Wild Guitar (1962)
If Hollywood’s film community is indeed a den of sin, a land of temptation and vice, then the other snake pit in that legendary town has got to be the music industry. The lies, the backstabbing, the shady dealings behind closed doors; the bright lights obscure the whole sleazy enterprise. It’s all glitz and glamour until the rug is pulled out from and you’re left a penniless nobody. It’s an oft-told story and the infamous folks behind Eegah!, The Nasty Rabbit, and The Choppers are not exactly the most obvious team to present the dark side of the record business, but they certainly take their best shot.
To be frank, I hadn’t thought about Arch Hall Jr. for a very long time. It’s as if he'd been Total Recall’d from my memory banks. And yet, upon my return to the world of Wild Guitar (1962), the nostalgia hit me like a warm ray of sunshine. Yes, it’s as if he never left me and I was once again filled with that old-fashioned feeling. That I want to punch his lights out. For me, the most tragic part of a bad movie is when there’s the germ of a good idea squandered by ineptitude or hubris. Here, the story may be a huge cliché that’s been done over and over, but there’s a decent script here and even some inventive direction. The main problem is the leading man.
It’s common knowledge that Arch Hall Jr. had no interest in being an actor and his short career was practically forced upon him. Still, that didn’t stop his father, Arch Hall Sr., from trying to make his boy not only a movie star, but a singing one at that. He’s a charisma vacuum. It’s bad enough that he’s not up to shouldering the burden of a lead role, but his ‘aw shucks’ and ‘golly gee whiz’ attitude grates on the nerves. Frustration abounds for anyone who’s seen 1963’s The Sadist, since it proved that Hall was capable of more with the right material. Hall was not a great actor. He wasn’t even a good actor, but he did have one decent performance in him. This is not that performance.
The plot is 100% by-the-numbers. Naïve kid arrives in town with stars in his eyes. He gets a shot, succeeds, and then is taken advantage of by double-dealing management. It’s the getting there that gives Wild Guitar its entertainment value. Hall plays Bud Eagle, a silly name the writers assume sounds ‘hip,’ and as he walks around early 60’s Hollywood, even the simple act of staring at landmarks feels forced. The opening works much better as a snapshot of a Los Angeles long lost to history and ‘progress.’
With no more than 15 cents to his name, he wanders into a café and is immediately poked fun at by low-level Three Stooges knock-offs. If you’re hoping this is the only scene with these annoying and wildly out-of-place palookas, think again. To jump ahead, they act as though they’re in a totally different movie, disrupting the ‘mostly’ realistic quality director Ray Dennis Steckler and co-writers Arch Hall Sr. (credited as Nicholas Merriweather, an alias Hall Jr. would use later for a novel he wrote) and Bob Wehling are trying to create.
Bud plops down next to Vickie (former ice skater Nancy Czar), a dancer getting the jitters about doing the shimmy-shimmy-shake on a televised variety show. She notices Bud’s guitar and asks what his “edge” is. His “edge?” This is hepcat talk and when he ends up following her to the taping, he also ends up puking in his ‘saxomophone.’ Despite his nerves, a star will be born.
As Steckler showed in The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964), he has no problem stopping the film cold for a production number. Vickie does her thing, which would be fine if it weren’t for her facial expressions. She looks like a 12-year-old trying to make ‘sexy faces.’ Bud literally trips onto the stage and, with no rehearsal, launches into a full performance with a backup band. This is a well-edited musical number, covering all angles, with Steckler restraining himself from his more psychedelic experimentations later in the film. Of course, Bud’s warbling is a hit, which draws the attention of industry low-life Mike McCauley (Arch Hall Sr., credited as William Watters). The audience rushes Bud after his performance, but not to tear him to pieces like in Perfume (2006). Pity.
