Friday, September 23, 2011

"Dropping Beads" on Cary Grant / Howard Hawks | Bringing up Baby / Garson Kanin | My Favorite Wife

by Douglas Messerli

Long before today’s more liberated views of sexual behavior (the present being a time when, presumably, young men or women are able—but probably are still terrified—to speak openly of their sexual preferences) gay men and lesbians were often forced to speak in a kind of coded language. Particularly when meeting attractive people for the first time, gays might subtly weave into their sentences words that suggested their sexual proclivities. This linguistic activity—now apparently a lost language—was generally described as “dropping beads,” a metaphor I find particularly fitting since it calls up images of what, in a humorous exaggeration of the stereotype, the male might be wearing or wishing to wear underneath his masculine attire (a woman’s costume replete with beaded dress or necklace), but also suggests the words that, picked up by a sensitive and like-minded fellow, could be linked and strung together in order to (borrowing another phrase from that now near-forgotten tongue) “know the score.” To the unknowing heterosexual male these suggestive words would simply have no significance, would fall into empty space, so to speak, their lack of resonance indicating to the speaker that, as attractive as the other may be, it would be dangerous to go any further into sexual matters. If, on the other hand, the second person “picked up” on some of these clues, it might suggest that he accepted the other’s sexual orientation. Obviously, the more deftly and subtly one handled these “beads,” the more cleverly one employed these indicative words, the safer he might be from hostile reactions by the unsuspecting and unsympathetic male; a less skillful linguist—who might even “drop bead’s” by accident—was more likely to get hurt, while the accidental dropping might suggest that he was more outrageous, more sexually flamboyant in his behavior. The same language might also indicate to knowing women that the male with whom she was speaking was “off limits.”

Applying this technique to a popular culture activity such as filmmaking, particularly in the context of studio-made comedies that often employ larger-then-life situations and character types, would be nearly impossible to pull off; subtlety is not one of the traits of American films. Yet, some comic scriptwriters were able to create a sort of subliminal message through language and plot that for knowing and interested audience members humorously toyed with other sexual behavior. I am not suggesting that these subterranean messages were inaccessible to other theater-goers; they may have even generated an aura of sexual excitement around a plot delimited by the Hays Code restrictions. But I don’t think that many viewers consciously followed these “beads” back to a trail emanating from the off-screen sexual behavior of the stars. The studios’s publicists worked hard to keep the private lives of their actors—when they varied from the societal norm—out of the public consciousness; it would have been nearly impossible, accordingly, to produce a film that undercut those attempts to keep homosexuality and other oddities a secret. Yet, as I describe below, writers such as Dudley Nichols, Hagar Wilde, and Sam and Bella Spewack, some directors and actors themselves often purposely “dropped beads,” hinting at other sexual realities—perhaps just for the fun of it! In hindsight, however, it often appears as if many American films contain two works in one, the first for a general audience, the second for seemingly prurient viewers such as me. Frankly, I prefer the privatized world of double-entendres and coded acts that I discern in these works as opposed to the well-made locomotives of Hollywood-inspired farce.

Los Angeles, December 31, 2006

by Douglas Messerli

Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde (writers), Howard Hawks (director) Bringing up Baby / 1938

Bringing up Baby—usually described as a “screwball” or “madcap” comedy—can easily be read by its audiences in several ways. On the one hand, it is a “traditional” comedy, a work in which—once the characters leave the city for the country—all hell breaks loose with a series of confusions, losses of identity and inversions of wealth and fate, after which order is returned or disorder is validated upon the characters’ return to civilization. This film is often read as the young hero’s (David) awakening from a sterile and dead world (he is a paleontologist about to be married to the obviously frigid Miss Swallow) to a confusing but exciting romance with Susan Peabody, heir to the Peabody fortune and, more importantly, a woman worthy of his love—a love which, when he recognizes the excitement of the experience, utterly and joyfully overturns his previous life, made readily apparent by the collapse of the dinosaur he has spent most of that life reconstructing. The incidents of interrupted golf games, dented car bumpers, torn tux and dress, and overturned crates of chickens, along with the appearance of not one, but two leopards (one, “Baby,” a gift to the elder Mrs. Peabody, the other a dangerous cat which has escaped from a local circus act) seem to all be but skits and props in the absurd series of events which represents David’s rite of passage from a near-dead scientist to a handsome sexual being. I think most viewers, if they bothered to analyze the complex shenanigans Hepburn and Grant undergo (presuming they might wish to interrupt their laughter to do so), would see it this way.

