The Offbeat Marquee is the theater that will show just about anything. Columnist Jacob Calta unearths everything from forgotten Hollywood dramas to underground animation to the many oddball genre films from around the world.
This seventh installment takes you back to the nifty 50s, and to one studio whose output would help to define a generation. These weren’t the timeless classics, the immortal motion pictures. These were the hippest, keenest flicks on the town. You could pack a drive-in with all the greasers and hipsters you could shake a stick at. The films were aimed right at the teenage demographic. The studio: American International Pictures.
I will first preface this with an astute observation. American International weren’t the first to shoot for the teen demographic in the early years of rock-and-roll, of mid-century hot-rodding. And they weren’t the only ones. But in my humble estimation, they were the best. To put it in a phrase, Columbia ran so that American International could fly. And yes, that Columbia.
Old Time Rock-n-Roll
Columbia Pictures’ B-film unit, the part of the studio that sought to pump out low-budget genre films with the borderline guarantee of them turning a profit, struck gold when two industry veterans, producer Sam Katzman and director Fred F. Sears, made the 1956 barnstormer Rock Around the Clock. Ostensibly a silly cliff-notes fantasia about how this new sound called rock-n-roll came to be, this musical would bring together everyone from Bill Haley and the Comets (who had already started making their way into film through the use of the title track in 1955’s Blackboard Jungle) to the Platters to legendary disc jockey Alan Freed to legitimize this speed-running of rock history. For the purposes of this piece, we won’t go all in on the rise of the rock film, but focus on what this introduced to the lexicon, and who were eating it up.
September 1956: The word in the papers is that the picture is dynamite in the United Kingdom. Teens are going crazy in London, small town England is putting the kibosh on the picture, the Rank Organization cuts back on screenings of the films. The kids can only rock around that clock for six days of the week.
October 1956: teenagers go tearing through the streets of Oslo, Norway like they’re storming the Bastille, with the phrase “more rock” on their lips, says the Hollywood Reporter.
Amidst the sensationalism and the faint sound of pearls being clutched lies an undeniable truth: the youth are in love with this. Not only that; they want more of it and of much else.
And while every mainline studio goes stark raving mad trying to pump it out to them like a devious candy man in the middle of everyone’s dieting, one company would come armed with a formula. None of this fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants nonsense, hurrying in a blind state to cash in (Katzman learned this the hard way with the comparative failure of the sequel Don’t Knock the Rock that arrived mere months after the inaugural effort’s lightning rod release). And this edict wouldn’t come from a filmmaker with neat idea or a top-billed actor having a eureka moment, but straight from the top of the corporate ladder.
The Man with the Plan(s)
Enter Samuel Arkoff and James Nicholson, producers extraordinaire. One a cigar-chomping entertainment lawyer, the other a creative ad man. Armed with connections to some of the prime movers in-the-making of genre cinema from the preposterously prolific Roger Corman to “Mr. B.I.G.” himself, monster movie icon Bert I. Gordon, Arkoff and Nicholson redefined pop cinema, and all for pennies on the dollar.
As it is usually published on platforms like Wikipedia, Arkoff was the man behind the formula, using his own surname for the acronym. As the story goes, during an appearance on a talk show in the 1980s, the then-veteran producer told all about how to make a bonafide success:
- Action (exciting and entertaining drama)
- Revolution (novel or controversial themes and ideas)
- Killing (a modicum of violence)
- Oratory (notable dialogue and speeches)
- Fantasy (acted-out fantasies common to the audience)
- Fornication (sex appeal for young adults)
It almost seems too good to be true, yet it all checks out when you look at the films. To thin things out a bit, I’ll be strictly focusing on three teen pictures, pre-Beach Party teen pictures at that as I would be here for the next year explaining the flaming hot success of those and their integration into the pop culture lexicon. But before we get ahead of ourselves, amongst the wasp women and the amazing colossal men lay another one of AIP’s wicked little inventions, a demographics logic problem that worked almost too perfectly to be believed.
