sleeping around: the secret gay history of roderick usher
by Douglas Messerli
If you haven’t recently reread your Edgar Allen Poe, let me remind you of the plot of tale The Fall of the House of Usher. It begins with the unnamed narrator arriving at the mansion house of his old friend Roderick Usher. Roderick has written a letter to his “one and only friend,” asking him to visit him at his home as soon as possible. He has been suffering from an undescribed illness and his twin sister Madeline seems to be encountering cataleptic seizures, falling into a deathlike trance from which it is increasingly difficult to awaken her.
Brother and sister are the last heirs of the Usher estate, whose home, as the narrator has noted, is in sad repair, a thin crack descending from the roof down across the center the house and into the nearby tarn itself.
Roderick greets him warmly and serves him supper, although there no sign of Madeline. And after supper he plays improvised songs on his guitar. The friend is impressed by Roderick’s paintings and library, and attempts to cheer his friend by reading to him aloud.
One of the songs which Roderick performs is Poe’s “The Haunted Palace,” a song which evokes its singer to express that he believes the very house in which he lives to be alive, connected to living by its very masonry and the surrounding vegetation. His fate, he asserts, lies with the survival of the family mansion.
Although the friend never actually encounters Madeline, one morning Roderick announces that she has died. He fears her body, if buried, might be exhumed for medical practice, a common practice as he note in the film Frankenstein, of the day. Accordingly, he insists his twin be entombed for two weeks in the family tomb, located in the house itself, before being permanently buried. The narrator helps Roderick put her in the tomb, noting that she still has rosy cheeks, but explains it as a common occurrence after death.
Over the next weeks, both Roderick and his friend grow quite sensitive to sound and suffer a great deal of mental agitation.
As a large storm rises, Roderick enters the narrator’s bedroom in a highly disturbed state of mind, throwing open the widows to point out that the lake nearby is almost glowing in the dark, just as Roderick had painted it in his artworks. Yet there is no lightning or other source of its incredible luminosity.
His friend attempts to calm down Roderick by reading aloud a medieval romance, The Mad Trist, involving Ethelred, a knight who attempting to escape a storm breaks into a hermit’s dwelling, only to find there a palace of gold which is guarded by a dragon. Upon the wall hangs a shield upon which is inscribed:
Who entereth herein, a conqueror hath bin;
Who slayeth the dragon, the shield he shall win....
The knight swings his mace at the dragon, killing it, the beast dying with a shrill shriek. When he attempts to take down the shield it falls to the floor with an incredible rumbling sound.
At the very same moment, he and Roderick hear loud cracking and ripping sounds from somewhere in the house, and as the dragon’s cries are read, a real shriek is heard within the house.
Horrified by the sounds, Roderick admits that he has been hearing the sounds for days, and he realizes that they are coming from the tomb of his sister, knowing that she has been buried alive.
At that very moment, the bedroom door blows open revealing a bloodied Madeline, having escaped her tomb. In a rage she attacks her brother, the two of them dying in the terror of the event.
As the narrator runs from the house, he perceives a flash of moonlight behind him, and turning back toward the house he realizes that the crack in the house as widened, soon after the mansion splitting in two and sinking into the surrounding lake.
As I have noted in other essays throughout these volumes on LGBTQ film, Poe appears to be a central source for several of the cinematic narratives that embrace the 19th century US author’s concerns with the double and the twin, standard metaphors for the dual life lived by numerous closeted gay figures and other LGBTQ individuals who feel that they are of another sexuality from the body in which they are trapped. Poe’s presentation of outsider figures who for their peculiar obsessions and deviations do not fit into normative society also appeal to LGBTQ filmmakers, and I have cited works such as “William Wilson” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” as being sources for some movies.
Yet “The Fall of the House of Usher,” a seemingly heterosexual family tale seems to be one of the most influential of all Poe’s works on LGBTQ cinema. The question we must ask before proceeding to discuss the films concerning this tale—by the gay French filmmaker Jean Epstein, whose great surrealist-influence La Chute de la maison Usher was released in 1928, the gay-friendly directors James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber who shot their own experimental version to the story, The Fall of the House of Usher the same year, and gay moviemaker Curtis Harrington who remade his high school cinema project of 1942 into Usher in 2000—is why Poe’s tale so attracted them and what might it have to do with the LGBTQ experience.
Obviously, the original’s male/female twin characters, whose lives are quite clearly intertwined suggests yet another instance of “doubling,” in this case representing not only a hidden “other” gay self behind the heterosexual exterior—Madeline does not even bother to show up for Roderick’s narrator-friend—but the sexual “other” that many gay men, lesbians, and all transsexuals feel as representative of their cultural and personal dilemmas. In Poe’s tale Roderick experiences himself to be not only one with the house, but the mansion’s other version of himself, a feeling many twins experience.
If Roderick appears to be a heterosexual with regard to his love of and obsession with Madeline, it is really or at least equally a love and obsession with his own self, his own multiple feelings of sexuality. Poe makes it quite apparent than just as Roderick is one with the house of Usher he is similarly “one” with the Ushers, Madeline as well. What she suffers so does he in hypersensitive related manners, and when he dies so does she. They are inseparable.
His identification with the place in which he lives, moreover, ties in with the general sense of many LGBTQ individuals before sexual liberation who felt their real essence was only able to be expressed “inside,” within the walls of their own home, while the outside world required them to be someone else in order fit within the normative societal patterns.
And then, of course, there is Roderick’s mysterious male friend who has been summoned as witness to this hidden universe. Who is he and what is his relationships with Roderick, we must ask?
