I was surfing cable TV for free movies. Some of the free movies offered On Demand are old classics worth watching again. Most of them are films that just didn’t make it. Once in a while you can stumble on a gem. Here is my analysis of a cinematic masterpiece, Wild In the Streets! Well, it’s some kind of masterpiece. Yes, there will be spoilers.
The trailer for Wild In the Streets hit theaters in the spring of 1968. The Generation Gap may have been at its widest. Teen fads had been recognized before, but now teens had more economic power. What would happen if they got political power too? The film’s trailer sparked some interest. At least it would be a wild drive-in movie.
Wild In the Streets is a bizarre time capsule. It was brought to us by American International Pictures. American International provided drive-ins with Beach, Biker, Monster and Horror films. It was the home of Roger Corman. When that logo comes on the screen we know we’ll be in for a wild ride. Next we see the names of the producers: “Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson.” Another sign of quality! Wild In the Streets was directed by Barry Shear. Shear was known more as a “TV director.” Some of the early scenes in suburbia look like they were filmed for a sitcom.
The movie came out in May, 1968. Back then, I had free access to the local drive-in. Two high school buddies worked there, and they would let me drive in the exit at any time. (Thanks Tony M. and Pat A. Even though the drive-in is long gone, I’ll leave their last names out, just in case some statute of limitations is still in effect.) This was very cool. It was a place to go, a teenage haven where I saw many drive-in classics for free. One night I caught the second half of Wild In the Streets.
Young Max Jacob Flatow is played by Barry Williams, who was later in The Brady Bunch. Max just doesn’t fit in. He’s stifled by the American suburban nightmare. Shelley Winters plays his overbearing mother. She visits him in the basement where he’s playing with a chemistry set. She picks up a suspicious looking stick. “What’s this?” “Dynamite,” Max flatly answers. She picks up a vial of clear liquid. “What’s this?” “LSD” is his laconic reply. Shelley humors Max, and she doesn’t appear concerned. She doesn’t know, like we do, that it really is dynamite and LSD!
He tells his mother he’s saved up eight hundred dollars. “Is that enough to move out?” Max runs away from home, blowing up the family car on his way out. No longer hampered by his parents and stifling suburbia, he becomes a wealthy Rock star. He’s a millionaire, “After taxes.” The adolescent Max of the first half of the movie is gone. The new Max is played by Christopher Jones. It’s a whole new movie!
Chris Jones was born Billy Frank. His mother was an artist, and she was committed to a mental institution when he was four. Billy bounced around with relatives, orphanages and foster homes. He lived at Boys Town for a while.
Jones had a strange career. Maybe everyone had a strange career in the Sixties. He was a James Dean look a like. He thought he could escape his dreary life as an orphan by joining the military service. He quickly learned it was not for him. He stole a car and went AWOL, heading for New York City.
Jones already knew that he was a dead ringer for James Dean. He saw Dean’s films and tried to learn as much as she could about his life. On the trip to New York after he went AWOL, he stopped in Dean’s home town in Fairmount, Indiana. Dean’s relatives were so struck by his resemblance to their lost relative, that they took him in and showed him Dean’s bedroom and motorcycle. The motorcycle was still out in the barn.
After he got to New York, a friend talked him into turning himself in and resolving his AWOL problems. He spent six months in jail. After he got out of the brig he stayed in New York and studied painting, sculpture and acting. He acted on TV shows. His “uncanny resemblance” to James Dean got him into The Actor’s Studio. He performed in a long run of “Night of the Iguana” where he met Shelley Winters. They became close friends.
He married Susan Strasberg, Lee Strasberg’s daughter. The marriage was short lived. His “erratic behavior” and jealous rages drove her away. Jones played Jesse James on a TV series. Female fans loved Jones, but the show was crushed in the ratings.
Jones certainly had “it.” With his looks and charisma he attracted some of the most beautiful women in the world. He had affairs with Pamela Courson, Sharon Tate, Pia Degermark and Olivia Hussey.
Jones almost had his own fatal car crash. He was in the film “A Brief Season.” Dino DeLaurentiis produced it and gave Jones a $20,000 365 GT Ferrari as a bonus! Jones loved to get the car up to a hundred miles per hour. It seemed to be only a matter of time. He had a scary crash near Rome. The similarity to Dean’s car crash was eerie. Jones said he “flattened himself out” to avoid being decapitated. The car came to a stop on the edge of a hundred yard cliff. Jones had only minor injuries.
The role of Max was a break through role for Jones, and he got some good parts after the film’s success. David Lean cast him as the British soldier in Ryan’s Daughter. Lean realized at once that it was a bad choice. During filming, Jones learned of the death of Sharon Tate. He became morose and hard to deal with on the set. His voice had to be dubbed. The filming of Ryan’s Daughter was a year long ordeal for most involved. When it was over, Jones returned to Los Angeles. He already had a reputation for being difficult, but he was still offered film roles. He turned them down. He rejected Hollywood and became a recluse. Many called him a disturbed individual. He lived off his movie earnings and painted.
Max and his friends hang out at his mansion. He has what’s called an entourage or a posse now. There is constant drug taking, cuddling and slow, sensual massage. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of this scene? It’s the Sixties dream!
The drug scenes seem innocent now. This was long ago, when drugs were “cool” and few knew the real dangers of experimenting with them. Many people were afraid of drugs, but not many really knew how destructive they would be. At this point in the Sixties it was still a bit of a lark. At Max’s mansion they pass around a plate with lines of white powder.
The band is Max Frost and the Troopers, and they are a collection of characters. Billy Cage (Kevin Coughlin) is the genius accountant and guitar player. The bass player is played by Larry Bishop. He has a hook on his hand, so he’s “Hook.” Bishop had to know his way around show business. He was the son of late night talk show host and member of the Rat Pack, Joey Bishop!
Sally Leroy (Diane Varsi) sings and plays keyboards. She’s also Max’s girlfriend. Varsi had broken through with a role in the movie Peyton Place, but she was known as being a rebel. She clashed with studio execs and eventually dropped out of acting.
The drummer is Stanley X, played by Richard Pryor. He’s an anthropologist! Pryor doesn’t get much screen time. I kept waiting for him to break into one of his savage monologues or maybe have his hair catch on fire. This film had to be one of his first big breaks. Larry Bishop told IMDb.com that Pryor freaked out the cast and crew, especially Shelley Winters, when he showed up naked on the set one day. Have to wonder what the real story on that one is. Must have been a long night.
How did Shelley Winters wind up in this one? They must have wanted a recognizable name on the marquee. Winters was 48 and had been in show business for over twenty years. She was a regular on late night TV talk shows, and was definitely someone from the other side of the divide of the Generation Gap.
Max’s mother learns of her son’s success and insists she and her husband go see him. She shows up at one of his concerts shrieking at security, “That’s my son!” Later, she winds up driving Max and some of his posse around. She’s uncomfortable behind the wheel and after a puzzling joy ride she crashes into a young kid, killing him. Max picks up the dead tyke. He’s outraged. It looks like he really does care about his people.
Hal Holbrook is John Fergus, a liberal running for Congress. He’s looking for the youth vote. Max and his band perform at a rally for him. Their first number is “Listen To the Music.” They play a song for their adoring fans, “Fifty-Two Per Cent.” (Fifty-two per cent of the population is under twenty-five.) Max addresses the crowd. It’s a long monologue about the injustices of the day. A kid can be drafted and sent to Vietnam, but he can’t vote. They play a song with the ominous lyrics, “Fourteen or Fight!” Max wants the voting age to be lowered to fourteen! The crowd gets into, it chanting, “Fourteen or Fight” over and over.
It struck me how much Max acted and sounded like Jim Morrison in these scenes. His stance and timing closely resemble The Lizard King during one of his crazy onstage monologues. The Doors would keep a slow, nervous beat going while Morrison rambled on about getting pepper sprayed by security or some other atrocity. Max’s pacing during his political rant sounds like Morrison on “Five to One” from the Doors Absolutely Live album. “No one here gets out alive... They got the guns, but we got the numbers.”
Max calls out “the troops” for a demonstration on Saturday night. Anyone who believes in the cause should come out to the Sunset Strip on Saturday night. This was after the real riots on Sunset Strip chronicled in the Buffalo Springfield song “For What It’s Worth.” “Something’s happening here.” The authorities fear the worse and assume the demonstration will be violent.
The big hit from the soundtrack was “Shape of Things to Come.” It was a crazy, rocking song, and “is not to be confused with The Yardbirds song of the same title.” “There’s a new sun, rising up angry in the skies!” It rose to #22 on the charts in 1968. Most of the songs on the soundtrack were written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, a very successful songwriting team. They had written hits for The Drifters, The Vogues, The Animals and Paul Revere and the Raiders. The song was used in a commercial recently for an ad campaign for Target stores. It was another jarring use of an old song. The revolution will be televised. It’ll just be part of TV commercials.
