Friday, June 1, 2018

GHOST OF DRAGSTRIP HOLLOW 1959

When I was a youngster, it seemed as though I became interested in movies about grown-ups at precisely the time Hollywood became fixated on making movies about youngsters. In 1967 when I was about 10-years old, Hollywood, having opened its eyes to the newfound boxoffice clout of teens and the college crowd, set about aggressively courting the youth market. Then still an industry run by old men who were, at best, only superficially aware of what the youth market even wanted; Hollywood nevertheless flooded movie theaters with all manner of youth-themed product. A significant number of these films being devoted to hippies and social rebellion.

My apathy towards movies about young people wasn't born of any specific dislike for older kids on my part (although at school they DID tend to be a pain in the neck) so much as it was reflective of how badly at the time I wanted to be an adult. I was still at an age where I went to movies for escapism, and, what with having three older sisters lording over me at home 24/7, the last thing I wanted to do in my away time was to spend hours in a dark theater looking at teenagers. Or worse, adults pretending to be teenagers. It didn't help, either, that I grew up in the vicinity of San Francisco’s Haight/Ashbury district during the peak of its Summer of Love popularity; the proximity and ubiquity of so many real-life hippies sufficiently killing any mystery or allure they might have otherwise held for me on the big screen.
The dry rivers of Los Angeles popularized the postwar craze of hot rod drag racing.
The LA River was used for drag racing scenes in numerous films, among them: Girls Town (1959) and Grease (1978)

No, I wasn't interested in the "happening," younger generation movies of the day like Woodstock, Alice’s Restaurant, or Zabriskie Point. The movies I longed to see were those I thought would offer a glimpse into what my overactive and melodramatic imagination fancied the world of grown-ups to be like: Two for the RoadHotelValley of the DollsReflections in a Golden Eye.  But, alas, I was at that awkward age. A cinephile "tween" too old for Walt Disney but too young for Ken Russell. 

Paradoxically, while young people in contemporary films held little interest for me on the big screen, on the black and white console TV in our family’s living room, I was positively gaga over movies about teenagers from the ‘50s and early ‘60s. On Saturday afternoons local TV stations could be relied upon to supply a steady stream of ‘50s juvenile delinquent melodrama (The Violent Years - 1956); hot rod exploitation (Dragstrip Riot - 1956), rock & roll romance (Rock, Rock, Rock - 1956); jukebox musicals (Don’t Knock the Rock - 1956); low-budget monster movies (I Was a Teenage Frankenstein -1957), screwy sci-fi flicks (Teenagers from Outer Space - 1959); and Drive-in oddities (Teenage Caveman - 1958).
Kids Just Wanna Have Fun

These poor-relation follow-ups to Brando’s The Wild One (1953), Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Poitier’s Blackboard Jungle may have been marketed to teens, but by favoring harmless generation gap clashes over social rebellion commentary, they hewed close to the middle-class status quo. Juvenile delinquents were never depicted as antiheroes with cause for rebellion, rather, they were seen as atypical bad apples and stand-alone troublemakers; the pitiable product of broken homes or failing to be raised with all the proper advantages (aka: suburbia with white picket fence).
Moderne Family
Bask in the Streamline furniture, starburst clocks, wall sconces, and enormous coffee tables
(Jeanne Tatum, Jody Fair, and Kirby Smith)

Known in our house as "juvies" (juvenile delinquent movies) or "black & white shoe pictures" (in reference to the saddle-shoes worn by teens in many of these films), the ones I enjoyed most were distinguished by their non-existent budgets, prodigious use of bop-talk slang, and the then-vanguard preponderance of rock & roll music on the soundtrack. (Predictably, the vision of America presented in these movies was unrelentingly white, save for the occasional, controversial appearance of an African-American rock & roll music act).
What used to really fascinate me—especially given that, at the time, these movies were only about 10 or 13 years old—was their almost jarring “otherness.” In everything from hair, speech patterns, modes of dress, music, dances, and choice of leisure pastimes; these movies depicted a teenage world so alien, it was like our TV was receiving transmissions from another planet. Compared to the preoccupations of the day (the Vietnam War, civil rights, the right to vote, free love, drugs, Women’s Lib, religious exploration) the bomb/Cold War-related restlessness of these teens seemed positively quaint.
Attack of the Well-Behaved, Appropriately-Dressed Party Crashers

