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Low-budget musicals from the late 1950s-early 1960s are, by design, an excellent barometer of the pop culture tastes of the moment, and producer Sam Katzman's Calypso Heat Wave (1957) is a snapshot of a thankfully brief moment in early-to-mid 1957 during which trend-followers thought that Calypso was the newest fad in music, rendering "Rock 'n' Roll" a passing fad. Of the three main Calypso-fueled movies that raced to the screen, Allied Artists' Calypso Joe (1957 - starring Angie Dickinson and Herb Jeffries in the title role) won the race and was followed by Calypso Heat Wave in June. The third film was producer Howard W. Koch's Bop Girl Goes Calypso (1957) in July. Fortunately, Rock proved to be a bit more durable, and the Calypso-themed movies that emerged in that summer of 1957 were already dated by the time they were shot, edited, and shipped to theaters. Calypso Heat Wave, though, offers some pleasant viewing surprises, including an early and energetic performance by Joel Grey; the film debut of Alan Arkin, who appears here as a singer in one of the most authentic musical sequences; and two numbers by none other than poet, author, and activist Maya Angelou, appearing here during her earlier alternate career as a commanding and confident "Miss Calypso."
Calypso music was nothing new, of course, having been around for generations, since the beginnings of the West Indies slave trade. Every so often there was a breakout hit in America that borrowed the sound, such as the 1944 Andrew Sisters song "Rum and Coca Cola." But the craze really arrived when Harry Belafonte released his album Calypso in 1956. It became the first LP record to sell a million copies, and numerous copycat albums soon hit the shelves (including one by film actor Robert Mitchum). Many jazz clubs retooled for Calypso music, and a musical called Jamaica, starring Lena Horne and Ricardo Montalban, even opened on Broadway in October, 1957.
For Calypso Heat Wave, Columbia Pictures producer Sam Katzman showed good enough taste to swipe much of the plot for his film from one of the best satires of the music industry ever made, Frank Tashlin's The Girl Can't Help It (1956), which also happened to be one of the best Rock 'n' Roll movies of the era as well. That film features a crooked jukebox impresario, played by Edmond O'Brien, who is determined to make a singing star of his girlfriend, played by Jayne Mansfield, amidst an industry awash in rock 'n' roll acts. Katzman's film features another jukebox industry gangster, Barney Pearl (Michael Granger), although this mug intends to keep his girlfriend Mona DeLuce (Meg Myles) out of the business and under his thumb. Barney's accountant "Books" (George E. Stone) informs him that Calypso is poised to do bigger jukebox business than Rock 'n' Roll, saying that "in the past two years Rock 'n' Roll did 42.7 in our machines. But the Calypso beat last week alone did 52.7!" Barney wants a piece of that action and high tails it to the Disco Records Co. to talk to the owners, producer Mack Adams (Paul Langton) and singer Johnny Conroy (Johnny Desmond), who are cutting a modern harmony record with the Hi-Los (which is about as far from Calypso music as you can get). Barney and his circle of thugs are stopped in the hall by Alex Nash (Joel Grey), who is the head of "juvenile relations" (i.e., fan clubs) for the company. Barney tells Mack and the press agent, Marti Collins (Merry Anders), that he plans to "partner" with his company, under threat of blackballing their records from jukeboxes. Mack plays along reluctantly, and begins to lose his friends and credibility as a result, especially when Barney wants to strong-arm the recording artists into turning over half of their earnings to him too. Barney's will starts to break when a semi-feminist record that Alex cuts with Mona becomes a hit.
As with all of Sam Katzman's music productions, the plot is merely the hook on which to hang a series of musical numbers, and pop music fans should be grateful that as a result of such exploitation quickies as these, many obscure and not-so-obscure acts were captured on 35mm film while in their prime. Maya Angelou does not appear in the film until near the sixty-minute mark as the cast makes a side trip to Trinidad. Angelou walks down a staircase to an outdoor city square teeming with tourists and native peddlers and sellers and turns in a song (that she also wrote) called "All That Happens in the Market Place." The scene is Trinidad by way of Columbia Pictures soundstages, of course, but by Angelou's presence, with her deep, experienced voice, it is nevertheless the most genuine musical moment in the film. The fake Trinidad sequence also holds another top performance, in which The Tarriers sit dockside and sing the original modern version of "The Banana Boat Song" (Belafonte's hit was a cover version of the same arrangement). Easily recognizable in his film debut is Alan Arkin, lead singer of the group and co-writer of the arrangement. The film is also saddled with more forgettable acts, such as The Treniers, who are seen singing a tune about the ascension of Calypso over Rock to the tune of "Rag Mop." The young Joel Grey does not perform vocally, but he does get to cut loose with an elaborate solo dance routine in the brick hallway of the record studio.
Maya Angelou was 29 at the time Calypso Heat Wave was filmed. She had just released a record album called "Miss Calypso," which is how she was known in an off-Broadway revue called Calypso Heatwave, a title that Columbia informally borrowed for their film. Born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, Angelou had years of experience in drama and dance, having been a member of the famed Alvin Ailey Dance Company. Known then as Rita Johnson, she danced with Ailey as a pair called "Al and Rita." In 1954 and 1955 she toured Europe in a production of Porgy and Bess. She took the stage name of Maya Angelou upon the recording of her Calypso album, for which she wrote half of the numbers. In the late 1950s she became a member of the Harlem Writers Guild and became active in the Civil Rights movement. Her first book of autobiographical writings, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings would bring Angelou enormous acclaim in 1969.
During his tenure at Columbia Pictures, producer Katzman primarily teamed with the equally prolific director Fred F. Sears. The duo turned out an amazing number of low-budget films, dizzying in their variety. Rock Around the Clock (1956) featuring Bill Haley and the Comets was their first pop music exploitation picture, followed by the non-rock Cha-Cha-Cha-Boom! (1956). The Katzman-Sears team also turned out a fair number of fondly-remembered horror and science fiction pictures at Columbia, including Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), The Werewolf (1956) and The Giant Claw (1957).
The "Calypso Blight of '57" affected other exploitation movies as well. The Juvenile Delinquency film Untamed Youth (1957), independently produced but released by Warner Bros., boasted no less a Rock 'n' Roll icon than Eddie Cochran in its cast and it should have ended with a blistering rock number by Eddie, but instead the finale is a Lex Baxter-penned ditty called "Go, Go Calypso" performed rather limply by Mamie Van Doren.
Producer: Sam Katzman
Director: Fred F. Sears
Screenplay: David Chandler, Orville H. Hampton
Cinematography: Benjamin H. Kline
Choreography: Josephine Earl
Music: Arthur Morton (uncredited)
Film Editing: Edwin H. Bryant, Anthony DiMarco
Cast: Paul Langton (Mack Adams), Merry Anders (Marti Collins), Michael Granger (Barney Pearl), Johnny Desmond (Johnny Conroy), Meg Myles (Mona DeLuce), Joel Grey (Alex Nash), George E. Stone ('Books'), Gil Perkins (First Thug), William Challee (Second Thug), Pierce Lyden ('Hi-Fi', the engineer), Darla Hood (Herself, Johnny's Duet Partner), Maya Angelou (Herself), The Tarriers (Themselves).
by John M. Miller