Saturday, July 31, 2010

B-Movie Phantom: The Phillipa Fallon Story Part 8

For a B-movie dismissed by most critics in 1958 as a quickie exploitation picture, High School Confidential! went through an extraordinary number of screenplay drafts before the cameras started rolling. Over the course of too many versions to count, there were subtle and not-so-subtle changes in the story's plot, tone and character. Eventually, four different writers worked on the script. The part that would give Phillipa Fallon—as writer Barry Alphonso later put it—her “one shot at screen immortality” was not even present in the earliest versions of the treatments and scripts.

In the December 10, 1957 iteration of the screenplay, for instance, there is only a reference to the band, Nat’s Combo, backing up Mr. A. (the piano-playing heroin kingpin played in the film by Jackie Coogan) at The Drag (the name of the teen hangout where Mr. A plies his trade). There is no beat poetry for the kids to dig in this draft, just jazz music.

A little over a month later, a “composite” script dated January 13, 1958 included a scene in which Mr. A introduces a male poet character reading a work quite different from the one ultimately delivered with such vibrancy by Ms. Fallon.
And now that eminent poet of Pokeyville reading his latest masterpiece – The Big Switch…
The world was a world of kings and men –
And we like hooded falcons.
Don’t dig it anymore – don’t dig
Such fancy tales
Don’t dig that crucifix…
Ever been cold on a summer’s night –
And coughed up the blood of dawn?
Then you’re hep to the Big Swich, friend
The world’s a world of dollar smokes
And when you find the loot?
The kings they all pushin’ weed –
I take me off my hood
The grass is green no more –
Crazy, man, it’s red.
The nights grow narrow, doll
You tune me in?
The streets are wet –
I got no shoes
You think there’s a way to run…
Sure there is –
The curve of the Big Switch, friend
A couple of days later, in a yellow “changes” section of the January 15, 1958 version of the screenplay, the poet is identified as a “serious looking young colored boy.” After the same line of introduction is delivered by Mr. A (as quoted above), the following stage direction text is found:
Poet steps forward into tiny space in front of the combo to read – the combo beginning to play rhythmically behind him, making the reading poetry with a jazz beat. During the following the kids listen intently, seriously, lost in the words and rhythm.
By the January 20, 1958 draft of the script, the sex (and presumably the race) of the poet had changed, but the verses of the poem were essentially the same. It was not until the February 11, 1958 edition of the screenplay—produced just days before principal photography began on MGM’s Culver City lot—that the poem (with one slight change), as seen in the completed film, finally appeared in print. There is no description in the script of what the poetess character is supposed to look like or how she is supposed to act. The novelization of High School Confidential! by Morton Cooper published in 1958, however, does offer a portrait, albeit, an unflattering one:
…He stayed in the entrance-way, shaking his head at a waiter who motioned that there was a seat ready for him, and regarded the horsy, oddly unhealthy looking woman materialize from a curtain next to the stage. The applause was ear-shattering as she waddled to the mike and nodded conspiratorially to Mr. A. The combo began to play rhythmically behind her, and she read melodramatically from a paper she plumbed from her overripe bodice…
High School Confidential-PB-Frnt

The very existence of the beatnik poet character is almost certainly attributable to producer Albert Zugsmith. Zugsmith, a master of the exploitation genre, told the Los Angeles Free Press in a 1975 interview that in performing "research" for his film, he frequented Venice, California coffee houses, hung out with the beat figure (and father of Inside the Actors Studio host, James Lipton) Larry Lipton and visited “private pot parties.” It was during this pre-production phase of the project that the savvy producer may have been inspired to add a poet character to his latest cinematic opus. If Zugsmith had been going to Venice coffee houses, he no doubt saw more than his fair share of bongo-driven verse and it probably made an impression.

At some point, the producer decided to hire Roger Corman regular Mel Welles to punch up the High School Confidential! script with hipster jargon. Welles, who had just written a slang dictionary tie-in for Corman’s Rock All Night (1957) was the perfect choice for the assignment. The multi-talented actor-writer-director, who had played the aging hepcat, Sir Bop, in Rock All Night, was in tune with the Beat Generation, but not above satirizing it. Indeed, Welles wrote for cult comedian Lord Buckley’s (the model for the character of Sir Bop) and is responsible for one of his most famous routines - The Gettysburg Address. Of course, not only did Welles hipify the dialogue of the Confidential! script, he also wrote the two set pieces that make the movie a classic: High School Drag delivered by Phillipa and the Buckley-esque Columbus Digs the Jive performed by John Drew Barrymore.

