Saturday, November 2, 2013

The 100th Anniversary of Burt Lancaster's Birth

It was 100 years ago today that one of the most remarkable actors of the Golden Age of Film was born in Manhattan, New York. Indeed, it seemed to me that Burt Lancaster could play nearly anything. In The Crimson Pirate (1952) he played the buccaneer of the title, taking swashbuckling to a whole new level in terms of acrobatics. In From Here to Eternity (1953) he played career soldier Sgt. Warden, who risks everything for an affair with his commanding officer's wife. In Elmer Gantry he played the salesman, con man, and eventually preacher of the title. Over the years Mr. Lancaster played Wyatt Earp (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral) the executive officer of a submarine (Run Silent, Run Deep), a Nazi war criminal (Judgement at Nuremburg), a French railway inspector (The Train), Dr. Moreau (The Island of Dr. Moreau), and the eccentric head of an oil company (Local Hero). What is more, he was convincing in all of these roles.

In many ways Burt Lancaster's life prior to acting prepared him well for the profession. At a young age he met fellow future actor Nick Cravat. Together they formed the acrobatic team of "Lang and Cravat". Eventually they would perform with the Kay Brothers Circus, their career ended only by an injury experienced by Mr. Lancaster. Afterwards he was a singing waiter in New Jersey and then a salesman at the legendary department store Marshall Fields. During World War II he joined the Twenty-First Special Service Division of the U. S. Army, where he put his skills as an acrobat to use entertaining the troops. At various times Mr. Lancaster had also been a refrigerator repairman, a fireman, and even an engineer in a meat packing plant. With so many different professions to draw upon, it should be little wonder Burt Lancaster could play any role he wanted. Indeed, his skills as an acrobat were put to good use in The Crimson Pirate and as a salesman in Elmer Gantry.

In tribute to Burt Lancaster's 100th birthday, then, here is a tribute to him in pictures.

Burt Lancaster with Ava Gardner in The Killers

Burt Landcaster with Corinne Calvert in Rope of Sand.

The Crimson Pirate

Burt Lancaster with Deborah Kerr from From Here to Eternity

As Wyatt Earp from Gunfight at the OK Corral

Burt Lancaster and Shirley Jones from Elmer Gantry

As General Scott from Seven Days in May

Burt Lancaster as McIntosh in Ulzana's Raid.

Burt Lancaster as Doctor Moreau from The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Burt Lancaster as Felix Happer in Local Hero.

Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas from The Tough Guys.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Halloween 2013

As a special treat I am giving you readers a few Halloween pin ups (and Alfred Hitchcock) and two songs by Blue Oyster Cult! First, the pictures:

First up is the ever lovely Ann Miller.

Next up is the bewitching Ava Gardner.

Next we have Betty Grable and some suitable reading for the holiday.

Finally we have the lovely Leila Hyams.

And what would Halloween be without Alfred Hitchcock?
What could be more terrifying than Joan Crawford rising from the grave? Blue Oyster Cult even wrote a song about it?

And, of course, it wouldn't be Halloween without "(Don't Fear) the Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult

Happy Halloween!!!!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Creating Monsters: Pre-Code Horror Films Part Two

The success of Universal's Dracula in 1931 began a cycle towards horror films that would last until 1935. This boom in horror movies also roughly coincided with the era of Pre-Code Hollywood, a period when the Production Code was not rigorously enforced and as a result filmmakers would have much more freedom than they would in later years. As a result many horror films of the era would be much more intense and even more sophisticated than those released after 1934 (when the Code was more stringently enforced). Quite a few of the horror films faced censorship by state and local boards. Some, such as Freaks, would even prove controversial.

The year 1932 could perhaps be considered the height of the Pre-Code horror film. Not only did 1932 see the release of more horror films than any other year in the early Thirties, but many of the films released that year skirted the Production Code in ways that earlier horror films did not and later horror films would not. Indeed, 1932 was the year that the controversial film Freaks was released. What is more, it would not be the last film released in 1932 that would become a cause célèbre.

Indeed, perhaps the most surprising thing about Warner Brothers' Doctor X is that it was not the source of more censorship efforts. Released on 3 August 1932, in some ways the film seems as if it should have made in a later era. Much of the plot concerns a serial killer who not only murders his victims, but eats them as well (this at a time when cannibalism was unknown even in horror films). At one point reporter Taylor (played by Lee Tracy) uses the nearest available phone to call in his story. It just happens to be inside a brothel. In addition to murder, cannibalism and prostitution, Doctor X also featured dismemberment, synthetic flesh, and even the implication of rape. Seen today in many ways Doctor X seems like it should belong to a later era. Amazingly enough, in the United Kingdom the BBFC passed Doctor X after a few cuts to the film.

Paramount's Island of Lost Souls (an adaptation of H. G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau) would not be as lucky as Doctor X when it came to the censors. In fact, besides Freaks it was perhaps the most controversial horror film of the Pre-Code Era. Even before it was released Island of Lost Souls would face some difficulties. The Studio Relations Committee (later known as the Production Code Administration) expressed serious concerns over Island of Lost Souls. They warned that the idea of crossing humans with animals would be a risk and even advised that the film "..should be abandoned." They also expressed some concern over Dr. Moreau's line, "Mr. Parker, do you know what it means to feel like God?" Despite the Studio Relations Committee's concern, Paramount went forward with Island of Lost Souls and Dr. Moreau's famous line remained in the film.

Seen today it is easy to understand why the Studio Relations Committee was worried about Island of Lost Souls. Not only is Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) attempting to make humans out of animals, but it is fairly clear that he wants the hero Parker (Richard Arlen) to mate with Lota the Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke). One of Dr. Moreau's "beast men", Ouran (Hans Steinke) also tries to assault Parker's fiancée Ruth (Leila Hyams). Dr. Moreau also has a God complex that makes Dr. Henry Frankenstein seem humble in comparison. Island of Lost Souls is also not without its share of violence. Dr. Moreau performs his operations without anaesthetics. Worse yet, Dr. Moreau wields a whip.

As might be expected, Island of Lost Souls fell victim to censorship boards across the United States. The Kansas State Board of Review passed the film only after extensive cuts were made to it. Virginia's state censorship board rejected it twice before Paramount threatened them with a lawsuit. The Virginia state board then passed Island of Lost Souls with several cuts to the film. Paramount could not threaten legal action every time Island of Lost Souls faced censorship, as they would have soon found themselves buried in legal bills. Fourteen different regional censorship boards rejected Island of Lost Souls. The film would also face censorship outside the United States. In the United Kingdom the BBFC banned Island of Lost Souls outright. It would not be seen in Britain until 1958. Several other countries also banned the film, including Denmark, Germany, Holland, Hungary, India, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Given the reception it received upon its initial release, it should come as no surprise that Island of Lost Souls would suffer once the Production Code Administration began more strenuously enforcing the Code in 1934. Indeed, when Paramount wanted to re-release the film in 1935, the Production Code Administration rejected it entirely. When Paramount wanted to reissue the film in 1941, the Production Code Administration would only allow it to do so after any references Dr. Moreau made comparing himself to God were cut, as well as the doctor's line "Man is the present climax of a long process of organic revolution. All animal life is tending to human form," and any reference to Dr. Moreau's intention for Parker to mate with Lota the Panther Woman. Sadly, Island of Lost Souls would not be entirely restored until 2011.

For the most part the Pre-Code horror films released in 1933 would be tamer than those released in previous years. Much of this was perhaps because of the reaction such controversial motion pictures as Murders in the Rue Morgue, Freaks, and Island of Lost Souls had received from censorship boards across the United States. It must also be pointed that, then as now, the studios made a good deal of their money overseas. Given that some of the Pre-Code horror films were outright banned in many countries, it should not be surprising if the studios had decided to tone their movies down. Indeed, it was 1 May 1933 that the British Board of Film Classification introduced the "H" classification for horror films. Initially meant only as an advisory, the "H" classification officially became a certificate in June 1937, after which no one under 16 would be admitted.