The story makes clear that he is not a close friend and that, in fact, Roderick has never been able to develop close friendships. Yet obviously he is someone trusted enough that he will not recoil at the very oddity of Roderick’s lifestyle and obsessions. As witness, he serves the extremely important role, moreover, of being able to explain the seemingly inexplicable to the rest of the world. His intelligence, empathy, and equanimity, accordingly, are extremely important. Without any one of these elements he will be unable to return the hermit Roderick to his place in the society, the world outside of his virtual entombment. The fact that the narrator takes pleasure in both his music and his art is almost a test of his abilities, and a crucial matter in Poe’s narrative. If Roderick is indeed queer, it is important that he and his sister are not represented as freaks or grotesques abhorrent to normative society. Their histories may be described as frightening, terrifying, and ultimately, even edifying but must not be perceived as dreadful, horrifying, or an abysmal example of human life.
If the narrator may not have been the young Roderick’s lover, he was at least a trusted early companion, someone beloved and admired and certainly respected. And for his part, the narrator does become an active figure in the last days of the Ushers lives, serving as someone who soothes Roderick’s nerves, hears out his woes, and helps him to bury Madeline, even if that has had horrible consequences. And in that sense, the stranger is also a co-conspirator of the story’s hero. It is he who allows the central figure to survive through the last days of his life, who consoles him for his actions, and eventually, through telling his story, turns him into a romantic hero. The friend is Roderick’s only link to the outer, “other” world.
In the end, accordingly, what Roderick is asking his friend to do is to narrate a life generally unknown to the outside world: the world of an incestuous couple perhaps—but more importantly the experiences of someone normative society has difficulty in comprehending, someone who, like any LGBTQ individual, is queer and needs to have his or her life explained to others when he or she failed to successfully communicate it. Whether his friend is gay or straight he is being asked to do something similar to what any LGBTQ historian, cultural critic, or even a cinema commentator like myself, tries to do.
painting his wife into her grave
Jean Epstein (screenwriter and director, based on the story by Edgar Allen Poe) La Chute de la maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher) / 1928
Born in 1897 in Warsaw, then the Kingdom of Poland, part of the Russian Empire, to a French-Jewish father and a Polish mother, Jean Epstein moved with his mother to Switzerland after the death of his father in 1908 where he began studies in medicine at the University of Lyon in France. In Lyon he worked as secretary and translator for Auguste Lumière, who with his brother Louis, were the often-described as the “inventors” of cinema.
In 1922 he started directing his own films, the first with Louis Pasteur, but soon working in a manner associated with “French Impressionism” or what is described as the “first cinematic avant-garde” which also included figures such as Louis Delluc, Germaine Dulac, Marcel L’Herbier, and
Abel Gance, the latter of whose wife appears as Madeline in La Chute de la maison Usher.
Before Usher Epstein made 15 films, most of which had long been forgotten but many of which have since become available on DVD.
Epstein was also a noted film theorist which can already be evidenced in his early 1923 movie Cœur fidèle in which he sought to film a simple tale of love and violence in a manner “to win the confidence of those, still so numerous, who believe that only the lowest of melodrama can interest the public.” Epstein hoped to create “a melodrama so stripped of all the conventions ordinarily attached to the genre, so sober, so simple, that it might approach the nobility and excellence of tragedy.”
Epstein’s major theoretical concepts were centered on his rather complex notion of photogénie which, on one level, spoke of film as a medium that transcends its photochemical/mechanical essence, which, in the right hands becomes art. Rather than being simply a cultural representation of events and characters, he sought through expression—the close-up (his particular emphasis), movement, temporality, rhythm, and other augmentation of senses such as musical accompaniment and sound (even before he worked in that medium), etc—to transform a narrative representation of events into art.
Recognizing that some filmmakers would not and could not abandon naturalistic representation and purely photographical aspects of cinema, he also perceived that some audiences would not be able to recognize aspects of photogénie, separating his viewers into those who could see and comprehend the cinematic augmentations to the basic narrative and those who could not.
This is truly a quite brilliant distinction, which does not necessarily demean those who cannot see what he is attempting to reveal to them, but establishes a differentiation of viewers which ultimately explains why filmmakers would later be able to create devices of coding that could mean somethings to certain audience members that left others in the dark. I am not sure that Epstein even realized the ramifications of his distinctions, but he proved to be absolutely correct in his assessment of for whom he was making his films, a realization which would become of special importance for LGBTQ viewers in the near future when, in the US in particular, the Hays censors begin to look for obvious references to sexuality, and in particular, homosexuality.
For Epstein, moreover, photogénie was not just something that existed in the film. It included an approach or a way of thinking about film. Indeed, it does not literally exist in the film except metaphorically as a way designed to encourage us to take a more active part in the cinematic experience resulting in a deeper gaze into the screen.
As I recently explained it to a friend: I prefer films that seem to be slightly askew, which are not easily assimilable. Sometimes what later become my favorite films are ones about which I first feel frustrated, at times even angry about for not doing what most other films do or even quite accomplishing what they first set out to achieve. They move off into inexplicable directions, change lanes in the midst of where one thinks the narrative might be driving them. Yet still they’re ravishingly beautiful, revelatory, the camera sometimes taking me into new corners of a frame where I have never before been. Generally, to come to “understand” such films, I have to watch again. And again. Have to ask myself and the film questions. And then see it all over once more.