I have always wondered, however, why, given the obvious sexual indeterminacy of several of his films (My Favorite Wife in particular), more hasn’t been made of Grant’s evident bisexuality early in his career. Certainly his writers and directors seemed to be inordinately interested in asserting it. Yes, David (Grant) is what today we might call a “nerd,” but he is also, quite clearly, without a clue as to the purpose of the opposite sex except as mother or secretary (the same position, incidentally, in which he begins North by Northwest much later in his career). His intended, Miss Swallow is not only a small little bird (in all respects) but also, if he marries her, something which he must “swallow,” like cod-liver oil (including all of the sexual connotations). No children for them, insists Miss Swallow, which we also immediately recognize as her saying “no sex,” a condition which David placidly accepts.

On the golf course, we quickly perceive that David/Grant does not play like “one of the men,” but, having hoped to talk to Mrs. Peabody’s lawyer about a contribution to his museum (conversation is not accepted in the heat of competition), he falls instead into an argument with a young woman who has usurped (all sexual connotations included) his ball. He follows her to her car (actually his car, which she also “takes over”) and ends by being carried off by the woman. When he encounters her that evening—again when he is scheduled to dine with the men—even she quips that he is following her. But despite her determination that he is a subconsciously driven by love, we (or let us say, certain viewers) recognize that his attraction to her has less to do with a search for love than it does with the fact that her vitalism; her energy has utterly dominated him. Like children, they play at ripping away each other’s clothing. And Grant’s famous frontal embrace of Hepburn’s derriere has nothing at all to do with sex and everything to do with propriety. And then, once again, there’s the image of him following a woman, “clinging” to her, one might say.

Of course, it is, symbolically speaking, a sexual act. It’s simply that David/Grant doesn’t recognize it as such. For, although completely attracted to “them” (after all, “they” define his every act), he is as terrified of women as he is of the feline, Baby. In short, David is what they used to call a “sissy boy,” a boy preferring the company of his mother or a woman who reminds him of a mother. For him, Susan is simply a more fascinating Miss Swallow.

But Susan, far more of an intuitive psychologist than the doctor of psychology tangentially involved in this pot au feu, knows just what to do. Into the wilds of Connecticut they plunge, where similar to their previous childlike play with undressing each other, she steals his clothing and he dresses in hers—a bed coat ringed with a boa of feathers that is hard to imagine might even have belonged to Hepburn, but is perfect for Grant’s drag outing. Discovering the stranger in her home, Mrs. Peabody asks, “What’s his name?” and is told by Susan, “Bone” (all sexual puns and connotations included). When asked “Why is he dressed like that?” Grant/David utters what must be a cinematic first, “I’ve just gone gay!” For me, a gay man, there is a rush of shock and delight in that celluloid second, for it is clear that the character is not talking about a whimsical joy that has overtaken him, but that we are witnessing perhaps the first on-screen “coming out,” a self-avowal of the character’s homosexuality.

Since Mr. Bone has lost his bone (all sexual associations included; in the plot it is the final missing bone of his magnificent dinosaur), Susan proposes a solution which has oft been proposed to “sissy boys” in order to turn them into men. Just ask Papa Hemingway. Predictably, they begin the ritual search for his virility, a kind of New-Englanized “safari”—two leopards are, after all, on the loose! Horace Applegate, the great game hunter, tags along.

We already know the result. This is a Hollywood film—and a romance to boot. Undergoing all the ritual tests in his name, Susan proceeds to make him over, baptizing him in the local creek, burning his socks, breaking his glasses, and, ultimately, assuring his imprisonment in the local jail where the film’s entire cast is accused of being someone other than who they really are. But Susan gets her leopard and her man, thus bringing her “baby” into glorious adulthood. He’s now become a man!