Not surprisingly given the climate in Hollywood and elsewhere, those horror films that tended to skirt the Production Code were released earlier in 1933. Among these were Mystery of the Wax Museum. Based on the unpublished short story "The Wax Works" by Charles Spencer Belden, Warner Brothers meant Mystery of the Wax Museum as a follow up to the successful Doctor X, reuniting Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. Like Doctor X, Mystery of the Wax Museum was shot in two strip Technicolor. And like Doctor X, Mystery of the Wax Museum virtually ignored the Production Code.  

The plot of  Mystery of the Wax Museum would often be imitated. It centred on a London wax museum operator and sculptor (Ivan Igor, played by Lionel Atwill) who is severely burned in a fire started by his business partner to collect insurance money. Ivan resurfaces 12 years later in New York City with a new wax museum, as well as a new way of making extremely realistic wax figure. Namely, he dips the bodies of his murder victims in wax. Like Doctor X it is sometimes hard to accept that the film was made before the late Fifties. It features a frank portrayal of a narcotics addict in the form of Igor's henchman Professor Darcy (played by Arthur Edmund Carewe). Also worked into the plot are a suicide and bootlegging, and the film also contains a bit of racy dialogue (at one point Glenda Farrell as wisecracking reporter Florence Dempsey asks a police officer, "How's your sex life?"). Worst of all, Mystery of the Wax Museum seems to have undertones of necrophilia; Igor is nearly obsessive when it comes to his wax figures of women.

Not surprisingly, Mystery of the Wax Museum would meet with some resistance from state censorship boards. In particular the New York State Censorship Board demanded several cuts to Mystery of the Wax Museum. The Ohio Department of Film Censorship not only demanded cuts to the film, but actually filed a formal protest with Warner Brothers over the film, expressing the opinion "it would be much better for all of us if productions of this type of film would be discontinued." The Ohio Department of Film Censorship was primarily disturbed by its depiction of arson, drug use, and the use of poison in the film. In the United Kingdom the BBFC referred to Lionel Atwill's horrific makeup in the climax of the film as "..the most nauseating and by far the worst of its type" The BBFC did pass Mystery at the Wax Museum, but they gave it an A certificate ("Adult").

Mystery of the Wax Museum would not see the extensive cuts that many Pre-Code horror films did at the hands of the Production Code Administration, but then that was only because Warner Brothers never officially re-released the film. In fact, for many years Mystery of the Wax Museum was believed to be lost, until a print was discovered in Jack Warner's film collection in 1970, along with the two-strip Technicolor version of Doctor X. Its colours had apparently faded considerably, but at least it had escaped the Production Code Administration.

It was on 2 March 1933 that one of the most legendary horror films of all time would be released. Although it generated no real controversy in the United States upon its initial release and we tend to take it for granted today, King Kong is clearly a Pre-Code film. When compared to films made after the Production Code Administration began enforcing the Code more strictly in 1934, it is an extremely violent film. Kong eats people. Kong stomps on people. Kong throws people around like rag dolls. What is more, Fay Wray spends much of the film in as little clothing as could be legally allowed at the time. Despite all of this, King Kong met with no real opposition from local censorship boards. In the United Kingdom the BBFC simply attached the newly created "H" advisory to King Kong and did nothing more.

This is not to say that King Kong did not meet with censorship outside of the Untied States and the United Kingdom. In Australia some scenes had to be cut before it could be shown there. In Austria children were restricted from seeing the film. Initially Germany banned King Kong outright. The distributor, Europa-Filmverleih, then filed an appeal. The ban was then lifted, although various cuts were made to the film and children were forbidden to see it.

While King Kong did not raise the ire of most American censors in its initial release, the film would suffer greatly at the hands of the Production Code Administration upon its reissue in 1938. In fact about 29 individuals scenes were cut from the film. King Kong would see further cuts when it was reissued in 1942, 1946,1952, and 1956. Among the scenes that were cut from the film were those in which Kong is shown biting and chomping on Skull Islanders, as well as one in which he bites and chomps on a man in New York City. Similarly, the scenes of the brontosaurus biting sailors was cut  as well. As might be expected, a scene in which Kong crushes a Skull Islander under foot was cut, as well as a scene in which Kong takes a sleeping woman from her room and drops her when he realises she isn't Ann Darrow (Fay Wray). Perhaps the most famous scene to be cut was one in which Kong peels off Ann Darrow's clothing and then sniffs his fingers.

Fortunately many of these scenes would be restored in the late Sixties, and the restored print of King Kong would be shown in theatres in 1971. In 1976 an original print discovered in the United Kingdom was used to strike a new print with the missing scenes intact. Further restoration to King Kong was done in 1993 and 2005.

While King Kong would only have a few problems with censors, another film released in 1933 would not be so lucky. Paramount had already pushed the envelope with regards to ignoring the Production Code with both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Island of Lost Souls. They did so again with the now largely forgotten Murders in the Zoo. The film featured Lionel Atwill, by then already well associated with the horror genre, as big game hunter and zoologist Eric Gorman. Unfortunately for Gorman, his beautiful wife Evelyn (played by Kathleen Burke of Island of Lost Souls fame) is constantly cheating on him. Unfortunately for Evelyn, Gorman has a unique way of dealing with her suitors--he has his zoo animals kill them. In Murders in the Zoo people are bitten by venomous snakes, eaten by alligators, and crushed by pythons. What may be the film's most disturbing scene comes at its beginning, in which Gorman sews the mouth of one of his wife's suitors shut. Even by today's standards, the scene is a bit unsettling.

As might be expected, Murders in the Zoo would be a target for state and local censorship boards. The New York State Censorship Board demanded numerous cuts to the film. In Canada the province of Quebec banned it outright. In the United Kingdom the BBFC gave it an "A" certificate, meaning it could only be seen by adults. Murders in the Zoo would be banned in Australia, Austria, Germany, Latvia, and Sweden. Not surprisingly given its content, Murders in the Zoo would not be seen much after the Production Code was more rigorously enforced in 1934. It was released on VHS in the Nineties and was only released on DVD in the Naughts.

The end of the Pre-Code Era would come in mid-1934. Perhaps fittingly, Universal, the studio that had started the cycle towards horror films in the early Thirties, would release the last significant Pre-Code horror film. Released on 18 May 1934 The Black Cat featured the two biggest horror stars of the time (perhaps of all time), Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. What is more, it is perhaps the darkest horror film Universal made in the early Thirties. Bela Lugosi played psychiatrist Dr. Vitus Werdegast, who is visiting an old acquaintance, architect Hjalmar Poelzig (played by Boris Karloff). Along the way he meets a young couple, Peter and Joan Alison (played by David Manners and Jacqueline Wells), who wind up at Poelzig's art deco mansion after their bus crashes. Unfortunately for the three of them, Poelzig proves to be quite mad. Not only does he keep dead women displayed in glass cases, but he also happens to be a bona fide Satanist. As if devil worship was not enough, The Black Cat also included scenes of torture (including a scene in which a man is flayed), drug use (because of Joan's injuries Dr. Werdegast gives her the hallucinogen hyoscine), a chess game to the death (literally), and very strong overtones of necrophilia.

As might be expected of a film that included Satanism and torture, The Black Cat faced censorship even before it started shooting. Joseph Breen of the Production Code Administration warned Universal and addressed 19 different points that could create problems for The Black Cat upon its release. Not surprisingly, among these was the scene in which a man is flayed alive. Also among the problems with the film were: the scene in which Dr. Werdegast kills Poelzig's black cat; a photographer at Peter and Joan's wedding who was obviously gay; a shot of Poelzig in bed with a naked woman; and an inverted cross at the Black Mass. Mr Breen also advised that advertising for the film should state that it is "Suitable Only for Adults". Universal complied with some of Mr. Breen's advice, cutting the wedding scene. Universal also ignored much of what Mr. Breen had advised. The scenes in which a man was flayed alive and Dr. Werdegast kills a cat remained in the script.

Joseph Breen was not the only person concerned about The Black Cat. Universal itself was as well. Because studio heads found much of the film objectionable, director Edgar G. Ulmer was forced to film three and a half days of retakes. The character of Dr. Werdegast, who in the original script was nearly as mad as Poelzig, was changed into a much more sympathetic character. Several scenes were ultimately cut from the film. 

Even given Joseph Breen and Universal's studio heads' interference in the film, The Black Cat did face censorship from state and local boards. The flaying scene and any reference to the flaying itself were cut in Chicago, Maryland, and Ohio. In Canada, Ontario demanded no less than 15 different cuts. In the United Kingdom The Black Cat was retitled The House of Doom and several scenes were cut, including the scene with Poelzig in bed with a woman, any line referring to devil worship, and any scenes including the dead women kept under glass. The Black Cat was banned outright in Austria.

The Black Cat would be the last significant horror film of the Pre-Code Era. Even as it was taking place, forces were conspiring to bring the Pre-Code Era to an end. Many films of the era had encountered resistance from the various state and local censorship boards, not just horror films but films in genres as diverse as crime and dramas. Religious groups had become increasingly concerned about the content of Hollywood films. In 1933  John T. McNicholas, Archbishop of Cincinnati founded the Catholic Legion of Decency (later renamed the National Legion of Decency), an organisation formed to fight the "immorality" of films. Facing growing opposition from moral watchdogs, an amendment was added to the Production Code on 13 June 1934 that required all films made after 1 July 1934 to be submitted to the Production Code Administration to get a seal of approval before they could be released. The Pre-Code Era was officially over.

The cycle towards horror films that had begun with the release of Dracula would continue even after the Pre-Code Era had ended, but not for much longer. Despite the introduction of the "H" advisory for horror films by the BBFC in the UK and despite the changes to the Production Code in the U.S., the British Board of Film Censorship still had no love for American horror films. In 1935 Edward Shortt, President of the BBFC, expressed his displeasure that horror films were on the increase and said, "I hope that the producers and renters will accept this word of warning, and discourage this type of subject as far as possible." Given that the United Kingdom was a significant source of box office revenue for them, the Hollywood studios took notice of Mr. Shortt's words. Even Universal, for whom horror films had been their major source of revenue, would cease making them for a time. An article in Variety at the time reported that Dracula's Daughter would be the last horror film released by Universal. The studio had decided to stop making them because, "European countries, especially England are prejudiced against this type of product."

Of course, history shows that Universal and the other Hollywood studios would return to making horror films. In 1938 Universal reissued Dracula and Frankenstein on a double bill and saw enormous success. This persuaded Universal to return to making horror films with another sequel to Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, in 1939. The success of Son of Frankenstein would begin a new cycle of horror films that would last until 1946.

Seen today the horror films of the Pre-Code Era can be downright shocking. They often included content that would be impossible once the Production Code was more strictly enforced in 1934. The Pre-Code horror films would be much more frank in their portrayal of such things as sex and drug abuse, and sometimes included material that could be considered blasphemous or sacrilegious. This often made the Pre-Code horror films more intense and as a result more frightening than their counterparts made in the late Thirties and in the Forties. While there would be classic horror films made after the Pre-Code Era had ended (indeed, IMHO the greatest horror film of all time is Bride of Frankenstein, made after stricter enforcement of the Code), none would be as open about sex and even violence until the emergence of Hammer Film's horrors in the late Fifties.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Creating Monsters: Pre-Code Horror Films Part One

When Universal released Dracula on 12 February 1931 it began a cycle towards horror films that would last until 1935. Today widely regarded by many as the Golden Age of Horror Films, it produced such classics as Frankenstein (1931), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), The Mummy (1932), Island of Lost Souls, Freaks (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), King Kong (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). The Golden Age of Horror Films ran almost concurrently with the era of Pre-Code Hollywood. This was an era that ran roughly from 1929 to 1934, a time when the Motion Picture Production Code was barely enforced at all.

Because the Code was not strictly enforced, many filmmakers tended to ignore it entirely. As a result Hollywood films made from 1929 to 1934 sometimes featured content that would not be seen in movies made from 1935 to the late Fifties. Sexually suggestive material, promiscuity, adultery, prostitution, drug use, homosexuality, and at times brutal violence all appeared in films from the Pre-Code Era. Makers of horror films were no different than other filmakers in Pre-Code Hollywood, often ignoring the Code entirely. As a result the horror films of the Pre-Code era are often more intense, more violent, and even more sophisticated than those that would follow in the late Thirties, the Forties, and much of the Fifties. While many of the horror movies made in the Pre-Code era conformed to the Code, there were others that would see sometimes severe cuts made in the years after the Code started being stringently enforced.

While it was preceded by The Cat Creeps and The Bat Whispers in 1930, it was the success of Dracula that would start the boom in horror movies in the early Thirties. For the most part Dracula conformed to the Code and it would survive with only minor cuts after 1935. Both the groans Dracula made during his death and Renfield's screams made as he died were cut. Also cut, for reasons that are not entirely clear now, was an epilogue in which Edward Van Sloan (who played Van Helsing) insisted to the audience "There really are such things as vampires!" Dracula's dying groans and Renfield's dying screams would eventually be restored to the film. Edward Van Sloan's epilogue, which was missing for many years, was discovered at the British Film Institute in the Eighties. Unfortunately, it was in such poor shape that Universal decided not to restore it to the film.

As successful as Dracula was, Universal's adaptation of Frankenstein would be even more successful. It was the highest grossing film of 1931, raking in a phenomenal $12,000,000 (almost twelve times the amount made by the second highest grossing film of the year, Cimarron). It was truly the Gone with the Wind or Star Wars of its day.  The film would also see more cuts in the Post-Code Era than its predecessor Dracula. Even in its initial release one of Dr. Frankenstein's lines during the creation of The Creature, "Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!", would be cut by state local censorship groups as blasphemous. For its 1937 re-release the line was cut as it violated the Code's rule against profanity. It would be restored in 1999.

It was not only Dr. Frankenstein's proclamation of knowing what it felt like to be God that was cut from the film in the days after the Code was more strictly enforced, but an entire scene in the film. The famous scene in which The Creature throws a little girl into a lake, thinking she will float like a flower, was also often the target of state and local censorship groups upon the films' initial release. For the film's re-release in 1937 the scene was cut from the film. It would not be restored until the 1980's.

As objectionable as some might have found Universal's Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, neither flaunted ignoring the Production Code the way that Paramount's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde did. Indeed, a rather strong current of sex runs throughout the film. This is mostly in the form of saloon singer and prostitute Ivy Pearson, played by Miriam Hopkins. In her attempt to seduce Dr. Jekyll (Fredric March in a bravura performance), Ivy not only exposes her leg, but a good deal more. What is more, Dr. Jekyll goes much further than one would expect a character to go  before not giving into temptation in a film made before the Sixties! In addition to some very sexually suggestive scenes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde also had a good deal of violence. Edward Hyde strangled one victim, and later beat another to death with a cane.

Released on 31 December 1931, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde would find itself the target of state and local censorship boards even in its initial release. The Kansas State Board of Review found the film particularly objectionable and demanded several cuts to the film before it could be seen in the state. When the film was re-released in 1938 the Production Code Administration demanded cuts that ultimately reduced the film from 97 minutes to 82 minutes (let's just say there was very little of Miriam Hopkins left on the screen).

It would not be censorship that would keep the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde off the screen for years, however, but MGM's 1941 remake of the film starring Spencer Tracy. With the release of their own version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, MGM bought the rights to the 1931 version from Paramount and promptly withdrew it from circulation. It would remain out of circulation until the Seventies, when the shortened, 82 minute version resurfaced. It would not be until 1989 that MGM would restore the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to its original 97 minutes, complete with every shocking moment of Miriam Hopkins.

The height of the Pre-Code horror film could well have been 1932, when several controversial films were released. These were films that would be targeted by state and local censorship boards and even be outright banned in the United Kingdom. And, as might be expected, they saw extensive cuts once the Production Code was more rigorously enforced. In fact, one of these films from 1932 remains considered one of the most controversial horror films of all time.

In fact, that particularly controversial film was one of the first horror movies released in 1932. Freaks would even see cuts even before it went into wide release. A preview screening at the Fox Theatre in San Diego, California on 28 January 1932 proved to be a catastrophe. The audience was not simply unhappy with the film, but downright hostile towards it. A woman in the audience who later had a miscarriage actually blamed it on the film and threatened to sue MGM. As a result MGM production head Irving Thalberg had nearly an hour cut from the film, including much of the climax in which the sideshow freaks attack the villains of the piece, aerialist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) and strong man Hercules (Henry Victor). The film was also given a happier ending in which Hans (Harry Earles) and Frieda (Daisy Earles) are reunited. Sadly, the footage that was cut from the original version of Freaks is still missing.

