brenda agrees to go back to his place. Where she tells him she’s a virgin. Oh, boy! It’s bad enough that he’s cheating on Sandra, but he’s looking for a one night stand... what is Brenda looking for?

Afterwards, Preach lets slip that when he first saw Brenda he bet Cochise that he could sleep with her, and this doesn’t win him any points with her. She storms out, past Preach’s little sister, and there goes any chance of a rematch.

Monday at school, Preach and Sandra are getting ready for class (and that history test) when Brenda comes up to him and gives him a big passionate kiss... then leaves. This starts a fight between Preach and Sandra... and she breaks up with him... secretly rebounding with Cochise. There is a big moment where Cochise considers the repercussions of sleeping with his best friend’s girl - then does it anyway.

Just as Preach and Cochise get ready to take that history test... the police arrive and arrest them for stealing that Cadillac. Robert and Stone have also been arrested. They are taken to the police station and split up, where the police try to turn them against each other. But even though Robert and Stone actually stole the car, they decide not to snitch on them. They’ve known each other since they were kids, right?

Their history teacher, Mr. Mason (Garrett Morris), comes to their rescue. Many of the other teachers know these kids have little or no future so they just go through the motions of teaching them - but Mr. Mason is different. There’s a great scene where Mason and one of the policemen share a confiscated joint and he tells the cop that Robert and Stone are criminals - too late for them, but Preach and Cochise are good kids with futures. Both are headed to college. If they are charged with car theft, no scholarships and no college and no future. The cop decides to let Preach and Cochise go and arrest Robert and Stone.


Two of the greatest scenes in this film are with minor characters who are never really set up... and that makes them feel more like plot devices than people. If Mr. Mason had been part of the story before this scene, it would have been a much stronger scene. And that doesn’t mean you’d have to spend a lot of screen time with Mr. Mason - just introduce him early and keep him in the background of some scenes. Maybe even make him antagonistic at first, warning Preach and Cochise not to goof off so much. That way when he came to their rescue it would have had more impact. But this is one of those great scenes and characters that could have been used better in the story.

The other character that just pops up out of nowhere and steals a scene is Preach’s Mom (Mary Larkins) who works three different jobs to pay rent and keep food on the table. After hearing about Preach’s arrest and that girl he had up in his room and all of the other things that are against house rules, she tells Preach to go get the belt - the one she has been threatening to use on the kids for years - and prepare to get his ass whooped. Preach goes up to get the belt and prepares for his punishment, but when he gets back downstairs his Mom has fallen asleep. So he kisses her gently and goes out. This is a great moment, but it’s also the only scene that his Mom appears in! Hey, he had a Mom from the very beginning, right? Why not set her up in an earlier scene, instead of just have her show up here as kind of a plot point?


There’s a reason why this film is remembered today, why they are talking about remaking it, why it is referenced in songs by the Fugees and others. We’ve laughed, but now it’s time to cry...

Spoilers for the ending of COOLEY HIGH follow.

You have been warned.

Preach discovers that Cochise has slept with Sandra and they get into a huge argument - their friendship is over.

Meanwhile, Robert and Stone - out on bail - believe that the reason why the police let Preach and Cochise go is because they two snitched on them...

Preach escapes Robert and Stone, bumps into Brenda - who tells him that Cochise is waiting under the elevated train tracks. Preach knows that Robert and Stone might find him, and races to save him...

But Robert and Stone and their toady Damon *have* found Cochise, and are taking turns punching him. When it’s Damon’s turn, he wants to show off in front of the real gangsters, and punches Cochise so hard his head hits the train trestle... and dies.

Preach discovers Cochise dead, and breaks down. This is a very serious and unexpected ending to what has up until now been a comedy. We have had hints of danger all along, but no one expects the hero to die.

There’s a great final scene, as Preach waits until Cochise’s funeral is over - and when everyone else has left, says a personal goodbye before heading to Los Angeles.

Just like AMERICAN GRAFFITI there is a “where are they now” credit sequence that tells us Preach became a successful Hollywood screenwriter, Brenda became a librarian and has three kids, Robert and Stone were killed in a liquor store hold up, etc.

Though the film is a lot of fun, that ending is what haunts me to this day. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll fall in love... and even if you're a white guy from the suburbs you will identify with these characters and share in their high school experiences - which were similar to mine in many ways. Heck, I saw this movie at the drive in when I was the age of these characters.

Screenwriter Eric Monte went on to create GOOD TIMES and WHAT’S HAPPENING? and write for MOESHA, director Michael Schultz is one of the great directors - he followed this up with CAR WASH and GREASED LIGHTNING and SARGENT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND and one of my favorites BUSTIN’ LOOSE! and he directed Denzel Washington’s first film - over 100 directing credits including lots of my favorite TV shows (ROCKFORD FILES to CHUCK) - how come he’s not famous? You know what happened with the two stars - they continued being stars! But the big mystery is Cynthia Davis who played Brenda - and steals every scene that she is in. Drop dead beautiful, can deliver a comedy line, great in the dramatic scenes... and this is her only credit. She just vanished off the face of the earth! Did she really become a librarian and pop three kids like her character? How did this great talent just vanish?

- Bill

PS: There's an internet site that says Cynthia Davis is a married grandmother - even has pictures.

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