|Ginger Grant as Kirby Lee in Jukebox Express|
Directed by Carl Denham
Produced by Howard Stark
Story by Roscoe Kane
Screenplay by Clay Washburn, George McFly and Alan Brady [with uncredited assist by Tom Miller]
Starring Sophie Lennon
Stan "King" Kaiser
Ashley St. Ives [uncredited]
Special appearances by Conrad Birdie
Otis Day & the Knights
Bobby Fleet and his Band with a Beat
The Cry-Baby Combo
Sven Helstrom & the Swedish Rhythm Kings
Introducing Ginger Grant
While Jukebox Express doesn't have quite the cachet of such unseen celluloid legends as Orson Welles' The Batman or The Beatles in Up Against It!, it's nonetheless something a handful of dedicated rock 'n' roll fans and film buffs have been aching to see for a long, long time.
We still can't see it, but a new book offers the public its first real chronicle of the story behind this niche Holy Grail of beat flicks. Mallory's Jukebox Express: The Story Of The Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Movie You Never Saw (Rocket Media) is an exhaustively-researched journey behind the scenes of a lost cinematic work.
Although Mallory is primarily known as a mystery novelist, his attention to detail and evident affection for his chosen subject matter serve him well in nonfiction, too. The Gun Was Silenced, Mallory's biography of his hero, hard-boiled detective writer Roscoe Kane, was as compelling a page-turner as one of Kane's own pulp potboilers. Mallory's interests in pulp fiction, early rock 'n' roll, superheroes, pinup girls, and 20th century eccentrics prompted his previous books about writer Clay Washburn (Wordsmith), the hard-traveling combo Bobby Fleet and his Band with a Beat (Mayberry Jailhouse Blues), noirish costumed TV crimefighter The Gray Ghost (Beware The Gray Ghost!), heartthrob actress Jenny Blake (Jenny And The Rocket Man), and inventor and entrepreneur Howard Stark (A Cool Exec With A Heart Of Steel). All of these individual interests dovetail in Jukebox Express. It was inevitable that Mallory would choose that film as his next subject. Mallory provides us with this summary of Jukebox Express and the story behind it:
|Ginger Grant publicity photo|
With a springboard and a star, Stark needed a script, a director, and more players. To concoct the story, he brought in an old drinking buddy, Roscoe Kane. Stark Pictures had successfully adapted some of Kane's novels, and Kane had in turn worked a bit on the first entry in the studio's Western series Kid Colt, Outlaw. Kane came up with a framework to unite Stark's kooky ideas. That story was turned over to pulp veteran Clay Washburn, by then an experienced screenwriter, and a new science-fiction writer named George McFly. McFly was an odd choice to help write a film with no science-fiction aspects whatsoever, but Stark was impressed with the kid's imagination and enthusiasm. Comedy star Alan Brady added jokes to the dialogue, possibly with additional ghost-writing from his own gagmeisters Buddy Sorrell and Sally Rogers. (Of course, none of these writers had much--or any--familiarity with rock 'n' roll, so a music publicist named Tony Miller was recruited to add beat music verisimilitude, albeit uncredited verisimilitude.)
