In 1961 country singer Sue Thompson had a top-ten hit record with a little ballad penned by John D Loudermilk, called Sad Movies.
That is really irrelevant, because this post is about another form of celluloid heaven – BAD MOVIES.
I have a sizeable DVD collection of bad movies. The family can’t understand me. I can’t always understand me, but hey – I LIKE bad movies!
I don’t mean the colossal expensive stinkers, where studios collapsed after bankrolling some vanity project of some overinflated star – where the money shows in everything apart from one tiny little detail, a decent script.
No – I mean the poverty row jobs – especially those of the 1950s.
As a Brit, my grasp on American culture is somewhat tenuous, but in parts of the States you have drive-in movies. (In Britain you would be sunk by rubbish weather). But at drive-in movies, you park up and watch the film on a huge outdoor screen – and hope that the plot of Boris Karloff’s last decent film “Targets” doesn’t come true. (For those too young, a homicidal gun-toting young man starts picking off the audience, while Karloff is in the audience and – scrambling the gunman’s tortured brain even further – is also on the screen).
But – correct me if I’m wrong - the concept of drive-in movies in the 50s appears to be that you borrow your parents’ station wagon, pick up your girl, park up, and – well, the quality of the film was not necessarily of paramount importance. Add to that concept the independent nature of many 50s movies – not tied in with big studios but free to express themselves with threadbare resources – you have a field of mind-boggling ineptitude that can be a delight in the 21st century.
Robot Monster – Teenagers from Outer Space – Plan 9 from Outer Space – oh yes, I’ve seen them all and have a comprehensive collection in my library – albeit shelved apart from the theology.
But to-night I am going to nominate – Girls Town – a teen flick from 1959.
A cursory look down the cast list produces some very famous names in this production. From the silent and early sound era – WOW – there’s Charles Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. There is only one slight problem – it’s the wrong generation: these are Charles Chaplin Jr and Harold Lloyd Jr. Other progeny virtually cutting their movie teeth include Jim Mitchum (son of Robert) and Cathy Crosby (niece of Bing). Watching this film helps viewers understand how their efforts to break into movies were generally doomed – names or no names.
The main star was peroxide blonde Mamie Van Doren, sometimes called the poor man’s Jayne Mansfield, who was in turn called the poor man’s Marilyn Monroe. Mamie had the kind of pneumatic figure designed to fuel the fantasies of fourteen year old boys of all ages. In her late 20s at the time, Mamie played Silver Morgan (there’s a name for you), supposedly aged 16. Silver’s sister has an altercation with Harold Lloyd Jr, who falls off a cliff to his death. (Here is a great in-joke for cinephiles who might remember Harold Lloyd Sr’s exploits on high buildings in movies like Safety Last and Feet First). Somehow in the mess that follows, Silver gets sent to Girls Town, an institution run by scary nuns, whose aim is to “reform” her.
There are subplots featuring good and bad teenage boys. Battling for the good is teen idol Paul Anka (who wrote and sang Diana – and years later cleaned up by writing the English lyrics for My Way). Anka looks about 12. Battling for the bad is evil hoodlum Mel Torme. Mel Torme? The velvet toned crooner who must have been not far short of 40 at the time? Yes – that Mel Torme. A fight between Anka and Torme is hilarious.
Other highlights? Anka sings Ave Maria to Mamie Van Doreen – who cries. You are filled with emotion too, but of a different sort.
But the “piece de resistance” in my book is the performance by the vocal group, The Platters.
The Platters had a string of top twenty hits in the mid to late fifties – ‘The Great Pretender’, ‘My Prayer’, Twilight Time’, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ and others. Unfortunately, 1959 wasn’t the best of years for them; the men all got arrested on vice charges, and their lead singer, Tony Williams – who in fact did all the work (the rest just swayed gently going Oooh-Aaah in the background) was to leave the group and fail as a solo shortly afterwards. But the Platters sing – and – er - something has happened, because Tony Williams is missing. Rather than doing the sensible thing – a quick competition and a quick buck for the nearest decent Tony Williams lookalike to lip-synch – they get someone of approximate build and try desperately to hide his face all through the song. So we have the Platters swaying from the rear, we have the Platters swaying from off center with just a shoulder and pair of hands of lead singer in shot, and finally we have the Platters swaying from the front, with a piece of wrought ironwork in the nightclub conveniently obscuring his face. It must have been a nightmare – where’s Tony Williams? But we’ve publicised the Platters – quick, try this. Does it work? Of course it doesn’t – it’s a mind boggling failure on all fronts – and that is what makes the film so delightful.
With a suitable can of refreshment and a suitable frame of mind, I can sit and watch rubbish like Girls Town – and laugh all over again - as the rest of the family mutter words like “Strange” and “Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m going to bed!”
I was going to say that some people sometimes have no “soul” – but since occasional family members have been known to read this blog, I guess I’d better not.
I don't know of any surviving Drive In movie theaters ... Pixie