Writing about this film, I recall my first encounter with it (I won’t describe it as a viewing). I was a young man who had escaped to New York City for the sexual release which in those days (1969) it provided. I went to the Thalia theater to see this film and inexplicably spent the entire time in miserable tears. Obviously, my mind was focused on other issues (I left New York soon thereafter)—or perhaps I was more focused on the movie than I knew.

A trattoria near the Pantheon, Rome, October 17, 2003

by Douglas Messerli

Bella and Samuel Spewack (writers), based on a story by Leo McCarey, Garson Kanin, John McClain, and Bella and Samuel Spewack, Garson Kanin (director) My Favorite Wife / 1940

In some respects related to Leo McCarey’s brilliant 1937 comedy The Awful Truth—particularly in its last scenes—Garson Kanin’s 1940 film My Favorite Wife (produced by a wheelchair-bound McCarey, who planned to direct it until he suffered an automobile accident in late 1939) uses Cary Grant’s bisexuality to subvert the moralistic concerns regarding sexuality required, evidently, by the Production Code and the studios.

On the surface, of course, Grant as Nick Arden is portrayed as a virile heterosexual: having lost his first wife, Ellen Wagstaff Arden (played by Irene Dunne), to a shipwreck, he is in the process as the movie begins of marrying for a second time. In these first scenes, some of the most humorous of the film, we discover that Ellen, an anthropological photographer, apparently has been drowned seven years earlier when the ship on which she was traveling sank, leaving behind the husband and her two young children. After much judicial confusion, the judge declares the first wife dead, freeing Nick to marry Bianca Bates, who has spent most of the proceedings narcissistically peering into a pocket mirror.

Soon after, we discover that Ellen, his first wife, is not only still living, but has been rescued from a deserted island by a Portuguese freighter. Notably, she is dressed in men’s clothing, in quite the opposite manner from the femme fatale Bianca; indeed her children wonder aloud whether she is a lady or a man. As if we needed further evidence of Bianca’s character, Ellen’s mother-in-law, after an-nouncing that Nick has again married, admits to disliking her son’s new wife. The sexually neutered Ellen, who has been “running wild” (as she later admits), is clearly a more appropriate partner than the selfish catlike Bianca—a woman whose major complaint seems to be that Nick will not wear the tasteless leopard housecoat for which she has spent “all afternoon” shopping!

Given the hypocritical moral values of the film industry, wherein sex is perceived as being linked only to marriage, Ellen can still save the day if she prevents the connubial couple from bedding down together; off she rushes to Yosemite Inn—the same hotel where she spent her first married night—to reveal herself and in so doing restore her lawful rights. Indeed, the comic high jinks which follow produces much of the desired effect. Upon discerning that Ellen is still alive, Nick refuses the advances of his new bride as he attempts to escape their conjugal nest. However, we soon discover, Nick is also quite terrified of her “high-strung” personality—presumably meaning her temper—and has a difficult time in breaking the news that his former wife has returned from the dead. Although he avoids sex—the couple drive back without stopping to his home, presumably in Los Angeles—he has been unable to extricate himself from Bianca’s clutches.

In short, the writers, Bella and Samuel Spewack, have separated the two women through the comic use of a series of sexist stereotypes. Bianca is not only a beautiful woman, but represents all women: Like the younger daughter in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (a character which the Spewacks would revisit in their 1958 musical with Cole Porter, Kiss Me, Kate) she is a young, cunning, bitchy, selfish woman. Ellen Wagstaff Arden, on the other hand, in her devotion to a career (she has, after all, left her children alone to pursue her vocation), in her use of her maiden name, in her hyonymic first name (Ellen, Allen), along with that first costume is compared by the writers to a man, and is closer in sensibility to Nick himself. We soon discover, moreover, that Ellen shares Nick’s verbal abilities (Nick is a lawyer) and, just as he has not yet told his new wife the truth, she has held a secret from her ex-husband.

