wild in the streets as sociopolitical satire and black humor

JACK WEINBERG DEFINED THE SIXTIES by exhorting, “We don’t trust anyone over 30!” That was 1964 and there is a good chance that he knew exactly the kind of effect that it would have on young people around the country (although he denies it). He might not have had a clue that it would also have an effect on non-political movers and shakers in Hollywood with a bent for sociopolitical satire. At least one movie seems to have used those six words as the basis for its plot—Wild In The Streets. 1

“Nixon would sure look dumb with long hair—Reagan would look worse!”

This article is a follow-up to “The Return Of Max Frost & The Troopers” (2014) and looks at American International Pictures’ Wild In The Streets. For this article, I pulled a DVD from the library and watched it for the first time in more than twenty years.

I review the sociopolitical aspects of the script forty years later and ask a few questions. I found some real accuracy and some possible prescience along with a lot of nonsense.

The plot revolves around a hip, young, flippant pop star being elected President of the United States and turning the country’s political and social conventions on their head. The movie’s script was based on the short story “The Day It All Happened, Baby!” by Robert Thom, originally published in the December 1966 issue of Esquire magazine. Thom expanded the story to a movie script. 2


Sociopolitical satire: cover of American edition of "Wild in the Streets" paperback book.

Robert Thom eventually expanded his movie script into a novel, which was published as a tie-in with the movie as a paperback original. This is the US edition from Pyramid Books (see the UK edition below).

This B-movie offers sociopolitical satire

When I picked up Wild In The Streets from the library, I assumed that my reaction would be one of dismissal: it was just another B-movie with an absurd plot intended to get teenagers to part with their allowances. My actual reaction was 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 ironic to dark.

Sure, it’s a B-movie, so the acting of star Christopher Jones as Max Frost (formerly Max Flatow) and his acolytes/band members is less than stellar, and Shelley Winters as Max’s mother Mrs. Flatow is so over-the-top as to be beyond caricature. But they are ably supported by co-star Hal Holbrook and the rest of the cast, notably veterans Ed Begley, Millie Perkins, and Kevin Coughlin.

Wild In The Streets attracted several cameo appearances by such non-actor celebrities as entertainment columnist Army Archerd, attorney Melvin Belli, author Pamela Mason, and journalist Walter Winchell. Record industry mover and shaker and all-around industry legend Dick Clark, straight-faced, plays a radio broadcaster.


Aside from a strong supporting cast, the movie featured appearances by Barry Williams (The Brady Bunch), Billy Mumy (Lost In Space), Dick Clark, Bobby Sherman, and Peter Tork.


There were also some fresh faces making early appearances: the teenaged Max was played by Barry Williams years before anyone had conceived of The Brady Bunch. An uncredited Bobby Sherman plays a journalist who briefly interviews President Frost. Bill Mumy appears as an unidentified child.

Monkee Peter Tork is part of a crowd scene when he bumps up against Shelley Winters at a stage entrance as the onlookers chant, “We want Max!” And the film marked the screen début of Richard Pryor.


Sociopolitical satire: caricature of Richard Nixon by Ralph Steadman.

Ralph Steadman’s brutal caricature of Nixon, a politician considered unelectable at the time that Wild In The Streets was being made in 1967. Little did we know what the immediate future had in store for us.

Just another B-movie with an absurd plot

Here is an outline of the movie’s plot:

A. Enormously popular rock star Max Frost is approached by Senator Johnny Fergus, who attempts to enlist him in getting the youth vote to support his Presidential bid.

B. Frost agrees to support Fergus if the Senator will get a bill passed to lower the voting age to 14.

C. The bill is passed and Frost turns the tables on Fergus and runs for President himself and is subsequently elected by the newly enfranchised voters.

D. President Frost enacts a series of laws that penalize those over the age of 35 and turns the country into a youth-oriented, somewhat “liberal” utopia.

E. Mayhem does not ensue.

That’s the movie in a nutshell. Casting and directing and production aside, it was the politics of the film that caught my attention forty-six years later. 3


Sociopolitical satire: cover of British edition of "Wild in the Streets" paperback book.

The UK edition from Sphere Books has a different cover, which I find much more effective than the Pyramid book (above).

Firing on demonstrators was unthinkable!

