Bruce Eder, in the liner notes of the 1989 The Criterion Collection reissue of A Hard Day’s Night, reminds us that, in a 1964 review of that classic Beatles’ film, critic Andrew Sarris described it as “the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals.”
Since then, the term “jukebox musical” has, in my opinion, gone a wee-bit off the critical rails. I don’t see music-oriented biographies, such as the recent (each a barely one-watch-and-done abysmal) Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and Rocketman (2019), and the Aretha Franklin bio, Respect (2021), as part of the genre. My opinion carries over to, speaking of the Beatles, Across the Universe (2007) and Yesterday (2019) centered on their catalog. Is the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine (1968) a jukebox musical, as well? Is Harry Nilsson’s Son of Dracula (1974) a jukebox musical or a visualized rock opera, like the Who’s Tommy (1975), which no one considers a jukebox musical?
For me: when you say “jukebox musical,” I reminisce having to watch a singing-and-dancing James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) while babysat by my Aunt Martha. For me, a jukebox musical means my enjoying Billy Haley and the Comets and the Platters in Rock Around the Clock (1956), the first rock n’ roll musical — of which famed DJ Alan Freed made five*. Then, there’s one of Kentucky Jubilee‘s offspring with the low-budget, major studio cash-in by MGM to jump on the folk music bandwagon with Hootenanny Hoot (1963). And who can forget — oh, how we try — when accordionist Dick Contino graced our screens as a hipster, Elvis-styled leading man in the likes of Daddy-O (1958) and Girls Town (1959) alongside Paul Anka and the Platters. And there’s no way to forget “The King of Swing,” jazz trumpeter Louie Prima (?!), jumpin’ on the jukebox bandwagon with Twist All Night (1961).
Sure, there was a little bit o’ plot n’ action in the frames (e.g., mobsters muscling-in on the club; Louie Prima throws a punch between trumpet blows), but the celluloid raison d’être was to market music (yes, even the outdated Louis Prima). Back in the day, not everyone owned a television set. Not as many people saw Elvis and the Beatles for the first time on television as you think: their first visual experience of both was in a movie theater. Today, going to a concert — now major industry unto itself — is a common place event in our lives, but not back in the day. In fact, to hear my dad tell it: he went to one concert in his entire life: the tragic Buddy Holly tour in 1959 at the Syria Mosque in Squirrel Hill, east of Pittsburgh.
So, the best way for record labels and promoters to expose their artists to the masses: take the acts to the people — by way of a movie. And in most cases, the movie wasn’t so much a “movie” with a plot, but a loosely connected series of pre-recorded “pop clips” of bands inserted into the film (e.g., kids would be sitting in a living room, they’d turn on a television; the Platters would play their latest hit). Unlike a Beatles or Elvis flick, the songs were not original to the film itself, just the latest tune from an artist’s catalog.
Such a film is this entry from our ever-expanding, beloved Ron Ormond catalog (Mesa of Lost Women, Girl from Tobacco Row, The Second Coming), himself a filmmaker loosely connected to the Earl “Snake” Richards-starring jukebox rock-musical, That Tennessee Beat (1966), by way of producer Robert L. Lippert.
Remember us calling out the cinematically-challenged Dick Contino and Louis Prima? Well, not only were unfashionable accordion and trumpet players squeezing out their last moments of relevancy via films: even bug-eyed, mustachioed Ritz Brothers knockoffs like the Vaudvillian-bred Jerry Collona (a Bob Hope associate; appeared in 1940’s Road to Singapore) just gotta try. He stars, here, as a music festival emcee involved in — like just about every jukebox musical before or after — a crime caper. Which is even more ludicrous than Louis Prima “getting the drop” — in full comic effect — on the bad guys.
While this was shot-in-Florida with a gaggle of that state’s regional talents, this all takes place in Hickory, Kentucky. (Why not title the film Hickory Dickory Rock? Well, when one of the acts is a one-man band playing oil funnels and a banjo, it’s not rockin’.) And — like just every jukebox musical before or after — a big time, Hollywood director comes to town to find musical acts to make ern’ of dem dere movin’ picktures. This time, instead of having a corner on the jukebox racket, our mobster (Russell Hicks, a Phil Silvers associate; also in the 1950 jukeboxer, Square Dance Kathy) has control of the town’s lone club and its annual jubilee — and he can’t have any big city outsider musclin’ in on the territory.
