David Bradley’s Dragstrip Riot

One of the prize collections at the IUL Film Archive is David Bradley’s personal collection of 16mm films. Judging from the range and variety of the films it is clear that Bradleywas an eclectic and impassioned cinephile. On the Indiana University campus

David Bradley: Writer, director, actor, and film collector.

Bradley is primarily known for the 16mm collection that bears his name. However, Bradley was also an intriguing filmmaker who navigated through some of the wildest cinematic terrain of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. The Bradley Collection runs the whole gamut: Short films, feature-length films, and home movies.

He made films professionally between 1938 and 1968. Almost all of his films were financed and distributed outside of the studio. After a series of experimental screen adaptations of plays (one providing Charlton Heston with his first on screen appearance!), David Bradley carved out a niche in low-budget, sensational genre pictures. Bradley’s genre cycle began with 1958’s Dragstrip Riot and was followed by the 1960 sci-fi movie, 12 to the Moon, and 1963’s infamous late-night cult classic Madmen of Mandoras (it was later re-edited with an extra 27 minutes of material for TV under the title They Saved Hitler’s Brain). This post will take a closer look at the first film in his genre cycle – Dragstrip Riot – and place it into a larger historical context and relate it to Bradley’s tastes and interests as a collector.

Dragstrip Riot fits firmly within two longstanding traditions of exploitation cinema: it handles something contemporary or topical with tabloid sensationalism and it attempts to cash in on successful mainstream films. While there has always been a youth market for studios and independent production companies to tap, it was never more pronounced than the 1950s. Films such as Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild One led to an explosion of juvenile delinquent films. However, it would be a mistake to look at Dragstrip Riot and its cinematic siblings as a crude aping of popular studio pictures. A closer inspection shows that independent films and studio films had a mutual influence on one another. Though Hollywood would often try to distance itself from the hucksterism of b-movies and exploitation films, many of the generic innovations from films like Shake, Rattle, & Rock! found their way into more mainstream features. These films also shown a venue often associated with youth: the drive-in.

The popularity of rock n’ roll and the moral panic it caused became an integral element to so many juvenile delinquent films being released by independent companies (juvenile delinquency and rock n roll were often linked in the press). Dragstrip Riot bears some similarities to Rebel Without a Cause. Both protagonists are new arrivals in town, have a troubled past with the law, and come from a “dysfunctional” family by normal 1950s standards. That is where their similarities stop. Whereas Rebel sees itself as a serious character study on a group of alienated teenage misfits in a suffocating suburban milieu, Dragstrip Riot emphasizes drag races, malt-shops, and beach brawls with breaks in the narrative to stage rock n’ roll numbers (sung by a young and feisty Connie Stevens!).

Anyone with an interest in b-films, exploitation, and genre pictures would not be surprised to learn that Dragstrip Riot was distributed by American International Pictures. AIP saw itself as a youth-oriented production and distribution company. Indeed, they were a major force behind many juvenile delinquent and rock n’ roll films of the 1950s. Once a film cycle or sub-genre was exhausted they would latch on to the next big thing in youth culture. By the early 1960s they had created and perfected the beach party film, which proved to be their biggest success as a production company. By 1966 AIP began making films with counter-cultural themes and characters. It would be three years before a major studio had success with such themes and characters (the film is, of course, Easy Rider). AIP co-founder Sam Arkoff was known to use the ARKOFF formula to determine what kinds of projects to produce. It consisted of action, revolution (timely and sensational subject matter), killing (staged scenes of violence), oratory (at least one memorable speech), fantasy, and fornication. Dragstrip Riot fits this formula fairly well. The only thing it seems to lack is a notable oratory moment, though we as viewers are privy to a slew of 1950s teenage slang. Bradley’s film, like many AIP pictures, attempts to resolve the potential conflict between the timeliness of the subject matter and playing out youth fantasies.

Compared to glossy studio pictures which tend to dilute shocking subject matter, Dragstrip Riot feels like it achieves a greater verisimilitude because it does not hold back in the way studio pictures would (though it is still a long way from the wilder AIP juvenile delinquent films like Reform School Girl). James Dean‘s moody, existential tough guy persona in Rebel may have served as a model for young men to emulate and young women to swoon over, the iconic quality of Dean’s performance and the self-reflexivity of the characterization imbues Dean’s Jim Stark as a kind of mythical figure. Gary Clarke‘s Rick Martin is more of a banal everyman reflecting the world many teens may have felt they were growing up in. Like most teen pictures it also tries to fulfill teenage desire to see identifiable characters engaging in activities that disrupted the humdrum of daily life: car races, motorcycle chases, gang fights, or rock n roll performances in their favorite diner. And Dragstrip Riot gives us these in spades.

How are we to understand Bradley’s collecting habits in light of his film-making career? Are the two necessarily related?  A look through the Bradley collection would suggest that they are related. There is a strong representation of the established canon of American and European cinema – works that a student in film history would expect to see on their syllabus. Yet the Bradley collection also exhibits some idiosyncratic takes on film history. Brian De Palma has also occupied a marginal space in the histories of New Hollywood (when he is mentioned at all). If we were to read Bradley’s collection as his personalized take on American film history, then Brian De Palma would be the most important figure to emerge during New Hollywood. In fact, there are more De Palma films in Bradley’s collection than the number of films by Martin ScorseseFrancis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, and Steven Spielberg combined. Whether Bradley’s collecting habits are calculated measures of his own reading of film history or iterations of a quirky taste (possibly both), it is undeniable that his eccentric taste had an impact on the kind of films he would make throughout his 30 year directing career. Bradley’s ability to move effortlessly through various cinematic registers (the avantgarde, Hollywood, exploitation films) as a director is reflected in his unique collection.

The films in the David Bradley collection can be searched by going to IUCAT, clicking “Advanced Keyword Search” and pasting Bradley, David, 1920-1997, former owner into the “keywords anywhere” box. Additional information such as film titles or directors can be searched to narrow results. The Lilly Library also holds the collected papers of David Bradley.

~ Sean Smalley