“Bop Girl Goes Calypso” is the story of a young rock ‘n’ roll singer who discovers that science has proven rock and bop is on its way out, and is soon to be replaced by calypso as the new hot song craze. Thus, the bop girl goes … yeah, okay, I can’t even say this with a straight face.
But when the film began, I found myself really wanting to love this movie. Dig that crazy Nino Tempo! While screaming out “Horn Rock” with his band, he rips off his suit jacket, loosens his tie, and thrusts his hips in a decidedly impure way.
I’ll be in my bunk.
Truly, this is a terrific beginning to a film. Hot, jazzy rock by a dynamic performer while the credits — most notably all musical credits — scroll by on the right margin. If only the entire film were half as good as this opening sequence.
In the audience watching Tempo is a man sitting alone at a table. Well, unless this big machine thingie he carries with him is his date, but that would probably be an entirely different movie. The machine has a gauge that is obviously measuring something and Mr. Science Machine is taking copious notes, but since this opening 15 minutes or so is all music and no dialogue we have no idea what the machine is measuring.
It’s all just a gimmick to get Mr. Science Machine to go to one club after another, anyway. But first we move on to The Downbeat where a lot of cool cats wait behind an unconvincing velvet rope to get in. Professor Winthrop, played by Lucien Littlefield, arrives at Club Downbeat and is let past the ropes immediately. Littlefield was a veteran Hollywood actor who appeared in films in the early 1900s. By the 1920s he was appearing in some of the biggest silents made: “The Sheik”, “The Affairs of Anatol”, and the recently re-discovered “Beyond the Rocks”. Littlefield made a career of playing the old man even before he was old; Always playing older than his true age, he made a career of being the father, the doctor, or the wise old man who dispenses advice to the film’s leads. Littlefield’s character of Mr. Peters in “Mandalay” looks to be the same age as his character here in “Bop Girl”, made nearly 25 years later.
The Downbeat’s owner and manager, Barney, lets Professor Winthrop in because he is a well-known regular. Barney is played by George O’Hanlon, the original voice of George Jetson and familiar face of the “So You Want to…” movie shorts series. Barney asks the Professor how things are going. “Frantic, my boy,” he replies. Frantic! Ha! Is that Professor Squarebritches attempting to be hip?
Meanwhile, back to Mr. Science Machine. After Nino Tempo and his band, Mr. Science Machine hits another club to see The Titans, a doo-wop group. Ah, I miss the days when plaid bow ties were hip. Next he’s at yet another club watching the Mary Kaye Trio, long billed as the best act in Vegas. Mary Kaye and her famous guitar are instantly recognizable, but the trio isn’t really rock or bop. It’s lounge, and while I am a big fan of lounge music I have to admit the trio’s patter doesn’t translate to film very well. Trio member Norman plays dumb to Frankie’s slightly smarter persona in a blatant rip-off of Martin and Lewis (who were great, but the smart-guy dumb-guy act didn’t exactly originate with them, either.)
Suddenly a drunken guy in the audience demands calypso! “I CAME HERE TO HEAR SOME CALYPSO!” he roars. The trio concedes and everyone laughs at the drunk guy, because this was back when alcoholism was still funny.
Mr. Science Machine arrives at The Downbeat and we find out his name is Bob. Good grief, after all that, his name is Bob. BOB. I ask you. Bob (Bobby Troup, composer of the song “Route 66” and most famous for his role on “Emergency!”) approaches the Professor with his findings. They’re both quite disturbed because they have scientifically proven conclusively and most absolutely definitely that rock ‘n’ roll is past its peak. The Professor is upset for Barney who might lose his club, but Barney doesn’t believe all this talk. The club’s headlining singer, Jo Thomas (Judy Tyler), is brought over and she contests these scientific findings as well. Professor Squarebritches says with a completely straight face that he is as upset as she is because his heart “beats rock ‘n’ roll.” More like ragtime, am I right? Back me up here, people.
Judy Tyler is most famous for her role in “Jailhouse Rock”, released the same year as “Bop Girl”. Tyler began work in television as Princess Summerfall Winterspring on “Howdy Doody” when she was 16. By the age of 17 she was married and had quit “Howdy Doody” to move on to a successful stage career. In 1956 at the age of 22 she was divorced and “re-discovered”, leading to two starring roles in 1957 films. Sadly, Tyler was killed in a car accident with her new husband that same year, before either of her films were released.
