The Day of the Locust (1995) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Nathanael West wrote the novel version of The Day of the Locust in 1939. It is a biting satire on the nature of Los Angeles and the people who moved there to retire, or to be part of the film industry. It is a cold, harsh and ugly book filled with universally unsympathetic characters who were exaggerated far too much to be credible. It's not the funny kind, but the funhouse mirror kind of surrealist satire that plays out like one of those Venetian balls with exaggerated masks and costumes. It doesn't use subtle nuance, but rather a cynical and somewhat adolescent kind of mockery. Its characters are movie fans and fanatics, eager tourists, hopefuls, hangers-on, would-bes, and never-weres, all of whom are basically brain-dead grotesques. The story also reaches beyond the studio walls to satirize the other schemers and charlatans (from cockfighters to revivalist preachers) who came to L.A. to make a buck by exploiting the city's newfound popularity.

It was the wrong book for the wrong time.

That was the time of the Great Depression, and the war in Europe had just begun. Nihilism was the wrong ingredient to add to that recipe. People wanted to believe that the movie industry included something more than sideshow freaks, and they turned to movies primarily for vicarious escapist fun. People living in a dark, frightening world weren't looking to find out that the movie world was even darker and more frightening than reality. West's book sold fewer than 2000 copies. The reviews were abysmal. West wrote, in a letter to Scott Fitzgerald, "The box score stands: Good reviews— fifteen per cent, bad reviews—twenty five per cent, brutal personal attacks—sixty percent."

The "wrong time" ended, of course, and The Day of the Locust became the right book for the next era. The actual measurement may have been a mere 15 years, but the cultural and historical distance between 1939 and 1954 was about as great as any fifteen years have ever been in mankind's history. In those years, Hitler was defeated, Stalin died, and the Depression had been replaced by post-war prosperity. Society in general had moved up to a higher level in Maslow's hierarchy, and the formerly universal craving for more wealth at all costs was steadily eroded by an ever-growing awareness of the impact of the new consumerism on America's values. That awareness in turn led to criticism of the cultural and spiritual effects of that new post-war wealth. This modernist school of thought led to the rediscovery and near-enshrinement of West's nihilist novel by the intellectuals of that era, and West was proclaimed a genius for having seen, years before the rest of us, how hollow was America's core.

Mr. West didn't get to enjoy his rehabilitated reputation. He died in an auto accident in 1940, about a year after The Day of the Locust was published. He was virtually unknown to the general public at the time, and his death didn't even attract much attention among the literati. His obit was just about lost in the shuffle, since he had the bad timing to die the very next day after his friend and far more famous colleague, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

West's book has always really remained in relative obscurity, even to this day, but it developed a strong cult following over the years, and it seemed like a perfect anti-establishment project for a film in the early 70s, when the "rejection of materialism" crowd had become such a large sub-culture that it was virtually the mainstream culture.

A lot of talent went into this movie. The director was John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy), and he was reunited with his Midnight Cowboy screenwriter, Waldo Salt, a three time Oscar nominee who now has a screenwriting award named after him. The cinematographer was Conrad Hall who is arguably the most accomplished cinematographer in history with ten Oscar nominations, the first in 1966, the last in 2003.

Formidable talent, indeed, and I suppose those gentlemen did a good job of filming West's unfilmable book. They managed to hold onto the basic themes while they transformed the caricatures into characters and made them more or less credible, making it possible for the audience to believe it is watching real events transpire. (Well, at least most of the time). West's book had been surreal, and the characters in it literary concepts rather than people, but the filmmaking team kept that kind of aloofness to a minimum, perhaps knowing full well that surrealism is instant box office death.

I have to confess, however, that I never really would have understood the point of the movie, except that I already knew it from the narrative sections of West's novel. West was explicit about explaining that the movie world, that California in general for that matter, was creating a seething sea of discontent by luring people in search of their dreams, and then crushing those dreams. West viewed the sum total of that disillusionment as a festering malaise which might turn at any moment to rage, and eventually does shape itself into a riot, some kind of frenzied Gotterdammerung where the common people rise up against the movie moguls, the pretense, and the city itself, eventually tearing it all down.

Here is West's most famous passage:

Until they reached the line, they looked diffident, almost furtive, but the moment they had become part of it, they turned arrogant and pugnacious. It was a mistake to think them harmless curiosity seekers. They were savage and bitter, especially the middle aged and the old, and they had been made so by boredom and disappointment.

