Friday, August 22, 2014

The Wild Party (1975)

          It’s difficult to decide which aspect of The Wild Party is more bizarre—the idea that costume-drama specialists Merchant Ivory Productions could ever make anything justifying the adjective “wild,” or the idea that a Merchant Ivory film was distributed by drive-in suppliers American International Pictures. Adding to the overall strangeness of the piece is the subject matter. Set in 1920s Hollywood, the film concerns a debauched soiree thrown by an overweight silent-movie comedian. And yet The Wild Party is not based on the real-life scandal involving Fatty Arbuckle, an overweight silent-movie comedian who was accused of rape and murder. Why anyone thought it wise to film a story that sorta-kinda resembled the notorious Arbuckle case is beyond understanding. In fact, it’s challenging to discern the reasons why The Wild Party exists. Instead of being provocative and rough and sexy, the picture is chaste and genteel and tame. So even though it’s a handsomely produced film that offers a colorful window into the culture of 1920s Hollywood, the movie is mechanical and sterile. Without blood pumping the veins of something like this, what’s the point?
          Based on a narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March and written for the screen by Walter Marks (as opposed to Merchant Ivory’s usual scribe, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala), The Wild Party revolves around Jolly Grimm (James Coco), a man out of time. Although the industry has shifted to sound films, Jolly has invested most of his money in a new silent production, set to be his comeback after a five-year screen absence. To make matters worse, Jolly has grown distant from his sexy live-in mistress, Queenie (Raquel Welch). The comedian throws a huge party so he can present his new movie to studio heads, but as soon as the screening gets underway, it becomes clear no one is interested. Concurrently, Queenie becomes infatuated with a handsome party guest, Dale (Perry King). Eventually, the bash devolves into drunkenness, sex, and tragedy.
          Tonally, The Wild Party is a mess. At the beginning, Jolly’s writer friend, James (David Dukes), delivers rhymed voiceover to introduce the various characters, and James even speaks to the camera periodically. As this half-hearted trope fades away, the movie segues into unnecessarily long musical numbers, such as when Queenie performs a novelty number called “Singapore Sally” for the party guests. By the time The Wild Party ends, the filmmakers strive for some sort of bittersweet lyricism. These varied narrative elements don’t gel any better than the performances. Coco is robust and even somewhat poignant, but Welch is as amateurish as ever, despite looking magnificent in her Marcel Wave hairdo and slinky dresses. Among the supporting cast, artificiality and stiffness reign, though B-movie actress Tiffany Bolling tries to invest her role of a forsaken woman with pathos.

The Wild Party: FUNKY


Will Errickson said...

I had no idea the March poem had been made into a movie! It really is a splendid narrative. The edition illustrated by Art Spiegelman is excellent.

D said...

This film was part of American International's attempt to go "legit" again. Theatrical producers Edgar Lansbury & Joseph Beruh ( "Godspell") were the producers and the scriptwriter was Walter Marks ( better known as a Broadway composer "Golden Rainbow" and "Bajour" ) almost immediately the production was a troubled one and relationships between the behind the camera creatives and the actors were acrimonious. Resulting in lawsuits, arguments about final cut etc. It's a miracle it got released at all and it's a film that Merchant/Ivory have all but disowned.