If prostitution didn’t exist, Hollywood most certainly would have had to invent it. How else to surmount the troubling obstacle presented to screenwriters stymied by the notion of a female character not defined by the title of wife, mother, or girlfriend? How else to include as much sex, salaciousness, and female objectification as possible while still tent-poling the dual obligations of censor-mandated moralizing and have-your-cake-and-eat-too self-righteous finger-wagging? Both necessary to placate guilty audiences.
America loves its sex, violence, and debauchery, but never really lets itself enjoy the fun it has rolling around in the gutter unless also afforded the opportunity to give itself a good slap on the wrist after it’s all over. This need to have one’s "sensitive adult material" served up with a healthy dose of religious dogma goes a long way toward explaining why a moralizing piece of Hollywood sleaze like Walk on the Wild Side is such an enduringly entertaining hoot.
|Laurence Harvey as Doug Linkhorn|
|Jane Fonda as Kitty Twist (nee Tristram)|
|Capucine as Hallie Gerard|
|Barbara Stanwyck as Jo Courtney|
|Anne Baxter as Teresina Vidaverri|
Published in 1956, Nelson Algren’s anecdotal, relentlessly downbeat, essentially unfilmable (at least in 1962) Depression-era novel A Walk on the Wild Side bears little resemblance to the sanitized motion picture it became. Rumored (rather remarkably) to be the result of no less than six screenwriters, including playwright Clifford Odets (The Country Girl) and screenwriter Ben Hecht (Spellbound); the film adaptation strives to be a tale of lost souls searching for redemption through love on the sordid side of the streets of New Orleans. But for director Edward Dmytryk and his half-dozen writers, trying to balance sexual candor and social uplift obviously proved to be a burden far too cumbersome. For all their efforts to be bold and daring, in the end, Walk on the Wild Side (a film promoted with the self-serving warning “This is an ADULT PICTURE - Parents should exercise discretion in permitting the immature to see it”) wound up being just another glossy Hollywood soap opera.
|The composition of this shot pretty much sums up Walk on the Wild Side's major conflict|
The time is the 1930s (you’ll just have to take the filmmakers’ word for that), the place is Arroyo, Texas. Following the death of his long-ailing father, lovesick farmboy Dove Linkhorn (Lithuanian-born Laurence Harvey) decides to travel to Louisiana to find his childhood sweetheart, Hallie Gerard (French-born Capucine). Hallie is an amateur painter and sculptress who left behind Dove and his alcoholic father for a taste of life, real and raw, outside of dust-bowl Texas.
On route to Louisiana , Doug crosses paths with savvy runaway orphan Kitty Twist (Fonda) who teaches the greenhorn yokel the tricks of riding the rails and thumbing rides. Although Kitty has a few other tricks she’d like to teach him, Dove says no to hobo hanky-panky because his heart remains true to Hallie, whom he calls his religion.
After a brief stopover at the rundown café of Mexican head-turner Teresina (Baxter) results in Kitty showing her claws (jealous of the attentions accorded Dove, she steals from the proprietress) the morally offended dirt farmer sends her on her way and stays on at Teresina’s place as a hired-hand.
Cut to New Orleans’ French Quarter and the popular bordello
known as The Doll House run by no-nonsense lesbian Jo Courtney (Stanwyck), and
her devoted but ineffectual husband, a former carny strongman by the name of Achilles Schmidt
(Karl Swenson) who lost his legs in a train accident. The story's big shocker (to the
screenwriters perhaps, but certainly to no one with even a passing familiarity
with soap opera plotting) is that Dove’s virginal and virtuous Hallie is The Doll
House’s most desirable and sought-after prostitute … Jo categorically taking
top honors as Hallie’s most persistent and ardent pursuer.
|The composition of this shot pretty much sums up Walk on the Wild Side's secondary conflict|
Of course, when Dove finally reunites with his wild Texas love with whom he shared his first kiss and more: “Afterwards, in the moonlight...we danced like we was celebrating a miracle. A crazy kind of dance. And then we sang and shouted...like it wasn't real” —a ridiculous reminiscence rendered laughably inconceivable once we set eyes on the high-cheekboned grandness of Capucine—the romantically idealistic hayseed is a tad slow in catching on as to how Hallie manages to afford all those expensive Pierre Cardin-designed frocks from 30 years in the future, But when he does, heartbroken disillusionment gives way to the usual macho proprietary protectiveness.
|The intense dislike Capucine and Harvey had for one another is the stuff of legend|
You see, since the film regards Hallie’s lost virtue as something that has been taken from Dove, and sees him as the principally wronged party, it’s then up to him to take the necessary steps to secure and safeguard Hallie's soul and body...'cause that's what patriarchy demands. (As any pro-lifer will tell you—never directly, of course—women just aren't capable of handling decisions about what they choose to do with their own bodies for themselves.)