Mel Welles-No Border-loMel Welles as Sir Bop in Rock All Night (1957) 

Just how did Phillipa come to be chosen to play her iconic role? No one that CONELRAD interviewed for this biography, including the actress’s own daughter, knew exactly. The key, though, again, is probably Albert Zugsmith. Zugsmith was well known for re-using actors on many of his films – especially if they worked cheap. William Schallert, Aram Katcher, Mamie Van Doren, Ziva Rodann, Norman Grabowski and William Wellman, Jr. are just a few of the performers the producer used in more than one film. And Zugsmith, at heart a businessman, was always on the lookout for ways (sex, violence, etc.) to improve the chances of his films at the box office. It makes perfect sense then that the gender of the poet in the script would change overnight from a man to a woman. By casting Mamie Van Doren as the nymphomaniacal “aunt” to star Russ Tamblyn’s character, Zugsmith had already demonstrated his ability to tap into the pulse of the American movie-going public. Having a beautiful brunette who looked 24 even though she was really 34 play the role of the poetess must have been a no-brainer for the producer.

Zugsmith also had a well-earned reputation for auditioning actresses on his casting couch, but this seems highly unlikely with Phillipa.[1] Her daughter told CONELRAD that her mother was wary of the producer and routinely shot down the many men who hit on her. Phillipa also had a fear of germs that would seem to preclude much of a sex life. Thayer Culver, who worked for Phillipa’s husband in the 1950s told CONELRAD that “germophobe” was too mild a word to describe the actress. She was, Culver said, “an everythingphobe…She was almost a Howard Hughes.” While the Hughes comparison may be a bit of an exaggeration, CONELRAD spoke with others who knew Phillipa who confirmed she had a definite issue with germs (more on this topic in later posts).

With the casting of Phillipa, Zugsmith got not only a sterling performance from her as the poetess, but he also used her as an extra in two scenes.

The obsessive viewer will note that the actress appears in the scene where Russ Tamblyn’s efforts to comfort heroin addict Doris (Jody Fair) are interrupted by a gaggle of pool-partying “teens.” In the freeze-frame image below, we see a rare shot of a smiling Phillipa Fallon being hustled away by Tamblyn.

The other scene Phillipa appears in occurs near the end of the film, just before the fight breaks out between Mr. A’s henchmen and Michael Landon’s football team. Unfortunately, Charles Chaplin, Jr. (as undercover agent / waiter Quinn) obscures part of Phillipa’s head.

Fallon Extra-Cropped

Yet another bonus that Zugsmith reaped from hiring Phillipa for High School Confidential! was her songwriting talent. Phillipa and the producer collaborated on lyrics for a theme song intended for Mamie Van Doren, entitled Mamie. Zugsmith ultimately decided against using it in his film, but CONELRAD was able to track down the sheet music at the Library of Congress:

Fallon-Mamie Sheet Music
Prod. “High School Confidential”
May 9, 1958
Lyrics by Phillipa Fallon & Albert Zugsmith
Music by Albert Glasser, A.S.C.A.P.
But where Zugsmith and MGM really got their money’s worth is in Phillipa’s mesmerizing performance as the beat poetess. As the scene opens, she can be glimpsed seated just beyond the bandstand before John Drew Barrymore and Diane Jergens exchange a brief round of dialogue about Jergens’ need for marijuana. Their discussion is cut short by some brassy music that cues Phillipa to emerge from her chair and stride to the stage (unlike in the screenplay, Mr. A does not introduce her, probably because Jackie Coogan’s incarnation of the character is seated at the piano).


From the bandstand, Phillipa lets loose Mel Welles’s words with a determined intensity that still resonates more than half a century later. Behind her, Jackie Coogan and the band punctuate her delivery of the nihilistic verse with blasts of incongruous ragtime. Meanwhile the “kids” look up at the poetess with a mixed reaction of hopped-up amusement and existential angst. Charles Chaplin, Jr. just shakes his head in disgust. And then, after three minutes of stealing the movie, Phillipa descends from the stage to a boisterous round of applause.

My old man was a bread stasher all his life.
He never got fat. He wound up with a used car,
a 17 inch screen and arthritis.
Tomorrow is a drag, man.
Tomorrow is a king sized bust.
They cried ‘put down pot,’ ‘don’t think a lot,’ for what?
Time, how much? And what to do with it.
Sleep, man, and you might wake up digging the whole
human race giving itself three days to get out.
Tomorrow is a drag, pops, the future is a flake.
I had a canary who couldn’t sing.
I had a cat who let me share my pad with her.
I bought a dog that killed the cat who ate the canary.
What is truth?
I had an uncle with an ivy league card.
He had a life with a belt in the back.
He had a button-down brain.
Wind up a belt in the mouth with a button-down lip.
We cough blood on this earth.
Now there’s a race for space.
We can cough blood on the moon soon.
Tomorrow’s dragsville, cats.
Tomorrow is a king size drag.
Tool a fast shore, swing with a gassy chick.
Turn on to a thousand joys.
Smile on what happened, or check what’s going to happen,
You’ll miss what’s happening.
Turn your eyes inside and dig the vacuum.
Tomorrow, DRAG.