In fact, not all films are able to incorporate photogénie. particularly if they were highly driven by plot. Cinema, he argued, was not screened theater, and the film, if possible, should strip away narrative and story to get to the heart of the medium. It was not that he was determined to dismiss human drama and emotion, but rather seek out from a minimal narrative the same emotions. And in this sense he was attempting to create a film that was neither like mainstream directors such as Louis Feuillade or the advocates of pure cinema such as Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, or Fernand Léger.
As Robert Farmer in his 2010 essay on Epstein in Senses of Cinema—many of whose ideas are those I have expressed in my comments above—summarizes, quoting Epstein: “There are no stories, there never have been stories. There are only situations, having neither head not tail; without beginning, middle or end,” which not are close to not even having stories since nothing very much happens.
But of course a great deal does happen in a work such as Epstein’s La Chute de la maison Usher just not to whom you have expected and how you might have imagined things might happen. Working with Luis Buñuel as his assistant editor, Epstein combined surrealist concepts with expressionistic elements to create one of his most important works, and the one for which he is still most remembered.
First of all, Epstein tosses out certain aspects of Poe’s story and incorporates a few elements from his “The Oval Portrait.” In his film Roderick Usher (Jean Debucourt) is married to Madeline (Marguerite Gance) and she is no longer his twin sister, thus eradicating any need to for him to pursue the issues of incest. If this tactic appears to solidify Usher’s heterosexuality, Epstein also confuses the issue by introducing yet another element that seems to come from Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray—itself a somewhat sexually ambiguous story since the obviously gay hero seems primarily to be exploring liaisons with women throughout the fiction, while of course simultaneously destroying their reputations and ending their lives. In this case Roderick spends much of the film painting a portrait of his wife, an activity evidently demanded of each Usher heir before the death of their wives, another odd Usher tribal tradition. In this case, however, it seems to be his very act of painting that is the cause of Madeline’s catalepsy; the more he paints her, the sicker she becomes. It is as if he is drawing the essence out of her in order to turn her into a work of art—which, if you recall, is what Dorian’s artist friend Basil Hallwood accomplished by painting the young hero, drawing his soul out of his body and entombing it within the painting.
Yet something is terribly amiss as the curtains wave in and out; other individuals such as the doctor he abhor, gather round him in an attempt to deter him or explain his actions, and the winds wind around the vast spaces of the almost empty mansion as if to remind us that the entire house, like its master, is possessed. As film critic Richard Scheib describes it: “The interior of the House of Usher is all vast, empty sets—like a soundstage with giant high walls and random pieces of furniture placed in the middle of the bare space around which the action occurs.”
When Madeline does appear at brief intervals it is nearly always when the guest is not present, and she is so very frail and white that at certain moments she fades in and out of frame as if she is a disappearing woman, which of course is presumably what Roderick desires. Scheib notes the fact that “Madeleine is killed when Roderick obsessively transfers too much of her lifeforce into the picture.”
If in Poe’s telling we had first to ask what Madeline represents in relationship Roderick—his other hidden self—in this case he are forced to inquire why does he wish to get rid of his “other,” particularly since she represents his other half, not precisely his “double.” The question seems to boil down to whether he’s attempting to rid himself of his heterosexuality or a homosexuality of which he’s ashamed. Has he invited his friend in order to be able to fully return the many hugs and touches the other awards to Roderick?
In any event, he soon finishes the portrait and declares his wife dead. In this case, however, the worry is not some vague fear that her body might be stolen by graverobbers, but that Madeline is not yet truly dead, that his artifice is not as totally effective as he has imagined it is. And the friend seems to be equally aware of that possibility. As the doctor attempts to nail up the coffin, Roderick forbids it. And as in the fiction, determines to bury her in the family crypt, which, in this instance, does not truly appear to be within the house but across the lake on an island a ways from the mansion itself.
In one of the film’s most surreal scenes Madeline’s funeral cortege is witnessed as the four pallbearers carry her down a row of wind-ridden trees, the image superimposed with candles, while remnants of her burial gown, which looks more like a wedding dress, trail in the wind behind.
Even more terrifying are the images once they have laid her coffin in the crypt of Roderick’s hammer-happy doctor beginning the process of nailing the cover to the bottom of the coffin, while his friend holds him back, hugging and caressing him deeply to calm him from attempting to stop the necessary process. Here we actually do see an expression of deep physical love played out on the screen that goes on for several restless seconds. And suddenly it does appear that Roderick might be able to engage in a true relationship with his “friend.”
But guilt now blocks their apparent love for one another, as Usher finally begins to show signs of the hypersensitivity he felt from the beginning in Poe’s version, the title card reading “The slightest sound exacerbated him.”
As the storm rises, he joins his friend momentarily in his bedroom, and again they seem to hold one another by the window, perhaps more in fear that in love, but nonetheless joining in bodily communication. Yet Usher soon retreats, knowing what is about to happen, demanding, as I said above, that his friend read so as to not to have to encounter the specter he is about to.
After a nearly interminable period with the pages of books flapping through air, objects skittering down the hallways, and the return again and again of images of the ticking clockwork alternating with close-ups of an almost smiling Roderick, opening accepting the inevitable, Madeline finally does appear, Usher shouting out that he knew what he and his friend had done, “We have buried her alive!”
At this point in a clear and purposely crude mockup of the Usher mansion, fire breaks out, walls begin to collapse. We see the friend retreating, but we also witness images of Roderick lifting up Madeline as if attempting to escape the cataclysm. We vaguely see them on what appears to be outside the estate, but we can’t be certain. Yet, it seems that possibly they have escaped. The fact doesn’t truly matter, however, since he has not been able to escape his doom. He has not been able to further embrace his friend and is tied to the living-dead woman in his arms forever.
