Saturday, 7 May 2011

Dance Hall Racket (1953)

I adore the classical era of American exploitation movies, from the 1930s to the 50s. None of the these movies could possibly be considered a good movie by any conventional standard of film criticism, but it’s their very flaws that make them fun.

The stilted dialogue, the wooden acting, the contrived (and very thin) plots and the crude sets - all combined with sex, sin and sleaze (or at least the promise of sex, sin and sleaze). It’s a recipe for campy movie fun.

Dance Hall Racket was made in 1953 but has the feel of exploitation movies of the 40s. It’s greatest claim to fame is probably that the screenplay was written by Lenny Bruce, stand-up comedy legend, counter-culture hero and all-round loser. And he not only wrote the film, he plays one of the leading roles. His stripper wife Honey and his mother also appear in this film.

Like most exploitation movies it has a little plot that even with a running time of less than an hour it still feels padded out. Umberto Scalli (Timothy Farrell), a character who appeared in several earlier exploitation films, runs a dance hall. It’s one of those dance halls where the customers buy a ticket that entitles them to dance with one of the hostesses. It’s not quite a clip joint but it’s close. It also serves as a front for Scalli’s smuggling operations and assorted criminal activities.

The authorities are aware of Scalli’s activities and they’ve got an undercover agent planted in the club. Scalli’s chief henchman is the sociopathic Vinnie (Lenny Bruce). Vinnie is a little heavy-handed and when ordered to rough someone up he more often than not kills them. There’s a kind of romantic triangle involving Scalli, Vinnie and one of Scalli’s dance hall girls.

I don’t want to give the impression there’s a coherent plot happening here. There isn’t. Even by exploitation movie standards the acting is jaw-droppingly awful. And if you were wondering why Lenny Bruce didn’t go on to have a glittering career as a screenwriter you need only watch this movie. Phil Tucker’s direction is basic at best.

The sleaze is mostly implied although there is some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nudity and there are countless scenes of the dance hall girls getting dressed and undressed. Again it’s pretty standard for exploitation movies of this era.

In fact it’s a staggeringly bad movie.

Its one big asset is Timothy Farrell. He’s one of the legends of exploitation film-making and can always be relied upon to deliver an outrageously entertaining performance. Acting was a sideline for Farrell who worked for the LA Sheriff’s Department, eventually becoming County Marshall before being fired in 1975.

Dance Hall Racket is included as an extra on the Alpha Video DVD release of Sin You Sinners (a reasonably entertaining early sexploitation feature). It’s a fairly atrocious print but it’s hardly likely this movie is ever going to be released as part of the Criterion Collection so this is probably the best version we’re ever likely to see. And it’s good value double-movie set.

Despite its faults, or more probably because of them, Dance Hall Racket is great fun. If you’re a fan of exploitation movies you’ll certainly want to see this one.


Stacia said...

LOVE Timothy Farrell! I would like to see a cleaned up set of all three of the Umberto Scalli movies. This is my least favorite of the three despite Lenny Bruce. I would have to say Racket Girls is the best, mainly because I love Peaches Page, but The Devil's Sleep has silent film star Mildred Davis and she is terrific. She's supposed to be the walking 300-pound fat lady joke, but she's a much better actress than anyone else AND she's genuinely funny. Unfortunately, the former Mrs Charlie Chaplin in Devil's Sleep is so mindnumbingly awful that she pretty much kills the movie. Hell, she kills all joy, light, and hope when she walks into a room.

dfordoom said...

Stacia, I'd love to see Racket Girls. It seems to be available on DVD only in an MST3K boxed set, and I'm not fan of the whole MST3K thing. I'm surprised Alpha Video haven't released it.

Timothy Farrell stars in two of my all-time favourite exploitation movies - Girl Gang and The Violent Years.

Stacia said...

It was also known as Blonde Pick-Up and on a Something Weird video compilation

but it's out of print and very expensive now. I can't seem to find another DVD release of it right now, but I'll look more tonight when I have time.

Stacia said...

Oh, I found it -- it was also released as "Pin-Down Girl" and Something Weird still has it: