Thursday, July 14, 2011

Senior Prom (Columbia, 1958)

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

The film we watched last night, Senior Prom, was quite different. It was produced, not by Katzman, but by Harry A. Romm and Moe Howard — that’s right, the Moe Howard of the Three Stooges — and directed by David Lowell Rich, who eight years after this movie was made (1958) would direct Lana Turner in the most recent (and, hopefully, last ever) remake of Madame X.

It’s a peculiar movie because, while the intent seems to have been to do a movie aimed at the youth audience, all the guest musical performers were older people whose natural audience was adults: Louis Prima and Keely Smith, billed as making their first movie, appear to do the big number at the end, “That Old Black Magic” (later they’d do a film together as leads, Hey Boy! Hey Girl!; and still later they would break up in 1962 and the following year she’d do an album of South Pacific with Frank Sinatra that showed what a fine singer she’d always been when she didn’t have to cope with his yelling, screaming and horribly hammy mugging opposite her — if you get the impression I don’t particularly like Louis Prima, you’re right; before he hooked up with Keely for what appears to have been the beta version of Sonny and Cher, he was just another white singer/trumpet player trying to be Louis Armstrong and failing miserably); Mitch Miller (doing a quite odd instrumental that featured himself on oboe, double-tracked through part of it); Connee Boswell (doing a version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” that just revealed how muscle-bound her voice, a beautiful and flexible instrument in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, had become by 1958); José Melis (a Latin cocktail pianist whose selection, “El Cumbachero,” was recorded far better by Desi Arnaz and his band in the late 1940’s); and Toni Arden, a foghorn-like contralto who did “Come Back to Sorrento” in both English and Italian.

The writer, the incredibly appropriately named Hugh Hackady, deserves credit for one thing: he really tried to make this a musical, a film with a real plot and numbers performed by the central characters to advance the plot instead of just trotting in guest stars to lip-synch to their hit records. Unfortunately, the romantic intrigues are singularly uninteresting and so are the stars engaged to perform them: the leads are Jill Corey as rich girl Gaye Sherridan (the spelling with two “r”’s is from and Paul Hampton as Tom Harper, the senior agronomy student and aspiring rock ’n’ roller who’s courting her and trying to win her away from the man her parents think she should marry, rich creep Carter Breed III (played by, of all people, Billy Jack star Tom Laughlin!). When Tom is introduced to Carter Breed III he says, in by far the best line in the film, “You mean there are a couple of others like him walking around?” There’s also a comic-relief couple, “Dog” (played by comedian Jimmie Komack — who looked so much like a certain Left-wing Ohio Congressmember I couldn’t help but joke, “Separated at birth: Jimmie Komack and Dennis Kucinich!”), who plays bass in Harper’s band and seems to have got his own nickname from the “doghouse fiddle” term frequently used in the swing era (another example of how retrograde this movie is) to denote his instrument; and his girlfriend Flip (Barbara Bostock), who in an example of the annoying sexism of 1950’s movies considers it a high honor to be allowed to carry around Dog’s bass, which of course dwarfs her.

The four lovers (at least the ones we’re supposed to like) sing songs to each other in voices of varying degrees of nerdiness, with Harper’s the most tolerable (remember he’s the one who’s supposed to be heading for a great career as a singer) and Dog’s the least (later Komack left the on-screen side of the business and became a TV producer, doing such hit shows as Chico and the Man), and we’re supposed to regard Harper’s as a great ensemble but we really wonder which are more irritating, their bland, insipid, boring attempts at rock or their bland, insipid, boring attempts at jazz. The plot, such as it is, consists of Carter Breed III’s attempts to use his (or, more accurately, his dad’s) connections and money to break up Harper and Gaye — which he does by getting other people to deny Harper’s band chances to play in public (in one scene he does Harper out of a gig playing intermission for Les Elgart’s band — another surprisingly “square” bit of talent for something that’s supposed to be a teenage movie! — only Harper upstages him when Elgart invites him to sing a song with the band, which he does: a terrible rock version of Harold Arlen’s great ballad “Let’s Fall in Love”) and promising he can get Louis Prima and Keely Smith to play for the senior prom (this is a college, not a high-school, senior prom, by the way) — only just then Dad pulls the financial plug on him and the best he can get is Ellington. Not Duke Ellington, mind you (and the biggest surprise in a movie that has many of them is that 1958 college students actually know who Duke Ellington is!), but someone named Spike Ellington.

Harper and Carter Breed III have a fistfight that ends up in the campus swimming pool, and a disgusted Gaye breaks up with both of them, but meanwhile a disc jockey desperate for something to play when a Dodgers-Giants baseball game was rained out dredged up a record Harper made a year earlier, and it suddenly becomes a major hit, he’s signed to a major-label contract with Colpix (the in-house label of Columbia Pictures and one that actually didn’t break any major artists, though they did have Nina Simone between her breakthrough album I Loves You Porgy on Bethlehem and her seven albums for Philips that are considered the defining work of her career) and he gets on the Ed Sullivan Show — with Sullivan playing himself five years before he did so on the far better Bye, Bye Birdie. Tom’s new-found music success convinces Gaye’s parents that he’s right for her after all, and it ends happily (sappily). Senior Prom is more pleasant in the actual watching than I’ve made it sound above — it’s harmlessly diverting and not actively terrible; it’s just the sort of movie we seem to have seen thousands of times before, usually done better than it was here!