The B-Movie Returns to Theaters: DANCIN’ IT’S ON

6 Nov

Once upon a time, B-movies regularly ran in movie theaters on double bills with studio releases that were bigger-budgeted and better-publicized. I saw quite a few of them in theaters when I was a kid. Some of them were more fun than the main feature (Mario Bava’s HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, anyone?), but often they were cheap, indifferent potboilers turned out on low budgets. They were often black-and-white and, in those days, often from other countries. PAYROLL, seen on a double bill with DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, and THE MURDER GAME, seen on a double bill with OUR MAN FLINT, were both English-produced crime dramas that I remember very little about other than that they were short on stars or thrills. The Rat Pack vehicle, ROBIN AND THE SEVEN HOODS, played on a double bill with RAIDERS FROM BENEATH THE SEA, a weak thriller about a team of bank robbers who wear scuba diving outfits to rob a bank on Catalina Island (hence the title) and make their getaway underwater(!).

In the 1970s and ’80s, in the era of multiplexes, theater owners often ran double bills of low-budget exploitation movies from such distributors as American International, Crown International, and New World Pictures, companies that had reputations for supplying the requisite B-movie thrills, but there were also many lower-end companies that weren’t so reliable, including something called Mammoth Films that gave us a turkey called THE CARHOPS, which wasted a weekend afternoon of mine in 1977 and ran with something even more unmemorable, since I can’t recall what it was. The Irwin Yablans Company gave us the execrable sci-fi double bill of LASERBLAST and END OF THE WORLD, which only attracted me because of the large number of Hollywood old-timers found in the combined casts of the two films: Keenan Wynn, Roddy McDowall, Sue Lyon, Dean Jagger, Lew Ayres, and Macdonald Carey, not to mention Christopher Lee and the favored drive-in starlet of the era, Rainbeaux Smith (billed in LASERBLAST as Cheryl Smith). And then the multiplexes started cheating by running single features with movies that really couldn’t sustain enough interest by themselves. I still regret skipping EYES OF LAURA MARS at the Loew’s Paradise to go into the adjacent theater to see the awful car chase “thriller,” STINGRAY, starring Christopher Mitchum (who got hired for his name when producers couldn’t afford his more famous father) and Sherry Jackson, whom I’d last seen as a child actress in THE THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER.

Eventually, such movies wound up going straight to home video and over the last 25 years, it’s been very difficult to see bonafide B-movies in theaters. I remember seeing the Roger Corman production, IN THE HEAT OF PASSION, in a multiplex in 1992 and meeting its star, Sally Kirkland, at the screening. It turns out she’d pressured Corman to show it in one theater in Manhattan for a week so she could drum up interest in it. Most of the sparse audience was made up of actor friends of hers buying tickets to show support. But this was quite rare. Most of Corman’s low-budget productions made for Concorde/New Horizons (the company he founded after selling New World Pictures) went straight to video and cable.

Multiplex screens for the last two decades have been dominated by mainstream Hollywood releases, with one blockbuster often showing on multiple screens simply to allow more people to see it in its first week of release rather than, Heaven forbid, forcing people to actually wait to see a popular film. (As a kid, I routinely had to wait one or two years before big Hollywood productions made it to my neighborhood theaters, e.g. I didn’t get to see IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD until 1965, 16 months after its initial release.)

While select multiplexes in large urban areas show indie dramas on some screens, the action and exploitation B-movies of old almost never hit the multiplexes. For those of us who were avid fans of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal back in their heyday have had to content ourselves with renting their 21st century productions, since they no longer show up in Times Square theaters.