Wild In The Streets was somewhat prescient in 1968 in foreseeing that certain political and social movements would continue and even escalate. (Not an impossible act of foreseeing then.) For example, a peek into the near future is the big demonstration that occurs in Washington with a crowd of more than 3,000,000! In 1968, no political demonstration had reached much more than 100,000.

This would change with the Moratorium March on Washington on November 15, 1969, that drew more than 500,000 people to protest President Nixon’s bombing of Southeast Asia. 4

At the movie’s fictional demonstration, a television newsman notes the building intensity in the crowd and in the police and guardsmen: “The military and police are helpless unless directed to fire on the crowd—and that seems unthinkable.”

Now, cops beating black civil rights demonstrators in the South was nothing new in 1967-1968. But cops firing into a crowd of mostly white people was unheard of!

That would change: on May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire in concert and on orders on student demonstrators at an anti-war rally on the campus grounds of Kent State University. Four were murdered—but that’s another story. 5


Sociopolitical satire: picture sleeve to Rolling Stones' 1968 single "Street Fighting Man."

The Rolling Stones’ single for the summer of ’68 was Street Fighting Man. The US picture sleeve depicted the aftermath of the police beating a demonstrator. Judged unacceptable by London Records, it was pulled prior to release and most copies destroyed. This has made the few copies that escaped destruction the most valuable picture sleeve in the world.

After the newsman makes his “unthinkable” statement, individual police officers open fire with their handguns, killing several people. In a somewhat jarring juxtaposition, this scene of murder at the hands of those hired to “serve and protect” is followed by the movie’s musical high point, Max performing Shape Of Things To Come with the following lyrics:

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.


Sociopolitical satire: poster of Che Guevara by Jim Fitzpatrick.

Jim Fitzpatricks’ portrait of Che Guevara from 1968 became one of the biggest selling posters of the era.

The counterculture chose Che over Dean

Throughout the movie, those teens that experience emancipation from their parents and their social strictures all act alike—like James Dean wannabes. And while posters of the ’50s teen idol appear on the walls of at least one kid’s room, few ‘militant’ teens in the US with any sense of militancy in the ’60s were enthralled by Dean’s Rebel Without A Cause image, or any other such icon from the previous decade. You were far more likely to find posters of Che Guevara on the walls of politically hip kids.

Surprisingly—and I say that even fifty years after the movie was made—Senator Fergus drunkenly exclaims, “We pour napalm on our own men!” That is not so astounding a statement today: 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 media acknowledged these horrors.


“You are the biggest mother of them all!”


By the late ’60s, the counterculture was divided: one portion turned increasingly militant through its awareness of the real politics of America. The other all but turned its back on politics, real or otherwise, believing it a futile field in which to make any meaningful change. They adopted Timothy Leary’s slogan, “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” 6

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, NSA, etc., would have probably been an ongoing occurrence.


Sociopolitical satire: photo of Shelly Winters toking up in the movie "Wild in the Streets."

Max’s Mom (Shelley Winters) toking up with a small water pipe in her hippie gear.

Turn on and tune in against your will

President Frost decides to dose the water supply of DC with LSD. When the acid-dosed Senate convenes, the behavior of the tripping Senators 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 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.

Continually wanting to enjoy the good graces (and other benefits more tangible) of her son’s success, Max’s mother embraces the new generation, donning appropriate hippie garb, at least as Hollywood saw it. When we first see Shelley Winters in her ‘earth mother’ persona, I thought she looked like a Halloween costume manufacturer’s idea of a Mama Cass outfit!

She also undergoes LSD therapy!

It’s absurd and funny and scary and pathetic.


Sociopolitical satire: anti-Reagan "Bloodbath Poster" from 1980.

In 1969, Governor Reagan of California called in the National Guard to put down a protest on the campus of UCBerkeley. In 1970 he said, “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.” Days later, four students were murdered by the Ohio National Guard on the campus of Kent State University.

The first longhaired Rep*blican candidate

In one of the movie’s sillier uses of irony, Max Frost is pursued by the Rep*blican Party to run for President! Despite the distaste that he and his mates have for the GOP, they accept, if only because it cuts through the necessity of starting a political party from scratch. While discussing the party, one band member remarks, “Nixon would sure look dumb with long hair. Ronald Reagan would look worse.”