Tyler’s stage career explains a lot about her performance. She’s not a rock or bop singer by any means, she belts every song out like it’s the opening night of “The Boy Friend.” She moves as though she was on stage and playing to the back of the house; you can see an example here in the trailer on YouTube. Yet here she is, and here we are, so we must trudge through.
Bob — my goodness, Bobby Troup looks a lot like Liam Neeson — claims he has proven, with his little machine, that rock ‘n’ roll is going to be replaced soon. Barney decides to send Jo on stage to prove that rock is as popular as ever. Jo performs her song, which is rather flat and dull and her stage presence is stiff, despite exaggerated movements. In fact, her movements are so exaggerated and her arms are so gangly that she just ends up looking like a complete spazzini – which I think my little photo montage illustrates nicely, thank you very much.
After the song we discover the machine — which only measures decibels, for corn’s sake — proves that rock ‘n’ roll really is dying because Jo only reached an 8 when she used to reach a 10. (Please hold all “these go to 11” jokes until the end of the post. Thank you.) Jo and Barney are truly upset now that the machine has only gone to an 8, and who wouldn’t be? I mean, c’mon, it was an 8.
After a dejected Jo and Barney leave (8!), Professor scolds Bob for not being friendly enough to people and hurting feelings by being such a cold, scientific jerk. Bob decides he needs to call his girlfriend Marion and hang out instead of working all the time. Professor doesn’t like Marion, either, worrying that Bob and Marion get along “too well”. Good grief, Professor, let this 40-year-old grad student of yours have his own life.
Jo comes back to Bob to ask what’s going to follow rock ‘n’ roll. We already know, honey, we read the poster on the way in to the movie. Jo and Bob fight and bicker until Bob throws her into his cab to take her away and prove calypso is the big new thing. They drive to The Saville to see Lord Flea, famous mento musician and one of the biggest calypso stars in the U.S. at the time. Lord Flea is simply amazing, yet Jo scoffs and merely says she likes him a little. Some user comments on the IMBd dismiss Lord Flea as “nonsense” and “second-rate”, and to them I say this: Blow me. Lord Flea and his band The Calypsonians are, by far, the best part of this film. Their music and stage presence has been Hollywoodized for the audience, obviously, but despite the head-waving antics you can still see the genuine talent.
Jo and Bob stay at The Saville for 2 seconds and leave. They’ve made up by now, and you can tell because they’re holding hands and lovey dovey violins are playing. He talks to her about his scientific research on why youth today is so messed up, because that’s the most romantic patter he has to offer, I guess. Bob says rock ‘n’ roll became popular because the basic song structure represented stability, and fans could let themselves go to the music but at the core still remain quite grounded. Calypso is the next big thing because of the plaintive lyrics of the working man, and all Bob needs is the right kind of singer to prove calypso will surpass rock ‘n’ roll.
This doesn’t really make sense. If calypso is going to become popular in the states, it’s going to do so thanks to Lord Flea, not because some squarehead grad student decides to write a paper on it and find some girl to sing watered-down calypso to a whitebread audience. But before I get over my head here, let me just refer you to this excellent article by Michael S. Eldridge: “Bop Girl Goes Calypso: Containing Race and Youth Culture in Cold War America.” I cannot recommend this article highly enough.
Bob and Jo part as enemies again, so of course Bob runs into the previously-mentioned Marion at the university. She works in eugenics and has such textbooks in her office as Making to Breed: Personality and Making to Breed: Appearance. UGH. She demands “Robert” talk to her right that minute, and immediately puts him down because she believes his psychology studies are useless because eugenicists like her will breed mental problems out of existence.
Oh, and she has big news: gene comparisons have been run on her and Bob and she’s excited to note that their children will be genetically superior. Marion wants to get married and have a kid right away so she can use it for her thesis. The university eugenics department wants to study their offspring. She warns Bob if he won’t “sire our children” she’ll go get her mentor Professor Sims to do it because his genes are just as good. AAAAAAAAGGGGGHHH make it stop, please for the love of all that is good and sane in the world, make it stop.