Arch Hall Sr.’s voice is certainly well-known to bad film aficionados due to his off-screen delivery of the line, “Watch out for snakes!” in Eegah!. What I wasn’t expecting was his effectiveness as a burly bear of a man who's cuddly one minute and ice cold the next. For someone whose film output is regarded as quite terrible, he’s very good as a nefarious talent scout/manager. He even has an evil henchman - an absolute slime of a guy named Steak (pronounced ‘Steek’) played by Steckler under his usual pseudonym Cash Flagg. Ray Dennis Steckler was both blessed and cursed to have the combined look of a weasel and a snake. It serves him quite well in this role. Although there’s some unnecessary mugging here and there, it’s an unforgivably nasty performance. There’s a great watchability factor to seeing them interact with the wet-behind-the-ears Bud since we know they’re going to screw him over.
In a very good scene, Bud gets his first taste of success by being given a swanky apartment and having Mike lay out how he’s going to take him to the top. Mike is unrelenting in his manipulation of the young singer and plays him like a fiddle. Steak gets Vickie out of Bud’s life and he starts the process of becoming a teen idol. Likely because they couldn’t afford a studio, a band comes to the apartment and they work on some songs. Steckler indulges in some unnecessary Dutch angles and weird camera moves. He’s much better when he pulls back and lets the script play out.
Another strong scene is a meeting with high school kids on McCauley’s payroll who are tasked with fanning the flames of Bud’s popularity. As an examination of how to sell and promote a singer, it’s insightful. Bud unexpectedly decides to quit since he’s been getting strange replies from his out-of-state brother. He doesn’t know that Steak has been answering the letters in a further attempt to cut Bud off from anyone else and control him. McCauley smooth talks Bud into staying, and the camera rushes in to a close-up of Bud as he says, “We’re gonna hit this town like a bomb.” We smash cut to a decent effort by Steckler to convey Bud’s rise to the top. There are records flying across the screen over obviously-fake money. The movie feels like it takes place over the course of a week, but we find out later that he’s sold over four million records.
Vickie has pretty much given up hope that Bud cared for her at all as she mopes around the record store looking at Hall Jr.’s weird mug and the café where she met him. At home one night, she sees Bud perform ‘Vickie,’ a recycled song from Eegah! (and whose poster can be seen at the café). An extremely awkward scene transition occurs: Bud bows and the sound drops out, cuts to an empty couch where Vickie sat for about two seconds, then we see Vickie running in the street, presumably to the studio since she was so moved by his performance. The two are reunited and they sneak away to an ice rink.
Until I learned that Czar was a former ice skater, I assumed they used a double, but she’s impressive on the ice. Since they’re alone, I have no idea who’s manning the spotlight that follows her, but…ghosts, I guess? Some people may not know it, but two of Hollywood’s greatest cinematographers worked on some of these silly films. They were Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond. On Wild Guitar, Zsigmond was working as a second unit DP and is apparently responsible for a lot of the skating footage. There’s a nifty 360° move as well as some lens flare-spackled traveling shots. In an interview years later, Steckler tells a story that may or may not be true. He claims that during the shoot, Zsigmond wanted to film the scene again because when he pointed the camera toward the light, it created lens flare. Steckler supposedly replied, “Someday, those lights are going to win you an Academy Award.” Sure enough, Zsigmond would win an Oscar for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a gorgeous film chockfull of lens flare. Did he really say this? Who knows? There’s some very gross and awkward fake kissing. Hall looks as if he was directed to lay his face on Czar’s and wiggle his head around. The scene ends with a nicely-framed dawn shot of Bud giving his coat to Vickie.
In a scene that’s easily predicted but filled with delightfully odd dialogue, a former teen idol named Don Proctor (Robert Crumb, not the cartoonist) lets himself into Bud’s apartment. He can do that since he has his own key. You see, this was his apartment and once the fad of “young men with wavy hair” ended, the “Golden Leech” decided to shove him out. He tells him about the “fast pencil” bookkeeping Mike has set up in order to steal all of Bud’s profits. These are really bizarre turns of phrase but they’re priceless and indicative of how out-of-touch the two writers were of 60’s slang.
