Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Barbara Runs a Brothel

In the 1962 film Walk on the Wild Side, Barbara Stanwyck takes on an interesting supporting role, as Jo Courtney, owner of a New Orleans brothel, and lover of Hallie Gerard.  Regardless that Jo should be a minor character to the romantic leads, Laurence Harvey (Dove Linkhorn) and Capucine (Hallie Gerard), it is Stanwyck you remember at the end of the film, not Harvey or Capucine.  Her strength and power as an actress resonates throughout the project, and is the one saving grace of a fairly disjointed film.

Dove Linkhorn is hitchhiking his way from West Texas to New Orleans in search of his great love, artist Hallie Gerard.  He meets a young runaway, Kitty Twist (Jane Fonda), and they begin to travel together.  Kitty is a forward young lady, and makes romantic overtures towards Dove, but he'll have none of it.  When he discovers that Kitty has robbed a generous innkeeper, Teresina Vidaverri (Anne Baxter), he rejects Kitty totally, and returns the stolen item (a rosary) to Teresina.  Grateful, Teresina hires Dove to work in her restaurant, and helps him run ads in the local newspaper, in an effort to locate Hallie.
Hallie, meanwhile, is unaware that Dove is searching for her.  She's a lazy woman, she sleeps all day, lives off of Jo Courtney (the owner of a local brothel, known locally as The Dollhouse), and bemoans the loss of her art (the photo above shows Jo examining some of Hallie's work).  For some reason, Jo is passionately in love with Hallie, having discovered her in New York, where Hallie was trying to break into the art scene. It's made repeatedly clear that Jo does not want Hallie turning tricks (Jo despises the touch of men, and she doesn't want Hallie soiled); it's also quite clear that Hallie routinely ignores Jo, and ventures down into the brothel to turn a trick or two.  She doesn't have to provide sexual favors (to anyone but Jo, that is), but she chooses to. Why? Who knows.

It doesn't help that Capucine couldn't act her way out of a sack of potatoes.  A French model who came to America with Charles Feldman (the producer of this film), she had a moderately successful career - she's best known for The Pink Panther (in which she played Inspector Clouseau's adulterous wife, Simone).  But she is so stiff and frozen faced throughout this movie, that one wonders what the heck all these men (Dove, of course, and she's obviously a big hit in the Dollhouse) and Jo could possibly see in her.

She meets her match in lack of affect by her co-star, Laurence Harvey.  Cast as a Texas dirt farmer who's never left his home before, Harvey gives new meaning to the words "cold and aloof".  What worked beautifully in The Manchurian Candidate doesn't work here at all. According to this TCM article it was hate at first sight between Harvey and Capucine.  She accused him of being "unmanly" in his kisses.  He responded by saying that "kissing her was like kissing the side of a beer bottle".  And, as with Hallie, we have all these women queuing up to bed him. It's unreal.
On the other hand, Stanwyck is amazing.  She is controlled, elegant, and sinister.  She does her best to make the viewer understand her passion for Hallie, her disgust of men in general - and her handicapped husband in particular.  She isn't the least afraid to make Jo unlikeable, but with a cool collection that makes her fascinating to watch.  The ultimate professional, she dressed down Laurence Harvey when one of his tantrums resulted in an hour delay.  (He never did it again!)

We also enjoyed seeing Anne Baxter as Teresina.  Sure, her Spanish accent is rather odd, but she does a good job with the character in spite of it.  A historical aside, Baxter discovered she was pregnant at the time of the filming began, and relied on her wide skirts to hide her girth when filming finally ended during her 7 month.  This TCM article will give you more information on the behind-the-scenes of the film.

We get a couple of scenes of Jane Fonda with Barbara Stanwyck, but young Fonda is such a nascent actress (this is only her second film) she is overwhelmed by Stanwyck (the character of Kitty is supposed to be, of course).  Good as Ms. Fonda is, you still can't take your eyes off Stanwyck.  We would have enjoyed a scene between Baxter and Stanwyck - as the bookends for Good and Evil, but alas, it was not to be.  The characters are in the same room for a brief period, but there is no interaction. 

All in all, with a disjointed story line that verges into taudry soap opera at times, a cast that never quite all seem to be in the same movie, and some plot twists that seem to be thrown in just to shock (what is the point of Jo's leg-less husband? A symbol of emasculation, maybe?), this is a film that just never quite gets to the point.  We'll leave you with our introduction to Jo and Hallie:

2 comments:

  1. Love your very correct assessments of Capucine and Harvey! As for Barbara - she could run any business with style and skill - including the brothel/. Thanks for a fun post.

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    1. "Manchurian Candidate" is about the only film I like Harvey in. As to Capucine - she's got a nice accent.

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