In his celebrated novella Day of the Locust writer Nathanael West imagined Hollywood as an apocalyptic nightmare - not the kind served up nightly on Entertainment Tonight, but the original, pre-conscious apocalyptic nightmare. The story treats the town as a spiritual sickness that sucks the souls from normal human beings, and offers up starlet wannabe Faye Greener as a sacrificial offering.
After his caustic look at Times Square in Midnight Cowboy cultured filmmaker John Schlesinger would seem the perfect director for this almost indigestible story. Schlesinger does as well as any mortal could in turning it into a movie and succeeds in almost every department. But no matter how well he nails the difficult moods and attitudes, The Day of the Locust is too calculated and cold to be broadly accepted as entertainment. A story of hopelessness and soul-sickness needs to make us care about its characters, and we instead spend our time watching them with a mixture of fascination and horror.
Without much exaggeration, The Day of the Locust turns 1938 Hollywood into a sunshiny, cheerful hell. Tod Hackett is doing quite well in a Paramount job that seems to be going somewhere; but he's fascinated by Faye Greener's side of the city, where the has-beens and wannabes collide in unhappy denial of reality. Faye is the sickest of all, a beauty so consumed by delusions of stardom that she's incapable of love. She's too much like the starlet who committed suicide by leaping from the Hollywoodland sign, as gleefully reported by the tour guide. She strings along her two Gower Gulch cowboys, losers who can only pick up a few dollars as extras and have to camp in the hills. She gives Tod grief because he wants a more serious relationship; she's saving herself for her dreams. When strapped for cash, she turns some tricks through madam Audrey Jennings (Natalie Schafer from Gilligan's Island) and cruelly abuses the meek misfit Homer Simpson in a "business arrangement": He provides for her and does all the work, and she spends his money.
Once-blacklisted writer Waldo Salt is far gentler with Hollywood than he was with Times Square but there's still plenty of acid under the diffused California sunshine. Peripheral characters tend to be grotesques and the featured characters are denied sentimental embellishments. Burgess Meredith's old vaudevillian is a blithely bitter joker who knows the difference between the big time and oblivion. Billy Barty's little guy can be vile; when he suddenly becomes an expert in cockfighting with Pepe Serna's bantams, he's a thoroughly horrible monster. Bo Hopkins' cowpoke is inoffensive and the kind of Guy Tod knows how to trump, but when terrible Faye decides to get carnal, it's always with Latin ranchhand Serna.
Unable to use any of Nathanael West's ominous text, Salt and Schlesinger recast The Day of the Locust in visual terms, seeingly using Tod Browning's Freaks as a guide. That's what we really have here, a morbid sideshow as observed by Tod Hackett (Browning?). Faye is the monstrous female worshipping the false idols of Tinseltown. Homer Simpson is Frankenstein's monster, a gentle but crippled soul trapped in a body he can't seem to control (in the book Homer obsessed over his alien, oversized hands) and lacking any form of self-confidence. Faye sympathizes to the extent that she's capable but spends most of her time exploiting, taunting and teasing him, in much the same way that Fritz the hunchback tortured Boris Karloff. In the end Homer (the Monster) revolts, killing a horrible taunting child (a vision of Faye) and paying for it at the hands of an angry mob (villagers with torches).
The world of Golden Hollywood is nicely evoked. Tod is no standard-bearer for better values; he protests the hypocrisy of his smug bosses but steps right up to be sheared when studio head Helverston (Paul Stewart) offers him a free haircut he can't turn down. Salt wisely moves the book's setpiece, an on-set disaster, from the opening to the beginning of the final act to heighten the feeling of impending doom. Studio economics routinely put extras and studio employees at risk, and the spectacle of Tod's beautifully researched and reconstructed Waterloo set collapsing is a perfect metaphor for the destruction so devoutly wished. 1
The Day of the Locust is beautifully acted. Donald Sutherland extends the "hulking simpleton" characters he played in Die, Die My Darling! and The Dirty Dozen. He's so tender and inoffensive, I'm surprised nobody ever thought of him for Frankenstein's monster. William Atherton is a fine hero and didn't get the attention he deserved - audiences expecting a conventional tale surely look to the Tod Hackett character to straighten out the crooked story.
This has to be Karen Black's finest hour. Faye Greener could easily be a stereotyped Harlowesque tramp but Ms. Black consistently finds a way for us not to condemn her out of hand, even when she's digging her own career grave by putting on airs with Richard Dysart's big wheel. She's out of control in a sad, sordid way, a woman who's "saving herself" for Clark Gable but ends up the center of lust at a cheap party in the Hollywood hills. Black was heartbreaking ever since I saw her in You're a Big Boy Now, and she doesn't let this big-break role down.
I'm probably wrong, but the title of West's novella communicates to me a reference to the Book of Revelations, with its omens of destruction represented by demonic insects. There's probably some entirely different connection. With Geraldine Page's revivalist charlatan stirring up Jesus fervor (in a scene much more convincing than the theatrics of Elmer Gantry), the film easily achieves an "end of days" vibe.
The Day of the Locust winds up in a terrifying Grauman's premiere that goes completely nuts with a convincingly chaotic riot, where an announcer whips up the crowd because he thinks they're excited about a stupid show called The Buccaneer. They're really a vicious mob, all come to Hollywood Blvd. to quench some unfulfilled inner desire. It's a wanting of something that can't be possessed, a glamour greater than ordinary life and they'd just as soon kill the stars they see as adore them. With palm trees collapsing in flames and mobs trampling people underfoot are so overblown that one has to remember that it's straight from West's novella. Robert Aldrich's The Legend of Lylah Clare achieved a similar dream-consumer fury with his "dog food commercial ending" that interrupts his Grauman's premiere.
The only mis-step on Schlesinger's part isn't really a mis-step as much as it is something we don't want to see - at the height of the carnage we are given visions of Tod Hackett's "mural of terror" artwork back on the wall of his apartment. The ghoulish faces from his art studies show up among the rioters, and for a moment The Day of the Locust starts to look like Night of the Living Studio Premiere of the Dead. The movie's themes are resolved, but what we really have invested in are the characters and they're mowed down like so many extras hit by Noah's flood. My response in 1975 was to go read the book, where I found a wonderfully disturbing tale of doom. Ordinary moviegoers need a free-standing experience, and I can see where they'd leave the theater making faces and wondering what it all meant. 2
Paramount's DVD of The Day of the Locust sparkles in this enhanced transfer, and at 144 minutes shows no sign of low bit-rate problems. The audio is in the original mono or a new 5.1 remix. Some scenes may appear soft, but I am advised that the heavy diffusion was Schlesinger's desired visual style.
With no contemporary stars to turn into portrait-themed key art, Paramount has used the original poster art that places a garish blow-up doll image of Karen Black over a riot scene. This is another no trailer, no commentary, no nothing plain-wrap release, but still an excellent quality feature presentation at a bargain price.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Day of the Locust rates:
1. The obvious precedent for
this was at Warners in 1927 when a number of extras were drowned in a flooding scene for
Noah's Ark. It was a case of flagrant endangerment and remained legendary in Hollywood, where
studio lawyers and "downtown influence" could sanitize practically anything - involuntary manslaughter,
2. An author with a similar misanthropic cynicism (maybe more) is
Charles Finney in The Circus of Dr. Lao, a devastating social satire that (like Nathanael
West's Miss Lonelyhearts) is not recommended to people with depression problems! It's
absolutely nothing like George Pal's sentimental movie.