All the music scenes are lip synched and dubbed. A group of studio musicians named Davey Allan and The Arrows recorded most of the music. Les Baxter helped with the arrangements. Some of the songs were arranged by Mike Curb. He was a successful producer who later ran as a conservative candidate for governor of California.
Other bands credited on the soundtrack are The 13th Power, Jerry Howard and The Second Time, and The Gurus. They’re pseudonyms for the studio musicians. Davey Allan had a long career making movie soundtracks. He was “the King of the Fuzz Guitar.”
Senator Allbright is played by Ed Begley. He’s outraged by the call to demonstrate and demands a meeting with Fergus and Max. He insists that Fergus persuade Max to call the demonstration off. Also at the meeting is famed San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli in a cameo. Allbright even calls him “Belli.” Max and his crew are obnoxious and Begley storms out with his eyes bugging out in rage.
Belli is only one of many cameo appearances. Peter Tork buys a ticket for a Max Frost and The Troopers concert. Teen idol Bobby Sherman interviews Max. Walter Winchell plays a puzzled reporter who tries to explain the demonstration scenes to Mr. and Mrs. America. Dick Clark ties to give some perspective to the demonstrations.
The Troops gather. We see some clips of the Sunset Strip. American International had released Riot On Sunset Strip, a look at the recent disturbances. Most of the footage looks like a busy Saturday night on the Strip, but there are some scenes that look like real clashes with police.
Max and Fergus work out a compromise. Max wants to make sure his genius fifteen year old accountant can vote, so after some haggling they agree to lower the age to fifteen. It doesn’t seem to be much of a compromise. The authorities have given in. Max and Fergus calm the demonstrators by flying to various hot zones in a helicopter. They’ve won! It made me wonder: What the heck would happen if they lowered the voting age to fifteen? The voting age was lowered to eighteen in 1971.
A Congressman dies and Max figures out that one of his entourage is old enough to be elected to the vacant seat. It will be his girlfriend Sally Leroy, played by Dianne Varsi. She takes her seat acting very stoned and wearing a goofy, tri-corner hat. She defiantly proposes an amendment to lower the age for holding office.
Dianne Varsi catapulted to fame in the movie Peyton Place. She was always a rebel, and wouldn’t play the Hollywood game. She rejected the lifestyle and avoided doing movies.
To make sure the amendment gets passed they pour LSD in the water supply. There’s a comic scene where the band members sneak up to a river and dump LSD into it. In the Sixties this psychedelic threat was taken seriously. The mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley, feared the water supply would be dosed during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. The Yippies had threatened to do that. Chicago police guarded the reservoirs. Daley tried to have the movie banned within Chicago city limits.
Each legislator has a teenage “guide.” Max instructs each guide not to eat or drink anything. Then they won’t be tripping and they can make sure each legislator votes for the amendment. The stoned legislators yuk it up in uncontrollable hilarity. Their legislative chambers swirl around them in uproarious psychedelia as they vote. The amendment is passed and quickly ratified. Now Max can run for President.
With the new voting age it’s easy for Max to get elected President. The only problem is figuring out what party he’ll run for. He’s a bit bummed when they decide he should be a Republican. There’s a quip about Ronald Reagan that insinuates he’s washed up. During the campaign Max speaks from the historic Monterey Fair Grounds. It’s obvious that they’re just using some stock footage and that Max isn’t really there, but it’s an interesting shot of the old fairgrounds.
The campaign is not without trouble. Some cops panic and start firing on the young demonstrators. This was years before Kent State. Was the movie predicting the inevitable? Was it only a matter of time before demonstrators got shot?
In one of the key scenes Max shrieks at the crowd, “If you give me THE POWER!!!” So, that’s what it’s all about. If we give the vote to teenagers we’ll wind up with a Rock and Roll dictator. It is a cautionary tale. As the ads said, “If you’re under thirty you’ll want to see it. If your over thirty you have to see it!”
Max wins in a landslide. He quickly enacts his plan. He puts young geniuses and computers in charge of the economy. He withdraws U.S. military forces from around the world. The soldiers become his police force. Surplus grain is shipped to Third World countries. He dissolves the FBI and the CIA. The solutions were so simple! It’s “the most truly hedonistic society the world has ever known.”
