An existential film noir musical? The Strip is one of those pictures that’s more interesting for what it says about midcentury Hollywood than as a piece of entertainment, despite MGM production values and a big-time star. Billed as “MGM’s musical melodrama of the dancer and the drummer,” the film opens with ample noir flair: a narrator speaks over a long shot of an urban landscape. In this case it turns out to be the Sunset Strip, as a the siren of police prowl car splits the breaking dawn. Cut to a low shot of a girl’s body lying in a pool of blood, phone cradled in an outstretched hand, cops peering in through a distant doorway. Cut again to more cops rousting a young man from sleep, then sweating him in the interrogation room.
It sounds a bit more hard-boiled than it actually is--especially considering the youth is none other than cute-as-a-button Mickey Rooney. The cops tell Mickey that a man is dead and the girl is barely hanging on. They think he knows something and better start talking. Cue the flashback.
Mickey is Korean War vet Stanley Maxton, who moved to Cali to find work as a drummer in one of the big L.A. clubs after getting out of the VA hospital. Along the road, racketeer Sonny Johnson (James Craig), accidentally runs Stanley’s jalopy into a ditch. Sonny’s girl lays on the guilt-trip, so the cowed gangster offers Stan a job at his sports-book. Two hundred scoots a week is too much to turn down, so Stan signs on and quickly makes good as a bookie. He still yearns to bang the drums though, and ends up sitting in with Louis Armstrong’s group one night at a dive called Fluff’s bar. Fluff (William Demarest) offers Stan a permanent job and begs cigarette girl Jane (leggy Sally Forrest) to help him seal the deal, which works like a charm when Stan falls hard.
Stan takes the drumming job to be near Jane, but she was just fooling. She’s really not interested. She has stars in her eyes and only has a minute for those who can help with movie star dreams. Sonny knows plenty of movie hot shots, so Stan thinks he’ll score points with Jane by introducing them. Sonny smiles but never lifts a finger to get her a screen test. Stan gets mad--he thought they were pals--and takes a beating. Jane has a climactic off camera confrontation with Sonny, resulting in his death, her sprawled out in a pool of her own blood, and Stan in handcuffs.
The flashback concludes, bringing the scene back to the interrogation room. Stan "gets noble" and confesses to the murder in hopes of saving Jane, but she’s way ahead of him. She cops to Sonny’s death from her hospital bed, just before her lights go out permanently. Distraught, Stan returns to Fluff’s where he bangs through an up-tempo number as the end titles roll.
A word or two about the music: The Strip, which received Oscar nominations for Best Music and Best Original Song, has at least ten numbers woven into the story--ensuring its status as a legitimate musical. Consisting primarily of jazz numbers featuring Armstrong’s band, which here includes Earl Hines on piano and Jack Teagarden on trombone, there are also some popular songs from Monica Lewis and Vic Damone. Owing to the musical nature of Rooney and Forrest’s roles, the songs fit in nicely and in a few instances help move the story forward.
Along with the music we get a birds-eye view of some of the brightest nightspots on Sunset Boulevard, including Ciro’s, The Trocadero, and The Mocambo--all considered the height of chic to 1951 audiences. The Strip uses that omnipresent movie-land device--a montage of neon signs, one fading into the next--to suggest an endless night of drinks, dancing and devil-may-care.
Despite all the musical numbers, this is most definitely a film noir. It’s evident in the extraordinarily anonymous characterization of Jane. She tastes a bit like a femme fatale, but that isn’t what makes The Strip a noir: that's located in the cruelty with which the film treats her.
The film purposefully makes no effort to develop in her any personality or notion of likability beyond her good looks; in fact, her looks are her character. She’s disposable. Why get to know her? Who really cares? She’ll either make it or she’ll go home, but either way she won’t be here very long. That’s how it is with the girls that Fluff calls “career crazy.” Stan falls for Jane merely because he thought she was nice to him once, but she was just pretending, honing her “craft.” Instead, Fluff sagely discourages Stan and reminds him he’d do better to find a girl who didn’t have stars in her eyes. The movie actually gives us such a person in the form of Edna, hatcheck girl and wannabe songbird. Edna (Kay Brown--who actually did sing, albeit briefly, with another Stan--Stan Kenton...) is smitten with Stan from the first time he enters the club, but with Jane around he doesn’t notice her.
Kay Brown was married briefly to star Stan Kenton trumpeter Maynard Ferguson,
but her singing career stalled in the mid-50s and she faded into obscurity...
The film’s final statement is filled with a stark existential bleakness: following the news of Jane’s confession and subsequent death, Stan returns to Fluff’s. As he makes his way toward the stage he passes Edna, who has climbed one pathetic rung on the ladder: she’s out of the cloak room and sporting Jane’s lacy cigarette girl outfit. We can see the wheel of fortune readying another spin: in no time at all she’ll be singing with the band, thinking she's on her way to the top, and knocking Stan down toward the bottom of that ladder. He notices her, as if for the first time, as he slumps onto his stool at the drum set and begins to bang out a rhythm. But he's still out of step...
In this sublime moment, the film gives us a frightening vision of the real Hollywood. There will always be another girl: the buses are laden with them. Jane was just a star-struck wannabe who didn’t find her dreams in tinsel, and now she’s dead. Why should the film bother to tell us anything about her?
It’s another night at Fluff’s, and Satchmo is on the stage. Jane is easily replaced. Forgotten. Only the drummer might remember her...but he’s lost in the music.