Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Mama Told Me Not to Come: The Sixties Party Scene on Film

"Want some whiskey in your water?
Sugar in your tea?
What's all these crazy questions they're askin' me?
This is the craziest party there could ever be.
Don't turn on the lights, 'cause I don't want to see."
("Mama Told Me Not to Come," Randy Newman, popularised by Three Dog Night)

From the Fatty Arbuckle short "Life of the Party" in 1920 to The Thin Man in 1934 to Breakfast in Tiffany's in 1961, parties have played a role in the plots of movies. Following the implementation of the Production Code, the parties in Hollywood films were comparatively sedate affairs, only broken by occasional bouts of drunkenness. With the Sixties, however, a new breed of party would arise. These parties would not only include frequent bouts of drunkenness and often wild dancing, but nudity and sex as well. Drug use made its first appearance at parties in mainstream films. Even when drug use was not in view on the screen, these party scenes almost always had a strangeness about them. The sedate parties of yesteryear were gone.

The archetypal Sixties party scene roughly falls into two types, the latter almost always overlapping with the former. The first is the very basic  "wild party." These parties almost always involve alcohol and dancing, and sometime a good deal more. The second can best be described as the "psychedelic party scene," in which hallucinogens are obviously in use, accompanied by suitably surreal special effects. In both instances such parties must have seemed outré to the average viewer and remain so today (indeed, the very fact that anyone can even write about Sixties parties scenes shows that they are somehow set apart from anything before or since). Indeed, such scenes are not only marked by the fact that they often buck traditional morality, but often carry with them a slight sense of menace. It is not so much the debauchery or immorality in such scenes that threatens viewers, it  is more often the sense that reality has somehow lost all meaning.

Here it must be pointed out that not every party that appears in a Sixties movie is necessarily a "Sixties party scene." The parties in Breakfast at Tiffany's and The Graduate are classic scenes from Sixties movies, but the parties themselves are neither wild enough nor strange enough to qualify as archetypal Sixties party scenes. Similarly, partying played a large role in the "Beach Party" series as its title would indicate, but these parties were anything but threatening. Cleancut American kids dancing to relatively wholesome music is hardly strange, and in fact was probably downright reassuring to most Americans at the time. Frankie Avalon and Annette Funnicello would have been lost (and probably mortified as well) at the party from, say, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

Of course, the Sixties party scene did have its precedents in film history. Although wild parties were nearly unknown after enforcement of the Production Code, they had appeared before that time. Despite its provocative title, the 1920 film Sex was actually a morality play. Regardless, it featured a party at which scantily clad chorus girls slid down bannisters and men drank out of women's slippers (keep in mind this was the era of Prohibition). Flaming Youth, starring Colleen Moore, is widely regarded as the first true flapper movie. As might be expected, it has party scenes, one complete with couples necking on the floor. So pivotal was partying to the flapper experience and flapper movies that an entire movie, The Wild Party,  was based around the idea. Today it is best known for the fact that Clara Bow actually speaks in the film! Of course, it would be left to Cecil B. DeMille to create what could best be described as an archetypal Sixties party scene in a pre-Sixties movie. Released in 1930, Madam Satan  is racy enough that even today it would warrant a rating of PG-13 from the MPAA. Near its climax takes place a rather bizarre costume ball aboard a zeppelin, compete with scanty costumes and double entendres. It is safe to say that no Busby Berkeley sequence was ever as gaudy, garish, or racy as the costume party in Madam Satan....

Even the psychedelic party scene had its predecessors, although not in party scenes. Instead the precursors to the psychedelic party scene are to found in the surrealist films of Luis Buñuel, the fantastic imagery of Federico Fellini (who invented the Sixties party scene--see below), and, unexpectedly, two films from Alfred Hitchcock. Although more extreme than any Sixties psychedelic party, the dream sequence in Spellbound can be considered their forerunner. Devised by Salvador Dali, the dream sequence features such  Freudian symbols as eyes, curtains, scissors, a man falling from a building, and so on. The nightmare sequence in Vertigo may be considered even more of a forerunner of psychedelic sequences, complete with multi-coloured lighting and the film's famous falling motif. In particular, the multi-coloured lighting would appear in films from the Sixties.

Of course, enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code would put a stop to such shenanigans as took place in pre-Code films. For the next many years most parties depicted on film would be calm compared to what had gone on before. In the late Forties, however, the Production Code would see an increasing number of challenges from filmmakers that would weaken its strength. Following World War II foreign films made greater inroads into the United States than ever before, films which sometimes dealt with sexuality and other more mature subjects than films made under the Code could. By the early Sixties the Production Code was a mere shadow of itself. At the same time, as the Production Code was weakened by repeated challenges, society itself became more permissive. The Sexual Revolution took place, and in the Sixties the use of such drugs as marijuana, LSD, and amphetamines increased. The stage was now set for the Sixties party scene.