McCauley sees Vickie as a threat, so they send in resident hussy Daisy (Virginia Broderick) to bang Bud. She dances around and chases him in a scene of comic miscalculation by Steckler. I think he’s afraid of going too far with the material because he wants to appeal to the widest audience. Another approach would’ve been for it to be a quiet and sensual scene but it’s doubtful Hall Jr. could’ve handled it, acting-wise. Steak discovers Don hiding behind the bar and chases him out, but not before sending him crashing down the stairs. The police are called and we learn later that Mike had to shell out cash to pay for Don’s expenses. A darker version of this would’ve had Steak killing Don and disposing of the body. Vickie catches Bud with Daisy and he lamely yells for her to “Wait!” He runs outside and the movie takes a stupid left turn when those three buffoons from the café kidnap Bud.
The movie is just barely 85 minutes and I certainly don’t want to see any more of those interminable Bud Eagle musical performances, but this plot twist and these three characters represent Steckler and Hall Sr.’s worst instincts. Comedy is hard and their attempt at it fails miserably. The three idiots abscond with Bud to their hideout and since Bud wants to get away from Mike and Steak anyways, he convinces them to let him stay and even demand a higher ransom. They get the money but Steak follows them, resulting in a clumsy, unfunny fight scene that includes dead bodies (?!) and Bud disappearing. A poorly-dubbed newsboy, the bastion of movie exposition, lets us know that the great Bud Eagle is missing.
Vickie is moping once again at the café, where it turns out Marge, the tough-talking waitress with a heart of gold, has been keeping Bud hidden and working as a dishwasher. Vickie and Bud are reunited and this café is just a treasure trove of bad eyelines as Marge approvingly looks on. They’ve either shrunk or just started fucking on the floor since she’s looking straight down.
A random kid shows up at McCauley’s office and bribes Mike with information about Bud’s whereabouts. Mike had gifted Bud a tape recorder earlier in the film, so I think you know what’s coming next. They track him down to the back of the café, where anyone could see superstar Bud Eagle taking out the garbage, and they have it out. Making Mike angrier and angrier, Bud gets him to admit that he’ll hurt Vickie if he doesn’t go out on tour. The kid from earlier turns out to be Ted (Al Scott, credited on IMDB as ‘Tom’), Bud’s younger brother, who says they’ve run out of tape.
All right, here’s the biggest and most glaring problem. Mike admits to threatening Vickie and literally less than a second goes by before Ted comes out and says they’ve run out of tape. So, there’s no way they actually got McCauley’s confession. It’s incredibly stupid and just needed maybe two or three more lines to make the timing work. There’s a major scuffle between Bud and Steak, which ends up on a truck for some reason, and Steak is beaten up.
In an amusing twist, Bud decides to keep McCauley on as his manager but will hold the recording (which proves nothing!) to blackmail him into backing Vickie and doing what he wants. He agrees and apparently comes up with an incredible idea. A music video where people sing and dance at a beach! Haven’t seen that before. There’s a handful of extras and the scene looks to be shot in the early morning since they probably didn’t have permits. There’s a random shot of the ocean for no reason and the most bizarre and frankly eeriest moment is the final shot, where everyone freezes. No, the picture itself doesn’t freeze, the actors freeze. You can still see the ocean behind them and the breeze moving their clothes, but they’re all standing frozen. It’s...not good.
Interesting tidbit. The editor, Anthony M. Lanza, would go on to great heights as the director of The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant 1971). With the exception of Zsigmond and Marge (Marie Denn), who would pop up in Night of Demons (1988) years later, most of the cast and crew didn’t go on to much beyond the movies made by this odd group of people. Even with its glaring flaws and some uneven performances, Wild Guitar at least partially succeeds thanks to its writing and villains as an indictment of the cruel machinations of the music industry.