by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I screened Charles a film I’d recently recorded from TCM: Calypso Heat Wave, one of the pop-musical cheapies Sam Katzman’s Clover company ground out in the 1950’s, usually (as here) with Fred F. Sears as director, which are generally pretty dreadful as movies but do allow us rare glimpses of the greatest rock ’n’ roll performers of the 1950’s at or close to their best, albeit in crudely staged lip-synched performances to their records. This one was made in 1957 and (like Howard Koch’s contemporaneous Bop Girl Goes Calypso) derives much of its entertainment value from the spectacular wrongness of its prediction that rock was on its way out and calypso would be the next big musical fad.
What’s surprising is that this is a much better movie than Rock Around the Clock, Don’t Knock the Rock and the other rock ’n’ roll movies that preceded and followed it in Katzman’s oeuvre. Its basic plot — the efforts of Mack Adams (Paul Langton), owner of the independent Disco Records label, to deal with the attempts of gangster and jukebox owner Barney Pearl (Michael Granger) to muscle into his company by threatening to pull all Disco’s records from his jukeboxes if his demands aren’t met — isn’t exactly the freshest movie premise of all time, but at least it allows writers Orville H. Hampton (story) and David Chandler (script) to tap into some powerful issues of personal integrity and capitalist compromise far beyond the petty interpersonal jealousies that powered the plots (such as they were) of Katzman’s other musicals of the time.
What’s more, the quality of the acting here is fully up to the challenges of the script: Langton seems genuinely proud of his character’s reputation for integrity and what his association with Pearl is doing to it, and Granger manages to become a figure of menace without playing the character as so mean and over-the-top he becomes unpleasant to watch. The way Granger threads the needle, using a superficial bonhomie to mask the ruthlessness of his approach, is nicely honed acting — and so is the performance of Merry Anders as Marti Collins, Adams’ assistant and girlfriend, who finds her interest in remaining the latter receding as rapidly as her respect for Mac as he makes compromise after compromise to keep Pearl happy, justifying it by how much Disco’s sales have risen since Pearl and his strong-arm tactics enter the company. Adams finally breaks off relations with Pearl when he demands that Disco’s artists (actually “Pearl”’s artists, since Pearl has demanded that the company be renamed after himself) kick back half of all their earnings, including concert and broadcast fees, to remain on the label — an eerie anticipation of a strategy the major record labels are pushing now to maintain their profit margins now that the download market (legal and otherwise) has cut deeply into the sales of CD’s — with the result that a lot of artists are cutting (or never seeking) ties to the major labels and instead self-financing their recordings, selling them at their gigs and off their Web sites, and making more money by having a bigger piece of a smaller pie.
In Calypso Heat Wave, one result of Pearl’s demand for cut-ins on the artists’ non-recording income is to drive Disco’s star, calypsonian Johnny Conroy (played by real-life singer Johnny Desmond, who’s a weak link in an otherwise good movie: he’s got a good voice and his songs, especially “Tastes Like Strawberries,” are nice, but his stylings are pretty bland — I wouldn’t go so far as to say he compares to Harry Belafonte the way Pat Boone compared to Little Richard or Fats Domino, but his approach to calypso is certainly “white” in more ways than one), to sail on his boat and disappear into the Caribbean. Adams decides to break off relations with Pearl and goes off to find Desmond — who in the meantime has discovered a whole host of new calypso artists, including the Tarriers (the white group who actually recorded “Day-O’ — in a discernibly different, jazzier version heard here — before Belafonte did) and Maya Angelou. That’s right, the famous African-American poet and memoirist sought a musical career in the 1950’s, and on the evidence here she was actually damned good; she sings two songs, Louis Jordan’s calypso novelty “Run Joe” and a piece she wrote called “All That Happens in the Market Place,” and her voice is strong, clear, authoritative and more than a little reminiscent of Nina Simone’s. In fact, as I said to Charles later, one could readily imagine an alternative universe in which Angelou’s career trajectory paralleled Simone’s: first getting a major reputation in the music world and then writing songs, rather than books or poems, dealing with the kinds of serious issues of racism, sexism, violation and such Angelou actually covered in her books.
Calypso Heat Wave is distinguished by far more literate music than the rock ’n’ roll cheapies Katzman also made in the 1950’s — including the Hi-Lo’s, a jazz-influenced male vocal quartet (though their version of Johnny Mercer’s “My Sugar Is So Refined” is a quite pretentious arrangement, especially compared to Mercer’s own 1940’s recording for Capitol), and the Black R&B group The Treniers, here taking their own stab at calypso just in case the experts were right and it was going to replace rock as the big thing in music. It ends, as Katzman’s movies in the genre usually did, with a big finale in which all the performers took part and sang a song especially written for the film — here it’s “Calypso Heat Wave” by Stanley Styne and veteran Columbia musical director Fred Karger — a song that was partially rewritten almost a decade later as the Eydie Gormé hit “Blame It on the Bossa Nova” but here comes across as the weakest piece of material. (Pearl trots out an injunction to try to stop the program in mid-air but is easily rebuffed.)
There’s also an engaging subplot with Pearl’s girlfriend Mona DeLuce (Meg Myles), who wants to be a singing star — much to Pearl’s displeasure — and is secretly recorded by the chair of Disco’s fan club division, teenage gofer Alex Nash (played by the very young Joel Grey, later the M.C. in Cabaret on both stage and screen), who gets a big-time adolescent crush on her and produces a record, a sultry song called “Treat Me Like a Lady,” that becomes a surprise hit. One odd error in the film is that Disco is shown recording directly onto acetate masters — by 1957 all record companies were recording on tape and dubbing the tapes to master discs later — though at least, when Alex records Mona in her bedroom, the instrumental backing is played on a tape recorder and he takes down both the tape and Mona’s vocal onto a master (director Sears thankfully spared us the infamous “invisible orchestra” that steals into musicals when needed — a convention hilariously parodied in the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby vehicle The Road to Zanzibar), and there are some nice sequences after that showing the directly libidinous effects Mona’s record has when listened to in various settings.
Also, the musical numbers themselves are filmed far more creatively than they are in Katzman’s rock movies — one gets the impression Sears simply liked calypso better than he did rock and was more inspired by it — notably Angelou’s performance of “Run Joe,” which switches angles and lightings from light to dark in accord with the tempo changes in Angelou’s arrangement. Calypso Heat Wave would be worth watching merely for the early glimpses of three people who became celebrities later — Angelou, Grey and Alan Arkin (who was the lead singer for The Tarriers) — there’s also a direct link to Little Caesar in that one of its actors, George E. Stone, plays Pearl’s accountant — but on its own it’s a surprisingly good movie and considerably better than the common run of the Katzman family, even though its musicians are nowhere nearly as legendary as the rock ’n’ roll performers featured in Katzman’s other films of the time!