After that happy note we go back to Club Downbeat for a YMCA kids show rehearsal. Sheesh, what is this movie trying to do, give me whiplash? Judy Harriet is the girl singer for the show and, especially next to Judy’s considerable presence, Jo just comes across as a major square, like someone’s mom trying to be hip. It gets even worse when Jo puts a stupid hat on and tries to sing calypso. While singing she has a tendency to slip into a silly voice and make a funny face as part of the act, even when she’s not singing in front of kids. Wow, this is bad.
Bob arrives to tell Jo that the heat is on to get her calypso act together by the end of the week; the deadline is because of Marion’s demand to marry Bob soon so they can breed immediately. Heh. Breed immediately. Was this drive-in make-out fodder or what?
The Goofers appear that night at The Downbeat. They’re a sort of novelty band with a lot of, er, energetic dancing that gets surreal when the gymnastic equipment is brought out. Their encore is early zombie rock with members of the band in coffins; see Arbogast on Film’s excellent blog post for more. Truly, this has to be seen to be believed.
Jo’s pianist, who has been relegated to the background through the whole film, has only a couple of lines but makes the most of them. The best line of the film is his: “Oh man, that Barney is throwing fits in Technicolor!” I plan to work this into every conversation.
Jo follows The Goofers and turns her bluesy song into calypso. The audience gets confused by this. Right, they love the Trapeze Rock and coffins but take five minutes to cotton to a little bongo added to a lounge song? Barney never does cotton to it, and is so pissed at Bob for ruining Jo’s bop act that he pommels the poor science guy while the backup drummer adds sound effects. While an unconscious Bob gets dumped out in the asphalt parking lot, Professor Winthrop tries to convince Barney that calypso will make The Downbeat the hottest place ever.
Marion of course shows up in time to see Jo cooing over a boozle-headed Bob, a scene ensues, and Jo now doesn’t want to do calypso anymore. Apparently Barney has been convinced that Jo will be a huge calypso hit, though, so he drags her off to The Saville to see Lord Flea again.
The Saville is packed tonight and while Lord Flea performs, Jo and Barney and Bob and everyone else just bicker incessantly. Professor asks Lord Flea to come to table and ask Jo to sing, which Lord Flea does, but Jo pitches a fit and won’t do it. The Professor gets irritated and whines to her, “Well, if you want to sacrifice your career to satisfy your emotions…”
Jo’s appropriate response should have been, “OH DO NOT START WITH ME PROFESSOR SQUAREBRITCHES,” but it isn’t, of course. She goes on stage with poor Lord Flea & The Calypsonians, who have to perform with Jo doing the song “Go Calypso” which actually denigrates calypso as not rocking enough. Lord Flea’s background vocals completely overshadow Jo’s vocals, and her clumsy and goofy arm movements are disturbing. The banjo player does unabashedly stare at Jo’s wiggling butt during the whole song, so that’s… something.
After Jo’s triumph — yes, it’s supposed to be a triumph — Marion kisses Bob so Jo kisses Barney to make Bob jealous. Whatevs. The next scene is Barney preparing The Downbeat to “go calypso” by nailing starfish to the walls. The Professor arrives during redecorating to be all hateful and petty again in an attempt at reverse psychology, because he wants Bob and Jo to get together.
That night The Downbeat becomes Club Trinidad and Jo is the headliner. The Professor tricks Bob and Marion into going to see Bob’s “triumph”, because I guess Jo’s talent wouldn’t have been realized without a man to guide her or something. More whatevs. Jo performs a song that again is supposed to be calypso but isn’t, and breaks the decibel meter — several record companies want to sign her immediately.
Jo and Bob get together while Marion stews. The Professor asks her to dance, she says no, and he scolds her to “act like a woman for a change”. Of course, the appropriate response to someone who breaks up your engagement and says you’re not acting like a woman is to dance with them. Not only that, but after a few steps Marion says she’s surprised that she just “learned the biological urge” from the Professor. Oh man, just stop. NNNnnnngh.
And there we are. Jo and Bob dance together, there’s no resolution to the rock vs. calypso contest, and a 25-year-old Marion has the hots for a 183-year-old Professor Squarebritches who demeans her every chance he gets.