The plot of Jukebox Express centers on Kirby Lee, an attractive secretary and girl Friday to Archibald Toby, a young, would-be music impresario bitten by the rock 'n' roll bug. Miss Kirby Lee is smart, savvy, and competent, so she generally does most of the work her hapless, klutzy boss can't quite accomplish, but she secretly (okay, not so secretly) loves him anyway. Through Lee, Toby has discovered an exciting new female rock 'n' roller, and she just may be Toby's ticket out of perpetual debt and into the big time. Right now, though, Toby owes a fortune to gangster Rocco "Death" Manzetti, and about 37 months' back rent to his kooky but kindly landlady Rose "Mama" Mammamia. Lee comes up with the only-in-a-movie idea of a rock 'n' roll train tour, "Jukebox Express," to promote their new rock 'n' roll queen alongside other a-rockin' and a-boppin' artists, all making whistle-stop appearances on the rails across this great country. Manzetti and his hoods tag along to protect (and, if need be, violently collect on) his money. Manzetti's moll Cupcake O'Hara tags along to keep tabs on Manzetti. Mammamia tags along because, well, of course she does. Toby's mother tags along because she likes Lee and is worried that her idiot son is going to mess things up further. And police detective Danny Mammamia--Rose's ex-husband--tags along to finally find evidence to send the Mazetti gang off to the hoosegow. (Officer Mammamia views it as hazardous duty, and tries to keep as far away from his ex-wife as possible.) Further hijinks ensue as Toby starts to fall for his comely rock 'n' roll singer, but Lee makes him see the light--by force, if necessary! Show business success is achieved when superstar variety TV show host Whizzy Matthews discovers the Jukebox Express and arranges for a live broadcast from Grand Central Station. The Jukebox Express winds up crashing into the station, but the show goes on! All past debts are paid, Rocco Manzetti asks Mama Mammamia to marry him, Detective Mammamia locks lips with Cupcake and rips up the warrant for Rocco's arrest, Whizzy Matthews asks Toby's mom out, and both Kirby Lee and their new rock 'n' roll stargirl shower a deliriously happy Archibald Toby with kisses. Mama shouts out, "That's rock 'n' roll!," Kirby purrs, "And that's the end!" And it is, in fact, the end.
What nonsense. What delirious, glorious, infectiously fun nonsense.
|Leather Tuscadero and a friend in Milwaukee|
|Ginger Grant publicity photo|
|Stan "King" Kaiser|
Kathy Selden, Christine Marlowe
Simon Brimmer, Jenny Blake
|Otis Day & the Knights|
Part of the initial problem stemmed from what would have seemed a commercial advantage: Sophie Lennon. Lennon was enormously popular, but her fans didn't want to see a rock 'n' roll movie; a backlash against Lennon within more Bohemian circles--Lenny Bruce actively hated her--may not have mattered all that much, but it dovetailed with a potential controversy in her own career. It's difficult now, decades later, to guess what Lennon was thinking at the time, but whatever it was, she did her best to quietly discourage people from going to see Jukebox Express. Stark never forgave her. Denham broke off his friendship with Lennon, and they never spoke again. His relationship with Stark was strained, but not destroyed. Stark and Denham parted company, but they parted amicably.
But that was not the film's worst obstacle. Moral watchdog groups, already concerned about the threat of rock 'n' roll and race music, sought to protect impressionable (white) youth from its potentially corrupting influence. The Ku Klux Klan condemned it for scenes of the pretty Caucasian Tuscadero singing closely--too closely!--with the black Otis Day. You know you're doing something right if the KKK doesn't like you, but parroting of the hate group's talking points via like-minded emissaries hurt ticket sales in the South, and elsewhere--the Northern states weren't necessarily as forward-thinking as some pundits would pretend. The film's final shot, depicting Toby's face covered with lipstick kisses from both Kirby Lee and Leather Tuscadero, was decried as a scandalous suggestion of menage a trois--a stretch even within the close-minded parameters of strict '50s morality. Detective Mammamia's failure to arrest Manzetti was criticized as a slap against law enforcement. And frankly, a lot of folks just hated Howard Stark, and didn't believe he was innocent of the spurious charges of treason that had been hurled at him a decade before.
Howard Stark was a fighter until his dying day. He could have taken Lennon down, and was surely tempted to do so. He might even have been able to mount a publicity campaign to counteract his stodgy opposition, one that could have convinced movie fans and rock 'n' roll fans to flock to theaters to see Jukebox Express. But it wasn't worth it. There were hundreds of other projects awaiting his attention, from cocktail waitresses to fortifying the nation's defenses. Jukebox Express was done.
In my book about the film, I delve more deeply into the behind-the-scenes drama of Jukebox Express. The stories range from silly disruptions in shooting caused by Lucy Ricardo's efforts to be included in the film with her husband (and her consternation with him appearing in a scene--albeit a non-romantic one--with Christine Marlowe, who was a virtual twin of Lucy Ricardo) to more dire interference from genuine criminal elements. The biggest by-product of the story is simple regret: I regret that you will never have a chance to witness this film for yourself. Jukebox Express is the greatest movie you'll never see.
That's rock 'n' roll. And that's the end.
TOMORROW: Who are all these people anyway...?!
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