Accordingly, it appears that Epstein has shifted Poe’s tale of a being locked within the closet of his own confused sexuality into a story about a man attempting unsuccessfully to escape just such an entombment. The ending may appear to be the same, but at least Epstein’s Roderick Usher tried desperately to become a man freed by his own artistry, to re-engage with the world outside of his closed off existence, refusing to passively embrace his condition.
Los Angeles, September 4, 2021
what was under that cover of the hotplate?
James Sibley Watson, Jr. and Melville Webber (screenplay and directors, based on the story of Edgar Allen Poe) The Fall of the House of Usher / 1928
As almost anyone, professional critic or amateur observer, commenting on James Sibley Watson, Jr. and Melville Webber’s The Fall of the House of Usher has noted, given the directors’ extensive—and wondrously original—use of experimental film effects, it is truly difficult to follow any narrative or to determine what Watson and Webber were attempting to say about Poe’s original story. As Donald Egan has nicely restated the issue:
The final version had no explanatory intertitles, and made no
attempt to provide a context for viewers, who were assumed
to be familiar with the original story. As film historian Eileen
Browser wrote, “Its sets and effects dominate over the actors
and its atmosphere of doom is the whole meaning of the film.”
But even those who had read the story might not have
understood what Watson and Webber meant by their shots and
editing. ....The intent of the filmmakers here is often obscure. Is
their representation of the narrative, founded as it is on artistic
and intellectual principles, useless if viewers can’t comprehend
it? This became the core dilemma in abstract filmmaking, and
even Watson seemed to lean on a more accessible narrative
approach in his subsequent work.
One might imagine that these amateur filmmakers were simply without the proper tools and lacked experience along with their necessarily hurried methods to explain the apparent lack of coherency in their version of Poe. But quite the opposite was true. The wealthy Watson, heir to the Western Union Telegraph fortune, devoted a great deal of time and money on this project, going so far as to build his own optical printer which allowed him to achieve the sophisticated wipes and dissolves employed in the 13-minute work of cinema. Webber, who was himself a painter, designed the costumes and sets, as well as performing as the Usher House visitor.
Watson later recollected that the two of them shot the seventy scenes of the film each three or more times.
Moreover, as the co-owner and major editor the noted American literary magazine The Dial, publishing contemporary experimentalists such as E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Djuna Barnes, and numerous others, along with works of Poe, Watson and his cinema partner Webber clearly understood the psychological and sexual implications of Poe’s writing, and the two in 1933 would create an entire film devoted to the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot in Sodom, which dealt openly with homosexuality and featured male nudes.
It’s interesting that Egan again brings up the issue of the audience and its ability and or inability to interpret their work as a core issue here. Although you might not describe it yet as “coding,” it is clear that Watson and Webber were focusing on viewers who might be able to interpret their photogénie.
Since these directors shot their film over a period of two years, and Epstein’s Usher appeared later in 1928, it is doubtful that they would have seen La Chute de la maison Usher. But they certainly had seen Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and perhaps the films of F. W. Murnau both of whose influence is obvious in their work. Like Cabinet, their Usher sets are dislocated at trajectories that are disorienting and dizzying. The visitor knocking at the front door has a large, jagged line running down his face, in German expressionist style representing the crack that he observes in Poe’s version that follows down the roof to the ground of the Usher mansion.
But other than that brief moment, we hardly ever see Roderick’s childhood friend again.
From the film’s earliest scenes of the
visitor traveling to the house, the film, entering the mansion through a
cinematically-created crack of the image, begins at dinner with Madeline
(Hildegarde Watson) kissing hydrangeas which, as she moves to the dinner table,
she eventually adds to a vase of canna lilies at its center. Roderick (Herbert
Stern), looking like a slightly finicky aesthete (read homosexual), pulls out
her chair as she sits to the table, he joining her at its head. He
We now see the visitor knocking at the front door, unable even to find a suitable bell or knocker but pounding door instead with his fist. Madeline slowly descends the staircase a bit like Lucia di Lammermoor, clearly sleepwalking and certainly “out of her mind,” if not mad. Numerous doorbells are superimposed upon the frame suggesting the intense ringing and hammer of the friend’s search for entry. We see him, with his high hat, once again waiting at the door, the crack of the mansion, as I suggested earlier, reflected upon his face, he himself becoming a blurred double-like image hinting at what soon will be the film’s interchange between the friend and Roderick, where they almost become one another.
And so begins a series of maddeningly doublings, parallel staircases moving like escalators in opposite directions, piles of books that also serve as stairs spiraling almost endlessly out of sight. Madeline seems trapped between these parallel images, the shadow of a hammering pounding in shadows upon the walls.
As more caskets fly through the air, Roderick checks on Madeline. She reaches out her hand toward him, but he does not fully respond and certainly does not attempt to embrace her in return or even visually offer her his sympathy.
The hammer, metallic we now discover, begins once more to ring out. Obviously, this time its sound disturbs only the remaining family member Roderick. We see multiple images of Madeline’s face, visions that Roderick surely cannot erase from his mind.
In the disorienting landscape of his mansion, Roderick seems for a moment to wake up, the sun blinding his eyes as he moves forward. One might almost imagine a moment of rejuvenation, but images of Madeline keep reaching out toward him, the mallet again reappearing, and finally Roderick himself as he descends the stairs, begins making the movement of the pounding hammer with his arm and hand.
Suddenly, in shadow and floating in mid-air, is his friend’s top hat, eventually doubling as everything else does in this film. He looks around the corner as if seeking out the visitor, and, for a moment he pauses, leaning against the wall, looking up, his face seemingly taking on a faint smile—almost as if his friend might offer some possible salvation.
