Friday, April 6, 2018

Watch Out For the Little Guys Because They Always Get You in the End :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Roger Corman's Rock All Night (1957)

After trading barbs with a slovenly and obese drunk, whose volume and obnoxiousness was ruining the musical act on stage, a man, short in stature and temperament, is given the bum’s rush out of this nite club for causing trouble (-- he’s literally picked up by a bouncer after an off-screen dust-up and deposited on the street). Here, the ousted customer, his motor-mouth still running, manages to set the bouncer against the maître d' and his terrible French accent. All of this, of course, establishes how the man, whom everyone calls Shorty (Miller), has a giant chip on his shoulder, is keenly aware of the human condition, can instinctively read people and size them up in an instant, and then takes great pleasure using these skills to push some buttons and cut perceived loud-mouths and bullies off at the knees before punching them in the mouth. And if we didn’t know any better, one would think he was overcompensating for something.

Anyhoo, before those other two come to blows, Shorty moves on, finding refuge in a seedy little watering hole in the wall called Cloud Nine. The owner, Al (Morse), recognizes Shorty, serves him a drink, before returning to the conversation he was having with an overly morose reporter named Steve (Cutting), who constantly refuses to drum up any publicity for this dive; currently occupied by those three mentioned, along with a burly truck driver named Angie (Alcaide) and his brassy, ball-bustin’ date, Mabel (Cooper); a wannabe boxer, whose manager, Marty (Hoyt), refers to as The Kid (Dickerson). Marty sees a great future in the ring for his fighter, maybe even a shot at the title, but must convince both the Kid of this and -- more importantly, his wife, Syl (Morris), who begs him to abandon this career before any permanent damage is done in the ring; which leaves one last man at the bar, a racketeer (Karlan), there to collect this month’s protection payment from Al.

Then, interrupting all of this patented melodrama, in blusters a bowling-pin shaped beatnik going by the handle Sir Bop (Welles), dig, who tries to foist his latest in a long line of alleged musical sensations onto Al, hoping to earn a spot at this puny platform as the first step to super-stardom. Alas, Julie (Dalton), overcome by first time jitters, blows the audition rather badly. And while everyone else prods her to try again, Shorty pipes up and delivers a blistering but honest review of her shaky performance. Undaunted, Sir Bop promises to return with her backup band later to give her a much needed morale boost when Al agrees to give her another shot.

But just as things settle down again, another man rushes in (Nelson), who excitedly tells the others about a robbery and shootout he just witnessed where two mom and pop grocers were killed up the street -- not realizing the two felons who botched this caper beat him into the bar to avoid the swarming police dragnet. And once he recognizes them, the man tries to flee the premises only to be shot in the back by Jigger (Johnson), the obvious leader of this highly-strung duo, which is rounded out by his jittery partner, Joey (Haze).

And as these two nervously pace and wave their guns in everyone’s face, they hatch a plan to hole up in the bar, holding everyone hostage, until the heat dies down. And to pull this off, Jigger wants this place to appear normal, so they’re gonna needs some noise. And so, to set the proper atmosphere, he coerces Julie into singing again -- and to sing as if her life depended on it because, at the moment, it most definitely does...

When Charles B. “Chuck” Griffith left Chicago and moved to Hollywood in the 1950s, he had hoped to become a songwriter. But at the same time, his grandmother, Myrtle Vail, a former vaudevillian, actress, and a writer for radio in the 1930s and ‘40s, who started and starred in the soap opera, Myrt and Marge, for CBS radio (1932-1946), was trying to break into television writing screenplays. And so, Griffith started helping her write some scripts. And it was some of these same scripts that mutual friend Jonathan Haze passed on to Roger Corman, who liked what he read enough to commission the novice screenwriter to produce two westerns for him: Three Bright Banners and Hangtown; but both proved two ambitious, budget wise, for Corman to make at the time so neither were ever filmed. But when Corman was handed an “incoherent” script penned by Lou Russoff for the sci-fi *ahem* “epic,” It Conquered the World (1956), another American International Pictures five day wonder, he brought Griffith in to fix it. He had two days.

But coming from a radio background, Griffith was used to these kind of ridiculous time constraints and deadlines, and managed to salvage the script in less than 48 hours, ushering in a long collaborative career as Corman’s lone stock writer that would span the next two decades, resulting in quickly written cult faves like Naked Paradise (1957) -- which would be recycled later in both Beast from Haunted Cave (1959) and Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961), Not of This Earth (1957), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), A Bucket of Blood (1959), and The Little Shop of Horrors (1960).

And while on the (poster) surface this would appear to be just another entry in the brief spurt of AIP’s rock ‘n’ roll exploitation vehicles like Shake, Rattle, and Rock (1956), Don’t Knock the Rock (1957), or even Hot Rod Gang (1958), after the spiffy opening coda featuring The Platters, Rock All Night (1957) actually owes more to the likes of The Petrified Forest (1936) or The Desperate Hours (1955), where other cinematic groups of innocent (and not so innocent) bystanders become hostages and pawns of desperate criminals and the resulting mind games of cat and mouse where winning equals surviving and losing means not.

