We all know there are a lot of bad movies out there and a lot of weird movies out there. How would we recognize a truly great film if we weren't exposed to so many lousy ones? Of course, in The Underworld we often take a liking to the sub-par. Maybe we feel protective of the inferior (or perhaps just enjoy cackling at the ineptitude.) Today's featured movie is a real lulu... The Beat Generation (1959) collects an eclectic cast and throws in a wide variety of subject matter, resulting in a camp classic for the ages.
The movie opens with Louis Armstrong singing the title song in his customary guttural style while the list of credits appears alongside (and occasionally on top of!) him. As the number draws to a close, we meet Ray Danton and a clingy gal pal of his, who are watching Armstrong perform in a smoky Beatnik nightclub called The Golden Scallion. While Danton quotes from a favorite book, the chick bemoans the fact that he refuses to so much as kiss her.
Soon, Danton sees his own father enter the club along with his new bride, one in a long line of stepmothers Danton has been subjected to. This one is different because she used to be Danton's own girlfriend until she caught a whiff of his elderly dad's money. Danton rebuffs the new wife with this classic line, “I don't need a mother... I've already been BORN!”
Soon after, we meet Maggie Hayes, a housewife who is engaging in the perfectly normal activity of madly, frenetically hoola-hooping in her living room while simultaneously reading a magazine! The doorbell rings and it's Danton, posing as a friend of her husband's (who he knows good and well is not at home – out of town, in fact.)
He pretends to be there to pay back some money and enters to write a check. Then he fakes a headache and asks for some water in order to swallow some aspirin. When Hayes returns to the living room with the glass of water, Danton is waiting, now leather-gloved, to viciously attack her. The camera trails off as we hear Hayes' screams during the rape/beating Danton is committing.
Danton is strolling home and is nearly run over while crossing the street. Driving the car is Steve Cochran, a police detective on his way home. Apologizing for the near accident, Cochran offers to drive Danton to the hospital or at least home, never knowing what this chance meeting will mean to his future happiness.
As an in-joke, Danton looks on the seat of Cochran's car and sees from an envelope that he lives on Danton Street! He also gives Cochran the phony last name of “Hess,” based on a magazine ad he sees underneath the letter. Once dropped off, he makes some notes in his little black book of Cochran's name, occupation and address.
Cochran finally arrives home to his wife Fay Spain, who is garbed in the tightest pants imaginable and wears a shirt tied up to reveal her midriff. (This was moderately shocking at the time. TV execs had a fit because Mary Tyler Moore wanted to wear pants on The Dick Van Dyke Show two years later in 1961!)
He is soon called to Hayes' home where she is badly bruised and scratched after the rape and assault from Danton. Cochran is not particularly sympathetic to her, though his partner and friend Jackie Coogan seems more so.
Things take a decidedly sadistic turn when it is revealed that Danton has not only attacked Hayes, but has then gone to the trouble of setting the table for two, toasting some bread and then drinking some coffee and orange juice to make it look like he'd been invited there all along for “company.”
Cochran and Coogan (along with their wives Spain and Irish McCalla) are next shown at the beach, enjoying the sunshine with Coogan's three young children. Cochran has fun playing games with them (and the viewer has fun looking at the still-fit Cochran in his skimpy bathing suit. Coogan thankfully wears his shirt throughout the scene.) Spain reveals to McCalla that she and Cochran are trying to have a baby together.
In a hilarious moment, Cochran receives a phone call that a man matching the description of the assailant is down at Muscle Beach, so Cochran and Coogan decide to depart their families and check him out. Cochran doesn't dress at all, remaining in his swimsuit, and merely asks Coogan for a comb so that he can groom his hair prior to hopping on a tram and heading to the other beach!
Upon arrival, the suspect James Mitchum is atop a pyramid of bodybuilders. Mitchum is tall and very lean and not very muscular, but has a smart mouth and refuses to come down and talk to the cops. He asks Cochran where he keeps his badge and Cochran responds by toppling the pyramid, causing Mitchum to fall several feet into the sand.
