At the swanky nightspot Golden Rooster in Prohibition-era Chicago, the Winter Follies stage show keeps the sting out of the colder months for the local gangsters. Rico Angelo (Lee J. Cobb), ringleader of the rackets, and his crew patronize the Rooster and woo its talent, a chorus line of tough cookies dubbed “party girls,” who, for a price, might follow them home, something all the chorines are used to, particularly world-weary “party girl” Vicki Gaye (Cyd Charisse).
On one brisk evening, the crew invites the line to a party Rico is throwing to help himself forget Jean Harlow, the starlet he has never met, but who is “dumping him” to get married. Knowing she will be paid $100 just for showing up, Vicki changes quickly after the last show and goes to Rico's party. Once there, she does not like the company but knows it is going to be tough for her to leave because she has been paid. She shrewdly circles up to Rico's powerful, outspoken attorney, Tommy Farrell (Robert Taylor), with the blunt query “Want to take me home?”
The sharp-tongued lawyer declines, but he soon changes his tune, seeing that she is trapped. Vicki takes a shine to Tommy, who greases the necessary wheels for her. What impresses her most is that the gentleman expects nothing from her in return. Eventually, these two hard-boiled characters find themselves in a chaste, quiet affair, and as the months go by, Vicki and Tommy plan for their future, which will include Tommy’s termination of his association with Rico. He is tired of being the legal lynchpin for organized crime. Unfortunately, Rico has other ideas, and he knows the only way to keep tough-talking Tommy on the payroll is to go for the throat. Rico demonstrates just what acid will do to Vicki's face if Tommy will not reconsider his plans to retire.
Directed by Nicholas Ray, Party Girl is a shiny B-movie full of gentle narrative clichés but balanced with strong performances and bold design. Ray selected Robert Bronner, ASC, as director of photography because he had worked on several color films using the anamorphic CinemaScope process, including two musicals featuring Charisse. Bronner's experience proved essential in capturing the unusual design Ray had in mind for the film. Following Ray's lead, Bronner used several photographic conventions of traditionally monochrome film noir, including extreme angles and expressionistic lighting, while employing the panorama of CinemaScope for the fluid, moving-camera approach to the film musical. The two divergent styles, which perfectly capture both the crime and musical elements of the narrative, are presented in exaggerated primary colors, giving Party Girl its distinctive look.
Party Girl has never been one of Ray's best-known titles, but it has a solid following and was released on laserdisc and VHS. Thanks to the Warner Archive’s Made to Order Collection, the film is now domestically available on DVD. Warner’s excellent Web-based service features numerous library titles from the vaults of Warner, MGM and Columbia Pictures; most of these titles were previously unavailable on DVD. The Made to Order service offers generally good transfers, some enhanced for widescreen, for a reasonable price. Patrons can purchase the DVDR outright and have it packaged and sent, or they can download the title for a reduced rate and burn their own DVDRs. (For more information, visit www.warnerarchive.com.)
This transfer of Party Girl is generally quite good. Although occasional scratches and minor evidence of print dirt are on the source material, the image transfer manages to capture Bronner's striking use of primaries as well as his careful black levels and shadows that lurk in the darker corners of the narrative. Surprisingly little digital interference or artifacting appears in even the richest primaries, and the image is crisp, with some slight film grain visible. Like most DVDs of 2.35:1 presentations, the transfer is enhanced for widescreen, and it stands up quite well in comparison with other titles commercially available from that period at MGM. The monaural audio track is clean.
The only wallflower in this otherwise handsome evening's entertainment is the disc's lone supplement, the faded and scratched theatrical trailer. Quality aside, however, it is good to get a glimpse of any supplement on these Made to Order titles.
For the serious film collector in particular, long-out-of-print or hard-to-find titles like Party Girl are a welcome addition to the home-video marketplace. Thanks to Warner Archive, many missing or long-forgotten images from Hollywood’s Golden Age are finally seeing the light of day on DVD.