Friday, July 15, 2011

THE WILD PARTY 1975

It's a common practice in movie star autobiographies to blame one's career stasis on rigid typecasting imposed by myopic producers and a narrow-minded public. Hypothesizing extravagantly (while never having to actually make good on the assertion),  said movie star diverts attention away from a monochromatic body of work by insisting that the untapped wellspring of versatility and range that lies deep within them has been grossly overlooked & underutilized.

Which brings us to the topic of the magnificent Raquel Welch. She, of course, was the reigning, uncontested cinema sex siren of the 60s and 70s, but, like many a sex symbol before and after, Welch spent a great deal of her offscreen time publicly venting her frustration at not being taken seriously as an actress. Finally, in 1974, Ms. Welch's long-held ambition was realized when an offer came from the burgeoning art-house team of Merchant/Ivory ("A Room with A View", "Howard's End") to star in their film adaptation of Joseph Moncure March's 1928 blank-verse poem of jazz-age debauchery: "The Wild Party".
Raquel Welch is Queenie
James Coco is Jolly Grimm
Perry King is Dale Sword
Tiffany Bolling is Kate, Queenie's best friend and the girlfriend of matinee idol, Dale Sword.
David Duke is James Morrison, Jolly's film editor and the author/narrator of the poem, "The Wild Party"
With the film's locale switched from Manhattan to early sound-era Hollywood and the narrative tweaked to suggest the notorious Fatty Arbuckle scandal of 1921, "The Wild Party" casts Raquel Welch as Queenie, a former vaudeville dancer who's now the ornamental mistress/punching bag of mercurial silent screen comic, Jolly Grimm (James Coco). Once the king of Hollywood, Grimm is in a career decline brought on by too much booze and too many bad films, so in a pathetic, last-gasp effort to resuscitate his flagging career, Grimm throws a lavish bash at his Hollywood mansion to launch his already-dated comeback vehicle, "Brother Jasper" - a misguided comedy biopic about Franciscan Brother Junipero Serra.

"The Wild Party" takes place over the course of an increasingly desperate 24-hour period fraught with unheeded dark omens (Hollywood power-couple Mary Pickford & Douglas Fairbanks just happen to be throwing a party that same night) and humiliating setbacks. Tensions ultimately reach the boiling point with the arrival of a Valentino-like matinee idol (Perry King) who catches Queenie's eye...and vice versa.

The film jumps in and out of voiceover narration and straight-to-the-camera, fourth-wall breaking exposition, using the March poem to provide backstory for the events occurring onscreen (the poem, in rhythm and language, lamentably recalls the doggerel poetry of Bonnie Parker in "Bonnie & Clyde"). In fact, abrupt shifts in tone become something of a leitmotif in "The Wild Party" due to the film trying to be too many things (drama, tragedy, comedy, romance, musical) yet failing to arrive at a single stylistic method by which to make any of them work.
 Raquel Welch fans were dismayed to find "The Wild Party" was more of a somber character melodrama than the sensual frolic its title promised, while those who anticipated an art film from the Merchant/Ivory team were thrown by the  exploitation-film cheesiness of its original edit.

Happily, a movie doesn't have to be good for me to like it, it just can't be bad. So what's a bad movie? A bad movie is one bereft of ideas or a point of view. A lazy creation that panders to the obvious & coddles the established. It's a demographic-driven, corporate-committee product designed to fill seats, sell merchandise, and reap profits...period.  When a movie has something on its mind or is inspired by some original creative impulse, I find it difficult to dismiss it completely out of hand. If one searches hard enough, one is likely to find even a tiny flash of brilliance within films that (putting it in the most charitable terms) fall short of their ambitions.
In one of the film's many musical sequences, Queenie steals her best friend's date (that's Tiffany Bolling boiling in the background) while dancing into our hearts performing "The Herbert Hoover Drag"

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Though too stylistically discordant to be considered a really good film, "The Wild Party" is nonetheless very entertaining simply because the core dramatic construct of its plot (the one they should have focused on) is so effective. A  palpable sense of emotional jeopardy and conflict is forged in having a socially innocuous event like a Hollywood party occasion the bringing together of several disparate, desperate characters with at-odds desires.
"The Wild Party" is built on a marvelously provocative premise, but the screenplay and a good many of the performances have a naïf quality about them that prevents the film from saying anything really significant about the moral decay that lie beneath Hollywood's glamorous image of itself. John Byrum's "Inserts," a small, forgotten film about pre-sound Hollywood that was also released in 1975, is the decadent, despairing image of lost fame and hopeless desperation that "The Wild Party" sought to be.
The Party Finally Gets Wild
Sunday Morning Blues

PERFORMANCES:
By rights, the role of Queenie should have been Raquel Welch's turnaround role, like They Shoot Horses, Don't They? was for Jane Fonda, or "Carnal Knowledge" for Ann-Margret. It's a great part affording the actress several introspective monologues, a broad range of emotions to play, and even an opportunity to sing and dance. And in portraying a wounded character whose great beauty has proved both a blessing and a curse, Welch even gets to mine that "blurs-the-line-between-fantasy-and-reality" quality that audiences usually eat up.
Well, as much as I'd love to report that Welch rises to the occasion in "The Wild Party" (it is her best screen performance, but I think that might be faint praise), she elicits from me a response similar to the one I have when I see an Ali MacGraw movie: I get angry and frustrated that they don't try harder.