Mandatory retirement is now 30 years old. After age 35, people are rounded up and sent to reeducation camps to be “re-grooved.” The former military are now police. They herd the terrified middle aged people to the camps. The camp members have to wear a robe, and are constantly dosed with LSD. Ed Begley, the former Senator, is at “Paradise Camp.” He looks ecstatic, and he’s not the only one who seems to be enjoying his new life. They wander the camp, stoned out of their minds all the time.
Max’s mother takes to the new lifestyle at first. Fergus tries to get her aid in stopping Max. She can’t be bothered, “I’m doing LSD therapy.” Later it turns into a bad trip. The soundtrack plays “Shelley in Camp” performed by The Gurus as Shelley tries to escape the camp by climbing over the barbed wire fence. It’s another chance for Winters to chew the scenery.
Even some of Max’s closest followers seem to be having their doubts. Sally Leroy has a freak out scene in a fountain. Maybe you shouldn’t take LSD every day. Someone wonders if it is a good idea to get rid of everyone over 35. Won’t they be needed for something? Max goes off on the older generation. “What do you ask a sixty year old man? You ask him if he wants his wheelchair facing the sun, or facing away from the sun.” Ouch!
Fergus decides he has to take matters into his own hands. He realizes he’s created a monster and he tries to assassinate Max. This was filmed before the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. Violence was in the air. Max almost becomes a martyr, but Fergus is stopped before he can shoot him.
Everything is now peaceful and Max is in control. He wanders into the countryside alone. He comes across a group of young boys playing. They don’t trust him. “You’re old!” The young boys look innocent but ominous. The apparent leader of the boys says to the others: “We’re gonna put everyone over ten out of business!” It’s Billy Mumy, who later appeared in many science fiction classics and the TV series Lost In Space.
After watching the film I did the obligatory Google search. IMDb.com and Wikipedia give the usual basic information, and some great stories.
Wild In the Streets is based on a short story by Robert Thom. “The Day It All Happened Baby” came out in paperback when the movie was released. American International had planned an action film named Wild In the Streets that fell through. The title was too good to waste. The film hit theaters on May 29, 1968. It had a budget of $700,000 and brought in four million dollars at the box office.
IMDb says that “according to Kenneth Bowser,” Phil Ochs was offered the role of Max. Ochs read the script and thought that it made fun of youth culture and turned the part down.
Now the Internet search gets juicy. Chris Jones had a torrid affair with Pamela Courson, Jim Morrison’s long time lover and soulmate. Courson found a love letter Jones had written to his ex-wife, Susan Strasberg. Courson flew into a jealous rage and they split up. Morrison flew to Paris to bring her home. Was this humiliating for The Lizard King, or was it just one of those Sixties things? “Yeah man, I got to go to Paris and get my old lady.”
Jones had an affair with Sharon Tate, even though she was married to Roman Polanski. Her death at the hands of the Manson family shook him deeply. In a bizarre twist he later lived in the caretaker’s cottage at 10048 Cielo Drive, the house where Tate had been killed! What went through his mind when he was living there?
He was also shaken badly by the death of Jim Morrison. Morrison had been his other idol. Jones said that when he heard the news of his death, it was the worst he had ever felt.
The movie was a minor sensation at the time, but it was hard to take it seriously with the real social changes going on at the time. Maybe Phil Ochs was right. It did demean the youth culture and put it up on the screen with bug eyed monsters, Beach and Biker movies. It was fun, but it reduced the the movement to a drive-in movie. Hey, people are trying to fight a Revolution here, man!
Wild In the Streets is a look back at a not so innocent time. The film has some eerie moments. Did it predict the assassinations of national leaders and the shootings at Kent State? There was something in the air back then.
Most facts and stories came from iMDB.com or Wikipedia.
I was surprised how much there is about Wild In the Streets in the Blogosphere including: http://www.moviefanfare.com/wild-in-the-streets/ And I thought it was an obscure subject.
A short description of the soundtrack is at: http://mreliminator.blogspot.com/2013/09/wild-in-streets-soundtrack-1968-vinyl.html
A biography of Dianne Varsi: http://www.legacy.com/news/legends-and-legacies/goodnight-diane-varsi/539/
Roger Ebert’s review: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/wild-in-the-streets-1968
A sharp look with some great stories: http://www.videowatchdog.blogspot.de/2006/01/14-or-shop.html
Pop culture critic Sam Tweedle weighs in here: http://popcultureaddict.com/pca-retro-review-wild-in-the-streets-1968/
The trailer is readily available on Youtube.com. There are also sites that make the entire film available.