The Beat Goes On

Hollywood has churned out countless musical biographies on popular musicians, singers and songwriters over the years, jazz artists and their life stories have remained a virtually untapped genre with few exceptions (Bird, Clint Eastwood’s 1988 portrait of Charlie Parker, 2015’s Born to be Blue with Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker). There was a brief time in the fifties, however, where public interest in some of the big band legends and early jazz innovators resulted in a spate of high-profile biopics: The Glenn Miller Story [1953], The Benny Goodman Story [1955], and The Five Pennies [1959), starring Danny Kaye as jazz trumpeter Red Nichols. Coming at the end of the cycle was The Gene Krupa Story [1959] which featured Sal Mineo (twenty years old at the time) in his first adult screen role. 

Like most Hollywood musical biographies, The Gene Krupa Story is conventional in its structure and treatment of the title figure and it does have its fair share of clichés about the pros and cons of fame. Still, the film is unique for showcasing some of the most famous and influential jazz musicians of its era.

Jazz cornetist, composer and bandleader Red Nichols plays himself in the 1959 biopic, THE GENE KRUPA STORY.

Red Nichols plays himself and drummer Shelly Manne appears as Davey Tough, Krupa’s mentor. Anita O’Day performs “Memories of You” in a penthouse party scene and there are appearances by pianist Bobby Troup (as Tommy Dorsey), bassist Al Morgan, and trumpeter Clyde Hurley.

Music composer and conductor Leith Stevens worked on numerous motion picture and television shows during his 28 year career in the entertainment industry.

Leith Stevens, a child prodigy who became a prolific film composer (Syncopation [1942], Private Hell 36 [1954], The James Dean Story [1957]), adapted and conducted the score. Even Gene Krupa himself was recruited to provide the drumming for Sal Mineo, who expertly mimics his playing and physical tics, right down to the incessant gum-chewing.

More fact than fiction, The Gene Krupa Story avoids sugarcoating Krupa’s life and takes a warts-and-all approach which gives the film an emotional honesty that other screen biographies often lack. In fact, Mineo’s portrayal of Krupa is so needy, egocentric, manic and ruthlessly ambitious that you may find yourself rooting for his comeuppance which he receives in spades, starting with a drug bust for marijuana.

Sal Mineo behind bars in a scene from the film ‘The Gene Krupa Story’, 1959. (Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images)

Dave Frishberg, a pianist who played with Krupa, was particularly struck by the accuracy of one key moment in the film. “The scene where the Krupa character drops his sticks during the big solo, and the audience realizes that he’s “back on the stuff.” I remember at least a couple of occasions in real life when Gene dropped a stick, and people in the audience began whispering among themselves and pointing at Gene.”

Although the film does not linger over Krupa’s drug problems or his arrest in San Francisco for possession of marijuana – he was subjected to an 80-day incarceration and then released – it was certainly the notoriety that hurt his career and reputation. He never again attained the dizzy heights of success he reached in 1936 as a member of Benny Goodman’s big band when “Sing, Sing, Sing” became the drum anthem of the swing era. (Curiously enough, the song is not even heard in the film due to contractual reasons, nor is Benny Goodman introduced at any point as an important figure in the drummer’s career).

Big Band legend and jazz drummer Gene Krupa in his prime.

Krupa did manage to bounce back from his misfortunes and land a new gig with Tommy Dorsey’s band in 1944 as well as win the Down Beat Readers’ Poll for Best Drummer that year. However, by this point, jazz listeners were more interested in the new sounds of bebop and big band music was fading in popularity. Nevertheless, Krupa continued to tour and perform until he suffered a heart attack in 1960. After that he only played sporadically – including several reunion concerts with Benny Goodman’s band – up until his death in 1973.

A publicity photo for THE GENE KRUPA STORY (1959) featuring the three leads – Sal Mineo (left), Susan Kohner and James Darren.

The original working title of The Gene Krupa Story was The Drummer Man, based on a screenplay by Orin Jannings whose other work includes Douglas Sirk’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die [1958], adapted from the Erich Maria Remarque novel, and She’s Back on Broadway [1953], a Virginia Mayo musical.

Sal Mineo in a publicity photo for the 1959 musical biopic, THE GENE KRUPA STORY.

For Sal Mineo, “no role was desired more, or sought more vigorously, by Sal than this one,” according to biographer H. Paul Jeffers. “He’d taken up the drums after Rebel Without a Cause [1955] and they’d become almost an obsession…Sal threw himself into the picture as he had with no other, including Rebel. His own life also had much in common with Krupa’s. They were Italian, sons of immigrants, who had found their life’s calling as boys and had steadfastly and passionately pursued it against all odds.”

