Friday, March 11, 2011


The story of jazz drummer Gene Krupa, known for his wild, unhinged drummer style, with most of the rough edges sanded down for mainstream consumption. The film begins with the teenage Krupa (Sal Mineo) bringing home a drum set, only to have it smashed up by his father. His parents don't like that he plays in a jazz band with Eddie Sirota (James Darren). At a pool party, a trampy girl (Yvonne Craig of Batgirl fame) comes on to Krupa, but Gene only has eyes for Ethel, an innocent girl-next-door type (Susan Kohner) who wants to write a symphony. When his father dies, Krupa goes into a seminary to fulfill his family's wish that he become a priest, but he rather quickly realizes that's not the road for him, and soon he's off to New York City with Eddie and Ethel, who is now engaged to Eddie but still loves Gene. After months of struggling, Gene gets a big break as a drummer thanks in part to jazz singer Dorissa Dinell (Susan Oliver), though her first reaction to his overheated drumming style is to yell, "I'm not a cooch dancer and we're not doing the zombie's mating call!" His rise is covered mostly in montages of headlines until he joins the Benny Goodman band, leaves his old friends in the dust, and gets himself a fancy penthouse apartment. He becomes a drinker and a womanizer, and one night after Eddie and Ethel both tell him off, Dorissa introduces him to marijuana, telling him pot will help him "be somebody." He has a reefer-madness moment in his apartment, but next thing you know, he's fronting his own band.

The rest of the movie follows the now-familiar story of fall and redemption: he's arrested for possession (even though we know he's a user, he swears it's a frame-up), Dorissa refuses to be a character witness for him, and on his lawyer's advice, he pleads guilty, winding up with no jail time but with a washed-up career. With some help from Eddie and Ethel, he works his way back up through the ranks and the film ends with his triumphant return to drumming with Tommy Dorsey. What's good about this film is Sal Mineo. He gives a believable performance, though his dark pretty-boy looks prevent him from ever looking as debauched as he ought to be, and he is outstanding in his drumming scenes. According to some sources, Mineo spent a year working with the real Krupa to be able to sync his drumming to Krupa's recorded drum tracks. Darren and Kohner do fairly well with what are types rather than fully rounded characters. Oliver is very good as the unlikable Dorissa, who, if I'm reading between the lines correctly, may be behind his dope arrest. You can see the real Krupa performing "Drum Boogie" with Barbara Stanwyck in the opening scene of BALL OF FIRE. [TCM]

No comments: