Well, I must say that I really enjoyed this delightful, quirky little film. Though Ray had very little personal control on the project, having not written the script and been denied any influence in post-production, Party Girl immediately struck me as “a Nicholas Ray movie.” It addresses many of the themes and preoccupations which recur throughout his films and it involves his characteristic play with, or hybridization of genre. Most centrally, in terms of Nicholas Ray, this movie is about two people looking for a “home,” for both a physical world or place as well as an ideally-suited person, which will make them feel as though they belong, that they won’t have to fight or hustle men or defend sleazy criminals for, but which can just be their’s and can let them be their best selves. Our titular character, Vicki Gaye, begins the film as a cynical “dancer” who has been forced into “show-dancing” at the Golden Rooster, slinking around in skimpy costumes and decorating gangsters’ arms at expensive dinner parties in order to make a living. Like some of Ray’s earlier young characters, such as Nick Romano and even Bowie and Keechie, Vicki becomes a mouthpiece for the niceties of morals and principles and standards, which all fall apart when you can’t afford to eat, as she matter-of-factly tells Tommy during their initial cocoa-sipping conversation. She is characterized by her independence, her aloofness, and her own past which has made her jaded in the ways of love and men and which has compelled her to let no one “get too close” or to “back her into a corner.” Of course, the “crooked” Tommy will change all of this, will offer her the husband, in action if not in legal name, that she has needed to tame her independence, to cure her past wrongs, and to bring her salvation through love, or rather, through her intense devotion to the Hollywood couple and her man. Vicki maintains her independence (her own apartment and her job at the club, which Tommy got for her) only in name, effectively living as Tommy’s dutiful wife, a change solidified when he collars her with an expensive diamond choker necklace. After this, her dialogue is restricted things like her telling him she’ll wait for him while he leaves their anniversary dinner to attend to mobster business and that even if he’s in danger, her place is with him.
Tommy too finds redemption and salvation in love, in the formation of the couple with Vicki, a theme which permeates much of Ray’s work. After first judging Vicki for her lifestyle, pretending towards understanding when he tells her that “a girl’s entitled to what she can get” before condemning her for “selling her pride” not only in taking Louie’s gambling money but also in his insinuations that her “dancer” past has been more sordid than her elegant red gown would imply, that she has sold more than her company or her “dances” to the many men willing to pay. However, after she watches his infamous “watch routine” in court, she realizes his own hypocrisy and confronts him in the male-dominated, gangster-inhabited speak-easy where he goes to celebrate his victory. Here, this “chick,” turns his own moral judgment back on him, revealing to him that his pride simply sells for a higher price than hers (men vs. women and the money-making possibilities and social positions open to each of them). This immediately kicks him off of his high horse (sort of) and reveals Vicki to be his equal, in contrast to the scum he has to defend in the courtroom and the mob boss Rico who is emotional, irrational, and sentimental, and who “needs” Tommy to tell him the hard truth about himself (such as when he stops Rico beating a man to death and when he scolds him for being sloppily drunk and foolish after shooting a portrait of Jean Harlowe because the movie actress married someone else). Oddly, after he comes to see her dance three times in a single week, Vicki only decides to accept Tommy, to go to him, after he starts drinking, which perhaps hints to her that he has loosened his own moral pretensions, but is still a rather odd choice. He explains his own troubled past to her, his current hang-ups, which come from being a man who is physically, and ultimately morally (or at least reputationally), “crooked.” Like the rodeo-riders in The Lusty Men, Tommy got his injury through a performance of machismo bravura and daring, hanging onto the Chicago bridge as it rose into the air, trying to impress and best the other kids but ultimately getting his bones crushed in the “meat grinder” of the gears. In classic definitions of masculinity, American masculinity at that, Tommy explains that he didn’t mind his limp, for it gave him character and attested to his boyhood glory, at least until the other boys started going out with girls; it was only then that he started to notice his difference, his inferiority (as based on performability in relation to ‘the fairer sex’). This was then compounded by the fact that his show-girl wife made him leave her because she couldn’t stand the sight of his physical “crookedness,” adding insult to injury by continuing to live off of his money, his jewels and the apartment he paid for, but denying him, a physically imperfect man, the pleasures of the marriage bed.
