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The Beat Generation

The Beat Generation(1959)

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teaser The Beat Generation (1959)

MGM was once considered the most prestigious of studios, turning out glossy musicals, melodramas, and period pictures featuring its galaxy of "more stars than there are in the heavens." By the late 1950s, however, the studio system was in disarray and the old stars and moguls were mostly gone from the venerable lot. So perhaps it's not so curious that Metro would deign to distribute this sleazy tale produced by noted schlockmeister Albert Zugsmith. The film is as exploitative and ludicrous as some of Zugsmith's other works, but it does provide a fascinating glimpse into what people thought they knew of the 1950s "beat" counterculture associated with such writers as Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac. It's not a pretty (or remotely accurate) picture of the era and the milieu, and Kerouac and company certainly would recognize even less of their world in this release than they would in the studio's second attempt to recreate it a year later, The Subterraneans (1960), based on Kerouac's own novel.

This one is really just a sensationalistic noir tricked up in the then trendy trappings of what middle America had begun to call "beatniks" (comically lampooned by Bob Denver as the Maynard G. Krebs character on the TV sitcom The Many Love of Dobie Gillis). Steve Cochran and Jackie Coogan play detectives out to trap a serial rapist known as The Aspirin Kid because of his ploy of asking women for an aspirin for his headache before assaulting and robbing them. Another key component of the criminal's m.o. is to pass himself off as a beatnik, occasioning the requisite scenes in jazz clubs and coffee houses.

The term "beat generation" first appeared in print in a 1952 New York Times article by John Clellon Holmes, who had disturbed Kerouac by publishing his own "beat" novel, Go, a few years before Kerouac could get his landmark work On the Road into print. Although Holmes was careful to credit his friend and fellow writer with coining the term "beat," Kerouac always worried he was being plagiarized and pre-empted. In the supreme act of pre-emption of the subject, Zugsmith beat (pun intended) both the writers to the punch by copyrighting the term "beat generation." And so a cinematic masterpiece was born!

Actually, Zugsmith had more prestigious credentials and a more varied career than his reputation in Hollywood would indicate. Sure, he was willing to capitalize on all sorts of seedy subject matter, but it must not be forgotten that this was the man behind Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind (1956) and The Tarnished Angels (1957), Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958), and Jack Arnold's classic sci-fi movie The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), written by Richard Matheson, co-author of this screenplay. In the mid-1950s, Zugsmith began his professional association with the woman who was to become a muse of sorts for him. Between 1956 and 1960, he produced eight pictures featuring Mamie Van Doren, the female star of this film, including one of the most famous juvenile delinquent melodramas, High School Confidential! (1958) and a movie he co-directed with Mickey Rooney, a biblical comedy fantasy called The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1960)-and no extra points for guessing which role Van Doren played.

The Beat Generation, sometimes distributed under one of its working titles "The Rebel Age," features jazz musicians Louis Armstrong and Billy Daniels, and several names on the periphery of Hollywood fame, including Jim Mitchum (son of Robert), Cathy Crosby (niece of Bing), former boxer "Slapsie Maxie" Rosenbloom, Charles Chaplin, Jr. (son of senior), and of course Coogan, former child star (and Chaplin Sr. co-star) of the silent era and later Uncle Fester on TV's The Addams Family. It also features legendary late-night TV personality Vampira as a "poetess" who spouts wretched free verse and carries a pet rat.

The film was directed by Charles F. Haas, who stepped in after the original director Kurt Neumann (The Fly, 1958) died suddenly. Neumann wasn't the only name initially attached to the project. According to some reports, sultry singer Julie London and theatrical scion John Drew Barrymore (son of "The Great Profile" and father of Drew) were once attached but dropped out.

Of all the artists associated with the production, however, it is Matheson who stands out most. An acclaimed writer from the 1950s on, his works for the printed page and the screen have yielded such films as What Dreams May Come (1998); The Omega Man (1971), based on his novel I Am Legend, which has been filmed several times, most recently under its original title with Will Smith in 2007; and several of the classic Roger Corman series of movies based loosely on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. He and Zugsmith made three films together.

The script was also worked on by Lewis Meltzer, who wrote the screenplays for Golden Boy (1939), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), and Zugsmith's High School Confidential! (1958). Meltzer wrote the lyrics to three songs in The Beat Generation. The soundtrack also includes Louis Armstrong performing his own tune "Someday You'll Be Sorry" and the title tune, written by Walton Farrar (aka Tom Walton) and Walter Kent.

Director: Charles F. Haas
Producer: Albert Zugsmith
Screenplay: Richard Matheson, Lewis Meltzer
Cinematography: Walter Castle
Editing: Ben Lewis
Art Direction: Addison Hehr, William A. Horning
Original Music: Albert Glasser
Cast: Steve Cochran (Detective Sgt. Dave Culloran), Mamie Van Doren (Georgia Altera), Ray Danton (Stanley Belmont/Stan Hess), Fay Spain (Francee Culloran), Jackie Coogan (Jake Baron).
BW-95m.

By Rob Nixon

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