Rockin’ in the Film World #10: THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT (20th Century Fox 1956)

Frank Tashlin  combines two of 50’s America’s favorite obsessions, sex & rock’n’roll, in THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, Jayne Mansfield’s first headlight headlining role. When Jayne sashays across the screen, turning heads, melting ice, boiling milk, and cracking eyeglasses a star is born, in CinemaScope and gorgeous DeLuxe color. But the film is stacked with more than just Jayne’s Twin Peaks; it features performances from rock royalty like Little Richard, Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, The Platters, and a host of others.

The plot is very simple (and very familiar): a goony gangster (broadly played by a hilarious Edmond O’Brien ) hires a down-on-his-luck agent (Tom Ewell of THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH) to make a singing star out of his honey (our girl Jayne). Only problem is, Jayne can’t carry a tune in a bucket, shattering lightbulbs whenever she starts to warble. Seems she doesn’t want to be a star anyway, just to settle down and be domestic. Tom and Jayne quietly fall in love, the gangster gets jealous, and you just know that by film’s end everything will turn out for the best.

Interspersed in all this are the cream of classic 50’s rockers belting out their big ti.. er, hits! Little Richard does the title tune, “Ready Teddy”, and “She’s Got It”. The Three Chuckles (whose lead singer Teddy Randazzo costarred with Tuesday Weld in ROCK ROCK ROCK  ) perform “Cinnamon Sinner”. Fats Domino lends his New Orleans-flavored R&B to “Blue Monday”. Gene Vincent blasts his mega-hit “Be-Bop-A-Lula”. Eddie Cochran belts out “Twenty Flight Rock”. Abby Lincoln does a Gospel-tinged “Spread the Word”. The Platters doo-wop to “You’ll Never, Never Know”, and Nino Tempo, Johnny Olenn, Eddie Fontaine, The Treniers, and Freddy Bell & The Bell-Boys also appear.

Tashlin’s trademark cartoony gags bounce playfully throughout the film, beginning right off the bat with the pre-credits introduction by Ewell. It’s packed with double entendres by the truckload, most of them involving Jayne’s ample endowments. There’s a funny fantasy scene where Ewell, still carrying the torch for ex-client Julie London, sees her everywhere singing her own big hit, “Cry Me A River” (and by the way, the future Nurse Dixie McCall of TV’s EMERGENCY was pretty darn hot herself!). Surpassing that is the sight of O’Brien gyrating wildly and croaking out the song “Rock Around the Rock Pile”, a precursor of sorts to Elvis Presley’s showstopping number in JAILHOUSE ROCK .

Despite the classic rockers, Tashlin’s Looney Tunes humor, and a beautiful pastel color scheme, all eyes will be on Jayne Mansfield. She’s really good in this, giving a sweet-natured performance as the girl who just can’t help it. Jayne was red-hot at the time due to her Broadway smash WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER? (later filmed by Tashlin), and 20th Century Fox signed her as a rival to Marilyn Monroe. She was a good actress, though now best remembered for her sexpot image, and it’s a shame her career took such a downward trajectory so fast. With the right material, we’d probably be looking at Jayne Mansfield today for more than her obvious assets.

Legend has it when THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT was released in England, a 16-year-old kid in Liverpool saw his rock idols perform for the first time. The lad’s name was John Lennon, and soon he met 15-year-old Paul McCartney, who auditioned for Lennon’s teenage band by doing an imitation of Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock” from the film. McCartney got the gig, and within a few years The Beatles  were the biggest rock’n’roll band in the world. That’s how influential THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT was in the history of rock’n’roll, and any fan of rock music, Jayne Mansfield, or Frank Tashlin needs to put it on their must-see list.



 

Rockin’ in the Film World #9: JIMI HENDRIX: ELECTRIC CHURCH (2015)

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Back in March, I attended the “Experience Hendrix” live show, featuring guitar gods Kenny Wayne Sheppard, Buddy Guy, Zakk Wylde, Dweezil Zappa, Jonny Lang, and others jamming to the music of Jimi Hendrix. But as they say “Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby”, and the documentary JIMI HENDRIX: ELECTRIC CHURCH is a full-on aural assault chronicling Hendrix’ 1970 performance at the Atlanta Pop Festival.

