Fat Tuesday puts me in mind of one of my favorite under-appreciated cinema gems, shot on location in the French Quarter. Walk on the Wild Side (1962)is from those crazy waning days of the Production Code (before the Ratings system) when filmmakers dared to put adult material into general-audience films.
Wild Side is kind of like an alley cat with a pedigree, it’s a scrappy and flawed film, created by some of the era’s best. It’s based on a novel by Nelson Algren (Man With the Golden Arm) with screenplay contributions by John Fante (known for his ultimate L.A. novel, Ask the Dust). Director Edward Dmytryk admittedly had a mixed career and a tough time, being one of the Hollywood Ten, but when he got good material he really rose to the occasion: Murder, My Sweet; Crossfire; The Caine Mutiny.
Then there’s the score by Elmer Bernstein paired here with one of the greatest Saul Bass’s titles sequences:
But what, you are asking, is this movie about? Well, this cat is foreshadowing the cat house and some very catty women at the heart of this tail – er, tale. We have here a Depression Era New Orleans brothel run by Jo, a cool, strict but fair, lesbian madame (Barbara Stanwyck).
Jo – and every man in New Orleans – is obsessed with her most elegant prostitute, Hallie (gorgeous Capucine). Hallie is Jo’s resigned and mildly resentful captive plaything. Watching Stanwyck and Capucine play out this bizarro relationship is worth the price of admission alone. Of course, Stanwyck is doing all the heavy acting lifting, but Capucine’s languid and lazy glamour is the perfect counterpoint here.
Jo: Now let’s not have a scene. Let’s sit down and have a drink —
Hallie: I want to sit drinking with a man, not you. This one, for instance —
Jo: You’re being perverse.
Hallie: I was born perverse. Isn’t that a woman’s nature?
Obsession aside, Jo’s business is running relatively smoothly, until a tall Texan, Dove Linkhorn (Laurence Harvey) comes to town, having picked up a lost “kitten,” a young-and-scrappy Jane Fonda, on the way. Fonda is Kitty Twist, and that name says it all. She winds up working in the cat house too. Meanwhile Dove is looking for his long lost love, who turns out to be Hallie, but first he gets a job working for another Texas transplant, Mexican diner-owner, Teresina (Ann Baxter).
Yay, that’s Ann-All-About-Eve Baxter, and while she is woefully miscast as a hard-working, non-glamorous Latina, who specializes in chili and tortillas, she is no worse than spoiled-Brit, Harvey, as a true-hearted, lovesick, Texan. When they exchange dialogue, it’s wince-worthy. But it’s also meta fun to watch old and new Hollywood clash and duke it out.
Jane Fonda’s Kentucky accent is also not great, but she more than makes up for it with star personality. This was only her second feature, and it is clear she had It. You just can’t take your eyes of her moxy. She steals every scene she’s in – and much of the promo material – and she’s just a secondary character.
So while the film is undoubtedly flawed, there’s a lot here to love or at least enjoy. The French Quarter looks glorious and lensed by Joe MacDonald (Pickup on South Street, Niagra, How to Marry a Millionaire). Production Designer, Richard Sylbert (The Graduate, Manchurian Candidate, Chinatown) creates a brothel that is so perfectly, romantic French Quarter, you can’t blame the gals for hiding from the Great Depression behinds its lace curtains and wrought iron gates.
Juanita Moore, playing yet another maid, is luminous as ever as the heart of the house. Joanna Moore is also lovely as the tragic, giggling-on-the-outside Miss Precious. Robert Rust is creepy-as-heck as the sadistic enforcer who is “sorry” to have to punish her all the time.
Walk on the Wild Side is streaming on Amazon Prime. If it sounds a little “twisted kitty” for you, some of my other New Orleans-set favorites include: A Streetcar Named Desire, King Creole, The Princess and the Frog, and the cheesy-fun Angel Heart. So ditch the popcorn and grab you some gumbo, king cake, and/or hurricanes and laisez les bonnes temps roulez!!