Oddly enough, what may have been the first true Sixties party scenes emerged before the decade even began. Released in 1960, La Dolce Vita contained several party sequences as it followed a journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) through a week in Rome. The raucousness of the first party portrayed in the film, in which Marcello dances with Swedish American actress Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) surpassed most parties shown in movies in the previous twenty five years. As the film progresses, however, it is clear that with the first party Federico Fellini was merely warming up. In a party scene at an aristocrat's home, Marcello encounters Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), who proposes marriage to him even as she is caressed by another man. Adding to the very strangeness of the aristocrats' party is the fact that a seance is held there. It is the final party in which Fellini more or less set the stage for all Sixties party scenes in the coming decade. Marcello accompanies his friend Nadia (Nadia Gray) to a party to celebrate her divorce. There she is challenged to perform a strip tease to "Patricia" by Perez Prado . Marcello in turn grows increasingly insulting to his fellow party goers, and eventually sticks feathers on a woman and rides her like a horse. The all night party ends when it moves to the beach where the party goers find a giant ray that had been caught in fishing nets. There had never been anything like the parties in La Dolce Vita, although as the Sixties progressed there would be more.

Given that British and especially American filmmakers tended to be more conservative than their counterparts on the Continent, it would be a few years before film would see another Sixties party scene of the sort seen in La Dolce Vita. The next significant scene that could be truly called a "Sixties party" would be in the film Darling, directed by John Schlesinger and released in 1965. In the film Julie Christie plays a young actress (Diana Scott) who eventually finds herself romantically entangled with advertising executive Miles (Laurence Harvey).  Miles takes Diana to Paris and one of the wild parties there. It is a party that would not have been seen in American films at the time. Many of the men and women there swing both ways, some of them crossdress, and nearly all of them are predatory. Not only is there beatnik music, but there is also a rather cruel, strip dance, "truth" game. Alcohol is clearly in evidence and, while it is never made blatant in the scene, one suspects that not everyone is smoking mere tobacco... Like the party scenes in La Dolce Vita, the party sequence in Darling is hardly comfortable viewing. Indeed, the utter cruelty of the "truth" game is shocking even today.

What may have been the first American Sixties party scene was set in the most unexpected of places, Texas. Released in 1966, The Chase centres on events in a small Texas town following a prison break. Amidst all of this is a drunken birthday party held for the local banker. There the businessmen lust after the neighbouring teenage girls and adultery is out in the open. Indeed, Damon Fuller (Richard Bradford) messes around with another man's wife right in front of his own wife, Mary (Martha Hyer), as she cries her eyes out. Although tame compared to the parties in La Dolce Vita and Darling, it was more debauched than any party seen in an American film made in the past thirty years.

Indeed, the party in The Chase would seem absolutely tame compared to scenes from a film released the following year. Upon its release in 1966, Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup was a source of a good deal of controversy as the first British film to feature full frontal nudity. In the United States it was denied approval under the Production Code, although MGM released it anyway. Blowup contained two sequences that could be considered Sixties party scenes, although one is not strictly speaking set at a party. The movie follows London photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) in his swinging, but ultimately empty lifestyle. In one scene Thomas enters a Ricky Tick club in which The Yardbirds are performing "Stroll On." The scene is most unusual, as London youth sit passively (except for one couple dancing) while they listen to The Yardbirds. That is, until Jeff Beck smashes his guitar to bits and throws it into the audience, at which point the crowd goes wild and Thomas must escape with his life (as a sidenote, it has been rumoured that Antonioni wanted The Who, who were known for smashing their instruments). Although there is no real debauchery in the scene and it is not precisely a party, it can perhaps be regarded as a Sixties party scene as a.) it features The Yardbirds and b.) it is a very strange scene.

The party scene in Blowup is also very strange. It occurs when Thomas goes to a party at a house on the Thames in central London. The people there are gathered in small groups talking, and it is obvious that what they are smoking is not tobacco. There Thomas encounters a French model of his acquaintance. When he tells her that he thought she was in Paris, she tells him, "I am in Paris." He also encounters his publishing agent Ron (Peter Bowles), who is hardly sympathetic towards his problems. This party sequence in many respects seems somewhat cold and detached, with an underlying tone of menace about it. Although there can be little doubt that Thomas has attended such parties before, in this instance he seems very much a fish out of water.

Nineteen sixty seven would see an entire new dimension brought to Sixties party scenes, as LSD was increasingly appearing in films. Indeed, it was the catalyst behind the entire plot of the film The Trip. In the film, Groves (Peter Fonda) takes his first hit of acid and then wanders the Sunset Strip, where he goes to nightclubs and the homes of both friends and strangers. Along the way the effects of acid upon Groves are represented by special effects, coloured lights, and even body paint on the actresses. The music was provided by blues rock band The Electric Flag. In some respects The Trip could be considered one extended, psychedelic "party" scene. Indeed, Roger Corman's direction and editing of the movie would seem to have a lasting impact on psychedelic scenes in movies.

Like Blowup, the 1967 spy parody The President's Analyst has a scene that is not exactly a party scene, but due to the nature of the sequence can be counted among them. In the film Dr. Sidney Schaefer (the president's analyst of the title) finds himself travelling with a hippie rock band (played by Clear Light, who did not have a lead vocalist yet) led by Old Wrangler (Barry McGuire) and Snow White (Jill Banner). This leads directly to the movie's "party" scene, which takes a place at a night club where Barry McGuire and Clear Light perform the song "She's Ready to be Free."  It seems that "British" rock band The Puddlians have brought along LSD, which finds its way into the nightclub's ice cubes. The nightclub's customers then find themselves drinking something more than alcohol. As the customers begin their acid trips, they find themselves bathed in a purple light.With the customers under the effect of the drug, the nightclub is filmed in soft focus. The situation swiftly degenerates as an orgy begins, no doubt due to the effects of LSD and alcohol. The President's Analyst was one of  the earliest films to feature LSD, and it featured one of the first psychedelic "party" scenes.

While The Trip and The President's Analyst capitalised on the dangers of LSD, the 1968 film Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush took a more traditional approach to Sixties parties. Based on the novel of the same name by Hunter Davies,  the film centres on Jamie McGregor (Barry Evans), a young grocery deliveryman intent on losing his virginity. The movie features two party scenes. The first occurs when McGregor visits upper class Caroline Beauchamp's (Angela Scoular) parent's country manor. While McGregor's visit soon becomes a drunken orgy, he remains a virgin. McGregor later attends a mattress party, where again he fails to lose his virginity. Both parties would seem to be fairly typical of Sixties parties on film. Both involve sex and the first one involved a good deal of alcohol. Both of the parties in Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush are filmed in fairly straight forward fashion, although the movie does feature a few psychedelic dream sequences.

While LSD did not play a prominent role in either of the parties in Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, it did play a role in an impromptu party in the 1968 film movie Sebastian. In the film British cryptographer Sebastian (Dirk Bogarde) finds himself caught in an extemporaneous party. As was sometimes the case in parties in Sixties movies, LSD is present. And always happens when LSD is present at a Sixties movie party, it is utilised. As the acid takes effect, voices echo and movement slows. As the acid trip proceeds, the light begins to change colour and faces begin to take ominous new shapes. Everything begins to blur. A far as psychedelic parties go, the one in Sebastian is arguably one of the most ominous.

A party also figures in the 1968 film The Committee. While the film itself is fairly strange (its plot, if it can be said to have one, defies description), its party sequence is to some degree straight forward. There are people dancing and drugs do not appear to be present. What makes the party scene in The Committee a Sixties party scene is the a performance by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.  Arthur Brown enters the party crowned in fire, wearing a mask which covers most of his face, and flowing robes, then proceeds to perform the song "Nightmare."  Arthur Brown takes what could have been an ordinary party sequence and turns it into something otherworldly.

Like The Trip from the year before, Psych-Out could be described as one long psychedelic party scene. The movie follows a runaway looking for her brother and the hippie band she joins up with, Mumblin' Jim, in San Francisco. As might be expected, drugs play a prominent role in the film. In one scene the artist who designs the band's poster freaks out on LSD (or perhaps STP) and imagines everyone to be walking corpses. For a time the runaway (Susan Strasberg) stays in a house with other hippies, where drugs, dancing, and sex are part of the daily routine. A party held after Mumblin' Jim performs at the Ballroom included the usual sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll to be expected. Psych-Out clearly falls into the category of psychedelic films, as special effects, coloured lights, and so on are used to simulate the effects of hallucinogenic drugs.

By 1969 the Sixties party scene was well established in movies. Indeed, in the Oscar winning film Midnight Cowboy, Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) wander into a Warholesque, psychedelic party. The party includes some of Warhol's regulars (Ultra Violet, Viva, and others), as well as the sometimes strangely dressed (and sometimes nude) people expected to be at such parties. There is an individual with a movie camera there, and films are shown on a movie screen and even the walls. Drugs are prevalent at the party. A man offers Joe uppers and downers, and Joe in his naivete smokes pot.  It seems possible that Joe ingested more than pot, however, as afterwards he experiences coloured lights, movement in slow motion, and other special effects. As might be expected, sex also takes place at the party. While Joe experiences the party as a psychedelic wonderland, Ratso experiences it in a more straightforward fashion. Indeed, unlike the innocent Joe, he does not fit in with the Warholesque crowd. While the party in Midnight Cowboy may not be the ultimate Sixties party scene in a film as some would have it, it is certainly one of the most influential and also one that most characterises the psychedelic party scene.