Even with such extensive cuts, Freaks still proved to be a very controversial film. Following its official premiere on 20 February 1932 the film faced an uphill battle with state and local censorship boards. Freaks was submitted to the New York State Censorship Board twice and they only granted it a licence after severe editing. It finally debuted in New York in July 1932. In some parts of the country the film was banned outright. In Georgia Freaks was pulled from theatres and replaced with a film perceived to be less offensive, Polly of the Circus (1932). Similarly, theatres in San Francisco, California outright refused to show it at all. Freaks would not only face problems from censors in the United States. In the United Kingdom the British Board of Film Censorship refused to approve the film.  In the end Freaks would not be seen in Britain until 1963. It was also banned in many other countries around the world.

Contrary to popular belief, Freaks was not a total disaster. The film actually did well in some major markets, including Boston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Houston, and even the Midwestern city of Omaha, Nebraska. Unfortunately, it also did very badly in many major markets, including Los Angeles and New York City. To recoup losses on the film, Irving Thalberg later re-released Freaks without the MGM logo under the title Nature's Mistakes, accompanied by a much more sensationalistic advertising campaign (complete with such tag lines as "Do Siamese Twins Make Love?"). The film did no better at the box office. Eventually MGM licensed Freaks to exploitation mogul Dwain Esper, who showed the film under such titles as Forbidden Love and The Monster Show for years. Fortunately, cineastes would rediscover the film in the early Sixties and it is now regarded as a classic.

Another film released early in 1932 would also face problems from censors. Part of what made this film unusual was that it was released by Universal, who (apart from Frankenstein) generally had less censorship problems with their pictures (neither The Invisible Man nor The Mummy were sources of controversy). Released on 21 February 1932, Robert Florey's very loose adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue would face censorship before it was even released. Namely, the Studio Relations Committee (later known as the Production Code Administration) was concerned about a scene in which Dr. Mirakle (played by Bela Lugosi) literally tortures one of his victims to death. The Studio Relations Committee was concerned that because the victim was a woman and because her screaming was, in their words, "over-stressed", the scene might not play well with the various censorship boards. They then recommended that Universal edit the audio of the scene.

In the end the Studio Relations Committee failed to save Murders in the Rue Morgue from censorship by various state and city boards. The scene in question was cut in its entirety by the New York State Censorship Board, as well as censorship boards in Chicago and Pennsylvania. Censorship boards in Virginia and Massachusetts only allowed a very brief glimpse of the tortured woman. The Kansas Board of Review only allowed the very end of the scene, after Dr. Mirakle had gotten rid of the body. Murders in the Rue Morgue would have difficulty with censorship outside the United States as well. British Columbia in Canada initially banned the film outright. Ultimately, British Columbia would only allow Murders in the Rue Morgue to be shown after several cuts, including the notorious torture scene. In the United Kingdom the BBFC passed Murders in the Rue Morgue, but made a very strong recommendation to exhibitors that they make an announcement that the film was not suitable for children. Hungary banned the film outright.

In some respects it is surprising that Murders in the Rue Morgue had not faced more censorship. Never mind that the woman Dr. Mirakle tortured to death was obviously a prostitute. He also wanted the film's heroine, Camille (played by Sydney Fox), as a mate for his ape Erik. After the Production Code was more stringently enforced in 1934 Murders in the Rue Morgue would see cuts much like most horror films of the Pre-Code Era. Not surprisingly, the torture scene was cut entirely. It would not be restored for years.

Freaks and Murders in the Rue Morgue would not be the only horror films to see censorship upon their initial releases. Before the year's end there would be a few other horror films that would as well. And one of them would prove to be nearly as controversial as Freaks.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Teenage Death Songs: Someone's Going to Make You Pay Your Fare

From the late Fifties to the mid-Sixties there was one of the most bizarre (and, for that matter, morbid) cycles in popular music. Quite simply, an inordinately large number of songs were released in which the protagonist's beloved or, almost as often, the protagonist himself or herself died. What was even more odd is that these rather macabre songs were not recorded by artists on the fringes of popular music at the time (such as Goth bands in the Eighties or Emo bands in the Nineties), but by mainstream pop music artists. Artists from The Everly Brothers to Pat Boone recorded such songs. What was even more strange is that a number of them topped the charts, hitting the top ten on the Billboard singles chart. Some of them even occupied the #1 spot. They have been called "teenage tragedy songs (the term Wikipedia uses for them)" and more often "death discs". I always called them "teenage death songs".

While the cycle ran from approximately 1960 to around 1965, the first song in the genre was actually released in 1955. "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" by The Cheers provided many of the tropes that were common to the teenage death songs of the late Fifties and early Sixties. "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" centred on a young biker who was "the fool of Highway 101". He had a girlfriend named Mary Lou who begged him not to go out one night. He did so anyway and ultimately crashed his motorcycle. In the wreckage all that remained of him were his black denim trousers and his motorcycle boots.

As anyone familiar with teenage death songs can see, "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" contained many of the tropes that would be seen in the later death discs. It featured a protagonist who died in a vehicular accident. It also featured a girlfriend who grieved for him. Indeed, the plot of "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" resembles one of the most famous teenage tragedies of all time, "Leader of the Pack" by The Shangri-Las. In many respects, then, it can be argued that writers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller virtually invented the genre of teenage death songs. Surprisingly given its morbid subject matter, "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" went all the way to #6 on the Billboard singles chart.

In  1956 The Cheers would record another death disc as a follow up to "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots". "Chicken" centred on a game of "chicken" (in which two automobiles are driven towards each other and the individual who swerves first is the "chicken") in which all of the participants died in the crash. Unlike "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots", "Chicken" did not even chart. As a footnote I have to point out that future game show host Bert Convy was a member of The Cheers.

Despite the success of "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots", it would be several years before the rush to record death discs would begin. In fact, it would be a few years before even the first harbingers of the cycle towards teenage death song genre would be released. The first of these precursors was the rockabilly ballad "Endless Sleep" by Jody Reynolds. "Endless Sleep" centred around a young man who went looking for his girlfriend and found her in the ocean in a suicide attempt. Fortunately tragedy was averted when the song's protagonist ran into the water and saved her from drowning.  "Endless Sleep" fit the teenage tragedy almost perfectly, down to the anguished boyfriend. Only the happy ending prevented it from belonging entirely to the genre. Regardless, "Endless Sleep" proved to be a hit. It entered the Billboard singles chart in May 1958 and went all the way to #5.

It would be about a year before there would be two more songs that would presage the cycle towards teenage death songs. While one of these songs did not belong to the genre of rock 'n' roll, both featured protagonists who died. Unlike "Endless Sleep" there would be no last minute reprieve for their heroes. The first of these two songs was "El Paso" by Marty Robbins. A Western ballad, "El Paso" first appeared on Marty Robbins' album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs in September 1959. The song was set in the Old West and centred on a cowboy in El Paso who fell in love with a Mexican girl named Feleena, who danced at Rosa's Cantina. Unfortunately for the hero of the song, another cowboy made overtures to her and the hero gunned him down. The hero of the song then fled El Paso, only to miss Feleena's presence. When he returned to see her once more, he was gunned down by the friends of the man he had shot.

Released as a single in October 1959, "El Paso" proved to be the biggest hit of Marty Robbins' career. The song reached the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 on 29 December 1959 and would remain there for two weeks. Marty Robbins would write and record two sequels to "El Paso". In 1966 there was  "Feleena (From El Paso)", which told the story of Feleena's life, including the events of the original song from her point of view. In 1976 he recorded "El Paso City", in which the song's narrator could be a reincarnation of the protagonist of "El Paso". Neither song repeated the success of "El Paso".

Curiously "El Paso" would be immediately followed in the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 by another precursor to the teenage death songs. Unlike many of the teenage death songs (and "El Paso", for that matter), both of the protagonists of "Running Bear" would die. The plot of "Running Bear" was a variation on the theme of Romeo and Juliet. It centred on two Native Americans, Running Bear and Little White Dove, who are in love even though their tribes are at war. Worse yet, the two were separated by a "raging river". Eventually Running Bear and Little White Dove tried to reach each other by diving into the water and swimming to each other. Unfortunately, the river was too strong for them and they both drowned.

"Running Bear" was written by J. P. Richardson, better known as The Big Bopper, who died in the same plane crash as Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens on 3 February 1959 (forever known as The Day the Music Died, as Don McLean called it in the song "American Pie"). It was recorded after J. P. Richardson's death by Johnny Preston and released in August 1959. "Running Bear" entered the Billboard singles chart in October 1959 and hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on 12 January 1960, where it remained for three weeks. The song was later parodied by Ben Colder (the pseudonym used by actor and singer Sheb Wooley for song parodies) as "Running Bare". Unlike the original song, the protagonist of "Running Bare" was a fellow caught in the bathtub by a jealous husband with a gun (hence the title). More serious covers of the song were made by country singer Sonny James, as well as rock bands The Guess Who and Mud.

Both "El Paso" and "Running Bear" had a good deal in common with the later teenage tragedy songs. In both songs the protagonists died. And in both songs the protagonists had unhappy romances. While "El Paso" would differ from the teenage death songs in that its hero died by gunfire, "Running Bear" would not be the last song in which someone drowned. At any rate,  the occurrence of two songs in which the protagonists died ("El Paso" and "Running Bear") hitting #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 was a sign of things to come. The same month that "Running Bear" entered the Billboard singles chart saw the release of "Teen Angel" by Mark Dinning.

Not only was "Teen Angel" one of the archetypal teenage death songs, it was also the song that officially began the cycle. "Teen Angel" centred upon a young couple whose car stalled on a railway track. The boy pulled his girlfriend to safety, but unfortunately she decided to run back to the car. Although the lyrics never specify, she was apparently killed by the oncoming train. As to why she went back to the car, it was to retrieve the high school ring the song's protagonist had given her. As might be expected given the song's morbid subject matter, many radio stations refused to play the song. It is for that reason that it took nearly two months to reach the Billboard Hot 100. Amazingly enough given many radio stations' refusal to play it, "Teen Angel" jumped from #100 to #50 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the week of 28 December 1959 to 3 January 1960. "Teen Angel" would go onto reach the #1 spot on the Hot 100 on 8 February 1960, where it stayed for two weeks.

The United States was not the only place where "Teen Angel" was the source of some controversy. In the United Kingdom the song was banned by the BBC for being too morbid. Regardless, the song peaked at #37 on the British singles chart. "Teen Angel" would not be the last teenage death song to be banned by the BBC, as many more would be. In fact, it seemed as if the majority of the teen death discs would run afoul of the BBC for their morbid subject matter.

One would think that radio stations' reluctance to play "Teen Angel" would dissuade other artists from recording similar songs. Apparently the song's success in the wake of radio stations' dislike of the song created an outright rush to record more teenage tragedies instead. What is more, the next teenage death song would not be long in coming."Tell Laura I Love Her" was written by Jeff Barry and Ben Raleigh, and performed by Ray Peterson (who had already had a hit with "The Wonder of You"), and released in 1960. The song tells of a young race car driver named Tommy who wants to marry his girlfriend Laura. To get the money to get married he enters a race with the intent of winning the prize money. Unfortunately, he is killed when his car rolls over and bursts into flames (the lyrics do not tell how this happened). His last words were "Tell Laura I Love Her".

Radio stations were no more enthusiastic about "Tell Laura I Love Her" than they had been "Teen Angel". Despite this, the song performed very well on the charts, peaking at #7 in June 1960 on the Billboard Hot 100. While "Tell Laura I Love Her" was controversial in the Untied States, it was even more so in the United Kingdom. Released on RCA in the U.S., it was set to be released by Decca Records in the UK. It was on 8 August 1960 that Decca deemed the song "too tasteless and vulgar" and destroyed 20,000 copies of the record that had already been pressed. While Decca disapproved of the song, EMI apparently did not. They released a cover version of the song by Ricky Valance on their Columbia label. As they had with "Teen Angel", the BBC banned the record for being too morbid. Despite this, it hit #1 on the British singles chart where it stayed for three weeks.

A response to "Tell Laura I Love Her" would be recorded by Marilyn Michaels later in 1960. "Tell Tommy I Miss Him" essentially retold he story of the original song from Laura's point of view. Unlike "Tell Laura I Love Her", it would not be a hit.

While "Teen Angel" and "Tell Laura I Love Her" are well remembered, "The Water is Red" by Johnny Cymbal is nearly forgotten. Released in 1960 the narrator of "The Water is Red" told how his girlfriend was swimming when she was attacked by a shark. The narrator swam out and brought her dead body to the shore. As if that was not bizarre enough for a teenage death song, the narrator then grabbed a knife and went back into the water. He then killed the shark. "The Water is Red" did not chart, perhaps because it was just far too strange even for a death disc.

With songs such as "El Paso", "Running Bear", "Teen Angel", and "Tell Laura I Love Her" hitting the charts in late 1959 and much of 1960, it should not be surprising that there were those in the music industry who took notice of the cycle towards morbid songs even as it was beginning.  Country and rockabilly performer Bob Luman recorded a novelty song that attacked the genre, even referencing "El Paso" in doing so. "Let's Talk About Livin'" proved to be a popular song, reaching #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #9 on the country chart in 1960. Unfortunately, Mr. Luman's admonition to focus on living and loving instead of crying and dying apparently fell on deaf ears. Not only would there be yet more death discs, but the cycle towards them would continue for literally years.

Indeed, the cycle towards teenage death songs continued unabated in 1961. In fact, if anything the death discs seemed to be becoming even more mainstream, with major artists recording their own teenage tragedies. Indeed, the very first teenage death song of 1961 was recorded by The Everly Brothers and released in January of that year. "Ebony Eyes" told of a young man in the military who wanted to marry his fiancée. Believing he would not have time to do so on a weekend pass, he sent for her. Unfortunately, on her way to him his fiancée's plane crashed due to bad weather.

"Ebony Eyes" proved to be a hit for The Everly Brothers, peaking at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the United Kingdom the BBC treated "Ebony Eyes" as they did most death discs and banned the song, although they later relented. Much of this may have had to do with the popularity of The Everly Brothers, who were even more popular in the United Kingdom than they were in the United States (they continued to hit the top twenty of the British singles chart well after their career had stalled in the U.S.). Much of the BBC's lifting of the ban on "Ebony Eyes" may also have had to do with the fact that the song is much tamer and even much more tasteful than most of the teenage death songs. Indeed, it isn't even made explicit that the plane crashed, although we can assume from the lyrics that it did. At any rate, "Ebony Eyes" hit #1 on the British singles chart.

The Everly Brothers would not be the last major artists to record a death disc, although the next one to do so was actually covering a song recorded by someone else. Quite simply, Pat Boone did not originate the teenage death song "Moody River". Instead the song was first recorded by rockabilly performer Chase Webster, who also wrote the song. Mr. Webster's version was first released in March 1961. It could have well been a hit for him had the better known Pat Boone not recorded it almost immediately. Pat Boone's version was released in May 1961 and moved rapidly up the Billboard singles chart. The song hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on 19 June 1961 where it stayed for two weeks. It also did well in the United Kingdom, where it hit #18 on the singles chart there.

Despite having been recorded by one of the tamest pop singers of the Fifties and Sixties, Pat Boone, "Moody River" was nearly as morbid as "Teen Angel" or "Tell Laura I Love Her". The song tells of a man who went to meet his lover at "the old oak tree" only to find one of her gloves on the ground and a note left for him. The note explained how she had "done him wrong" and as a result could no longer live "with this hurt and this sin". Despite the fact that it dealt with suicide, surprisingly the BBC did not ban "Moody River". Perhaps they felt drowning oneself was more acceptable than death in a car crash.

Although it might have seemed so at the time, not every recorded teenage death song was released as a single.  "The Prom" by Del Shannon was an album cut on his album Runaway, released in June 1961. "The Prom" told of a young man who on his way to the senior prom comes upon a crowd gathered around a dying girl in a gown. As it turns out, the girl was the one he loved. She took his hand, gave him her ring, and then died.  While the song does not tell what caused her death, the narrator felt anguish that she might not have died had he "picked her up on time".