When Krupa saw the finished film he endorsed Mineo’s performance and even awarded the actor with a set of his own drums in appreciation. And he wasn’t the only one who was sufficiently impressed. Actor George Raft said at the time that if a Hollywood studio approached him about his life story on film, he’d want Mineo to play him. Even real-life gangster Mickey Cohen said he’d like Mineo to portray him if a film biography of his exploits ever materialized.

Mineo never forgot Krupa’s generosity towards him and years later made a similar good will gesture to young singer/actor David Cassidy while dining with Cassidy’s family. David recalled, “All I could do was talk with him about the Krupa movie. He told me that Gene Krupa gave him a set of his drums. I said, ‘Ah, a set of drums!’ Nobody had a set of drums. The next day, there in a huge box was the drum set with a bow on it and a note from Sal to me, saying, ‘David, here’s the drum set that Gene gave me. Enjoy them.'”

Gene Krupa (played by Sal Mineo) is obsessed with bad girl Dorissa (Susan Oliver) in the semi-fictionalized biopic, THE GENE KRUPA STORY (1959).

The Gene Krupa Story came toward the end of his peak years as a popular leading man and teen idol. He would follow it with a high profile supporting role in Exodus (1960), which earned him a second Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor. After that, it was a slow descent into minor roles in big budget epics like The Longest Day (1962), Cheyenne Autumn (1964) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), B-movies (Who Killed Teddy Bear, 1965) and a lot of television appearances in series like Hawaii Five-O and S.W.A.T.

Sal Mineo and Dolores Del Rio cast as Native Americans in the John Ford western epic CHEYENNE AUTUMN (1964).

Mineo was trying to revive his career as a stage actor in Los Angeles when he was stabbed to death in his garage on February 12, 1976 by an unknown assailant. It would be three years before the murderer – a petty criminal named Lionel Ray Williams – was identified and charged with killing the actor during a botched robbery. It was a sad end for an actor who will be forever remembered for his sensitive performance as Plato in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and juvenile delinquent roles like Dino and The Young Don’t Die (both 1957).

Additional Trivia on The James Krupa Story: James Darren plays trumpeter/vocalist, Eddie Sirota, who was a longtime friend of Krupa. Darren had just completed Gidget (1959) which brought him overnight success as a pop vocalist and a pinup for teenage girls. He followed that success with a top forty hit in 1961 – “Goodbye Cruel World” – and steady work in the movies (The Guns of Navarone [1961], Diamond Head [1963]) and television. In The Gene Krupa Story, Darren gets to croon “Let There Be Love.”

In the role of Ethel Maguire, Krupa’s long-suffering girlfriend, is Susan Kohner, who won “Most Promising Female Newcomer” from the Golden Globes for her work here. Best known for her role as Sarah Jane, the mulatto girl who passes for white in Imitation of Life [1959], she is also the mother of Chris and Paul Weitz, the directors of American Pie [1999] and About a Boy [2002]. The real Ethel Maguire married Gene Krupa twice; the first marriage lasted from 1934-1942; the second one dates from 1946 to her death in 1955. Krupa remarried in 1959 to Patty Bowler.

Susan Kohner and Sal Mineo in a publicity still from THE GENE KRUPA STORY (1959).

Look for Yvonne Craig, the future star of TV’s Bat Girl in a minor role and Gavin MacLeod of “Love Boat” fame as Ted Krupa.

Sal Mineo and future Batgirl Yvonne Craig in a publicity shot from THE GENE KRUPA STORY (1959).

Susan Oliver, who got her start in television, makes the most of her role as Dorissa Dinell, the wickedly seductive singer who introduces Krupa to pot. Dinell is not a real person but an amalgam based on a number of women in Krupa’s life.

The seductive and wicked Dorissa (Susan Oliver) tempts jazz drummer Gene Krupa (Sal Mineo) in a scene from the 1959 biopic.

Don Weis, the director of The Gene Krupa Story, is better known as a prolific television director and only dabbled in feature films occasionally after his contract days at MGM ended in the early 1950s.

Director Don Reis (left) during his MGM contract days on the film JUST THIS ONCE (1952) starring Janet Leigh and Richard Anderson (pictured).

Cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr. was a valued Hollywood veteran of more than 100 feature films who was never Oscar nominated for any of his efforts despite his work for director John Ford (The Long Gray Line, The Last Hurrah, Two Rode Together) and a number of iconic westerns (Jubal, The Tall T, 3:10 to Yuma, Ride Lonesome),

The Gene Krupa Story was first released on DVD in 2004 and later reissued as a DVD-R by Sony Pictures in March 2012 as part of their “Choice Collection” line.

Bang those drums, Sal!

*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

Other websites of interest:


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