Although it may be less well remembered than the purported causes of the Spanish-American War, for at least a week and a half in 1957, the United States was caught up in a calypso music frenzy. Its sexually charged rhythms seized the tropical passions of a nation fresh into the second term of the Eisenhower administration, forcing them to dress like pasty-skinned tourists, shove aside their coffee tables, and humiliate themselves in front of whatever misfortunates had assembled in their homes. More often than not, a meal of ham garnished with pineapple rings awaited, segueing into a lime papaya Jell-o salad, generously spiked with miniature marshmallows. It isn't by coincidence that this cultural phenomenon dovetailed with the "exotica" fad, which led to millions of suburban ranch homes having their basements remodeled with wet bars, simulated wood paneling, vinyl flooring, and tiki masks. Today, combing through the sad remnants of this hysteria, the disheveled breed of archaeologists known more commonly as estate sale vultures snicker with knowing irony at Martin Denny album covers, quarrel with other junk dealers over a leaping gold swami wall hanging, and chance upon an occasional can of tiki torch fuel while rummaging through the workshop.
Enter Bobby Troup, a C-grade jazz composer who had scored a huge hit with Route 66, and who would eventually marry Jack Webb's ex, Julie London, and star with her for several years in Jack's TV drama Emergency! It's hard to know what provoked Troup to create this astounding cluster fuck of weirdness; perhaps Robert Mitchum's peculiar success with his Calypso Is Like So... LP; perhaps a looming balloon payment on a mortgage. But whatever the cause, I am forever in its debt.
It's rare to find such a compelling train wreck of brain raping awfulness, stirred together with moments of jaw dropping brilliance, like diamonds in an eighty gallon drum of livestock excrement. The awfulness comes in the form of the script and the principal characters, featuring the distressingly unendurable Judy Tyler in the lead role of "Bop Girl," belting out a merciless string of Les Baxter penned faux-calypso abominations, many of which offer some contrived hybridization of musical styles for novelty effect. Gosh, those calypso folks down Treeneedad way sure do love to boogie woogie all of dee time in dat tropical sun. Capiche? But Mr. Baxter most assuredly should not shoulder all of the blame for the pain inflicted here, because Judy Tyler spiritually possesses his dulcet diarrhea and sells it with an obnoxious, grating delivery that melds Yma Sumac, Martha Raye, and Susan Molinari into one hip wriggling organism. Each time she takes the stage to punish us, her hands flail in repetitive gesticulations that make an Al Jolson "Mammy" routine seem like a magnum opus of subtlety.
If that were it, this would be just another annoying, thinly plotted romantic tale serving as glue for a series of musical acts. But trust me, it's much more. First of all, some of the secondary musical acts are fantastic, and this bizarre and rarely seen cinematic flatus provides some of the few surviving video artifacts of their existence. After the opening credits, an underappreciated L.A. doo wop vocal group called The Titans nail one of their (very) minor hits for Vita Records, So Hard To Laugh, So Easy To Cry. There's some actually good calypso music performed by Lord Flea, and later on, there's a fucking insane act called The Goofers, featuring a dancing/singing trio who do splits and play stand-up bass and trombone while swinging upside down from ropes. And I'll be dipped in shit if the drummer's not Buddy Rich. They also do a memorable number called "I Wanna Rock and Roll Until I Die," with five of them lying in coffins. If they still had acts like this in night clubs, I'd probably get out more.
But what puts this one over the top is the premise of the story, which is that a brainy genius from the university (Troup) has invented a device which can predict musical trends with uncanny precision by measuring audience reactions. This device consists of a metal box with a meter on the front, and a jack for plugging in a microphone. Of course using this reasoning, downloads of Keiji Haino and sawmill field recordings should be overloading the servers at iTunes, but the denizens of Bop Girl's night club still take note of Troup's fad detector, to the point that friendships are imperiled when he announces that calypso will soon replace rock 'n' roll as America's preferred musical entertainment. Mind you, this isn't a passing absurdity in just another forgotten bad movie. It's the fundamental premise of the film, just like the searches for Harry Lime or the Maltese Falcon. Layer on top of that the oatmealish sexual tension created when Bobby Troup begins falling for the Bop Girl, threatening his relationship with a university colleague who specializes in eugenics. Yes, you read that correctly, I said eugenics. And there's even a department for this at the university, because they have a sign on the door that says so. The conversations between Bobby and his Social Darwinist sweetheart are hysterical, most of them centering around her desire for Bobby to stop fiddling with his musical fad prediction dissertation, and start pumping her full of his high-IQ sperm so she can commence to popping out some first rate über-kindern, which she can then use to finish her eugenics thesis. Keep in mind this was made twelve years after the concentration camps were liberated.
I strongly recommend this one with the principal reservation being the overabundance of Judy Tyler numbers. What is at first a mildly amusing absurdity deteriorates into a full blown irritant about halfway through the movie. If you could toss out two or three of her caterwauling sessions, and throw in another Titans tune, plus more prolonged powwows on the wonders of selective breeding, you'd have a five Waldo film. But it is what it is, and since I don't think it's available on DVD, you might have to wait until TCM shows it at four o'clock in the morning to bask in its dubious splendor.