Tone Deaf

Everyone loves a good satire and the music industry always makes a great target with such superior examples of the form as The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), Head (1968) and This Is Spinal Tap (1984). The Cool Ones (1967), the story of a has-been pop idol and an aspiring singer teaming up to become the next big thing, certainly deserves credit for taking a lighthearted, broadly comic approach to the world of greedy record executives, egomaniacal producers, opportunistic promoters and wildly ambitious musicians. But the film is so hopelessly out of step with its intended audience and played at such a manic pitch that it approaches the infamous badness of Skidoo (1968), Otto Preminger’s mind-boggling mashup that pits gangsters against hippies. 

Aspiring pop star Hallie Rodgers (Debbie Watson, center) belts out one of the terrible songs featured in The Cool Ones (1967).

Debbie Watson, in a role allegedly intended for Nancy Sinatra, plays Hallie Rogers, an overzealous, aspiring singer who works as a go-go dancer on the popular TV show, Whizbam (a parody of the then-popular Shindig and Hullabaloo television series). When the show’s producer (famous bandleader Phil Harris) refuses to give her a singing spot, she takes matters into her own hands and steals the microphone from featured attraction Glen Campbell during the live TV performance, transforming the number into a chaotic duet. As backstage personnel rush the set to forcibly remove Hallie, a TV camera captures her frenzied gyrating that soon inspires a national dance craze – The Tantrum.

Hallie (Debbie Watson) tries to take the microphone away from Patrick (played by Glen Campbell) in the 1967 musical, The Cool Ones, directed by Gene Nelson.

Sensing real potential in Hallie’s talent is Cliff Donner (Gil Peterson), a former teen singing idol, now performing in a small club in Palm Springs. When Hallie makes an unexpected appearance there, the two experience an immediate rapport that leads to Cliff’s proposal to become her manager. When he becomes her singing partner instead, romance soon follows. But ruthless ambition rears its ugly head when millionaire rock producer Tony Krum (Roddy McDowall in a flamboyant, over-the-top performance) enters the scene and tempts Hallie away from Cliff with promises of greater fame, glory and money. Will Hallie succumb to the siren song of success or give it all up for true love with Cliff?

Hallie (Debbie Watson) and Cliff (Gil Peterson) hook up for fame, fortune and maybe romance in The Cool Ones (1967).

Unlike romantic comedies geared for teenagers like Get Yourself a College Girl (1964) and When the Boys Meet the Girls (1965) which used threadbare storylines as the connective tissue linking numerous top forty specialty acts together, The Cool Ones is much more focused on Hallie’s rise to fame and her romance with Cliff than it is in serving up and giving ample screen time to any of its eclectic musical guests with one exception, Mrs. Miller; she not only has a semi-prominent supporting role but performs the…uh, most unusual version of “It’s Magic” you’ll ever hear.

The accidental pop star Mrs. Miller performs an excruciating version of “It’s Magic” in The Cool Ones (1967).

Famous for her pop novelty hit “Downtown” (which was first made famous by Petulia Clark), delivered in an off-key, quivering vibrato, Mrs. Miller is more of a puzzling anomaly to anyone who didn’t live through the sixties and her appearance in The Cool Ones is further evidence of the film’s lack of relevance to the world of genuine rock ‘n roll. It’s true you do get a brief glimpse of The Leaves, a California garage band that is best remembered for their psychedelic cover of “Hey Joe,” as they perform the unambigious “In the House of Dr. Stone.” But usually The Cool Ones devotes more screen time to Cliff’s completely uncool covers of “Secret Love” and “Birth of the Blues” or his excruciating duets with Hallie on “Up Where the Air is Thin,” “It’s Your World,” and the hilariously bad setpiece, “Do the Tantrum.”

The Leaves, a California garage band famous for their psychedelic version of “Hey Joe,” make a brief appearance in The Cool Ones (1967).

It is this aspect that derails the movie so spectacularly from the outset. This is not rock ‘n roll but an unpalatable marriage of a Las Vegas lounge act with a Broadway musical. And it is performed with such passion and conviction before an unlikely horde of squealing teenage fans that it becomes mesmerizing. It becomes even more fascinating when you realize that Lee Hazlewood, who partnered with Nancy Sinatra on several albums, wrote the songs and composed the score with Billy Strange handling the musical arrangements. Hazlewood’s music was always firmly grounded in pop with strong country-western/folk music flavoring; some of his biggest hits include “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” “Sugar Town,” “How Does That Grab Ya, Darlin’,” and “Some Velvet Morning.” In fact, “This Town,” one of the showcased songs in The Cool Ones, was recorded by both Frank Sinatra and his daughter Nancy (on her 1967 TV special, Movin’ with Nancy).