The point of this long story is that this past week, I actually got to see a genuine no-budget B-movie on a multiplex screen on 42nd Street in the heart of midtown Manhattan. This was the first such movie of its type I’ve seen on the big screen since roughly 1985 when I saw Cannon Films’ NINJA III: THE DOMINATION on a double bill with the Chuck Norris action film, INVASION U.S.A., at a 42nd Street theater (probably the Harris), back when 42nd Street was still the Deuce! This past Monday, November 2, I was planning to meet a friend in the evening to see the new James Bond movie, SPECTRE, at an advance screening at the Regal E-Walk multiplex on 42nd Street. I arrived in Manhattan early and had time to kill so I checked out the schedule of films at the theater to find one that would allow me to see it with time to spare before the SPECTRE screening. Films like BRIDGE OF SPIES and BLACK MASS were either too long or started too late, so I settled on something called DANCIN’ IT’S ON, which was only 89 minutes and started at 2:45 PM. I’d never heard of it, but I noticed that the director was David Winters, whom I knew from WEST SIDE STORY, in which he’d played A-rab, one of the main members of the Jets. That was 54 years ago and Winters has spent the intervening years choreographing TV specials and directing low-budget movies. How bad could this be, I wondered. And, besides, it promised lots of dancing. The last theatrical release I saw in this genre, MAKE YOUR MOVE, gave me loads of pleasure and I wrote about it here on April 19, 2014.

So I got to the theater on time and bought a ticket (with senior citizen discount) and headed up the long train of escalators and down the long corridor to Theater 11. Exhausted from the trip from boxoffice to bathroom to seat, I sat in the last row, where the only comfortable seats exist, and put on my glasses (for distance) and waited for it to start. I was the only one in the theater and remained the only one throughout the movie.

The plot has to do with a high school student, Jennifer August (Witney Carson), who loves to dance but is sent against her will by her mother to Panama City Beach, Florida, to spend the summer with the father she barely knows, Jerry August (Gary Daniels), at the resort he owns, the Hit Parade Hotel. She anticipates a dull time, but when she gets to the airport and is picked up by a mime(!) who then escorts her to a golf cart that will take her to the hotel, her interest starts to pique. On the way through town, she passes loads of people who spontaneously break out into dance numbers, seemingly purely for her entertainment, and she starts to smile. At the hotel, she sees people practicing dance and acrobatic/gymnastic moves all over the lobby and notices one young man in particular executing an intricate dance routine and she’s immediately intrigued. She encounters a couple dressed in antebellum period garb spouting lines from GONE WITH THE WIND, prompting her to volunteer that GWTW is her favorite movie (highly unlikely, but that’s another story). The desk clerk quotes Shakespeare to her. Best of all, the hotel doorman, a young man with dreadlocks who identifies himself as “the Captain” (Russell Ferguson), welcomes her and punctuates every line of his with an “Electric Boogie” dance move, usually just his hands and arms, of a type that was common back in the 1980s. Jennifer is home. I have to confess that I found this all to be somewhat surreal, a notion that made me laugh a lot during this sequence and wish there’d been an appreciative audience to laugh with me.

Chehon Wespi-Tschopp and Witney Carson in DANCIN’ IT’S ON

Long story short: Jennifer falls for the young man she saw dancing in the lobby who turns out to be a dishwasher named Ken (Chehon Wespi-Tschopp) employed in the hotel, especially after they meet in a club and dance together. Her father has lined up his protégé, a self-important assistant manager named Danny (Matt Marr), to be her guide and escort and strongly disapproves of her interest in Ken. Danny is jealous of Ken and uses his position to bully and browbeat him. All sorts of class conflict clichés that went out of favor 60 years ago are trotted out. (Much of the dialogue sounds like it was written in the 1950s—and maybe it was!) Meanwhile, Ken’s love for Jennifer makes him lose interest in his own dance partner, Shotsy (Jordan Clark), whom he’s scheduled to dance with in the upcoming Florida Statewide Dance Contest. Jennifer, jealous of Shotsy, reluctantly agrees to partner with Danny, who’s also a skilled dancer, in the statewide contest, angering Ken. An elderly resident of the hotel, Hal Sanders (David Winters), spots Ken and Shotsy rehearsing and offers to help out. It turns out he has an extensive background in dance and Ken is startled to find an old dance clip of Sanders (Winters sometime in the 1970s or 80s) on the web. Eventually, true love wins out and the right partners pair up and compete in the big dance contest finale.