An inexplicable late-night visit from an insurance agent who has heard, through the grapevine, more about Ellen than Nick has, reveals that his ex-wife’s deserted island was shared with another man whom she called Adam and, who in turn, called her Eve. So begins the “true” story of My Favorite Wife: Nick’s fall from connubial grace and his expulsion from the proverbial garden (the forest Arden).

From Nick’s first moment of knowing of the man in Ellen’s “deserted” life, Stephen Burkett haunts him. In the context of the literalized heterosexual comedy, of course, the haunting appears to take the form of jealousy. But more careful observers will immediately perceive that there is something deeper going on here. The joke that poor Adam is a kind of neutered being who hangs out at the YMCA (code for “pansy”) is somewhat dispelled as Nick discovers he is living in the swank Pacific Club. Upon a visit to that establishment where he pages his prey, Nick encounters instead a stunning hunk of a male—a nearby woman admirer asking Nick if the man about to acrobatically leap into the pool is Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller—of whom, as Grant’s eyes pop out in wonderment, his entire body rising up as if in sudden erection, he too is clearly in awe. The fact that the actor playing this superman, Randolph Scott, had been Grant’s roommate and rumored lover for eight years by the time this movie was filmed (the two men would continue to live together for two more years after the film, representing a ten-year relationship) and that two can be seen wearing matching pinky rings throughout may not have been perceived by the audiences of the day, but was certainly an issue in the film’s remaining conceits.*

For almost immediately after this encounter, Nick’s mind is consumed by Burkett, as a vision of the acrobatic figure, like an angelic putto, floats before his eyes. His wife’s attempt to further deceive him by trotting out a nebbish shoe salesman claiming to be Burkett, results in a series of activities in which the two attempt to get even with one another. He suggests lunch at the Pacific Club, where Burkett-Adam reveals himself, and Ellen Wagstaff Arden is bested, her hopes of reclaiming Nick becoming “all wet” as she falls into the pool.

In need of clothes, Ellen insists the two men—whose companionship is necessitated, in terms of the heterosexual comedy, by their refusal to leave the other alone with Dunne—return to Nick’s house to retrieve them. There looms the jilted Bianca, who has hired a Freudian psychiatrist to explain her husband’s condition. “The love impulse is often confused,” he proclaims, evidenced, clearly, by his observation of Nick posing before the mirror in a woman’s hat and a woman’s dress held up against his bodily frame. “It’s not for me, but for my friend. He’s waiting in the car!” Nick/Grant explains.

Like the writers of Bringing up Baby, who telegraphed Grant’s homosexuality in his donning of a feathered robe, the Spewacks use the possibility of a man (or men) in drag as representing a sexuality of which the movie itself cannot speak.

Again, it hardly matters, given the terms imposed upon the film, that the gender will be corrected in time for the last frame, for the observant audience already now knows “the score.” Bianca—the epitome of “womanhood”—is no longer in the picture. The choice for both husband and wife is now between the handsome hunk (Scott)—who, if we are to literally believe Ellen’s story, that he did not engage in sex with her for their seven years of island existence, even more clearly brings his sexuality into question—or a figure of somewhat confused sexuality (either Grant or Dunne). To ease the necessary story back upon its track, Burkett is sent scurrying on his way to the paradise of isolation he left behind.

But even the plot’s attempts to return Nick to his rightful location in a bed next to his wife’s bed (a requirement, once again, of the hypocritical prigs of the day) demand that he be transformed from Nicholas the man to Nicholas the Saint, as he dons the holiday costume of Santa Claus. Presumably, since the two have already produced their beloved and loving children, they shall remain happily chaste ever after.

Los Angeles, November 10, 2003
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (August 2008).

* Another minor clue that Grant is somehow connected with Scott shows up in Ellen/Dunne’s choice of an explanation for her remaining in Bianca’s house; she explains that she is an old friend of the family from Virginia, and for several scenes puts on an exaggerated accent that supposedly represents her upbringing in the South. In truth, Dunne was born in Kentucky; Randolph Scott was a Virginian

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