In the annals of American reinvention

In the annals of American reinvention, perhaps no pseudonym is as starkly brazen or absurdly hopeful as Cash Flagg, the name fledgling auteur Ray Dennis Steckler chose for his acting credit in the movie that marked his directorial debut, Wild Guitar, in 1962.

Combining symbols of two of the nation’s prime doctrines for justifying its achievements and crimes, capitalism and patriotism, “Cash Flagg” — the more comprehensive “Cash Jesus Flagg” presumably would have been too extreme — was at once cartoonish and superheroic, proud and sardonic. It was a name suitable for a Dr. Strangelove General; a Frostbite Falls industrialist on The Bullwinkle Show; a rival of Dash Riprock for the hand of Elly May Clampett in an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies.

That it was appended to a Pennsylvania-born Hollywood aspirant whose long nose, pinched moue, beady eyes and gleaming escarpment of a forehead suggested Huntz Hall or Nosferatu more than Rock Hudson or Tab Hunter was either an irony or evidence that Steckler was in on the joke. (In fact, Cash Flagg would directly ape Hall — emphasis on ape — in the 1965 Bowery Boys homage, Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters.)

In Wild Guitar, Steckler directs himself, as Cash Flagg, in the supporting role of the similarly colorfully named “Steak,” gun-toting stooge to a shady music mogul. “Steak” is the most compelling character on screen, but Steckler appears content to inhabit the margins like a verminous creature, stealing scenes with an oily nonchalance that — for all Steak’s skinny ties and sinister savoir faire — is less Rat Pack than plain old rat. His performance is a tour de farce: At one point, Steckler delivers one of the great line readings in motion picture history, when he introduces the film’s innocent hero to a stripper-prostitute in a fur stole and a slit dress. “Kid, this is, uh, Daisyyy,” Steak slurs. “She’s gonna teach you how to swing.”

Produced in black-and-white for a reported $30,000, Wild Guitar is a popular music overnight success story of the type that audiences had seen a bajillion times before, most notably in the Elvis-inspired fables Bye Bye Birdie (a Broadway smash in 1960) and Jailhouse Rock (with the actual Elvis, in 1957). In this case, the Presley figure is played by Arch Hall Jr., given a character name that functions as an all-American complement to Cash Flagg: Bud Eagle — “spelled just like the bird,” Bud affirms. Call it a nom de plume, in that plumes become a promotional gimmick in the story: “Eagle” feathers are given to Bud’s fans, who wear them, wave them and use them to accessorize motorcycles and guitars.

Though the film is an introduction to the Steckler/Flagg duality, Wild Guitar represents a third movie collaboration between the apparently easygoing Hall and his ambitious father, Arch Hall Sr. The elder Hall was producer and co-writer of Wild Guitar and its two predecessors, The Choppers (1961, directed by Leigh Jason), about a gang of teenage car thieves, and the infamous Eegah (1962), which the senior Hall directed, under the name Nicholas Merriwether — a sophisticated-sounding mouthful so ridiculous in the context of this primitive caveman comedy that he may as well have borrowed Ernie Kovacs’ “Percy Dovetonsils” for his credit. (Hall’s production company logo was similarly affected: Fairway Productions — or Fairway-International, as it was sometimes identified — was represented by a feudal-style coat of arms topped by a medieval knight’s helmet.)

After resurrecting the Merriwether moniker for his Wild Guitar writing credit, Hall père wrote and produced two more star vehicles for his son — The Nasty Rabbit (1964), a spy spoof, and Deadwood ’76 (1965), a Western — before Junior abandoned acting and his original love, music, to pursue a five-decade aviation career as a commercial pilot for cargo companies Flying Tiger Airlines and FedEx. (Hardly regretful, Hall summarized his attitude toward acting in a 2006 interview: "I was 15 years old, and I had friends in Southern California, including Bobby Diamond, who was the boy in the TV series 'Fury,' and I asked him, 'What is this acting thing about? Is it real hard?' And he basically told me, 'It's all a bunch of B.S., there's nothing to it, don't worry about it.' And I went, 'OK.'")

