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Walk on the Wild Side

Walk on the Wild Side(1962)

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teaser Walk on the Wild Side (1962)

"A side of life you never expected to see on the screen!"
Tag line for Walk on the Wild Side

What side of life that was is open to debate. Certainly whenagent-turned-producer Charles K. Feldman brought Nelson Algren's novel tothe screen in 1962, he intended to introduce new subject matter --including prostitution and lesbianism -- only recently allowed on screenafter revisions to the Production Code. But by the time his fleet ofwriters was finished transforming Algren's slice-of-life novel into ascreenplay, it bore little resemblance to human experience. The best partof the film was Saul Bass's ingenious credits sequence, during which ablack cat meanders through a series of back alleys. If Feldman had wanted to take advantage of the screen's newpermissiveness, he would have done better to have director Edward Dmytrykfilm the off-screen action involving the cast and production team.

Director Edward Dmytryk hadn't had a hit in years, and hadn't directedsince the mega-flop of his 1959 remake of The Blue Angel starring May Britt. He hadhoped for a comeback directing Clark Gable in an adaptation of MichaelBarrett's novel Appointment at Zahrain, but the actor's sudden deathhad put an end to that project. Feldman, who was also Dmytryk's agent, hadbeen after him to direct Walk on the Wild Side for some time, butscheduling problems had kept him from agreeing. Now, he not only had theopening, he needed a hit. He even signed a seven-year representation dealto get the job.

Another factor delaying production was finding financing, which wouldn't beforthcoming until Feldman came up with a script that could pass theProduction Code. He went through six writers, including noted playwrightClifford Odets. Finally, Production Code changes in response to studiopressure to pass The Children's Hour (1961) and other films hintingat homosexuality, made it a little easier to come up with a script. Eventhen, there were re-writes. Dmytryk spent two weeks with one of theindustry's most acclaimed script doctors, Ben Hecht, who polished thedialogue but received no credit. Unfortunately, the re-writes continuedduring shooting, with Feldman trying to sneak back in everything that hadbeen cut for the censors. The scenes he sent Dmytryk were basically soft coreporn, and the director routinely discarded them, with the cast's fullapproval.

Of course, the cast was another part of the problem. Feldman had filled itlargely with actors he represented, so that he would get an agent'scommission along with his share of any profits. Eventually, the ScreenActors Guild would forbid agents to produce while still activelyrepresenting talent, a rule largely inspired by Feldman's behavior. Beforethat, however, Feldman cast 35-year-old Englishman Laurence Harvey as aSouthern farm boy, French model Capucine as his lost love turned prostitute(what part of the farm did she grow up on?), and American actress AnneBaxter as a Mexican cantina owner. It didn't hurt that Harvey was involvedin an affair with Harry Cohn's widow, Joan, who owned Columbia Pictures,which backed the film. And Capucine was Feldman's protge and frequentdate (she would deny ever having an affair with him). Baxter was onlysleeping with her husband, but that could have gotten her out of the film,as she found out she was pregnant shortly before shooting started. Shedidn't tell anybody, for fear of losing the job, but counted on hercharacter's full skirts to hide her condition. She was seven-monthspregnant when they finally stopped filming.

Jane Fonda's love life created some problems for the production, too. At thetime, she was living with Greek acting teacher Andreas Voutsinas. SinceDmytryk refused to allow acting coaches on his sets, she dubbed Voutsinasher "secretary," so she could have him around. But it was obvious that hewas coaching her on the sly. Although they usually worked in her dressingroom, the director occasionally caught him talking to Fonda and touchingher in ways Dmytryk said "gave him the creeps" (in Peter Collier, TheFondas: A Hollywood Dynasty). Yet, his influence had a positive effecton her work. After failing in her first attempt to break into the moviesas an ingnue in the Doris Day mold, Fonda scored her first personalsuccess on screen with a sex-charged performance as athief-turned-prostitute.

Barbara Stanwyck did her best to maintain a professional calm as the film'smost daring character, a lesbian madam. The old-guard star had shockedHollywood by agreeing to play a lesbian onscreen, even though it meant flying in the face of decades of rumorssuggesting she was herself gay (ironically, nobody at the time suspectedthat her co-star Capucine actually preferred women; she would come out ininterviews late in her life). When gossip columnist Louella Parsons toldStanwyck she was shocked that she had agreed to play the role, the starshot back, "What do you want them to do, get a real madam and a reallesbian?" (in Axel Madsen, Stanwyck).

Needless to say, the shoot was something of a pitched battle. Feldman hadpromised Dmytryk that he would leave the country during filming so that hewouldn't interfere. Then he hung around anyway, sending in his unwantedscript revisions and insisting that Capucine be dressed in the latestPierre Cardin designs, even though the film was set and costumed in the'30s. Harvey quarreled with Dmytryk incessantly. When the actor stalkedoff the set and held up production for over an hour, Stanwyck tore into himso vehemently, he was never late again. At least they both could agree ontheir dislike of Capucine. When the former model complained that Harvey'skisses weren't manly enough for her, he countered, "Perhaps if you weremore of a woman, I would be more of a man. Honey, kissing you is likekissing the side of a beer bottle."

Everything came to a head the day Dmytryk shot the big showdown duringwhich Capucine's character is shot. They had blocked it out the day beforewith no problems. The next day, however, Capucine had a new idea for howto play it. She then demonstrated a death scene that would have been morefitting for a bad ballet parody than a supposedly realistic drama.The argument got more and more heated until Dmytryk was forced to clearthe set. He then laid down new rules for the production, barring Voutsinasfrom the set along with an art director who had been encouraging Feldmanand Capucine's dissatisfaction with the production. Things resumed intense but quiet fashion, though the producer eventually brought in BlakeEdwards, without credit, to shoot some additional scenes.

Surprisingly, Walk on the Wild Side made money, helped greatly bythe popular title song recorded by Brook Benton. Dmytryk wound up losingcash on the deal, however. He was so disgusted with Feldman that hesacrificed $70,000 in deferred fees to buy himself out of his seven-yearrepresentation contract with him.

Producer: Charles K. Feldman
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Screenplay: John Fante, Edmund Morris & (uncredited) Ben Hecht & CliffordOdets
Based on the Novel by Nelson Algren
Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald
Art Direction: Richard Sylbert
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Principal Cast: Laurence Harvey (David Linkhorn), Capucine (Hallie), JaneFonda (Kitty Twist), Anne Baxter (Teresina Vidarverri), Barbara Stanwyck(Jo Courtney), Joanna Cook Moore (Miss Precious), Richard Rust (Oliver),Karl Swenson (Schmidt), Donald "Red" Barry (Dockery), Juanita Moore (Mama),John Anderson (Preacher).

by Frank Miller

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