Tuesday, July 2

Walk on the Wild Side: Favorite Movie #10

1962 Drama
From Columbia Pictures
Directed by Edward Dmytryk

Laurence Harvey
Jane Fonda
Anne Baxter
Barbara Stanwyck
Joanna Moore
Richard Rust
Donald Barry
Karl Swenson
Ken Lynch
Juanita Moore

You could probably compile all the 50 Favorite Films lists across the land and you would not find this film on any one of them, much less at number 10.  I know that.  But I am an ardent fan.  I am not hanging my head in shame or preparing to turn in my Number 1 Movie Fan badge.  I am, in fact, sitting here smiling, full of myself that so few think much of it and that includes quite a number of those who were part of its making.

In 1962 I was an assistant manager at a Santa Monica movie theater called Criterion where the film opened.  I think I must have seen bits and pieces of it scores of times while on that job and I think it's a safe bet to say I have likely seen it in its entirety 50 times.  Before you reach over to pick up your teeth, let me add that statement is probably true for all the films yet to come in this favorites list.

At the time I first saw this movie, I was already aware of Capucine, having seen her in Song Without End and North to Alaska and I was pretty smitten.  But when I saw her portrayal here of Hallie Gerard, a bisexual prostitute working in a New Orleans brothel, I was over the moon.  Frankly, it's safe to say Capucine and Hallie are so intertwined for me... both creatures of silky elegance, a fusion of a beautiful, mysterious actress with a lovely, ethereal, damaged character from the 1930s.  I never looked back.

Hallie waking up at 3 pm after an exhausting night

Hallie is loved by Jo Courtney, played by Barbara Stanwyck, a married lesbian who is the madam, and Dove Linkhorn, in the form of Laurence Harvey, a drifter from Texas who loved and lost her because of his devotion to his ill father and he has now come to reclaim her.  Dove, in turn, is loved by Teresina, played by Anne Baxter, the proprietor of a roadside diner outside of New Orleans, and Kitty, sexed up by Jane Fonda, who was originally with Dove on the road but is now a hooker at the Doll House, where most of the action takes place.  It's Dove's reclaiming issue that sets the wheels in motion for the second half of the film and toward our very dramatic conclusion.

A Walk on the Wild Side was a novel written by Nelson Algren.  It featured prostitutes, madams, pimps, druggies, alcoholics, thieves, abortionists and any number of denizens of The Big Easy's underbelly.  Algren wrote about them in the form of some sort of saturnine poetry.  He cared about them despite their lowly circumstances.  Somehow from the beginning, you just knew things were not going to work out for a few of the main characters.  While that last statement also applies to the film, it differs from the book, limiting but still packing a punch.  Characters have been deleted from the film, some parts shortened.  Dove was the focal interest in the book and that changed for the film to include Hallie.  And wasn't I happy?

I had never heard of the book or the Detroit-born Algren (who also wrote the less-than-cheerful The Man with the Golden Arm) at the time that I saw the movie was on the schedule to come to the theater where I worked.  I knew it would thrill me no end, not only because of Capucine, but because I was pretty gaga over Barbara Stanwyck and Laurence Harvey as well.  Once I saw the film, I had to add Jane Fonda to that list too.  So I rushed out and bought the book and devoured it before seeing the movie.  Admittedly I wanted to shower when I finished it but I was hot for the film.

Critics of the film have often called the acting wooden, the actors miscast.  Not to me.  I've heard the story was heavy-handed and melodramatic and I say that could be true, I suppose, but why snarl when saying it?  I'm guessing that life in a bordello could get pretty heavy-handed and it might be melodramatic that a lesbian madam might go a little bonkers when her favorite filly is putting out for the male customers and has a mind to take up with an old flame.  If it did not gain a lot of popularity in some quarters (I'll bet it was a hit in the French Quarter), it certainly could lie in the fact that it's pretty much a downer.  There wasn't a laugh to be had.  I never found it to be quite the downer that others might have seen, however, because I thought it was a sanitized version of Algren's steamy novel.  There was simply no way to transfer it to the screen in restrictive Production Code-oriented 1962 and if I am critical of anything, it would be that this film came out too soon. 

I have read that this was the first time a lesbian was played on the screen, at least by an actress of Stanwyck's stature.  I don't know whether that is true or not but I will say the lesbianism would have gone over the heads of most filmgoers of the day.  It was basically portrayed in a fairly subtle way.  Today they would be climbing all over one another. 

What I do find fascinating is that while Jo and Hallie were lesbian or bisexual, so were the actresses playing them, Capucine and Stanwyck.  Now that was a bold move for 1962.  While we're at it, Harvey was also bisexual in real life, but not in the film.

The real acting came with the love scenes between Capucine and Laurence Harvey.  They were both passionate about their hatred of one another.  He particularly for the rest of his life took the time to level buckshot at the French actress. She was like kissing the side of a beer bottle, he would crow. She found him to be conceited and supercilious and laughed because she thought he confused himself with Laurence Olivier.  Jane Fonda said that doing a scene with him (and she had most of her scenes with Harvey) was like working alone... only worse.  Stanwyck laid into him in front of most of the company for being late.

She was his lost love but there no love lost for these two

To be fair, Capucine was a source of annoyance for a number of her fellow actors because they not only didn't think she could act but spat that she was rather shoved down their throats because she was the girlfriend of Charles K. Feldman, the film's powerful producer.  It was his film and his girlfriend was going to play the lead.

It was apparently not a happy experience for anyone.  There was so much tension on the set that director Edward Dmytryk apparently couldn't take it anymore, walking off the set, not to return.  I understand Blake Edwards actually completed filming without screen credit.
None of it, of course, produced a scintilla of consequence in my life.

While staying with and working for Teresina at her roadside cafe, Dove gets a phone call that is answering his ad searching for Hallie.  He must have been one naive dude to not get that her life at the Doll House was a bit more than a sorority house for beautiful coeds.  Hallie is reluctant to take up with Dove again because she finds him too innocent to level with.  He takes a dislike to Madam Jo and the feeling is mutual.  Once Dove does find out that Hallie is a hooker, he is determined to spirit her away.  He doesn't reckon with what a tough dame Jo truly is.

What the film may be most famous for is its Oscar-nominated title song, music by Elmer Bernstein and lyrics by Hal David.  Sung by Brook Benton, it evoked the jazzy, gospel sounds so familiar to New Orleans.  (I suspect most of the film was shot at Columbia's Hollywood studios.)  Sinners, hear what I'm saying.  Sinners.  Hear what I'm saying.  One day of praying and six nights of fun.  The odds against going to heaven six to one.  Bernstein's entire score for the film impressed me.

Then there's Saul Bass' superb and superbly famous opening titles featuring a vicious fight between a white cat and a black one.  Few who have seen the film could forget it.

So there you have it.  Number 10 of all the gazillions of films I have seen.  It's a favorite like my cherished bankie when I was a mere little one.  Who can explain it?  Well, let's see.  It took place in the south, it starred my favorite actress at the time and for years afterward, it starred three others actors whose work I rarely missed (with Stanwyck turning in her usual exemplary performance), it had a love story that I found compelling with respect to longing and regret and it had great music.  What's more, it was loosely based on a book I quite liked.

And it's a little thing, but of ALL my 50 favorite films, it has my favorite title.  Walk on the Wild Side.  Just gets my juices flowing.

Review of The Lone Ranger



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