Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Violent Years/Dance Hall Racket

Don't have time to blog much; I'm too embroiled in my research and writing on Yasujiro Ozu for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for the moment; the festival has announced its full slate, is showing I Was Born, But... and I'm finishing up work on an essay and slideshow to be presented along with the July 15 screening. So, following her first dispatch, here's another piece from Miriam Goldwyn Montag on the current series running at the Roxie:

You can't please everyone and just about every "Noir"-labeled event always elicits cries of, "That was a whodunnit (or a police procedural, or a gangster flick or what-have-you)!" somewhere along its varied run. "Not Noir!" "It had ballet in it! How could it be Noir?"

The two local (rival?) Noir impresarios do, in fact, stray from Noir quite a bit. Partly to stretch the meaning of the label beyond the fedora-and-femme-fatale trappings, of course. The roles both Elliot Lavine and Eddie Muller play in giving San Francisco back a little taste of rep programming should discount any misgivings about drawing from outside the sometimes narrow definition of Noir. The Christmas double bill Noir City presented to publicize the January fest was a prime example. I Wake up Dreaming's opening night smash Dementia deserved an outing on an SF screen, as did the not-quite-Noir of C Man.

One of the films in the advance screenings which most dazzled me was an appealing J.D. saga, The Violent Years. It's chock-a-block with bottom of the bill audacity, yet one fellow film-goer seemed almost proud to be staying in on Monday to wash his hair. "Not noir!" The promise of a Edward Wood, Jr., script with its proto-John Waters sensibility did not move this maven of Noir.

Well-constructed and coherent, The Violent Years won't leave anyone feeling cheated out of Wood touches. The more durable ones are here: Wiggy plot twists, ham-fisted "message" speechifying and mild cross dressing all take a bow. There`s even a scene stealing sweater.

One might wonder if this was a repurposed script originally about a boy gang. The gender issues here are so off track with what we expect from girls, even bad ones, in this genre. Gang leader Paula Parkin has her own crazed issues with the fellas in her life. Man attack indeed!

Played by Jean Moorhead, Paula has a sassy yet patrician edge and plays Wood's dialogue straight as can be. Both the spoiled, neglected teen and her junior gang leader spring from the same wounded base. When she's spitting out orders to her gang, she's in charge, but in Junior Leaguer on a tear kind of way. It's a tone anyone who has ever sold upscale housewares for a living knows well. Playmate of the Month for October 1955, Moorhead gives a true B movie performance, certainly, but it is one of the great J.D. portrayals.

Want to see what sort of film you could have made for 47 cents back in 1952? Shabbiness alone might be a draw for Dance Hall Racket, but for its curio cabinet of a cast. Lenny Bruce wrote and starred in this empty Kleenex box of a movie. Completing the set: Honey Bruce (billed as Honey Harlow here) and mom Sally Marr making this a must-see for fans of 1974 bio-pic Lenny. Series organizers note this film as a curiosity, and even if most of the film going public knows Bruce from the Bob Fosse's stark drama, it is an amazing souvenir. The fact that this comes to us in a 35mm print is sort of miracle, Mr. Lavine pointed out rather proudly.

One cannot keep one's eyes of of Bruce. His twitchy greasiness might owe some of its magnetism to the legend, but what the hell. It would be heartwarming to think that among Bruce's motivations for making this film was as a way to immortalize his Vaudeville veteran mother. Marr, a steadfast supporter of her son, has three set pieces here, all fun.

A generous portion is given over to black-out sketch style interludes, all the performers seemingly in different films. There's peek-a-boobie tease, Swedish dialect comedy and oddly staged action. It's not as Noir as the real story of the people behind it, but do you really care?


  1. Wow! Granny panties and bobby sox. I've never seen such an overdressed Playmate of the Month. Thank you Brian.

  2. To me, the most amusing plot twist in THE VIOLENT YEARS is the idea that "foreign interests" (aka communists) would be willing to pay the girl gang to vandalize a classroom. First they vandalize our classrooms, then they take over our cities.

    DANCE HALL RACKET is just a sad experience, watching these old strippers and burlesque comics go through the motions as they descend into poverty. The screenplay is so incoherent, I could never tell whether Lenny was parodying the cliches of a mental hygiene film, or just repeating them. Ah, what men went through in the '50s for a brief glimpse of nudity!

  3. Peter, thank Miriam, who inspired me to go looking for that image! Wouldn't normally link to something NSFW, but that's the most SFW centerfold I've ever seen, as well.

    Sprattle, I missed Monday's screening myself, to my regret. Thanks for the comments.

  4. Mrs. Montag5/27/11, 7:31 PM

    Great, now I`m a pusher of bobby-sock porn! I`d like to point out that when I`m not at the movies, I am a grandmother of 3 and a federal employee! (I miss the days of pre-gyno fanstasy fodder, I admit it.)

  5. As for Bruce`s intentions, I think he sort of gave up on this puppy in the middle somewhere. Throwing the jacket to draw fire in the shoot out scene seemed to sum up his attitude about the film. Having collaborators and financial constraints must have been tough for someone used to working solo in stark circumstances which characterize a career as a night club comic.

  6. I think Lenny was still very much in the lower, sleazy end of show business at the time the film was made, basically a burlesque comic. Johnny Legend introduced the film at the Roxie, and he said that Lenny was running scams at that time, raising money for fake charities and pocketing a large percentage of the money.

    Jean Moorhead is obviously a very beautiful woman, and not a horrible actress. I think she could have had some sort of career in movies, if she'd caught a break.