But in the very next moment his arm again takes up the gesture of the hammering man, as, around the next corner, he again encounters a layering of images of Madeline. He cannot escape her or what he may have done to her in burying her body while possibly alive.
Even at his most quiet moments, her image stalks him, his own books piling up like the staircases between which previously Madeline was trapped.
As Madeline moves toward the house from her grave, the directors provide a wonderous cacophony of abstract images from the pairs of rolling escalator-like rolling staircases—interspersed with her bare feet moving ever forward—to intersecting lines that interact like abstract swords clashing against one another. It is truly a stunning mix of brilliant experimental abstractions, cut by fragments of the human world about to be destroyed by the inevitable narrative Poe has set up.
Only at this moment, with Roderick looking out the window (very much like he did during the storm scene in Epstein’s film) does his friend finally join him, the two coming together for the instant before they spot Madeline in the distance. It is somewhat suggestive of the delayed coitus of the separated Wagnerian figures of heroes such as Tristan and Isolde or Siegfried and Brünnhilde. But here they have only a moment to share the vision of the risen Madeline, who just as quickly appears, dominating the full screen in a mad Medea-like dance, charging at Roderick and landing them both on the floor, dead. Seeing the disaster, the friend quick races off, the house falling around him into the water.
In a great many respects, Watson and Webbers’s adaptation of the Poe story is not so very different from Jean Epstein’s. Even as a twin sister, Madeline is still a bore who Roderick is near desperate to get rid of so that he might have some quality time with the friend who he has summoned to his house. But things have simply gone too far before the visitor has arrived, and there is no way that he might ever be able to separate her from his own self and family involvement. Her death, in some respects, is mere pretense, a grand operatic gesture to ensure that her brother/husband might never be able to escape her for the arms of the old “friend” for whom he’s obviously been lusting for decades. Unlike Epstein’s work, which allowed that one moment to Roderick, Watson and Webber’s Roderick has no direct contact of flesh with his beloved visitor.
There is no question that what I just wrote in the above paragraph a rather glib “gay oriented” assessment of the situation, for nothing of that sort is truly established in the film; but I do believe these directors strongly encourage such an interpretation, turning, as they have, what might appear to be a metaphysical tragedy into a story of incestual revenge. The house of cards in which they live only falls because they have been holding it up in self-delusion. Neither of the two survivors in this mansion seems to be very much enjoying life. Roderick and Madeline are clearly not a loving couple.
Yet with regard to the Watson-Webber masterwork (which a few years back was added to the National Film Registry of US movies), I still have one question, even if it’s most definitely an unanswerable one: what was under the cover of that hotplate that sent poor Madeline into such a catatonic state?
I’d like to imagine that these clever filmmakers secretly whipped up a cryptic subplot that involved something akin to Oscar Wilde’s Salome, that what she saw upon that hotplate that made her so recoil was the image of her own or her brother’s head. But here we have simply entered the world of pure imagination when I had hoped only to show that their film, despite the profusion of radical imagery, was not truly impossible to read if you looked at it slowly and carefully enough and were willing to enter the photogénie of the film.
Los Angeles, September 5, 2021
home sweet home
Curtis Harrington (director, based on the story by Edgar Allen Poe) The Fall of the House of Usher / 1942
Harrington (screenwriter and director, based in the story “The Fall of the
House of Usher” by Edgar Allen Poe) Usher / 2000 (Criterion lists the
date as 2002)
I have previously written about several of the US director Curtis Harrington’s films (Fragment of Seeking, Picnic and The Assignation). In the late 1940s Harrington, along with his close friend Kenneth Anger, and other Los Angeles filmmakers Gregory Markopoulos, and John Schmitz along with San Francisco writer and filmmaker James Broughton all helped develop the first variety of coming out films, with Anger, Harrington, Markopoulos, and Broughton going on to make a wide range of important LGBTQ works through the years. Both Anger and Harrington, moreover, were highly involved in the occult, which runs particularly as a theme in Harrington’s oeuvre, an interest that he had evidently developed quite early in his life, since the film I write about here, Usher (2000), first appeared in different form as a high school project at age 14 in 1942.
Harrington went on to direct some very strange commercial works, and even do two films, Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965) and Queen of Blood (1966) for Roger Corman, whose own first major film was The House of Usher (1960). Of his later films, the best is perhaps Night Tide (1961) which I discuss elsewhere in these pages.
Although dedicated to Jean Epstein, Harrington’s Usher is a far stranger exercise in filmmaking that draws on the kind of Hollywood-like films of someone like Corman, extropolates a strangely academic subplot involving this work’s visitor Truman Jones (Sean Napita) who travels from New Orleans to learn the art of poetry from poet Roderick Usher (Harrington himself), and applies some of the theatrics of camp comedies rather than any intense interaction with cinematic magic one might associate with Epstein’s photogénie.
If this work can in any respect be described as an “art film,” it is simply due to its intentional amateurishness and in the fact that it is such a highly personal work of the director, not only representing a reincarnation of a childhood work, a film in which he plays the two major leads, and, perhaps most importantly—given the importance of the Usher house in Poe’s original—was filmed in Harrington’s own home, with few if any alterations in decor.
But before fully discussing Usher,
it may be useful to make a couple of observations about Harrington’s youthful
version, particularly where they help to reveal his intentions through actions
and scenes that are missing in the version he filmed just a few years before
his death at the age of 81 in 2007. In the original, for example, a rather
handsome young man is summoned by Roderick to his mansion via letter in which
he clearly states that he seeks his company because he will soon be alone.
