“DON’T TRUST ANYONE OVER 30!” That was one of the mottos we had in the ’60s and it was provided by Jerry Rubin. When he made that statement in 1967, there is a good chance that he knew exactly the kind of effect that it would have. But he might not have had a clue that it would also have an effect on non-political movers and shakers in Hollywood. The producers of Wild In The Streets took the idea and the sentiment and produced a clever piece of black comedy.
I hadn’t seen Wild In The Streets in decades, so I ordered the DVD from the library and watched it. Below find a synopsis of the movie’s basic plot (adapted liberally from Wikipedia). It is followed by an essay looking at the socio-political aspects of the script more than forty years later, including the movie’s prescience and its nonsense. 1
The storyline was a kind of speculative-fiction-meets-black-humor. It was a projection of then-contemporary issues taken to extremes. It played in 1968, an election year where many of the controversies in the movie were part of the election! This included Vietnam and the draft, civil rights, and ghetto riots, and the rights of individuals to control their own consciousness.
“Do you really want a man in his sixties running the country?”
Christopher Jones stars as rock & roll singer and aspiring revolutionary Max Frost (born Max Flatow Jr). Throughout the film, Max’s level of political awareness and militancy is sophomoric, although he does make a few astute observations. 2
When I picked up the DVD of Wild In The Streets from the library, I assumed that my reaction to the movie would be one of dismissal. After all, it was just another B-movie with an absurd plot intended to get teenagers of the time to part with their allowances.
My actual reaction was very different: I was impressed by the basic intelligence of the script and its politically and socially savvy observations and its humor, which ranged from sophomoric to darkly ironic. The text below follows the notes I jotted down as I watched the movie and may bounce around a bit.
Max Frost (Christopher Jones) and his band on stage in support of Senator Johnny Fergus’s presidential campaign (Hal Holbrook). Little did anyone know at the time, but Frost was about to pull the rug out from underneath Fergus and run for the presidency himself.
Politically savvy observations
The script was written by Robert Thom and was based on his own short story, “The Day It All Happened, Baby!” This had been published in the December 1966 issue of Esquire magazine. Thom also expanded the script and sold it as a novel to Pyramid Books, who published it as a tie-in with the movie.
American International Pictures made the movie in late 1967 and early ’68, Wild In The Streets was released in the US on May 29, 1968, several weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King in April and several weeks before the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in June.
But first, here is the cast of the main characters:
Max Flatus Fr (aka Max Frost): Christopher Jones
Mrs. Max Flatus Sr: Shelley Winters
Johnny Fergus: Hal Holbrook
Sally LeRoy: Diane Varsi
Stanley X: Richard Pryor
Billy Cage: Kevin Coughlin
Abraham Salteen: Larry Bishop
Max Flatow Sr: Bert Freed
Senator Allbright: Ed Begley
Mrs. Fergus: Millie Perkins
The acting is fine throughout but Shelley Winters steals more than a few scenes as Max’s mother. 3
Here is an outline of the movie’s plot as I noted in a tablet as I watched the DVD:
1. Kennedyesque candidate Johnny Fergus (Hal Holbrook) is running on a platform to lower the voting age from 21 to 18. (“If I’m old enough to die for my country, I’m old enough to drink and vote!”) He asks Max to appear at a rally in his support. There Max stuns everyone by calling for the voting age to be lowered to 14, and then calls for a nationwide demonstration in its support!
2. Frost agrees to campaign for the candidate with a slightly elevated voting age as his slogan and Fergus wins by a landslide. Through Max’s machinations, the voting age is lowered to 14 and the pop star’s popularity soars. This makes him a viable candidate for President, to which he is elected (as a Republican, which is part of the movie’s humor).
3. President Frost then enacts a series of laws that penalize those over the age of 35 and turns the country into a youth-oriented, somewhat “liberal” utopia.
That’s the movie in a nutshell. Casting and directing and production aside, it was the politics of the film that caught my attention watching it forty-six years later. 4
Firing on demonstrators was unthinkable
Wild In The Streets was somewhat prescient in 1968: It foresaw that certain political and social events and movements would continue and escalate in size and intensity. For example, Thom presents us with a big demonstration in Washington, DC, with more than 3,000,000 participants. In 1968, no political demonstration had reached more than 100,000.
This would change with the Moratorium March on Washington on November 15, 1969: More than 500,000 people showed up to protest President Nixon’s expanded bombing of Southeast Asia. 5
A second example is a television newsman who notes that the intensity in the crowd and in the police at the demonstration is building. He states, “The military and police are helpless unless directed to fire on the crowd—and that seems unthinkable.”
Wild In The Streets was conceived and produced almost a year before the police riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968. There, police officers were filmed beating demonstrators, observers, and even members of the media! Cops beating civil rights demonstrators in the South was nothing new; cops firing into a crowd of mostly white people at the time this movie was made was inconceivable!
“The military and police are helpless unless directed to fire on the crowd and that seems unthinkable.”
Two years later that would change. On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on student demonstrators at an anti-war rally on the campus grounds of Kent State University. But that’s another story.
A third example is when Senator Fergus drunkenly exclaims, “We pour napalm on our own men!” That is not an astounding a statement today: We know that we also sprayed our own troops with Agent Orange and used experimental, mind-warping drugs on them.
But it was all but sacrilege to say such a thing in 1968!
Certainly, no member of the military, the government, or the mass media acknowledged these horrors.
As a fourth example, one of Max’s underlings states that “We could raid the FBI,” a claim that was absurd in 1968 but is now a part of our recent past. Had personal computers existed then as they do now, hacking the secrets of the FBI, CIA, and other acronymic organizations would have probably been an ongoing occurrence.
Shapes of things to come
After the newsman makes his “unthinkable” statement (above), individual police officers open fire with their handguns and kill several people. In a somewhat jarring juxtaposition, this scene is followed by the movie’s musical high point with Jones performing Shape Of Things To Come:
There’s a new sun rising up angry in the sky
and there’s a new voice saying, “We’re not afraid to die!”
Let the old world make believe it’s blind and deaf and dumb,
but nothing can change the shape of things to come
There are changes lying ahead in every road.
and there are new thoughts ready and waiting to explode.
When tomorrow is today, the bells may toll for some,
but nothing can change the shape of things to come.
The future’s coming in now, sweet and strong.
Ain’t no one gonna hold it back for long.
There are new dreams crowding out old realities.
There’s revolution sweeping in like a fresh new breeze.
Let the old world make believe it’s blind and deaf and dumb,
but nothing can change the shape of things to come.
In one scene, a poster of James Dean can be seen on the wall of one kid’s room. It was far more likely to find posters of Che Guevara on the walls of politically hip kids. Jim Fitzpatrick’s portrait of Che from 1968 became one of the biggest selling posters of the era. For millions, it stood for courage and action in the face of oppression.
Can you drop out against your will?
Turning the table 180 degrees, President Frost decides to dose the water supply of DC with LSD. This scenario inspires Max to ironically declare, “We’re straight!” This happens while all the ‘straights’ are tripping! When the acid-dosed Senators convene, their behavior looks remarkably like the behavior of men just back from a 6-martini lunch.
The movie’s attempt at giving the viewer an idea of the psychedelic effects being experienced by those Senators is to simply put a monochromatic wash of color over the film. It is among the least convincing moments of psychedelia ever put to film, even for a B-movie. But you get the point.
Wanting to enjoy the good graces and other benefits of her son’s success, Mrs. Flatow embraces the new generation. She lets her hair down and dons appropriately Hollywood-ish “hippie” garb. When we first see Shelley Winters in her Earth Mother persona, she looks like she is wearing a Halloween costume manufacturer’s idea of a Mama Cass outfit!
