In the spring of 1958, director Nicholas Ray was tumbling a bit commercially. Ray’s filmmaking had never been exactly easy. Like his fellow Wisconsin native Orson Welles, it was on Ray’s first picture, the young lovers on the lam film noir They Live by Night, where he had the greatest control of his career and, despite frequent brilliance, it was an almost constant struggle afterward. First there was the frustration of fulfilling his contract under Howard Hughes at RKO and later came the parade of studio heads, producers and writers who deemed the director difficult. The commercial success of Rebel Without a Cause in 1955 afforded Ray a little freedom, but the two films that immediately preceded Party Girl – Bitter Victory and Wind Across the Everglades, both done for producers independent of the studios – were fraught with tension and difficulty. While Bitter Victory remains a triumph in its complex depiction of cowardice in the military, the latter production became so uncomfortable that Ray was relieved of his duties with two or three weeks left in the shoot and not allowed any influence on the editing process. That film visibly suffers as a result.
In what would end up as his final picture in Hollywood, Nick Ray next took on the gangster musical Party Girl for MGM at a time when the studio and both genres were hardly at their peaks. Add in a couple of movie stars on their respective downturns in Robert Taylor and Cyd Charisse and one could easily make the point that Party Girl is a sputtering gasp – though a beautiful one. Ray himself was apparently not thrilled with the experience or the result, and felt virtually powerless to provide the level of input he preferred. What’s striking is just how idiosyncratic, either simply as a choice in material or through his contributions, that Party Girl seems when viewing it against Ray’s other, more personal works. There’s a male (Taylor) crippled, literally here, with disappointment, private failure, and a solitary existence. The female (Charisse), mature in terms of age and realistic hopes, is unfulfilled professionally, unable to connect to a world she can nonetheless exist comfortably in, and lacking the ambition of a happy future. Both are essentially resigned to their internal lack of happiness. This intersection of two lost souls made whole, however briefly, is the dominant interest in almost all of Ray’s best films, notably In a Lonely Place, On Dangerous Ground, and Johnny Guitar. It’s this romantic humanism that has inspired multiple generations to revere Nicholas Ray and his films with devout protection.
Party Girl, which incidentally has perhaps the worst title of any Ray film, captures the director in a similar work-for-hire mode as his more forgettable RKO pictures like A Woman’s Secret and Born to Be Bad, but the difference here is that this film is actually quite good, exhibiting either Ray’s ability to transcend the material in ways he was unable to earlier in his career or, maybe, his unrealized potential to be a fully commercial filmmaker with less of the subversive tendencies shown in his other great movies. While there’s more to Party Girl than Ray’s earlier Hot Blood, about the lives of contemporary Gypsies outside of Chicago, it’s that 1956 picture which often comes to mind when measuring the superficialities of the later one. Both are fairly straight crowd-pleasers with candy hues and a luxurious use of CinemaScope. Hot Blood is more in the vein of a comedy, but the musical emphasis Ray wanted there ultimately comes to light with even more success in Party Girl. The opening scene is a dance number, taking place at the mob-run Golden Rooster nightclub. It’s fine, a decent establishing piece with Charisse’s husband Tony Martin crooning the Sammy Cahn title tune against the credits.
The two numbers centered around Cyd Charisse are far more impressive, particularly the first one. Her powerful, yet extraordinarily elegant dancing and the staging done by choreographer Robert Sidney (plus uncredited musical accompaniment by Andre Previn) sort of take you out of the gangster arc of the film, but isn’t this typical of Ray? His narrative messiness often serves as an expansion beyond the limitations of traditional plot structures. In a Lonely Place framed a murder investigation against the central relationship struggle. Johnny Guitar has numerous things going on in it, including railroads coming in and Mercedes McCambridge hellbent on absolutely destroying Joan Crawford by any means necessary. There’s also a murder investigation at the middle of On Dangerous Ground and Bitter Victory has a full-on military mission in Libya as its primary distraction. If Party Girl wants to jump around a little with the Charisse dance numbers and Taylor’s mob attorney Farrell being involuntarily beholden to Rico, the Capone-like figure played by Lee J. Cobb, in Prohibition-era Chicago, then it simply comes as no surprise or concern. The musical was well past its prime at this point, and while not really breathing new life in the genre, Ray’s film establishes or confirms the idea that musical interludes could comfortably exist in films without there being any sort of reliance on them to dominate. Party Girl isn’t a traditional musical at all, but it still features a couple of exemplary scenes with Charisse which do belong in a discussion of the great dance sequences of the decade.
Perhaps more than any of Ray’s other films, Party Girl is largely immune to simple genre definitions. In addition to the musical claims, some call the film a noir (which it isn’t) and there’s also the gangster element which must be confronted since, ultimately, the main focus aside from Taylor and Charisse is how he could exist as a man of some respectability within the world defined by Rico’s horrific actions. One surprising montage, violent and thrilling but still accepting of its inherent theatricality, shows the Illinois gangsters hard at work killing each other. Even with the artificial nature in the staging, these quick bursts of gunplay bring to mind the gangster-themed movies that would follow more than ones from the past. Ray’s rarely acknowledged mastery of the wide, CinemaScope format is also on full display here. It’s incredibly cinematic in a false, entertaining sort of way. A layer of realism is removed time and again with the insistence on bright comic book colors and repeated views of Charisse in the horizontal position, often wearing red or some shade therein, that objectify her as a creature of fantasy. The coupling between Taylor and Charisse is far more grounded – real, intimate and affecting precisely because the two actors are of a certain age. When Ray did Rebel Without a Cause, he had the triangle of Dean, Wood, and Mineo displaying an enormous, even painful degree of affection for one another and the youth aspect was something the director was fully interested in at the time. He’d done that previously with They Live by Night, but the rest of Ray’s doomed and troubled cinematic love affairs were between adults of the experienced variety.