Hayes is asked to identify Mitchum (who really looks very little like Danton!) and she struggles mightily over whether he's the man who came into her house and attacked her. While she continues to waffle over whether this pale, tall, young man is the same as the tan, three inches shorter, ten years older Danton, Danton happens to call Cochran at the station and says he wants to give himself up!
Cochran and Coogan head to the Golden Scallion and listen to more of Louis Armstrong's music amid clouds of smoke and bits of wretched “poetry.” A beefy, rather greasy-looking, shirtless man sits motionless and basically expressionless throughout and two men play chess in the background.
Meanwhile, as the policemen are waiting to meet the no-show assailant, Danton has headed to Cochran's house to “pay him back” the money he owes and proceeds to feign a headache! As Spain goes to the kitchen to retrieve some water, Danton slips his gloves on again and grabs her from behind as she comes back in, just as he did Hayes and (off-screen) several other married women.
It should be noted that Danton sports full, tousled, gorgeous hair when at the nightclub, but when he heads to his victim's homes, he is all slickered down and shiny and projects a creepy, beaming grin in order to disarm any skeptical ladies. Cochran comes home to a savagely assaulted wife and, in the usual sick tradition, a coffee table with TWO partially-finished drinks, planting a faint (and preposterous) seed of doubt in his mind.
The “headache”-laden rapist (Danton) is referred to as “The Aspirin Kid” and a police sketch is made of his face. The police department decides that he will make his next move at a secluded, wooded lovers' nook and (in one of the movie's looniest segments!) implements “Operation Sweetheart.”
“Operation Sweetheart” involves two sets of police detectives posing as lovers in parked cars! Young Guy Stockwell and his partner Sid Melton flip a coin to see who winds up in female drag while Cochran and Coogan do the same. Naturally, in both cases, the least feminine partner is the one ending up in a wig and a dress.
These cops nestle in to one another as they lie in wait for the suspect to make his move. Cochran even asks Coogan to embrace him even more closely as they snuggle cheek-to-cheek in the front seat of their car in order to survey the scene!
A man does draw a gun on a (real!) parked couple, causing the policemen to spring into action, skirts, wigs and all, with the suspect ultimately being gunned down. Needless to say, the dead man is not the one they had been looking for.
We then see Danton skin-diving in the ocean before emerging onto the beach where he lives in the side room of the club he frequents. Waiting for him in the apartment, in a cardigan that is open almost to the navel, is Mitchum.
Slimy Danton is revealed to have deliberately cleared Mitchum of the crime against Hayes in order to blackmail him into helping him further. Knowing that Mitchum was involved with an underage girl, one he took out of state once, he coerces him into going out to actually commit one of the rapes in order to muddy the waters and allow him an alibi for the night of one of the crimes. During their discussion, Danton sharpens a phallic spear gun and occasionally jabs Mitchum with the tip of it.
Mitchum gets dressed up and heads off to the next intended victim's house. This is when, at long last, Mamie Van Doren makes her first appearance in the movie (about 45 minutes in! You can almost feel the angst that horny teenagers must gone through in trudging through the first half of this film for a glimpse of the sex pot.) She's a saucy, bored tart who, unbeknownst to Mitchum and Danton, is actually divorced from her husband.
Mitchum tries to instigate his planned mode of conduct, but since hot-to-trot Van Doren hasn't had a man around lately, he nearly gets raped himself as she settles in for some seductive behavior of her own! Nevertheless, he prepares to attack her in the same manner as the other ladies, but just as he's donned the gloves and positioned himself behind a convenient screen, her ex comes into the house, disrupting the act.
Now things have taken a real turn for the worst in Cochran's life because it turns out that his wife Spain is pregnant! She has no real way of knowing who the father is and is completely distraught. He attempts to be understanding and comforting, but is unable to deny that the whole idea bothers him tremendously.
