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Bop Girl Goes Calypso
Remind Me
,Bop Girl Goes Calypso

Bop Girl Goes Calypso

"We're in a very restless world, always demanding something new."

American fads come and go and none came and went with more whipsaw alacrity than calypso. The exotic musical style had been spawned centuries earlier by the slave trade. In the West Indies, slaves were often forbidden to congregate for their own purposes or even speak with one another, compelling the displaced Africans to share gossip and news via song. Calypso tunes were heard in RKO's thriller I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and in 1944 the Andrews Sisters had a hit with the calypso-flavored "Rum and Coca Cola" by Rupert Grant, a calypso performer known professionally as Lord Invader. It was with the unexpected success of Harry Belafonte's 1956 album Calypso, the first long-playing record to sell a million copies, that the calypso craze became a going concern. With calypso quickly accounting for a quarter of all pop music sales, Time magazine diagnosed "calypsomania" in March of 1957. Boston Globe columnist Norman O'Connor (an ordained Catholic priest and jazz aficionado who introduced acts at the Newport Jazz Festival in his Paulist collar) predicted that calypso had rock-and-roll's number and his announcement seemed quite prescient as New York jazz clubs began importing steel drummers for their own calypso dens, do-it-yourself "calypso kits" (consisting of a bongo drum and a maraca) sold briskly at specialty stores and a calypso musical opened on Broadway (the David Merrick-produced Jamaica, starring Lena Horne and Ricardo Montalban). Even movie tough guy Robert Mitchum got into the act with Calypso – Is Like So, a sanitized collection of once bawdy songs the actor had heard while shooting Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) in Tobago.

With Bop Girl Goes Calypso (1957), United Artists was playing the percentages by marketing to both self-styled calypsonians and the teen demographic who had made successes of Columbia's Rock Around the Clock (1956) and Don't Knock the Rock (1956). Promotional booklets encouraged movie house owners to restyle their cinemas as battle theaters for the war between rock and calypso. In some circles, UA shortened the film's title to Bop Girl, selling it with the incendiary slogan "It's a rock'n roll riot!" even though the film itself maintains that rock is dead.

The script by Arnold Belgard (from an original story by Hendrik Vollaerts) centers on square musicologist Bob Hilton (Bobby Troup), who ports an applause meter from nightclub to nightclub to prove that rock-and-roll is losing ground to calypso. This doesn't sit well with pop singer Jo Thomas (Judy Tyler) or club manager Barney (George O'Hanlon, later the voice of George Jetson), who resent the implication that their meal ticket is no longer valid. Although Barney and Bob come to blows, Jo and the "assistant genius" are walking arm-in-arm faster than you can say "meet cute." This doesn't sit well with Marion (Margo Woode), an academic Amazon nagging Bob to marry and impregnate her as part of her thesis in eugenics. In the manner of a Beach Party romp, Bop Girl's romantic complications sort themselves out in under ninety minutes, as the entire cast makes its way to the dance floor to illustrate the age old wisdom that "you just can't beat the biological urge."

In its rush to capitalize on a hot trend, Bop Girl Goes Calypso actually came in a poor third at movie theatres, premiering after Allied Artists' Calypso Joe (1957), which featured rising star Angie Dickinson, and Columbia's Calypso Heatwave, costarring a young Joel Grey alongside Maya Angelou (in her pre-poet laureate career as "Miss Calypso") and Alan Arkin (performing with the folk group The Tarriers). Like most Howard W. Koch productions (Voodoo Island [1957], Frankenstein 1970 [1958]), Bop Girl Goes Calypso looks unremittingly cheap but the monochrome cinematography of Carl Guthrie gives the proceedings the gray scale gravitas of a police procedural, which clashes arrestingly with the film's exotic backbeat. (Guthrie got his start as a camera operator on the alternate black-and-white crew of Michael Curtiz' early Technicolor spooker Dr. X [1932] and later shot House on Haunted Hill [1959] for William Castle.)

Given his eventual crowning as the King of Exotica, Les Baxter's musical score is surprisingly undistinguished but there are some great novelty acts onboard, including Kingston-born "mento" artist Lord Flea (whose death from Hodgkin's disease in 1959 cut short a promising career as a reggae forefather), Hawaiian lounge singer and guitarist Mary Kaye (for whom the Mary Kaye Fender Stratocaster is named) and The Goofers, who pop hollow-eyed out of matching coffins to sing the delightfully macabre "I'm Gonna Rock-and-Roll 'Til I Die," which riffs satirically (without credit or apology) on Frederick Chopin's "Funeral March."

Bop Girl Goes Calypso's leading man Bobby Troup remains most famous to this day for writing the popular hit song "Route 66," which he began composing while on the road from New York to California. The former Marine (who saw action in World War II and was reportedly the first white officer to command an all-black unit) and songwriter for Tommy Dorsey sold the jaunty tune in short order and it was first recorded by Nat "King" Cole in 1946. On the payroll of MGM, Troup appeared as a singer and musician in a couple of minor musicals but saw better money with the use of his songs in musicals aimed at the teen market. Troup penned tunes for the Cinemascope musical The Girl Can't Help It (1956), starring Jayne Mansfield and featuring special showcase appearances by Little Richard, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent and Julie London. Troup and London hooked up romantically after the "Cry Me a River" singer's divorce from actor-writer Jack Webb and were married in 1959. Webb would put the couple to work over the years in several of the TV series he produced, most famously as a doctor-nurse team on the popular series Emergency, which ran on NBC from 1972 to 1979. The Troup-London union lasted thirty nine years, until Bobby Troup's death from a heart attack in February 1999. Her own health in decline for some time, Julie London followed her husband to the grave the following year.

Bop girl Judy Tyler was born Judith Mae Hess on October 9, 1933, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The daughter of a big band trumpeter and a former Ziegfeld girl, she got her show business break at the age of 13 playing Princess Summerfall Winterspring on The Howdy Doody Show. During a brief marriage to composer/lyricist Colin Romoff, Tyler was whisked out of the Broadway chorus line to star in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Pipedream, based on a novel by John Steinbeck. Playing a vaguely defined Cannery Row prostitute (a role for which Julie Andrews had auditioned unsuccessfully), Tyler was nominated for a Tony award but Pipe Dreams failed to catch fire. Nonetheless, when Life magazine put the beauty on the cover of its December 26, 1955 issue in the company of other "shining young Broadway stars" Diane Cilento, Susan Strasberg, Lois Smith and Jayne Mansfield, Tyler's stock began to rise. Granted a divorce from her first husband, Tyler married actor Gregory LaFayette in 1957. That same year, she played the eponymous chanteuse of Bop Girl Goes Calypso and was chosen to star in a film opposite the King of Rock himself, Elvis Presley. Three days after completing her work on Jailhouse Rock (1957), Tyler and LaFayette were killed in an automobile accident while passing through Wyoming en route to New York. She was just twenty three years old.

Producer: Aubrey Schenck
Director: Howard W. Koch
Screenplay: Arnold Belgard, Hendrik Vollaerts
Cinematography: Carl E. Guthrie
Art Direction: Robert Kinoshita (production design)
Music: Les Baxter
Film Editing: Sam E. Waxman
Cast: Judy Tyler (Jo Thomas), Bobby Troup (Robert Hilton), George O'Hanlon (Barney), Lucien Littlefield (Professor Winthrop), Margo Woode (Marion Hendricks).

by Richard Harland Smith

"Bop Girl Goes Calypso: Containing Race and Youth Culture in Cold War America," by Michael S. Eldridge, Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal, Vol. 3, Issue 2, Fall 2005
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