She announces that she is undergoing LSD therapy, which is absurd and funny and scary and pathetic. 6
This is the original 1968 poster for Wild In The Streets. It is called a one-sheet and measures 27 x 41 inches.
Nixon with long hair
In one of the movie’s sillier uses of irony, the anti-Rep*blican Max Frost is pursued by that party to run for President. Despite the distaste that he and his mates have for the GOP, they accept the offer. This relieves them of the problems of starting a political party from scratch. While discussing the Rep*blicans, one of Max’s band-members remarks, “Nixon would sure look dumb with long hair. Ronald Reagan would look worse.”
This is both funny and another display of foresight: few took California Governor Reagan seriously as presidential timber in 1968. Even many Republicans considered him a rightwing extremist kook! 7
In a line that probably sums up the spirit of the movie better than any other, Max asks, “Do you really want a man in his sixties running the country?”
Once it is announced that Max will be running for President as a Rep*blican, his mother beautifully transitions from Earth Mother to Moral Majority Mother. Her affectations and vocal mannerisms combined with her new apparel call to mind Margaret Thatcher, then unknown in the US.
This is the original poster for Wild In The Streets in France. The French title “Les Troupes De La Colere” translates as “The Troops Of Anger. While I prefer the American title, I prefer the French poster.
Never trust anyone over 25
In newly elected President Frost’s first State of the Union address, his speech is not as satirical as it probably seemed in 1968. That is until he announces his plan for Americans over the age of 30, which is when the humor darkens deeply. Senator Fergus realizes the monster that he has created and draws a gun on the Senate floor in a feeble attempt to assassinate Max during his speech.
Here we get an echo of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. These were both recent events and fresh wounds to moviegoers in late 1968 and early ’69 when the film was making the rounds of theaters and drive-ins.
When the President’s new plans are put into motion, citizens over the age of 35 are placed into “rehabilitation camps.” The initial inmates are seen being shipped to Camp Paradise in what looks like a giant Volkswagen bus, the quintessential hippie vehicle!
The inmates are forced to ingest LSD on what I would assume to be a regular basis. They are stripped of the clothing that marks their personality and forced to wear a unisex-like robe. This deprives them of a smidgen of individuality and self-respect. Scenes of the inhabitants of Camp Paradise in their park-like environment have the old folk singing childlike ditties and dancing ring-around-the-rosy.
In another key statement concerning the movie’s message, President Frost is questioned about how he intends to handle citizens over 35 passing themselves off as under-25s. He off-handedly responds, “My feeling is if they can fool us, then they’re all right. I mean, anyone who is that lively is not that dangerous.”
Hawaii was the only state not to support Max in the election. He petulantly takes his revenge on the islanders by giving them all a “lethal dose” of STP. 8
This is an 8 x 10-inch publicity still from Wild In The Streets taken during the same scene as the first photo in the body of text in this article. Christopher Jones is flanked by Diane Varsi and Kevin Coughlin.
The extreme left as the extreme right
In another of the film’s accurate socio-political observations, the young Americans that assume political power behave just like every other group with the same power has behaved in history! This includes forming a black-garbed secret police for rounding up older citizens who are simply trying to live outside the law and the restrictions of the dominant social beliefs and ethics of the mass culture.
When this goon squad arrests Max’s mother, she attempts to resist arrest by claiming to be young. The squad leader assails her with the best double-entendre of the movie when he claims, “You are the biggest mother of them all!”
In a later scene, Max drops off a young girl for babysitting and the child is dressed in black, calling forth memories of the Hitler Youth (Hitlerjugend) movement of the 1920s.
The Frost administration does have some redeeming features and positive goals, including ending US imperialism by bringing American troops everywhere back home. Max also announces plans to feed the hungry of the world with excess American grain!
The soundtrack album was issued on Tower Records. The album credits tracks to Max Frost & the Troopers, the Senators, the Second Time, the Gurus, and Jerry Howard. Six of the songs were composed for the movie by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, including the hit single, Shapes Of Things To Come.
