Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Lenny Bruce, Screenwriter

by Stephen J. Gertz

In 1953, the year that Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot made its first public stage debut, another holy scripture found its place in the pantheon of dramaturgy.

Sleaze! Sex! Trashy production values! Timothy Farrell is Umberto Scalli, a gangster operating a seedy dance hall. Up-and-coming screen sensation, Lenny Bruce, is Vincent, his sadistic bodyguard keeping the girls on edge and the customers in line. Curvaceous co-star Honey Harlowe is Rose, whose shapely charms launched a thousand quips. Sally Marr is the weary-wise hostess with the mostess. Bunny Parker and Joie Abrams are dance hall girls with moves not taught by Arthur Murray. And Bernie Jones is Punky the Swedish Sailor, who passed-out in a Bergman film and woke up in this sordid nightmare of cheap thrills, hot flesh, violence, and depraved desires!

Fast and furious action, suspense, drama, and sexploitation...It's  Dance Hall Racket!

It's the tender tale of a young performer on the make, his desperate dream of movie stardom and attempt to make it happen with a screenplay from hunger; a honey of a wife, an ecdysiast built to last; his mother, Sally, a former burlesque comedienne; a director who studied at the Ed Wood Jr. school of cinema; and Punky the Swedish Sailor, who pines for a smorgasbord of Nordic meatballs while drowning his sorrows in a Baltic sea of eau-de-vie.

And you, had it not sold instantly upon offering by Royal Books, could have owned an archive of this grade-Z movie from Screen Classics, the Poverty Row studio that tramped the  boulevard of broken dreams, put the hobo in Hollywood, and found lead in them thar golden hills. It was helmed by Phil Tucker, the director who soon afterward brought Robot Monster to the silver screen, a movie that gives Plan 9 From Outer Space a serious run for the money as the Worst Movie of All Time, and, it is reported, inspired the director's attempted suicide.

Set of 51 3 x 5 in. stills, incl. receipt signed in red ink
by Farrell: "Publicity pictures of me in Dance Hall Racket."
Los Angeles: Screen Classics, 1953

In 1951, Lenny Bruce met his future wife, Honey Harlowe, while she was working as a stripper at a club in Baltimore. Bruce was determined to improve their show business prospects, engaging in schemes legit and not-so to further their dreams. In 1953, the couple moved to Los Angeles from New York.

Set of 12 8 x 10 in. stills.
Los Angeles: Screen Classics, 1953

Upon arrival, they moved up the T&A ladder, finding work at The Cup and Saucer, later Strip City, and The Colony Club

The Colony Club was the classiest, best strip joint in L.A. and it was while working there that Lenny concocted the idea of a movie set in the world of burlesque, quoth the raven, "Dance Hall Racket."

The archive belonged to DHR star, Timothy Farrell (1922 - 1989). Farrell "worked as a bailiff in the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department while also working in the movies. One of his movies, Paris After Midnight,  was actually busted in a vice raid in the mid-50s, which caused him professional embarrassment. He went on to work 20 years as a L.A. Deputy Marshall and eventually was appointed County Marshall in 1971. He was convicted of felony charges after his appointment, however, for 'illegal use of Deputy Marshalls in political activities,' and was given a six month sentence, but received probation due to poor health. He was fired in 1975" (IMDB). 

In the same year he starred in Dance Hall Racket, Farrell appeared in Ed Wood Jr.'s adventures of a tranny, Glenn Or Glenda? But not before appearing in Racket Girls (gangsters n' female wrestlers, 1951), and, later, Ed Wood Jr.'s immortal Jail Bait (1954).

BRUCE, Lenny. How To Talk Dirty and Influence People.
Chicago: Playboy Press, [1965].
Advice from the Dale Carnegie of comedy.

Lenny Bruce's attempt at prose was more successful. How To Talk Dirty  and Influence People, the autobiography written after he'd attained stardom as a "sick" comedian whose satire laid waste to hypocrisy and forever changed the world of stand-up comedy, remains highly readable.

BRUCE, Honey with Dana Benenson. Honey.
The Life and Loves of Lenny's Shady Lady.
Chicago: Playboy Press, 1976.
Lenny's "shiksa-goddess" tells all.

Honey Harlowe, after Lenny's death, wrote "what is possibly the most shockingly intimate and most frankly erotic woman's story of even our liberated time" (jacket blurb). In comparison with today's even looser standards, it could have been written by Louisa May Alcott, Meg Comes Clean.

Of Dance Hall Racket, she wrote, "Lenny never made any real money writing, although he was paid $750 a week for rewriting the movie script The Kid From Outer Space [aka The Rocket Man]. None of the four movies he wrote [Dance Hall Racket, Dream Follies, The Rocket Man, and The Leather Jacket] got past the grade-B level. The most outrageous of his scripts was Dance Hall Racket. It was about a Italian gangster (Lenny) and his girl (me). The script was actually a rewrite and so corny it became funny. The best scene Lenny wrote for me was when I was be be presented to a big-time gangster as a welcome-home-from-prison present. I was dressed in a white bikini, high heels, and a white-fox stole, and upon cue I came crashing through a tremendous cake" (p. 222-223).

He who gets slapped.
"This is the worst screenplay I've ever read!"

From left.: Punky the Swedish Sailor; Honey Harlowe;
Timothy Farrell; Lenny Bruce.

Punky the Swedish Sailor cleans up the pastry, then gets plastered.

View all fifty-three minutes of Dance Hall Racket, above.

Archive images courtesy of Royal Books, with our thanks.

Book images from the author's collection.

Dance Hall Racket is an orphan the public domain.

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