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Rumble on the Docks

Rumble on the Docks(1956)

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teaser Rumble on the Docks (1956)

Thanks to a number of troubled youth movies of the 1950s, and not least to the musical play and movie West Side Story (1961), we know the word "rumble" today. The genre was new enough, however, at the time of this release that ads for it put an asterisk after the word and explained it as "teenage gang war." By making that clear and combining "rumble" with the "on the docks" location, the filmmakers likely intended to draw on the recent success of both Blackboard Jungle (1955), one of the first and best of the juvenile delinquent films of the 1950s, and On the Waterfront (1954), the Oscar-winning tale of corruption and betrayal on the New York docks. Because the producer is exploitation king Sam Katzman, this seems like a reasonable assumption.

The story fairly skillfully combines both elements by having a corrupt union leader take a young gang leader under his wing. Eventually, the youth wises up to the fact that his benefactor is no good (just as the kid's estranged father had warned him), and finds himself threatened by both waterfront thugs and a rival gang.

The youth in question is played by James Darren in his film debut. The handsome Italian-American from Philadelphia studied acting under legendary coach Stella Adler. Although an actor of some skill, he got trapped in the teen idol category, notably as the character Moondoggie in a string of Gidget movies (each with a different actress playing the titular heroine). He also had a couple of hit records in the 50s. Later in his career he had success with regular roles in such TV series as The Time Tunnel, T.J. Hooker, Melrose Place, and as the lounge singer hologram Vic Fontaine on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

By this point in his long career, producer Sam Katzman had moved from the exotic (but usually cheap and cheesy) period adventures that earned him the nickname "Jungle Sam." In 1952, Time magazine ran an article about him, noting a remarkable track record of nearly 125 films over the course of 21 years, all of them moneymakers. (He would keep that record up for another 20-plus years and close to double that number of films.) It helped, of course, that Katzman never spent more than a half million dollars on a movie. He had an unerring knack for jumping on a hot news topic or popular trend, slapping a catchy title on it, then writing a story around it using a well-trodden formula. The results were quickie programmers that reached the public with lightning speed, playing to audiences before the topic or trend had time to fade. He found the perfect theme in his youth exploitation films of the 1950s, which along with a series of sci-fi movies, carried him successfully through the decade.This being a Katzman B picture, no one would expect to find major Hollywood names on the cast and crew list, but viewers will certainly recognize a young Robert Blake. After a good run as a child star beginning in the late 1930s in the Our Gang comedy shorts, Blake found life more difficult and roles less rewarding as he got older. Nevertheless, except for a two-year armed services stint completed not long before this production, he continued to work steadily. His biggest success later in life came from the TV series Baretta, although sadly he's probably better known today for his trial for the murder of his second wife, for which he was acquitted.

The union boss's thug, Mangus, is played by notorious character actor Timothy Carey, who has since become a cult figure for his portrayals of heavies and crazies in films ranging from The Wild One (1953), East of Eden (1955), and Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957) to a spoof of his own psycho screen image in Beach Blanket Bingo (1965). A favorite actor of actor Jack Nicholson and director Quentin Tarantino, he tested for the role of crime boss Joe Cabot in Tarantino's debut film, Reservoir Dogs (1992). Although Tarantino ultimately decided Carey was wrong for the role, he ended up dedicating the movie to him. In his later years, Carey made his living as an acting teacher in addition to the occasional film and television role. He died of a stroke on May 11, 1994, at the age of 65.

Viewers will likely not recognize the name today, but the group that performs "Get the First Train Out of Town," the obligatory rock and roll tune in the film, was once considered a rising act in the emerging music genre. Katzman snapped them up for an appearance in what is considered the first true rock and roll picture, Rock Around the Clock (1956) and quickly cast them here as well. According to some sources, the relatively unknown Elvis Presley saw them performing the Big Mama Thornton song "Hound Dog" in Las Vegas in 1955 and became inspired by their movement and style. Presley made a hit of the song in 1956, just a couple of months prior to the release of Rumble on the Docks. Although one of the first American rock and roll acts to tour the UK, Bell and the Bellboys never had a top hit record and faded into obscurity.

Cinematographer Benjamin Kline was a longtime industry veteran (since 1920), mostly on B pictures. After this production, Kline stayed pretty close to television, but he had a certain amount of credibility for a project like this, having lensed the aforementioned Rock Around the Clock and the film noir classic Detour (1945).

The movie was based on a novel by Frank Paley, whose real name was Palescandolo. As teen gang violence grew, particularly in Brooklyn, between the end of World War II and the mid-50s, it became the subject of a number of journalistic exposs and government investigations. Paley's novel was a pulp dramatization of the true-life bloody warfare that was plaguing the Red Hook section of Brooklyn at the time.

Director: Fred F. Sears
Producer: Sam Katzman
Screenplay: Jack DeWitt, Lou Morheim, based on the novel by Frank Paley
Cinematography: Benjamin H. Kline
Editing: Jerome Thoms
Art Direction: Paul Palmentola
Cast: James Darren (Jimmy Smigelski), Laurie Carroll (Della), Michael Granger (Joe Brindo), Robert Blake (Chuck), Timothy Carey (Frank Mangus)

By Rob Nixon

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