Rockin’ in the Film World #1: ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK (Columbia 1956)

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I’m kicking off this new series on the marriage of rock’n’roll music and film with what many believe is “the first rock’n’roll movie”, 1956’s ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK. The title tune was used in the opening credits of 1955’s THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE and caused teen fans to riot in theaters upon hearing that Big Beat. Producer Sam Katzman, always ready to jump on the latest bandwagon, put this quickie together and had a box-office smash on his hands. Adults were perplexed, but teenagers stormed theaters in droves, eager to plunk down their hard-earned cash to get a glimpse of rockers Bill Haley and His Comets, The Platters, and other hitmakers of the era.

Bill Haley & His Comets rehearse at the Dominion Theatre in London, where they will open their British tour. The Comets include accordion player Johnnie Grande, bassist Al Rex, and saxophonist Ruddy Pompilli.

The plot is virtually non-existent: band manager Steve Hollis and his sidekick Corny, tired of the dead big-band scene, make their way to New York to seek work with Corrine Talbot’s talent agency. Stopping in small town Strawberry Springs, they notice hordes of young people heading to the Saturday night dance. They discover Bill Haley and His Comets rocking out to “See Ya Later, Alligator”,  with everyone dancing up a storm. Corny asks a youngster what this strange music is called, and she exuberantly replies, “It’s rock and roll, brother, and we’re rocking tonight!” The dance floor clears when brother and sister duo Lisa and Jimmy Johns hit it for “Rock a Beatin’ Boogie”. The team’s played by Lisa Gaye and Earl Barton and hey, they’re pretty damn good:

Steve and Lisa fall in love, much to Corrine’s chagrin. She spends the rest of the film trying to put the kibosh on the romance. But ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK isn’t about plot, it’s about the new (at the time) artform called rock’roll. Besides Haley and his band (who’d soon be replaced as Rock King by some guy named Elvis), you’ll see doo-wop greats The Platters doing their hits “Only You” and “The Great Pretender”, the energetic Freddie Bell and the Bell Boys, and Latin jazz combo Tony Martinez and his Mambo Band (Martinez would later play Pepino in TV’s long running THE REAL MCCOYS, starring Walter Brennan). Legendary DJ Alan Freed also appears as himself in the film. It’s a bit cornball today, but as a time capsule to a more innocent era, it’s highly enjoyable. You’ll dig all the crazy hep talk, Daddy-O, and your feet won’t stop tapping while watching ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK. So don’t be a square, man, grab your honey and get rockin’!

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 4: B-Movie Roundup!

It’s time once again to make room on the ol’ DVR! Here’s five films that have their moments, but don’t quite make the “full review” cut.

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KING OF THE UNDERWORLD

(Warner Bros 1939, D: Lewis Seiler)

Mediocre entry in Warner’s gangster cycle. Humphrey Bogart had the tough guy hoodlum thing down to a science by this time; here, he plays it mainly for laughs as vain gang boss Joe Gerney. Bogie was definitely on his way up, but co-star Kay Francis (she of the Baba Wawa speech impediment) was on her way down, playing a doctor whose hubby was involved with the gang, now out to prove her own innocence. Plenty of colorful 30’s slang, but not worth wasting your time on. Fun fact: Listen for the scene where Kay calls Bogie “mowonic”!

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GO WEST YOUNG LADY

(Columbia 1941, D: Frank L. Strayer)

Cornball comedy Western starring Penny Singleton (on break from her BLONDIE films) and a very young Glenn Ford. Glenn’s the new sheriff of Headstone sent to rid the town of “Killer Pete”, while Penny’s an Easterner with a knack for trouble. Penny also sings and dances, as does Ann Miller as a saloon girl (the two take part in a great catfight towards the end). Veterans Charlie Ruggles, Allen Jenkins, and Jed Prouty mug it up in supporting roles. Nothing special, but fairly entertaining. Fun Fact: Western Swing band Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys perform their hit “Ida Red”.

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BAYOU

(United Artists 1957, D: Harold Daniels)

Having lived in Louisiana for five years, I dug this sordid little tale of a New York architect (Peter Graves) who falls in love with Cajun Queen Marie (Lita Milan). Eccentric character actor Timothy Carey plays Ulysses, bully of the bayou and rival for Marie’s affections. Carey’s odd shimmying dance has to be seen to be believed! Interesting B with Roger Corman vets Ed Nelson, and Jonathan Haze (LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS) in small roles. Worth checking out, especially for Carey fans. Fun Fact: Lita Milan was married to ousted Dominican dictator Ramfis Trujillo.

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TWELVE HOURS TO KILL

(20th Century Fox 1960, D; Edward L. Cahn)

This minor crime drama tries hard, as a Greek visitor (Nico Minardos) witnesses a gangland slaying and goes into hiding in a small town, pursued by the killers, a crooked cop, and a dogged detective. Barbara Eden is an attractive love interest, but Cahn’s lazy direction and Jerry Sohl’s rather obvious script do the movie in. Close, but no noir. Fun Fact: Supporting actors Gavin McLeod and Ted Knight reunited ten years later as cast members of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW.

