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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Let's All Rock Out In The Lobby! --- Part One

Among stone tablets disgorged from studio vault recesses, few are so bewildering as vanguards of rock-and-roll’s dawning era. It is over half a century since R&R took exhibition and its biggest target audience by storm. As to how potent an elixir this was, I submit wired-up teens shown here awaiting passage to see Rock Around The Clock at the Gopher Theatre in Minneapolis one wintry night in March 1956. Those aren’t tennis balls descending from above --- it’s snow. How many of us brought along guitars and accordions to movie shows? I’d assume the musicians were management plants, but this impromptu swing-a-thon in the lobby bespeaks crowd spontaneity I experienced not once over years of theatre-going. High school student councils and newspaper editors were appreciative of the harmless quality of this youthful exuberance, said local press, though parents were less approving of similarly exuberant exhibitors with their round-the-clock rocking that kept flowers of youth standing on line way past reasonable bedtimes. Circling around the Paramount Theatre when they should be home and asleep inspired Miami gentry to seek mayoral intervention lest matters get out of hand. Five thousand kids jammed the house over a thirty-eight hour schedule at a dollar a head to see Rock Around the Clock, those sturdiest among cats and gators comped to coffee and doughnuts for the Saturday 7:00 am showing. We just let the kids have a good time and yell their lungs out, said manager Charles Whittaker. They are only young once, and maybe the rock and roll fad will last only as long as Davy Crockett. Dancing in aisles was not uncommon during engagements of Rock Around The Clock. Exhibs not yet hip to the revolution still called it jitterbugging, and yes, they drew a line at seat-slashing and screen-aimed missile launches, but when was the last time showmen had houses packed during off-days and sluggish matinee times? Rock and Roll woke everyone up to a new epoch for selling movies. Mom and Dad were largely retired to their Philcos, and from here on, boxoffice negotiations would be conducted with their offspring.

Eight or so rock and roll features turned up on TCM recently. Most were from Columbia. They’d been on the slagheap since days long past when local channels filled off-hours with black-and-white cheapies they had to buy in order to get crowd pleasers like On The Waterfront and The Caine Mutiny. Teenagers who’d once waited on line to see Rock Around The Clock must have been stunned by latter-day televised reunions with such a drab little picture. These encounters no doubt increased appreciation for progress made since. Watching them now provides insight into just how starved 50’s kids were for helpings of the new sound, deluded though it was by penurious budgets and a tentative approach to still radical and possibly controversial music. Rock and roll was a kid phenomenon as seen through the eyes of cynical adults. Our (intended) emotional investment isn’t with teens and their problems, nor bands and their ambitions. Writers clearly flummoxed by entertainment demands of new youth re-routed emphasis toward world-weary agents, jaded managers, and fighting-to-survive producers, characters inspired by selfsame hucksters trying to harness and exploit this peculiar, if frightening, movement. Rock Around The Clock belies its title by focusing instead on former swing promoter Johnny Johnston, mature beyond the point of being overly impressed with Billy Haley or his Comets, except inasmuch as he’s able to peddle them to gullible (and mostly offscreen) teens. Primary conflicts revolve around Medusa-like agent Alix Talton setting her cap for the agent, while romantic rival John Archer, increasingly puffy and careworn since mopping up Cody Jarrett's gang seven years before, waits patiently in the wings. Sets are cramped to a point of suffocation. Guest artists aren’t treated as such, being shoved into soundstage corners and coming off like so much stock footage from other movies. Haley’s band is depicted as a freak find in a podunk town, while legendary deejay Alan Freed operates an impoverished nightclub catering rock acts to a handful of overaged extras for whom music like his would surely be an unknown quantity.

Columbia’s get-it quick scheme was duplicated the following year by a Warners release, Jamboree, itself little more than a feature equivalent of Scopiotone reels strung together to fill 75 or so minutes of running time. The negative cost of $50,000 was exceeded by as many WB short subjects that year, though domestic rentals of $532,000 (with foreign $210,000) and eventual profits of $506,000 make you wonder why they didn’t do a peck more of these things. Maybe Warners didn’t want to associate themselves with such flashes in the pan. Again, it’s agents and their competition occupying center stage, a tedium interrupted by assorted bands and singers on and off as though appearing on Dick Clark’s Bandstand. He’s on board as well for a screen debut, along with numerous record spinners from radio markets nationwide --- all photographed against flatly lit, seemingly cardboard backdrops. Did any feature film talent get less respect that year? Jamboree highlights Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins, with beginner Frankie Avalon bringing up the rear. Focal point agents and handlers are of standardized, seen-it-all sort, their disdain toward rock and roll artists mirroring that of writers and producers stuck with turning out these ten-day cheaters. Let’s Rock was Columbia again. This time balladeer Julius LaRosa resists the transition to R&R, but career reversals, and the influence of lovable kook Phyllis Newman, eventually bring him around. Maintaining resolute determination not to deliver the goods, Columbia indulges an entire first half of LaRosa singing precisely those tunes his audience proposes to reject, while guest bands tilt backward toward forties swing as opposed to the rocking out we were there to see. Paul Anka, The Royal Teens, Della Reese, and The Tyrones represent a mixed bag of the newly hip and vaguely retro. TV personality Wink Martindale tells LaRosa he’s too square for kids at his taping, then sends the crooner out to do yet another ballad. Rock Around The Clock and its follow-up, Don’t Knock The Rock, had each took $1.1 million in domestic rentals, anticipating a miles-long ribbon of adolescent sucker bait, though diminishing returns were inevitable as the fad ran aground with increasingly weak product. Pictures like Let’s Rock were being rushed to market before workable formulas could be ironed out. Would kids go on buying such stuff, even as things got worse with Juke Box Rhythm, a 1959 release boasting George Jessel as m.c. for threadbare acts that would have been persona non grata even on a small market TV dance party? The title refers to a stage extravaganza for which Brian Donlevy (in cut-rate Warner Baxter/42nd Street mode) seeks funding, his featured act being a Spike Jones inspired geriatric team called The Nitwits, members of which, according to imdb, were born in the early 1900’s. This is what teenagers wanted in 1959? Decades old Vitaphone shorts might better have reflected musical tastes of that year.

Twentieth-Century Fox moved in at the end of 1956 to demonstrate what money and production values could do to elevate lowly teen fodder, but whatever good intentions The Girl Can’t Help It started out with were soon frustrated by studio personnel too hopelessly square to realize what rhythmic gold they were mining. Again, musical acts are segregated from principal players, despite sumptuous staging and rich color denied these same artists at Columbia. Startling indeed to see The Platters, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, and Fats Domino perform before anything other than simple curtains draped along soundstage walls. Director Frank Tashlin was forty-three here. The youthful and anarchic spirit of two decades before would have been ideal to capture the vitality of rock and roll, but now he prefers highlighting mainstream songstress Julie London, lovingly photographed in a fantasy sequence with leading man Tom Ewell that makes clear where Tashlin’s preference lay. As with Columbia leads, Ewell plays surrogate for behind-the-camera veterans baffled by kids and their musical tastes. He’s a hard drinker and longtime combatant vis-à-vis women of London’s (mature) wiles --- hardly an identification figure for teens lured by rocking names on the marquee. Disdainful of the big beat when he bothers to listen, Ewell’s caught up in the travails of Little Caesar-inspired gang chieftain Edmond O’Brien and pneumatic bombshell Jayne Mansfield. Other than oddball child wonder Barry Gordon, his trailer featured song cut from the finished print, there are no young people among the principals in The Girl Can’t Help It. Comedy is of a leering sort that would probably have embarrassed teenage girls with their dates. Indeed, these situations play like wish fulfillment for tired organization men dreaming of Playboy models as they pour a second highball. O’Brien finally grooves with the band for a last reel tie-up, but his song, despite its humor and energy, is a withering putdown of rock and roll’s perceived excesses. The Girl Can’t Help It endures less for musical landmarks it captures than for adult attitudes it reflects. Tashlin and the writers seem hell-bent on telling their kind of (old-fashioned) story in spite of the overpowering cultural movement they’ve been commissioned to portray (if not exploit). This is one instance where youth’s takeover of Hollywood a decade later might have actually served a useful, if more profitable, purpose had it occurred instead in 1956. As it is, The Girl Can’t Help It realized much of an $896,000 profit from patrons eager to check out Jayne Mansfield, her formidable image dominating ad art and relegating the rock acts to near-microscopic cameo status around the margins.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't think that these films were THAT contempuous toward Rock and It's fans.I felt as if "ROCK AROUND...." treated Haley as a kind of innovator.

10:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Minneapolis' Gopher Theatre was a handsome venue before its late '70s decline and eventual demolition.

It was hard to miss the item in the Columbia trade ad for ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK mentioning the film's "Command Performance" for the Queen. I have no words.

You were perhaps a little hard on THE GIRL CAN'T HELP IT... but then every time I see it, the word "masterpiece" comes to mind. We'll agree to disagree on this one, I guess.

7:25 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Sometimes I come off a little severe even with movies I like a lot, Griff, which is to say that, like you, I do revere "The Girl Can't Help It". It's a great show on its own terms, and most fascinating for me in terms of attitudes it conveys toward rock and roll --- make no mistake, I'm a great fan of this picture ... and glad to hear from someone else who feels the same.

8:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The best thing I can say about "The Girl Can't Help It"--besides the music--is that it's less cringe-inducing than most of Tashlin's other movies. Eastman house is doing a Tashlin retro, and I'm trying to decide how much I want to punish myself. They're showing two or three of his cartoons with each feature, so it's a hard call.

The thing that always bugged be about studio R&R movies is that they usually show the bands playing in supper clubs, like lounge acts--this lasted through The Partridge Family f'r chrissakes! (Of course nowadays I pass the casino billboards and see the names of 70-80s acts. If I thought they were any good, I'd cry.)

At least pix like Horror of Party Beach, Eegah! and The Giant Gila Monster had bands in more likely venues.

10:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Man, do I love rock & roll movies. We recently screened ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK (with specially selected '50s shorts and a vintage "concert" by Ricky Nelson, whose baby-doll face belied the hot licks he and his band put down) and our Friday night movie gang ate it up and sang "Giddy Up a Ding Dong" well into the night. Don't overlook impoverished productions like ROCK BABY ROCK IT and CARNIVAL ROCK, which -- although still poorly staged and cheaply made -- featured some actual little-known rockabilly acts that really moved, dad. Great stuff. Rock and roll IS here to stay, if you ask me.

11:30 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

"The Girl can't Help It" is a good-looking movie, and gets a big thumbs-up from me. I wonder whether the juke-box racket really was as cut-throat as the movie depicts.

11:04 PM  

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