This colorful gangland drama was made by a studio in transition, in the middle of a crippling musician’s strike. Robert Taylor and Cyd Charisse were MGM’s last contract stars; her costumes and dance numbers are wildly anachronistic for the period setting and she refused to take direction from Nicholas Ray, whose career was coming apart at the seams. Yet the maverick director must have done something right as the show has remained a favorite of audiences and critics. Co-starring Lee J. Cobb, John Ireland and Corey Allen. The WAC’S remastered Blu-ray is a beauty.
Warner Archive Collection
1958 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 99 min. / Available at Amazon.com / Street Date November 30, 2021 / 21.99
Starring: Robert Taylor, Cyd Charisse, Lee J. Cobb, John Ireland, Kent Smith, Claire Kelly, Corey Allen, David Opatoshu, Barbara Lang, Myrna Hansen, Betty Utey.
Cinematography: Robert Bronner
Art Director: John McSweeney Jr.
Original Music: Jeff Alexander
Written by George Wells from a story by Leo Katcher
Produced by Joe Pasternak
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Studio moguls had dominated Hollywood just a few years before but the 1950s saw a major power shift. More films were shot independently and merely distributed by studios, whose backlots were turned over to TV production. The studios dropped their rosters of contract performers, turning all into freelancers. By 1958 the last big names on MGM’s roster were Robert Taylor and Cyd Charisse, who were starred together in a glossy gangster picture with music that ignored current moviegoing trends.
In Metrocolor and CinemaScope, Nicholas Ray’s grand and glossy Party Girl has a split personality. The script and setting are old-fashioned but the costumes and musical numbers have nothing to do with its 1930s period setting. The opening peeks into the nightlife of a Chicago enlivened by suggestions of content not seen since pre-Code days. A line of showgirls enters a swank mansion as ‘guests’ for an informal 2am party. A greeter hands them complimentary makeup compacts, each containing a hundred-dollar bill. Each dancer discards the metal box in the ladies’ room and finds a place in her clothing to hide the money. It might be a rough night . . .
The basic story extends 1932’s The Mouthpiece with more threatening gangster activity. The mob’s corrupt lawyer Tommy Farrell (Robert Taylor) and club dancer Vicki Gaye (musical star Cyd Charisse) take money from Rico Angelo (Lee J. Cobb), an Al Capone kingpin type who keeps a tight leash on associates that know too much about his operation. Vicki picks up gratuities for attending mob parties, where she must rely on her wits to avoid being ‘personally entertained’ by loutish guests like Rico’s lieutenant, murderer Louis Canetto (John Ireland). A cripple from childhood, Tommy Farrell is now an unprincipled courtroom con-man who uses gimmicks like his own bum leg to gain sympathy with the jury. His ability to extricate Rico’s men from serious, even capital charges makes him an irreplaceable asset to the mob.
Tommy and Vicki’s relationship blooms despite an initial exchange of insults — both are Rico Angelo’s kept property. Each is ‘crippled’ — Tommy with his bad leg and Vicki from an abusive sexual experience in childhood. Adopting a more positive outlook on life, Tommy resolves to seek a remedy for his limp at a clinic in Sweden. He decides to quit just as Rico wants him to defend the obviously psychopathic Cookie La Motte (Corey Allen of Private Property). Rico is at heart also unstable, unpredictable: when Jean Harlow gets married, he shoots holes through her photo. He’s a hearty pal and generous patron until Tommy and Vicki stop saying ‘yes’ to his every request. Then there’s no telling what Rico will do — even the brutal Louis Canetto fears him.
Party Girl was a work-for-hire assignment for director Nicholas Ray, who hadn’t had a real hit since Rebel Without a Cause. Rumors abounded that Ray’s drinking, gambling and other problems contributed to his dropping out of his previous picture Wind Across the Everglades. News of that debacle spread through the industry. Ray said he was attracted to the script because its two leading characters are morally and physically compromised. But he may have just been doing his best to keep working.
Several of Ray’s earlier pictures earned him high praise as a sensitive director who put special qualities on the screen: In a Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar, Bigger Than Life. But how much of the producer-driven Party Girl bears the director’s personal stamp? The show was pre-planned to use generic studio sets, including large dance stages with huge curtains that have little to do with the 1930s period. Ray admitted that he had no control over the film’s overall style, and that he cast only a few small roles. That perhaps accounts for some obvious choices like Vito Scotti as an excitable Italian and Jack Lambert as a sullen bartender. Ray’s first consideration was his actors. We can tell that he was trying to give Corey Allen a big break. He said he was pleasantly surprised when Robert Taylor took the role seriously, worked with him and even studied up on leg injuries. Ray complimented Taylor’s technique by calling him a Method actor.
But Cyd Charisse wanted nothing to do with her director, and preferred the company of her choreographer and her producer Pasternak. Perhaps she had been warned about Ray’s weird and self-destructive behavior, or maybe they were just incompatible. Sometimes described as a cold actress, Ms. Charisse does generate some sympathy in the role. But she criticized Ray’s direction, citing as ‘meaningless’ Ray’s idea that Vicki Gaye should cry into a bouquet of fresh roses, leaving drops of water on her face.
