WITS photo BandOnStage 1500 crop

looking at the foresight of “wild in the streets” fifty years later

“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.

 

WITS MaxFrost onstage 600

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

 

WITS Book US 500

Robert Thom rewrote the movie script as the novel Wild In The Streets, which was pub­lished as a pa­per­back orig­inal by Pyramid Books as a tie-in with the movie.

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.

 

” wild in the streets ” - shapes of things to come - film 1968.

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.

 

JimFitzpatrick CheGuevara 600

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

 

WITS poster onesheet 600

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.

 

WITS movie poster France 600

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

 

WITS glossy MaxFrost on stage 1000

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!

 

WITS Soundtrack LP cover

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 …

Wild In The Streets foresaw that cer­tain po­lit­ical and so­cial events and move­ments would con­tinue and es­ca­late in size and in­ten­sity. Click To Tweet

WITS ShellyWinters dope 1500 crop

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.

 


FOOTNOTES:

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 ShermanBill 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.

 

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