Despite the fact that the BBC generally banned them, the American teenage death song had made inroads into the United Kingdom. It was then perhaps inevitable that a death disc would originate on British soil. What is more, songwriter Geoff Goddard put an original, if macabre twist on the teenage tragedy. "Johnny Remember Me" was performed by John Leyton and it was released in July 1961. The song centred on a young man haunted by a girl he loved who had died a year ago.  What caused her death is never explained. Instead the song concentrates on the narrator's feelings for the girl and how she is haunting him (whether it is an actual ghostly manifestation or all in his mind).

Not surprisingly, the BBC banned "Johnny Remember Me", forcing John Leyton to record a new version of the song in which the line "the girl I loved died a year ago" was replaced by "the girl I loved and lost a year ago". Regardless, the song proved to be a hit, helped out a good deal by its appearance on the ITV show Harpers West One (on which John Leyton appeared as rock star Johnny St. Cyr). "Johnny Remember Me" reached #1 on the British singles chart on 31 August 1961 and remained 4 weeks, then returned to the #1 slot for one more week on 28 September 1961.  It would be the first #1 record for legendary record producer Joe Meek.

One of the most notorious teenage death songs was recorded in 1961, although it would not be a hit for nearly two years and then it would not be a hit for the original artist. What is more, unlike many of the death discs, it was inspired by an actual car crash. The inspiration for "Last Kiss" was the death of songwriter James Lafayette Tarver's daughter Carol Ann, killed when her car collided with a train in Grand Prairie, Texas in 1960. The song was recorded by Wayne Cochran in the summer of 1961.  "Last Kiss" told of a young couple who were on a date when they encounter a car stalled in the road. The boy swerved to avoid hitting the car, only to have the car crash. The boy awakened a short time later and found his girlfriend dying. He held her and the two shared one last kiss before she died.

Released around September 1961, Wayne Cochran's version of "Last Kiss" did not chart. The song could have been forgotten had it if the song had not come to the attention of Sonley Roush, manager for  J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers.  The  J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers' version of "Last Kiss" was released in June 1964 and reached  #3 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in October 1964. Sadly, while touring  J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers would be involved in an actual car crash on 23 October 1964 that injured keyboardist Bobby Wood and killed manager Sonley Roush. In the wake of the crash "Last Kiss" peaked at #2 on the Hot 100. Curiously, "Last Kiss" by  J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers would be joined by another teenage death song on the Billboard Hot 100 in November: "Leader of the Pack" by The Shangri-Las. The two would occupy the top ten for much of the month of November that year.

 J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers' cover of "Last Kiss" was not the last version of the song to chart. In 8 June 1999 Pearl Jam released a cover of the song as a single. Pearl Jam's version peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Money from the single went to help refugees of the Kosovo War.

By 1962 the cycle towards death discs showed signs of slowing. While artists continued to record teenage tragedies, the year produced no hit songs as big as "Ebony Eyes" or "Moody River". In fact, one of the earliest death discs of the year did not even chart. "Chapel Bells Ringing" was recorded by rockabilly legend Gene Summers. The song centred on a young man whose fiancée had died before they could be married. As teenage death songs go, "Chapel Bells Ringing" is rather tame. We are never told how his fiancée died and the song concentrates more on the narrator's grief than the fact his beloved has died.

While "Chapel Bells Ringing" by Gene Summers did not chart, "Patches" by Dickey Lee would prove to be a bit hit. This is all the more remarkable because it wasn't only Mr. Lee's debut single, but it was a song about suicide. Essentially, "Patches" is an updated version of Romeo and Juliet. "Patches" was the name of the narrator's "darling of old Shantytown". The two of them want to marry, but his parents told them, "No" The narrator then tells how Patches was found floating in "that old dirty river" by Shantytown. He then plans to join her in death. Despite its subject matter, "Patches" performed very well on the charts, reaching #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 in August 1962.

While "Patches" was Dickey Lee's first hit, "Leah" was another in a string of hits by Roy Orbison. What is more, it wasn't even the A-side of a single. Instead it was the B-side of the single "Working for the Man". Regardless, "Leah" proved to be the more popular of the two songs. While "Working for the Man" peaked at #33 on the Billboard Hot 100, "Leah" peaked at #25. "Leah" centred on a pearl diver who dives each day to collect pearls so he will have money enough to marry his beloved Leah. Unfortunately, one day while diving his leg gets caught and he drowns.

Perhaps no teenage death song of 1962 was as macabre as an obscure song recorded by Johnny Victor entitled "Come to Me, Johnny". The song told the story of Johnny. whose girlfriend Jeannie is killed when they hit a truck because Johnny was driving "fast and wild". Afterwards Johnny found himself haunted by Jeannie, who keeps urging him, "Come to Me, Johnny". Ultimately Johnny decided to kill himself by driving off a mountain so he could join Jeannie in death. "Come to Me, Johnny" did not chart.

Suicide appears to have been a predominant theme of the death discs of 1962. Mark Dinning, who had started the entire cycle towards teenage tragedies with "Teen Angel", even returned to the genre with "The Pickup." In "The Pickup" the narrator tells how he made a date on a dare from a friend, only to find himself falling in love with the girl. Unfortunately, he was worried about what his friends might think and told the girl he did not want to see her again. She then committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. "The Pickup" was the B-side of Mark Dinning's single "All of This For Sally". Regardless, neither song charted.

 After about two years of teenage tragedies, the cycle towards death discs seemed to have come to a near halt in 1963. During the year only one teenage death song of any significance would be released. Ray Peterson had produced one of the archetypal songs in the genre, "Tell Laura I Love Her". By 1963 his career was in decline, which may be why he recorded another death disc. Written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, "Give Us Your Blessing" centred upon Mary and Jimmy, two youngsters who wanted to get married. Their parents would not give them their approval, so Mary and Jimmy eloped in. Jimmy's car. Unfortunately, Mary and Jimmy missed a detour sign and they were found dead the next day (apparently the car had crashed)." "Give Us Your Blessing" would not prove to be a hit for Ray Peterson. While it reached the Billboard Hot 100, it only went to #70. It would later be covered by The Shangri-Las, who would have a moderate hit with the song.
The only major release that could possibly be counted as part of the genre from 1963 was "A Young Man is Gone" by The Beach Boys, and even then that would be debatable. While "A Young Man is Gone" references death in a car crash, it is because the song is a tribute to the film star James Dean. It appeared on their album Little Deuce Coupe, released on 7 October 1963. The album is historic as one of the earliest rock 'n' roll concept albums, most of the songs dealing with cars.

While the cycle towards teenage death songs came to a screeching halt in 1963, the genre would make a bit of a comeback in late 1964. It was in that year that J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers' version of "Last Kiss" was released and reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Roy Orbison would also record another death disc, this time perhaps taking inspiration from "Running Bear". "Indian Wedding" was the B-side of "It's Over", released in April 1964. The song concerned a Native American brave named Yellow Hand, who fell in love with and married the maiden White Sand. Unfortunately, following their wedding they rode into the hills to disappear in the snow, never to be seen again.

It was in February 1964 that one of the most iconic death discs was released, "Dead Man's Curve" by Jan and Dean. The narrator of the song told how he engaged in a drag race with a Jaguar XK-E. The narrator passed the XK-E, but unfortunately found his car starting to swerve until it went off Dead Man's Curve. The narrator stated that he discovered that "...everyone was right, won't come back from Dead Man's Curve." While it is counted as a teenage tragedy song, it differs a bit from most of them. The song makes no mention of a girlfriend left behind to grieve for him. And rather than concentrating on the fact that the narrator has died, the song instead concentrates on the race that would take his life. In fact, until the end of the song one does not know that the narrator is dead.

Here it must be noted that the song is believed to be based on an actual place located along a stretch of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, north of UCLA's Drake Stadium. Perhaps its most famous victim  was Mel Blanc, who in January 1961 drove head on into another car while on the curve. Mel Blanc was severely injured with two broken legs, a broken pelvis, and head injuries. It was not long after Mel Blanc's accident that the Los Angeles Board of Public Works instituted changes that would make the curve less dangerous. According to an engineer for the city of Los Angeles at the time, there had been 26 accidents on the curve, three in which individuals had lost their lives.