Of course, the director (the equally-hammy Fritz Feld, later of The Phynx and Hello, Dolly!, also Professor Greenleaf in TV’s Batman) and Jerry Colonna, are kidnapped. Why not have the cute blonde, Jean Porter (who made it to the MGM lot by way of winning a Texas talent show), be a damsel-in-distress to spice it all up? Doh!
So, a cub-reporter (Jimmie Ellison) sent to cover the shindig, and the members of the fifteen we-never-heard-of-before-or-heard-from-again acts (also finding time to curse us with 25 songs, along with corn-bred comics, contortionists, a whip-act, and vaudeville bits) join forces to save the day. If you know your Ron Ormond westerns, you’ll notice Jimmie “Shamrock” Ellison and Raymond Hatton starred in six Robert L. Lippert westerns directed by Ron Ormond. So, yeah . . . bad jokes, not-so-wise cracks, Colonna sportin’ a turbin and reading a crystal ball, and puddy-faced camera mugging that would give Joe Piscapo pause, ensues.
Hey, scoff if you will, but movies like Kentucky Jubilee were more convenient and cheaper than going to an actually hootenanny or jubilee. And Ron Ormond incorporated all of his well-honed western skills to string together one of the better-plotted jukebox musicals.
Yes, this once, long-lost Ron Ormond film has been digitized (a stellar restore that keeps you watching) for your enjoyment at the Internet Archive.
Square Dance Jubilee
Prior to Ron Ormond writing and directing Kentucky Jubilee — of the seven films he directed that year — he earned his “jukebox musical” stripes writing and producing this “musical western” starring 250-plus credits strong, gruff n’ tough-as-nails western/cop actor Don “Red” Barry (’60s TV’s The Virginian and Surfside 6) and redhead-to-platinum blonde, 20th Century Fox/Universal/MGM B-Movie contract player Mary Beth Hughes. On the musical front, we have the-then-hip fiddler Spade Cooley and his western-swing band. (Laugh, but there’s some serious, Hendrix-styled theatrics with fiddles and upright basses goin’ on up in this ‘ere jubilee.)
As with the later Kentucky Jubilee, the story is the same: In the earliest days of some new-fangled contraption called tele-ee-vish-un**, two talent scouts for a New York-based country music TV show called “Square Dance Jubilee” (hosted by Spade Cooley), are sent out West to find authentic western singing acts for the show. In addition to finding acts, they find themselves mixed in up in cattle rustling and a murder mystery.
If you’re familiar with, and didn’t mind, Rock Around the Clock being retooled as Twist Around the Clock and Don’t Knock the Rock returning as Don’t Knock the Twist, then you have fun as Don “Red” Barry plays the straight man to another, fading vaudevillian in the form of a camera-mugging Wally Vernon (in the Jerry Colonna role) taking care of the crime drama. The Cowboy Copas and Claude Casey handle the tunes. Of course, variety acts also show up, this time with ventriloquist Max Terhune. In a twist: Red Barry croons a tune, “Girl in the Mink Blue Jeans,” and Wally Vernon’s goofy-rubbery soft-shoe must be seen to be believed.
So, what’s not to likey, here? We’ve got Ron Ormond scripting, Robert L. Lippert producing, and a western-driven crime drama threaded by the way of music, vaudeville bits, and comic relief.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes . . . Spade Cooley had a contentious marriage with Ella May Evans, a singer in his band; she’d go on to have an affair with . . . TV and film cowboy Roy Rogers . . . and Cooley was eventually convicted of murdering Ella May. His biggest hits during his ’40s heyday were the #1 “Shame on You,” the #2 “Detour,” and the groundbreaking-influence on popularizing the use of the steel pedal guitar, “Steel Guitar Rag.”
Meanwhile, behind the scenes . . . the twice divorced Don “Red” Barry had an affair with Susan Hayward in the mid-’50s . . . who got in cat fight with another woman visiting his apartment. In July 1980, Barry shot himself in the head, shortly after a domestic dispute with his estranged, third wife, Barbara.
Yeah, sometimes reality, aka truth, is stranger than fiction. And the reality of Don “Red” Barry and Spade Cooley are sad, graphic tales.
Anyway, you can enjoy a very nice, restored rip of Square Dance Jubilee on You Tube.
* We’ve reviewed Alan Freed in Rock, Rock, Rock (1956), Shake, Rattle and Rock (1956), Mister Rock and Roll (1957), and Rock All Night (1957). There’s more ’50s rock ‘n’ roll films to be had, daddy-o, with our “Drive-In Friday: Fast & Furious ’50s Style Night” featurette.
** You need another movie inspired by that new fangled contraption? Then check out our Mill Creek box set review of Trapped by Television (1936).