Tuesday 20 April 2010

Calypso Heat Wave (1957)

Director: Fred F Sears
Star: Johnny Desmond, Merry Anders and Meg Myles

Given that I know Fred F Sears from being the director of one of the cheesiest monster movies of all time, The Giant Claw, with its humungous mutant flying chicken, what chance was he going to have with a calypso movie, especially one where the calypso singers are white? Well it's nowhere near that bad, coming off like a rather prophetic vision of the record industry, complete with a bunch of varied but enjoyable songs. Fortunately the main singer, Johnny Desmond, is pretty good while certainly not being Harry Belafonte. He plays Johnny Conroy, a hep cat with the soul of a beachcomber and everyone who arrives in town with a set of bongo drums ends up with Johnny because life is a party and he has a boat. He's the star artist on the roster at Disco Records, which is a rather unfortunate company name, given that it leads to lines like 'I'm gonna put Disco on the map,' in a calypso movie. He's responsible for half the company's sales.

Disco Records is run by Mack Adams, who seems to be doing a pretty good job of it, partly because he has integrity and partly because he's played by Paul Langton, who was a solid leading man in science fiction movies of the fifties, running the quality spectrum from The Incredible Shrinking Man all the way down to It! The Terror from Beyond Space. He's so good that he even has the pretty press agent played by the lovely Merry Anders as his girlfriend, Marti Collins by name, though that doesn't last. You see, in comes businessman Barney Pearl to take over everything with the sort of ruthless egotism that has come to epitomise the modern record industry. 'Anything I say works,' says Pearl. 'Performers are a dime a dozen. I can make or break any of them.' Suddenly it's not a record label, it's a racket. And yes, we get the ultimate line. As far as he's concerned, he tells the people what to listen to, not the other way round.

Unfortunately for Mack and Marti, they don't have a choice but to go along with him because he's the jukebox king and he has clout. Don't play along with his every whim and he'll pull your records from his jukeboxes. Disco even becomes Pearl Records ('every record a pearl') and Adams loses all his integrity as what Pearl says goes. However as much as Pearl is the evil corporate guy, he's also the comic relief, actor Michael Granger coming off like a bizarre cross between Paul Lynde and Tony Curtis. He adds in everyone's mannerisms from Jack Benny to Harvey Lembeck and he alternates between running roughshod over everyone and everyone running roughshod over him. Even his former exotic dancer girlfriend, Mona DeLuce, goes behind his back given that he won't listen to her wonderful idea for a hit record. The last thing he wants is her turning into a celebrity but the album she records on the sly promptly sells a million.

The first chink in Pearl's facade is Johnny Conroy who doesn't like the idea that Disco Records suddenly decides to take 50% of his royalties, threatening him with contracts and legalese. So he just up and leaves, that beachcomber spirit kicking in, and nobody knows where he and his boat went. He's the antidote to Pearl's business ethic and he's a breath of fresh air. When Mack Adams tracks him down in the Caribbean islands to apologise, he asks why he should apologise for letting him do what he wants to do, to sing and to play. When Conroy says that 'he's about as scary as a dinosaur in a museum,' he's talking about Barney Pearl but he could be talking about the RIAA in 2010. That's how far ahead of its time this story is, though David Chandler and Orville H Hampton could never have realised that when they wrote it.
The other reason that this film is so fascinating to watch is that it contains a whole slew of recognisable names, though again most of them weren't that in 1957. At the time the star performer was Johnny Desmond, born Giovanni Alfredo De Simone, who plays Johnny Conroy. He formed his first group in 1939 and went on to sing in the bands of Gene Krupa and Glenn Miller. Of course he gets the most musical numbers, including the title song. The other face I knew was that of George E Stone as Pearl's accountant Books, because he's older here than I'm used to him rather than younger. I know him from films going back to 1928, his second year in the business, but this film came long after even his Boston Blackie movies. He kept busy even this late on, with small but memorable roles in Guys and Dolls in 1955 and Some Like It Hot in 1959. Here he was only four years away from his last role, Frank Capra's Pocketful of Miracles in 1961.

All the other major names here are far younger than I expect them, so much so that I wouldn't have recognised any of them had it not been for the benefit of having IMDb at my fingers. Miss Calypso, who sings two numbers, is Maya Angelou, playing herself. Yes, that Maya Angelou, civil rights activist and author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. This was a dozen years earlier. Singing lead with the Tarriers is a young Alan Arkin, six years before he'd earn another screen credit. At this point he was doing fine as a singer and songwriter, as he wrote the most famous song sung here, The Banana Boat Song aka Day-O, which in the hands of Harry Belafonte became possibly the most recognised calypso song of them all. A decade on and he would be nominated for an Oscar, for The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming, but he wouldn't win for almost half a century, finally taking home the gold for 2006's Little Miss Sunshine.

Alex Nash, the glorified errand boy who runs Johnny Conroy's fan club, is a young man who really knows how to dance. He's late to the recording studio when we first meet him so hangs around dancing in the hallway instead. He looks rather like Wil Wheaton, but it's actually Joel Grey, fifteen full years before he'd explode onto the American cultural consciousness as the MC in Cabaret, which won him both a Tony on Broadway and an Oscar for the film adaptation. This was only his second film and he looks a lot younger than his 25 years. Given that I know him best as Chiun in the screen adaptation of The Destroyer books, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, in which he wasn't just wearing aging makeup, he was in yellowface too, I'm not surprised I didn't recognise him.

For a film I was expecting to suck royally, I'm happy to report that it doesn't. It's certainly no great work of cinematic genius, but it has a lot of charm and a lot of prescience. Early on I was reminded of a beach movie, not least because of what the wacky Barney Pearl was getting up to, but the day a beach movie feels timely I need to retire as a film critic. This one is at once utterly a marker in time, very late fifties, and a reminder that some things work in circles. The whole subtext about what Pearl does to Disco Records is utterly now, the attitude towards the artists, the threats of legal action, the look down the nose at the fans. The story this unfolds in is hardly deep but there are little gems in and amongst the routine. When Mona finally leaves Barney, which is hardly surprising given that she's got a hit record on her hands and he calls her 'idiot woman' to her face, he asks her, 'Where do you think you're going?' 'Places,' she replies, and that rang true for many people here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for an interesting commnetary on the film "Calypso Heat Wave" (1957). I recently saw it on Antenna TV here in New York City.

Maya Angelou was a revelation. And I didn't recognize Alan Arkin and Joel Grey until you pointed out who they are in the film.

One point about "The Banana Boat Song" though. According to Wikipedia, it's a folk song. What Alan Arkin wrote is a modified version of that folk song, and not quite the same as what Harry Belafonte sang. Here is the relevant Wikipedia excerpt:

"The Tarriers, or some subset of the three members of the group (Erik Darling, Bob Carey and Alan Arkin) are sometimes credited as the writers of the song, perhaps because their version of the song, which mixed in another song, was an original creation."

--Larry Bole