"Dead Man's Curve" proved to be one of Jan and Dean's biggest hits, reaching #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in March 1964. The song remained one of the best known of the era, and would be covered by such bands as Blink-182 and The Belljars. Sadly, Jan Berry would later experience a horrific car crash himself. On 12 April 1966 Jan Berry's Corvette ploughed into a parked truck on Whittier Drive in Los Angeles. Sadly, Mr. Berry suffered partial paralysis and brain damage. Jan Berry never completely recovered from the accident, but was eventually able to return to performing.

Nineteen sixty four would also see the release of one other iconic teenage death song, The Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack".  The Shangri-Las had already established themselves as masters of teen melodrama, having had a #5 Billboard hit with "Remember (Walking in the Sand)," a tale of a long distance break up." Leader of the Pack" centred on the narrator, Betty, who had met Jimmy (the "Leader of the Pack" of the title) in the candy store. Unfortunately, Betty's parents did not approve of him because he came from the wrong side of town. Eventually Betty's father forced her to break up with Jimmy. It was not long after he drove away that his motorcycle crashed. "Leader of the Pack" went further than many teenage death songs before in incorporating sound effects, including the sound of an actual Harley Davidson motorcycle, screeching tires, and the crash itself. "Leader of the Pack proved very popular, entering the Billboard Hot 100 in October 1964. It reached the #1 on 28 November 1964, where it remained for one week.

In the United Kingdom the BBC banned "Leader of the Pack" although the reason for the ban may have been more complicated than that of many other death discs. The year 1964 had seen violence between the Mods and their motorcycle riding adversaries the Rockers on various occasions, including the notorious Battle of Hastings that took place over the Summer Bank Holiday in August. While it seems possible that the BBC banned "Leader of the Pack" on the same grounds as other teenage tragedies (it dealt with death), there are those who believe the BBC may have feared the song would incite violence between Mods and Rockers. Not only did the BBC ban "Leader of the Pack" but the ITV shows Ready, Steady, Go! and Thank Your Lucky Stars also refused to let The Shangri-Las perform the song.  Regardless of the controversy, "Leader of the Pack" proved to be a hit in the UK, reaching #11 on the British singles chart.

"Leader of the Pack" would be parodied in 1965 with "Leader of the Laundromat" by The Detergents. The song resulted in a plagiarism suit from songwriters George "Shadow" Morton, Jeff Barry, and Ellie Greenwich. It would also be parodied by British R&B band The Downliners Sect with "Leader of the Sect" in 1965.

Motorcycles were apparently a popular means of death in the teenage tragedy songs of 1964. About the same time that "Leader of the Pack" topped the American singles chart, there was a homegrown. British song about a man who died in a bike accident making its way up the British singles chart. "Terry" was the first single for the singer called Twinkle (given name Lynne Ripley) and would remain her biggest hit. According to the narrator of the song, she had a quarrel with Terry and was "..untrue to him on the night he died". Terry rode off on his motorcycle and, while it is never made explicit, it seems clear that he died in a motorcycle crash.

"Terry" was not only banned by the BBC for being tasteless, but by ITV's rock show Ready, Steady, Go as well. Even playwright and novelist Ted Willis, Baron Willis referred to the song as "sick" and "dangerous drivel". Regardless, "Terry' moved up the charts very swiftly, peaking at #4 on the British singles chart in December 1964. The single also hit the Canadian singles chart, where it peaked at #5 in February 1965.

Late 1964 would produce one other teenage death song. "The Hero" by Bernadette Carroll would not reach the Billboard singles chart, although it was a local hit in Miami and elsewhere. The narrator (named Sue) is determined to marry Johnny, the hero of their football team. Unfortunately, Johnny and the team had to play a game in a town thirty miles away. While she sat at home waiting for Johnny to return, Sue received a call from Patty who tells her how the bus "..turned over and everyone was killed". Upon learning this Sue seemed rather unconcerned about the rest of the team, simply lamenting her Johnny.  In some ways the song seems like a failed attempt to capture the teen angst and melodrama of The Shangri-Las.

Despite a slight comeback in late 1964, the year 1965 would see the era of the teenage tragedy songs come to an end. Only a few teenage tragedy songs would be produced that year. Of those, it is questionable whether one was a teenage death song, another was a cover song by The Shangri-Las (who would be expected to continue working in the genre), and yet another was an out right parody.

In 1962 Dickie Lee had success with "Patches", a song about double suicide. That having been said, it is debatable whether his song "Laurie (Strange Things Happen)" can be counted among them. The song's narrator told how he met a girl named "Laurie" at a dance and walked her home. Along the way she said that she was cold and so he gave her his sweater. After they kissed "good night" and went inside her house, the narrator remembered his sweater. He knocked on the door and asked her father for "Laurie", only to be informed by her father that Laurie had died a year ago. He later visited her grave, where he found his sweater lying atop it. Given its subject matter, it is debatable whether "Laurie (Strange Things Happen)" is a teenage death song at all. Instead it would appear to be a ghost story of the "Resurrection Mary" or "vanishing hitchhiker" type. Regardless, it provided another hit for Dickey Lee, going to #14 on the Billboard  Hot 100.

The Shangri-Las returned to the death disc genre with the a cover of Ray Peterson's song "Give Us Your Blessing". While Ray Peterson's original version had performed poorly upon its release in 1963, The Shangri-Las had a moderate hit with it. The Shangri-Las' version of the song peaked at #29 on the Billboard Hot 100 in June 1965.

There was perhaps no clearer sign that the era of the death disc was coming to an end than the release of a very outrageous parody of the genre, one that played like a cross between "Leader of the Pack" and an Andy Griffith monologue. What is more, it occurred very early in the year.  "I Want My Baby Back" was recorded by radio producer Jimmy Cross. In the song the narrator explained how he and his girlfriend were going home after attending a Beatles concert. They were very nearly home when it began to rain and they encountered a stalled car, which the narrator swerved to avoid hitting (much like in the song "Last Kiss"). Unfortunately, the narrator then found his car headed straight for an oncoming motorcycle (according to the lyrics, "...And I knew at last me and my baby were about to meet The Leader of the Pack"). Apparently the narrator's car hit the motorcyclist and in the process both the motorcyclist and his girlfriend were killed. As in nearly every other teenage death song, the narrator then found himself overcome by grief. After months of mourning his girlfriend, the narrator decided he was "...going to have her back one way or another". He then dug up her grave, climbed into her coffin, and closed it behind him. He then proclaimed, "I got my baby back". Much like "Leader of the Pack", "I Want My Baby Back" features realistic sound effects, not simply of the crash, but of the narrator digging up the grave and opening the coffin.

Given the fact that the song veers into necrophilia, it should not be surprising that "I Want My Baby Back" was not a huge hit for Jimmy Cross. Given its subject matter, however, "I Want My Baby Back" actually did respectfully well. It actually reached the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #92 in February 1965. It would be covered by British band The Downliners Sect and included in their EP The Sect Sing Sick Songs (along with their parody of "Leader of the Pack") in 1965. In 1977 "I Want My Baby Back" by Jimmy Cross took the #1 spot on British DJ Kenny Everett's "Bottom 30", earning it the title of "The World's Worst Record". It would also be frequently played by American DJ Dr. Demento on his show. Ultimately, "I Want My Baby Back" may be more famous now than it was in 1965.

It is difficult to pin down a precise year for when the cycle towards teenage death songs ended. As there were no major entries in the genre released in 1963, one could consider it having ended in 1962, with those songs released in 1964 and 1965 being considered mere echoes of the cycle. That having been said, one could consider the cycle towards teenage tragedy songs to have ended in 1965, with the year 1963 a mere lull in the cycle. At any rate, the cycle most certainly ended in 1965. The remainder of the Sixties would see no teenage death songs reach the top forty of the Billboard Hot 100, nor would there ever be another time in pop music when death discs would hit the top of the charts in significant numbers on a regular basis.

