Saturday, December 2, 2023

It's Trad, Dad! (1962)

(This post is part of the Hammer-Amicus Blogathon IV, hosted by Cinematic Catharsis and Realweedgiemidget Reviews)

Amicus Productions is best known for the many horror movies they made, particularly such portmanteau films as Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965), Torture Garden (1967, and From Beyond the Grave (1974). While they remain best known for their horror output, Amicus did not start out that way. In fact, the first official Amicus production was a musical featuring both jazz and rock 'n' roll artists. Not only was It's Trad, Dad! (1962) the very first official Amicus movie, but it was also the first feature film directed by Richard Lester, soon to become famous for directing The Beatles' movies A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965).

It's Trad, Dad! stars Helen Shapiro and Craig Douglas as a girl and a boy living in a small English town. They both love traditional jazz (hence the "trad" of the title), as do many of the young people in the town. Unfortunately, the mayor of the town dislikes traditional jazz and even removes the television set and the jukebox from the coffee shop the young people frequent. Helen and Craig then decide to organize a jazz festival in hope that this will change the mayor's mind. The two of them go to Television Centre to find a deejay to host the festival. Of course, this paper thin plot is just an excuse for musical performances by such rock 'n' roll artists as Gene Vincent, The Brooks Brothers, Del Shannon, Chubby Checker, John Leyton, and others, as well as such jazz artists as Terry Lightfoot and His New Orleans Jazz Band, The Temperance Seven, Acker Bilk and His Paramount Jazz Band, Chris Barger's Jazz Band, and others.

Both Helen Shapiro and Craig Douglas get to perform some songs as well. For those unfamiliar with early to mid-Sixties British pop music, Helen Shapiro was one of the most popular female singers of the time, who had a string of hits on the UK singles chart starting in 1961. Craig Douglas was also a popular British pop singer, who had hits with covers of such American songs as "A Teenager in Love and "Only Sixteen" going back to 1959. It's Trad, Dad! also featured deejays, who would have been well known to Brits, playing themselves. Pete Murray had hosted the BBC rock 'n' roll television program Six-Five Special. David Jacobs was the presenter on the BBC TV show Juke Box Jury. Alan Freeman hosted the BBC radio  show Pick of the Pops.

If it seems odd that the very first Amicus production was a pop musical, it really should not. The very first movie that Amicus founders Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky produced together, prior to founding Amicus,  was a pop musical, Rock, Rock, Rock! from 1956. Like It's Trad, Dad!, Rock, Rock, Rock! had a paper thin plot that was primarily an excuse for musical performances, in its case by such artists as Chuck Berry, LaVern Baker, Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, and others. And while a musical that features both jazz and rock 'n' roll might seem unusual, when one knows the history of popular music in Britain in the early Sixties, it really doesn't. A traditional jazz craze took place in the United Kingdom from 1960 to 1962, headed by such artists as Kenny Ball, Chris Barber, Acker Bilk, and The Temperance Seven. It's Trad, Dad! was conceived to take advantage of this craze by featuring several jazz artists, while at the same time including rock 'n' roll artists for good measure. As to traditional jazz, it is a form of jazz that drew upon New Orleans, Dixieland jazz. In Britain a revival of traditional jazz had begun during World War II and continued into the Sixties. Traditional jazz is often simply called "trad jazz" for short.

Of course, as noted earlier, It's Trad, Dad!  was the first feature film directed by Richard Lester. He had already made a name for himself with the short film "The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film" (1959), which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Subject. He came to the attention of Milton Subostsky through a thirty minute documentary he had directed, "Have Jazz, Will Travel." As it was, It's Trad, Dad! would largely be Richard Lester's creation. According to an interview Mr. Lester did with Stephen Soderbergh in The Guardian, Milton Subotsky had written a 24 page script which he then sent to Mr. Lester. Richard Lester told  Mr. Subotsky, "I’ve been around this kind of music all my life. I think I know how to deal with it. As soon as you get a first draft screenplay I’d be delighted to read it." It was then that Milton Subostky informed him that the 24 pages was the shooting script and he would start in three weeks. Richard Lester then gathered together jazz and pop artists. He used an array of moveable sets and he shot three artists a day. He also added various comic bits throughout the movie. It was filmed in three weeks at a cost of £50,000.