To quote from Wikipedia again:
A. A younger child will watch anything an older child will watch;
B. An older child will not watch anything a younger child will watch;
C. A girl will watch anything a boy will watch;
D. A boy will not watch anything a girl will watch;
Therefore: to catch your greatest audience, you zero in on the 19-year-old male.
The strategy’s name: Peter Pan syndrome.
And yes, this works. Be they in-house productions or pickups from fellow independent studios, the films we’re about to talk about all turned profits, all made a splash, and all speak to a certain element of youth culture of the time.
Hot Rod Girl (1956)
A bit (read: a lot) on the banal side, but Hot Rod Girl isn’t all that bad, given the context it exists in. And hell, its an easy film to figure out how the ARKOFF formula applies when you look at the plot. A sports drama gets crossed with a JD flick as a leading figure in the local drag scene bails on it all after his kid brother is killed in a street race, setting into motion the devolution of the scene, aided by the appearance of a sleazy leather-clad delinquent. And BOOM, its all there.
The action comes in the form of the tension between the JD and the reasonably clean-cut (if rambunctious) kids of the strip, the lead’s guilt over his brother’s death, and the looming closure of the dragstrip.
Speaking of which, the strip itself is the source of revolution, as there was a push in the 1950s to get teens a place to race to cut back on traffic incidents caused by speeding and street racing. But, as the film explores, there were questions raised as to whether or not the strip merely fuels teens’ dangerous driving.
The killing not only kickstarts the plot, but also fuels the fire later on.
The oratory component kind of covers both the slang spewed by the teens, as well as these little speeches made by certain characters to get the audience invested in our protagonists’ plights.
The fantasy of it all speaks for itself, as it goes hand-in-hand with the film’s action. Kids who aren’t old enough to drive get to see kids laying a patch on the big screen. Kids with cars who haven’t a dragstrip in sight get to see what its like on the big screen. Kids who have the sense to not play chicken on a public road get to the thrill of seeing it on the big screen.
Now for the fornication. Long story short: Lori Nelson, the titular “hot rod girl,” is damn FINE. She is both a competent and confident gal as well as an eye-catcher if ever there was one.
However, once you get past the fact that this became a smash hit for AIP, raking in $600,000 on a budget of presumably tens of thousands, the film itself isn’t the hottest rod in the garage. The pacing isn’t the problem, the action is decent but nothing special (a member of the National Hot Rod Association was a consultant on the picture), the players aren’t the problem (especially since we’ve got Chuck “The Rifleman” Connors and the ever-bankable Frank Gorshin in his proper theatrical debut), the cars are fucking solid, and it helps that Alexander “Sandy” Courage of Star Trek fame dishes up a solid bebop score, armed with the talents of top jazz musicians like Bud Shank and Maynard Ferguson. It also helps that Mark Andrews spends every second of his screen time selling himself as the despicable greaseball Bronc Talbot.
But that script is just…whew boy, that script.
Classic cornball melodrama that defined AIP’s push for teen pictures in the mid-to-late 50s. The oratory factor here consists of blunt ruminations that amount to Connors saying “c’mon chief, they’re good kids,” and leading man John Smith (that’s the dude’s real name by the way) not getting over the fact that he couldn’t help his own brother’s hotheadedness. While it doesn’t have the cool, stylish zeal of the flicks veteran director Edward L. Cahn would make (Shake, Rattle, & Rock in 1956 and Dragstrip Girl in 1957 for example), it still works about as good as any other. In short: a weaker entry not without its perks, and about the strongest start AIP could ask for when it came to making teen flicks.
Rock All Night (1957)
When people think of American International Pictures, the first name on the tip of their tongues is Mr. Roger Corman. He established himself as a profoundly economical and artistically gifted filmmaker who aided the careers of some of the biggest names in the film industry, including icons such as Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and a mile-long list of others. But for all the talk there can be of Edgar Allan Poe, Corman himself wasn’t immune from the allure of the teen flick, and Rock All Night may stand as AIP’s crowning achievement in 50s rocksploitation.
