Thursday, February 12, 2009

Cha-Cha-Cha-Boom! (Katzman/Columbia, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Cha-Cha-Cha-Boom!, a Sam Katzman-produced, Fred F. Sears-directed musical for Columbia that attempts to do for Latin music what the Katzman-Sears rock ’n’ roll extravaganzae did for that genre. Katzman hired Robert E. Kent — the writer (in)famous for being able to tell a co-worker about the baseball game he attended the night before while typing away on his latest script — to come up with a plotlet dealing with rival record executives, Bill Haven (Stephen Dunne, a nice-enough looking man with acceptable acting skills but virtually no charisma) from the Globe company and Debbie Farmer (Alix Talton) from the rival Starbright concern, who between them control virtually the entire record market in New York City (RCA Victor? Columbia? Decca? Capitol? Never heard of ’em!).

Globe is in danger of losing all its major acts to Starbright because of the intrusive policies of Globe’s president, Harry Teasdale (Howard Wright), versus the offer of artistic freedom made to potential artists by Starbright’s head, who’s also Debbie’s father — and, naturally, Bill and Debbie are also in love with each other, turning the record industry as depicted here into a sort of Romeo and Juliet lite, with contracts instead of daggers.

Bill bails on his job with Globe with the intent of starting a label of his own, and goes to Cuba to find talent for it and comes back with Perez Prado, ballyhooed in the credits as “King of the Mambo.” According to, his real name was Dámaso Pérez Prado, which certainly sounds more authentically “Latin” even though it roughly translates as “Tommy Peters,” and the Hispanic custom of carrying your mother’s maiden name as a second last name (the official documents and signs in Cuba listed that country’s veteran president as “Fidel Castro Ruz”) threw whoever gave Perez Prado his professional name and also helped get the comic relief actor, José Gonzalez-Gonzalez, his part in this film. José had been a contestant on Groucho Marx’s quiz show, You Bet Your Life, and Groucho had ribbed him unmercifully over his double-Gonzalez last name, giving him his 15 minutes of fame and getting him cast in this film as Bill’s sidekick Pedro Fernandez.

The two head to Cuba and hook up with exotic dancer Nita Munay (Sylvia Lewis) — a stereotyped Lupe Velez-like character who speaks rapid-fire Spanish and vamps just about every male she meets, though her main squeeze is her dancing partner Elvarez (Dante De Paulo). She makes the obligatory pass at Bill and Debbie just happens to walk into the hotel room as they’re kissing — “I’m learning to play saxophone and I’m trying to keep my lip in shape!” is the preposterously lame excuse that’s the best Bill (or Robert E. Kent) can come up with under the circumstances. The story is, as usual, just an excuse for film clips of the musical stars of the film — Prado, the Mary Kaye Trio, Helen Grayco (a quite haunting singer I’d love to hear more of, especially if I can find her record of “Lilly’s Lament,” the film’s opening song and the most compelling performance in it; what Lilly is lamenting is that her boyfriend is in prison), Luis Arcaraz, Lucerito Bárcenas and Manny Lopez — and as Charles pointed out, it’s rather odd that Prado, the biggest star “name” in the film, is also the most boring to watch.

He’s “discovered” leading a voodoo ceremony outdoors in the Cuban countryside (though the “exterior” is almost certainly a soundstage interior with a painted backdrop), which is easily his most exciting contribution to the film; later, after his band is imported to the U.S. to play in nightclubs and as part of the final television extravaganza Bill throws together to build attention for his acts (in Katzman’s musicals there always seemed to be a big TV show at the end!), he’s musically interesting but visually dull except when Nita and Elvarez are dancing in front of his band — reason enough that Bill insisted on signing them even though they wouldn’t be a part of the records! The most appealing performers are Grayco and the Mary Kaye Trio, who do inventive versions of “The Lonesome Road” (it’s not her fault that Stan Kenton’s version with June Christy singing was even more inventive) and “Get Happy” — was Mary Kaye’s entire act remodeling 1920’s and 1930’s songs to fit then-contemporary cabaret styles?

The film doesn’t have the energy of the Katzman-Sears rock movies and would have benefited from a more exciting bandleader than Prado (someone like Machito) and some more inventive filming of the acts. As it is, Sears’ direction is even sloppier here than it usually was in the rock movies; there’s one band for which he focuses on the singer and a saxophone player even though we never actually hear a sax on the track, while we hear but don’t see a prominently featured guitar player. Cha-Cha-Cha-Boom! (a bit of a misnomer because, at least according to one commentator, only one of the film’s songs is actually a cha-cha-cha number) is an O.K. movie, but the music is solid and Helen Grayco’s opening number alone makes it worth seeing.