Once upon a time, the middle-aged squares of mid-century America took a look at their kids and realized they were a bunch of hooligans just like they had been at their age unlike any other generation throughout recorded history.
Someone had to make a movie to warn the public. And in 1961, someone did: The Choppers, a morality tale depicting the downfall of a quintet of lads, aged 16 to 18, who strip cars and sell the parts to an unscrupulous fat man for cold, hard cash. And for kicks, daddy-o.
Let’s examine The Choppers, and specifically the star: a 16-year-old wannabe crooner and first-time actor named Arch Hall Jr.
How did an acting greenhorn and iffy musician, described by Mark Deming as “a rock & roll cult hero despite having a discography of one out of print 45 [who] is best known to his fans for performances in a handful of memorable low-budget movies in the early ’60s,” manage to snag such a plum role?
One word: nepotism.
According to Deming, “Hall got into the acting business the easy way: his father, Arch Hall Sr., was himself an actor who made the jump into film production in 1959, when he wrote a script about teenage hot rodders who don’t mind resorting to theft to get new parts for their buggies. Hall Sr., who was also producing and directing the project, cast Hall Jr. in the lead.”
Young Arch’s dad was no slouch when it came to putting himself in his own films, either.
“Our greatest national resource: Youngsters are the future,” drones Arch’s producer-dad at the outset of The Choppers, posing as the film’s narrator with a secret plan to pop up later in the movie as a radio journalist. A veritable Tommy Wiseauian move.
The film opens in the colorless early days of the Kennedy administration. A lone car stands abandoned on the dusty roadside. Our anti-heroes rush to relieve it of its hubcaps, battery and radio. We know they are wicked because they are wearing jeans.
They are The Choppers, a gang of teen car thieves with nifty nicknames like Cruiser, Torch and Snooper. But none of these monikers really fit the lads, so we shall know them as Not Marlon Brando, Not Buddy Holly, Slim Blond Psycho, Boozy McFutureDrunk, and Arch Hall Jr.
The Choppers are all about makin’ that G.T.A. and getting coinage, yo. Check out their cool mid-century slang:
“Grease this palm, big daddy-o.”
“Peel off those cabbage leaves.”
“Every time I see that loaf of bread I flip.”
“The sweet whisper of them greenbacks kissin’ each other.”
The dulcet tones of the Camelot years!
Meanwhile across town, the cops are sorta concerned about the recent rash of car strippings, but you know who’s really suffering? The insurance company’s investigator — Edward Norton from Fight Club, more or less.
I am Jack’s self-produced vanity film.
We shall call him The Jerk. When we meet The Jerk, he’s making time with his secretary-cum-girlfriend (Jerk Move #1). He simultaneously breaks a date with her and makes her work late (Jerk Move #2). Seems he had promised to take her out for a fancy steak dinner tonight, but he’s changed his mind about that. Wanna know why?
“Aw now, Beautiful,” he drawls. “You know a big steak has too many calories!”
Too many calories.
Too many calories.
That is Jerk Move #3 and the official trope-namer.
Flush with cash and unaware that The Jerk is lukewarmly on their trail, The Choppers hie themselves to the local burger joint. The gents order burgers, hit on a Newsies cosplayer moonlighting as a waitress, and deliver a series of incomprehensible teenisms.
“You guys got anthrax or somethin’?” Arch Hall Jr. inquires.
“Get a load of that big smootch! Talk about tall in the saddle,” Slim Blond Psycho notes.
“Yeah, couple of fanatics. They go wall to wall,” Arch Hall Jr. counters.
“Get a load of the shimmers on that tank,” Not Marlon Brando exclaims.
“I got the message, man, I got the message,” Not Buddy Holly replies.
Somewhere in the midst of this swirling maelstrom of gibberish, The Jerk drives up, accompanied by his secretary/girlfriend and some dude who might or might not be a cop. The Choppers wait until the three go into the fast food joint, then strip The Jerk’s car.
Well, The Jerk and his companions seem to think so. Upon seeing their ruined ride, they throw back their heads and unleash mighty guffaws. Laughter: a normal reaction to the destruction of your personal vehicle in 1961.
And here’s the brilliant headline that former narrator, current “radio journalist,” Arch Hall Sr. writes in response to the bold theft.
Clickbait it is not. By the end of 1961, he would probably think it was a good idea to write something along the lines of “Vietnam Vietnams Again!”
Following all the excitement, Arch Hall Jr. lounges poolside with a girl who is well out of his league and reminiscences about his dead father (not Arch Hall Sr.)
Later that day, The Choppers converge on another stranded vehicle, but alas! The cops have finally shoved the insurance investigator aside and deployed that classic urban policing tool, the bait car. They position it two years into the future in Dallas and hide up on the grassy knoll to wait for The Choppers to strike.
To make the sting even more effective, they bring along “radio journalist” Arch Hall Sr., who broadcasts their location, details about their plan, and a blow-by-blow description of the action on live radio.
“He looks for help, but there is none. There never is,” Arch Hall Sr. proclaims dolefully as the phony driver exits the bait car and pretends to hike off in search of roadside assistance.
The Choppers arrive on cue. Things go awry. The cops converge upon the juvenile delinquents.
“Hang on. We’re gonna play chicken!” one of the doughty hooligans announces, and he begins his evasive maneuvers. The cops in 1961 are not chicken, however. They blithely shoot the teenagers, one by one, until Not Marlon Brando, Not Buddy Holly, and Moose the car-parts fence lie dead outside a junkyard.
Arch Hall Jr. and Boozy McFutureDrunk drag a wounded Slim Blond Psycho into the depths of the junkyard, where they presume they will be safe. Slim Blond Psycho looks death square in the face and realizes he’s looking into a mirror, while Arch Hall Jr. rapidly and uncourageously loses his nerve.
Boozy McFutureDrunk is undeterred by the police brutality, however. That is, until his dad, Boozy McCurrentDrunk, turns up and slurs into Arch Hall Sr.’s live radio mic, causing Boozy McFutureDrunk to consider suicide by cop as the only salve for this shame.
Arch Hall Jr. finally has had enough.
“We give up! We’re comin’ out!” he whines manfully.
And out they come. Arch Hall Sr. thrusts his microphone into his real-life son’s face and demands to know what he has to say for himself. Was it worth all the dead bodies and the embarrassing spectacle that Boozy McCurrentDrunk made of himself on national radio?
Sure it was!
“We had a ball. A real ball,” Arch Hall Jr. sullenly mumbles.
As an epilogue, please enjoy a vintage Mystery Science Theater 3000 skit skewering poor Arch Hall Jr., B-movie actor, failed musician, and victim of cinematic nepotism (again and again and again).