Dr. Strangefilm Case #020: Wild in the Streets

Wild in the Streets starring Hal Holbrook and Christopher JonesIt seems as though nothing gets the blogosphere buzz going like a spirited political debate (Weinergate jokes, anyone?). And while it’s been a long-standing (two years this month) tradition here at the Strangefilm practice to eschew discussions on politics, yours truly has to admit I’m a little disappointed that cymotrichous tycoon Donald Trump opted not to run for the Republican presidential nomination last month. Not that I ever would have voted for him, mind you, but a Trump White House campaign would certainly have been one of the strangest in American history…perhaps the strangest since the fictitious one depicted in today’s “youth run amok” case file, 1968′s Wild in the Streets.

“Who in America can resist the clarion call of youth?,” asks an unbilled Dick Clark (and who better to pose that question than “America’s Oldest Teenager” ?) midway through the film. Certainly not Wild in the Streets’ studio, B-movie haven American International Pictures, where founders Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson managed to fill their coffers courtesy of such demographically-targeted hits as I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein in the 1950s and the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello “beach party” comedies of the early 1960s.

Midway through the ’60s, however, the country’s clean-cut, Kennedy-era zeitgeist was giving way to disillusionment, dissent and drugs, and the trend-conscious moguls cashed in with darker fare, including the violent 1966 biker actioner The Wild Angels and The Trip, a 1967 LSD drama scripted by AIP repertoire player Jack Nicholson. And while the studio passed on a project that the star of those two films, Peter Fonda, had co-written with his pal Dennis Hopper–a little story named Easy Rider–they jumped headlong into the “generation gap” with this psychedelic satire, which took the then-current credo “Don’t trust anyone over 30″ to its (il)logical extremes.

A brooding Christopher Jones–who went from Boys Town alumnus to being touted as “the next James Dean” to abandoning Hollywood at 30, and was the off-screen paramour of Susan Strasberg, Sharon Tate and Olivia Hussey, among others–stars as charismatic rock icon Max Frost. Running away from his neurotic parents’ (Shelley Winters and Bert Freed) home as a teen and now a 22-year-old multi-millionaire, the self-described “more famous than Jesus” (thanks, John Lennon) Max is courted by congressman Johnny Fergus (Hal Holbrook). The calculating Fergus, you see, needs the singer’s help in his plans to get the California voting age lowered from 21 to 18 (remember, history buffs, this was three years before the 26th Amendment was passed), then ride the grateful youth vote into the U.S. Senate.

Fergus’ plan does not sit well with his colleague Senator Albright (Ed Begley), who dismisses the youngsters as “a filthy rabble.” And after meeting Frost and his pleasure-seeking cohorts–”anthropologist” and “author of The Aborigine Cookbook” drummer Stanley X (Richard Pryor, in his second feature film); hook-handed bass player Abraham Saltine (Larry Bishop, son of Rat Pack member Joey); “ex-child star” and “acidhead” Sally LeRoy (Diane Varsi); and the band’s business manager, gay 15-year-old Yale grad Billy Cage (Kevin Coughlin)–it’s a little hard not to agree with him. But Max and company have their own agenda to get the voting age knocked down to 14 and upstage their sponsor at a campaign appearance with the song “Fourteen or Fight.” The two sides ultimately compromise and set the bar at 15 following a massive rally where hundreds of thousands of young people effetcively shut down the greater Los Angeles area. Fergus wins the senatorial race, but the ever-scheming Max sees a way to increase his own power when an elderly congressman dies, and has his newly-enfranchised followers–or, as he calls them, “troops”–elect Sally to fill the vacant seat.

After telling her fellow leaders that “America’s greatest contribution has been to teach the world that getting old is such a drag,” the mini-skirted, tambourine-playing Sally pushes to amend the Constitution to make 14 the minimum age for all political offices. Now, in real life this would take years and require approval from three-fourths of the state legislatures, but all that’s needed here are a few Mason jars of LSD-laced H2O dropped into the D.C. water supply, and one tripped-out sequence later the amendment is passed. Max declares his candidacy for the Presidency (as a Republican, no less, because the GOP has “been looking for a hero since they lost Eisenhower”), campaigns with the song “The Shape of Things to Come” (which became a top 40 hit shortly after the movie’s release), and wins in a landslide, carrying every state except Hawaii (?). At an oh-so-groovy State of the Union address, President Frost announces that 30 is the new mandatory retirement age and soon begins setting up “rehabilitation camps” where the old fogeys–including Begley, Holbrook and Winters–wear purple caftans and are kept in acid-laced euphoria behind barbed-wire fences. With similar revolts going on around the world, even behind the Iron Curtain, America’s under-30 rulers are now free to create “the most purely hedonistic society the world has ever known,” but a chance comment from Fergus’ grade-school age daughter reminds Max that, young as he may be, there’s another generation sneaking up behind him.

1968 Academy Award nominated film "Wild in the StreeteThere may have been a lot of tripping on the screen here, but watching Wild in the Streets makes you wonder which members of the cast were doing a little pharmacological experimenting of their own. Christopher Jones seems to take his “next James Dean” hype to heart, fluctuating between pouty whithdrawl and manic energy and making Max more of a caricature than a tortured anti-hero (at times one is a little unsure which is the more sympathetic side in the film’s battle of the ages). Hal Holbrook is good as the Kennedy-like Fergus, a much less sympathetic politico than he would play two years later on TV’s The Bold Ones. Millie Perkins is also fine in a supporting role as Holbrook’s wife, although it did seem a little odd to watch the actress who played Anne Frank a decade earlier being detained by uniformed officers and taken to a prison camp. Her realistically spaced-out turn as Gloria suggests what Diane Varsi could have been up to after basically disappearing from Hollywood for nearly a decade following her Academy Award-nominated turn in 1957′s Peyton Place, while a rather subdued Richard Pyror doesn’t get much to do in the way of comedy as token “black radical” Stanley.

No, the laugh-getting part here is none other than Shelley Winters as Max’s mom, who goes to dirt-obsessed suburban housewife to fame-seeking rock star parent to pot-smoking, would-be hippie to ranting camp inmate, climbing a barbed-wire fence with bloody hands while screaming, “I’m being presented at the Court of St. James! The queen is receiving me!” This performance pretty much signalled the tipping point in Winters’ career from two-time Oscar winner to self-parody in such films as Bloody Mama and Tentacles. And for you ’60s and ’70s TV fans out there, see if you can spot Bill Mumy, Bobby Sherman, Peter Tork of The Monkees, and Brady kid Barry Williams amid the gear and ginchy goings-on.

As loopy as Wild in the Streets is, it’s interesting how prescient some of it turned out to be. An early song Max’s band performs about the country’s new youthful majority features the lyrics “We’re fifty-two percent; they write TV shows for us. We’re fifty-two percent; they design the clothes for us,” presaging today’s economic and artistic fixation with the 18-34 market. The movie’s LSD-dumping subplot scared Chicago mayor Richard Daley enough to post guards around the city’s reservoirs during the 1968 National Democratic Convention, where the protesters were a good deal less peaceful than the ones pictured here (Trivia: the story this film was based on was entitled “The Year It All Happened, Baby,” but an action flick to be called Wild in the Streets fell through, and the ever-thrifty Arkoff and Nicholson weren’t ones to waste a good title). The L.A. gathering and its regional shutdown predates Woodstock by a year, and a scene where a riot leads to 12 deaths eerily foreshadows the 1970 Kent State shooting. Newsreel footage of actual protests is seamlessly worked into the fictional goings-on, with cameos by such media “notables” as Clark, Army Archerd and Walter Winchell as themselves adding to the authenticity (the film also managed to snag a Best Editing Oscar nomination).

Oh,well, at least this is only a movie. In the real world of 2011, we Americans will never have to worry about some radical segment of the country pushing an unqualified, media-star candidate to the top of one of the major political parties’ ranks and into the Oval Off…

…Oh, yeah, I forgot: eschew discussions on politics.

  • Spencer

    I haven’t seen this movie in over 40 years, so it was a fun walk down memory lane to read this synopsis; has WITS ever made it to cable? Got a kick out of the last paragraph & accompanying foto. Good work!

  • Chip Mackey

    The movie had Mayor Richard Daley I (his son, Richie II, has just retired after leading the city of Chicago into near bankruptcy but I digress…..) was so afraid of this film he banned it from being shown in any movie theaters within the Chicago city limits. There was a media uproar about it but who was to know that the city would pull off one of the greatest “Art imitates life, or is it versa vica?” shortly thereafter by having police and hippies knock the snot out of each other at the 1968 Democratic Convention in August?

  • Freebyrd975

    I saw this movie way back in 1968. I liked it and I liked the song that Max Frost and The Troopers did in it. Shape Of Things To Come. The song made in to number 22 on the Billboard charts. :)

  • Gord Jackson

    “Wild in the Streets” came fast on the heels of Peter Watkins’ underappreciated “Privilege.” It isn’t a carbon copy but there are a number of similarities with the exploitation of youth for political ends embracing both. I don’t think it is a patch on the Watkins work but it is fun in a rather disagreeable way. Fun and prophetic.

  • Ken A

    Saw this when it came out and it rocked my world. actually, turned out to be semi-prophetic, previewing the late 1968-1971 youth movement. This was a classic Shelley Winters over-the-top performance, along with Ed Begley. Got the DVD and still enjoy watching this one.

  • ROBERT CMAPLE

    REMEMBER THIS FLICK, WE SAW IT ON ‘ “CINAMAX”

  • Frosty

    Unqualified media-star candidate? Obama fits that description perfectly.

  • David

    This movie is included in my set of wonderfully bad movies from 60′s, 70′s and 80′s (along with The Trip, The Big Cube –w.Lana Turner and George Chakiris–, Silent Night Bloody Night, Christmas Evil)…
    Horray for Hollywood’s never ending feast of sinfully wonderful mediocrity!!

  • Pamela C

    Had a crush on Christopher Jones after this movie. Saw him in “Ryan’s Daughter” with Robert Mitchum–played a totally different character, dull–did nothing for me! I know–that’s why it’s called “acting”!

  • Tommy T

    I enjoyed the movie but had misgivings about the amendment lowering the voting age. I thought they should have made it 18 if you had served in the regular military. I think elections became more about a person’s ability to get elected and less about getting a person into office who could do a good job after getting elected. Maybe we should go strictly by popularity. Stone Cold Steve Austin would make a great president; or is that too “Idiocracy”.

  • maxfabien

    When I saw this movie at the drive-in on its initial release in 1968, I was 18. And I thought it was one of the best movies of the year! Upon a subsequent viewing on cable a few years ago, I cringed. How tastes change with age!

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  • hockeyfan

    I lived in Toronto during that time period and a good friend of mine swore that this was a great movie. I think that the story was what probably was the attraction. We had a few areas in town that had all the right elements for this kind of success in such a out-there type of movie. Like alot of things we see in later life it is probably better to remember the story in your mind rather than the actual movie.