“Do you really want a man in his 60s running the country?”

This is both funny and another display of foresight: few took California Governor Reagan seriously as presidential timber in 1968. Even many Rep*blicans considered him a rightwing extremist at the time. 7

In a line that probably sums up the spirit of the movie better than any other, Max asks rhetorically, “Do you really want a man in his 60s running the country?”

While this was probably intended merely as satire, it is not a wholly unfounded question: few in American politics dare question the acceptance of age as indicative of responsibility and awareness. This despite the incompetent and despicable performances of many elected officials over the age of 50 throughout our history.

Once it is announced that Max Frost will be running as the Rep*blican candidate for President, his mother transitions from Earth Mother to Moral Majority Mother. In fact, Shelley Winters’ affectations and vocal mannerisms combined with her new apparel call to mind Margaret Thatcher, then waiting in the wings to take command of the British government and instigate a reign of austerity that nearly wrecked England’s economy.


Sociopolitical satire: photo of Hal Holbrook from "Wild in the Streets."

Anybody think that Hal Holbrook as Senator Johnny Fergus (here giving an announcement on television in the movie Wild In The Streets) bears a wee bit of a resemblance to a certain West Coast governor of the ’60s?

Echoes of the assassinations of MLK and RFK

In his first State of the Union address, President Frost 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. By now, his former political mentor Senator Fergus realizes the monster that he has created and draws a gun on the Senate floor in a feeble attempt to assassinate the new Executive.

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.


Black humor is a sub-genre of comedy in which laughter arises from cynicism, often relying on topics such as death.


When the President’s new plans are put into motion, citizens over the age of 35 are placed into “rehabilitation camps,” a term carefully coined to avoid using the Nazi’s concentration camps for Jews and other undesirables and the American relocation camps for Japanese origin during WWII.

In a subtly funny scene, the initial inmates are seen being shipped to Camp Paradise (ho ho) in what looks like a giant Volkswagen bus, the quintessential hippie vehicle!

The inmates are force-fed LSD on what I would assume to be a regular basis, just as any patient in a facility for the mentally ill is placed on a regular regimen of psychotropic drugs today. They are stripped of the clothing that marks their personality and forced to wear a unisex robe, depriving them of a smidgen of individuality and self-respect.

Scenes of the inhabitants of Camp Paradise in their park environment have the old folk singing childlike ditties and dancing ring-around-the-rosy. I assume this was a mockery of the often silly play that hippies were seen playing in Golden Gate Park (often while tripping). 8

More dark humor: in the movie, Hawaii is the only state not to support Max in the election. Consequently, the island populace is punished by being given a “lethal overdose of STP.” Those Hawaiians who survive are left in a non-functioning state that I could easily associate with the term acid casualties, then being bandied about by trippers and non-trippers alike. 9


The extreme left as the extreme right

In another of the film’s accurate sociopolitical observations on behavior, the young Americans that assume political power behave just like every other group with the same power! This includes a black-garbed (think ‘Nazi SS’) secret police for rounding up stray over 35-year old citizens who are simply trying to live outside the law and the restrictions of the dominant social beliefs and ethics of the mass culture (think ‘hippies’).

When this goon squad arrests Max’s mother, she attempts to resist arrest by claiming to be young. The squad leader then assails her with the best double-entendre of the movie: “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 movement of the 1920s (der Hitlerjugend).

The Frost administration does have some redeeming features and positive goals, including the return of all troops stationed around the world, thus ending US imperialism, and feeding the hungry of the world with excess American grain, a plan that has been bandied about in real life for decades with little success. (Even if it does undercut the principles of American cutthroat capitalism.)


So, is it political satire and black humor?

Referring back to this title and its reference to political and social satire and black comedy, let’s ask some questions:

Does Wild In The Streets work as political satire?

Yes, absolutely! While some of it was sophomoric even in 1968 and is even more dated in 2017, some satiric aspects of it have taken on whole new meanings in the years since its release.

Is Wild In The Streets a black comedy?

The definition of a black comedy or dark comedy is “a comic work that employs black humor, which is humor that makes light of otherwise serious subject. The term black humor was coined by Surrealist majordomo and theoretician 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.


Sociopolitical satire: cover of the "Video Hound's Groovy Movies" book.

