THIS YEAR’S MOVIE-CROWD CRACK has been, of course, “Make a movie of Watergate? Not without the Marx Brothers.” When life with its absurdities starts imitating fantasy-fiction, let alone art, the fictioneers are up against some pretty stiff competition, as the film Let The Good Times Roll demonstrates.
What documentaries of our crises become for newer generations was demonstrated recently when an eleventh grade history class climaxed their study of the McCarthy era with the 1964 Emile de Antonio-Daniel Talbot Point of Order! and found this brilliant 97-minute culling of the 1954 Army McCarthy hearing kinescopes more thrilling, more marked by drama and tantalizing characterizations than all the fictional political thrillers of their teenage lives.
For life, in the audio-visual technological advances and saturations of the past twenty years, is converted into instant-document and remains, recorded live, for the near-instant generations. And with it all comes not only instant-history but, even more interesting, instant-nostalgia. No, No Nanette? The Big Band Era? Bogey et al? That, my dear, is ancient history.
Let’s take a stroll down memory lane to yesterday—and come up with Chubby Checker and I Was a Teen-age Werewolf and Elvis getting his sideburns clipped for Army service and the high school kids putting on a do’s-and-don’ts fashion show to demonstrate that clinging sweaters and dungarees were to be eschewed in favor of proper dresses and neat suits, and Jersey City banning rock’n’roll concerts for the sake of public morality, let alone safety.
It’s all there for you to writhe over, wallow in and twist to in Let the Good Times Roll, a splendidly frenetic high-style documentary put together by a coalition of television and film men, conceived by Gerald I. Isenberg who produced the film with 16 working cameramen, three directors and a corps of editors and technicians, all under the aegis of a group of companies, chief among them Metromedia Producers Corp and Cinema Associates. And stars? Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chubby Checker, Bo Diddley, The Shirelles, The Five Satins, The Coasters, Danny and the Juniors, The Bobby Comstock Rock and Roll Band, Bill Haley and the Comets.
The format is exhilarating, with the focal points performances by these stars within the past year in Richard Nader’s Original Rock and Roll Revival Concerts at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, in Cobo Hall, Detroit and, in Fats Domino’s case, the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. And these performances, brilliantly filmed to capture the musical mystique and the personality of the individual and presented with lush and imaginative special effects climaxing in kaleidoscopic multiple-imagery, are beautifully counterpointed, often on a split screen, with black-and-white original film of the performer in his heydey in the Fifties, providing visual, if not aural, evidence of what the revolutionary sixties have wrought in the very dress and style of even the most middle-aged among us. And in between the actual performances, not only do the stars reminisce a bit for personal nostalgia, but the filmmakers also provide excerpts from Fifties newsreels, scenes from movies ( The Wild One, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Rebel without a Cause, Blackboard Jungle, Don’t Knock the Rock, From Here to Eternity—and that Teen-Age Werewolf bit in the gym), montages from yearbooks and of newsphotos. It’s all fast and furious and fascinating.
Let the Good Times Roll, in 99 minutes, covers in pure cinematics what Grease has been doing off and on Broadway since February, 1972 with such theatrical charm. The film, however, becomes a highly subjective experience and reactions will differ almost Rorschach-test style. At the multi-generation screening I attended, everybody was taken up by the beat and the performance, but when it came to the period references, the young chortled with scornful disbelief, the twentyish crowd seemed overcome with the foibles rather than facts of their childhood (“Lowell Thomas,” asserted one knowledgeable youth near me as a photo of Ed Murrow flashed by), the thirtyish crowd crooned with empathetic memories, and the rest of us—I suspect we got the rather cheering reassurance, as one does from nostalgia, that we manage to survive the worst of times as well as the best.
By contrast the week’s fiction, Robert Aldrich’s The Emperor of the North Pole, is hard, contrived, pointless in its thesis, repulsive in its people, singularly joyless and, above all, incredible in its concoction. Of course it has its rough-and-tumble-adventurous moments, its occasional chill and thrill and a certain stylish spirit—as one would expect from Aldrich, one of Hollywood’s very top professionals. And there is a very good performance by Lee Marvin and a super-bravura one by Ernest Borgnine—as one would expect from each respectively.
The original script is by Christopher Knopf, a television writer with one previous film ( The King’s Thief, 1955) to his credit, and reportedly a life-long railroad buff. The last apparently inspired his plot, which involves Marvin as the king of the hoboes, described as A No.1, and the Emperor of the North Pole, who is determined to ride the rails on No.19 through Oregon to Portland in the Depression summer of 1933. Why No.19? Its vile conductor, Borgnine, is literally death on hoboes who dare ride his freight. Knopf, and the company blurbers, choose to see this as “a classic story of conflict—the free man versus the Establishment—made brutal by hard times that drove thousands to riding the rails.” The message is spelled out ahead of time by one of the worst ballads yet to be imposed on a movie, a concoction by Frank DeVol with words by Hal David (lyricist is hardly the word for him, considering the lyrics he contributed to Lost Horizon) about “A Man and a Train,” declaring that a man and a train are alike since they can both travel fast and climb mountains but a train’s caput when it runs out of steam, whereas a man still can travel “on nuthin’ but a dream.”
So Marvin’s dream is to outwit Borgnine and he is quite ingenious about it, even when saddled with