French film criticism was quick to ascribe any interesting element in a film to its ‘auteur,’ but much of Party Girl would seem to have been out of Ray’s hands. At key dramatic high points Vicki Gaye repeatedly appears in bright scarlet dresses, which reminds many viewers of her spectacular moment in Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon, bursting forth from a dark coat wearing a similar red dress. We may also assume that those ‘color effects’ were Ray’s doing, when such details may have been planned by producer Pasternak in concert with the art directors, Charisse, and Robert Sidney, who staged her dance numbers.
Those dance numbers are anachronistic late ’50s creations on which Ray likely had little or no input. It’s not just that he’d object to the clash with the film’s period setting; they may have been second-unit material filmed when he wasn’t even around. Because of the music strike they were choreographed in Mexico. The actual performances were filmed at the end of the shoot, with Cyd Charisse working to a bongo track. André Previn didn’t compose the accompanying music tracks until later, uncredited. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nicholas Ray’s defenders would describe the musical numbers as taking place in a stylistic symbolic dimension, apart from the rest of the movie’s period gangland setting.
Nicholas Ray didn’t claim to be the film’s ‘auteur,’ acknowledging his low level of personal involvement. Outside of the key performance scenes this is a producer’s movie. Given a choice, Ray would likely have found a substitute for the lame montage depicting Tommy and Vicki’s fling on the Continent, with its rear-projected stock shots of European capitols and beaches. Sam Fuller did a better job with his awkward ‘home movie’ European tour in The Naked Kiss.
Yet Party Girl’s dramatic scenes still show Nicholas Ray’s sensitive touch. We care about Tommy and Vicki’s relationship, under threat from Rico Angelo. Ray’s violent scenes go beyond MGM’s usual restraint, as when Rico Angelo seriously threatens to smash Tommy’s leg with a crowbar — and then laughs off the gesture, as if he were only kidding.
One scene is taken from a notorious real-life Al Capone incident that Roger Corman depicted more accurately in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and that Brian De Palma revisited in his The Untouchables. At a testimonial party, Rico flies into a rage and beats one of his subordinates senseless with a miniature silver pool cue. Ray claimed that he cast a Zen Buddhist (!) to play the victim, so that he wouldn’t flinch in anticipation of Rico’s attack!
The final confrontation also benefits from expert staging and blocking, that we will fully credit to Nicholas Ray. Tommy Farrell offers himself up to be assassinated, hoping to inspire Rico to see reason and relent. Rico instead tries to force Tommy’s cooperation by threatening to burn Vicki’s face with acid. To demonstrate, Rico first pours the acid on a scarlet Christmas decoration that matches the color of Vicki’s dress. When Tommy sees Vicki led blindfolded into the room, he at first fears that she’s already been disfigured.
Party Girl is the kind of non-musical star vehicle that Cyd Charisse seldom received earlier in her MGM career. English critics read additional meanings in the film’s visual texture. Colin McArthur used the term ‘meat display’ to descibe the nightclub floor show from which Lois Canetto selects female flesh to entertain his boss. Since the story revolves around the different ways that Vicki & Tommy sell themselves for Rico’s money, it’s not difficult to extrapolate a critique of the American rat race. Two years later, when Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond wove the exact same theme into their The Apartment, some American critics condemned it as immoral: they’ll accept a sordid theme in a stylized genre film and reject it in a film about ‘people like us.’ Unlike some of Nicholas Ray’s ill-fated couples, Vicki & Tommy ultimately prevail.
Party Girl at least coheres, unlike some of late-career Ray’s more personal but severely compromised films. The best place to read about Nicholas Ray’s volatile career is Nicholas Ray, An American Journey by Bernard Eisenschitz and translated by Tom Milne, Farber and Farber, London 1993. It is highly recommended reading.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Party Girl is a beauty, with rich color and contrast that will make us forget faded, off color transfers from the past. Those anachronistic dance numbers may be all wrong for 1932 but there’s no denying that they really pop; when the camera cranes up for a steep down-angle on Charisse’s lithe body, we wonder if Nicholas Ray was involved somehow — similar shots appear in his other late career movies. The added resolution brings out far more detail in wide scenes, allowing us to read more faces in wide shots. That really is David Opatashu as Rico’s henpecked secretary-assistant.
The audio track is solid, including the title song warbled by Tony Martin, Cyd Charisse’s husband. The titles play out over a dull painting of a city-scape; we wonder if Ray would have preferred they be spread across a longer cut of the opening floor show scene. The movie is short on standard gangland action until the final act, when Rico Angelo orders a number of hits to eliminate associates that might testify against him — Vicki, Tommy, even Cookie La Motte.
We wonder if Ray directed the brisk montage of tommy-gun rubouts, or if they were the work of a second-unit director. The string of slayings is every bit as creative as the gun-downs in the Godfather movies. An angle showing a pair of hoods blasted as they try to catch a train is particularly inspired; critic Colin McArthur pointed out that an almost identically-blocked action cut occurs in Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James. Turner Classic Movies’ excellent collages of film clips frequently use the gangland rubout moment.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: November 25, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson