Unless otherwise noted in the post title, these are not
reviews, per se. They are articles for people who have already seen the film or read the book in question--meaning that there will be spoilers. If you're already familiar with the material being covered, or don't mind the plot being spoiled, please read on and leave a comment.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

[Ephebiphobia] The Beatniks (1960)

The Beatniks - Theatrical Poster
Theatrical Poster
Four young hoods in masks get their kicking-around money by knocking over local businesses at gunpoint, while the sole lady of the group waits behind the wheel of their getaway vehicle. After the latest robbery turns up enough scratch for chicken fried steaks at the local diner, Iris (Karen Kadler), drops a couple of shiny nickels in the juke box and pleads to her gang leader boyfriend, "Sing to me, Eddy." Which he does, an interesting little novelty tune with the unforgettable lyrics "Sideburns don't need your sympathy."

After years of living a hard knock life, fate has finally smiled upon Eddy (Tony Travis) in the form of Harry Bayliss (Charles Delaney), a show biz agent who happens to be using the pay phone during Eddy's impromptu performance. Impressed by the crooning vocalist, he offers Eddy an audition in the big city and from there it is a whirlwind of activity that takes him from a Podunk diner to the city's most prominent recording studio.

Eddy wants something better out of life than the petty crimes and pointless kicks he had, up until now, been accustomed to—and that includes his girl Iris, whom he quickly trades in for Bayliss's secretary Helen (Joyce Terry). It is rather surprising how quickly Eddy has a change of heart, attempting to escape the gutter and ride his rising star to the top, but nobody is quite as surprised as Iris, and the other members of the gang.

Iris, along with Red, Chuck and Moon (Sam Edwards, Bob Wells and Peter Breck respectively) begin as an entourage in Eddy's rocket to stardom, but they quickly become an anchor around his neck. Every time he tries to pull himself up, the others go and pull him back down again. Bound by a sense of loyalty, Eddy refuses to quit them all together, which proves to be his downfall.

After a night of celebration, things get out of hand, resulting in Red being shot and another man being
The Beatniks - Title Screen
Title Screen
murdered by Moon. Even Bayliss, who tries to get the kids to release Eddy from whatever hold they've got over him, winds up stabbed for his efforts.

There's no happy ending here for anyone, except maybe Bayliss. Sure, he nearly got gutted, but his new attraction at least managed to record the album moments before being arrested. He wasn't your typical sleazy media mogul, though, and came across as more of a father figure than anything else. He, Helen and Eddy nearly comprised a haphazard family unit by the end of the film. Between Helen and Bayliss, they almost turned Eddy's life around completely. He would've found himself with a hell of a future, if only he had been able to say goodbye to his past.

With a title like THE BEATNIKS, this really should have been the iconic Beatsploitation film. Unfortunately, there isn't a black turtleneck, beret, goatee, coffee shop, or poetry reading anywhere to be found. These are not beatniks in the least. These are just a bunch of dimestore lowlifes.

Hollywood was never exactly kind to followers of the Beat Generation. The core members of that literary group were just that: literary. They were men of passion and men of letters. They associated with, and in many cases mythologized, a certain criminal element, but were for the most part relatively innocent themselves. The beatniks who molded themselves after these characters were perhaps even more innocent. They were anti-establishment, to be sure, but in general broke no laws greater than drug use and the grey-area of peaceful assembly. It was just as much accouterment as it was actual philosophy or way of life, but they were mistrusted by an older generation who was used to a clean cut and hardworking existence. This mistrust made the beatniks big news, and when there is a buzz about anything, there will be somebody there to exploit it.

If filmmakers had shown how the typical beatnik really spent his day—smoking grass, listening to records, and reading On The Road for the hundredth time—there probably wouldn't have been much fear left to capitalize on. Instead, beatniks were cast as thieving, murderous scumbags...who just so happened to dress in dark costume, speak in indecipherable slang, and snap their fingers in the air.

The Beatniks - Madman Moon
Madman Moon
In this movie, they couldn't even get that much right. Out of all the characters here, the closest to the "authentic" Hollywood beatnik is Moon. He's an amusing and interesting character, moving with a casual slouch and well-oiled joints, sliding across the set with a dangerous cackle. He's casual and laid back one moment, and then erupting into violence the next. He appears to be a loose cannon from the very start, but when it seems inevitable that he will be abandoned by his leader, Moon evolves from sociopath to full-fledged psychopath. Perhaps that is why Eddy couldn't bring himself to leave his friends behind. Without him there to keep Moon in check, the whole damn gang would go off the rails.

What is perhaps most disappointing about this movie is the soundtrack, as performed by the crooning Eddy Crane. Despite the fact that these are just your average juvenile delinquents and not the beatniks promised to us by the title, it is still difficult to imagine that these young hardasses would listen to such preening pop ballads. Aside from the first song that Eddy performed in the diner (which, I admit, holds a bit of a curious appeal), all of the lyrics were romantic drivel that would be more at home on a Pat Boone record. The Sideburns Song, while still delivered in a crooning manner, was at least tangentially about "The Life". It's too bad that the others didn't follow in the same vein, otherwise Eddy might have been the first gangsta rapper. Minus the rapping, of course.

It's no real surprise that this movie got it all wrong. Paul Frees was pushing 40 by the time he wrote and directed this feature, the one and only time he received either of those credits in his expansive career. Frees was one of the premier voice over actors of his time, putting in work for Disney, Hanna-Barbera, MGM, Rankin-Bass, and many others. For Jay Ward Productions, he voiced Boris Badanov on THE ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE SHOW, which is maybe a little ironic, as Boris's lady friend Natasha Fatale had more Beat leanings than anybody in THE BEATNIKS.
The Beatniks - The Amazing Eddy Crane
The Amazing Eddy Crane

Our protagonist, Eddy Crane, is played by actor Tony Travis, who amassed less than a dozen roles during his career, none of them very impressive. I wish it could at least be said that he sang his own songs here, but he didn't. He lip-synched along with them, and not very believably, either, appearing as if he were chewing cud much of the time.

Peter Breck managed a large number of roles in TV and film, many of them westerns. He is most remembered for his lengthy run as Nick Barkley on THE BIG VALLEY, but he was also the lead in Samuel Fuller's fantastic SHOCK CORRIDOR and the less-fantastic THE CRAWLING HAND (both 1963). Although his performance here is frequently over-the-top, it is also the most memorable and consistently entertaining in the entire film. It has already been stated that his Moon was the most beat out of all these so-called beatniks, and that may be attributed to his father, Joseph "Jobie" Breck, a jazz musician who played with many top artists of his day. When you grow up around cool, cool comes natural to you.

THE BEATNIKS gets a bad rap, and the two-star rating it currently has on IMDB is probably unjustified. It is by no means a great film, but it can be a fun watch for fans of this sort of thing. It was riffed amusingly on an episode of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, and as much as I love that program, I do believe that it can have the unintentional side effect of making people believe that the movies they feature are worse than they actually are. Don't feel bad for this movie, though, no matter how misjudged it may be.

THE BEATNIKS, like sideburns, don't need your sympathy.


1 comment:

  1. It was nice to learn that someone else has a relatively high opinion of this film. I found it a fast-paced modern fairy tale with good acting. I also loved the songs. It does indeed deserve a better reputation that it currently has.