The first ten years of rock films from Bill Haley to The Beatles.
Based in part on a Smithsonian Institute Lecture by Brian Rose.
“Ever since sound came to Hollywood in 1927, music was a featured attraction. The first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, was a showcase for one of the top singers of the era, Al Jolson belting out top tunes of the day,” Rose says by way of introduction. We watch a video excerpt of the entertainer warbling “Toot, Toot, Tootsie!”
In the 40s and 50s, Hollywood featured most of pop music’s biggest stars. Frank Sinatra started in shorts, then progressed to having his name above the title with Anchors Aweigh. Lena Horne made Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather even as performers were racially segregated. There was Doris Day, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland…even Glenn Miller and the Dorsey Brothers made films. “Parents listened to the same music, though kids did the dancing,” Rose observes.
Frank Sinatra in Anchors Aweigh – (Public Domain)
After the war, in the 1940s and 1950s, things changed radically when teenagers became a main demographic. Radio stations began to offer programming aimed at the kids. One of the first DJs to recognize the paradigm change was Alan Freed who, working the overnight shift in Cleveland, began to play rhythm and blues to a largely White audience, and then moved on to rock n’roll. The show was sponsored by record store owner Leo Mintz who saw a good thing coming.
Freed organized what Rose considers the first rock concert, the totally integrated Moondog Coronation Ball at The Cleveland Arena in 1952. It featured Paul Williams and the Hucklebuckers (not the songwriter Paul Williams), and Tiny Grimes and the Rocking Highlanders (an African American instrumental group that appeared in kilts). Know either of those groups? Issues due to both overselling and counterfeiting (tickets were priced at $1.75) caused the already jammed concert to overflow with those who stormed the venue. Local fire marshals were forced to shut it down midway. With this, rock acquired a dangerous reputation. (In 1969, the Altamont Speedway rock concert would bring that era to a violent close.)
Concert Poster and Alan Freed (Public Domain)
The DJ moved to the Big Apple and radio WINS. He began to mount group shows at The Paramount (Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Paul Anka). Radio popularized what Rose refers to as “hybrid music.” Hollywood got the message. The first film to feature a rock song began with a scrolled disclaimer about public concerns with juvenile delinquency. It was 1955’s Blackboard Jungle (Glenn Ford and Anne Francis). “Rock Around the Clock” (Jimmy De Knight/Max C. Freedman), performed by Bill Haley and the Comets had been the B side of a 45 (record) in the collection of Ford’s nine year-old son.
Bill Haley and his Comets in the 1954 Universal International film Roundup Of Rhythm. provided with the friendly permission by Mr. Klau Klettner from Hydra Records.
Not only did the song explode, but vandalism occurred at theaters everywhere, furthering the reputation of rock’s negative influence. (Some owners cut the musical number.) A few months later, the group performed their hit on Texaco State Theater becoming the first rock group to appear on national television. It topped pop charts for eight weeks. Two movies were quickly produced, Rock Around the Clock and Don’t Knock the Rock. Both featured Alan Freed and an integrated cast. We watch Little Richard in the first, The Platters from the second.
In 1956, Elvis Presley came on the scene. The young man’s first onscreen credit was as Clint Reno, younger brother of a Confederate soldier in Love Me Tender (Richard Egan, Debra Paget). Presley became the center of the movie’s promo. When his character died in the end, fans got upset, however, so a coda was added where he sings the title song from beyond the grave. Panned by critics, the film was a massive hit.
Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock; Elvis Presley with Juliet Prowse in G.I. Blues (Public Domain)
Presley wanted to be considered a serious actor, but under the thumb of Colonel Tom Parker made film after film – 31 of them – with threadbare plots and elaborate musical numbers. Some are: Loving You which was loosely based on his own career; Jailhouse Rock containing what Rose thinks is “one of the most exhilarating musical sequences on film,” the cell block dance production number, choreographed by Elvis himself; King Creole, based on a Harold Robbins’ novel, directed by the wonderful Michael Curtiz who helmed Casablanca; and Charro! in which he sported a beard and doesn’t sing on camera.
Alan Freed made his self-aggrandizing way onto several more films, also widening the exposure of Black and White performers alike. His counterpart, Dick Clark, was featured in 1957’s Jamboree before hosting television’s hugely popular American Bandstand. The Philadelphia show aired in various versions from 1952 to 1989. Clark, also the producer, was in place from 1956 until its demise and became a media mogul through participation.
American bandstand Ticket (Public Domain)
“Lest you think all these films were bursting with teenage energy, you’re forgetting Pat Boone. It might be stretching things but according to a 1957 poll, Boone won over Presley 2-1 (boys) and 3-1 (girls.)” Following clean-cut Boone, there were Fabian, Paul Anka and Frankie Avalon, but they were exceptions. In 1958, High School Confidential was advertised as presenting “the rock n’roll lifestyle that perverts the youth of today.”
Rock exploitation films flooded the market. At the start of the 1960s, Chubby Checker’s novelty “The Twist” spawned a film and three sequels. Discharged from service, Presley resumed making Parker rich. G.I. Blues did well. A couple of less musical efforts fell flat, then three formula movies were made in Hawaii. In his last, Change of Habit, 1969, Presley portrayed a doctor and Mary Tyler Moore a nun. The artist turned to clubs and concerts.
Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello in Beach Party (Public Domain)
About the same time, the teenage beach genre began as a soft sell with Where the Boys Are about a Florida spring break filled with raging hormones and naivete. Pop star Connie Francis ignominiously played the least attractive coed, but the movie was not a musical. Next came Beach Party with Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon (they couldn’t get Fabian). The heroine was on loan from Walt Disney with the stipulation that she couldn’t show her navel. There were seven sequels, two with this pair.
The British joined with Tommy Steele and Cliff Richards, later Petula Clarke, but it was, of course, The Beatles who crossed the Atlantic to conquer America. In 1964, A Hard Day’s Night changed everything about what a rock movie could be. Rose calls it “an expression of wit, culture and energy.” Directed by Richard Lester, “it reinvented the way music could be brought to life on the big screen.” Paul McCartney said screenwriter Richard Owen “hung around with us and tried to put words in our mouths we’d actually speak.” It was an explosive hit.
The Beatles Arrive in New York (Public Domain)
Reunited with Lester, the Fab Four made the plot-driven Help!, but “the film lacked the feeling of freshness and joy” in which the first exulted. The Beatles weren’t happy with it. About the title song, John Lennon said, “The whole Beatles thing was beyond comprehension. I was subconsciously crying out – for Help.” It was the last time the group appeared together in a scripted film.
We end with an excerpt from a concert film, The First Annual T.A.M.I. Show at The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Held on October 28 and 29, 1964 free tickets were distributed to local high school students. “T.A.M.I.” was used to mean both “Teenage Awards Music International” and “Teen Age Music International”. The concert featured an incredible assortment of rock musicians including, in part, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, and The Supremes. A video of James Brown’s “Night Train” takes us out epitomizing what Rose calls “the absolute power of music to send audiences into a rapturous frenzy.”
James Brown (This file is licensed under the CC BY-SA 2.0 Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike)
Opening: Beatles promo 1964 (Public Domain)
Join this entertaining professor, author, lecturer again for Rockin’ TV: From Elvis to The Monkees September 14, 2022 12 p.m. – 1:15 pm