Saturday, July 14, 2007

Miss Vicki Gaye

I watched Nicholas Ray's Party Girl the other day, a 1958 MGM production that in its own bizarre way sums up the state of the Hollywood studio system in 1958. It was made, the legend goes, to burn off contracts: Robert Taylor was no longer a bankable star and Cyd Charisse wasn't needed at the studio now that it was scaling back on musicals. The producer, Joe Pasternak, had made a lot of money producing family-friendly musicals, and with the collapse of that type of film, he was looking for a way to stay viable. And Ray was probably doing this film for the money, as he frequently did: he was (writer Philip Yordan once said) "always broke" and accepted some strange projects when he needed work.

The result is a truly weird mish-mosh of a movie: it's a glossy CinemaScope color movie, but it has a noir-ish plot about gangsters, but it also has glamorous musical numbers for Charisse, but it also has a lot of brutal violence, but it's also a soapy romance complete with an operation that miraculously cures the hero. Yes, it's a noir musical comedy drama gangster romance. Oh, and it's set in the early '30s but the musical numbers and many of the costumes make no attempt to even suggest the period.

The dialogue by Oscar-winning MGM veteran George Wells is often quite good, and the movie looks pretty good because it has all the MGM studio machinery behind it. But the plot doesn't make much sense, the characters' motivations are... uh... erratic. It's really basically a B-movie run through the A-picture machinery by a studio that no longer knew what to do for an A-picture.

Auteurist critics loved this film, or used to, because Ray was one of their heroes and they saw this as one of his ultimate triumphs of his incredible sense of style over the substance of a bad script. But that's unfair to the script (which, as I said, is not bad considering the inherent flaws in the story) and too nice to Ray, who doesn't seem to have been very concerned with making the picture make any kind of sense. He doesn't give the actors a lot of help, either: Robert Taylor is really good -- he was often underrated, I think, but as the embittered mob lawyer he almost makes you forget he was ever a matinee idol -- but Cyd Charisse is left to fend for herself, and her line readings are even more wooden than they usually were.

However, Charisse did get one thing out of the film: a chance to cut loose in her musical numbers in a way that she rarely could in actual musicals. By 1958, censorship restrictions were becoming looser, and unlike musicals, this was not a film aimed at a family audience; that allowed her and Ray to make the two dance numbers unusually suggestive. Or more specifically, Charisse and the choreographer get suggestive while Ray goes wild with color, light, and tricks with the CinemaScope screen (like filling the entire frame with Charisse's billowing dress).

1 comment:

Bill Peschel said...

I'm checking out Frascella and Weisel's "Live Fast, Die Young" a bio about "Rebel." The authors love Ray, and they say little about it except that it was Ray's last official Hollywood project (he later tried to do "55 Days in Peking" and was fired), and he married an actress and dance from PG, Betty Utey.