Tommy not only escapes his physical limitations while in love with Vicki (he gets his hip fixed at an exotic clinic in Sweden, where Vicki later joins him to celebrate his new life by riding in freedom-connoting convertibles and picnicking by the seaside) but he also begins to seek a way out of his gangster life, a way to find respectability. Presumably, in Hollywood when we have two “good” people in love, and they want to get married, they must both become respectable: Vicki moves into the more prestigious, higher-paying, yet connotationally more savory job of Headlining Dancer as opposed to Show Girl, and Tommy attempts to move away from the fear- and respect-inspiring position as “crooked” lawyer to the mob, though it was the “quickest way” for him to get the kind of authoritarian, powerful masculinity he desperately sought. Like the magical hide-away that Jim, Judy, and Plato escape to in Rebel, where they can forget the realities and disappointments and dangers of their lives to live momentarily in a dreamy utopia, and like Bowie and Keechie’s ramshackle shed-turned honeymoon Home, Tommy and Vicki dream of “the coast” as the magical land that will save them from their lives, that will let them live together in all the unbridled happiness of love. Though I assumed they had meant the East Coast because of geographic proximity, Vicki’s attempted train ride reveals their dreamed-of destination to be the West Coast, Los Angeles, the city of angels and lovers, land of sunshine and happiness; there the couple could experience a life-long version of their Swedish vacation, on the beach, in the land where Hollywood romances and movie magic would reflect and encourage the escapist, blissful nature of their relationship.
I also want to discuss the film’s interesting use of genre and its relationship to masculinity. This is indeed an odd little film in terms of genre, for it starts out as the story of the “party girl” of the title, initially focusing on the spectacle-giving showgirls (of this gangster town’s night club AND of Hollywood cinema itself) before following them into the female-dominated world of backstage, to listen to the romantic drama of Vicki (or lack thereof) and her poor roommate, whose affair with a married man is not going very well. But after that roommate kills herself in tragic (and pregnant) desperation, the movie becomes a man’s movie, focused almost entirely around the character of Tommy and his development, for Vicki is wooed over to the romantic relationship very quickly and after that loses all of her personality, her experienced independence and charisma, and becomes a typical wife figure to Tommy. This shift in protagonists (and a “taming of the shrew” motif) is accompanied by a shift in genre, for the film here settles into its gangster/crime generic convention, though it still retains its romance plot, which indeed is a blending that is almost ubiquitous with Nicholas Ray (see On Dangerous Ground, They Live By Night, Knock On Any Door, etc.).
But despite this shift to a masculine genre, the film is interrupted by two of Vicki’s musical dance numbers, which stand out blaringly from the style of the rest of the film, and indeed from anything Nicholas Ray has ever done (it is very clear that with such camera work, Ray could not have been personally responsible for them). They are quintessential Hollywood musical numbers, with a dream-world type of closed set space that contains and intensely abstracts the dance from any type of real world space, with stylized colors and lights, elaborate costumes, the dancer’s direct look at the camera/spectator, and sweeping camera movements to catch and to enhance the woman’s movements. These are moments of pure spectacle, which stand out blaringly from the narrative, and do extraordinarily little to advance either plot or characterization. They become the only “active” thing Vicki can do after she becomes involved with Tommy and passively clings to his side despite the danger, after the film shifts its focus to the male worlds of gangsters and lawyers.
These sequences seem to perfectly epitomize Laura Mulvey’s conjecture about women in Classical cinema, who are positioned as bearers of the male (spectators’ and diegetic characters’) look and who exist as visual spectacle, shown off in moments of pure spectacle which halt or freeze the narrative. Party Girl’s musical numbers do just that, in outlandishly obvious fashion (perhaps another play with Hollywood genre and convention in this luridly-colored, highly stylized film), highlighting the woman’s body and the (male/camera) gaze at it. Furthermore, the opening credits sequence perfectly epitomizes the objectification of the woman that Mulvey discusses, for the camera breaks up the female body into abstracted, impersonal parts: legs, midriffs, arms, heads and headdresses. This scene, besides closely adhering to the model of gender difference in classical cinema laid out by Mulvey fifteen years after Party Girl’s release, also reflexively comments on this very spectacle-creating and spectacle-needing element of Hollywood cinema and of cinematic spectatorship. It is not only in the night clubs of Chicago, for rich men and gangsters, that women show off their bodies, sell their image for personal gain, and it is not only the clubs or the mobs that benefit from such sales. Hollywood too, indeed our culture as a whole, profits from the sale of spectacularized, eroticized women and it is Hollywood itself which offers this same type of spectacle to men and audiences, a fact made outlandishly plain in this opening number of Ray’s last studio film. But then, the film turns its reflexive and playful glance at other genres, directs it gaze away from women towards men to explore notions of performance, violent machismo, and the importance of appearance and reputation for men who are similarly spectacularized (though in less objectified, body-focused ways) through the explosively-violent, Tommy gun-blaring genre of the gangster film.