My notes on Bop Girl Goes Calypso (1957)
A run of pop music movies hit hard and fast from the mid-fifties to the early sixties, offering a mixed bag of great and forgettable, significant and trivial performers doing their acts strung on plots and dramatic scenes obviously concocted by middle-aged squares. Director Howard W. Koch – who’d already made Untamed Youth with Eddie Cochrane and Mamie Van Doren and would handle Frankenstein 1970 and Andy Hardy Comes Home – plainly falls solidly into the middle-aged square bracket, and the only thing that distinguishes his Bop Girl Goes Calypso from the likes of Rock! Rock! Rock! and Don’t Knock the Twist is that the script — by Arnold Belgard (Miss Mink of 1949, Tarzan and the Slave Girl) and Hendrik Vollaerts (Batman, Star Trek, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) — is built around the notion (which was lunatic even during the months when Harry Belafonte’s Calypso was the biggest-selling LP of all time) that rock ‘n’ roll was about to be swept into the dustbin of history by the irresistible rise of calypso music.
The premise is is illustrated in the most basic way imaginable. Crewcut boffin Bob Hilton (Bobby Troup) has been studying mass hysteria and pop music by attending the Downbeat Club with a decibel counter that accurately gauges audience response to the acts on stage (in the alternate universe of this movie, booing isn’t as loud as cheering) and he’s noticed that ‘bop girl’ Jo Thomas (Judy Tyler) no longer scores a perfect ten on the dial but is registering about an eight and falling. She’s annoyed with this, but is eventually persuaded to visit a rival club where authentic calypso legend Lord Flea is appearing. After a fist-fight with Bob, impresario Barney (George O’Hanlon) gives in and redecorates the Downbeat as the Trinidad Club (for calypso, everyone has to wear ragged straw hats – especially unflattering for a great black dancer who has to cover herself with a bikini made of said hats). Climactically, Jo does a bop-is calypso number that blows Bob’s gadget’s fuses. ‘De Rain’, written by Les Baxter and Lenny Adelson, weirdly seems to be a calypso adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s island-set classic ‘Rain’ (then recently filmed with Rita Hayworth as Miss Sadie Thompson).
In a sub-plot, Bob is bullied by his eugenicist fiancee Marion (Margo Woode), who wants to get married next week and have a child with him so her department can study the kid – this pays off creepily as Bob dumps her for Jo, leaving Marion to hook up on the dance floor with Bob’s aged rock fan mentor Professor Winthrop (Lucien Littlefield), which maybe suggests he’s had a hidden agenda all along for encouraging Bob to take an interest in Jo. The drama scenes are wooden and silly, which is what makes them at once excruciating and fascinating – but the kids were mostly here for the musical turns, who seem to have been recruited at random.
In a rehearsal sequence, Judy Tyler – who was the female lead of Jailhouse Rock that year, but died in an auto wreck before either of her films was released – is massively upstaged by another girl singer (Judy Harriet). It’s unusual that this film suggests female performers are dominant in pop music, which is taken as a joke in The Girl Can’t Help It, but unintentionally on the money is depicting the way a black music tradition has to be repackaged and fronted by a white chick in a silly hat to attract all the A&R attention. The oddest act are The Goofers, a novelty theatrical rock troupe who do one amazingly athletic number (‘Wow’) and then a bizarro proto-doomrock effort called ‘Rock and Roll Will Never Die’ (to the tune of the Dead March) delivered by ghoul-faced singers from coffins. According to the IMDb, one authentic pop music legend – Julie London – is in the film as an unbilled extra. Hey, Julie, how about giving us a song?
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