DVD: The Beat Generation

the-beat-generation-dvdSTUDIO: Olive | DIRECTOR: Charles Haas | CAST: Steve Cochran, Mamie Van Doren, Ray Danton, Fay Spain, Jackie Coogan, Louis Armstrong, Vampira
RELEASE DATE: 3/31/15 | PRICE: DVD $24.95, Blu-ray $29.95
BONUSES: none
SPECS: NR | 95 min. | Drama-Comedy | 2.35:1 widescreen | mono

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video | Overall

 

If you’re looking for an intelligent study of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and their fellow literary innovators and hedonists, avoid The Beat Generation at all costs. If, however, you enjoy lurid melodramas punctuated by comedy interludes with cartoon beatniks, then indulge at will.

Never before on DVD or VHS, The Beat Generation plays like the hastily-conceived collision of two very different films. The first is a highly melodramatic police procedural in which two plainclothes detectives hunt down a rapist who preys on married women. The second is a goofy, over-the-top comedy spoofing the “beat” lifestyle, as it was conveyed on TV talk shows and in news documentaries of the time. Every few scenes the film shifts gears from one mode to the other, until the finale, in which both pictures crash head-on.

The crime plotline is indeed quite torrid for the time in which the film was made. Serial rapist “the Aspirin Kid” (Ray Danton) is a misogynist sought by callous detective Dave Culloran (Steve Cochran, Private Hell 36), who also has issues with women. The film takes a jarringly soapy left turn when the Aspirin Kid rapes Culloran’s wife (Fay Spain), who then becomes pregnant and suspects the rapist might be the father.

The beatniks get down in The Beat Generation

The beatniks get down in The Beat Generation

Clearly the Aspirin Kid plot strand was the original script written by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend) and Lewis Meltzer (The Man with the Golden Arm). Producer Albert Zugsmith (Touch of Evil) prided himself on making “topical” B-pictures, and thus the “beat” vignettes were inserted into the proceedings, via the fact that the serial rapist is also a very corny poet who secretly despises his fellow beatniks!

Much as the rock ’n’ roll interludes in Zugsmith’s earlier High School Confidential! were the best parts of that film, The Beat Generation is most watchable when we wander away from the crime scenario and are suddenly plunged in the world of the comic beatnik characters. At these points, guest stars brighten the picture up considerably: Louis Armstrong performs onstage (singing the film’s theme under the credits), “Slapsie Maxie” Rosenbloom and “Woo Woo” Grabowski serve as pretty old-looking beatnik comic relief, and Vampira (out of her ghoul-gap get-up) performs a gloriously weird beat poem.

Critics of the time lamented the beatnik scenes and wished the movie was simply a crime picture — the New York Times reviewer noted it had the “potentials of a snug little thriller” ruined by sequences featuring “greasy-looking characters” who are seen “writhing to ‘noise’ records… and raptly listening to what passes for poetry.” Modern viewers, though, will enjoy the beat comedy and find the would-be noir plot laughably lurid.

This situation is reinforced by the fact that the three male leads — Cochran, Danton and Jim Mitchum (son of Robert) — deliver extremely corny performances. Zugsmith stalwart Mamie Van Doren fares slightly better in her sexpot supporting role, proclaiming at one point that Mitchum is “real gone kicks!” Another Zugsmith regular, Jackie Coogan, is saddled with a very tiresome “concerned fellow cop” role.

Which bring us to the film’s conclusion, in which tough cop Cochran chases bad guy Danton through the beat club, and director Charles Haas seems to have thrown his hands up entirely. At this point Cochran and Danton battle alongside the comic-relief characters and then, for completely inexplicable reasons, wind up fighting underwater in scuba gear.

Some camp connoisseurs will no doubt be yelling “Bring back Vampira!” by this point, but others will be amused by the resolution of the ridiculously handled “Will Fay Spain have an abortion?” plot thread.

 

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”