Marx Brothers brand Molotov cocktails!

To bring this article to a conclusion, I am turning to another external source and the opinions of another critic, Charles A. Cassidy Jr in Video Hound’s Groovy Movies Far-Out Films Of The Psychedelic Era (page 310):

“Viewers may be put off by the ambiguous conclusion, but American International Pictures put this package together with an adroit mixture of dark humor, good music performed by the principals, and the deft use of docudrama footage of ’60s demonstrations and marches on Washington. Campy psychedelia, the downfall of so many groovy movies, is saved for the concert scenes.

The real money shots here are the lampoons of both youth culture and ageism, flung around like Marx Brothers Molotov cocktails. The hip script by Robert Thom persuasively directs the Don’t trust anyone over thirty argument at Fergus, Mrs. Flatow, and other gray-haired, starched, war-stirring, and scotch-swilling Establishment figures, but he doesn’t let the youth movement off easily either.”


This photo was taken last November. It is a typical, pre-geriatric Sixties Survivor looking happy—really, that’s me smiling—after finding an under-thirtysomething citizen who had just voted in the 2016 Presidential election. Rare though they my be, young voters really do exist!

Reassessing reality after fifty years

Given the gutting of the American public education system by Rep*blican Congresses over the past thirty-plus years, and the growing apathy by those who graduate from that system (voting by Americans ages 18-30 is negligible), maybe we Sixties Survivors need to reassess consensual reality after fifty years.

Maybe we need to modify Weinberg’s exhortation to We don’t trust anyone under 30 . . .

We Sixties Survivors need to modify our declaration to “We don't trust anyone under 30!” Click To Tweet


Sociopolitical satire: photo of Jack Weinberg from a demonstration in 1965.

FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page is of Jack Weinberg “occupying” a police car during a Free Speech demonstration in Berkeley in 1965. Weinberg was no stranger to police cares: on October 2, 1964, he addressed students at UC Berkeley while standing atop the same cruiser that had served as Mario Savio‘s pulpit and which made him a media star.

In an attempt to steer traffic from this music-related site to my more militant site, I posted a complementary part to this article there. “Paying Attention to Conservative Thought in Film, Music, Literature, and Other Lowlife Pursuits” deals with a review of the movie Wild In The Streets that appeared on a conservative website that I stumbled over during my research for the main article above. Should this be of interest, click on over and give it a read.

Finally, this article originally appeared on this site as “On Wild In The Streets As Political And Social Satire” in 2014. I eliminated more than a thousand words from that piece and added a few new illustrations.



FOOTNOTES:

1   In November 1964, Jack Weinberg was interviewed for the San Francisco Chronicle about the Free Speech Movement. According to Weinberg, the reporter was making him angry with his line of inquiry:

“It seemed to me his questions were implying that we were being directed behind the scenes by Communists or some other sinister group. I told him we had a saying in the movement that we don’t trust anybody over 30. It was a way of telling the guy to back off, that nobody was pulling our strings.”

In modern parlance, “We don’t trust anybody over 30” went viral! In the original version of this article, I erroneously credited this statement to Jerry Rubin.

2   Here is a link to the story, but you need a subscription to Esquire to be able to read it: “The Day It All Happened, Baby!

3   Believe it or not, Wild In The Streets was nominated for an Academy Award for Film Editing but lost to the Steve McQueen vehicle Bullitt.

4   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 by bombing Cambodia and Laos and Thailand.

5   Wild In The Streets was produced well in advance of the police riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago on August 28, 1968. There, police officers were witnessed, photographed, and filmed beating demonstrators, observers, and even members of the media!

6   Leary’s statement was a kind of call-to-arms, not the turn to apathy that has prevailed in younger Americans ever since they were given the right to vote in 172.

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   These scenes would not be out of place as a depiction of the Eloi in George Pal’s movie version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Made in 1960, this was one of the best-produced and realized science fiction movies of the pre-Space Odyssey era.

9   STP was an extraordinarily powerful hallucinogen that provided a very short but a very intense trip. It caused many bummers and never caught on with the Leary Generation. Plus the concept of permanent brain damage due to LSD was disproven decades ago. But permanent emotional damage to those who were emotionally fragile to begin with is another story.



 
 

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