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What do Paul Anka, Mel Torme, and Mamie van Doren Have In Common?

Nuns, teen idols, and the Velvet Fog as a rather mature-looking juvenile delinquent.

Girls Town poster

Photo: Wikimedia

GIRLS TOWN: an almost-too-good-to-be-true convergence of pop culture figures and late-1950s juvenile-delinquent B-movie absurdity.

… not to mention Dick Contino and The Platters!

Yesterday I suggested listening to our previous episode The Wild One as a companion program to this weekend’s upcoming I Want to Live! show, which tells the story of the film based around jazz-lover and accused-murderess Barbara Graham (the real-life Graham was executed in 1955; her proclamations of innocence have never been thoroughly proved or disproved). That film was released in 1958 and earned Susan Hayward an Academy Award; it was one of the better crimeploitation pictures of the period, and the jazz score, written by Johnny Mandel and performed by Gerry Mulligan, Bud Shank, and other top-notch West Coast musicians, is well worth seeking out.

If I Want to Live basically holds up as a dramatic narrative and a portrait of bohemian lowlife vice, then the answer to the question posed at the top of this post–the 1959 Girls Town–holds up in a completely different way, as an almost-too-good-to-be-true convergence of pop culture figures and late-1950s juvenile-delinquent B-movie absurdity. Mamie van Doren plays a gum-chewing, va-va-voom rebellious “girl” (van Doren was 28 when the picture came out… like many other cast members, she was much older than the supposed teenager she portrayed), falsely accused of murder. There are two rival gangs, one led by Mel Torme, the other by Dick Contino. Van Doren ultimately finds salvation at Girls Town, a reform school run by nuns (one of whom is an alleged judo expert), especially after teen idol Paul Anka–who figures prominently in the “plot”–sings “Ave Maria” to her in a chapel scene. In addition, bandleader Ray Anthony plays a father seeking justice for his dead (would-be sexual predator) son, and Sheila GrahamF. Scott Fitzgerald’s “beloved infidel” partner of his later years–shows up as a nun. Second-generation Hollywood celebs are present as well–Charlie Chaplin Jr. and Harold Lloyd Jr. (What, no Sean Flynn? Oh, he actually was a teenager when this flick was shot… as Susan Hayward would say, “No dice!”)

Ladies and gentlemen, what we have here–I propose to you today–is the Casablanca of teen-exploitation films. If it hadn’t existed, the creators of Mystery Science Theater 3000 would have had to invent it. Back in the 1990s they sent it up in parody, and here are a couple of clips, starting with this nightclub scene, featuring Paul Anka performing a seemingly endless “Lonely Boy”, followed by the Platters:

The Velvet Fog helps Mamie’s sister (played by Elinor Donahue from Father Knows Best) make a getaway:

Scatting jokes abound whenever Mel makes an appearance in the MST3000 version… Dick Contino left his accordion at home, apparently. Some VHS copies of the original are floating around, while the MST3000 edition–the one really worth getting–is available at this UK site (you may need a multi-region DVD player in order to view it).

David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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