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Sunday, April 26, 2020

Hot Rods and Rock From AIP

Two Shows, Plus AIP Stars In Person, and Signing Autographs!

Dragstrip Girl and Rock All Night Are Sure a Keen Pair

Ever do a chickie run? Neither have I. We think of them in connection with James Dean and likewise doomed teens. I never hear of current rebels trying them, with or without cause. Seems runs of the chickie-era varied in format beyond the one Natalie Wood presided over. Dragstrip Girl proposes several risks-of-all to demonstrate nerve behind wheels. Amazon gets within car length of Dragstrip Girl and co-feature Rock All Night, the pair having played in 1957 under AIP banner now streaming in quality better than long-deprived fans dare expect (Shout! Factory the provider). I watched in hope of align with ’57 sensibilities, this with fresh listen to “Rockabilly” compilations to make transport complete. Ridicule them (and me too) if you please, but do watch first and maybe get surprised by what pro jobs they are despite penurious AIP outlay. I enjoyed both and go proud saying so. There is a spirit many B’s have, energy too often sapped from high-end product. Roger Corman I need not emphasize because so many others have, and continue to. I’ll just agree that, yes, his early films are underestimated, in part because they’ve become harder to see. Ownership of Corman is split at least three different ways (no, four … five? --- skip it, make that more than is calculable). Just say for purpose of this mini-appreciation that his Rock All Night is more than just-good-for-what-it-is … for me, Rock All Night was a revelation.

William Saroyan once wrote a play called The Time Of Your Life (eventful day in a Bowery bar), was Pulitzer awarded, then saw his lump of pretension become James Cagney’s dullest picture. That was 1948. Nine years later, Charles B. Griffith (talk about underestimated) writes a close approximation in twenty-four hours for Corman to direct. Rock All Night is an eventful night in a rattier bar, and flies it attracts (this where AIP poverty strickiness helps). Thwarted ambitions, disillusioned love, worms turning, derive in fact from a TV yarn plugged into Jane Wyman’s anthology show, bought for undoubted pennies by Corman after he caught it with evening Spam, or whatever he ingested to maintain eighteen-hour work days. I’d like to see the Wyman episode to confirm guess that Griffith took little from it. He claimed to have cut up, then pasted, slivers of the bought script among added-by-him stuff. Griffith's was unique style many say was too good for Roger and AIP (Griffith himself was strong in that opinion), and perhaps kinder fate might have found him working instead for mighty Metro, but would this have stood Griffith better in posterity’s long run? He was around until 2007, evidently accessible as could be. But I didn’t realize then how good he was, not having seen his AIP’s since Paleozoic syndication.  So much is marvelous about Rock All Night, the least of it, surprisingly, the music, of which there really isn’t a lot. The Platters are here, two lip-sync songs at the open, then whoosh, they’re gone (not the plan, their having ankled a star spot at a last minute for greater glory of concerting). Also aboard are “The Blockbusters,” who recorded for “Antler Records,” but don’t seem to have registered much elsewhere (pause here for rock musicologists to tell how famous they actually were, and how dumb I am not to know it).

Real value of Rock All Night for me is a cast and situations that raised not one seat fidget or retire to the kitchen. Dick Miller is the lead, I said the lead. There is a splendid documentary about Dick streaming on Amazon. He just left us this past year. I don’t know why Dick was not in 24/7 demand, because he is terrific here, and gets to save the day for the ensemble at Rock’s wrap. Another familiar and welcome face: Robin Morse as “Al,” the bartender. Morse was the splendid actor who played Marty’s friend, the one who exalts “That Mickey Spillane … he sure can write.” I see where Morse died in 1958, after not getting to do enough (a “pit slave” in The Ten Commandments among bits, uncredited parts, or roles cut out). Acting really was, remains, a hard luck life for most. Does a bell go off for Morse in the beyond when ones of us say things nice about him? I hope so. Rock All Night is rife with hopefuls and never-were’s. Most deserved better, but never got it. Russell Johnson robs an offscreen supermarket before showing up to terrorize Rock space for a mesmerizing third act. Gilligan's Island would be Johnson’s lucky star, but he was plenty good here, aided by sharp Griffithian dialogue. Mel Welles is also along as “Sir Bop,” a hipster and then some, dispenser of slang like Pig Latin put through a sieve. IMDB says Mel was a clinical psychologist at one time. How many of us can claim that? He’s more joy of Rock All Night. I once found a half-sheet for The Undead (lovely) signed by Welles (not Orson … Mel). He is a monument at AIP, but wait, so are others (Jonathan Haze, Bruno VeSota, both in Rock All Night). Many lived to be interviewed to death, each astonished by fans too young to have seen the movies first run, but caring yet. Why seek such stuff so long past relevancy? To members of the AIP Alumni Association, past work seemed a very definition of ephemeral.

1961 Dusk-Dawn Re-Coupling of AIP's
The girl who was Dragstrip Girl was Fay Spain, a name ideal to the 50’s. Something I didn’t realize about Fay was that she played “Hyman Roth’s” wife in The Godfather: Part II. That means she acted opposite Lee Strasberg! Suppose he gave Fay tips, or got tips from her? John Ashley makes his film debut here, a natural presence who never took an acting lesson, and it shows, altogether to the good. Dragstrip Girl was directed by Edward L. Cahn, around from early talk day and could finish a feature before you'd bring in groceries. He did much for AIP, fun sci-fi for others, had MGM Our Gangs on his c.v. Cahn knew recipe for constant work: start always on time, finish ahead of that, and don’t spend a nickel untoward. Dragstrip Girl has speed (natch) and verve. Part of it was captured at a real-life race, so check off documentary value plus dollars saved. These kids run hot-rods more serious than Andy Hardy or Jimmy Lydon. When did teens lose interest in souping up old cars? I never noticed them at it when I was in school. Of course, if they were, I was probably home watching Mogambo. Risking necks seem to be daily duty for Dragstrip’s young scruffs. No wonder grown-ups despaired so of youth. Were movies like Dragstrip Girl a bad influence? (as Jerry Wald accused) Did they go home, build a lethal go-devil, then go out and kill busloads of nuns? Rock All Night and Dragstrip Girl are as high a time as I’ve had with a double feature this year, not a last of AIP pairs I’ll watch and report on, now that Amazon is ladling them so lushly (at least fifteen so far excavated, and put in queue). 2020 is looking up.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

I always enjoyed watching Fay Spain.

7:12 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Fay Spain at the 6:55 mark...

6:19 PM  
Blogger Bill S said...

Really enjoyed this echo down memory lane. I have not seen either picture, but I recall them playing at our local Strand Theater in downtown Hutchinson, Kansas in 1957. I have a photo of the theater front that I'd love to share, but can't figure out how to do that in your comments section.

Bill Shaffer
Tecumseh, Kansas

2:32 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Bill --- I remember you from your father winning "The King and Four Queens" ballyhoo contest. Great hearing from you again. If you can scan the photo and e-mail it to me, I would be glad to feature it at Greenbriar.

3:56 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Thanks, again, John! I checked these out and had a ball. DRAGSTRIP GIRL is a tasty burgoo of process shots, found footage and antediluvian pop culture. But ROCK ALL NIGHT! Man! How have I missed this hour of Cormantics my whole life? Almost all the music front loaded so we can downshift and appreciate brutally honest big mouth Dick Miller getting, then blurting out, the number of each and all of his cast mates. Cheezy, wonderful fun!

12:30 PM  

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