The acting, for the most part, is pretty terrible. Most of the young cast members seem to have been recruited from TV dance shows. Witney Carson apparently made a splash on “Dancing with the Stars” (my daughter is a fan of hers from that show), while the others were on “So You Think You Can Dance,” either the American or Canadian editions. The dialogue all seems post-dubbed. None of the kids seem to have ever had acting lessons, although Mr. Wespi-Tschopp, as Ken, seems to have put some effort into actually expressing emotion and deserves props for that. Ms. Carson is attractive and charming and dances well, all of which go a long way towards mitigating her catatonic line readings. And they dance a lot, which seems to be the reason the film was made and it certainly delivers the goods. I did like the dance sequences very much and found the big dance contest at the end quite exhilarating. The Captain himself dances in that sequence and acts as MC for the event.

Witney Carson (right) with dance partner Alfonso Ribeiro on “Dancing with the Stars”

The older cast members, Gary Daniels and David Winters, were the only ones I’d heard of before. I knew Daniels, a martial arts star, from THE EXPENDABLES and the live-action FIST OF THE NORTH STAR. His character here is an ex-boxer and we do see him practicing on a punching bag while he warns Ken to stay away from his daughter, a persuasive tactic if ever there was one.

I knew Winters, of course, from WEST SIDE STORY, my all-time favorite movie.

David Winters as A-rab and Eliot Feld as Baby John in WEST SIDE STORY (1961)

David Winters in 2015 accepting awards for DANCIN’ IT’S ON from the “Widescreen Film Festival”

The film’s portrayal of an alternate universe filled with spontaneous dance numbers achieves its greatest manifestation in a sequence that finds poor Jennifer, brooding after her breakup with Ken, sitting alone on a bench on a darkened shopping street in downtown Panama City Beach at night when she’s suddenly accosted by a fleet of SUVs turning on their high beams and illuminating the street while a Latin band, complete with percussion section, appears out of nowhere and a hundred dancers pour into the street to execute a choreographed routine into which they pull an awestruck Jennifer so she can join in. What’s not to love?

Several sequences in the film play like travelogues for Panama City Beach, extolling the virtues of the town as a tourist attraction. I imagine that Winters got the run of the place to shoot wherever and whatever he wanted as long as he played up the town by name quite frequently. I can’t imagine that the local Chamber of Commerce had any problem with the finished result. However, the town doesn’t seem to house a “Hit Parade Hotel,” so I’m not sure what actual hotel they managed to use for the filming. In checking out a website on hotels in the town, my guess is that the one used in the film is called Legacy by the Sea.

Here’s a link to my IMDB review of DANCIN’ IT’S ON. There are other reviews on the review page, three raves to be exact, and they all seem to have been written by shills for the production.

In any event, I had a good time at DANCIN’ IT’S ON. No film that made me laugh and smile as much as this one can be called a “bad movie.” I never felt like I was wasting my time. Sure, it’s crude and amateurish and plays like a HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL sequel written and staged by high schoolers (in the 1950s!), but given how slick and polished so many of those “American Idol” and “Dancing with the Stars”-type shows are these days, I yearn for something a little less packaged from time to time, something by well-meaning non-pros who are working from the heart. I can’t imagine that anyone got paid for this, other than free room and board in the hotel, so I can only assume they all did it for the sheer love of it. (I’m guessing that Daniels popped up as a favor to someone and put in maybe two days of work for his role.) I daresay I had more fun with this one than I did with SPECTRE (but that’s another story). And if I had to compare DANCIN’ IT’S ON to any B-movies I saw as a child, my first thought would be the American International series of BEACH PARTY musicals starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon (photo below), although even those films were much bigger-budgeted and more slickly produced than this one.

Granted, DANCIN’ IT’S ON may not be for all tastes, but if this trailer leaves you susceptible to its charms, maybe you should give it a chance:

So, yes, one can still see a B-movie on the big screen at a New York multiplex in 2015. There’s hope for the film industry yet. And if BREAKIN’ 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO can become a cult hit, why not this film?

P.S. Sadly, as of this writing, DANCIN’ IT’S ON is no longer at the Regal E-Walk, which doesn’t bode well for future theatrical screenings. Maybe it’s on demand somewhere. If so, convene a party–there are plenty of drinking games to be derived from this film (e.g. every time the Captain does one of his trademark dance gestures).

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