Party Girl (1958): “Long Live This Rubbish”

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To view Party Girl click here.

In 1958, Nicholas Ray directed his last film under the old studio system in Hollywood. Titled Party Girl, the film did not inspire a lot of passion among the participants during production. According to Ray in a biography, Party Girl was merely a down and dirty movie produced by MGM for the neighborhood theaters. “No one thought much of it,” he recalled. Stars Robert Taylor and Cyd Charisse were making their last contract film for MGM, and the studio seemed eager to be rid of them. Taylor believed Party Girl was a kind of punishment by the studio—an unceremonious farewell because studio execs felt he had lost favor with the audience. Without much of a push by the studio, it fizzled at the box office.

But, sometimes, a movie exceeds the expectations of the filmmakers, taking on a life of its own. Party Girl, which is now streaming on FilmStruck as part of a “Directed by Nicholas Ray” theme, disappointed the director and the stars, but it inspired a heated debate among film critics across two continents.

It all started with the French. Fereydoun Hoveyda waxed ecstatic over Party Girl in Cahiers du cinema, the most famous journal in all of film history. In Cahiers, the young cinephiles who became the French New Wave praised the films of Hollywood genre directors, including Hitchcock, Hawks and Ray, which elevated their reputations as artists. Jean-Luc Godard had already declared, “Nicholas Ray IS cinema,” when Hoveyda raved, “To remain insensitive to the thousand beauties of Nicholas Ray’s Party Girl is to turn one’s back resolutely on the modern cinema. . . .” Aware that the film had not been well received by other reviewers, he continued, “Long live this rubbish which so dazzles my eyes, fascinates my heart and gives me a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Kingdom of Heaven? Wow!

I watched Party Girl, hoping to be transported into a celestial realm, but, alas, I did not find it rapturous. I did enjoy the film but found it to be a B-movie wrapped in A-movie dressing. That’s not a criticism, just a description of its inelegance—which is oddly compelling.

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Set in the early 1930s, Party Girl stars Cyd Charisse as title character Vicki Gaye, who dances in a Chicago nightclub run by gangster Rico Angelo (Lee J. Cobb). Though the word prostitution is never uttered, it is clear that the dancers are expected to service the members of Rico’s mob. In the opening party sequence, mob enforcer Louie (John Ireland) selects Vicki for the evening, giving her money to seal the deal, but she rebuffs him. She asks Tommy Farrell, played by Robert Taylor, to dance with her, only to discover that Tommy can’t dance. A childhood injury has left him partially disabled, or “crippled” in the parlance of the era. Tommy is a lawyer on Rico’s retainer, and his job is to keep “the boys” out of legal trouble. Vicki and Tommy are drawn to each other—two lost souls who see the worst in humanity as part of their jobs. Ray had a knack for capturing the loneliness and longing felt by hard-bitten adults who live outside the norms of mainstream society. Like Bogart and Gloria Grahame in In a Lonely Place (1950), Vicki and Tommy are emotionally scarred cynics who are humanized by their love affair. I suspect that the lost, lonesome and wicked characters in his films are extensions of Nicholas Ray himself.

Party Girl may be set during the glory days of the gangster era, but little about the setting, hairstyles or fashions suggests the 1930s. Much of the film is shot inside the studio on a limited number of sets, which are accented in garish colors. And, the acting by the gangsters is exaggerated or stylized. As Rico, Lee J. Cobb yells, waves his arms or chomps on his cigar in nearly every scene—like a B-movie gangster. My favorite scene occurs in the opening party sequence when Rico shoots a framed photo of movie star Jean Harlow after he learns of her marriage. Though the two have never met, Rico feels betrayed; he scowls at the photo in the broken frame like a spoiled child. His unrepentant, violent nature is further revealed in a scene familiar to fans of gangster flicks. Rico has discovered that one of his thugs has been helping himself to profits that are not his. At a special dinner arranged to fete the big lug, Rico makes a speech that begins with praise but ends with the mob boss beating the disloyal employee to death with the very award intended to honor him. Gangster lore attributes this deed to the real-life Al Capone, but it has been re-created in several gangster movies over the decades. The rest of the gangsters, including John Ireland as the lecherous Louie, are a rogue’s gallery of mobster types. The lack of subtlety suggests the exaggeration of B-movies, but it is an intentional style decision by Nicholas Ray.