Sure, Welch is let down by a weak script that has her talking about her feelings more than showing them, but after so many years of claiming that she has never had a chance to "show her stuff," dramatically speaking, Welch should have nailed her characterization in spite of the poor writing. Instead of a sustained performance, we see brief flashes that are so good they only leave you wondering what could have been possible had she really let herself go. 
Drama Queen: Raquel gets serious
One problem is that there's no vulgarity to Raquel Welch's Queenie. Without a touch of crass earthiness to set off her incredible beauty (think Sophia Loren) Welch's Queenie comes across as far too self-assured and lacking in the kind of vulnerability that would have made her character touchingly tragic. Instead of being the kind of raucous, life-of-the-party that would captivate a manic-depressive like Jolly, Welch's Queenie is far too regal. There's an awkward self-consciousness to her attempts at appearing carefree or tough (the scene where she threatens to hit Coco over the head with an art-deco clock is so embarrassingly amateurish that it looks like an outtake that somehow made it into the movie) that deprive her character of any real depth. I really wanted to buy Welch in the role and I think she has it in her to be better than she's allowed herself to be onscreen, but here I think she needed either a more talented director or a good kick in the pants.
Queenie- "He was the first guy that ever asked me what I thought."
My favorite scene: The dynamics of Queenie & Jolly's entire relationship are captured in this sweet sequence that takes place at a breakfast table. It didn't appear in the film's original cut and yet it's the most fully actualized scene in the entire film.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
It's perversely fascinating to me that "The Wild Party" (which already has its hands full just being a drama) is also a musical! The songs, by the over-extended Walter Marks (composer of that enduring Sammy Davis, Jr. anthem, "I've Gotta Be Me!", Marks also makes his debut as a screenwriter with "The Wild Party" ) are a mixed bag. Too frequently they kill the mood or render poorly-staged scenes comical, but I have a soft spot for song and dance, so the silly musical numbers are among my favorite parts of the film.
Raquel performs "Singapore Sally" atop a bar in a truly bizarre dress designed by then-boyfriend, Ron Talsky. The bartender in the mandarin collar is none other than gay porn auteur ("Mechanic on Booty") & John Travolta PR headache, Paul Barresi - whom I had the pleasure of working with in that forgettable Jamie Lee Curtis aerobics epic, "Perfect".

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
"The Wild Party" was just one of the many releases that came out during the nostalgia craze of the 70s ( "Paper Moon", "The Great Gatsby", The Day of the Locust ).  I was a teenager working as an usher at the Alhambra Theater in San Francisco when "The Wild Party" premiered, so with near-empty houses daily, I got to watch the film many times.
From the That-Dress-Gets-Out-More-Than-I-Do files: A consequence of my seeing "The Wild Party" so many times was noticing that a gown worn by an extra in that film (top photo), was the same gown first worn by Julie Andrews in the 1968 movie musical, "Star!" (below).

Even in its butchered, American-International Pictures form, I enjoyed the film very much, although it never engaged me very deeply on an emotional level. A better film than the multimillion dollar "Gatsby,"  "The Wild Party" is beautifully shot and, if not involving, certainly intriguing in its employment of cringe comedy for dramatic effect. It's fascinating to see the film now, some 36 years later, with the "director's cut" version of "The Wild Party" available on DVD. With footage restored and reedited, "The Wild Party" is a significantly different and improved film than the one I saw back in 1975.
And even if it still falls shy of being what I would call a really "good" film and didn't provide Ms. Welch with the breakthrough role I wish it had, I can't complain. After all, Raquel Welch just being Raquel Welch isn't really all that bad.

AUTOGRAPH FILES:
James Coco autograph from 1980. Again, from the bookstore I once worked at in Beverly Hills

2 comments:

  1. I was a kid who got a chance to be a gopher for the editing room on this film. I even helped an assistant to sort the cuts. I remember watching them cut the "Singapore Sally" number, and getting to watch Raquel over and over. It was quite a kick for an aspiring filmmaker as a startout :-)

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  2. How lucky can you get? Obvious Raquel Welch factor not withstanding...I can't imagine how amazing it must have been to be there for the cutting of this film. It's really a film that could have been assembled a dozen different ways.What a great experience that must have been! Especially given that the editing of the film was one of the bones of contention about the early release. If you could shed any light on the accepted belief that Merchant/Ivory was under pressure from American International Pictures to include more "orgy" footage and nudity than they originally intend, that would be great. Thanks for sharing this. A terrific start for a young filmmaker, indeed!

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