Monday, October 12, 2009

The Wild Party (Security Pictures/United Artists, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After that Charles and I watched a feature film from 1956 that was on the same disc: The Wild Party, the second film made by Carol Ohmart, one of the most fascinating of the many Marilyn Monroe wanna-bes Hollywood dug up and put on the screen in a series of desperate attempts to match the appeal of the original. Probably the most famous of them long-term were Jayne Mansfield at Fox (Monroe’s studio, which was getting tired of her fights, walkouts and general unreliability and wanted a backup in the wings), who got to make two quite good movies — The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? — before her career degenerated into trash; and Kim Novak, many of whose roles (including her first lead in the 1954 film Pushover) seemed ironic comments on the nature of her manufactured stardom, and who had a respectable career but didn’t really hit the heights until the 1984 re-release of her best film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (also a movie in which she plays a woman made over into a man’s fantasy image in a commentary and almost a mockery of Novak’s own career!), long after she’d retired.

Ohmart had got a buildup from Paramount, who made her first film, The Scarlet Hour, and gave her the great Michael Curtiz as director. The result was a box-office flop — Ohmart turned out too hard-edged for the breathy, sensual Monroe image they were trying to put her into, and rather than reverse course and give her some femme fatale roles that might have suited her, they sent her to United Artists for The Wild Party. At least five films under that title are listed on, of which probably the most famous are the 1929 Wild Party with Clara Bow (making her talking debut) as a college coed and Fredric March (in his first film, period) as the anthropology professor she sets out to seduce; and the 1974 Wild Party, based on a narrative open written in the 1920’s by Joseph Moncure March based on the Fatty Arbuckle scandal, with James Coco as Arbuckle.

This version of The Wild Party is set in the jazz underworld of Los Angeles, which in a voiceover narration delivered by Nehemiah Persoff in his character as a jazz pianist named “Kicks” Johnson is introduced as a refuge for people who have failed to become rich, successful or happy in the “straight” world (back when “straight” still meant un-hip, not un-Gay) in some bizarre writing by John McPartland that tries desperately for the kind of hip poetry-in-prose Jack Kerouac achieved, and falls far short of McPartland’s “Beat” models. Once the plot begins it evolves around the ambiguous character of Tom Kupfen (Anthony Quinn), who was once a professional football player and keeps reminding the characters (and us) that once upon a time 90,000 people turned out to see him play, and he was able to buy whole rounds in bars where he’s now desperately cadging drinks. The name “Kupfen” is clearly meant to be ethnic, but neither McPartland nor director Harry Horner ever decided what ethnicity — so Anthony Quinn draws on all the ethnic roles he’d ever played and comes up with a sort of indeterminate mish-mosh of an accent that accomplishes nothing except to make his lines harder to decipher.

Kupfen, his girlfriend Honey (Kathryn Grant, in a whiny but still marvelously edgy performance that’s a far cry from her usual roles and suggests the screen lost an interesting talent when she quit to become the second Mrs. Bing Crosby), “Kicks” and Gabe Freeposter (Jay Robinson), a small-time hustler who’s acquired a veneer of “class” to better fool his marks, seek to shake down a “straight” (in both senses) couple they pick up at a respectable hotel/restaurant (we know it’s respectable because a “sweet” non-jazz dance band is playing there) and drag into the jazz underworld. These people are Navy Lieutenant Arthur Mitchell (Arthur Franz) and his fiancée Erica London (Carol Ohmart); he’s eager to marry her before he ships out to Guam the next day, but she’s still nervous about whether or not to take the Big Step. One of the gang members steals her car key, thereby stranding them on Hollywood Boulevard, and on the pretext of offering her a ride to a gas station to call a cab, Gabe gets her into the bad guys’ car — whereupon the whole business breaks down because all Gabe is interested in is extracting money from the pigeons, while Tom has decided he’s going to force Erica to flee to Mexico and marry him. The fact that she can’t stand him doesn’t seem to enter into his calculations — nor does the fact that he doesn’t want to lose Honey, either; he rather preposterously believes he can get Erica to fall in love with him and continue to see Honey even after he marries someone else.

While it’s somewhat disheartening to realize that there was an even more embarrassing entry on Quinn’s résumé than The Naked Street (which was simply a mediocre gangster story that thoroughly wasted the talents of Quinn, Anne Bancroft and Farley Granger), The Wild Party is the sort of haunting movie that’s dreadful by any normal measure and yet holds your attention because you want it to be better than it is — you’re rooting for the filmmakers to grab hold of their subject’s potential and you’re watching helplessly as they miss point after point. Director Horner’s evocation of the night-world atmosphere is superb, and there’s an occasional scene that does work — notably a whispered confidence from Honey to Erica that even though she’s been literally dragged into the netherworld by force, soon enough she’ll begin to like it and feel comfortable nowhere else — but for the most part McPartland’s script, with its only coincidental resemblance to actual human behavior, frustrates the director.

Like most Hollywood movies about jazz, the film’s conceit is that virtually everyone who likes it is a pervert or a crook — and yet some of the greatest L.A.-based jazz musicians of the time (tenor saxophonists Georgie Auld and Bud Shank, trumpeters Maynard Ferguson and Teddy Buckner, guitarist Barney Kessel, pianist Dave Pell and bassist Ralph Peña) are heard on the soundtrack, and two musicians are actually billed: Pete Jolly, who dubbed the piano when Persoff was supposedly playing; and clarinetist Buddy De Franco, who’s shown leading a quartet and whose music is considerably more interesting than the dialogue it’s supposedly underscoring. (De Franco was also in Count Basie’s small band when he appeared in the film Rhythm and Blues Revue — a clip-fest from a TV series that supposedly showed performances from Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, but which were actually studio films interspersed with the same stock clip of an audience used between every song to create the impression of being live; the irony was that De Franco was the only white person seen in Rhythm and Blues Revue.) The musical director was Buddy Bregman, house arranger/conductor at Verve Records (though when we see a record label in the film, it’s RCA Victor’s) who made albums with top-level talents like Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O’Day.

The jazz music heard in The Wild Party is of top quality and far more interesting and complex than the film’s story or dialogue — and had the filmmakers been a bit more sensitive to their subject and less interested in playing the whole Hollywood game of titillating the audience with a glimpse of the demi-monde while simultaneously justifying its depiction morally by proclaiming it an utterly horrible way to live, The Wild Party might have been a genuinely interesting success instead of a genuinely interesting flop. As for Ohmart, I was impressed by her in William Castle’s The House on Haunted Hill — though it might have been just relative since in that movie the rest of the cast was so incompetent Vincent Price and Ohmart were the only people in it who could act at all — but in The Wild Party she’s handicapped by being cast in the wrong role. As useless as the movie is overall, it still would have been stronger had Ohmart and Kathryn Grant switched roles; Ohmart is utterly unable to suggest any response to Quinn’s threats beyond simple annoyance — she’s not a good enough actress either to hint at any attraction to him or to portray desperate revulsion either — and the producers’ costume department made the mistake of cladding her in a bulky fur coat throughout that makes it difficult to see her physical charms: a bizarre mistake to make with an actress they were pushing as a rival to Monroe!