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WANDA

(independent 1970, D:Barbara Loden)

The gem of this roundup! Actress Barbara Loden wrote and directed this character study about Wanda Goronski, an alcoholic, poverty stricken woman from West Pennsylvania coal country who leaves her husband and kids and hooks up with an abusive petty crook (Michael Higgins). Wanda is uneducated and has no self esteem, just drifts along the backroads of life with no plan, and will definitely hold your interest. Shot on location, this ultra realistic film was Loden’s only directorial effort. Sadly, she died from breast cancer in 1980. If you can only watch one film on this list, make it WANDA. Fun Fact: Loden was the wife of Oscar winning director Elia Kazan.

Now here’s Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys doing “Ida Red”. Take it away, Bob!!

Halloween Havoc!: EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS (Columbia 1956)

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UFOs have been spotted across the globe. Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) and his wife Carol (Joan Taylor) are on their way to the secret headquarters of Operation Skyhook when they’re strafed by a saucer! They tell Carol’s dad, General Hanley (Morris Ankrum) what occurred. The General in turn reports all the satellities they’ve sent up have been destroyed by mysterious forces. When Marvin and his crew send up the next one, the base is attacked by saucers, and the rocket launch incapacitated. Soon General Hanley is captured by the aliens, and Marvin learns to communicate with them. The alien’s intent: destroy Planet Earth! Our weapons are useless against their superior technology! CAN EARTH BE SAVED FROM THE FLYING SAUCER INVASION?!?!

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If you’re a fan of 50s sci-fi, you already know the answer. And if you’re a fan of Sam Katzman movies, you know it’ll be chock full of stock footage and made on a miniscule budget. The saving grace of EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS is the special effects wizardry of Ray Harryhausen. Ray gives us alien spacecrafts instead of the usual giant monsters in this one, and they look fantastic. It’s fun to see Harryhausen’s saucers blowing up famous Washington landmarks (including the Capital building…beware, Congress!).

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Director Fred F. Sears keeps the movie moving along at a brisk clip, so you almost don’t notice the budgetary limitations. Well, almost. The cast perform their parts fine. Movies like EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS aren’t about the acting anyway, it’s all about the space aliens and their weapons of mass destruction. There are two cast members I’d like to single out, though. These guys don’t appear in the film, but you’ll recognize their voices. William Woodson narrates the movie, and if the name doesn’t ring a bell, the voice certainly will. He made a career out of narrating films and TV shows, most notably the 60s series THE INVADERS and the first season of THE ODD COUPLE. The other gentleman portraying the disembodied voice of the alien is Paul Frees. If I took the time to cite even half his credits we’d be here all day, so I’ll just tell you he’s most famous as the voice of Boris Badenov, arch-enemy of Rocky the Flying Squirrel and his pal, Bullwinkle J. Moose! If you want more info, all you’ve got to do is Google.

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EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS is the type of movie where you can just shut your brain off and enjoy. You’ve seen it all before, and you know the good ol’ USA will emerge triumphant. The fun is in getting there, and you’ll enjoy the trip watching EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS. So pop some corn, put your feet up, and get ready to be entertained!

Halloween Havoc!: YOU’RE NEXT -Complete Columbia Short!

Every classic comedian worth his bottle of seltzer water made a “scare comedy” or two back in the Golden Age of Hollywood. The following short, YOU’RE NEXT, is a funny 1940 Columbia Pictures effort starring comedy vets Walter Catlett, Monty Collins, Dudley Dickerson, Roscoe Ates and former Keystone Kop Chester Conklin. Directed by Del Lord, here’s YOU’RE NEXT:

Big Entertainment: Fritz Lang’s THE BIG HEAT (Columbia, 1953)

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Fritz Lang is one of the most influential film directors of all time. Getting his start in Germany’s famed Ufa Studios, Lang became world renown for masterpieces like  METROPOLIS (1927) and M (starring Peter Lorre, 1931), and his Dr. Mabuse series. Lang fled the Nazi regime in the early 30s, coming to America to ply his trade. He became a top Hollywood director particularly famous for film noir classics like SCARLET STREET (1945, a personal favorite of mine), THE BLUE GARDENIA (1953), and WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (1954). One of the best of these is 1953’s  THE BIG HEAT.

The movie starts with the suicide of Tom Duncan, head of the police records bureau. Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is called in and interviews the widow. Bannion’s a family man with loving wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando) and young daughter. While at home enjoying some quality time, he receives a call from a woman named Lucy claiming Duncan didn’t kill himself. He meets her at local watering hole The Retreat, where she tells him Duncan and her were lovers, and he planned on divorcing his wife. Bannion doesn’t believe the B-girls tale until she’s found tortured and strangled the next day.

