aka Bop Girl Goes Calypso
1957, 79m 43s
Trivia question: What was the name of the film in which Judy Tyler (pictured, left) appeared prior to starring in Jailhouse Rock with Elvis?
Answer: Bop Girl Goes Calypso (the on-screen title; the one-sheet and lobby cards I've seen simply read Bop Girl), which was shown on Turner Classic Movies late last night. Most sources I’ve consulted indicate that Bop Girl Goes Calypso was released through United Artists in July 1957, meaning that Judy Tyler had already died (4 July 1957) by the time it and her subsequent film, Jailhouse Rock, were released in theaters. Two years ago I had a student enrolled in one of my classes who grew up near the small town in Wyoming where Judy Tyler was critically injured in an automobile crash; she avers there is a commemorative marker to this day marking the spot where the terrible event occurred. She also told me the name of the small town, but for the life of me I can’t remember it. The location of the accident is sometimes listed as Laramie, Wyoming, but that would seem to be the place where she was taken by ambulance to the city hospital, not the actual location of the automobile accident. However, it seems to me there's some confusion over this matter, as the aforementioned student told me that local lore has it that Tyler was instantly killed in the crash and pronounced DOA at the Laramie hospital. I cannot claim to be able to resolve this matter.
Fifty years on, the primary interest of Bop Girl is as a museum piece. I'm not entirely sure of the meaning of “bop” in the title, as it doesn’t refer to jazz music (as in the truncated form of the term, bebop). I believe “bop” in this case may be a slang term for “hit," as in a musical hit—a "hit single." The movie’s narrative formula is similar to that found in other films made for teenagers at the time—Don’t Knock the Rock (1956), for instance, is a good example—in which a romantic rivalry serves as a sort of corollary to the competing forms of popular music foregrounded in each film. (Career and romance go hand-in-hand, success in one complementing success in the other.) The nerdy protagonist of Bop Girl is Bob Hilton (Bobby Troup, pictured above, right), a graduate student in psychology. His thesis is tentatively titled, “Mass Hysteria and the Popular Singer,” and he is attempting to demonstrate empirically (by means of an applause meter, a clunky apparatus that appears throughout the film) that rock ‘n’ roll is on the verge of being displaced by calypso music. Improbably, his balding, equally nerdy academic mentor, Professor Winthrop (Lucien Littlefield, then nearing the end of a long acting career in the movies, dating back to the silent era), is a fan of rock ‘n’ roll. Upon hearing the conclusions Bob has drawn from his “scientific” research, he is distressed to learn that rock ‘n’ roll is yet just another passing fad. In contrast, Professor Winthrop’s good friend, Barney (prolific character actor George O'Hanlon, later the voice of TV’s George Jetson), the hot-tempered owner of a club, the Down Beat, catering to the rock ‘n’ roll crowd, dismisses Bob’s conclusions, averring rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay. But in order to save his friend’s economic future, however, Professor Winthrop convinces the Down Beat’s primary audience draw, the lovely singer, dancer, and bop girl Jo Thomas (Judy Tyler), to learn calypso in her spare time. Her calypso music adviser is none other than egghead Bob Hilton, with whom she becomes romantically involved, despite the fact that Bob is currently engaged to fellow brainy graduate student Marion Hendricks (Margo Woode). In the meantime, the recalcitrant club-owner Barney discovers the growing popularity of calypso music. He goes native, adopting the requisite clothing (including the straw hat) and renaming his establishment Club Trinidad. Just as Bob had predicted, the (former) rock ‘n’ roll fans go calypso crazy, and Jo Thomas becomes a calypso performer eagerly sought out by A&R talent scouts seeking to sign her to a recording contract. At the conclusion of the narrative, she and Bob have become a romantic couple, her career is on its way, while Marion is shown dancing with Professor Winthrop. [!]
As directed by Howard W. Koch, who the next year would direct Boris Karloff in Frankenstein 1970 (1958), Bop Girl is neither better nor worse than other “topical” films of the period that in one way or another were reactions to the rise of rock ‘n’ roll. Clearly the film was attempting to ride the crest of the huge popularity of Harry Belafonte’s album Calypso (1956), the first vinyl LP (as opposed to single) to sell over one million copies (31 weeks at #1, 58 weeks in the top 10, 99 weeks on the music charts). Yet unlike Don’t Knock the Rock, in which the postwar collapse of swing served as a means to historically validate the rise of rock ‘n’ roll as a popular form of music, Bop Girl simply manufactures any supposed competition between calypso and rock ‘n’ roll. Oddly, despite its titular reference to calypso, most of the songs are rock ‘n’ roll numbers, interspersed with a hybrid form of calypso music (such as “Calypso Boogie”), written or co-written by Les Baxter. The only calypso music as such in the film is performed by Lord Flea. Other performers, many of whom went on to have rather substantial careers, include saxophonist Nino Tempo (who opens the film with a fine jump tune), The Titans (doo wop), The Goofers (quirky R&B, quirky in a good way), and the Las Vegas lounge act, The Mary Kaye Trio. I'll confess my primary motive for seeing Bop Girl was to see Judy Tyler in a pre-Jailhouse Rock role, and in this regard I was not disappointed. In fact, she's prettier and sexier in Bop Girl than she is in Jailhouse Rock, in which performance was more restrained, more matronly. (The movie was all about Elvis, after all, not her.)
My original intention was to perform an analysis of Bop Girl Goes Calypso using the terms I’d employed in my earlier, January 16 blog entry on Nat King Cole (in the entry titled “The Pale Gaze”), but instead I’ll simply point readers to my earlier post as well as a very interesting analysis of the film that can be found here.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008