Gene Krupa Story, The (1959): Biopic Starring Sal Mineo as Famed Drummer and Bandleader

The Gene Krupa Story, a biopic of American drummer and bandleader Gene Krupa. boasts a strong performance by Sal Mineo.

The young Gene Krupa brings home a set of drums and puts them in the family room, but his father abhors the idea of jazz, claiming “I have been too easy on my baby son.” Instead, he insists that Gene be “somebody fine…a priest, maybe.”  When Gene refuses to get rid of the drums, his father busts the tom-toms.

During rehearsals for an initial club performance, Krupa meets and falls in love with Ethel, a girl who wishes to go to New York City to study and write music. The two begin to fall in love.

When his father dies, he goes to study for the priesthood, but at the seminary he feels lost; he imagines “syncopated versions” of Ave Maria.  After a year there, he cannot shake his dreams of becoming a musician.

Back at home, his pals are playing in a local speakeasy, and his friend Eddie asks him to sit in with the gang for the summer. Gene struggles, still feeling he should be committed to the church. He does quit the seminary, though, and plays with the band.

The friends go to New York where they struggle to find decent jobs. At an upscale party, in a leap of faith, Krupa takes over the drums and performs with famed bandleader Tommy Dorsey, his brother Jimmy and Red Nichols. Nichols offers him a spot in his pit band for George Gershwin’s show “Strike Up the Band.”

He and Eddie play on recording sessions and in various high-class clubs. After a performance of “Cherokee” with the Benny Goodman Orchestra Krupa’s career skyrockets. He becomes maddened with his success; he throws wild parties in his ostentatious home, embarks on a downward spiral of alcohol abuse and cheating on Ethel, and alienates Eddie. Ethel leaves him. A female singer urges marijuana cigarettes on him, as she slurs her words and behaves clearly under-the-influence. Gene achieves greatness leading his own ensemble, but he develops a crippling psychological addiction to marijuana.

While performing, he drops his sticks and his timing is off, which he later does blame on the illegal substance. At the peak of his career, Krupa is busted on dope charges after marijuana cigarettes in envelopes are found in his coat. It becomes evident this is a frame-up, possibly by a jealous co-worker, but he is convicted and sentenced to 90 days in jail.

Upon release, Gene speaks with Ken Le May about working in his band, only to be rejected because of the public’s perception of Krupa as an addict. He is forced to play in a series of dives and strip joints. Ethel finds him in one of these places and tells him that, through Eddie, she has learned Tommy Dorsey is forming a new band. Dorsey’s people have to know how to read music; Gene has never learned that skill and Ethel encourages him to finally do so. He does, under the tutelage of a member of the New York Philharmonic.
Though Dorsey already has a drummer, Eddie gives the bandleader the idea to highlight Krupa in a “special return appearance”.

The performance starts out great, but hecklers begin jeering him. The Tommy Dorsey Band drummer picks up the beat when Krupa falters, and covers for his fellow. Gene composes himself and is able to finish a drum solo. The audience rewards Krupa with a standing ovation.

The film ends as Ethel tries to sneak off, but Gene stops her, and the couple walk away together. In real life, the two were married from 1934 to 1942, then remarried in 1946 and were together until Ethel’s death in 1955.

Krupa himself played the drums on the film’s soundtrack, and in the sequences in which Mineo plays the drums.

Cast

Sal Mineo as Gene Krupa
Susan Kohner as Ethel Maguire
James Darren as Eddie Sirota
Susan Oliver as Dorissa Dinell
Yvonne Craig as Gloria Corregio
Lawrence Dobkin as Speaker Willis
Celia Lovsky as Mother
Red Nichols as Himself
Bobby Troup as Tommy Dorsey
Anita O’Day as Herself
Shelly Manne as Davey Tough
Buddy Lester as Himself

 

Note:

TCM showed the movie June 11, 2020 as part of a series, Jazz in Film.