GREASE: Holiday, Uptown.
When period films make historical errors about Rome or Tudor England, it is bad enough. But to make a movie about that quaint period the 1950s, and to fill that with mistaken assumptions and details, is incredible. Couldn't the makers of "Grease" have unearthed one person who was alive in that time, perhaps even one who attended an American high school then, and checked their information?
The film of "Grease" is no plot and all atmosphere, but it's phony atmosphere, inexplicably viewing '50s popular culture as being more awkward and naive then the current, and then missing all the laws by which it operated, from the way the music was amplified to the relationship between generations.
The climax shows a female shop teacher going drag racing after hours with the kids whom she has taught, during school hours, to soup up their car. Remember that unsexist world where teachers and students were bound together by their appreciation of teenage culture?
The endlessly running theatrical production of "Grease" worked because it piled satire on top of a basic understanding of the Zeitgeist . It was written just before the '50s became a mythologized world - like the Gay 90s or the Roaring 20s - with styles and conventions only loosely rooted in reality.
The film is satirizing not the real, but the fictionalized '50s. Songs such as "Sandra Dee" and "Beauty School Drop-Out" were spoofs of the sounds of that time; in the film, they are weak references to other caricatures.
The erroneous details are simply petty annoyances: A pair of high-fashion 1978 anklestrap shoes are expected to pass for the '50s variety; an entire cast of grown-ups is supposed to pass for teenagers.
But there are basic wrong assumptions about the way teenagers and adults viewed each other. That young people could openly defy their elders was a later discovery. So was the phenomenon of grown-ups trying to act like teenagers. In this film, parents are not a factor; there is no hint of parental control, to be obeyed or disobeyed. Pupils are invited to throw pies in the faces of their teachers at a school carnival. Where is the authoritarianism against which the nest decade rebelled? The only authentic-seeming adult is Eve Arden as the principal, and even her authority is derived not from the truths of that time but from association with the "Out Miss Brooks" program popular then. It is second-hand satire.
Another profound misconception is about the caste system of public high schools of that period, before dropping out became an upper-class luxury instead of an admission of social failure. The division between the good little kids, who studied and were in the choir, and the baddies, who developed their own rules and style, evolved dramatically from one high-school year to the next. Kids who were acknowledged to be glamorous and powerful were suddenly toppled when the criterion switched to whether or not one was "college material."
This film, with Olivia Netwon-john as a blond cheerleader and John Travolta as a leather-jacketed greaser, was set up for that conflict. But neither that nor any other plot is allowed to develop. At the end, she merely adopts his style, by changing here clothes from cute to vulgar. But the idea that she may have made a commitment to cross class lines - that she is thus defying her parents and the life laid out for her after high school - is lost because throughout the film these distinctions have been blurred.
As the hero says, he has to worry about his image. No, no, no. Worrying about images didn't become fashionable until later.