Sunday, March 2, 2014

Jamboree! (Vanguard, Warner Bros., 1957)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched the first of three rock ’n’ roll movies I had just ordered from The Video Beat, a company that specializes in selling this sort of material: Jamboree!, a 1957 teen film from Warner Bros. via the independent Vanguard company, obviously aimed at competing with the rock cheapies Sam Katzman was making at Columbia with D.J. Alan Freed (who popularized rock ’n’ roll and, in fact, came up with the name — it was a way of getting rhythm-and-blues music before a white audience and Freed got the term from the 1920’s blues song “My Daddy Rocks Me with One Steady Roll”). For years movie studios had been convinced that commercial recordings could not be used in film soundtracks because the standards of sound quality on records were not as good as those on film, but the advent of magnetic tape recording in the late 1940’s and its adoption by both record companies and film studios changed all that. As a result, these movies could feature rock performers miming to their commercial recordings and could be made cheaply because the studios didn’t have to make fresh pre-recordings of the songs; all they had to do was cut licensing deals with the companies that made the records, hire the artists to synch to them, and they were on their way. To compete with the Freed movies and also efforts from even cheaper studios, like the surprisingly good Shake, Rattle and Rock from American International in 1956 — which came off especially well because instead of plugging the rock songs into a lumbering old-fashioned plot of romantic machinations among boring middle-aged cast members, it made the social controversy surrounding rock ’n’ roll and the attempts of stuffy old “reformers” to suppress it the key dramatic issue — Warners hired a group of rockers, semi-rockers and downright non-rockers to supply the musical talent.

The plot, in case you cared, centers around the efforts of managers Lew Arthur (Pete Pastene) and Grace Shaw (Kay Medford, who’s actually pretty good within the sorry limits of the character as created by writer Lenard Kantor — credits producer Milton Subotsky with having a hand in the script but the film itself credits Kantor solo and, given how much better Subotsky’s script for the 1962 film It’s Trad, Dad! is than this one, I’m inclined to believe the credits) to promote their hot, new and decidedly non-rocking talents. Grace’s boy is Pete Porter (Paul Carr), a boring Sinatra wanna-be, and Lew’s girl is Honey Wynn (Freda Holloway, voiced by Connie Francis, who in the opening sequence when she’s auditioning for a part in a Broadway show magically manages to bring her own echo chamber with her). They discover a new song and take it to a record company, only the songwriter wants it cut as a duet — they oblige, “Honey and Pete” become America’s new singing sensations (their debut record is shown in a montage sequence as it rises up the charts — only instead of a 45 rpm disc the clip we see is an anachronistic one of a 78 on the Musicraft label, which went out of business in 1949, eight years before this film was made) and fall in love with each other off-stage as well as on. Only both Lew and Grace want to prove to each other (they were formerly married, then divorced, and the antagonism that split them apart originally remains) that their client can make it on his or her own, so they sneakily trick Pete and Honey into recording solo discs. Pete’s is a hit and lands him a job headlining at the London Palladium, but Honey’s flops, she disappears and Pete mopes around because he misses her. In the end, of course, Pete and Honey are reunited, Lew and Grace remarry (after some nauseating dialogue about how unfulfilling Grace finds her success without a man) and everything ends happily. One promotional stratagem Warner Bros. hit on for this film is giving no fewer than 18 D.J.’s — including Dick Clark, making his film debut — cameo roles in the movie, thereby ensuring that they would promote the movie on their radio shows. Clark is about the only D.J. represented here you’re likely to have heard of, unless you’re really up on 1950’s rock ’n’ roll trivia, but the wildest one is Jocko Henderson, a man of indeterminate race (mainly because it’s hard to see his face under the space helmet he wears) whom Charles joked came off as a cross between David Bowie and Sun Ra.

There are basically four reasons to bother with Jamboree — five if you count Joe Williams, who sings a number with Count Basie’s band (out of all the musical guest stars Basie is the only one who does more than one song, about half of “One O’Clock Jump” as well as his vocal feature with Williams); the others are Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins in one of his rare film appearances. It’s a measure of how much Perkins’ March 1956 auto accident, which laid him up for six months just as his song “Blue Suede Shoes” was climbing up the nationwide charts, caused him to miss the brass ring that Lewis, his Sun label-mate, is billed on the first of three big credit title and Perkins is billed on the third one — but they both get about the same amount of screen time (one song each). Perkins does “Glad All Over,” one of his few songs from the period he didn’t write, but the people who did (Aaron Schroder — whose name for some reason is given an umlaut on imdb — Sid Tepper and Roy Bennett) caught his style and came up with a good enough vehicle for him it was one of the six Carl Perkins songs covered by the Beatles. (The Beatles recorded more Perkins songs — six — than they did by Elvis, two, and Buddy Holly, three, combined.) In their book on Sun Records, Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins claim that Perkins had such a spectacular stage act that even Elvis Presley didn’t want to go on after him, but what we see in this film is a smooth but not that spectacular set of stage moves that makes Perkins look more like a white Chuck Berry than a second Elvis (and he’s homely enough that it’s clear why Elvis became a superstar and Perkins didn’t). Jerry Lee Lewis gets to perform one of his best songs, “Great Balls of Fire,” but his segment is handicapped by his discomfort with lip-synching — when he went on American Bandstand to promote “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” he refused to mime to his record and insisted on performing live (one of only six people in the entire history of Bandstand to do that), and it’s a pity he couldn’t have laid down the law with the producers of Jamboree! the way he did with Dick Clark and his staff. Fats Domino does a not particularly distinguished (at least by his high standards) song called “Come What May” and probably does the weakest job of lip-synching of anybody in the film — but he’s got Cosimo Matassa’s great studio band from New Orleans behind him on screen as well as on the soundtrack and, as always, it’s a great joy to see him even though he was clearly having more fun (as well as getting better material!) in Shake, Rattle and Rock.

Frankie Avalon makes his film debut with “Don’t Want to Be Teacher’s Pet,” and while it’s hardly a patch on the Lewis and Perkins numbers it is a bright, peppy little lite-rocker that’s actually better than most of his subsequent material. Buddy Knox and Jimmy Bowen — who actually were members of the same band, though they were promoted as solo artists — appear for some decent pop-rock from Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico that was soon to loose Buddy Holly on the world (and their styles are similar, only Knox and Bowen — who recalled later that his career ended when the teenagers stopped screaming during his performances and started realizing that he was singing flat — are merely competent professionals and Holly was a genius). Lewis Lymon, Frankie’s brother, shows up with a doo-wop group called, not the Teenagers, but the Teenchords; he’s O.K. and it’s nice to know he had a considerably longer and happier life than Frankie (he lived until July 2013!), but watching him is like watching any of the male Jacksons other than Michael. Slim Whitman turns up and sings a song in a surprisingly high voice. An alleged white rocker named Charlie Gracie does a song called “Cool Baby” by Otis Blackwell, who’s credited as the musical director on this film, but it’s clear writing for Elvis and co-writing with Little Richard turned Blackwell on more than his duties here. The plot is so dull, and the music roster is so choked with middle-of-the-road acts, that Jamboree is even more disappointing than most of the 1950’s rock movies; at least the Columbia films had the ferocious on-screen energy of Alan Freed himself (in some ways he was as much a “rock star,” in the modern meaning of the word, as the musicians he promoted), and Shake, Rattle and Rock had a genuinely satirical plotline (including two former collaborators of the Marx Brothers, Margaret Dumont and Douglass Dumbrille, among the oily “reformers” trying to shut rock down), but Jamboree has little to offer aside from four (or five) of the greatest rock and jazz musicians of all time.