Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Strangest Movie With An All-Star Cast

Movie poster for "Walk on the Wild Side," the 1962 film that keeps you shaking your head in wonder.

I don't know what put it into my mind, but I've had the crazy film Walk on the Wild Side (Columbia Pictures 1962) running through my head this week.  This film has always astonished me.  It has so much going for it:  its title song is a real wow by Elmer Bernstein.  It's cast includes Laurence Harvey, Jane Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, Anne Baxter, and Capucine.

Its opening and closing credits, with the black cat, are really fabulous.  Unfortunately, the rest of the movie has always left me with my mouth hanging open in surprise.  How did they manage it?
How did they make such a bad/weird movie out of such interesting material?

I guess when they cast Laurence Harvey, a British actor who always looks like he's into kinky things in his spare time, as a 1930s American cowboy, they were really on their way to strange with this thing.  When he encounters Jane Fonda, dressed as a boy, and he doesn't immediately recognize she's a girl, we're now beyond the point of no return. This is one of her first films and she's trying so hard and over-acting with such enthusiasm it makes you want to give her a hug and tell her she really is okay.

When they stop into a cafe run by Anne Baxter, who plays some sort of an ethnic widowed person in a bad black wig (I honestly can't remember if she's supposed to be Spanish, Cajun, or Greek, but no matter, her accent is just as bad as Laurence Harvey's--he's still trying to sound like a Texas cowboy--so they're a good pair, in an odd sort of way) the plot thickens into a real slough.

He ends up staying at Anne Baxter's house/cafe while he looks for his old girlfriend from Texas, who has moved to New Orleans and who, for some reason no one ever satisfactorily explains, speaks with a thick French accent.  Which is only natural since his old girlfriend is played by the French model/actress Capucine, who can't act anyway, so she, fortunately doesn't try to put on an American accent.   Oh, and its the 1930s, but she dressed by Pierre Cardin in 1960s styles.

There's a whole lesbian subtext between Barbara Stanwyck, who plays the madam of a New Orleans brothel, where (wow what a coincidence!)  Jane Fonda and Capucine end up working together, which Laurence Harvey discovers when he finally escapes the clutches of the plump, ethnic Anne Baxter.  (Baxter at least had a reason for her plumpness:  she was pregnant, and the movie shoot went on so long she had to start standing behind the counter in the cafe to keep from looking like an ad for maternity clothes.)

I've discovered an even stranger bit of trivia about this film: Edmund Morris, the prize-winning biographer of Teddy Roosevelt (who later wrote a very disappointing book about Ronald Reagan) is one of those "credited" with the screenplay.  I wonder if he's ever spoken about it in interviews? (Edmund, are you out there? Write this blog--stat--with your fascinating memories!)

With Harvey as "Dove Linkhorn" and Fonda as "Kitty Twist" it is, I can safely say, unforgettable. In every way.

If Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, William Inge, (and Edmund Morris--don't forget Ed!) ever had a slumber party (and they should have, oh, they should!) this would be the movie they would show at the sleepover. Man, I would like to have a bottle of wine and hide in the closet and take notes on that conversation!

I nominate Walk on the Wild Side for one of TCM's "Essentials."  It is Hollywood at its most inexplicable and ghastly and you can't beat that for a good time.

"A brilliant title sequence heralds the dreariest and most verbose of self-conscious melodramas, quite missing the sensational effect promised by the advertising." Leslie Halliwell's Film Guide

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peretzklein said...

Now you've got me curious, so I'll watch it on line. Your description of the movie is quite arousing.

Robin Chapman said...

Arousing? I can't speak for anyone else, but amusing? Yes.

Don Meuler said...

I've begun breaking up my remaining time on Earth into two-hour segments, and I'm not sure I have one to spare. Darn near curious, though...

Robin Chapman said...

If you've already seen Plan Nine From Outer Space, then you won't want to say you've missed this one ...