Director John McDermott begins the film with some famous talking heads (Paul McCartney, Steve Winwood, Susan Teschi, Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, Rolling Stone writer Anthony DeCurtis), as well as residents of the tiny town of Byron, where the festival was actually held (and they seem to be having a ball reminiscing!). There are clips of Hendrix on THE DICK CAVETT SHOW and of segregationist Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox (who hates them damn hippies!).

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Then it’s showtime, as Jimi and his band dive into classics like “Fire”. “All Along the Watchtower”, “Foxy Lady”, “Purple Haze”, “Hey Joe” , ‘Voodoo Child”, and “Stone Free”, which segues straight into “The Star Spangled Banner” and “‘Straight Ahead”. Jimi’s at the peak of his powers, using every trick in his repertoire, playing with his teeth, bending over backwards, working that whammy bar to bend those beautiful notes. It’s easy to forget what a powerhouse drummer Mitch Mitchell was in light of Jimi’s brilliance, but damn if he doesn’t approach Keith Moon territory with his furious playing. Billy Cox keeps a steady bass beat while Hendrix and Mitchell bounce off each other into the stratosphere.

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The performance was filmed on July 4, 1970, and less than three months later Jimi Hendrix was dead at age 27 of a barbiturate overdose. The footage for this film sat in filmmaker Steve Rash’s barn for over thirty years before being made into this documentary and released on the Showtime network. It’s been a long time coming, but now fans can enjoy this seminal piece of rock’n’roll history. It’s on DVD and Blu-Ray, and would make a fine Christmas gift for the classic rocker in your life.

Rockin’ in the Film World #8: BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (20th Century Fox 1970)

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Sex and drugs and rock and roll!! That about sums up BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, a lightning-fast paced Russ Meyer extravaganza covering the end of the decadent 60’s with a BANG… literally! The movie was originally intended to be a sequel to 1967’s soapy and sappy VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, but Meyer and screenwriter Roger Ebert (yes, THAT Roger Ebert!) changed course and concocted this satirical, surrealistic saga that skewers Hollywood, rock music, the sexual revolution, and anything else that got in its way.

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Like the original, the story concerns three nubile young ladies trying to make it out in La-La Land (that’s Los Angeles, folks), only this time they’re a Midwestern rock power trio named The Kelly Affair. Kelly (Dolly Read, former Playmate and soon-to-be wife of comedian Dick Martin), Pet (model/actress Marcia McBroom), and Casey (Playmate Cynthia Meyers), along with Kelly’s boyfriend and band manager Harris (David Gurian), hit the big city, where Kelly’s sexy Aunt Susan (Phyllis Davis of VEGA$ fame) bequeaths a third of her fortune to her only living relative, much to the displeasure of slimy lawyer Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod).

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The trio attend a hipster party thrown by record producer and scenemaker Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (a completely over-the-top John LaZar). The promoter digs their sound and look, rechristens them The Carrie Nations, and they zoom to the top of the pop charts. Kelly’s ego gets the best of her, and soon she demands half of Susan’s dough, thanks in part to hustler Lance Rocke (Peter Fonda lookalike Michael Blodgett), who worms his way into her, uh, good graces, leaving Harris out in the cold. Porn star Ashely St. Ives (the immortal Edy Williams!), who gets horny when the wind blows, then sets her sights on Harris’s fresh meat, and what Ashley wants, Ashley gets!

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Drummer Pet (and why is the drummer always black in rock films?) hooks up with earnest law student Emerson (Harrison Page, later of TV’s SLEDGE HAMMER!), but strays with World Heavyweight Champion Randy Black (Blaxploitation/Exploitation fixture James Iglehart). Bassist Casey quickly gets hooked on booze and downers, ends up pregnant by Harris, has a (then) illegal abortion, and falls into the arms of designer Roxanne (Meyer vet Erica Gavin). All these shenanigans wind up in a private party at Z-Man’s, where the peyote-laced wine takes things from love-in to freak-out as Z goes psycho and starts a bloody killing spree…

This delightfully demented cautionary tale moves at breakneck speed, and there’s never a dull moment as we follow the band on their sordid rise to the top. It’s funny right up until things take a dark turn as Z-Man reveals his true nature and, his mind blown from all the drugs, starts chopping off heads and blowing people’s brains out! Ebert’s script is a psychedelic trip through the sleazy side of Hollywood, filled with in-jokes (Porter Hall was a 30’s-40’s character actor specializing in weasels), thinly disguised characters (Z-Man= Phil Spector, Randy Black = Muhammed Ali), and nods to classic film genres. Rated X when first unleashed, BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS contains plenty of nudity but no explicit sex scenes. The rating was bestowed more for the bombastic, gore-filled ending, coming so soon after the Tate-LaBianca Manson murders that scandalized the country.