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Bannion decides to investigate, but is warned to stay off the case by his boss, Lt. Wilkes. He presses further anyways, going back to The Retreat and speaking with an uncooperative barkeep. A threatening call to his wife sends Bannion to drop in on Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby), an old-school gangster who runs the rackets, not to mention most of the city’s politicians. Bannion’s called on the carpet again by Wilkes. Frustrated, Bannion and his wife decide to have a night out at the movies. While he tucks in his daughter, Katie goes to warm up the family car. An explosion rocks the house, as the auto has been rigged with dynamite, killing Katie and shattering Bannion’s idyllic world.

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Lt. Wilkes and the police commissioner assure Bannion justice will be served, but Bannion’s not buying it. He turns in his badge and seeks solo vengeance. Leaving his daughter with best friend Hal, Bannion goes on a personal crusade to find Katie’s killer and rid the city of Lagana’s influence. He tangles with Lagana’s top torpedo Vince Stone (Lee Marvin), who has a penchant for burning women. Stone’s girlfriend Debby (Gloria Grahame), a bubbleheaded lush, makes a play for Bannion after Stone ditches her at the bar, but is rejected. When Stone finds out, the maniac scalds her with a hot pot of coffee, scarring her for life. The movie then kicks into high gear as new alliances are formed, secrets are revealed, and Bannion finally gets the closure he’s been looking for in a violent climax.

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Glenn Ford is perfect for the part of Dave Bannion, a stand-up guy if there ever was one. Bannion’s singleness of purpose drives THE BIG HEAT, as Ford’s warm scenes with his family are juxtaposed with the brutality of the rest of the movie. Oscar winner Gloria Grahame (1952’s THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL) gives another of her fine performances as Debby. Vince Stone was a breakthrough role for Lee Marvin, and the coffee throwing scene is jolting. Other notables in the cast are Willis Boucher, Jeanette Nolan, Peter Whitney, and Adam Williams. Look quickly and you’ll find Carolyn Jones, Dan Seymore, John Doucette, and Sidney Clute in smaller roles.

Behind the scenes, Charles Lang (no relation to Fritz) worked his magic as director of photography. One of Hollywood’s premier cinematographers, Lang was nominated for 17 Oscars, winning in 1934 for A FAREWELL TO ARMS. His work can be found in such diverse films as DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY (1934), THE GHOST & MRS. MUIR (1947), SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), BLUE HAWAII (1961), WAIT UNTIL DARK (1967), and THE LOVE MACHINE (1971). He was given a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1991. Screenwriter Sydney Boehm has quite an impressive resume, too, responsible for such fare as UNION STATION (1950), WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951), BOTTOM OF THE BOTTLE (1956), and SHOCK TREATMENT (1964). Everyone contributes to the success of THE BIG HEAT, and if noir’s your thing, it’s a must-see. Even if you’re not a noir fan, you’ll enjoy the performances of Ford and company, and the talent behind the lens. THE BIG HEAT is big entertainment.

CLEANING OUT THE DVR Pt 2: Five Films From Five Decades

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Well, it’s time once again to get rid of some movies on my DVR so I can make room for more movies! Last night I had myself a mini-movie marathon watching four in a row (the fifth I’d already screened and jotted down some notes on it). So here, for your education and edification, are five films from five decades:

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THE RETURN OF DR. X (Warner Brothers 1939; director Vincent Sherman)

Despite the title, this is not a sequel to 1932’s DOCTOR X starring Lionel Atwill. This one’s all about a reporter (Wayne Morris) and a doctor (Dennis Morgan) investigating a string of murders where the bodies have been drained of blood. Humphrey Bogart plays Dr. Quesne, alias the mad Dr. X, in pasty white make-up and a streak of white in his hair. Seems he’s been brought back from the dead by Dr. Flegg (John Litel) after being electrocuted and now needs human blood to survive. It’s no wonder Bogie hated this film, playing a role more suitable for Bela Lugosi in his Monogram days. Fun Fact: Dead End Kid/Bowery Boy Huntz Hall plays newsroom boy Pinky in a rare solo appearance.

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CLEANING OUT THE DVR Pt1: Five Films from Five Decades

I record a LOT of movies. Probably around ten per week, more or less. And since I also have to do little things like work, exercise, cook, clean, breathe,  etc etc, I don’t always have time to watch  them all (never mind write full reviews), so I’ve decided to begin a series of short, capsule reviews for the decades covered here at Cracked Rear Viewer. This will be whenever I find my DVR getting cluttered, which is frequent! I’ll try to make CLEANING OUT THE DVR a bi-weekly series, but there are no guarantees. Monthly is more realistic. Anyway, here are five films from the 1930s to the 1970s for your reading pleasure.

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