Movies In My Mind is a celebration of films that don’t exist, never existed, and were never planned. This is fiction.
Jukebox Express (Stark Pictures, 1958)
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]
Stan “King” Kaiser
Ashley St. Ives
[uncredited]Special appearances by;
Otis Day & the Knights
Bobby Fleet and his Band with a Beat
The Cry-Baby Combo
Sven Helstrom & the Swedish Rhyth Kings
Jukebox Express was an odd little film trifle which relatively few have ever seen. Although it was made at the height of comic Sophie Lennon‘s popularity in 1958, legal complications severely limited its original distribution. It has never been issued for the home video market in any format, and Lennon’s estate has determinedly blocked any effort to rectify that. It is not on YouTube. Even bootlegs are rare, effectively non-existent. Only a handful of prints are known to exist, and those prints are not being shared with anyone, anywhere.
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:
In Stark’s crowded, busy mind, concepts always raced with daunting velocity. These fevered notions could and would range from potential breakthroughs in cutting-edge technology to how to make a better pastrami on rye. Stark’s mental maelstrom of creativity conjured the idea of a movie about this rock ‘n’ roll music that was driving the kids crazy. He figured an entertaining rock ‘n’ roll flick should feature the beat and its stars, sure, but he also wanted gangsters and gumshoes, broad comedy, romance, pretty girls, more pretty girls, and a train. The movie had to take place on a train. And the movie would be called Jukebox Express.
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 director was Carl Denham, another old Stark pal. Denham’s once-promising film career had floundered back in the ’30s, following his disastrous attempt to build a show around a giant ape he’d brought to New York from a remote tropical island. Denham persisted and rebounded, thanks in part to behind-the-scenes support from Stark; by 1958, he was once again a respected film director, though nearing the end of his work. Denham owed Stark, and worked with him often. Jukebox Express would be their final collaboration.
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.
Stark wanted nascent teen idol actor Dash Riprock to play Toby, but Mammoth Studios wouldn’t budge, insisting that their contract player was not going to appear in a Stark Pictures release, no way, no how. Stark considered buying Mammoth and just firing everyone there, but started flirting with a meter maid and basically forgot about the whole thing. The role was given instead to a then-unknown Troy Chesterfield. Chesterfield had appeared in small roles on a few TV series (The Purple Avenger, Mr. Downtown, Pleasantville, Invitation To Love, Captain Spaceman) and had been a contestant on the popular game show The $99,000 Answer. But long before he became a household name as Terry Legend on the hit ’60s series The Vindicators, before he co-starred with Gina Lollobrigida in 1964’s Out Of This World!, before the record six times he guest-hosted The Hollywood Television Showcase, before co-starring with Joanie Janz in the underrated comedy classic The Wolfgirl Meets The Vampire In The Old West, before Oscar-nominated turns in Jessica Fletcher’s The Messengers Of Midnight and Blood On The Badge, and before the scandals that nearly ended his stardom, Chesterfield’s feature film career began with Jukebox Express. With no disrespect intended to Chesterfield’s many other roles, his effervescent portrayal of Archibald Toby will always be my favorite Troy Chesterfield performance.
The rest of the cast was assembled by Stark and Denham with an eye largely toward veterans that one or the other (or both) knew and trusted. Stark thought comic Sophie Lennon’s on-stage persona was hilarious, but he detested her personally; however, she was a friend of Denham, so Stark deferred. The casting of TV comedy legend Stan “King” Kaiser as Rocco Manzetti was inspired, and Kaiser chewed all scenery in sight with remarkable comic efficiency. Former radio detective Simon Brimmer provided a surprising comic flair as Officer Mammamia. Terry Embrose, a dancer who’d initially found fame during World War I, was initially sought to play Toby’s mother; she was unavailable, so the role went instead to film star Kathy Selden. Selden was known as a singer, so a scene of her dueting with Broadway star Christine Marlowe was added; Marlowe played an investigative reporter theoretically covering the Jukebox Express, but really hoping to get a scoop on Manzetti. Comic Larry Davis effectively played a much more obnoxious version of himself as Whizzy Matthews. Silent film star Lucky Day and young actor Simon Trent played Manzetti’s thugs. And veteran actress Jenny Blake was both stunning and hilarious as Cupcake O’Hara. (Although uncredited and unknown at the time, future porn star Ashley St. Ives has a small non-speaking part as a young rock ‘n’ roll fan sneaking aboard the Jukebox Express. DJ Johnny Fever appears as–wait for it!–a DJ.)
As riveting as Leather Tuscadero was, they still needed more music to make this all into a rock ‘n’ roll movie. A number of acts were recruited to lip-sync performances sprinkled throughout the film. Some of these were plainly not rock ‘n’ roll. Stark was a fan of the champagne shuffle of Sven Helstrom & the Swedish Rhythm Kings, and he insisted they appear in Jukebox Express. Cuban bandleader Ricky Ricardo also performed, and had a scene with Christine Marlowe’s reporter. The rest of the film’s musical guest stars were firmly within the rockin’ field. This was about a year before rock ‘n’ roll superstar Conrad Birdie was drafted; his rendition here of “Honestly Sincere” brings the house down, and his duet with Leather Tuscadero on “Fever” just simmers with pure heat. Danny Fisher is electrifying, performances by both The Cry-Baby Combo and Bobby Fleet and his Band with a Beat make one ache to see more than the few known filmed appearances by each, and rhythm ‘n’ blues kingpins Otis Day & the Knights are flat-out amazing, especially on two performances with Leather Tuscadero. This movie rocked, Sven Helstrom notwithstanding.
And it was absolutely doomed at the box office.
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.
WHO ARE ALL THESE PEOPLE ANYWAY? Here’s annotated guide to The Fictional Players In Jukebox Express