While some of these films were sincere in their efforts to call attention to the delinquency crisis hitting the suburbs at the time, most were conceived as exploitation programmers geared for quick turnover in the Drive-In market. Those I most enjoyed felt like dry-runs for the yet-to-come Beach Party movies of the sixties. They had nonsensical plots, an almost vaudeville approach to humor, stock teen characters (the bland hero, his loyal “girl,” the jokester, the bad kids/rivals), and the elders were always well-meaning allies, effectual authority figures, or comic buffoons. 
A particular favorite I made a point never to miss was Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow; a goofy titled, likeably awful goulash of teen-movie tropes that cropped up regularly on Saturday afternoon TV due to its brisk running time (a mere 65 minutes) which afforded the insertion of countless commercials and jokey TV host commentary.

Top on my list of reasons why Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow rocks is that the only rebellious drag racing done in the entire film is by the women 
Jody Fair as Lois Cavendish 
Nancy Anderson as Annita (Nita)
The almost surreally silly Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow was promoted as a sequel (of sorts) to 1959’s more straightforward Hot Rod Gang, yet first timers needn’t worry about not being able to pick up the thread. There isn’t one.
Indeed, connecting the frayed edges of this patchwork quilt of dead-end subplots and abandoned storylines representing Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow’s script would present a challenge to even that Woodcock fellow from The Phantom Thread. Remember that list of ‘50s teen flick genres I referenced earlier? Well, Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow somehow manages to be ALL of them at once. Yes, in a mere 65 minutes you get juvenile delinquent melodrama, hot rod exploitation, rock & roll romantic comedy, a rockabilly and girl-group pop jukebox musical of (all the better to promote American International Pictures’ newly-formed record label), a ghost/monster flick, and a Scooby Doo mystery, to boot.
Members of The Zenith Motor Club
Amelia (Sanita Pelkey), Dave (Henry McCann), Bonzo (Leon Tyler), and Rhoda (Elaine DuPont)

The Zenith Club is a group of suburban hot rod enthusiasts devoted to disaffirming the public perception of hotrodders as street-racing, authority-flouting, juvenile delinquents. Pledged to a strict code forbidding street racing of any kind, this clean-cut clique spends its time tinkering with engines and bop dancing in the adjacent soda shop. Journalist Tom Hendry (Russ Bender), writing an article titled “This Restless Breed,” has been invited to tag along as the Zeniths do whatever it is they do, opening the door for a lot of plot exposition and the relaying of more hot rod minutiae than any of us deserve.
Alleged hot-rodder and likely junior ROTC recruit Stan (Martin Braddock) helps superannuated cub reporter Tom (Russ Bender) understand that not all teenagers are as trouble making (or talented) as James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause 

Leader of The Zeniths is Stan (Martin Braddock), a wholesome, cardigan-wearing type distinguished by his level-headedness and never being seen doing anything car-related. Other members include pint-sized brainiac Dave (Henry McCann) and his bookish, Amazonian gal-pal Amelia (Sanita Pelkey); annoying, comedy-relief cut-up Bonzo (Leon Tyler) and kewpie-eyed girlfriend Rhoda (Elaine DuPont); and real-life drag racing Hall of Famer Tommy Ivo (as himself...and perhaps wondering, like me, why he isn’t the leader of the club) and his mostly silent, ponytailed partner Sandra (Judy Howard). A welcome break from all this gender stasis (the women don’t really do anything in the club except stand around watching their boyfriends work on engines) is Lois Cavendish (Jody Fair).
Madonna prototype Sandra (Judy Howard) stands by as drag racing legend Tommy Ivo contributes some long-winded verisimilitude to the film by delivering a 60-second, documentary-level monologue about his narrow rear end and unblown gas engine.

