Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Shake, Rattle and Rock (Sunset Productions/American International, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched a 1956 movie called Shake, Rattle and Rock, a surprisingly good early rock ’n’ roll film from American International. The early omens on this one weren’t good; American International generally made lousy movies aimed mostly at the drive-in audience (and this was only their third year in operation; they’d begun as American Releasing in 1954 and their first film was Roger Corman’s The Fast and the Furious, an auto-theft drama whose modern-day remake has spawned no fewer than five sequelae, of which the most recent is the number one film in the country right now!), the director was Edward L. Cahn and the writer was Lou Rusoff, who was usually associated with American International’s rather silly horror movies. Surprise! Shake, Rattle and Rock turned out to be a little gem, with two of the all-time greats of rhythm and blues, singer Joe Turner and singer-pianist-composer Antoine “Fats” Domino, and a plot that was genuinely entertaining in and of itself and wasn’t just a way to mark time between the musical numbers. While other 1950’s rock movies occasionally touched on the controversies over rock and the determination of some moralists to shut it down, Lou Rusoff decided to make the controversies the focal point of his film.

It opens in the studio of a local TV station, where Garry Nelson (Touch Conners, the young, personable actor who later became a surprisingly credible private detective on the long-running CBS-TV series Mannix) is hosting a rock ’n’ roll TV show with a group of teenage kids he’s been able to pull off the streets and away from a life of crime by harnessing the righteous power of this music to lure them into wholesome recreation. Right now in the (unnamed) city where the film takes place he’s built 78 rock ’n’ roll clubs and got the young people in them interested in raising money for “safe” social causes. His latest project is to take over an abandoned building and turn it into a teen center. But he’s run afoul of self-appointed moralists Eustace Fentwick III (Douglass Dumbrille) and Georgianna Fitzdingle (the marvelous Margaret Dumont — so two supporting players in this film have Marx Brothers connections!), who organize a group with a tongue-twisting name to fight back against rock ’n’ roll by organizing petitions and letter-writing campaigns to get the TV station to take Nelson’s show off the air. He’s also run afoul of gangsters Bugsy Smith (Paul Duboy, proving that they didn’t break the mold after they made Sheldon Leonard) and his comic-relief sidekick Nick (Eddie Kafafian), who are upset that Nelson’s rock ’n’ roll clubs have turned potential hoodlums towards more constructive pursuits and thereby deprived Bugsy’s gang of its biggest pool of young talent. The gangsters and the old-fogy “reformers” end up making common cause at a big dance sponsored by Nelson to raise money for the teen center; Nelson’s own comic-relief sidekick, Albert “Axe” McAllister (Sterling Holloway, whom writer Rusoff and director Cahn try to pass off as a teenager even though he was already making movies in the early 1930’s, before any authentic teenager alive in 1956 was even born!), gets goaded into starting a fight with one of the gangsters, the police — already parked outside the hall, courtesy of Fentwick and Mrs. Fitzdingle — move in, and six of the kids respond by trashing Fentwick’s car.

With everything he’s worked for in ruins, Nelson sells his producer, Bill Bentley (Charles Evans), on the idea of having an on-air trial of rock ’n’ roll, with Fentwick as the prosecutor, himself as the defense attorney, a real judge (Clarence Kolb) in charge, and the jury being the TV audience, who will call in and render their verdict by voting either for or against rock ’n’ roll. The trial sequence contains some of the most brilliant gags in the movie, with Fentwick showing a scene of primitive dancing (actually, according to, a shot of Aboriginal people in Australia) to demonstrate the primitivistic, anti-civilized nature of rock ’n’ roll — and Nelson fighting back with a clip of flappers and their beaux Charlestoning in the 1920 to indicate that rock is just a new form of rhythmic music that won’t permanently corrupt the morals of its fans any more than 1920’s jazz did. Fentwick calls as a witness Aloysius Pentigrouch (Leon Tyler), a 17-year-old nerd whose favorite composers are Beethoven and Chopin, and his ballet-dancer girlfriend, and shows them off as examples of proper teenagers who appreciate truly great culture instead of this rock ’n’ roll crap — and Nelson fights back by having Pentigrouch repeat his performance of the Chopin Prelude in A minor, only emphasize the rhythm — and Chopin’s piece turns into a hot boogie woogie which Georgianna’s long-suffering husband Horace (Raymond Hatton) declares he likes better than he ever liked the work come scritto. It ends, of course, the way you know it would: rock ’n’ roll wins the “trial,” Pentigrouch and his girlfriend are shown doing a hot rock dance — and so are Horace and Georgianna once he’s recognized her younger self in the film clip of the Charleston and declared how much better he liked her then than he does now. (Anyone who’s seen the Marx Brothers’ first film, The Cocoanuts, knows that the real Margaret Dumont in 1929 didn’t look anything like the lithesome dancing flapper who’s supposedly Georgianna’s younger self in this film.) Along the way we get to hear some superb rhythm-and-blues from Fats Domino and Joe Turner — I remember once reading an interview with Fats in which he said, “I always thought of myself as a rhythm-and-blues musician. Then they told me I was playing rock ’n’ roll. I hadn’t changed my style any — they’d just changed the name for it!” Indeed, Domino and Turner were about the only musicians I can think of (along with Dinah Washington) who established themselves before rock ’n’ roll and managed to sustain their careers, and even become more popular, once rock started; magnificent talents like Louis Jordan, Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris and other R&B stars one would have thought would have been accepted by the rock audience weren’t.

Domino and Turner are in superb form in this film even though it’s obvious they’re just miming to their commercial records (by the 1950’s the sound quality of records had improved to the point where movie companies abandoned their long-standing insistence on re-recording musical artists on their own equipment and instead cut deals with their artists’ record companies to use their already existing records on film soundtracks). Domino does two of his biggest hits, “Ain’t That a Shame” and “I’m in Love Again,” as well as “Honey Chile” (a song I’ve always liked that didn’t get the attention it deserved because it was the flip side of an even greater Domino record, “Blueberry Hill”), and Turner sings “Feelin’ Happy” — a rock adaptation of the 1930’s Kansas City blues standard “Do You Wanna Jump, Children?” (which Charles argued was in turn no doubt derived from 1920’s Black Gospel music!) — twice, once over the opening credits and once on screen. He also does “Lipstick, Powder and Paint,” “The Choker” and “Rock, Rock, Rock.” The one white rock performer we see, Tommy Charles (doing a song by Wayne Walker called “Sweet Love on My Mind”), is O.K. but quite obviously not anywhere in the same league as Domino and Turner; it occurred to me that with the best white performers of the time already tabbed for similar movies by major studios like Columbia and 20th Century-Fox, American International went for great Black performers instead — with superior musical results (though the rock movies from Columbia and Fox had their share of African-American greats — Chuck Berry and Little Richard, respectively!). Of the 1950’s rock movies I’ve seen, Shake, Rattle and Rock is one of the best, right behind The Girl Can’t Help It (which has the benefits of color, CinemaScope, a theme song by Little Richard, a superb performance by Eddie Cochran, the anatomical wonders of Jayne Mansfield, and the mordant sensibility of director Frank Tashlin) and considerably better than the Alan Freed quickies being churned out by Columbia (even though the Freed films, reflecting the D.J.’s commitment to racial equality at least a decade before it became cool, not only showcased Chuck Berry as a performer but actually gave him a chance to act!). Shake, Rattle and Rock turned out to be a minor gem that was far better than we’d expected, a genuinely entertaining movie even when Fats Domino and/or Joe Turner weren’t on screen!