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Style is exactly why the French adored Party Girl. The film’s bold colors, sharp diagonals, and bravura camera movements help create a vicious gangland world where trust and loyalty are warped values, and violence hovers in the air. Despite his dismissal of Party Girl, Nicholas Ray revealed in an interview that he attempted to give the film a kind of personal touch through the use of color, especially red. In the scene in which Tommy first takes Vicki home, she wears a bright red dress that made it easy to see her in the CinemaScope compositions. When she sits on her red couch, the red on red is a shocking visual that prefigures Vicki’s discovery of her roommate’s body in the bathroom. The roommate has slit her wrists in the bathtub, which is overflowing with water that is saturated with her blood. Throughout the film, the color red reminds viewers of the potential for violence that surrounds every conversation and action. The French critics were drawn to the work of directors like Ray who turned the commercial into the personal, or, better yet, turned the commercial into the confessional.

The French were not the only cinephiles to sing the praises of Party Girl. In 1999, a poll of 90 Spanish film scholars decided that Party Girl was Ray’s second best film, behind Johnny Guitar (1954) in the top slot.

British and American critics were far less enamored with the garish gangster flick, including Richard Roud, who poked a bit of fun at the effusive French in his review of the film. He noted that most critics he knew preferred films with “proper literary form” and “humanistic content.” In other words, they did not think a purposeful mise-en-scene compensated for a weak structure, stereotyped characters and pessimistic themes. Apparently, the Brits and the Americans did not find the Kingdom of Heaven in Party Girl.

So, I challenge readers who have seen Party Girl, or are willing to watch it: Are you with the French, who feel that the meat and meaning of the movie is in its mise-en-scene, or do you side with Roud and his crew, who prefer well-rounded characters in a story with humanistic themes?

Susan Doll

4 Responses Party Girl (1958): “Long Live This Rubbish”
Posted By Emgee : June 5, 2017 5:54 am

“Style is exactly why the French adored Party Girl.”

Would they have adored it if it hadn’t been directed by Ray but by let’s say Jean Negulesco? I have my doubts.

“90 Spanish film scholars decided that Party Girl was Ray’s second best film.”Better than In A Lonely Place? Or They Live By Night? Now that’s just being contrary for the sake of it.

Great to get some more background on this movie that’s well worth a watch.

Posted By Susan Doll : June 5, 2017 10:45 am

Emgee: I agree with you about the questionable elevation of Party Girl above In a Lonely Place. I mean, really? I liked Party Girl, and perhaps Ray made the film better than a lesser director, but I don’t think his heart was in it.

Posted By kingrat : June 8, 2017 11:45 pm

I’m with Emgee. The problem with auteurism is that once the name of the film’s director is shown, the auteurist adjusts the response to the actual elements in the film to fit the preconceived notion. And speaking of Negulesco, several of his black & white Warner Brothers films are quite stylish and personal, provided that you can overcome the notion that Negulesco isn’t supposed to be one of the chosen ones.

PARTY GIRL is midpack Ray. I like it, but do not find the Kingdom of Heaven in it.

Posted By swac44 : August 19, 2017 1:09 pm

In honour of this essay I fired up the ol’ steam-powered laserdisc player and gave my dusty 12″ platter a spin for the first time in ages. I remember finding it a middling film last time around, but spent a lot more time admiring the set ups, framing, use of colour and so on (I watched it before I read this entry) and enjoyed spotting the signals and symbols, however blatant, as well as the mechanics of the plot and overheated theatrics. Although not a fan of Taylor, I thought his oily demeanor suited him well as a lawyer with a few theatrical tricks of his own.

Also love Charisse’s dance numbers, that first one (shown here in a picture) is a Freudian feast, with her literally p***ywhipping two trumpeters in bright red vests with the pink/red train of her dress. Also, the various ways that John Ireland is emasculated are always a treat. Subtlety, thy name is not Party Girl, but that’s part of the fun.

Also, Cobb pouring acid on a red crepe bell decoration to demonstrate what it would do to Charisse’s face is one of the most disturbing images I’ve come across recently. Glad I elected to give this one a second chance and see what lies beneath the surface.

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