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The Carrie Nations aren’t the only rock band featured here. The psychedelic sounds of Strawberry Alarm Clock can be heard playing at the party, including their #1 smash “Incense and Peppermints”. The band had also appeared in AIP’s hippie drama PSYCH-OUT, a Dick Clark Production, making them the only rock band in history to hold the distinction of working for both Clark and Russ Meyer! Folky singers The Sandpipers (of “Gunatanamera” and “Come Saturday Morning” fame) warble the title song, while blues rocker Lynn Carey (daughter of actor Macdonald Carey) dubs Kelly’s vocals. Composer Stu Phillips (known for his TV scores on THE MONKEES, GET CHRISTIE LOVE!, and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, among others) fills the film with groovy period music, and The Carrie Nations’ songs were written by Bob Stone (Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps, & Thieves). I really dug the hard rocking “Sweet Talkin’ Candy Man”!

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BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS probably isn’t for everybody, but it’s a delicious treat for many, especially Grindhouse fans. It’s a wild ride to Hollywood’s dark side, filled with sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, and for my money you can’t beat that!

BONUS! Here’s Strawberry Alarm Clock doing their hit, “Incense and Peppermints”!

Rockin’ in the Film World #7: The Beatles in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (United Artists 1964)

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(It’s a Sunday night, February 9, 1964. Everybody’s watching THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW to get a peek at this new phenomenon called Beatlemania. The adults in the room are disgusted, saying things like “They look like a bunch of girls!”, “They must be sissies!”, and “Yeah yeah yeah? What the hell kind of song is that??” They just don’t get it.  But the six-year-old kid watching along does, and a lifelong obsession with rock’n’roll is born…)

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From the opening shot of the Fab 4 being chased down the street by screaming teenyboppers to the final clanging guitar notes of the title tune, A HARD DAY’S NIGHT makes a joyful noise introducing The Beatles to the silver screen. John, Paul, George, and Ringo come off as a mod version of the Marx Brothers with their anarchic antics, guided by the deft hand of director Richard Lester. Shot in cinema verite style, this zany, practically plotless romp follows the boys as they head to London for a live television performance.

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Accompanying the Beatles is Paul’s grandfather, an old codger who’s “nursing a broken heart”. But don’t let Foxy Grampa fool you, for as Paul says “He’s a mixer”, a troublemaking curmudgeon who’s always stirring the pot. Grandfather’s a bit of a lecher too, and is constantly getting in trouble. He’s played by Irish actor Wilfrid Brambell, known to audiences across the pond as the incorrigible old junkman on the popular sitcom STEPTOE AND SON. References throughout the film to Grandfather as being “very clean” are in contrast to his “dirty old man” sitcom character. The series was later Americanized as SANFORD AND SON, starring another “dirty old man”, Redd Foxx.

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There are plenty of gags and bits of business as the group’s manager Norm (Norman Rossington, who also worked with Elvis in DOUBLE TROUBLE) and his assistant Shake (comic actor John Jukin) attempt to keep the boys and Grandfather out of trouble long enough to make it to the TV show. And let’s not forget Victor Spinetti as the neurotic TV director! Pop culture keeps popping up, as Shake reads a MAD paperback, and a bellman carries a copy of an Elvis magazine. One throwaway bit is the first “drug reference” in Beatles history, as John snorts Coke!:

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Lennon’s a natural comic who probably could’ve had a film career if he wanted to. Ringo later did do movies on his own (THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN, CAVEMAN), and his hangdog look made him perfect for pathos. His solo excursion in the film, wandering the streets of London, is a highlight. Another highlight is the brief press conference, with questions and answers like these:

  • Q: How did you find America?  John: Turned left at Greenland.
  • Q: Are you a Mod or a Rocker?  Ringo: Neither, I’m a Mocker.
  • Q: What would you call that hairstyle you’re wearing?  George: Arthur.