Strangely enough, the non-letterboxed version of the poetess scene provides the viewer with an even better appreciation of Ms. Fallon's emotive body language--particularly her remarkably expressive wrists [thanks to the Looker blog for this observation]. 

CONELRAD asked Phillipa’s daughter if she knew any of the details about how her mother prepared for the role of her lifetime. The daughter told us that she remembered helping her mother rehearse her part at their Tower Road home in Beverly Hills: “I would keep the script and I would let her know if she missed a line of the poem.” The daughter then volunteered that her mother had asked her not to see the film. As of 2008, when we conducted our interview, the daughter had still not seen High School Confidential!, but had plans to watch it on DVD. When asked if her mother had any favorite actresses, the daughter replied that Phillipa loved Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. The poetess character, as played by Phillipa, certainly exudes a strength that those two stars projected in their prime, particularly Davis.

High School Confidential! had its world premiere in Albert Zugsmith’s hometown of Atlantic City, New Jersey on May 29, 1958. The producer brought along Jackie Coogan, Charlie Chaplin, Jr., Jan Sterling and Diane Jergens to the gala. Phillipa stayed home, but soon enough she was undoubtedly relishing the reviews that singled out her performance:

“…but what I want to know is, who was that chick who sang in the nightclub sequence? She was so riotous, I thought her bit was worth the price of admission alone.”
-- Beverly Hills Citizen, July 7, 1958
“A recitation to jazz accompaniment by Phillipa Fallon is fascinating…”
-- Hollywood Reporter film review, May 28, 1958
“There’s one scene at the hangout where a gal in the crowd gets up and delivers a way-out word-jazz routine…may start a big new fad.”
-- Hollywood Citizen-News film review, June 26, 1958
“Mel Welles has contributed two pieces of special material, one of which, an existentialist poem recited by Phillipa Fallon, is a standout.”
-- Daily Variety film review, May 28, 1958
“Highlights of the story are a drag race with Tamblyn and Diane Jergens living it up, an existentialist poem by Phillipa Fallon to jazz accompaniment in a weird off-beat joint and John Drew Barrymore delivering a class soliloquy on Ferdinand and Isabella.”
-- Los Angeles Examiner film review, June 26, 1958
The one negative comment about the performance came from critic Howard Thompson of the New York Times on May 31, 1958:

“At one excruciating point, to jazz accompaniment, a young brunette drawls a poem that has about as much coherence as a cat fight.”

Unlike the hopelessly square Mr. Thompson, MGM was so pleased with the spoken word contributions of Phillipa and John Drew Barrymore that they released their performances back-to-back on a 45 single that, today, is a hard-to-find collector’s item.

Fallon-High School Drag Label

High School Confidential! opened at 9 a.m. on Friday, July 25, 1958 at the Essanes Woods Theatre in downtown Chicago, Phillipa’s hometown. Sadly, there is no evidence that her family even knew she was in the movie. When CONELRAD contacted the widow of Phillipa’s only sibling, Irwin, she told us that she knew Ferne (she only knew Phillipa by her given name) wanted to be an actress, but was unaware that she had ever achieved her dream. She added that Phillipa’s mother never mentioned anything about her daughter being in a film.

Albert Zugsmith would attempt to duplicate the quirky magic of Phillipa’s Confidential! performance in a film he produced the following year - The Beat Generation. But this time he didn't have Mel Welles or Phillipa. What he had was a script by Lewis Meltzer and a performance by horror movie host and Ed Wood player, Vampira. Her pseudo-beat recitation--with a rat on her shoulder, no less--is as bad as the middle-aged police detective characters (one of whom is Jackie Coogan!) think it is.

In an odd twist, Phillipa's ex-husband, Bill Manhoff, would write a 1964 episode of Petticoat Junction that features a young Dennis Hopper as a beatnik who recites his poetry for the denizens of the Shady Rest Hotel. When Hopper's character is asked what his poem means, he replies with the most brutal line of dialogue ever heard on the rural sitcom: "It means this is a cemetery and you're all corpses."



[1] In a July 5, 2010 interview with CONELRAD, frequent Zugsmith actor William Wellman, Jr. told us that “Every gal he cast wound up on the casting couch…he took a different one home every night.”

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