I’ll dispense with the breakdown and cut straight to the chase. This bad boy was slapped onto a double bill as the B-picture to Ed Cahn’s Dragstrip Girl (one of my personal favorites of this 50s boom period), and since the former was reportedly doing fine in the drive-in circuit, it’s fair to assume that its success was the success of Rock All Night as well.
The top half of the film blows its rock-n-roll wad with plenty of swinging tracks from The Blockbusters and The Platters (with their producer Buck Ram serving as music director), plus its Saul Bassian credits sequence. Then the bottom half kicks in as a Corman crime thriller about criminals taking a hangout hostage, anchored by the antagonistic Dick Miller in one of his finest leading roles as Shorty, a smarmy guy with incredible guts who lays the goddamn smackdown on every motherfucker in the rock-n-roll gin joint, crooks or otherwise. Charles Griffith’s dialogue is pure, incendiary genius, and Miller spits it out like a pro. Hell, the whole cast is a treat. Mel Welles plays this Lord Buckley-type beatnik band manager, spitting out thick teenage slang that even Miller makes fun of in-film, Russell Johnson of Gilligan’s Island fame plays the main crook with plenty of piss and vinegar in his veins, and points must also be doled out to B-picture veteran Bruno VeSota who has a bit part as a hilarious drunk.
In true Corman fashion, it’s better than it has any right to be. He takes a televised play (David P. Harmon’s The Little Guy as seen on Jane Wyman’s Fireside Theatre for the record), jazzes it up with some popular music, keeps it moving along at a fair clip, shot it all in five days, and the end result clocks in at the pint-sized runtime of an hour and change, a length befitting a pulpy adventure film of the 1930s. If there were any of these pre-Beach Party teen flicks I would recommend as just a genuinely solid film, this is the one, and it is no surprise that it was made by The Pope of Pop Cinema.
Hot Rod Gang (1958)
So American International’s first major teen flick was about hot rods, one of their best was about rock-n-roll (well loosely anyway). Y’all know how this ends: we smash them together.
One of those “hip kids” vs. The Squares™ type pictures is at the core of Hot Rod Gang, just as it was for AIP’s explicit cash-in on Katzman and Sears’ Rock Around the Clock, 1956’s Shake, Rattle, & Rock. John Ashley, a teen heartthrob-in-the-making who had started out taking bad boy roles in films like the aforementioned Dragstrip Girl and its two-wheeled remake, Motorcycle Gang, continues his evolution into a B-movie Elvis as he sings and floors his way through this flick as a teenage heir. He is forced to live a stuffy life for the good of his positively surreal upper-crust family, only able to let loose in his hot rod and at the local hangout. All the stock standard trappings that comes with the turf are here: melodrama, delinquency, rock-n-roll (with a guest appearance by rockabilly legend Gene Vincent), hot rods (though they go a little light on those in spite of the title), and *gasp* violence.
There is an added level of 30s screwball energy that almost goes into vintage Frank Capra territory. This is thanks to Ashley’s stuffy yet silly family, quite humorously portrayed by Helen Spring and Dorothy Neumann, as well as their maid, played by screen veteran Claire Du Brey. On the face of it, this seems like something that would be totally out of place for such a “hip” and “swinging” film, but lo and behold, the cartoonish wackiness of these three women became rather endearing to watch. They all seem to be having plenty of fun with the material, and that infectious energy does translate to the audience, at least for myself.
Hot Rod Gang was Ashley’s first role as a sympathetic youth, having spent the past year and change doing television, the aforementioned JD roles that launched his film career, as well as a picture he made after spending half a year in the army, the WWII action flick Suicide Battalion, which coincidentally was the nascent stage of his association with filming in the Philippines. From then on, it was a decent split between good guys, bad guys, and television, with contract disputes leading to Ashley bailing on AIP in the late 50s. However, by 1963, he was brought back into the fold to play Frankie Avalon’s right hand man in the Beach Party flicks, cementing his heartthrob status in one of the definitive youth culture franchises of the 60s.
Long story short, if you want to see AIP’s 50s teen film formula in action, Hot Rod Gang is about as streamlined as you’ll get. All the components are there, with a dash of star power provided by Gene Vincent and his band, and a short sequel (1959’s Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow) that would cement the two as the proper predecessors to the Beach Party pictures of the 60s.
Now there are two throughlines you may have noticed; one is obvious. The Beach Party flicks. It was a genre AIP could call their own and packaged all of youth culture from the late 50s and early 60s into 100 minutes of carefree fun. Surfing, rock-n-roll, hot rods, motorcycles, “hip slang,” and carefree romances; the stuff that kids were made of.
The other is a lynch pin of sorts in all of this, 1957’s Dragstrip Girl. It was this film that got me thinking about all of this stuff. I picked it up as a blind-buy for the purposes of doing research for a script of mine. What I wasn’t anticipating was actually falling in love with the damn thing. It stumbles in the way all of these stumble, with writing so formulaic it was borderline parodic, but there is something endearing to it all. A genuine youthfulness, a sincere playfulness, and its role as a document of its time, showing off its little deuce coupes and pop music like a collection of Matchbox cars and 45s.
The way I see it, what these films have that most modern teen films neglect is a surprisingly genuine affection for their audience and their interests. Yes, the films of today and yesterday are products, films made to make money and little else, but what American International’s team understood that is seemingly lost on modern purveyors of young adult media (like Netflix with pictures such as The Kissing Booth) is a sense of curtness and a lack of pretension. Many modern teen films reek of a certain self-importance in their romantic storylines that translates to lengthy runtimes, themes with the depth of a piss puddle, and botched attempts at relatability. They try to be timeless, and only end up faceplanting in not even datedness, but plain-old stupidity. What AIP’s body of work focused in on was purely fanciful and swift stories that capitalized on trends of the day in carefree, 70-minute shots of dopamine. As veteran director William Asher said of the Beach Party films’ success:
“The key to these pictures is lots of flesh but no sex. It’s all good clean fun. No hearts are broken and virginity prevails.”
The films are destined to be dated, but they simply are here to have a good time, and that simple wish, coupled with a literal recipe for success, ensured both profits to be turned every time, and their value as a culture time capsule. Even the harder-edged components that add to these films’ exploitation status are only as dangerous as the filmmakers will let them be, giving the films a sort of hugbox atmosphere where adventure can be found, but nothing proves too upsetting.
The best contrast I have to this is a British exploitation drama, 1960’s Beat Girl. Unlike the playful, studio-set teensploitation affairs in the States, this film indulges in: teens laying their heads on a railway track in a game of chicken, stripteases featuring topless nudity, slang that rings deliberately hollow, and a vile teenage lead who only snaps out of her contrarian delinquency when she witnesses genuine violence. Certainly a world away from the joys of a teen hangout.
While its a safe bet to say these aren’t all-time masterpieces or hidden 5-star gems, there is plenty of value in revisiting these little films, if almost exclusively for their fun factor. Embrace the swinging jazz, the old-time rock-n-roll, the mid-century gearhead culture, and the suave devils clad in leather, for its a time we can only revisit in cinema. While there are plenty of films that take you to this time in profoundly affectionate ways, such as Ralph Bakshi’s American Pop and Hey Good Lookin’, as well as George Lucas’s iconic American Graffiti and Robert Stigwood’s beloved production of Grease, it would be hard to argue that the purest documentation of this time just short of an actual documentary, are the numerous teenaged exploits that came out of one of the most influential studios in a post-Golden Age world of filmmaking.