Playing both Roderick and Madeline in 1942 The House of Usher, as he
does in Usher, the two immediately join in conversation where the young
visitor first encounters Madeline passing by through the halls. Soon after (the
original film is only 10.17 minutes long) Madeline is laid into her coffin—when
the friend first discovers that Roderick and Madeline are twins— Roderick
bursts into the boy’s room in a manner that is actually quite homoerotic in a
way that neither Epstein or Watson and Webber portrayed the incident,
sexually-charged, in part, because the young man lies in bed evidently having
difficulty in falling asleep. Yet as they stare together out the
I point these aspects out simply to confirm what Harrington suggests in Usher as well, that Madeline, Roderick’s “other” self (in Harrington’s hands an other that is virtually the same) is “something” from the beginning that Roderick is determined to rid himself of. Although it is far less clear in Usher, in the earlier version Harrington makes it apparent—as did Epstein and Watson and Webber—that he much prefers the company of his friend and desires to be freed of his sickly sister, even though he knows that severing himself from her, particularly since he has in effect murdered her, is impossible. His female half destroys the possibility of a relationship, of whatever kind, with his summoned male friend.
In large, Harrington deflates that relationship from the beginning in Usher by recasting Roderick’s visitor as a student of poetry who was not at all summoned, and—as it first appears in Epstein’s work—is made to feel a bit unwelcome. Not only does the poet Roderick Usher suggest that he is not a teacher, but that there is nothing to teach. As he tells the young would-be mentee:
The work of the artist comes from your heart. And the heart
is a secret place. There’s no way I could know the workings
of your heart.
The fact that both Roderick and Madeline
are portrayed as LGBTQ figures, moreover, releases them from any incestuous associations:
they are simply twins who are little tired of one another’s company, and the
grand Guignol-like party they throw for the birthday becomes the center of this
movie. Around them, for what he know will be their last major event, they
gather a lesbian friend who demands Madeline dance first with her (Zeena
Schreck), a priest (Nikolas Schreck)—both members of The Church of Satan in
real life—a Viennese matron (Renate Druks), a rich woman (Ruth-Ellen Taylor),
and a doctor (Robert Mundy) in what one commentator described as “a bizarre
waxworks-like masked ball,” which reminds one a bit of Gloria Swanson as Norma
Desmond playing bridge with her old friends Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and
H. B. Warner
At the party, Madeline finally agrees to dance, despite her fragile health, with their guest student, but it is apparently far too strenuous, for she soon falls, crashing into the couch, blood issuing from her mouth, as the priest (a Satanist in real life) gives her the last rites. She’s buried, and for a few days the guest observes that Roderick seemed “more happy and carefree than I’d ever seen him.”
The plot requires, as we now know, that Madeline dig her way out of the coffin. In Harrington’s far more campy telling, she telephones the student in his room—on a phone that the very first day of his visit he discovered was disconnected—to tell Roderick that she is on her way. Unlike all the other versions there is no horrendous storm, only a spot of rain (this is, after all, Los Angeles) and Roderick, who we hardly ever see in motion throughout the film, does not break into his friend’s room as tradition has established. The two of them simply play a game of chess during which the student spots Madeline outside the window. For the first time in the story, Roderick is check-mated, losing the game as Madeline enters, and attacks her brother for having buried her too soon, he having already warned his friend that his sister and he share the same soul, to which one might have added, heart, eyes, mouth, ears, and tongue. If the Ushers, a true plurality of one, fall, Harrington’s house remains intact. Indeed, a later documentary made by the editor of this film, Tyler Hubby with Jeffrey Schwarz was titled House of Harrington (2008).
With great wit, Harrington has the guest rush out of the house only to have the always responsive Pierre already at the front door with the limousine, the guest’s bags safely packed within as he drives the neophyte poet back to LAX, the Los Angeles International airport.
If at times this is a somewhat clumsy and certainly not a truly revelatory telling of Poe’s tale, it is nonetheless, a great deal of fun.
Los Angeles, September 6, 2021
only the house has any appetite for human flesh
Richard Matheson (screenplay, based on the story “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allen Poe), Richard Corman (director) House of Usher / 1960
Roger Corman’s 1960 technicolor spectacular-on-a-dime production House of Usher is not in any important respect an LGBTQ-related movie. His version is, in some respects far more faithful to Poe’s original, while at the same time radically departing from his central characters and structures. You might say that its focus almost entirely on the force and power that Usher house itself holds over its character’s lives, at least in this Roderick’s telling, pushes the work much more in the direction of the metaphysical. In fact, when producers, after reading Richard Matheson’s script asked, who’s the villain of this so-called horror film, Corman allegedly answered, “the house.”
What’s fascinating about the film, in relation to the four gay-oriented works I describe above, is that in removing most the hidden sexuality from the story, and portraying the story’s plot machinations as a kind of familial curse, Corman removes almost everything of interest about Poe’s tale except the moans and groans of the house itself and its apparent appetite for human flesh.
In this Usher, the “summoned” visitor is Madeline’s beau, not Roderick’s friend. The handsome Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) rides from Boston to meet up with, pick up the girl he’s committed to marry, Madeline (Myrna Fahey), and bring her back from the isolated wasteland in which this Usher mansion is located to the city where she evidently had made friends and acquaintances during her time away from the family morgue.
How she so quickly became the pale and fail girl he now discovers hidden away in her room is not thoroughly explained; but catalepsy, the disease she is evidently suffering from, can develop, so I read this morning in my medical dictionary, rather quickly, and in its acute stage is sometimes accompanied by psychosis or schizophrenia, either of which might explain her contradictory emotions about returning with her lover to Boston.
