A violent, torrid ripped-from-the-headlines look at our tumultuous past, 1958’s vastly underrated PARTY GIRL, directed by Nicholas Ray, blasts its way onto 1080p Blu-Ray, thanks to the gang at The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment. It’s a suitable end of the year review, as the last act plays out between Christmas and New Year’s.
Ray had never tackled a gangster flick before, but he HAD given us some splendid doses of film noir; thus, his retelling of a nasty American fairy tale is loaded with mean street grammar and dark (sic) sintax. Being in color, PARTY GIRL likewise becomes a prime entry in a favorite sub-genre of mine: the contradictory wonderful world of color-noir. It’s additionally brilliantly framed in CinemaScope (a Ray artistic specialty), so, for me, it’s win/win/win all the way.
The narrative, as fashioned by George Wells (from a story by Leo Katcher), is based on real-life characters: infamous Chicago baddie and St. Valentine’s Day practitioner Al Capone (going under the moniker of Rico Angelo), and noted mob mouthpiece Bill Falcon (christened Tommy Farrell for this outing). Indeed, while even casual movie-goers are familiar with Capone’s cinematic exploits
(even here Rico does a rendition of Al’s notorious baseball bat head smashing dinner ceremony, subsequently made famous in 1987’s The Untouchables), viewers might be surprised to learn that the Falcon/Farrell character, too, has been given the Hollywood treatment at least four times prior to this entry (Penthouse, The Mouthpiece, The Man Who Talked Too Much, and Illegal).
The title character, aka smart, savvy, and sassy Vicki Gaye, works the grind shifts at the otherwise fairly upscale Golden Rooster, a 1920’s mob-owned nitery that conversely functions as their select-a-whore meat market and legitimate show biz enterprise. Partying kingpins and out-of-town talent choose their women from the chorus line, who, in turn, are paid $100 for their participation in an after hours gathering at Angelo’s posh apartment. Hard, mercenary and gorgeous Gaye attends these events for the cash, rationalizing that most of the thugs are too drunk or otherwise high to try anything.
At a recent bash, she meets equally hard, mercenary and cynical Farrell – as repulsed by the surrounding scum as she is. But, it’s a living (and a good one). Farrell has a Jack the Ripper black bag of lawyer tricks that he uses to work over simpleton juries, and it’s made him rich – and populated the underworld with monstrous psychos, rapists, and hopheads. At first, antagonistic opposing forces Farrell and Gaye engage in verbal combat – attempting to figure out which one of them is the biggest whore. It’s a draw, and they both fall in love. Farrell, however, carries some legal and physical baggage: a marriage to an estranged beauteous harpy and his crippled, mangled lower torso, injured when, as a teen on a dare, he got chewed up in the mechanical gears of a hydraulic bridge. How they overcome these traumas (if they can) make up the remainder of the piece, balanced by brutal screen savagery and genuinely stunningly-framed musical numbers, showcasing female lead Cyd Charisse, admittedly more 1950’s Vegas than 1920’s Chicago. Ray, it should be noted, was well aware of this, and opted for authentic period dance sequences, but Metro, Charisse and choreographer Robert Sidney won out. Ray composed the scope images and had input on the imaginative color palette, but let the dance director and his star do the rest; he later referred to the dances as crap sequences.
Nick, while unhappy with the musical portions, nevertheless still delivered the goods. And he had a wonderful cast to help. Stars Robert Taylor (as Farrell) and Cyd Charisse aside, it was like a rogue’s gallery jackpot for the director, with heinous Rico portrayed by Lee J. Cobb at his most vicious…and loudest (the same year he played another memorable psychotic in Ray’s pal Tony Mann’s superb Man of the West); also on-board are John Ireland, Kent Smith, Claire Kelly, Lewis Charles, David Opatoshu, Barbara Lang, Dick Cherney, Barrie Chase, Jack Lambert, Stuart Holmes, Sam McDaniel, Benny Rubin, Vito Scotti, Vaughn Taylor, Herb Vigran, and Carmen Phillips. Most memorably are brief appearances by Myrna Hansen (her best role) as Vicki’s doomed, impregnated roommate and Rebel with a Cause‘s Corey Allen as a maniac killer (it’s the first time I had ever seen classic era gunsels portrayed as the teen juvenile delinquents that they obviously were).
As for Taylor and Charisse, they’re both excellent in their roles. Ray told me a fascinating story about PARTY GIRL when, while working as his assistant sound editor (on We Can’t Go Home Again), I mentioned how much I enjoyed this movie (there was lots of down time; often we spent all night holed up in a lower East Side editing room). After calling me an idiot (for liking this movie), Ray admitted he was, at the outset, a bit apprehensive about working with Taylor and Charisse. “MGM had undergone a new regime, and they wanted all the old-time, glossy names out. This was a work-off-their-contract picture. I thought they might be trouble. I couldn’t have been more wrong, or surprised. Charisse, although often as cold as the role she played, and Taylor both did professional jobs, didn’t look down at the project and, I guess, gave it their all. Most amazing was Taylor’s dedication to the project. I had taken him to see my osteologist for research, and later remember arriving early one morning on the set, and seeing Bob poring over a portfolio of medical charts and drawings. He had become borderline obsessed about how an injury such as his character’s had would cause him to limp. He wanted to get that walk right. Also, after he goes to Europe for a 1920’s hip replacement, how would he walk then? How would he gradually improve? Shows you can’t judge a book by its cover. Robert Fucking Taylor! Old school MGM Hollywood acting more Method than a truckload of Dean and Brando wannabes!”
Truth be told, PARTY GIRL was a direct-to-the-nabe picture, produced by Joe Pasternak (who, at the time, handled much of the Metro second tier product, albeit with panache). While Taylor had, in recent years, starred in blockbusters like Ivanhoe and Knights of the Round Table and Charisse had costarred opposite Kelly and Astaire (the last pairing being as late as the previous year’s Silk Stockings), these types of movies were no longer on the studio’s stock-in-trade roster. From what I gather, PARTY GIRL, was a generally pleasant shoot – almost a family gathering, with Charisse’s husband Tony Martin singing the boisterous title tune, and Ray’s new bride, Betty Utey, appearing as one of Charisse’s coworkers (a knockout blonde, dubbed Cindy Consuelo).
I mentioned to Ray that I had never seen a decent print of PARTY GIRL, every version either being an atrociously panned-and-scanned TV edition or a MetroColor-faded beet red scope revival/collector’s copy (the latter pissing him off, as he had worked very carefully on the color scheme). I think Nick would be flabbergasted at this new Warner Archive restoration. Crystal clear CinemaScope with beautiful popping colors (kudos to d.p. Robert Bronner, a favorite cameraman of Charisse’s) accompanied by a truly fine score credited to Jeff Alexander, but actually composed by Andre Previn. The only carp is that the Blu-Ray quality reveals the one sloppy aspect of the production: the WTF rear-screen projection. While costumes, set design and vintage cars are A-1, the backgrounds display cringe-worthy Fifties sedans cruising behind and alongside the era’s primo flivvers (plus one big scripted historical inaccuracy: Cobb’s Angelo is fixated upon Jean Harlow, who wouldn’t become a star for nearly another decade; shame on you, Metro). Oh, well.
PARTY GIRL. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. CAT # B09HMYQXBL. SRP: $21.99.
This title and others can be purchased at the Warner Archive Amazon Store or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.