Snap-to daddio, Judge George "Scat Cat" Hatch sings the praises of Sal Mineo in this hot biopic of the late, great master of the tom toms. It's hip man, it's hip!
"That's what making money is for, to have a good time before it all caves in on you."
"What good is making good if you can't have everything that goes with it—the parties, the kicks?"
For the sake of its screenplay, The Gene Krupa Story conveniently omits (and blatantly distorts) a few facts, renames and combines characters, and ends rather abruptly with Krupa's 1944 big-band comeback, following the marijuana bust that derailed his career. While the script may be formulaic and predictable, the film itself is ear and eye candy for fans of Krupa, whose actual drumming is heard on Sony's terrific Dolby Digital 2.0 Monaural remastering; and Sal Mineo, who meticulously recreates the aura of Krupa's manic and electrifying on-stage presence.
Facts of the Case
In 1927, 18-year-old Gene Krupa (Sal Mineo) brings home his first set of drums only to have them smashed by his father who thinks he got them from "from the devil himself." Gene's parents have been praying that he'll become a priest; but he digs playing the speakeasies in a local jazz band with his friend, Eddie Sirota (James Darren) and getting hit on by all high school babes. Eddie's girlfriend, Ethel (Susan Kohner) thinks Gene whacks his drums "like there was a devil inside," and tries to seduce him with a stick of gum at a weekend weenie roast. When his father dies suddenly, Gene feels obligated to quit the band and enter the seminary but "The rain drips and the rhythm beats everything else out of my head…I hear an Ave Maria and my mind takes off on a syncopated version of it." So Krupa decides to doff his cassock for good and take on the Show Biz world: "Hello, Big Town. Are you ready?"
Gene, Eddie, and Ethel arrive in New York City, full of big plans and youthful naïveté: the guys will quickly get gigs with high-profile bands and become famous, and Ethel will attend the Julliard School of Music learning how to compose those symphonies that have been bouncing around in her head. Until it all happens, though, she opts for a cheap room at the "Y" while Gene and Eddie hole up together in a fleabag hotel just off Times Square where all the music action is.
Three months later, they're all eating "salt-and-pepper sandwiches." Ethel, at the expense of her education, becomes a telephone operator earning just enough money to keep everyone's dreams afloat. Eddie comes to realize she's "carrying a torch like the Statue of Liberty" for Gene and discreetly backs out of their relationship. Gene has been "knocking everybody's plaster loose" and hooking up with the likes of Tommy Dorsey, Red Nichols, the wily jazz singer Dorissa Dinell (Susan Oliver), and a lot of dope dealers trying to peddle him some reefer; "Come on, daddio, how else would you get that crazy kick on your drums?" Gene doesn't take his first toke until Dorissa has seduced him, "Put your miseries out to pasture, Gino," at which point he decides to abandon Eddie and Ethel in favor of the fast lane.
Montage headlines chart his rise: "Krupa Hits Wax with Fats Waller," "Krupa Sends the Gals and Quickens Feminine Heartbeats," "Detroit Cats Await Hot Swing Drummer Fronting His Own Band"—and fall: "Ace Drummer Arrested on Dope Charge," "Krupa Jailed With 90-Day Sentence"—nearly taking down the entire industry with him: "Jazz Groups Are Hotbeds of Marijuana Users!" and "Are Jazz Pied Pipers Leading Our Youth to Dope?"
The drug bust is personally painful for Gene, when Dorissa refuses to testify on his behalf; any connection with him would damage her career and she'd "never get rid of the smell." She walks out of his life with one of the best exit lines I've ever heard: "Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a town I'd better get out of."
Branded a jailbird and a junkie, Gene can't find work even with former friend Kenny Le May and His Band of Today; "If I was to hire you I'd be cutting my own throat." His agent can get him jobs outside of New York, which is fine with Gene because "this town died and left me." He ends up on the chop suey parlor and strip club circuit playing any seedy joint that will allow him to use his real name. Ethel finds him in one of these dives and clues him into Tommy Dorsey's offer of real comeback as the featured drummer in his new band. On opening night, Krupa rises slowly from the orchestra pit in front of Dorsey's band. Hecklers attack almost immediately, nearly destroying Krupa's confidence and concentration. Quick on the cue, Dorsey's resident percussionist lures Gene into a drum battle and the audience goes wild. Krupa's career is back on track with a knowing "I-told-you-so" from best friend Eddie, and the unrequited love of his former dishrag, Ethel.
