Musical Monday: The Gene Krupa Story (1959)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

gene krupa posterThis week’s musical:
The Gene Krupa Story (1959) – Musical #332

Columbia Pictures

Don Weis

Sal Mineo, James Darren, Susan Kohner, Yvonne Craig, Susan Oliver, Lawrence Dobkin, Celia Lovsky, Bobby Troup, Shelly Manne, Gavin MacLeod (uncredited), Arthur Walsh (uncredited)
Self: Red Nichols, Anita O’Day, Buddy Lester, Ruby Lane

Biographical film on drummer Gene Krupa (Mineo). The film shows Krupa’s conflict with this family over becoming a musician, struggling as a musician in New York City, and then breaking it big as a solo drummer. The film also depicts his downfall when Krupa is arrested for his substance abuse.

• Sal Mineo wanted to really play the drums for the film and practiced for three years, according to Mineo’s biographer.
• Gene Krupa performed the musical soundtrack.
• Sal Mineo campaigned for Susan Kohner to play Ethel McGuire in the film, according to Mineo’s biographer
• Working title was Drum Crazy
• Bobby Troup plays Tommy Dorsey
• Musicians appeared in the film such as Shelly Manne, Bobby Troup, Red Nichols, Anita O’Day, Buddy Lester, Ruby Lane

Gene Krupa 7

James Darren, Sal Meino, Susan Kohner

gene krupa6

Pictured with Bobby Troup, Red Nichols

• The “Home in Indiana” number

Notable Songs:
• “Let There Be Love” performed by James Darren
• “I Love My Baby” performed by Ruby Lane
• “Home in Indiana” performed by Gene Krupa and Sal Mineo
• “Memories of You” performed by Anita O’Day

gene krupa

Gene Krupa and Sal Mineo

My review:
After several band leader biographical musicals, the last was released in 1959. This time it was a passion project driven by Sal Mineo.

Mineo, who had been acting since he was 13, was eager to move out of adolescent roles and into adult roles. He thought playing his hero, Gene Krupa, would help, according to his biographer.

Gene Krupa is considered to be the first drum soloist and introduced drum solos. He is also created with the modern drum set, and was behind getting tunable drumheads, which was not an option before. Much of Krupa’s success was in the 1930s and early 1940s, before his 1943 arrest for possession of marijuana.

It took several years for the project to get off the ground, while Mineo learned how to play the drums, and later worked on Gene Krupa’s drumming mannerisms, like chewing gum during a performance.

“There was a time when I’d get a script, learn it and make a movie,” Mineo said, quoted by his biographer. “Now it is different. There is an idea first and for months I work with the writers on the script. For three years I worked on perfecting the drums for The Gene Krupa Story and for a year and a half I worked with the writers on the script. There is so much to do if you want to do things right.”

gene krupa3

gene krupa2

While there were liberties taken with Krupa’s life, Krupa and his friends felt the film was more honest and accurate than other bandleader films.

The film follows young Gene Krupa in the 1920s who wants to play the drums, but his parents disapprove. They want him to be a priest (watch for a young Gavin MacLeod who plays Krupa’s brother). Krupa eventually follows his dreams to become a drummer and heads to New York City with his best friend Eddie (James Darren) and Ethel McGuire (Kohner), who both guys are interested in. Gene reaches success and is respected by other musicians, like Red Nichols (as himself) and Tommy Dorsey (Bobby Troup). But he gets to be obsessed with success and fame, and his ego makes him leave behind those he loves.

Susan Oliver plays a fictional femme fatale character, who is based on several women in Krupa’s life (perhaps Dinah Shore and Lana Turner?).

“This has to be my best performance—even if it kills me,” Mineo said.

As a teenager, I remember being disappointed in this film … mainly because it didn’t have enough James Darren for my liking.

Revisiting it as an adult, while it is extremely serious, I thought it was a good movie. While he was only 20 years old, I still thought Sal Mineo was great casting. With some films, pretending to play the trombone or clarinet is easier to mock than the drums. Mineo’s drumming was energetic and impressive. You could tell he knew what he was doing, even if Krupa did dub the soundtrack.

Even Krupa agreed.

“Sal did it (played the drums) so brilliantly, I could be replaced,” Krupa said.

As far as biopics go, a few things surprised me. I was surprised the name of Krupa’s real-life wife, Ethel McGuire was used in the film. In the film, Krupa and Ethel (Kohner) are merely dating and never get married (the timeline for this was murky, since they were married during his arrest). It could be because McGuire passed away before the film was made, and nothing disparaging is said about her character.

I was also a little surprised by the topic of drug use in the film for 1959, but other films were already covering this topic, like A HATFUL OF RAIN (1957). Mineo’s agent and mother were concerned about the topic in the film, as they thought it would tarnish his image, according to his biographer.

As an aside, as an “Emergency!” TV show fan, I always love to see Bobby Troup appear in films during his music career. Troup plays Tommy Dorsey here, and I felt this was excellent casting. I also feel we saw a bit of Dorsey’s famous temper at the end of the film.

For any Krupa fans, you will notice Benny Goodman isn’t mentioned. Krupa played for his band and was even in THE BENNY GOODMAN STORY film. This was due to financial constraints.

While Krupa seemed pleased with Sal Mineo, he did think the film could be better.

“I thought the movie could have been better… I think they did it the way they thought I would have liked it to have been. But if they merely did it the way it was, it could have been a great picture,” said Gene Krupa.
Overall, I think this is a great film, and it finally gave Sal Mineo a quality leading role. It may be his best leading film role, in my opinion.

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