In most music dramas, the term “overnight success” is an exaggeration. In the case of Wild Guitar, it is an exaggeration only because Bud’s elevation from clueless bumpkin to still clueless teen idol does not even require a single night. (As a hash-house waitress marvels: “He hasn’t been in town long enough to get a haircut.”) The assertion that pop music’s “hottest thing in the country” can be manufactured as effortlessly and instantaneously as a pitcher of Kool-Aid (just add snake oil) is among the film’s more charming and poignant conceits. More than any of the other Hall collaborations, Wild Guitar suggests the depth of Senior’s dreams re: Junior’s potential and his own cut-rate Colonel Tom Parker potency.

Clocking in at a somewhat exorbitant 92 minutes

Clocking in at a somewhat exorbitant 92 minutes, Wild Guitar introduces Bud Eagle on his motorcycle, and then on foot in the streets of Los Angeles. He ambles over Doris Day’s star on the Walk of Fame, goggles at the Hollywood and Vine street signs, steps into Van Johnson’s footprints at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and passes the Egyptian movie house, where the marquee — as if sympathetic to the avian presence of “Bud Eagle” — promises Sweet Bird of Youth. At one point, Bud combs his hair under the neon Sunset Boulevard gaze of the sign for the now vanished Dino’s Lodge, its identifiable but inexact Dean Martin caricature a reflection of the recognizable but slightly distorted types — the Elvis-esque singer with the lumpen jaw, the Marilyn-esque blonde with the stray eye — that inhabit the movie.

Second-unit photographer and future Oscar-winner Vilmos Zsigmond (a Steckler/Hall regular) probably was responsible for this essentially documentary footage, which gives way to anti-realism when Bud — blocky old-school suitcase and battered guitar in hand — enters what is referred to as the “Coffee Cup Cafe.” (A later shot of the business’ signage reveals the name actually is spelled, with wacky creativity, “Koffe Kup.”) Giving Bud the hairy eyeball, a customer comments: “Methinks it’s a hick.” In fact, the earnest Bud proudly identifies himself as a fresh arrival from Spearfish, South Dakota — a real city, in the state where Arch Hall Sr. grew up and learned the cowboy skills that brought him to Hollywood to be a stuntman and actor in ‘B’ Westerns.

A less sinister forerunner to the haunted Winkie’s diner in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, the café apparently is the hellmouth to the Stecklerverse or the portal to Halltopia: Its Pirandellian walls are decorated with posters for The Choppers and Eegah, and its inhabitants include a trio of comical quasi-gangsters; an unexplained little boy in a cowboy outfit; and — most importantly — a blonde with a cross-eye, Vickie, played by Nancy Czar. A legitimate champion figure skater, Czar shows off her prowess on the ice during a date-scene with Bud that concludes with Vickie spinning in place so rapidly she is transformed into an abstract kinetic sculpture before she abruptly stops, rematerializes as a woman, and gives Bud — in an unexpected closeup that may be the movie’s most human moment — an awkward, sexy wink. (After the date, the couple wanders by the Sweet Bird of Youth marquee in the dawn light, and morning birds twitter on the soundtrack.)

Attractive yet too odd-looking for mainstream leading parts, Nancy Czar is a perfect match to Arch Hall Jr. Here presented as platinum blondes, both performers have smooth, blunt faces that might have been sculpted from clay or sketched by a cartoonist. Hall, in fact, resembles an adult Jonny Quest as played by Michael J. Pollard after a growth spurt. Tonic must have been applied to his scalp, as well: The greased-back pompadour Hall sported in his previous movies has blossomed into a dense spavin helmet — a cloven and cantilevered cockscomb that from above looks as unplumbable as the Marianas Trench. In contrast, Bud’s sophistication is paper-thin. His personality is entirely guileless and his naivete is entirely genuine; his favorite expressions include “Golly,” “holy cow” and “gee.” (Previously, he was more verbose: In Eegah, when he spies his girl in a tight dress, Hall Jr. exclaims “Wow-de-wow-wow!”)

In the film’s opening montage, Bud stumbles while crossing the street, bringing traffic to a standstill; as depicted later, his rise to success is a similar public accident. Bud wanders into the cafe, just because it’s there; by chance, he meets Vickie, who has a gig dancing on a TV show. She invites him to the taping, where again by chance the scheduled singer takes ill; Bud fills in, following another literal stumble, this time over some electric cables. He performs one of his original songs with the band; he is spotted by “the biggest manager in Hollywood,” Mike McCauley (Arch Hall Sr., billed as “William Watters”). On the basis of this one performance, Bud is immediately recruited, signed, and ensconced in a high-rise apartment, complete with bar and swimming pool and live-in devil/handler, Steak. “Being a star is serious business,” the mustachioed, cigar-chomping McCauley tells Bud, as the viewer wonders if similar father-son consultations took place offscreen. “It’s going to take a lot of your time.” More important, McCauley, a prophet of Trumpian fake news, tells Bud: “You don’t believe what you read — only what I tell you.”