This is rock ‘n roll? Hallie (Debbie Watson) and Cliff (Gil Peterson) perform one of several unhip musical numbers in The Cool Ones (1967).

While The Cool Ones might qualify as one of the worst movies made for the youth market in the sixties, that doesn’t mean it is devoid of entertainment value and, as they say, someone’s trash is another man’s treasure. There is something perversely amusing about the whole charade, from Roddy McDowall’s outrageous mugging and overacting to lame wisecracks like “I hope your wife puts starch in your underwear” to the hyperkinetic choreography of Toni Basil, later famous for the novelty pop hit, “Mickey.”

A publicity still of Roddy McDowall as groovy record producer Tony Krum in The Cool Ones (1967).

On another level The Cool Ones is an invaluable time capsule which documents Los Angeles and Palm Springs as those places looked in 1967. Shot in glorious Technicolor and Panavision, the movie is teeming with familiar locations in both cities and is also an enjoyable sixties fashion show with Madras and Paisley patterns dominating; Debbie Watson has a changing wardrobe of go-go boots, Carnaby Caps and skirts with big white belts and McDowall’s record tycoon drives around in a purple convertible while wearing an outfit with matching purple ascot and ruffled sleeves. As for Gil Peterson, he looks like a Thunderbirds puppet come to life (Gordon Tracy maybe?) and appears in a succession of such tight-fitting pants that you begin to wonder if he will finally explode out of one like the Pillsbury Poppin’ Fresh Doughboy.

Singer Cliff Donner (Gil Peterson) threatens to bust out of his skin tight clothes in The Cool Ones (1967).

Pop culture connoisseurs will also get a kick out of some of the cameo appearances and bit players in the cast of The Cool Ones. Teri Garr can be spotted in a few scenes as one of Hallie’s pals, T.J. and the Fourmations emerge from an elevator singing a snatch of “Hey Ronnie” accompanied by disapproving hotel manager Franklin Pangborn. Nita Talbot makes the most of a minor supporting role as Krum’s put-upon assistant Dee Dee and Glen Campbell has a thankless scene competing for attention with Watson in his one singing number, “Just One of Those Things.”  Gene Nelson, the director of The Cool Ones, was not the worst choice to helm the picture but obviously something went awry. Nelson got his start as a dancer in movie musicals but soon proved he was a capable actor as well. He is terrific in the 1953 film noir Crime Wave but his more famous roles include She’s Back on Broadway (1953) opposite Virginia Mayo and as cowboy Will Parker in Oklahoma! (1955). In the early sixties, he made the transition to directing, beginning with TV series like The Rifleman and The Donna Reed Show. He also directed Hootenanny Hoot (1963), two Elvis Presley vehicles (Kissin’ Cousins, Harum Scarum) and Your Cheatin’ Heart (1964), the underrated Hank Williams biopic with George Hamilton but The Cool Ones might be his most memorable movie for all the wrong reasons.

Publicity stills from The Cool Ones (1967), directed by Gene Nelson

You’d be hard pressed to find a positive review of The Cool Ones when it first premiered in 1967 but here is a more contemporary take on it by Rovi reviewer Craig Butler which captures the movie’s eccentric appeal for those in the right mood: “Some bad movies are more entertaining than their much better cousins, and The Cool Ones falls squarely into that category. Make no mistake about it: this is a very, very bad movie. A supposed satire, the barbs it lobs at its targets are inane and often pointless — which pretty well summarizes both the plot and dialogue as well. (In what other movie would the appellation “rainbow trout” be considered a compliment?) The performances are simply atrocious, with Roddy McDowall clearly (and rightfully) embarrassed. Debbie Watson and Gil Peterson don’t seem to be aware of how ridiculous their roles are, lending their performances some amateurish innocence…Unlike other bad musicals (such as Xanadu, 1980), The Cool Ones‘s lack of quality makes it a great deal of fun — at least for a while.”

Hallie (Debbie Watson) and Cliff (Gil Peterson) rock out in one of their dreadful production numbers in The Cool Ones (1967).

The Cool Ones was released on DVD as a stand alone film with no extra features by the Warner Archive Collection in September 2012. I wouldn’t count on a Blu-Ray edition in the near future or ever.   *This is an updated and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

Music mogul Tony Krum (Roddy McDowall) contemplates a bust of Napoleon in The Cool Ones (1967).

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