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But it’s the music Beatles fans will treasure, as they perform twelve of their hits, beginning with “A Hard Day’s Night”, then “I Should Have Known Better”, “I Wanna Be Your Man”, “Don’t Bother Me”, “All My Loving”, “If I Fell”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, “And I Love Her”, “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You”, “Tell Me Why”, and “She Loves You”. An instrumental version of “This Boy (Ringo’s Theme)” is heard during Ringo’s trek through London, with all incidental music by Beatles producer George Martin.

American ex-pat Richard Lester directed the controlled chaos so perfectly he was assigned the Beatles second film, HELP! Lester’s madcap style served him well in mod 60’s films like HOW I WON THE WAR (starring Lennon), A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, and PETULIA, and into the 70’s with THE THREE MUSKETEERS and its sequel, and 1980’s SUPERMAN II. John Jympson’s frenetic editing contributes to the freewheeling pace, and Alun Owen’s screenplay provides a good framework for the lunacy that ensues. One of the all-time great rock films, A HARD DAY’S NIGHT is a rollicking romp through early Beatlemania, and if you’re too young to remember what the fuss was all about, see this movie!

Rockin’ in the Film World #6: IT’S A BIKINI WORLD (Trans-American 1967)

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IT’S A BIKINI WORLD is one of the lowest of the low-budget “Beach Party” ripoffs you’ll ever see. Yet it has a certain charm to it, a likeable little “battle of the sexes” soufflé featuring some great 60’s rock acts and the undeniable appeal of beach bunny Deborah Walley.

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Beach stud Mike Samson goes gaga for knockout new redhead Delilah Dawes (Samson and Delilah, get it?). She thinks he’s an egotistical jerk and gives him the big freeze-out, telling him she prefers the “serious type”, so Mike dons a pair of thick glasses and some nerdy duds, passing himself off as intellectual brother “Herbert”. Herbert takes her to museums and zoos, while Mike competes with her in skateboarding and boat races run by local customizer Daddy, owner of hangout The Dungeon. Delilah discovers Mike’s scam, and they compete in a final Cross Country Race that consists of car racing, motorcycles, swimming, and even riding camels! Mike throws the race, and the two finally get together, as if there were ever any doubt.

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The extremely loose plot is just an excuse to have a bunch of classic Sixties rocker lipsynch some of their hits. Pat and Lolly Vegas, the Native American brothers who wrote P.J. Proby’s hit “Niki Hoky” and later formed the band Redbone, sing “Walk On”. R&B girl group The Toys perform their minor hit “Attack!”. Memphis garage rockers The Gentrys, featuring future WWF manager Jimmy “Mouth of the South” Hart as lead singer, do the frat rocker “Spread It On Thick”. Minnesota’s The Castaways jam out to their smash hit “Liar Liar”. And finally, British Invasion blues rock stars The Animals, with a bored looking Eric Burdon, do the Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil classic “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, which is what Burdon looks like he wishes he were doing!

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Can I get a shout out for the ever-delectable All-American girl Deborah Walley! The cute, perky Miss Walley made her film debut as every surfer’s dream in 1961’s GIDGET GOES HAWAIIAN, and quickly became a teen flick favorite. Deborah appeared in several AIP “Beach” movies (BEACH BLANKET BINGO, SKI PARTY, GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI) and was married for a spell to “Beach” regular John Ashley. She was a drummer in Elvis Presley’s band in SPINOUT, and co-starred for two seasons as Eve Arden’s daughter on the sitcom THE MOTHERS-IN-LAW. Deborah’s costar here is Tommy Kirk, former Disney star (OLD YELLER, THE SHAGGY DOG, SON OF FLUBBER) who was fired when Disney was informed Kirk was gay. Moving over to AIP, Tommy did PAJAMA PARTY and GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI (with Walley). After getting busted for marijuana, Kirk’s career and life slid downhill. He made MARS NEEDS WOMEN for Larry Buchanan and  BLOOD OF GHASTLY HORROR for Al Adamson, and developed a vicious drug habit that rendered him unemployable. After getting clean and sober, Tommy Kirk left show business, running a successful carper cleaning business. He returned “home” in 2006 when he was named a ‘Disney Legend’ by the company, and does the occasional fan convention.

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Kirk’s pal is played by Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett, who would’ve been better used lipsynching his hit “Monster Mash “, because he sure can’t act! Daddy is played with gusto by the great Sid Haig , hamming it up and peppering his speech with phrases like “It’s a gas” and “Groovy, man”. Director Stephanie Rothman was a Roger Corman protégé and one of the only women working in the exploitation field besides Doris Wishman. Corman financed IT’S A BIKINI WORLD, and clips of his ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS are shown when the gang goes to the movies! Rothman and husband Charles Schwartz (who produced and cowrote the screenplay) later left Corman and formed Dimension Films, where she became noted for THE VELVET VAMPIRE and TERMINAL ISLAND. Rothman’s decidedly feminist point of view is evident in this one, pitting Walley against Kirk in physical sporting competitions, something you didn’t see in AIP’s Frankie and Annette features.

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Let me be honest though: IT’S A BIKINI WORLD is cheap, low budget nonsense geared for the teenage drive-in crowd, made to separate kids from their allowances on the weekend. It’s full of corny jokes and dumb slapstick gags, and most of the money spent on it probably went to get the rock’n’rollers to appear. That being said, it’s hard not to like this little time capsule of the Swinging Sixties. It does what it’s supposed to; it keeps you entertained for an hour and a half. Plus, it’s got those classic rock acts in it, and Deborah Walley to look at. Sounds like a win-win to me!!

 

Rockin’ in the Film World #5: Elvis Presley in JAILHOUSE ROCK (MGM 1957)

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It’s hard for younger audiences to understand what a truly subversive figure Elvis Presley was in the 1950’s. Throughout the 1960’s he made safe, sanitized films that seem quite tame today, and his later Las Vegas persona has been parodied to death (and indeed, Presley became a parody of himself in the 70’s). But back in the day, Elvis was the original punk rocker, his gyrating hips and perpetual sneer causing quite a scandal among adults brought up on sedate Bing Crosby-type crooners. Teenagers were attracted to this new, rebellious musical style, and Presley became their King. Hits like “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Hound Dog”, and “All Shook Up” topped the charts, and a plethora of rock’n’roll artists jumped on the bandwagon. Elvis had already done two films by the time JAILHOUSE ROCK was released, a triumph of punk attitude about a convict’s rise to the top of the music heap.

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Young hothead Vince Everett (Elvis) kills a man in a bar fight over a woman, getting him ten years in jail for manslaughter. The cocky Vince is schooled in prison life by his cellmate Hunk, an ex-country singer who runs the prison’s black market economy where cigarettes are “the coin of the realm”. Hunk finds out Vince’s a pretty fair singer himself and lands him a spot in the warden’s talent show, being broadcast coast-to-coast to promote a good image. Vince sings “I Want to Be Free” and the jail’s flooded with tons of fan mail. Hunk has it all withheld and concocts a scheme to draw up a 50/50 contract with the brash younger con.

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Eventually Vince is released, and the warden gives him his sacks of mail. Hunk has arranged for Vince to work at the Club LaForito, which turns out to be a sleazy strip joint, whose owner wants him to bar back. He bombs onstage, but PR lady Peggy takes a shine to him, and soon he’s in the studio recording “Don’t Leave Me Now”. Peggy takes Vince to a swanky party hosted by her parents. To say he doesn’t fit in is an understatement, as the guests are discussing the latest in modern jazz. Vince leaves after insulting everyone, and when Peggy follows, he gives her a rough kiss, stating “It’s just the beast in me”.

“Don’t Leave Me Now” becomes a hit, but not for Vince, as the Geneva Records owner steals the arrangement and gives it to his biggest star Mickey Alba. Hotheaded Vince gets hot again and beats the tar out of the weasel. He and Peggy hire a lawyer and begin their own label. Vince records “Treat Me Nice” (one of Presley’s 50’s hits) and go out on the hustle, promoting the disc with DJ’s and stores. The song breaks big, and next thing you know Vince is a national star.

Television comes calling, and Vince is booked to appear in a number titled “Jailhouse Rock”. This is probably Presley’s finest moment in movies, an uptempo rocker set in a cellblock. Elvis choreographed his own dance moves, and though the tune’s a bit Hollywoodized compared to the original recording (adding a con’s chorus and some horns), it captures the spirit of young Elvis Presley at his best:

Success goes straight to Vince’s head. Hunk is released and, learning their jailhouse contract isn’t valid, is made into Vince’s flunky. His womanizing with starlet Sherry Wilson causes a rift between him and Peggy. When Vince wants to sell out his company and leave Peggy in the cold, Hunk loses it. A fight between to the former cellies winds up with Vince getting punched in the throat, unable to breathe. He’s rushed to the hospital with a damaged larynx, and may never sing again. But who are we kidding, of course he does, and we get a happy Hollywood ending with Vince reprising the song “Young and Beautiful”.

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Elvis’s surly demeanor as Vince is right on target. Of all his films, JAILHOUSE ROCK is right up top (along with KING CREOLE and FLAMING STAR ) as showcases for his acting ability. Not only that, he gets to sing some great Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller songs. Besides those I mentioned earlier, The King does another of his great rock anthems, “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care”. The music here’s better than the sappy tunes he sung in his sanitized 60’s films, and only KING CREOLE comes close in the soundtrack department.

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Pretty Judy Tyler (Peggy) was known to 50’s children as Princess Summerfall Winterspring on the pioneering TV show HOWDY DOODY. After filming JAILHOUSE ROCK, she and her husband were tragically killed in a car accident, causing Elvis so much grief he never watched this, his best movie. Mickey Shaughnessy (Hunk) was a dependable comic character actor who appeared in dozens of films and TV shows. Future Disney star Dean Jones has a role as a friendly DJ, while other Familiar Faces are Vaughn Taylor, Bess Flowers, Percy Helton, Bill Hickman, Donald Kerr , and Glenn Strange. Elvis’s backup band Scotty Moore, Bill Black, and DJ Fontana play Vince’s band, aided on keyboards by songwriter Stoller.

Guy Trosper’s screenplay was based on a story by blacklisted former actor Nedrick Young, who would come back the next year working with Stanley Kramer. Director Richard Thorpe was an old MGM warhorse dating back to the 20’s who lensed everything from Tarzan’s swinging adventures to Esther Williams splashtaculars. Producer Pandro S. Berman, another of Hollywood’s old guard, was coaxed into making an Elvis movie by his wife. Berman put his usual care into the production, and came up with another big hit for both the studio and Elvis. Critics of the time ripped JAILHOUSE ROCK apart, but today it’s seen as a milestone of the rock’n’roll movie, and Elvis Presley’s brightest, shiningest moment on the silver screen. Those of you who only think of Elvis as a bloated, jumpsuited Vegas lounge singer need to see JAILHOUSE ROCK to discover why he’s called The King. His loyal subjects (including yours truly) already know.

 

Rockin’ in the Film World #4: WILD IN THE STREETS (AIP 1968)

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If you think today’s political climate is tumultuous and crazy, wait’ll you get a load of WILD IN THE STREETS. Filmed in the chaotic year 1968, this satirical look at the counter-culture vs the establishment revolves around a power-mad rock star whose call to lower the voting age to 14 results in him becoming President of the good ol’ USA, and sticking it to the over 30 crowd by interring them in concentration camps loaded with LSD-spiked water supplies!

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Christopher Jones is Max Frost, née Flatow, the charismatic leader of rock band Max Frost and the Troopers. Pre-credits flashbacks show Max’s unhappy childhood with an overbearing mother (Shelley Winters at her over-the-top best) and abrasive dad (Bert Freed). Max learns to hate all adults and dabbles in making LSD and bombs. After he blows up dad’s car, the rebellious Max leaves home and winds up becoming a mega rock star rivaling the Beatles in popularity.

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Frost’s Troopers include 15-year-old lead guitarist and financial whiz Billy,  former child star now acid head Sally LeRoy, drummer/anthropologist Stanley X, and anarchist trumpeter The Hook. Aspiring Senator Fergus, running on an 18-year-old voter platform (which in reality didn’t go into effect until 1971), hires Max and his band to play at a political rally. But the shrewd Max comes up with a new song “Fourteen or Fight”, aimed at getting teenyboppers the vote, and urges his young “troops” to descend on the Sunset Strip to protest. This goes up the ass of the ultra-establishment Senator Allbright sideways, and a summit meeting is held at Fergus’s home, resulting in a compromise to fifteen and a promise from Max not to lead the teenagers to riot.