The audience is in a similar spot. Before long we are told that Bud is “the hottest thing in the country,” and that he’s sold 4 million records and appeared on seven TV shows. We are taken inside a record store with copies of his albums and full-sized Bud Eagle standees, but otherwise — no surprise, considering the film’s low budget — kept in the dark as to the logistics of Bud’s ascent. However, we do hear Hall Jr. perform four songs during the movie, a decision that enables one of Stecker’s more creative and elaborate set-ups: During a television taping, Bud warbles the love ballad, “Vickie” — an Arch Hall Jr. and the Archers original, recycled from “Eegah” — atop a curved ramp, while Stecker’s soon-to-be wife, Carolyn Brandt, strikes dance poses in a sparkly showgirl outfit.

If fame claims Bud overnight, disillusionment isn’t far behind. Affirming the suspicions of the adult rock and roll haters who were unlikely to be in the audience, Wild Guitar imagines McCauley convening regular board meetings of high school “fan club” lackeys, paid to promote Bud’s music — and his coolness — to their peers. “What kind of a fad do you want us to start?” asks one girl. “What about tearing his clothes?” asks another. "Does everything have to be so phony?" moans Bud, an observation that, in the context of Steckler's mise-en-scène, is particularly fraught. McCauley, meanwhile, is unapologetic about the palm-greasing. As he tells Bud: “Payola, buzzola or just call it -ola… We’ve got a product to sell: you.”

Part parable, part parody, Wild Guitar keeps its hip surfy soundtrack but discards its somewhat noirish tone during its goofy final half hour. It’s here that Steckler indulges his Sylvester P. Smythe sensibility — titles of the director’s follow-up features would include The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? and Rat Pfink a Boo Boo — with a plot left-turn that finds Bud cooperating in his own kidnaping at the hands of the diner’s incompetent gangsters, as part of a scheme to escape McCauley’s clutches. If the hokey comedy of this episode and the happy ending of its aftermath transform a cautionary Faustian fable into an American Bandstand fairy tale, the movie never loses its status as an artifact from an alternative-universe America where the names Cash Flagg and Bud Eagle resonate — a United States of Upside Down, where, as demonstrated in the Netflix series Stranger Things, fleas are more likely to flourish than fully realized human beings.

Early in Wild Guitar, the host of a teen TV program announces: “This show of ours is a sort of catch-as-catch-can affair, with everything up for grabs. Our kids don’t even rehearse.” As fictional narrative if not entirely real-world production strategy, Wild Guitar embraces this concept as a blueprint for show-business Utopia. The movie climaxes on a rocky and apparently chilly beach, the geographic end of the world, with Bud in a white tuxedo jacket picking his guitar and singing along to the full band recording of “Twist Fever” while waves crash and Vickie and other kids in swimsuits, Capri pants, scarves and sweaters dance along.

Beautifully photographed and edited, the sequence builds to a series of quick, frantic, close-in shots before a cut that finds the teenagers frozen in place, accompanied by the sound of wind and waves. A freeze-frame? No: The barely noticeable stirring of shirt flaps and hair in the breeze and the motion of the surf in the background reveal the actors have petrified themselves. In the next instant, the bodies fade away, leaving only the beach, Bud’s motorcycle, and its attachment of feathers.

Where did the kids go? To bright futures? Compromised adulthood? War? Extinction? Would further exploration reveal a half-buried Statue of Liberty, in the sand? A pompadoured Star-Child, in orbit? Steckler (who passed away in 2009; Arch Hall Jr. is still with us) may not have been a genius, but Wild Guitar ends on a note of poetic brilliance that is both melancholy and hopeful: Its final, human-free landscape suggests nothing less than a rock and roll Rapture.

John Beifuss is a longtime reporter and film critic for The Commercial Appeal, the daily newspaper in Memphis. His work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Chicago Sun-Times, TV Guide, and elsewhere. He contributed the chapters on “Southern Horror” and “Southern Comedy” to The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. He is the author of a children’s book, Armadillo Ray (Chronicle Books). His first byline was in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, and it’s been downhill ever since.