Olds: Hortense Petra (1904–1982), Aldo Ray (1926–1991)
Music: The Standells, The Chocolate Watch Band, The Longhairs, The Enemies
It is perhaps fitting that Riot on Sunset Strip occasionally feels trapped between generations. This 1967 quickie – made to reference recent confrontations between Hollywood police and the local youth – is so earnestly trying its best to be fair that it sometimes doesn’t seem to recognize just how little its parts fit together.
Consider its opening narration, something pulled out of a moralizing crime story of the forties and fifties. It introduces the teenagers and college kids who spend their evenings hanging out on the Sunset Strip – in booming, stentorian tones – as if they are some sort of alien culture, like subjects in an educational film of some sort. It’s clearly speaking to the older people in the audience, but if that’s the case, why feature so much music from bands like The Standells, The Chocolate Watchband, and The Enemies? To appeal to everyone, of course, but it serves to illustrate one of the central problems of the era – the constant tendency to approach the issues of the 1960s with a 1940s mindset which is so obviously out of place.
(Fun musical facts: The lead singer for The Chocolate Watchband was on-hand to introduce the film at its Cambridge, MA screening – because he teaches at Harvard these days. He mentioned that no-one on set thought much of The Enemies, who would soon disband and reform as Three Dog Night)
The movie itself can perhaps be described as affectionately alarmist. Meet Andy (Mimsy Farmer), the pretty good girl who moved to Los Angeles a week ago. When she and her friends get pulled in for a curfew violation, she opts to call a family friend she hasn’t seen in four years rather than her drunk of a mother. Her father is Lt. Walt Lorimer (Aldo Ray), the officer who has the job of keeping the peace in that part of Los Angeles, trying to balance the college kids’ pledges to police themselves with the older merchants who want a crackdown on the “longhairs” they see as a threat to their higher-end businesses. Father and daughter haven’t seen each other in years, either, and aren’t going to until a party that she attends turns ugly.
Riot on Sunset Strip is not particularly well-crafted in any facet, which is to be expected from something thrown together in a month and a half. The filmmakers seem to be earnest about the whole thing, which gives the movie the makings of a genuine camp classic. It veers wildly between points of view – it will present the kids as intelligent and reasonable in one reel and then have Andy’s friend Liz-Ann absolutely inarticulate in the next – but its heart always seems to be in the right place. I’m not sure whether the script is all over the place or if it’s the direction; writer Orville Hampton actually does a decent job of building a story that goes from point A to B to C smoothly, but much of the dialog involved clanks, and neither director nor Arthur Dreifuss nor the actors gets much out of the script. Even the best-known and most experienced, Aldo Ray, is just kind of there.
Except, that is, for Mimsy Farmer. I won’t lie to you… This isn’t great acting, but one extended sequence is in the top tier of on-screen hotness. Yes, you may feel a little guilty because this is after some ne’er-do-wells slipping some LSD into Andy’s soda and it doesn’t end well to say the least, but as hilariously over-the-top as her performance is, it drips more raw sex than many scenes where an actress actually undresses. Laurie Mock’s manic, cackling, and high-as-a-kite Liz-Ann isn’t far behind it, either.
Indeed, for all that Riot on Sunset Strip is often laughable when it’s trying to say something intelligent and conciliatory about the late-1960s generation gap, it frequently manages to score big when it just goes for something visceral, whether that be “teen” sexuality or musical performances. It’s no great movie, but it’s got its pleasures, even if they are simple ones.
Jay Seaver, efimcritic.com.