by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The last two nights I’ve been running films from a run of late-1950’s and early-1960’s teen musicals, mostly from Columbia, which TCM recently showed, kicking them off with what’s at least a minor comedy classic, It’s Trad, Dad! Alas, the two we saw more recently were both American productions, with hack directors and writers instead of Richard Lester (later he made the Beatles’ movies A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, and the tongue-in-cheek approach of It’s Trad, Dad! matches that of the Beatles movies) and writer/producer Milton Subotsky. The night before last we ran Juke Box Rhythm, a 1959 film from Sam Katzman’s Clover company, releasing through Columbia, and a follow-up to the all-star rockfests Katzman had previously produced with DJ Alan Freed both appearing on screen and picking out the talent. Alas, by the time Juke Box Rhythm was made Freed had been driven off the airwaves in disgrace for having accepted payola, and the talent pool for this one was pretty mediocre.
By far the best part of the movie is the three minutes in which Johnny Otis comes on and performs his hit “Willie and the Hand Jive,” with a talented pool of quite revealingly clad dancers of both (mainstream) genders doing both hand and foot steps to the Bo Diddley rhythm of the song. Otis himself plays piano and sings (he was usually a drummer but he got someone else to do that this time) and he looks unambiguously white — which he was, though like the 1920’s Chicago clarinetist Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow he re-invented himself as Black because of his love of Black music. Otis was helped by his Greek ancestry (his original last name was “Veliotes” and he got “Otis” from the last two syllables of his real name), which gave him (relatively) dark skin and curly hair, though when he made this movie he was — ironically — wearing a heavy-duty “process” to get his hair straight (so he was a white looking like a Black looking like a white!). I’ll never forget seeing Charles Brown at the San Francisco Blues Festival in 1976 with a full process — and at a time when the “in” hair fashion among African-Americans was the so-called “natural” or “Afro” (“natural” was a singularly inaccurate name for it because of all the pulling and teasing it took to get their hair to stand up that straight!), Brown seemed to have beamed in from another planet.
The other major performers — at least the (genetically) Black ones — in Juke Box Rhythm are The Treniers, a vocal group that were sort of on the “B” list for these things (the ones producers called when they couldn’t get a Black group people outside the Black community had actually heard of, like the Drifters or the Clovers) in “Get Out of the Car,” a novelty reminiscent of Ray Charles’ “It Should’ve Been Me”; and Earl Grant, doing three songs and, as usual, hanging on the stylistic cusp between Nat “King” Cole and Ray Charles; like them, he was Black, played piano and sang, and like Charles (but unlike Cole) he doubled on electric organ. Grant’s studio recordings tended to be bland, but his galvanic live album Earl Grant at Basin Street East (which includes two Ray Charles covers!) is well worth listening to. I’d been aware that Grant had sung the theme song over the credits of the 1959 version of Imitation of Life but I hadn’t known that he actually appeared in a movie until I saw this one — and though he’s a bit odd-looking (his face tended towards the bug-eyed and he didn’t project the visual charisma of either Cole or Charles) he’s quite appealing musically.
Oddly, much of the appeal of Juke Box Rhythm is in its plot; the writing committee (Lou Morheim, story; Earl Baldwin and Mary C. McCall, script) made the intriguing decision to graft the central gimmick of Roman Holiday — a princess comes to a big city determined to have fun, and falls in love with a young man who can help her in that regard — onto a backstage musical story one could imagine serving as the basis for a Busby Berkeley movie: Broadway producer George Manton (Brian Donlevy, looking pretty bored) hasn’t had a hit in six years, and he’s also dumped his wife Martha (Marjorie Reynolds) for a wealthy homewrecker (Karin Booth). His son Riff (Jack Jones, making an ill-advised attempt at rock ’n’ roll; once he reverted to his crooner origins in the 1960’s and did essentially Sinatra Lite, he was better off both artistically and commercially) is determined to raise the money for dad to put on his latest show, Juke Box Jamboree, and he sees his opportunity when the visiting princess Ann (Jo Morrow — who has a lovely voice herself but only gets to sing half a song) sneaks out of her hotel room and evades the watchful eye of her aunt and chaperone, Margaret (Frieda Inescort), crashes a jam session Jones and his rock band are having several floors down, and gets herself photographed dancing with him.
A junkman who’s trying to reinvent himself as a fashion designer, Balenko (Hans Conried, for once making a movie with his hair combed!), offers Riff a finder’s fee of $15,000 — just what Riff’s dad needs to put on the show — if he can get the princess to wear his designs to the upcoming coronation in her (carefully unspecified) country. Riff and the princess fall genuinely in love, of course, and though their relationship is derailed when she and her aunt find out about the finder’s fee, they ultimately kiss and make up and it seems like she’s going to walk out on the princess gig and stay in New York with her hot lite-rocker boyfriend — only at the end the writers revert to the Roman Holiday template and end the movie at the airport, where she’s standing on the gangway ready to board the plane that will take her home and both she and Riff momentarily think about rushing towards each other … but don’t. The director is Arthur Dreifuss, he of the notorious Gale Storm musicals from Monogram in the early 1940’s that were so badly photographed she frequently looked like she had a moustache, but he’s in relatively good form here, and though Johnny Otis’s number is far more exciting and vibrant than anything else in the movie, Juke Box Rhythm is a perfectly estimable piece of entertainment and an engaging 82-minute time filler.