And, although, Corman has opened this story up to allow for a truly open heterosexual love affair, Madeline is so frail and indeterminate about whether she should stay or leave the house of bodies in which she he quite literally entombed, that other than a couple of passive kisses, she shows less signs of libido than her ready-to-die-at-any-moment brother. No wonder it takes her forever, it seems, for her to escape from her coffin!
For a film that pretends to be a hetero-love story, this movie makes even the Hallmark movie pics seem X-rated. If there was little physical expression in Watson and Webber’s Usher tale, at least there was the reappearing top hat which Roderick chased whenever he had a free second. Here costume designer Marjorie Corso has put Fahey in a perfectly lovely gown that nicely reveals her breasts and dressed up Damon a bit like a blue-boy dandy for absolutely no reason.
And there is certainly no deep love, despite Roderick’s declarations of his affection for Madeline, between brother and sister. While Roderick continues to insist that it is the house that keeps her from being able to return to Boston, the house and the Usher history which includes a family heritage of evil doers in the form of thieves, murderers, and sexual deviants—indeed, perhaps the most exciting scene in this movie is when the ghosts of Usher pasts appear to Philip in a nightmare—but even those far more interesting folk are represented in this film’s “reality” by a series of atrociously awful portraits by “artist” Burt Schoenberg.
It appears that, despite Roderick’s constant chattering about the evil of his family and their reconstructed house brought to the US brick by brick from England, the real evil of this film can be read as patriarchal dominance. Roderick has convinced his sister that she is ill, incapable of doing anything but preparing to die, and that she is in no way able to marry and through her children introduce dreadful evil to the rest of the planet, and in order to maintain that control over her is willing even to bury her alive!
And Roderick himself has grown so utterly convinced of his own mumbo-jumbo that all he can do day after day, is play random notes upon his lute and passively wait to his old dark house to fall down on his head. If only he could get up the energy to even wink at the cute young man who has intruded upon his patriarchal domain or even quickly lick his lips in lust for his sister Corman might have lightened up this film enough to explain the great inferno he caught on camera as the naughty mansion’s beans come crashing down upon its bland inhabitants.
It just goes to show you that a straight-forward normative heterosexual structure laid over even the darker psychological dramatics of Poe as mouthed by a perfectly closeted homosexual actor like Price can still be too good to be believed.
It makes you truly wonder whether you do have be gay to understand Poe’s House of Usher.
Los Angeles, September 6, 2021
outside the normality of history
Robert Esson (screenplay and adaptation, devised by Albert McCleery from the story “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allen Poe), Boris Sagal (director) The Fall of the House of Usher / 1956
Coincidence has always played a large part in my life, so I was not surprised that just as I was finishing up the essays I was gathering for my piece on film adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher that my friend Mark Wallace announced on Facebook that he was planning the next day to teach that work to his class of university students.
I quickly wrote Wallace, sending him a rough draft of my writings. He wrote back that I might also want to take a look at the NBC Matinee Theater production, staring Tom Tryon as Roderick, that aired on August 6, 1956.
I was able to find a copy online and viewed it over the past few days, and indeed I found it most revelatory, basically supporting my interpretations of the 1928 films by Jean Epstein and James Sibley Watson, Jr. and Melville Webber, and the later works by Curtis Harrington. This film also attended to some issues that helped to explain vague references in the other works which had made their way there via Poe but had not been fully explicated in the action of those films.
Since by this time I have thoroughly established the outlines of the work’s action, let me begin by stating what might typically have been my summary: in Robert Esson’s adaptation of Poe as directed by Boris Sagal there is little doubt that Roderick is a gay man.
No longer is the mansion’s invited guest unnamed. In this version he is a close school friend of a much younger Roderick than in the other versions, who has specifically written David (Marshall Thompson) because he is lonely and needs help in bearing up with the intense hypersensitivity he is experiencing and the suffering of his own catatonically ill twin sister, Madeline (Joan Elan).
David is clearly someone he needs to be with, not simply a witness or a friend who, as the early parts of the Epstein work, Roderick wishes he hadn’t invited. As Roderick expresses it to David: “I had no right to write that letter, but I couldn’t help myself. I’ve been lonely for so long.”
In Esson’s version—and here is more an issue of the script that the cinematic framing and staging—Roderick even hints at a reason why he can ask a friend to join him while he argues that Madeline cannot. In a long conversation with David during the process of attempting to explain the Usher family curse, Roderick argues that the family illnesses—which he believes have been brought on by his ancestors’ treachery, misdeeds, and madness—must be brought to an end with his and Madeline’s deaths and not permitted to spread to another generation. Madeline is a young woman of great beauty and heterosexual sexual desire (we even see that in her few moments of contact with the man who is a stranger to her, David, whom she begs to take her away, behaving almost the opposite of the Madeleine living under the patriarchal reign of Vincent Price’s
This is made even more clear when, after Madeline dies and is buried, Roderick briefly believes he can now escape the Usher house with David and join him in a new life. The scene is essential to comprehending his and David’s relationship. It begins with him lamenting that his intense kinship with his sister has “been my life this past few years. I’ve shared her dying.”
David responds with the hope for his friend’s ability to escape all that he has lived through: “You were right to call me here. Now you can make that fight for your strength, and I can help you.”
And for the first time in all the works, we see Roderick openly considering leaving everything else behind to lead a new life with his friend.
I can, I want to now. I can.
I feel as if I have been buried deep and now I’m
coming into light and life again. I feel so free.