Sensing this, Spain declares that she wants to have an abortion (this is 1959, folks!), but Cochran, being an officer of the law, resists that notion for legal reasons. So he's unhappy about the pregnancy, yet unwilling to allow Spain to terminate it, putting her in an impossible situation.
Cochran's answer is to avoid Spain as much as humanly possible, staying at work late and, eventually, keeping time with Van Doren, who he suspects is somehow maintaining contact with the rapist (either Mitchum or Danton.) He stalks Van Doren for a while, but eventually they come to an understanding and begin to hang out together until the time comes when she might hear from the sicko.
Van Doren is at all times shown in figure-hugging, curvaceous blouses, skirts and dresses that show off every inch of her impressive physique. Cochran, though it's true that he is trying to catch a rapist, doesn't come off particularly well as he's canoodling with Van Doren while his pregnant and distraught wife waits at home.
To that effect, Spain eventually decides to leave Cochran and she goes to speak to Coogan's wife McCalla, intending to end the pregnancy. Conveniently, Catholic McCalla has a priest (William Schallert) living directly across the street (!) who is conveniently trimming his shrubbery as they step outside! She introduces the man of cloth to her desolate friend and he proceeds to give her a rousing pro-life message!
Now Spain is resolved to keep her baby, with or without Cochran's presence, and Cochran is still doggedly pursuing the rapist after, count 'em, nine months!! Finally, in a breathlessly ridiculous final sequence of events, Spain is about to go into labor while Cochran and Van Doren are kidnapped by Danton and Mitchum.
Danton gives each of his captives a good slap and is preparing to attack Van Doren, though Mitchum has by now begun to feel sympathy for the buxom blonde. Before he can do the deed, Danton is called upon to enter the busy club and perform a piece of bongo drum Beatnik poetry while his cohorts gather around languidly.
By the time he is free from this to come back to his hostages, Cochran has gotten free and gives Danton a taste of his own medicine, grabbing him from behind the way Danton has done various female victims. Danton manages to break free, though, and a huge melee breaks out at the club.
The Beat Generation is filled with loony personalities at the Beatnik club, but things really go oddball here as Cochran is waylaid by an older man bent on wrestling him! The man (played by Max “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenblum, a former boxer) hurls Cochran to the floor and tries to crush and yank on him endlessly.
Finally, in one of many unintentionally (?) homoerotic moments in this movie, Cochran bends Rosemblum over, clinging onto him and grappling his hand from between his legs, and shoves him into a door.
Danton hastily doffs his shirt and puts on his scuba mask and tank, trying to make an escape, but Cochran puts a mask on (just a mask, no oxygen!) and follows him into the ocean, resulting in an underwater scuffle. By the end of the movie, several of the various issues and plot points presented are neatly (sometimes a tad too neatly!) tied up. (Note, also, how the movie was retitled "This Rebel Age" when its initial moniker apparently didn't go over all that well with potential audiences. The new title was crudely pasted over the top of an existing lobby card, shown below!)
The Beat Generation is campy, hooty and often tacky, but is handsomely filmed in luminous black and white Cinemascope and contains a few decent performances. It is considered by many to be one of the last, if not the last, examples of film noir thanks to its tough outlook, snappy dialogue and shady characters. Produced as it was by Alfred Zugsmith (the man behind such late-1950s/early-'60s “classics” as High School Confidential!, Platinum High School and Sex Kittens Go to College), it really was never in any danger of being prestigious, however.
For an exploitation flick featuring buxom Van Doren, there is plenty of beefcake and oddball homoerotica to be found throughout. Aside from the nuzzling, cross-dressing policemen, there are the swim trunk-clad musclemen and the strangely cozy relationship between the frequently shirtless Mitchum and Danton. Van Doren even refers to Danton as Mitchum's boyfriend at one point!