That is not to say that the teen death song genre disappeared entirely from view in the Sixties, and in fact it has remained a part of rock 'n' roll ever since. The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band parodied the genre with "Death Cab for Cutie", which might best be described as "what if Elvis Presley recorded a teenage tragedy song". Written by  Vivian Stanshall and Neil Innes, the title first appears as a phrase in 1957 book The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart in a list of parodies of pulp novel titles (among these parody titles are  "Sweetie, Take It Hot" and "Sweetheart, Curves Can Kill"). In the song the narrator tells how Cutie called a taxi and "...went out of town". The cab was going very fast and when the traffic lights changed the taxi was unable to stop. Both the driver and Cutie were killed. Repeated throughout the song is the line, "Someone's going to make you pay your fare".

"Death Cab for Cutie" was included on The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band's first album Gorilla in 1967. It was never released as a single, but would forever be remembered for its performance by The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band in The Beatles' television special Magical Mystery Tour. In 1967 The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band also performed the song in an episode on the ITV television programme Do Not Adjust Your Set, on which they were regulars. In the Nineties indie pop band Death Cab for Cutie would name themselves after the song.

The  following years would only see a very few teenage death songs of any significance. In 1968 girl group The Goodees released "Condition Red". The song owed a good deal to The Shangri-Las' "The Leader of the Pack", with spoken lines and sound effects. Even its plot, in which the narrator's parents disapprove of a young man who ultimately dies in a motorcycle crash, owed a lot to it. Not only was "Condition Red" a bit of an anachronism for 1968, but it was also an atypical song for The Goodees, who tended more to a soul sound than imitations of The Shangri-Las. Regardless, "Condition Red" proved to be their most successful song. It went to #46 on the Billboard Hot 100. In 1971 Bloodrock released what might be the most graphic teenage death song of all time, "D.O.A." "D.O.A." centred on a plane crash that took the life of the narrator and his girlfriend. Among other things, it described how "life is flowing out" of his body. The song was banned by many radio stations, but managed to reach #36 on the Billboard Hot 100, the first death disc to reach the American top forty in literally years.

From a modern standpoint it seems incredible for a time from the late Fifties to the mid-Sixties that songs about the deaths of teenagers regularly hit the charts. What is more incredible is that most of these songs were not recorded by fringe artists or obscure bands, but by such mainstream artists as Pat Boone, Del Shannon, and Jan and Dean. Using modern recording artists as an example, it would be as if Bruno Mars, Matchbox 20, and Katy Perry recorded songs in which teens die in horrific car crashes. Of course, while the teenage death song appeared to have gained some acceptance among mainstream artists at the time, radio stations would often refuse to play the songs. "Teen Angel", "Tell Laura I Love Her", and "Patches" all found themselves banned on radio stations across the United States. If anything opposition to the death discs was even greater in the United Kingdom, where they were regularly banned by the BBC. Indeed, a few of the teenage death songs, such as The Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack" and Twinkle's "Terry", would be the source of considerable controversy there.

Indeed, today many of the songs would probably seem shocking to most listeners. Although most people associate the teenage tragedy songs with vehicular deaths (and admittedly that is the most common way people die in the songs), there were all sorts of deaths covered by the songs. Drowning may have been the second most common sort of death in the songs, whether intentional or not. Motorcycle crashes, the cause of death in the very first teenage death song ("Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots"), were also fairly common in the death discs of the Sixties. Even when the cause of death was a car accident, the way the victims died may have varied: smashed by a train in "Teen Angel"; crashing and burning in a race in "Tell Laura I Love Her"'; careening off "Dead Man's Curve" in the song of the same name; and so on. Not only were the teenage death songs morbid to begin with, but they could be very creative about how their victims died. There can be little wonder that many radio stations of the time refused to play them.

Of course, the question remains as to why from the late Fifties to the mid-Sixties so many songs centred on the deaths of young people hit the charts. It seems too simple to regard the cycle as the result of the popularity of "Teen Angel" in 1960. While many of the songs (particularly "Tell Laura I Love Her")  probably emerged because of "Teen Angel", it does not explain a cycle that literally lasted for years and included songs that were quite unlike "Teen Angel" beyond dealing with teenagers dying. Given how common automobile accidents are in the songs, it is tempting to see the cycle as a reaction to the death of James Dean in a car crash on 30 September 1955. Not only was James Dean a phenomenally popular actor among teenagers of the era, but his death at the age of 24 may have reminded many teens of their own mortality.

Indeed, James Dean would not be the only iconic figure, then popular with teenagers, who would be killed in an automobile accident in the late Fifties. It was on 17 April 1960 that rock star Eddie Cochran was killed in London when the taxi in which he was riding crashed into a light post. He was only 21 when he died. Not only did Eddie Cochran's death probably have an enormous impact on teenagers of the era, but like James Dean it seems possible that his death at such a young age may have reminded them of their mortality. Indeed, it must be pointed out that the day Mr. Cochran died, the song "Teen Angel" was still in the top forty of the Billboard Hot 100, slowly dropping after having reached the #1 spot in 1960.

Of course, even the deaths of James Dean and Eddie Cochran seem inadequate in explaining how for several years from the late Fifties to the mid-Sixties several teenage death songs topped the charts. There have been those over the years who have theorised that underlying the deaths by automobile accidents and drowning in the songs was actually a fear of nuclear annihilation. The Fifties was the height of the Cold War, when an all out nuclear attack from the U.S.S.R. seemed to many Americans to be an eventuality. It was an era when American schools regularly held civil defence drills and many municipalities (and even individuals) had fallout shelters. The fear of an imminent nuclear war manifested itself in films from monster movies such as Them! to post-apocalyptic dramas such as On the Beach. Because of this fear of dying in a nuclear attack, it would not be surprising if teenagers of the era were more aware of their own mortality than at any other time in recent history.

As to why automobiles played such a large role in the teenage death songs of the era, that probably went beyond the deaths of James Dean and Eddie Cochran as well. In the years following World War II more Americans bought cars than at any previous time. It is for that reason that the Fifties saw the emergence of American automobile culture. It was this period of time that saw the rise of drive-in restaurants, drive-in theatres, shopping malls, and other industries that would not have been possible had it not been for the popularity of the car in the United States. Of course, with an increase in car ownership also came an increase in traffic accidents, some of them fatal. The number of automobile accidents grew throughout the Fifties and into the Sixties. Given that the years following World War II saw more teenagers owning cars than ever, it should not be surprising that automobile accidents should number among the most commons types of death among teenagers in the late Fifties and early Sixties. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, chances were very good that most teenagers knew at least one person or knew of at least one person who had died in an automobile accident, if not one of their peers then someone older.

While it is difficult to speculate how the cycle towards teenage death songs began, it is much easier to speculate how it ended. Quite simply, within only a few years there had been a glut of such songs created on the market and radio listeners simply lost interest. Indeed, this could explain why the cycle towards teenage death songs appeared to lose steam in 1963, with almost no songs of any significance released in the genre. Between 1960 and 1962 the top forty of the Billboard Hot 100 saw no less than eight songs in which the protagonists died. It would then be surprising if by 1963 many were not tired of the genre. It is notable that the few teenage death songs that were hits in 1964 and 1965 tended be different from those recorded before. "Dead Man's Curve" concentrated more on the fatal race than the protagonist's death and featured no girlfriend to grieve over him. "Leader of the Pack" featured the powerful vocals of Mary Weiss and sound effects such as the revving of a motorcycle. Of course, by 1965 even creativity and originality could not save the teenage death song genre and it generally faded from view.

The demise of the teenage death song was also probably helped along by the arrival of The Beatles in the United States in February 1964. The Beatles and the other British bands that followed in their wake had no interest in recording teenage death songs. While the dominance of British bands on the American charts in the years from 1964 to 1966 is often exaggerated, the bands of the British Invasion would have an enormous impact on American music, enough to change its course forever. The teenage death song would then go out of fashion in favour of other subject matter.

While there has been no time since the late Fifties and early Sixties that the charts were dominated by songs about teenagers' deaths, the teenage death songs would have a lasting impact. The genre would later be parodied by such bands as 10cc (1973's "Johnny Don't Do It") and Jethro Tull (1976's "Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll: Too Young to Die!"). Many of the songs from the teenage death songs cycle would be covered in later years, including "Teen Angel" (by Canadian band Wednesday in 1974), "Last Kiss" (by Pearl Jam in 1966), "Leader of the Pack" (covered multiple times), and "Terry" (covered by Spell in 1990). Nearly fifty years after the cycle towards teenage death songs ended, its impact is still being felt.