In Party Girl, there are wrinkles on the face of Cyd Charisse which were unseen in The Band Wagon’s famous “Girl Hunt” sequence. Robert Taylor’s years weigh far more heavily here than in, for example, Camille. This is ultimately something to embrace. This is Nick Ray. This is, to paraphrase Godard, cinema. Godard and some of his French critic brethren liked Ray because they perceived him as infusing his films with his own personal struggles, of frequently making the same type of movie over and over again. It’s an idea worth acknowledging, but nonetheless lacking in the realistic nature of Hollywood that even Ray had to face. He brought certain portions of his own ideals and obsessions, like the male-female dynamic as lonely convergence, to several movies, and these wholly deserve appreciation. Even so, there are clear variations here. In a Lonely Place is completely without compromise. It presents the emotions of the short term relationship like no film ever has. Other entries in Ray’s oeuvre deliver more happy endings, but never without at least the sense that perfection is ultimately a myth for movie audiences.
Where Party Girl somewhat stands alone is its allowing of the Taylor and Charisse characters to get by with, certainly, conflict but no artificial barriers that refuse to be overcome. The relationship is utterly beyond being contrived. Charisse is a dancer just getting by while Taylor is the renowned mob lawyer with an estranged wife. Their convergence is somewhat slow and more natural than the meetings we see in other Ray pictures. An actual relationship develops instead of one being thrust upon the characters. This invests the viewer with a sense of commitment, where the romance actually feels legitimate. The performances of the two leads provide any additional reinforcement one might need. As a Ray film, Party Girl cannot help but to hinge primarily on how this central love affair plays out, and, for all of the movie’s forays across genre, it just has to be the main point of interest. If Ray did make the same film repeatedly, we’re left judging them based on how effective he was in unfolding the perpetually troubled romance at the center. As such, Party Girl, at its core, is a persuasive continuation, even an unexpected farewell, to Ray’s Hollywood concerns. The film stretches our interests on its own cinematic terms without, as ever for Ray, getting bogged down in plot. It is, proudly, a Nicholas Ray film.
Those who want to add Party Girl to their DVD collections now have a couple of options, neither entirely ideal in my mind. A PAL edition was released in France a few years ago. I haven’t seen that one, though the consensus seems to be positive. I’d instead been holding out for Warner Bros. to give the film its due in R1. That didn’t quite happen and what we now face is the option to purchase an expensive, burned-on-demand DVD-R from a few different sources. It’s all part of the Warner Archive scheme, in which the WB offers titles of varying quality in varying quality and absent any special features except the stray trailer. Consumers had become accustomed to stacked releases with usually strong transfers at more than affordable prices, but since the Archive was introduced Warner Bros. has cut back significantly on its retail output. I could fill several paragraphs with why I don’t like the Warner Archive, including the possible instability of the format and its inferior single-layer storage capacity as well as the constant threat of a title selling well enough to warrant a proper release on the marketplace and thus leaving the DVD-R purchasers with little but the burned disc in their hand, but the unavoidable truth right now is that if you want to see any of the 250 or so films included so far your choices are limited. The Warner Archive is testing classic film enthusiasts on just how much dedication exists to have “official” copies of these movies.
Consumers outside of the U.S. have had trouble even being allowed to order from the Warner Bros. online shop, but most of the titles are now available to non-U.S. buyers through Amazon.com, at a significantly increased rate, and also on the Movies Unlimited site, with a section in the Turner Classic Movies area devoted specifically to the releases. The prices at Movies Unlimited are actually a couple of dollars less – $17.95 – than at the WB site.
While Party Girl is on a single-layered disc, the transfer is progressive and in anamorphic widescreen at a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The Warner Archive credo is to use the “best quality video master currently available” without any further remastering or restoration work being done. This obviously results in varying levels of quality across the films being released. Still, Party Girl looks quite good and the lack of significant damage in the print is comforting. There is room for improvement though. For example, quite a bit of noise can be seen. Additional clarity could probably be achieved with a higher bitrate like you’d have on a dual-layered disc. The colors too, while clearly bright and somewhat vivid, can look even better, I’m sure, if given a proper presentation. The richness I noticed while at a recent screening of this film isn’t really present in these colors. If you’re willing to shell out twenty bucks or so for this burned disc and your expectations are realistic, I don’t think you’ll be too disappointed with how it looks. Or sounds. The two-channel mono audio has the faintest of hiss but nothing out of the ordinary. Dialogue and music cues are reasonably crisp. There aren’t any subtitles.
The Warner Archive titles sometimes have trailers (Party Girl does) on the disc but no other special features are ever included. A consistent and basic cover art model is used with thick navy blue bordering and a small image often from the film’s original poster in the center. The back of the case has the usual synopsis, credits and so forth you’d expect from any regular WB release. The disc itself, which has an unpleasant odor that reminds me of my paper shredder on a bad day, does have basic artwork, and is housed in a somewhat flimsy keepcase.