Lois is the only female hotrodder and mechanic in the club, and, as she’s so easily goaded into “chicken run” drag races by Nita (Nancy Anderson), a snarly rival gang member, she’s also the film’s only rule-breaker (albeit, reluctant). Refreshingly independent-minded for a film of this sort, Lois has her interest in cars trivialized (“I can dig the male of the species, but the female hotrodder baffles me!”) and boyfriend Stan laments her not placing him first in her passions (“She prefers hot rods instead of hot romances”), yet she persists. Even when it comes to her parents.
"You're approaching womanhood...."
"I've got news for you. I've arrived!"
When The Zenith’s lose their clubhouse lease, elderly eccentric Anastasia Abernathy (Dorothy Neumann) kindly grants the kids use of her late grandfather’s deserted house in Dragstrip Hollow…provided the youngsters can rid the place of a skulking monster and spooky ghost. And it’s at this pointroughly, some three-quarters into the movie, mind you—that Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow finally decides it might be a time to actually be about a ghost of Dragstrip Hollow. Good idea. Especially since up to now the movie’s mostly been a series of vaguely-connected false leads and narrative fake-outs designed to quash dramatic conflict (or story momentum, for that matter) every time it rears its head.
Dorothy Neumann as Anastasia Abernathy - with Alphonso, her loquacious parrot.
Fans of The Andy Griffith Show might recognize Neumann as the wife of Otis, the town drunk 

Among the many introduced-only-to-be-abandoned plot points: the whole gang rivalry angle; Lois’ generation-gap clash with her parents; Tom’s forgotten magazine article; the chance that Lois’ involvement in hot-rodding could adversely affect her father’s real estate business; and boyfriend Stan’s concern that he comes second to Lois’ love of fast cars.
But that’s no reason to despair. Not when the there’s so much time devoted to slumber parties, bop dances, lengthy musical interludes, a wisecracking parrot, the invention of a smart car, and a wrap-up so hasty you’ll think you nodded off and missed it.
That's B-Movie monster costume designer/creator Paul Blaisdell inside this outfit he originally made for The She-Creature (1956).  A Blaisdell-designed costume for Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957) also makes an appearance in Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
If ever there was a movie that exemplified the principle of making a virtue of one’s flaws, that movie is Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow. Proof that a deficit of production values and a meandering screenplay is no match for an appealing cast and a rockabilly soundtrack. Revisiting this film after so many years, I was certain that personal nostalgia would play the most significant role in determining how I would respond to it; but imagine my surprise to discover that Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow—in all its nonsensical, unpretentious glory—still rocks! 
And I don’t mean just in a campy, Mystery Science Theater 3000 way, either (although it has that to spare). I don’t know what it is, but there’s something so inoffensively featherweight and ridiculous about the whole premise and execution of this film that getting caught up in its jaunty good nature proves rather effortless. I actually found myself laughing with the film as often as I was laughing at it.  
The best way to rid a haunted house of a ghost is to throw a rock & roll masquerade party

What once felt like an “otherness” in the film’s setting and characters, now feels recognizably old-fashioned. Like a mash-up of Scooby Doo, The Munsters, Father Knows Best, American Bandstand, and those “Abbott and Costello Meet…” movies.

Although it sounds like faint praise, the cast of Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow wins me over with their likeability more than talent, the latter ofttimes proving to be a downright obstacle in movies like this. The older players fare best, what with the younger ones at constant risk of being upstaged by a wisecracking parrot. Jody Fair makes for a pleasantly spunky leading lady, but whenever bespectacled, statuesque Sanita Pelkey appears in the scene, I can’t imagine anyone’s eyes being on anyone else.
A former Miss New York and onetime showgirl, Sanita Pelkey appeared on a
1958 episode of the Groucho Marx game show You Bet Your Life  (audio only)


DIG THAT CRAZY BEAT:
American International Pictures, an independent movie studio that would make a name for itself in the '60s and '70s (not a particularly good one) with their Beach Party movies and biker flicks, was one of the first to mine the lucrative boxoffice potential of teenagers. In 1959 they launched their own record label, and the songs from Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow (most written by Beach Boys producer Nick Venet) were among the first to be pressed. I'm happy to say I have them all in my collection.
Rockabilly band "The Renegades" perform Geronimo and Charge! and Ghost Train
The girls of the Zenith Motor Club badly lip-sync to a song titled My Guy. The song was released
as a 45 single by a group calling themselves "Linda Leigh and the Treasure Tones"
Jimmie Maddin sings "Tongue Tied." Maddin was a singer/saxophonist and nightclub owner in LA.
He was still performing at one of his clubs (The Capri Club in Glendale) a year before he died in 2006


GINCHY* GLOSSARY:                                                  
Narratively speaking, Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow is a bit of a hodgepodge. But I'm crazy about its silly/funny dialogue and overemphatic slang.   (*ginchy means cool)

“Put the cork, York.”    Please be quiet

“He’s got static in his attic. Completely zonk!”    He knows not whereof he speaks

“My dragon wagon’s laggin”      My automobile is in need of a tune-up

“It’s PM-ing, I’d better peel out”   It's getting dark, I'd best take my leave

“Put that thing down, Dad. Before you clobber your clavicle.”    Don't overexcite yourself

“Two weeks on the slab? That’s a real buffalo.”  Grounded? That's distressing news

“This gal’s got what it takes. If she’d only give it.”  She's pretty. I wish she'd notice me 

“Somebody get this bag of bacteria lost.”   I'm afraid we haven't been introduced 

“It’s not a chop, kitten. I purr you. Why, I’m not just makin’ sound waves. Like, if you weren’t jacketed, I’d move in.’Cause you’re a dap…I mean a real dap!”  
    —I'm being sincere, I like you. If you weren't already spoken for I'd ask you out, because I find you quite dapper

(A parent confronting two kids necking)
 “We thought we’d come out for a breath of fresh air”
“Where’d you think you’d find it? Down her throat?”
  
“I dreamed I was an 18-cylinder motor. It was wonderful...you should have seen my drive shaft!”

“That was grandmother Aphrodite!”
“How’d she die, trying to spell that name?”


BONUS MATERIAL:

Available in its entirety on YouTube
Copyright © Ken Anderson

5 comments:

  1. I'm thinking this is like a proto Lord Love a Duck meets Beyond the Valley of the Dolls? It sounds AWFUL, but your writing is sublime. Your earnest slang translations really made me giggle! -"Callie"

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  2. Hi Sandra (Callie Wanton?)
    Yes. This film was one of the first of the “non-crisis” teen films to come out of the ‘50s, and one of the earliest to poke fun of the genre tropes (even while slavishly adhering to them). By the time “Lord Love a Duck” came along in 1966, theses kinds of films were ripe for parody and the kind of merciless skewering they receive.
    And while your instincts serve you well in ascribing the term AWFUL to this movie (albeit blissfully so), it’s curious to think that “Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow” ranks way up there on any hierarchy chart detailing the evolution of teen films which went on to spawn the likes of “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” and the early underground works John Waters.
    I’m glad you enjoyed the post and I thank you for commenting. And as per the slang, even my partner said he found some of it a little indecipherable before the tongue-in-cheek translations.

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    1. (Callie Wanton indeed... I started using my Google+ profile instead of the Blogger one and sacrificed my nom de plume in the process!)

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  3. Hi Ken, I don't know this film at all but your fifties hipster glossary is divinely snaky, Daddy-O!! Will look for this one on the Late Late Show! On a double bill with Reform School Girls starring Mamie Van Doren, perhaps?
    -Chris

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    1. Hi Chris
      Ha! I think the teenage slang is the one of my favorite things about movies like this. Unless Mamie Van Doren is in the cast, then you add visuals and camp to the mix (eform School Girls is great!)

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