The Day of the Locust (1975)

Toronto Film Society presented The Day of the Locust (1975) on Monday, August 22, 1983 in a double bill with The Front as part of the Season 36 Summer Series, Programme 9.

Production Company: Long Road Productions.  Producer: Jerome Hellman.  Director: John Schlesinger.  Screenplay: Waldo Salt, based on the novel by Nathanael West.  Photography: Conrad Hall.  Production Design: Richard MacDonald.  Music: John Barry.  Editor: Jim Clark.  Special Effects: Albert Whitelock.  Colour: Technicolor (Movielab).

Cast:  Donald Sutherland (Homer Simpson), Karen Black (Faye Greener), Burgess Meredith (Harry Greener), William Atherton (Tod Hackett), Geraldine Page (Big Sister), Richard A. Dysart (Claude Estee), Bo Hopkins (Earl Shoop), Pepe Serena (Miguel), Leilia Goldoni (Mary Dove), Billy Barty (Abe), Jack Haley (Adore), Gloria le Roy (Mrs. Loomis), Jane Hoffman (Mrs. Odlesh), Norm Leavitt (Mr. Odlesh), Madge Kennedy (Mrs. Johnson), Dick Powell, Jr. (Dick Powell).

The setting is Hollywood in 1938.  Tod Hackett, trained as a painter at Yale, moves into the seedy San Bernardino Arms Hotel ready to begin work at the studios for Art Director Claude Estee.  His immediate neighbours soon become a major part of his life.  There is Harry Greener, an ex-vaudevillian now peddling worthless ointment door to door, and his daughter Faye, a hopeful extra.  As the story moves along, Harry collapses and dies, Faye becomes a callgirl to pay for a proper funeral, is berated by Tod, and moves out of the hotel.  Passions and situations build, spotted with wild parties, cock-fighting, and the climax outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.  Homer, who has become involved with Faye through the death of her father, gets mixed up with the crowd awaiting the arrival of stars outside the theatre, is hit in the head by a stone thrown by a child-actor, and tramples the boy to death.  The crowd runs wild, setting off one of the wildest riots ever viewed.

The Day of the Locust provided an immense challenge for director John Schlesinger, to bring the superb novel by Nathanael West to the screen.  There are few who say he succeeded totally.

The Day of the Locust is a look into another time when Hollywood was a hellhole for many–the Thirties.

West and Hollywood shared a complex relationship.  Movies fascinated him a one of the ways the desperate masses fought their miseries, along with popular songs, pulp fiction, vaudeville, and advertisements–all of them offering dreams of wealth and luxury, violence and sexual excitement.  He was himself a screenwriter (mainly for Republic), and the book was a crystallisation of his own Hollywood experiences.

The feelings on the major players in The Day of the Locust are as varied as those on the success of the direction by Schlesinger, Karen Black’s Faye is both praised and damned.  One writer feels her attempt to portray a girl who was just seventeen in the novel completely lost the “giddy youth and vulnerability” which were essential.  John Simon in Reverse Angle describes her bluntly as a “poor actress,” unable to bring her 33-year old actual self anywhere near the level of the teenaged Faye.  Films and Filming, however, describes the portrayal as “striking.”  Films in Review rates the performance as 90% successful, and in Films of the Seventies, Robert Bookbinder terms the performance of Black, along with co-stars Donald Sutherland and Burgess Meredith, “perhaps the finest of their respective careers.”

The Day of the Locust was an excellent story property, but it was left untouched for years.  Bookbinder terms it “stark and harrowing,” certainly among the finest films of the decade.

Notes by Bill Sturrup

References:  Films of the Seventies, Robert Bookbinder
Films in Review, June-July 1975
Sight and Sound, Summer 1975

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