A few questions
Referring back to this title and its reference to political and social satire, prescience, black comedy, and hokum, let’s ask some questions:
Does Wild In The Streets qualify as prescient?
The definition of prescience is “the ability to know what will or might happen in the future” (Merriam-Webster). It is often used to describe works of literature that contain scenes that seem to predict events that were not considered probable at the time but that come to pass. So Wild In The Streets is somewhat prescient, even if in humorous ways.
Is Wild In The Streets a black comedy?
The definition of a black comedy is “a comic work that employs black humor, which is humor that makes light of the otherwise serious subject. The term black humor was coined by André Breton in 1935 to designate “a sub-genre of comedy and satire in which laughter arises from cynicism and skepticism, often relying on topics such as death.” (Wikipedia) So then, yes, Wild In The Streets certainly has elements of black humor and therefore aspects of a black comedy.
Does Wild In The Streets work as political satire?
Yes, absolutely! While some of it was sophomoric, some satiric aspects of Wild In The Streets have taken on whole new meanings in the years since its release.
If you read the preceding sentences as a recommendation to see Wild In The Streets, you read them correctly …
FEATURED IMAGE: Shelley Winters as Max’s mother toking on a little water-pipe. Decked out in hippie garb as Hollywood imagines it, she looks like the costumer turned to Mama Cass for inspiration. Winters’s performance is often over-the-top but she lights up almost every scene she is in.
1 This article was originally published in three parts on my Rather Rare Records site in 2014.
2 According to filmmaker Kenneth Bowser, the part of Max Frost was first offered to folk-singer Phil Ochs, who turned it down.
3 Wild In The Streets attracted several cameo appearances by such non-actor celebrities as entertainment columnist Army Archerd, attorney Melvin Belli, Dick Clark, actress/author Pamela Mason, and journalist Walter Winchell.
There were also some fresh faces making early appearances, including Barry Williams (years before anyone conceived of The Brady Bunch), Bobby Sherman, Bill Mumy, and Monkee Peter Tork is part of a crowd scene when he bumps up against Shelley Winters at a stage entrance as the on-lookers chant, “We want Max!”
4 Wild In The Streets was nominated for an Academy Award for the film editing of Fred Feitshans and Eve Newman. They lost to Frank Keller’s work on the Steve McQueen vehicle Bullitt.
5 Oldsters will recall that Tricky Dick had been elected in 1968 because he claimed to have a “secret plan” to end the war. This plan ultimately included expanding the Vietnam War into other parts of Southeast Asian by bombing and invading Cambodia and Laos (we had been sending Air Force excursions into Thailand for years).
The Southeast Asian War is an accurate term for our murder of millions of civilians in that part of the world. Unfortunately, the term never caught on, probably because the mainstream media—the most likely source for popularizing a new political buzzword—was too busy lying about the Vietnam War in its ongoing protection of the military-industrial complex and its most visible manifestation, the US government.
6 Cary Grant was probably the most famous of Janiger’s patients, actually boasting in interviews of the overwhelmingly positive effects of LSD on him and his relationships with women!
7 I was just becoming politically aware in 1968. I was a junior in high school, turning 17 that year, and considering the possibility of being drafted even as a college student if the war got any crazier. I remember left-of-center comrades praying that the Rep*blicans were loony enough to nominate Reagan, as he was almost certainly unelectable in 1968. They believed that if he moved on his extremist positions in the ’60s, he would precipitate the revolution so many believed was coming eventually.
Ten years later, the GOP had moved so far to the right that Reagan could be touted as a moderate, a candidate who could bridge the growing chasm between hardline conservatives and everyone else. Still a reactionary, the older Reagan was more inclined to use his Libertarian-leaning philosophies to assist the wealthy elite economically rather than punish the working class opposition politically.
8 STP is an extraordinarily powerful “hallucinogen” that provides a short but intense trip. It caused many bummers in the ’60s and never caught on with the Leary Generation.