All their lives they had slaved at some kind of dull, heavy labor, behind desks and counters, in the fields and at tedious machines of all sorts, saving their pennies and dreaming of the leisure that would be theirs when they had enough ... Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine and oranges?

Once there, they discover the sunshine isn’t enough. They get tired of oranges ... Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time. They haven’t the mental equipment for leisure, the money nor the physical equipment for pleasure.

Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.

Without West around to explain the madding crowd to me, however, I couldn't really pull it all out of the images and incidents in this film. The film does give off a feeling of falsehood turned absurd, then chaotic, which may be the closest a film could come to West's apocalyptic vision.

I got the impression that, in trying to remain faithful to West's book, the director and screenwriter basically decided that they needed to include everything. The book includes an Aimee Semple McPherson type of Holy Roller who does the whole "preaching for dollars" routine, as well as a re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo which results in a major catastrophe. The film retains these characters and their scenes, but neither of them seems to be smoothly integrated into the storyline, which is focused elsewhere.

You'll probably watch this film with the feeling that it is too long, and that a bit more focus would have gone a long way.

1975 audiences reacted to the film about the same way that 1939 audiences reacted to the book. It came out, got mixed reviews, generated no box office to speak of, and disappeared almost without a trace. In fact, the movie and the book have retained certain eerie parallels. In the years since the film came out, it has attained a lot of the cult status that the book attained many years after its own release. I don't think you will find that the movie has much appeal now, despite that cult status. It's old hat. Yesterday's papers. The themes that were so fresh in 1939 were already starting to be hackneyed in 1975. In 2004 you're likely to say "been there, seen that, and it was done better".


Karen Black shows one nipple and the side of her hips in a dark and very brief sex scene.

Pepe Serna showed his buns for an extended period during and after that sex scene.

DVD info from Amazon

  • widescreen anamorphic

  • no features

If you're a major film buff, there is a lot to see. The art design is superior, the look consistently reminiscent of an old sepia-hued art deco postcard. There is an Oscar-nominated performance by Burgess Meredith. Yup, lots of plusses. I admired a lot of things as I watched, but I was ready for this story to end long before the 144 minutes had run their full course.

On the other hand, you do have to love a movie with a major character named "Homer Simpson".

Tuna's comments in yellow:

The Day of the Locust (1975) --  Unlike Scoopy, I had not read the novel this was based on, and was, in fact, expecting a "nature run amuck" horror film. I immediately liked the look of the film, and enjoyed the opening music, "Jeepers Creepers". It set up the film as a period Hollywood romance, and I was pretty happy. Then one odd scene and odd character after another showed up, often for no apparent reason. As Scoop predicted, "I have to confess, however, that I never really would have understood the point of the movie, except that I already knew it from the narrative sections of West's novel."

I didn't see the point, although the surreal ending did hint at it.

Based on some rather flimsy evidence, I suspected that there was a comparison in the film between Tinseltown and Hitler's Germany. The newsreel announcer at the end of the film seemed very Hitler-like to me, the obnoxious child actor called Homer Simpson a Nazi spy twice, and one of the characters said that you have to be Jewish to make it in Hollywood. Scoopy was able to provide some evidence from a Nathanael West scholar to support my theory.

"Of immediate concern, West feared such perniciousness could be harnessed by a charismatic popular leader-of which the depression produced many-a "Dr. Know-All Pierce-All" who would consummate the success of American fascism, beginning in the Golden State. In 1939, with Europe and Asia descending into world war, it represented a bold, if not outlandish, political and cultural caveat."

Anyone interested can
read the full article here.

There were some good performances in this film, some well developed characters, great cinematography, and good attention to period detail, but, in the end, it went on way too long, many scenes seemed to come out of nowhere, and the message in the book was lost along the way. I found it a very long watch. It seems that the writers went to great effort to accurately include the whats from the book, but didn't really adapt the whys.

If there was ever a film that cried out for a decent commentary, this would be the one. Unfortunately, the DVD is featureless, and the transfer is a little grainy, which is a shame, given the beautiful camera work. Comments at IMDb are evenly split between "greatest film ever made" and "boring, steaming pile of fresh dung." The average of that is obviously a C.

The Critics Vote ...

The People Vote ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C.

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