This is much closer to the Roderick we know in Epstein as he is hugged and momentarily protected by his friend—also soon after Madeline’s burial in Epstein’s work—and the Roderick in the Watson and Webber’s film who briefly seeks out his visitor’s top hat. But here it is put much more literally rather than poetically expressed, even if, given the restrictions of television broadcasting in 1956, it still had to be muted and even coded at moments.
Certainly, once Roderick begins to change his mind, to let his fear overcome his determination to take courage, and to resist leaving the house, we can truly begin to see Roderick and David’s homosexual linking, although here it is highly coded.
For, on the hand, we have already been told by the doctor that Madeline is catatonic and may not be dead. And in Sagal’s literalization of the story, we actually observe Madeline attempting to reach out of the casket and remove the chains. So his change of heart can easily be explained simply as a recognition that he cannot escape his fate, that he must face the horrors he has long believed would come. In both of the 1928 versions this is what happens to force him to break with the visitor, despite his one last attempt to make contact with him by entering his bedroom in the storm.
But the writer of this adaptation overlays what at first appears to be simply an acceptance of his own guilt and punishment into something quite different. This internal struggle, played out in David’s presence, is truly coded and frankly would not be easily comprehended by those who have not experienced the endless gay “coming out movies” that have come into being as a genre since the late 1980s.
Having now witnessed hundreds of such films in which one figure is attempting to bring his weaker lover out of the closet, I immediately recognize the language and argumentation of David’s often bitter charges against Roderick as an attempt to demand his friend leave, not just a decaying ancestral house, but the closet and mindset in which he has once more become entrenched.
From the beginning David has spoken to Roderick about the “courage” he will need to join him in the city. And when he finds his friend has retreated from his decision to leave, he is angry, as any lover might be. It is not lack of will or desire that keeps Roderick locked in again, but, as he himself admits, “Fear itself is what I am most afraid of, my deadliest poison.”
David’s reprimand is that of a hurt lover: “You promised me you’d leave, and you haven’t even started.”
Roderick expresses his decision to remain as accepting punishment for having been happy.
But David puts it in the simple psychological terms that any gay lover might argue to his friend too terrified to admit his sexuality to the world. “There comes a time when we have to face things Roderick, a time when we grow up or just grow old.”
“You make it sound so easy to just walk away.”
“It is easy. You just need to do it.”
“I wish I were a brave man.”
“You won’t go.”
And David’s final words are those of a spurned lover, not a man involved with a lover in a metaphysical struggle against the evils of history. Family is, of course, the most common reason why gay men are terrified of coming out, but there is no immediate family holding Roderick back.
“There’s no more reason I should stay here.”
Roderick’s answer is a simple “No.”
Yet, of course, Poe’s story totally overwhelms whatever other narratives the writer and director may be hinting at. In the end Roderick cannot leave because he is doomed, not by some vague curse, but by everything he has done previous to David’s arrival.*
What he has done precisely is to not only to lock away but purposely kill off his sister. His hostility to the doctor—a hostility also expressed in Poe’s original tale out of his fear that medical people might try to removed Madeline’s body for research purposes, but which also shows up in Epstein’s film, where the doctor is seen as a menacing figure who keeps attempting to nail the lid of Madeline’s coffin to it’s lower half, whose actions bring about the notable “hugging scene” that Epstein’s Roderick and his guest share as they go to leave the crypt—arises in this case primarily because he knows that the doctor has linked Roderick’s mother’s disease with his sister, and that in burying her so quickly he is probably putting her into her grave alive. He purposely desires his sister’s death, accordingly, probably with the hope that he can run away with David and lead a life with him.
What this TV version of The Fall of the House of Usher reveals, in short, is that like the Roderick of the two 1928 movies and Harrington’s two films, Tryon’s character is a gay man who purposely attempts to rid himself of Madeline so that he can join the world of the outsider. The fact that he fails is based not so much on the family curse and its dreadful history, but his own selfish actions and Madeline’s determination to survive, which is destined to failure as much as are Roderick’s own attempts to escape. Only in Corman’s totally heterosexual interpretation does Roderick remain passive, convinced of the family curse without even attempting to avert it. But then his young would-be savior, after all, has come for the sister not for the aging homosexual who Price represents. This movie, Epstein’s radically dream-like cinema, Watson and Webber’s expressionist-like condensed telling, and Harrington’s sly and humorous retellings are so much more interesting than the work by Corman because they insinuate an outsider sexual desire in Roderick’s actions. If destiny is carried out it is despite inevitability and against the real hidden longings of Roderick Usher, not because of the corruption of the family past. He wills it upon himself by desiring something that lays outside of the normality of history.
*Tom Tryon was himself a closeted gay actor, although to describe him as closeted given the notoriety of his two major lovers seems a bit far-fetched. In the early 1970s Tryon lived with actor-dancer Clive Clerk who was in the original cast of A Chorus Line and later became a noted Hollywood interior decorator who designed Tyron’s Central Park West New York apartment. During 1973-1977 Tryon lived in a relationship with the former male prostitute, later gay-porn icon Casey Donovan, star of Wakefield Poole’s Boys in the Sand. He broke up with Donovan allegedly because of the gay star’s increasing neck-craning fame, which made it Tryon’s sexuality all too apparent. Tryon’s early death in 1991 at age 65 was attributed to stomach cancer, but his literary executor, C. Thomas Holloway, later admitted that Tryon was HIV-positive, arguing that “I see it as Tom's selfish silence that helped the Dark Ages continue into the millennium."
Los Angeles, September 9, 2021
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (September 2021).