FROM THE ARCHIVES: Riot on Sunset Strip
Reviewed by Christopher Sharrett

Produced by Sam Katzman; directed by Arthur Dreifuss; screenplay by Orville Hampton; cinematography by Paul Vogel; music by Fred Karger; with Aldo Ray, Mimsy Farmer, Michael Evans, Laurie Mock and Tim Rooney. DVD, color, 95 min., 1967. An MGM Limited Edition release.

American International Pictures (AIP) cornered the market on teen exploitation films during the Sixties youth counterculture, so one asks how they got it all so wrong? The problem is not unique to AIP of course, but the portrayal of high school students in Sam Katzman’s production Riot on Sunset Strip is amazingly silly. Katzman, known for his quirky sci-fi/horror films of the Fifties (The Werewolf, The Giant Claw), rushed to make a message picture on youth once AIP saw hippie culture as its next lucrative prospect; the results are a mixed bag at best, with some truly embarrassing moments. As has been the case since the age of James Dean, the central-casting actors are about ten years too old to be plausible teenagers. The “kids” are too well-coiffed, their clothes more like arbitrarily-bought costumes than anything most of us can remember about the hippie era. Hollywood’s idea of turning an actor into a hippie is to give him/her love beads, a fur jacket, and a cardboard protest sign reading “Be Nice” (we actually see this in Katzman’s film).

Riot on Sunset Strip is representative of youth exploitation films in its attempt to have it both ways, to cater to its target market while also justifying adult paranoia about out-of-control teenagers wreaking havoc on mainstream society, in this case the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, which indeed saw a few dust-ups in the late Sixties—one cheat of this film is that we see no “riot,” only the threat of one. The film opens with a low-key voice-over by then-popular announcer Bill Baldwin (who plays a journalist names Stokes in the film); this conveys a sort of ethnographic approach to a “problem” about which all responsible citizens should be concerned. He tells us that the kids cruising the Strip are “wild,” with “no goal in life.” The voice-over is a tempered Jack Webb overview of the issue. I say tempered because the film affects a conciliatory rather than a strident tone, so the angry adults go ballistic only occasionally. After some stock footage of the Strip scene, we cut to an aging man complaining to a cop that the hippies are “riff-raff” damaging LA business interests, which puts the story in motion.

Walt Lorimer (Aldo Ray) is a do-gooder cop who wants his men to take a common- sense view of the young punks taking over the Strip. He emphasizes reason, telling patrolmen to avoid “stick action” (use of the club). Accepting Aldo Ray as a Dr. Spock-like centrist is a bit of a stretch. The bull-necked Ray was a wretchedly bad actor, yet fascinating to watch. He tends to lean forward as he speaks, as if he thinks he can better hurl his words at the person addressed. We can figure in retrospect that the man who will be cast as John Wayne’s top-kick sergeant in The Green Berets will have only so much patience for “working with” the LA hippies. His patience is tried as it is by the Chamber of Commerce, a bunch of aging, nasty codgers who want Walt to bring them the heads of every teenager on the block. There is a nice, basic point here, although it’s largely lost to the film; power resides with business interests, with the cops merely their henchmen.

Things start to come apart when Walt’s neglected daughter Andrea (Mimsy Farmer, an omnipresence in Sixties movies like Hot Rods to Hell and Devil’s Angels) falls in with the wrong crowd, gets high on acid, and treats us to an interminable freak-out/interpretive dance before being raped by five druggies. Andrea lives with her divorced, alcoholic mother Margie (Hortense Petra, Katzman’s wife), who wears an immense blond bouffant that appears to have been sprayed with salmon-colored paint. Her shrieking, cloying voice would drive anyone to drugs. The point is that broken homes and crazed, divorced mothers are part of the problem. When Walt visits Andrea in the hospital after the rape, he notices some boys running off at the mouth about how the chick was asking for it. Walt explodes and beats them to a pulp, destroying his nice- guy image and putting the Strip on the edge of Armageddon. But cooler heads prevail and Walt is able to enact reconciliation all around.

Riot on Sunset Strip is a surprisingly flaccid, fairly comical film, almost devoid of the kind of action one usually expects from exploitation movies. Its emphasis on speechifying and bringing reason to the debate over the then-topical youth movement may be the film’s worst enemy, especially since it doesn’t really have its heart in the right place. The kids should be treated with understanding, so we are told, but the film ends with a sci-fi-type warning about how half the world will soon be under twenty-five, so we must stay vigilant (or some such). The film is padded with extended performances by godawful rock groups like The Chocolate Watchband, giving the sense that the filmmakers were stuck on how to make the movie feature-length. Still, Riot on Sunset Strip is significant at the symptomatic level, a sample, if a somewhat dull one, of the contempt with which Hollywood usually holds young people.

Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University.

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Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.