The year is 1929, and movie comedian Jolly Grimm (James Coco) is planning a comeback to the silver screen after five years away. Back then he had been one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, but he has been absent for so long that many wonder if he can reclaim his crown, not least Grimm himself who is suffering a crisis of confidence about his talent and audience attraction now that sound is the major new innovation in the industry. This crisis exhibits itself by his bad behaviour towards his mistress, Queenie (Raquel Welch) who he has a habit of slapping around, and though he has mixed feelings about her he still loves her - but does she love him? She may be getting fed up of him, and their upcoming party might be an opportunity to meet someone new...
There are not many films based on poems, perhaps because they don't appear to do very well (does Eskimo Nell count?), and The Wild Party, adapted by songwriter Walter Marks (also responsible for the music) from a 1926 work by Joseph Mancure March, did little to break that losing streak, which may be surprising if you knew the source essentially told the story of a comedian in New York whose gangster-ridden celebration takes an unfortunate turn. It could be because this film sought to build upon that by adding real life scandal into the mixture in the rotund shape of Fatty Arbuckle's tragedy. He was a silent comedian whose career was ruined when he suffered trial by media as he was wrongly accused of raping and killing a bit part actress at one of his parties.
He was found not guilty, and the press had invented a whole pack of lies about his supposedly debauched activities that saw to it the general public's belief in Hollywood's barren lack of morals was vindicated by their reports, and while it was true there were many in Tinseltown who lived up to that dubious notoriety, Arbuckle was more or less an innocent raked over the coals of self-righteous indignation. Not a bad subject for a film, so why did the team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory start their work as if it was going to tackle this head on, then proceed to fritter away that captivating tale with a plot that eventually gave all that up for its own ending, after an hour and a half of flirting with the facts, deliberately courting what the viewer knew of Arbuckle's case but doing nothing with it.
Ultimately, while that was an issue and spoke to a lack of courage, or at least a lack of dedication to what it was highlighting, it was only one problem with The Wild Party. If you were not a big fan of parties then this would merely confirm your worst suspicions that they are best avoided when everyone there is so determined to have fun that it becomes a relentless, grinding experience best suited for those who wish to lose themselves in an oblivion of drink and maybe some illegal drugs as well. On the other hand, if you're a people person who loves gatherings, then this would tell you how wrong you were about such funseeking, as there was damn little fun to be had from the activities on display here, with everyone eventually desperate to get away from the premiere of Grimm’s film and on with the sex and drugs.
We had a narrator of sorts (David Dukes) who would impart extracts from the poem, lending an ominous tone of impending doom for a few of the characters. James Coco looked the part of the silent movie comedian, showing dedication in his films within the film as we see extracts from Grimm's efforts which do look fairly convincing, music aside, but dramatically he was a rather lumpen presence showing why he was better hired for his humorous roles than the more serious thespianism he was required to produce here. Raquel Welch was likely the strongest draw, then and now, but oddly a poor fit for her goodtime gal persona in this, as there was a sense that a good time was not what she was having and though she got to sing and dance in selected scenes, would have been happier if this had been made as the musical it was originally intended to be. Certainly it would have enlivened what was a moribund, unenlightening film which telegraphed all was not going to end well to such an obvious extent that there was no suspense, and not much enjoyment for that matter.