Released the same year, the classic Easy Rider has a psychedelic party of a more private kind. In the film Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) travel to New Orleans, where they stop by a brothel. There they pick up prostitutes Mary (Toni Basil) and Karen (Karen Black).  Afterwards the four of them wander about Mardi Gras, then go to one of the city's many cemeteries. It is in the graveyard that the four of them take LSD. The trip they collectively have is not a good one. It is also a blend of the sacred and the profane, as the quartet mix nudity, sex, and acid amidst tombs and the religious symbols they bear. The Apostles' Creed is repeated by a girl's voice throughout the trip. The effects of the trip is represented by rapid edits, some sparse use of coloured lights, and in a few instances sped up film, giving the whole sequence a sense of disjointedness. The trip ends in tears, Wyatt railing at both his mother and God, and the Lord's Prayer. The trip in St. Louis Cemetery in New Orleans in Easy Rider eschews the flashier effects of similar scenes on film, to the point that in some respects it cannot be considered psychedelic. That having been said, it shares with other acid trips portrayed on film (such as the one in Sebastian) the fact that it is utterly unsettling and terrifying.

It should perhaps be natural that the decade of the Sixties should end with what could be the ultimate Sixties party scene in a film. Released in 1970, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls  followed an all girl band and their rise to fame. After the band, then calling themselves The Kelly Affair, are introduced to rock producer Ronnie "Z-Man" Barzell (John LaZar), he invites them to perform at one of his parties. The party is filled with people, most of them in the fashions of the day and some dressed more strangely than others. The conversation generally revolves around sex, drugs, or music. There is drinking, dancing, drug use, nudity, and some sex. In many respects it is a parody of what many imagine Hollywood parties to be. Russ Meyer edited the party in short bits, giving it the illusion that the party is literally vast.

This was not the last party to be held by the Z-Man in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Later in the film he holds another party at his mansion. Or perhaps it might be more accurate to say he holds a drug orgy at his mansion. At this particular party sex and drugs are rampant, and the use of hallucinogens is evidenced by the use of a green filter in the sequence. It is at this party that the Z-Man reveals a rather startling secret, and the party ends on less than desirable terms. Sadly, it is impossible to say too much about this party scene without revealing spoilers, but, trust me, it is truly the Sixties party scene to end all Sixties party scenes.

As the Sixties became the Seventies, the Sixties party scene became a part of the past. The cultural milieu which had given rise to Sixties party scenes in films had ended, and in the end the scenes themselves had become something of a cliché. This is not to say that the Sixties party scenes would not have a lasting influence. The effects used to simulate the effects of drugs in the films are still used in films to this day. The 1996 film Trainspotting, which followed heroin addicts in Eighties Scotland, made use of some of these effects. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, based on Hunter S. Thompson's novel, made extensive use of such effects. In the movie The Game, psychedelia (complete with Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit") was put to nefarious use in one of the more frightening scenes in movies. Sixties style party scenes have appeared in later films, and were parodied in the "Austin Powers" movies.

To a large degree the Sixties party scenes reflected the changing times. During the Sixties, premarital sex and drug use were becoming more acceptable in certain portions of the population. It was inevitable that these changes would appear in films. Despite this, it must be pointed out that in most instances these films tended to reinforce the traditional morality that was prevalent then as it is now. Most of the Sixties party scenes in these films have an ominousness about them, a sense that something is not quite right. This is particularly true of the psychedelic Sixties party scenes, most of which can be downright disturbing. What is more, many of the Sixties party scenes end disastrously. After dropping acid in a cemetery in Easy Rider, Wyatt, Billy, and the prostitutes know only fear and despair. The final party in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls ends even more disastrously. The message behind such films, even ones that seem to favour the counterculture of the time such as Easy Rider seems to be obvious: it is not wise to stray too far from traditional morality or catastrophe will ensue.

Ultimately this might explain why certain Sixties party scenes remain memorable to this day. While there can be no doubt that some may have prurient interest in such scenes (after all, they do often include scantily clad, beautiful women), it seems that most of us are fascinated by them because of the sheer fact that in the end they demonstrate the foolhardiness of drug use, excessive drinking, and casual sex. While the Sixties party scene may have emerged in a large part because of the counterculture of the time, in the end they serve to reinforce the prevailing morality of culture to this day.


Jim Marquis said...

Great post. I love this kind of stuff.

Toby O'B said...

Cool topic. You're probably the first to cover the subject. It sounds almost as if you could get a MacFarland book out of it!

Sarah Mann said...

These crazy party scenes are my absolute FAVORITE. The one in Darling was deliciously kooky and the Yardbirds scene in Blowup is both parts wacky and amazing at the same time.