Cochran had been playing various hard-boiled, but handsome, types since the mid-1940s. A supporting role in 1946's prestigious The Best Years of Our Lives helped pave the way to third-billing in Joan Crawford's The Damned Don't Cry (1950) and eventual leading roles (such as in Tomorrow is Another Day in 1951.) Married three times (with one eventually estranged daughter), he was a major-league womanizer. (The pic shown here purportedly belongs to this movie, but neither his jeans, nor his dog, appear in it!)
As his career trajectory slid more towards TV and low-budget projects, he was attempting a new direction (with a Warner Brothers production deal) when tragedy hit. In June of 1965, he was sailing a yacht (which had three girls - one of them underage - on board for entertainment purposes!) when he died of a lung infection. The hapless ladies, unable to navigate the boat, drifted for ten days with his corpse on-board until finally returning to shore. He was forty-eight.
Van Doren began her career as a teenage beauty queen who was spotted by Howard Hughes and given film opportunities as a result (something the millionaire did with countless starlets.) She did win a contract with Universal but wound up in mostly sub-par films. Her film career proper was over by the late-'60s, forcing her to develop a Las Vegas nightclub act.
In 1987, the fives-times married star penned a scorching autobiography “Playing the Field,” detailing her varied career and sexual exploits over the years. Her husband at the time of Generation was trumpet player Ray Anthony and he played her character's ex-husband in the movie! What's more, the couple (who had a son together) were already estranged and would be divorced for real by 1961, helped along no doubt by her sizzling affair with costar Cochran (who also worked with her in 1959's The Big Operator.) The colorful (to say the least) actress is now eighty-two, but still lets it all hang out on her official website. Anthony, by the way, never remarried and is still alive today at ninety-one!
There is already a tribute here in The Underworld to Danton (shared with his wife of twenty-three years Julie Adams) for those interested in learning more about this dark-haired hunk. He'd won a Golden Globe in 1956 as Most Promising Newcomer (shared with Russ Tamblyn.) Having turned to directing in the 1970s when his acting career slowed down, he died in 1992 at only age sixty-one of kidney failure.
Like her on-screen husband Cochran, Spain would also be deceased prior to turning fifty. Having begun her TV career in the mid-'50s, she segued into films with names such as Dragstrip Girl, The Abductors, and Teenage Doll (all 1957!) Despite being relegated mostly to low-budget features and plenty of episodic television, Spain really could act and is often very effective in Generation. Her continued association with producer Zugsmith ended rather ugly with a nearly $13 million lawsuit against her and ten others for allegedly libeling him during the filming of one of his “epics” The Great Space Adventure (1963.) Her career having ended in the mid-'70s, she died of cancer in 1983 at age forty-nine.
Coogan had been treading the boards as a performer since he was four years old. Selected by none other than Charlie Chaplin (whose eldest son had a walk-on role in Generation), he began to appear in silents, most notably The Kid (1921.) Exceedingly popular, he earned $4 million during his childhood career, most of which was pilfered from him by a dishonest mother and stepfather, leading to far more fair and stringent regulations of child star income in the state of California.
Having served in WWII, he was unable to maintain a career upon his return, though in time he began to win character parts in movies and, later, television. In 1964, he was cast as Uncle Fester in The Addams Family and was forever after instantly recognizable to countless children of multiple generations. He continued to work right up until the year of his death, 1984, when a heart attack claimed him at age sixty-nine.
Mitchum, the look-alike son of famed actor Robert Mitchum, had appeared in one film as a child in 1949, but was now – at eighteen - looking to make a career out of acting. His performance here is woefully amateurish and awkward, but he did proceed to work steadily in the business for a couple of decades, gaining confidence and ease along the way. At left he's shown, hairier and more filled-out, in Ride the Wild Surf (1964.) His acting career over by the early-'90s, he is seventy-two today.
Statuesque McCalla (bewigged in this film as a brunette) was initially offered the role of Cochran's wife, but turned it down in favor of the smaller role of Coogan's wife because she didn't want to endure the violent rape scene. As it turned out, the more graphic elements of the attack were trimmed out of the movie, though some still photos (like the one seen below) reveal more than the final cut does. (The towering McCalla might have taken Danton in a scuffle anyway!)