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Teens from across the country flock to the Strip in droves, with stock footage of the real Sunset Strip riots, exploited by AIP in 1967’s RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP… but that’s another post for another day. Suffice it to say, Max gets what he wants, and the 14 year olds get the vote. Max runs 25-year-old Sally for a vacant congressional seat, and she’s overwhelmingly elected. Stoned out Sally proposes lowering the age to hold office to 14 for congress, senate, and president, causing chaos among the old guard and riots in the streets of Washington, with twelve teens shot down and killed. Max and his merry pranksters devise a plan to spike the D.C. water supply with LSD, resulting in a psychedelic scene of tripped-out elected officials giving a unanimous vote to change the age limits!

The Republican Party (!) ask Max to run for President because “Nixon would look dumb with long hair and Ronald Reagan would look even worse!” Max is elected in a landslide and calls for mandatory retirement at age 30, then sending 35-year-olds to his LSD concentration camps to live out their days under blissful control. Max’s “troops” become storm troopers rounding up the oldsters, including his own mother and Senator Fergus, who’s picked up by his own son Jimmy. Revolutions spring up across the globe, as teenagers everywhere take over the world!

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Sound far-fetched? You bet, but the folks at American International Pictures had been doing teen exploitation pics for years, and knew it’s audience well. This one has a better cast than most AIPers, with lead Christopher Jones doing his best James Dean as the pony-tailed rebel Max. Jones was familiar to youngsters as star of the TV series THE LEGEND OF JESSE JAMES, portraying the outlaw as an anti-establishment hero. His  brief but memorable career saw him star in the sexploitation comedy THREE IN THE ATTIC, 1970’s THE LOOKING GLASS WAR, and David Lean’s lavish production RYAN’S DAUGHTER before he decided to drop out of movies altogether and devote his time to painting and sculpting. Christopher Jones is one of my favorites of the era, and made a final film appearance in 1996’s MAD DOG TIME as a favor to director Larry Bishop, who plays The Hook here (and was son of Rat Packer Joey Bishop).

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Besides Shelley Winters’ outrageous performance as Mrs. Flatow, the adults are represented by Hal Holbrook as Senator Fergus (who went on to star in a TV series called THE SENATOR), Oscar winner Ed Begley as Sen. Allbright, and Millie Perkins (THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK) as Fergus’s wife. Former child star Kevin Coughlin plays Billy, Diane Varsi (PEYTON PLACE) is Sally, and Richard Pryor makes an early film appearance as Stanley X. Another James Dean wannabe, Michael Margotta, plays Fergus’s rebellious son Jimmy. THE BRADY BUNCH’s Barry Williams is Max as a child, and AIP vet Salli Sachse is a hippie mom. Some famous names of the times have cameos as themselves: Army Archerd, Melvin Belli, Dick Clark, Pamela Mason, and the venerable Walter Winchell. And yes, the narrator is none other than Paul Frees, who seems to be  in every other film I write about!

Director Barry Shear did mostly television, but his feature credits include a couple good ones: the Blaxploitation drama ACROSS 110th STREET and the Western THE DEADLY TRACKERS. Screenwriter Robert Thom (married at the time to Millie Perkins) also penned COMPULSION, ALL THE FINE YOUNG CANNIBALS, BLOODY MAMA, and THE PHANTOM OF HOLLYWOOD, but is probably best remembered for DEATH RACE 2000. And believe it or not, WILD IN THE STREETS was actually Oscar nominated, for the fine editing work of Eve Newman and Fred Feitshans (it lost to BULLITT, but what the hell… a nomination for low budget AIP!)

But it really should’ve been nominated for was its rocking score. The Troopers songs (played offscreen by members of Davie Allen and the Arrows) were written by Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, the team responsible for classic hits by The Animals (“We Gotta Get Outta This Place”), The Drifters (“Saturday Night at the Movies”), Dolly Parton (“Here You Come Again”), Paul Revere and the Raiders (“Hungry”, “Kicks”), and The Righteous Brothers (“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”, “Soul and Inspiration”). A song from WILD IN THE STREETS made it to #22 on the Billboard charts, and was in heavy rotation on radio during 1968 (I still have the 45!) It’s “Shape of Things to Come”, a proto-punk call to revolution after the kids are gunned down in D.C.:

So if you’re sick of politics as usual (and who isn’t!),  WILD IN THE STREETS is just the thing to take your mind off all the noise and nonsense going on today. It’s a loopy time capsule of the hippie days, when you didn’t trust anyone over 30. I’m WAY past 30 now, but I’m thinking maybe we should send Hillary and The Donald to an LSD camp. Not Bernie though.. he’d probably dig it too much!