Kitty Litter: SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE (Allied Artists 1960)

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Let’s get it out of the way right now- SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE is bad. Real bad. Like mind-numbingly bad. Despite the presence of sex kittens Mamie Van Doren and Tuesday Weld, this movie is a smelly litter box in desperate need of cleaning. It’s an Albert Zugsmith extravaganza, so you know right off the bat it’s gonna be a stinker. Zugsmith had once been a producer at Universal, overseeing prestige films like WRITTEN ON THE WIND and TOUCH OF EVIL. But when he went into independent productions, Zugsmith chose to go the low-budget exploitation route and even though he managed to attract some well-known names, his little epics usually stunk to high heaven.

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The movie revolves around the talents of Mamie Van Doren, a beautiful creature whose best assets weren’t her acting. She plays Dr. Mathilda West, a genius hired to take over the science department at Collins College. Thinko, a supercomputer/robot type thing, recommended her without realizing she was once Tassels Montclair, a stripper known as the Tallahassee Tassel Tosser. Yuk yuk. All the men on campus go gaga over her because she has blonde hair and big hooters. Yuk yuk yuk.

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There’s really not a lot of plot to describe. Tuesday Weld’s boyfriend, the inimitable Norman “Woo Woo” Grabowski, is the captain of the football team who’s afraid of women. Yuk yuk. Mickey Shaughnessy and Allan Drake are two gangsters hunting down “Sam Thinko”, who’s bleeding their boss dry by winning all his bets, not realizing it’s the computer/robot thing. Yuk yuk. Brigitte Bardot wasn’t available, so they got her little sister Mijanou to play an exchange student doing “research” on American men. Yuk yuk yuk. Louis Nye makes an inauspicious film debut as Thinko’s creator Dr. Zorch, and his assistant is none other than Vampira (not in costume, though)! Pamela Mason is dean of students who’s hot for rich Texas school benefactor Jackie Coogan. Martin Milner (billed as Marty) is on hand as an administrator; he’s also credited as associate producer so he should’ve known better. John Carradine is a horny professor; he and Mamie dancing the Charleston and Tango together is probably the film’s highlight.

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Conway Twitty is here to sing one unmemorable song. There’s some monkeyshines with Mamie’s per chimp Voltaire. And for some reason, Charlie Chaplin Jr and Harold Lloyd Jr were hired to do bit parts as a fireman and policeman, respectively. Why? Who knows? All I know is that the thing plays like an extended burlesque skit, and a pretty lousy one at that. The only interesting tidbit I dug up while researching this mess is that Drake was a stand-up comic whose claim to fame was that his wife was having an affair with Mafioso Anthony “Little Augie” Carfano, and both were found executed in Little Augie’s Cadillac a year before Drake made this bomb.

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You can probably tell I really don’t have much to say about this piece of crap except to tell you to avoid it, unless all the above nonsense appeals to you in some kind of perverse way. Don’t torture yourselves the way I did by sitting through this turkey. It’s my job to view schlock like this; you have other options!

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.