McCalla had a very brief career, but set many hearts aflutter as Sheena: Queen of the Jungle (1955-1956, seen here on set with Gordon Scott, a movie Tarzan.) By 1963, she had exited the acting biz to take up art, emerging as a successful painter of seascapes, western subjects and Native American depictions. Sadly, she was twice stricken with brain tumors in 1969 and 1981 before a third bout killed her in 2002 at the age of seventy-two.
Legendary musician Armstrong had been making appearances as himself (as he does here – but why is he regularly performing in a Beatnik dive like this?!) or as other variations of himself since the 1930s. His most famous appearance of that type is probably Hello, Dolly! (1969), which was also his last. He died of a heart attack in 1971 at the age of sixty-nine.
The Beat Generation has several musical numbers performed in it, which only adds to the unusualness of the movie. Cathy Crosby, who is the daughter of bandleader Bob Crosby (Bing's brother) does a song while garbed in a fancy, elegant gown and evening gloves, hardly the sort of clothing that non-materialistic Beatniks would be embracing! Now seventy-three, she is still with us, though long retired.
Another song comes courtesy of once-famous accordionist Dick Contino, who opts for a ukulele in this film. Contino appeared 48 times on The Ed Sullivan Show! He gained a measure of newfound fame, too, when the guys at Mystery Science Theatre 3000 featured a campy movie of his, Daddy-O (1958), on their program. He is eighty-three years old today and resides in Las Vegas.
Other faces dotting the film include the guy shown here. Appearing only in a bit as a chatty lover boy on a pay phone, this is none other than Charles Chaplin Jr! He worked on a couple of Alfred Zugsmith productions, the last being 1960's Sex Kittens Go to College. That same year he wrote a book about his famous father and namesake. He was killed by a blood clot of the lung in 1968 at only age forty-two.
Stockwell, playing one of the undercover policeman, was just beginning to carve out an adult career after having worked as a child star (as did his more famous brother Dean Stockwell.) He's seen here (with Gardner McKay and Susan Oliver) in the series Adventures in Paradise, which he joined in 1961 for one season. He would go on to a fairly busy career in films and television (and has been given some attention here in The Underworld as well) before dying of complications from diabetes in 2002 at age sixty-seven.
Most of us have seen the very, very busy Schallert in some movie or TV project or another. Active since the mid-1940s, he seems to have popped up in practically everything along the way. He may be best known as the father on The Patty Duke Show (1963-1966), though he first came to our attention as Pamela Sue Martin's dad on The Nancy Drew Mysteries (1977-1978.) Remarkably, Mr. Schallert is still with us today at age ninety-one and was working as recently as 2011! Good for him!
Surely one of the most camptastical participants in The Beat Generation is Maila Nurmi, who appears as a short-haired Beat poetess holding a white rat. Don't recognize the name? Perhaps Vampira (as she is actually billed in the credits here) is more familiar. The Finland-born actress was a sensation in the 1950s as hostess of a macabre California TV program that aired scary movies. She was then immortalized in the Ed Wood debacle Plan 9 From Outer Space (released in 1959, but mostly filmed before that.) She died in 2008 of natural causes at the age of eighty-five. (Perhaps Christine Baranski needs to film her life story as a TV-movie??)
The Beat Generation is tacky, mean and bizarre, but it does attempt to stretch beyond sheer exploitation by trying to tackle very touchy subjects such as rape, abortion, misogyny and sexism, not exactly terms bandied about constantly in the 1950s. And who could resist that crazy cast?! It's a lot of things, but rarely boring. So perhaps you will give it a look the next time it rolls your way. This exceedingly well-endowed chick visiting the set, by the way, is British model-actress Sabrina, who had been dating Cochran for several years (but who apparently still wasn't enough to fully satisfy the wanton, endlessly-horny actor!)