Of course, It's Trad, Dad! is notable for an appearance by Chubby Checker, performing his song "Lose-Your-Inhibitions-Twist." It was Richard Lester's idea to include Chubby Checker in the film. It was during the last week of shooting that "The Twist" dance craze began. Richard Lester told Milton Subotsky that it would be a great idea to get Chubby Checker in the film, stating, "We could be the first film to have the Twist in it. He's in New York. I could go over and shoot him." Milton Subotsky gave his consent, but told Richard Lester that he would to pay his own way. Unfortunately for Richard Lester and Milton Subostky, It's Trad, Dad! would not be the first film to feature the Twist, as American producer Sam Katzman, "the King of the Bs," beat them to the punch. Never one to pass up a fad, Sam Katzman's Twist Around the Clock (1961), starring Chubby Checker, was released on December 30 1961, three months before It's Trad, Dad! was released in the United Kingdom and nine months before it was released in the United States.

While It's Trad, Dad! may not have been the first movie to feature the Twist, it was the first of its kind in many ways. Anyone familiar with Richard Lester's work would recognize the style he would later use in The Beatles' movies A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965). For Terry Lightfoot and His New Orleans Jazz Band's performance of "Tavern in the Town," Richard Lester would at times cut the screen into sections, so that the focus would be on individual musicians. The Brooks Brothers performed "Double Trouble" side by side with oversized photos of themselves. Acker Bilk and His Paramount Jazz Band's performance of "Frankie & Johnny" is intercut with humorous photos related to the plot of the song. In other sequences Richard Lester focuses on various details, such as a close-up of the neck of a guitar. Yet other sequences in It's Trad, Dad! Richard Lester utilizes sped up footage and freeze frames. Even the narrator breaks the fourth wall multiple times. It's Trad, Dad! is not only a sharp contrast to other pop musicals made before A Hard Day's Night, it is very much a forerunner of both A Hard Day's Night and Help!.

Beyond seeing many of Richard Lester's directorial techniques prior to A Hard Day's Night, the main attraction in It's Trad, Dad! is the music. Indeed, many descriptions of the film fail to grasp the sheer variety of music in the film, summing it up as a musical that features Dixieland jazz and rock 'n' roll. Certainly many of the jazz bands in It's Trad, Dad! draw upon Dixieland jazz for inspiration, to the point that Bob Wallis and His Storyville Jazzmen even dress like riverboat gamblers, but then there is also The Temperance Seven, whose speciality was 1920s jazz (one of the songs they perform is the song "Everybody Loves My Baby" from 1924). It's Trad, Dad! also features a wide variety of rock 'n' roll performers, from Gary U.S. Bonds to the girl group the Paris Sisters to R&B singer Gene McDaniels.

It's Trad, Dad! premiered in London on March 30 1962 in the United Kingdom. It also did moderately well at the box office. Made for only £50,000, it earned £300,000 at the British box office. It was released in the United States in September 1962 under the tile Ring-A-Ding Rhythm!. One could assume its distributor, Columbia Pictures, thought Americans would not know what "trad" was. On both sides of the Pond It's Trad, Dad! received largely positive reviews, to the point that Richard Lester would later say, "I’ve had the best reviews out of It’s Trad, Dad! that I’ve ever gotten."

Amicus would follow It's Trad, Dad! with another musical, Just for Fun, whose paper thin plot was also an excuse for musical performances. Their third film would be in the genre for which they are best known, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965). Today It's Trad, Dad! is largely forgotten, although there is every reason it should be better remembered. It was not only Richard Lester's first feature film, but it also features techniques that he would later use in A Hard Day's Night, The Knack...and How to Get It (1965), and Help! (1965). It also features some superb performances from such diverse artists as Del Shannon, Acker Bilk and His Paramount Jazz Band, John Leyton, Chris Barber's Jazz Band, and yet others. Of course, it was also the first official film from Amicus Productions, and, given its success, it was a rather auspicious first film at that.


Realweegiemidget Reviews said...

This sounds like essential viewing for jazz lovers everywhere... and thanks for bringing this line up - and your double bill - to the blogathon.

John L. Harmon said...

I reviewed this film for the third Hammer amicus blogathon under its American title ring a ding rhythm, so it's very fascinating to learn more about this amusing and catchy film!

Rebecca Deniston said...

It's a shame this film isn't talked about more--Richard Lester was such an interesting director.