I saw a film!
Sometimes a movie is innocent and cute, but despite that still manages to be of terrific interest to a certain audience that wasn’t annoyed with the era. I’m being a bit cynical here, but, having lived through the 80s and 90s without much of a care for popular culture-in fact, I entirely stopped watching television and abandoned radio for a good portion of that period except for Mystery Science Theater 3000—I can’t imagine a film that basically highlights the music of the era, a boy’s pastime with motors and featured dancing and costumes all giving pretty much a time capsule of a year like 1988 (don’t point me toward Back To School!).
But since this period was when my folks turned twenty, and I wasn’t yet even a thought in anyone’s head, the fifties, the late fifties I mean, despite Tom Robbins calling the era spirit-crushing, overall beige in color and having only a pine-scented candle as an achievement, seem utterly charming to me.
It doesn’t hurt that John Ashley looks like Elvis and starred in a slew of movies that are my special menu, and that his lovely dark-eyed gal Jody Fair (who only lasted about 5 years in the industry) “does it” for me. Now add Gene Vincent to the mix and you’ve got yourself an adorable movie.
It’s OK that most of the film’s plot is hidden from us, and the silly hijinks undertaken to avoid our hero upsetting his kooky aunts and thereby losing his wealth is a difficult association for the widest portion of its audience (I’m guessing my folks would not remember, nor care much for the goofy thing. My old man at 20 was getting out of the navy, had a strong affection for classical music, and mainly loved only fishing. Mom had been a ballet star at a young age and was shipped to Canada from her home in Devon England and I doubt she could find Hot Rod on the map). I suppose our hero isn’t Trump, but just the same, his associates in the hot rod business are low-end crooks. What I mean is, I’m always aware of the economics of a story. It is difficult to connect with a story about someone who never struggles financially. Johnny is on that edge, his effort is spent performing, he doesn’t seem to have any job, not bowling pin setter or short-order cook, nothing.
Moving on, I love the fact that they have a “club house”, and they owe a bunch of back rent, a-and they have a combo playing rock and roll there, where the kids dance, and we’re treated to some of that dancing that looks a lot like Judo, except the girls somehow bounce back over the fellow’s hips instead of landing on their backs. This is charming goddamned stuff.
Heck even the small amount of hot-rodding is interesting. I’d never seen the type of racing the boys undertake, half on a sidewalk curb, half off, beating heck out of their suspensions. There may even have been one of the first movie versions of a “nerd” in Johnny’s mechanic friend who spouts some science-ish car design stuff while repositioning his glasses. I didn’t see a slide rule, but I half expected to (and it kills me that when I was a lad my dad always had one in his pocket and I never learned how to use one as electronic calculators had just become normal gear, affordable by all!).
Did I say Gene Vincent is in this? He does a bit of acting, and I have to admit to getting almost a bit misty-eyed over it. Gene Vincent didn’t last long in the world, was gone by 36 (1971) suffering from a lot of alcohol abuse, and probably terrible pain resulting from a shattered leg acquired in a motorbike accident. You can see him limp a bit in this film, and while he was famous for his flexible leg kicks over the mic stand, his band-mates handled all the dancing. A star in black and white and I’m the type to be deeply moved by seeing him horsing around in this film in his prime.
So the film is kind of poorly named, as there’s not much going on with the hot-rods it’s mostly about the music and the clubhouse and Johnny’s newfound love with the very supportive Jody Fair. Regular run-ins with the cops are always played basically the same way. They are not friendly, and have no use for the kids and their wild music. I was surprised at one point that Johnny, having been invited to make some music with Gene Vincent tries to back out of it, worried that his Aunts, or the police might tie him to some hijinks with the hot rods. So, they strap a big beard on him and have him perform incognito. Beards in the 50s, especially according to Dan Wakefield, were sure signs of “Jewishness”, “communism”, “intellectualism” or just filthiness, more likely all of the above. All of which were, depending on your region in the country, deeply frowned upon. The clean-shaven face was by far preferred. We were not a tolerant people, as is evidenced by the fact that there’s not a single person of color in the film. No one should wish to go back to anything like “good ole days” because they didn’t exist. We have a natural tendency to romance the good from any period and this film is one of those collections. On the other hand, a good film doesn’t have to be about death or drug addiction to be of interest so it wins there. I sometimes feel like creative people compete too hard in those arenas and lose their handle on real life. Most of us don’t live psychotic violent existences, we’re mostly just getting by on a daily basis and getting our kicks like anyone else. And that doesn’t make us “cubes”.
For free on Prime!