Resorting to his father's bible-thumping ways, Dove proselytizes ... I mean, explains to an understandably exasperated Teresina (who's busy meanwhile dousing her torch):
“In the Bible, Hosea fell in love with Gomer. She was a harlot. They got married but she couldn't stay away from men. Hosea got mad and threw her out. Sold her into slavery. But he couldn't get her out of his mind, so he went looking for her. When he found her, he brought her back home. But it was no good. Before long, she was up to her old tricks again. But he loved her anyway and he couldn't give her up. So he took her into the wilderness...away from temptation. Away from other men. And that's what I have to do with Hallie.”
|I'm sorry, but we're supposed to buy that these two stunning, continental-looking creatures spent even one minute in dustbowl Texas?|
Happily, by way of distraction we have the welcome reappearance of Kitty, the former boxcar good-time-girl transformed into a garter-snapping sexpot as the newest employee of The Doll House. Also on hand is chipper Southern belle Miss Precious (the always terrific Joanna Moore—Tatum O’Neal’s mom), a Doll House resident who sleeps on a confederate flag pillow and punctuates even the shortest sentences with “The Colonel always said….” Lastly, there's sexy, short-tempered strong-arm-man Oliver (Richard Rust of Homicidal), who has an eye for the ladies and suede gloves to keep his hands nice and unbruised when he roughs them up.
|Inquiring Minds Want to Know|
Menacing roughneck Oliver (Richard Rust) needs some answers from Kitty
Posters for Walk on the Wild Side exclaimed, “A side of life you never expected to see on the screen!”, which is not altogether false given you've got a 4-time Oscar-nominee playing one of the screen’s first lesbians (who's alive at the end, yet!) and the daring-for-its-time setting of a New Orleans brothel. The rest, alas, is what Hollywood has always done: a) Offer up endless reworkings of the Madonna-whore dichotomy as soap opera and love story, b) Promise to shock and scandalize while only serving up the same staunch conservatism and prudery.
|Joanna Moore as Miss Precious|
A personal favorite and incapable of giving a bad performance, this incandescent actress with the very sad life story is one of the bright spots in Walk on the Wild Side
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I'm not sure if the genre has been afforded any name other than "southern gothic," but whatever it's called, I am a major fan of the overheated sex and psychosis dramas of Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and Carson McCullers. When these southern-fried potboilers are crossed with a touch of the soap-opera overstatement associated with Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susann, and Sidney Sheldon ...well, I'm in 7th Heaven. Walk on the Wild Side has all the luridness of Williams, the pretentiousness of Inge, plus all the unintentional humor of anything bearing the stamp of Susann.
There's dialoguethat sounds as though it were written by a robot; overearnest performances that are nevertheless as limp as clothesline; the ever-present topic of sex which is hinted at and alluded to but never spoken of in even remotely direct terms; and clashing accents left and right—Texas drawl, Southern twang, Georgia singsong, French, British, and Mexican (sort of).
|Riding the Rails|
Jane Fonda looks a good deal like her father Henry in The Grapes of Wrath in this shot of Dove and Kitty catching a ride in a freight car
|We're asked to believe that Hallie, a woman who quotes Eliot and asks johns for Brancusi sculptures as gifts, ever had anything to do with a man as "basic" (read: boring) as Dove|
A point well taken, I concede. but it doesn't address the jarring incongruity of seeing 1960s bouffants and bullet bras stepping out of 1930s DeSotos.
|The late-great Juanita Moore as Mama|
Where to start? To say that I enjoy all the performances in Walk on the Wild Side is not at all saying that many of them are any good. If anyone emerges from the chaos with their dignity intact, it's Barbara Stanwyck. Not really called upon to deliver more than a professional, standard-issue Stanwyck tough-broad performance, she's nevertheless the most believably passionate person in the entire film for me. She wants Hallie and I don't doubt it for a minute. I'm actually rather crazy about Barbara Stanwyck as an actress, anyway. She's one of my favorite classic-era actresses.
|Anne Baxter's terrible Mexican accent ("Wha hoppen?") never fails to incite giggles|
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Is there some axiom that says the cooler the opening credits sequence, the more likely one is apt to be let down with the film? Outside of the brilliant and stylish art-deco title sequence for the 1974 screen adaptation of Mame which got me all hyped-up only to then lead me down a path of soft-focus croaking, Saul Bass' snazzy, jazz-tinged title sequence for Walk on the Wild Side (assisted immeasurably by the Oscar-nominated Elmer Bernstein, Mack David theme music) sets one up for a film that never materializes.
|If you've seen the movie, the question that immediately comes to mind is, who took that photo on the left?|
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Walk on the Wild Side is, like the 1976 US/USSR collaboration that resulted in the dreadful musical mistake that was The Bluebird, a film whose backstory is infinitely more interesting than the motion picture released. Conflict-of-interest deals were behind much of Walk on the Wild Side's grab-bag casting (Laurence Harvey was being promoted by the wife of the head of Columbia Studios, while Capucine was being promoted by producer Charles K. Feldman). The film was plagued by constant rewrites, deleted scenes (the internet is full of rumors regarding a curiously missing-in-action hairbrush spanking scene between Stanwyck and Capucine...be still my heart), costly delays, and a cast that was often openly antagonistic to one another as well as to the director.
|Nine years later, Jane Fonda would win a Best Actress Oscar for playing a prostitute in Klute (1971)|
You'd think a little bit of all that sexual democracy might have wound up on the screen, but no. At best, Walk on the Wild Side remains an entertaining but tame timepiece and cultural curio for those interested in seeing what kind of film Hollywood thought it was ready to tackle during the early days of the abandonment of the Motion Picture Production Code.
|Walk on the Mild Side|