For his first adult role, Sal Mineo (Rebel Without a Cause, Giant) worked with Gene Krupa for almost a year-and-a-half perfecting the frenetic hunched control the drummer maintained over his instrument and the head-bobbing, spaced-out expression on his face. The most astonishing aspect of his performance, however, is his beat-for-beat drum synching to Krupa's recorded arrangements. There are at least a half-dozen drum solo set pieces in The Gene Krupa Story. Except for a few close-ups, they are all shrewdly edited in medium shots so you can fully appreciate Mineo's precision timing as he uses his sticks on skins, cymbals, sticks and, at one point, beats out a devil's tattoo his bassist's strings. If you've never seen Gene Krupa perform, watch for his cameo appearances in The Glenn Miller Story and The Benny Goodman Story (both now on DVD), and several shorts that occasionally air on Turner Classic Movies or PBS stations. According to Mineo's biographer, H. Paul Jeffers, "Krupa was so impressed by Sal as a drummer that when the film was completed, he gave Sal a set of Krupa's own drums."
A year after his lead role in The Gene Krupa Story, Mineo received another Best Supporting Actor nod for his performance in Otto Preminger's Exodus, as a young Jew who had been abused by the Nazis. He slid into bit parts and cameos in several epics before taking the lead again in Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965), the low-budget sleaze-classic that I consider the ultimate exploitation flick and one in desperate need of a DVD release.
Susan Kohner starred with Mineo two years earlier in the film adaptation of Reginald Rose's original teleplay, Dino. There's obvious chemistry between these two and Kohner does her best to imbue Ethel with an inner strength not evident in dialogue that has her constantly bemoaning how "foolish I am for being in love with Gene." Her short film career also includes Imitation of Life and By Love Possessed. James Darren (The Guns of Navarone, Gidget) also does well in the bland and underwritten role of Eddie and is especially effective in his confrontations with Krupa, trying to make him understand that he doesn't know how to handle success. Susan Oliver (Butterfield 8) is both catty and calculating as Dorissa Dinell, and delivers some of the film's quirkiest lines with just the right attitude. When Gene rudely questions her talent and generosity, she can't believe her ears and says, "Snow me again, junior, because I didn't quite get your drift."
Orin (A Time to Love and a Time to Die) Jannings' screenplay adheres to the "trials-and-tribulations" formula of Hollywood musical biopics, particularly those of the 1950s including I'll Cry Tomorrow and Love Me or Leave Me. However, the by-the-numbers script clichés are offset by dialogue sparked with inspired metaphors and snappy one-liners, perking up this period piece with unexpected flavor.
Sony has done a wonderful job remastering the dynamite soundtrack in Dolby Digital 2.0 Monaural, giving Krupa's innovative and explosive percussion the emphasis is deserves. Charles Lawton, Jr.'s black-and-white cinematography is sharp with excellent contrast in this 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Lawton shot some of the best westerns during the late 1950s including Delmer Daves' 3:10 to Yuma and Budd Boetticher's The Tall T, but the milieu captured for The Gene Krupa Story is closer to his darker work in Welles' The Lady from Shanghai. Some of his amazing outdoor New York City compositions evoke the classic images of Berenice Abbott.
Leith Stevens scored the film making sure his original compositions were not overwhelmed by the Krupa classics he also adapted. Stevens is perhaps best known for soundtracks both eerie (The War of the Worlds) and incendiary (The Wild One).
Krupa fanatics may fault the glossed over and fact-twisted elements of the film. The drug bust, for instance, included the (ultimately false) charge of "contributing to the delinquency of a minor" while the film implies that Dinell was not only involved but may have even planted the reefer in Krupa's coat as a form of revenge. Knowing a film starring Sal Mineo and crooner James Darren was obviously aimed at the teenage market, certain liberties were called and probably requested by the Production Code. Still, The Gene Krupa Story is an entertaining biopic featuring one of Sal Mineo's best performances and drumming that will knock your bobby sox off.
Case quickly dismissed, as this judge must beat feet to the local record shop.
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