“The Beatniks”: Hollywood hoodlums on a rock ‘n’ roll rampage that has absolutely nothing to do with beatniks

By on October 25, 2016

The Beatniks — now streaming on our Night Flight Plus channel — was the only film written and directed by voiceover king Paul Frees, the “Man of a Thousand Voices,” but many b-movie cinephiles only know the 1960 film because it was spoofed by the Joel Hodgson-led cast of TV’s “Mystery Science Theatre 3000,”  who lodged the same complaint that nearly everyone does when they watch it,  which is that The Beatniks has absolutely nothing to do with beatniks.

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That’s right, you’ll find no counterculture proto-hippies here, no one beating on bongos while wearing striped sweaters, dark sunglasses and black berets, no one snapping their fingers or stroking their goatees while reading Beat Generation performance poetry in a coffeehaus full of kooks.

Instead, nearly absolutely everything about The Beatniks regurgitates all the familiar tropes found in straight-up 1950s juvenile delinquency teensploitation (greasers, hot rods, teens being jumped into gangs, etc.) seen all during the 1950s, in Blackboard Jungle-style urban and suburban settings.

The Beatniks tells the story of Eddy Crane (Tony Travis), the cynical smart-mouthed leader of a gang of hoodlums who get their kicks in late 50s Los Angeles by robbing mom ‘n’ pop convenience stores.

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After pulling off one such stick-up, they return to their hangout — Nadine’s Diner — where they typically meet up afterwards to squabble about how they’re going to split up their spoils, when these bored, untamed youths run into, literally, a top L.A. record executive, Harry Bayliss, smashing into his parked car.

Bayliss — played by Charles Delaney, who died before the film was released — comes into the diner to use the phone, but then he hears Eddy sing a tune to his girl Iris (Karen Kadler), over by the jukebox, and he decides to make it his challenge to get Eddy signed to a recording contract.

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Eddy has no real interest in any of that, not at first, but his girlfriend sees the opportunity being handed to him as his one-way ticket outta Nothingville.

His buddies, however, do their best to hold him back from leaving the gang because all they wanna do is guzzle booze and raise teenage hell (these could, quite literally, be the world’s oldest teenagers).

After a night of drinking at the Hollywood Inn, their destructive behavior leads from one crime to another, and ultimately (big horn crescendo here), to murder.

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Eddy ends up falling in love with Bayliss’s secretary, Helen Tracy (Joyce Terry, who co-wrote the original idea for the film), with her blonde tresses and painted-on eyebrows, who takes him shopping and shows him the potential life he could have if he leaves his past life behind.

Bayliss manages to get Eddy a spot on a TV show aimed directly at teens, “Rocket to Stardom”,, which, as you might expect, rockets him to stardom as an overnight sensation when the studio switchboards are jammed with fangirls calling in about the new singer they’ve just seen.

The TV performance, of course, ends up landing him a record deal.

Only, his friends — led by the persuasive psychotic Mooney aka “Moon” (Peter Breck) — aren’t about to let their leader and friend go legit, and they end up trashing Eddy’s hotel room (Moon ends up amusing himself by tormenting a hotel manager who shows up to complain about the noise, the dancing and the loud music).

Quite a bit more happens, but you’ll just have to watch the movie to see where it goes from there.

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When the movie was released, the half-dozen or so taglines found on the movie posters and lobby cards made no attempt to hide that the film was your average garden-variety late Fifties juvenile delinquent romp: “Hollywood Hoodlums on a Rock ‘n’ Roll Rampage!,” and “Living by Their Code of Rebellion and Mutiny,” are two such examples, but this one — “Exploding from Alleyways and Ivory Towers” — yeah, we have no idea what that one’s all about.

The Beatniks — the only directorial effort of Paul Frees, who wrote the script — was originally shot in 1958 as Sideburns and Sympathy, but the title change comes a few years after the peak of the Beatnik phenomenon, which developed out of the Beat Generation movement itself.

We can only theorize that the filmmakers or some music studio suit had registered the title and simply went ahead with its use even though they ended up with this film about Hollywood hoodlums instead of a film about actual beatniks.

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Over his long career, Frees was, like Mel Blanc, mainly known as “The Man of a Thousand Voices” and a giant in the voiceover/announcing world, and we’re pretty sure you’ve heard him if you’ve been alive and in the close proximity or earshot of a television set at any time in the past fifty years.

Frees voiced both the John Lennon and George Harrison characters on the Saturday morning TV cartoon series, “The Beatles,”the voice of Santa on the 1969 animated “Frosty the Snowman,” the Ghost Host at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, the Pillsbury Doughboy, Sprout in the Jolly Green Giant TV commercials, and lots of others you’d recognize, not to mention, of course, his appearances in films like The Thing From Another World, and Suddenly.

Frees — born Solomon Hersh Frees in Chicago, Illinois — had served in WWII at Normandy Beach, where he was seriously injured and sent home to recover. He took advantage of the G.I. Bill that was available to vets in the 1940s and 50s to enroll in art college, but ultimately he was drawn back to an early love: radio (before the war, he’d used his four-octave vocal range talents on radio programs).

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He ended up working for the Disney Corporation, voicing cartoon characters, and also providing voices you can hear inside Disneyland amusement park.

A complete list of every voiceover he ever did would likely fill several pages at IMDB (we did tell you about the 1965 TV commercial where Frees invited kids at home to decide which new Quaker Oats cereal they preferred, Quisp or Quake… read more about it here).

Frees — who was married to Joyce Terry — clearly seems to have been interested in working on big screen projects at some point and was making the transition into films at the end of the 1950s (we love the fact that he was the narrator in the Timothy Carey vehicle The World’s Greatest Sinner, which our contributor Andre Perkowski told us about here).

Along with Eddie Brandt (who worked with Spike Jones), Frees also co-wrote all of the songs Eddy sings, including the one which seems to be called “Sideburns Don’t Need Your Sympathy,” which no doubt inspired the film’s original title.

We think Sideburns and Sympathy would still make an awesome movie title, if you’re looking for one.

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Check out The Beatniks — part of our Something Weird collection of weirdo teensploitation titles, and much more! — over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.