However, Corman’s film was, indeed, initially intended to be another one of those spotlight showcase features; this time focusing on The Platters. What happened next? Well, after consulting several different and conflicting recollections from Corman and Griffith, I think we can piece together a fairly reasonable facsimile of what most probably went awry resulting in the film we actually got instead of the one we did not:

Seems songwriter and manager Buck Ram got wind that AIP was looking to cash-in on the rock’n’roll fad, struck a deal, and offered up several acts in his stable at a discount rate, including The Platters, the Eddie Beal Sextet, and The Blockbusters, in return for the sole rights to a soundtrack album for the impending feature. The AIP brass then looked to Corman to provide said feature to attach to this LP from the ground up. Thus, Rock All Night would be another one of those quick script turnarounds for Griffith, who was charged with taking these musical elements and cramming them into an already existing TV script Corman had optioned.

Thus, the majority of the script was actually based directly on an Emmy Award winning episode of the anthology series, Jane Wyman Presents: The Fireside Theater, called Little Guy, where Dane Clark played Shorty and Lee Marvin had the role of Jigger, which aired back in 1955. Corman saw the broadcast, found it interesting, and bought the rights to the original script by David Harmon, thinking it would make a great feature -- except the episode only ran for 24-minutes. Thus and so, Griffith reworked the script and added several characters and other elements to the storyline, moving the action from a saloon to a rundown nite club, where the featured acts would perform throughout this night of terror.

But complications soon arose when a last second scheduling error found their main attraction (The Platters) out on tour a week earlier than thought and therefore unavailable during the allotted five day shooting schedule. And so a panicked Corman informed Griffith on a Friday, two days before shooting was set to commence on Monday, that he would have to essentially blow up the script and start over, pushing all the musical performances to the front of the picture (-- scheduled to film later when the musicians became available as pickups), opening up the last two acts for some new characters and story arcs.

Now, I’ve never seen the original version of Little Guy but the IMDB details are solid enough to make me believe the characters and the whole subplot concerning Julie and Sir Bop was added wholesale over that hectic weekend by Griffith. According to an interview with Senses of Cinema, Griffith “cut up the screenplay with a pair of scissors” and started pasting in new characters as he rearranged things and then glued it all back together.

As written, both Corman and Griffith had hoped noted comedian Sir Lord Buckley would play Sir Bop. Lord Buckley was the creation of comedian Richard Buckley: “a hipster bebop preacher who defied all labels” according to musician Bob Dylan, whose gonzo style and speech patterns anticipated aspects of the beatniks (one could argue he was the original beatnik) and influenced people ranging from Lenny Bruce to Wavy Gravy. Buckley seemed game but once again scheduling conflicts prevented him from being in the picture; but he was amiably replaced by Mel Welles, a comedy writer for Buckley, who essentially imitated his boss in the picture to great effect. Welles even wrote up a Hip Dictionary -- a “Hiptionary” -- to be handed out in theaters to help translate his jive.

Making her screen debut, Abby Dalton was also cast in a hurry to play Julie. (Dalton would star in three more Corman pictures in ‘57.) But I do believe that’s Nora Hayes, another one of Ram’s clients, that she’s lip-syncing to. (This is backed up by the credits.) These changes also lent to a near alternative title for the film, Rock’n’roll Girl.

Mention should also be made of the wonderful performance of Robin Morse as Al; the dour, sour-puss bartender with an answer for everything. I love the barbs thrown between him and Richard Cutting, the reporter, on the woes of bartending. (Tragically, Morse would be dead within the year.) The rest of the cast was rounded out by Corman’s gradually cementing cast of stock players: Ed Nelson, Beach Dickerson, Jonathan Haze, Barboura Morris, Bruno VeSota, and even Russell Johnson before he took off on the longest three hour tour of ever, who actually makes for a pretty good heavy. And then there’s Dick Miller, who took the lead when Dane Clark also proved unavailable to reprise his role.

Like Griffith, Miller had wanted to be a musician after he got out of the Navy, playing the drums and guitar in his native New York, until he busted his guitar over someone’s head. In 1952, he followed his friend Jonathan Haze to California, who introduced him to Roger Corman (-- and I think it would be interesting to do a giant flowchart so see just how many people Haze managed to draw into Corman’s web). Corman then showcased him in several films; and while Miller appeared to be ready to breakout after a few cult hits, mainstream success always seemed to elude him.

I’ve often suspected there might’ve been some professional jealousy involved on that aspect. When Corman started getting some positive notices -- especially by the foreign press, a lot of them singled out Miller’s craft and constant scene stealing. And with Corman, I do believe there’s only room for one captain on that ship and Miller soon found himself shuffled into the background. But, that ship hadn’t quite sailed yet with Rock All Night, and Miller gives a tight and terse performance as Shorty; an oddball anti-hero that I honestly wouldn’t blame anyone if they went ahead and popped him in the mouth as he keeps riding Jigger, pushing him into confrontations with all the other men in the bar; the stereotypical tough guys -- the trucker, the mobster, the boxer, who all wilt from the threat of violence. And these men also get a venomous earful from Shorty for their perceived lack of guts. And yet, not matter how much he chides him, Jigger nor the rapidly melting down Joey can bring themselves to shoot someone who actually stands up to them.

Yup, only Shorty and Julie show any kind of backbone during this stand-off. Julie finding her voice, and Shorty showing only he has the guts to cash the checks his mouth constantly writes, backing down Jigger, taking his gun away, perhaps too easily, and then decking him with one single blow, officially bringing this crisis to an abrupt end. Meantime, all the other personal melodrama around them wraps up in a helluva hurry, too, as the cops take the felons away: the Kid quits the ring much to his wife’s relief; Al stands up to the extortionist and rats him out to the cops; and Julie officially pulls the plug on her singing career much to Sir Bop’s dismay. Besides, she can’t stick around to sing; she’s finagled herself a movie date with her new hero, Shorty. And together, they head off for a screening of King Kong, where a bunch of little guys knock a giant gorilla off a really tall building. Coincidence? I think not.

Released on a double-bill with Eddie L. Cahn’s Dragstrip Girl (1957), and only one of seven films Corman directed and produced in 1957, Rock All Night runs a scant 62 minutes but it might’ve been better served if it had reached the magic golden 70-minute mark. I checked the timer and from the cool as hell opening animated credits (courtesy of either Paul Julian or Bill Martin) to when Jigger guns down the concerned citizen, which marks the beginning of the plot proper, we’ve already reached the 42-minute mark. Before that, it’s essentially all padding as Corman gets the musical acts out of the way in the first half hour. And since he was pressed for time, Corman had the acts lip-sync to their music and, alas, in the finished film it never quite syncs up.

I already knew the Platters were good, but was pleasantly surprised by the rockabilly sound of The Blockbusters, who provided the catchy title tune. And once they’re all tucked away at the 35-minute mark after Julie bombs her audition, that leaves us about seven minutes to be introduced to everyone else before the shit hits the fan. And once that happens, it leaves barely twenty minutes for the second AND third act. And that’s why I think those extra eight minutes might’ve come in handy. Either that, or cut into those 35-padded minutes and give those second and third acts a little more room to breath as I felt Jigger’s capitulation to Shorty felt a tad rushed, robbing the film of any big emotional payoff. That, and the fact that Shorty, even though he is the designated hero, is still one massive dickhead. And if it was anybody but Dick Miller playing him, I probably would’ve been openly rooting for Jigger to just shoot him and let Al or even Julie be the hero.

Thus, the dissonance between the glacial pace of the first chunk of Rock All Night and the errant rocket ride of the final bite does take a bit of adjustment but the reward if you can pull this off is worth it, I think. I’m not sure if cinematographer Floyd Crosby gets enough credit for Corman’s early success. Crosby, who shot From Here to Eternity (1953) and won a Golden Globe shooting High Noon (1952), was never officially on the Hollywood Blacklist, but he did find himself on the unofficial “Greylist” which found him equally shunned by the major studios. But, he landed on his feet with Corman and would go on to long career shooting for him and several other minor studios like AIP or Allied Artists, adding a lot of visual weight to these no-budget wonders.

Here, with Corman’s usual hands off approach with his actors -- meaning getting out of their way and letting them do their thing with Griffith’s crackling and humorous script, I think it was Crosby who truly established the sparse, economical look and feel of films like Rock All Night or Machine Gun Kelly (1958). Here, Crosby maximizes the minimal locations (I believe there were two) as best he can, making a whole lot out of nothing, giving everything a nice noirish flare. Love the lighting when Julie is forced to sing from the shadows; or the staging when Jigger guns down the stranger as the man runs himself into a tight close-up as the bullets rip into his back before he falls out of frame. And this, I think, is what gives these early Corman films their frenetic energy.

Still, credit where credit is due as Corman was the one who pulled all of this together and put everyone in place to pull it off: Griffith on the script, Crosby on camera, and Miller in front of it. And it was this kind of no-budget, set-bound thriller like Rock All Night that kinda set the stage for future -- and more ghoulishly morbid, features like A Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors, where Corman took this kind of cheapskate filmmaking and turned it into a true form of art that, I think, started right here at Al’s place. 

Other Points of Interest:

Rock All Night (1957) Sunset Productions :: American International Pictures / EP: James H. Nicholson / P: Roger Corman / D: Roger Corman / W: Charles B. Griffith, David P. Harmon / C: Floyd Crosby / E: Frank Sullivan / M: Buck Ram, Ronald Stein / S: Dick Miller, Abby Dalton, Russell Johnson, Robin Morse, Mel Welles, Richard Cutting, Jeanne Cooper, Chris Alcaide, Jonathan Haze, Barboura Morris, Beach Dickerson, Clegg Hoyt, Richard Karlan, Bruno VeSota, Ed Nelson

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