Walk on the Wild Side
Tag line for Walk on the Wild Side
What side of life that was is open to debate. Certainly when agent-turned-producer Charles K. Feldman brought Nelson Algren's novel to the screen in 1962, he intended to introduce new subject matter -- including prostitution and lesbianism -- only recently allowed on screen after revisions to the Production Code. But by the time his fleet of writers was finished transforming Algren's slice-of-life novel into a screenplay, it bore little resemblance to human experience. The best part of the film was Saul Bass's ingenious credits sequence, during which a black cat meanders through a series of back alleys. If Feldman had wanted to take advantage of the screen's new permissiveness, he would have done better to have director Edward Dmytryk film the off-screen action involving the cast and production team.
Director Edward Dmytryk hadn't had a hit in years, and hadn't directed since the mega-flop of his 1959 remake of The Blue Angel starring May Britt. He had hoped for a comeback directing Clark Gable in an adaptation of Michael Barrett's novel Appointment at Zahrain, but the actor's sudden death had put an end to that project. Feldman, who was also Dmytryk's agent, had been after him to direct Walk on the Wild Side for some time, but scheduling problems had kept him from agreeing. Now, he not only had the opening, he needed a hit. He even signed a seven-year representation deal to get the job.
Another factor delaying production was finding financing, which wouldn't be forthcoming until Feldman came up with a script that could pass the Production Code. He went through six writers, including noted playwright Clifford Odets. Finally, Production Code changes in response to studio pressure to pass The Children's Hour (1961) and other films hinting at homosexuality, made it a little easier to come up with a script. Even then, there were re-writes. Dmytryk spent two weeks with one of the industry's most acclaimed script doctors, Ben Hecht, who polished the dialogue but received no credit. Unfortunately, the re-writes continued during shooting, with Feldman trying to sneak back in everything that had been cut for the censors. The scenes he sent Dmytryk were basically soft core porn, and the director routinely discarded them, with the cast's full approval.
Of course, the cast was another part of the problem. Feldman had filled it largely with actors he represented, so that he would get an agent's commission along with his share of any profits. Eventually, the Screen Actors Guild would forbid agents to produce while still actively representing talent, a rule largely inspired by Feldman's behavior. Before that, however, Feldman cast 35-year-old Englishman Laurence Harvey as a Southern farm boy, French model Capucine as his lost love turned prostitute (what part of the farm did she grow up on?), and American actress Anne Baxter as a Mexican cantina owner. It didn't hurt that Harvey was involved in an affair with Harry Cohn's widow, Joan, who owned Columbia Pictures, which backed the film. And Capucine was Feldman's protégée and frequent date (she would deny ever having an affair with him). Baxter was only sleeping with her husband, but that could have gotten her out of the film, as she found out she was pregnant shortly before shooting started. She didn't tell anybody, for fear of losing the job, but counted on her character's full skirts to hide her condition. She was seven-months pregnant when they finally stopped filming.
Jane Fonda's love life created some problems for the production, too. At the time, she was living with Greek acting teacher Andreas Voutsinas. Since Dmytryk refused to allow acting coaches on his sets, she dubbed Voutsinas her "secretary," so she could have him around. But it was obvious that he was coaching her on the sly. Although they usually worked in her dressing room, the director occasionally caught him talking to Fonda and touching her in ways Dmytryk said "gave him the creeps" (in Peter Collier, The Fondas: A Hollywood Dynasty). Yet, his influence had a positive effect on her work. After failing in her first attempt to break into the movies as an ingénue in the Doris Day mold, Fonda scored her first personal success on screen with a sex-charged performance as a thief-turned-prostitute.
Barbara Stanwyck did her best to maintain a professional calm as the film's most daring character, a lesbian madam. The old-guard star had shocked Hollywood by agreeing to play a lesbian on screen, even though it meant flying in the face of decades of rumors suggesting she was herself gay (ironically, nobody at the time suspected that her co-star Capucine actually preferred women; she would come out in interviews late in her life). When gossip columnist Louella Parsons told Stanwyck she was shocked that she had agreed to play the role, the star shot back, "What do you want them to do, get a real madam and a real lesbian?" (in Axel Madsen, Stanwyck).
Needless to say, the shoot was something of a pitched battle. Feldman had promised Dmytryk that he would leave the country during filming so that he wouldn't interfere. Then he hung around anyway, sending in his unwanted script revisions and insisting that Capucine be dressed in the latest Pierre Cardin designs, even though the film was set and costumed in the '30s. Harvey quarreled with Dmytryk incessantly. When the actor stalked off the set and held up production for over an hour, Stanwyck tore into him so vehemently, he was never late again. At least they both could agree on their dislike of Capucine. When the former model complained that Harvey's kisses weren't manly enough for her, he countered, "Perhaps if you were more of a woman, I would be more of a man. Honey, kissing you is like kissing the side of a beer bottle."
Everything came to a head the day Dmytryk shot the big showdown during which Capucine's character is shot. They had blocked it out the day before with no problems. The next day, however, Capucine had a new idea for how to play it. She then demonstrated a death scene that would have been more fitting for a bad ballet parody than a supposedly realistic drama. The argument got more and more heated until Dmytryk was forced to clear the set. He then laid down new rules for the production, barring Voutsinas from the set along with an art director who had been encouraging Feldman and Capucine's dissatisfaction with the production. Things resumed in tense but quiet fashion, though the producer eventually brought in Blake Edwards, without credit, to shoot some additional scenes.
Surprisingly, Walk on the Wild Side made money, helped greatly by the popular title song recorded by Brook Benton. Dmytryk wound up losing cash on the deal, however. He was so disgusted with Feldman that he sacrificed $70,000 in deferred fees to buy himself out of his seven-year representation contract with him.
Producer: Charles K. Feldman
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Screenplay: John Fante, Edmund Morris & (uncredited) Ben Hecht & Clifford Odets
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), Jane Fonda (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