Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Beatniks (Glenville, 1960)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 showing of something called The Beatniks, made in 1960 and apparently mostly a showcase for a teen-idol wannabe named Tony Travis. Tony plays Eddy Crane, who hangs out with a gang of free-lance troublemakers that neither look nor talk like actual beatniks (if you want to watch a cheapie from the late 1950’s that actually does satirize the beatnik culture, watch Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood instead) but rather like standard-issue juvenile delinquents, including his dark-haired girlfriend Iris (Karen Kadler) and barely in-control psycho Mooney (Peter Breck). They go around various diners and convenience stores wearing transparently obvious masks and sticking people up — the first person they hit has apparently seen them before, because he desperately (and uselessly) pleads with them to go rob someone else for a change — only this film, written and directed by Paul Frees (mostly a voice artist for animated cartoons, including some of the supporting roles in Mr. Magoo and other UPA productions), develops something of a plot and a genuine dramatic conflict when Harry Bayliss (Charles Delaney), a stereotypical Jewish type cast as a Hollywood agent, hears Eddy sing along with a jukebox record in a diner and instantly offers to get him on TV and make him a singing star.

Eddy’s career progresses at warp speed from a local TV appearance to a contract with Universal Records — only, rather than take the good advice of Bayliss’s secretary, Helen (Joyce Terry), with whom he’s fallen in love at first sight, to go home and rest before he makes his recording debut, he goes out for a night on the town with his friends which ends with them crashing a diner called Charlie’s and shooting the proprietor, Gus, after Gus pulled a gun on Eddy’s posse and shot what appears to be its oldest member, middle-aged Red (Sam Edwards). Though Mooney is the actual killer, Eddy realizes that as an accessory before the fact he’s legally guilty, and at first he tries to back out of his deal with Bayliss, then reconsiders when the hotel detective (Bob Paquin) and hotel manager (Claude Stroud, who plays the part as if his character is a graduate of the Franklin Pangborn School of Hospitality, complete with the requisite nerdy/queeny voice) threaten to throw them out and he realizes Bayliss’ money can keep the roof over their heads — only Mooney resents the possibility that Eddy may be able to dance his way away from his gang and make himself a star, so he goes out with the intent to do either Eddy or Bayliss in and manages to wound Bayliss (who’s so obsessed with the money he can make by making Eddy a star that he doesn’t care that he’s just been stabbed by a maniac!), and Eddy realizes that the only way he can stop Mooney is to call the cops and turn himself in.

The Beatniks is a thoroughly silly movie, its title is a complete misnomer (the MST3K crew did an hilarious sketch during one of the interstital segments on ways you can tell you’re not a beatnik) and its plot is a ragbag of clichés — the whole business of the innocent young man caught between entertainment and crime as career choices was done a lot better with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.’s character in Little Caesar three decades earlier, and there seems to be a hint of A Place in the Sun in Eddy’s dilemma (between the whiny lower-class bitch who gets him into trouble and the shimmering well-off girl who offers him a way out of the proletariat) — but in some ways it’s haunting. Tony Travis has a genuinely nice voice — not great, but at least nice — and Frees really has us rooting for him to get away from the creeps he’s hanging with and fulfill his destiny to become a major star; and as preposterous as the character of Mooney is, especially in Peter Breck’s one-note overplayed performance, he’s genuinely fun to watch and there’s a certain thrill in wondering what he’ll do next and how he’ll screw over our hero. Unlike a lot of the other MST3K “targets,” this one is at least not dull — indeed, the MST3K ridicule this time around was aimed less at the film itself and more at its pretension to have had anything to do with beatniks — and Frees the director shows himself to have decent suspense chops and a reasonably good eye, even if the stupidity of Frees the screenwriter defeats him at every turn.