An aging silent movie comic star of the 1920s named Jolly Grimm attempts a comeback by staging a party to show his new film. But the party turns into a sexual free-for-all and the comic ends up killing his mistress, Queenie, and an actor who has taken an interest in her.
The film was loosely based on a poem by Joseph Moncure March and filmed in Riverside, California. The poem was also made into two musicals, a Broadway show, composed by Michael John LaChiusa, which followed the poem very closely, and an off-Broadway production, composed by Andrew Lippa, which took some artistic liberties with the poem but still less than this movie.
A dance scene was choreographed by Patricia Birch.
Once a great star of silent film, Jolly Grimm has wealth, a mansion, a manservant, Tex, and a beautiful and faithful woman in his life, Queenie, but no longer has Hollywood's interest. He desperately tries to get studio executives interested in his latest project, which he has financed himself, so he decides to throw a huge party at his house and show the film footage to those who come.
The party turns into a loud, alcohol-fueled orgy. Jolly is unable to impress a Hollywood mogul, eager to move on to a more important social engagement, with the outdated humor and pathos of his movie. The more he drinks, the more angry Jolly becomes. The arrival of an underage girl brings out a protective, possibly perverted interest on Jolly's part, while the attention paid to Queenie by the virile young actor Dale Sword ignites a jealous fury in the sad comic that leads to violence and tragedy.James Coco as Jolly Grimm
Raquel Welch as Queenie
Perry King as Dale Sword
David Dukes as James Morrison
Tiffany Bolling as Kate
Mews Small as Bertha
Royal Dano as Tex
Paul Barresi as the Bartender
The script was based on Joseph Moncure March's 1926 narrative poem about a party given by a vaudeville comic in his walk-up apartment in Greenwich Village. Lyricist-composer Walter Marks thought the poem might make the basis for a musical film, and decided to write a film adaptation which relocated the action to Hollywood at the end of the silent-movie era. Marks took the project to Edgar Lansbury and Joseph Beruh, producers of Broadway musicals such as Godspell and they agreed to executive produce.
Lansbury thought the poem was so "wildly unconventional" it was only worth making with a budget of $200,000, "as an experiment in which the risks were minimised".
Marks' brother Peter introduced Marks to director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant who had just made Savages. Lansbury and Beruh liked that movie and hired Ivory and Merchant. After Ivory became involved the film stopped being a musical and became a drama with music. Fatty Arbuckle was an inspiration for the main character.
Lansbury says "as we worked on it, the project sort of gathered momentum." Raquel Welch agreed to play the female lead and the budget expanded. The film was financed by American International Pictures who normally specialised in exploitation films. Studio president Samuel Z. Arkoff said AIP usually made movies for the "Woolworths line" but admitted with this film the company were "going to add a higher line" and that it was a "wildly artistic film".
James Coco was cast in the lead. "There isn't anything I don't get to do and that's terribly appealing to any actor," said Coco. "It's full, fleshed out. And part of it is silent. I get to do love scenes with Raquel, I don't get that opportunity too often. I usually get the mule. She isn't what I expected. She's small. She's very serious, an organic actor and I love that. We have a marvelous relationship."
Filming started on 29 April 1974 at the Riverside Mission Inn in California. They shot there for five weeks. Ivory said the inn was chosen because "it's typical of the palatial, beautifully rocco architecture of the period."
"Raquel Welch was a very, very difficult actress to work with," said James Ivory. "She fired the cameraman, she fired Ismail, she would have fired [co-star] Perry King…and it was our film!... I did not enjoy making The Wild Party."
Welch demanded that the cinematographer Walter Lassally be fired after he made an "impertinent" remark to her. She also wanted Ivory fired and replaced as director by her then boyfriend Ron Talsky. The Directors Guild became involved and threatening letters were sent to Welch. Filming continued.
"She's very insecure when she's working," said Lansbury.
Ivory later said "the egos and temper tantrums in the heat of May and June, the large crows of extras, the festering atmosphere reminded me of working among those tempestuous movie stars in Bombay."
The film was heavily edited by AIP. "They did more than recut it," said Ivory. "They turned it upside down and they distributed two versions. I never knew which is being shown."
Ivory said the main changes were softening James Coco's character, adding discarded sex scenes and introducing flashbacks and flashforwards. Ivory wrote that the "patched-together remnants" of the film "proves once more that you cannot effectively re-edit a picture and change its character in order to "save" it."
While Lansbury, Beruh and Mark approved the re-cut version, Welch hated it. Stanzas from the poem that inspired this story are read in a narrative voice-over by actor David Dukes during the film. "It's a simple, linear story but I think the poem adds a dimension to it," said Lansbury. "It is literary and it has the various textures of a mosaic."
The Los Angeles Times called the film "an ambitiously dreadful business."
After the film's original release in 1975, other versions varying in length resurfaced on VHS and DVD, as well as a director's cut, 20 minutes longer, briefly released to French cinemas in 1976 and US cinemas in 1981.
The film was a financial flop. Ivory thought a problem, apart from the re-editing, was that the audience could not identify with any of the characters. "I think its mixed style - part musical, part melodrama, part character piece - would have gone down better if the audience could have entered more into those characters' lives."