Friday, August 14, 2020

Norman Taurog | Sunny Skies

laughing away the blues
by Douglas Messerli

A. P. Younger (story), Norman Taurog (director) Sunny Skies / 1930

I probably would never have watched the 1930 college-based musical comedy, Sunny Skies, directed by the then well-known Hollywood filmmaker Norman Taurog, and I most certainly would have never imagined including it in my Queer Cinema volume were it not for one sentence written about it on Wikipedia. I’ll come back to that later.
      Taurog, I should mention, had a long career as a director, working with such actors as his nephew Jackie Cooper, and well-known singers, dancers, comedians and dramatic leads such as Spencer Tracy (in Boys Town), Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Deanna Durbin, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Deborah Kerr, and Peter Lawford. He was behind the camera for six of the infamous Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedies, and, late in his career directed eight Elvis Presley films. He was once—long before Damien Chazelle of La La Land fame—the youngest person to win the Academy Award for Best Director, at age 32, for a film a year after Suuny Skies, Skippy (starring Cooper).
     So clearly this director had his share of success in pumping out a wide range of audience-friendly genres, most of which I have had extraordinarily little appreciation of over the years. My guess is that Taurog himself might have perceived his Sunny Days as one of his bleakest of failures. The New York Times reviewer, for example, wrote of it:   

If all the earlier carbon copies of popular
college stories have not succeeded in making
a film public tired of rah-rah films, then Sunny
Skies, single-handed, may turn the trick. This
film…is so lacking in the elements of even a
burlesque of college life that the sum of its
efforts is little more than a blank. The old, old
story, almost a novelty after it had seemed that
all films along such trite lines had been done
away with, concerns a football hero who drinks
while in training, keeps the star out of the game
by breaking his arm and subsequently makes a
"come back" for the love of the girl. He runs
the length of the field with the pigskin to
win the game for dear old Stantech.

     To be fair the musical (which is what the work really wants to) with numbers by Will Jason, Val Burton, and Al Short are sometimes charming if basically unforgettable, among them a couple later sung by the then-popular High Hatters, “Must Be Love” and “You for Me and Me for You.”The comedian singer and dancer Marjorie Kane (as the heroine, Mary Norris’ friend Doris) sings a song similar to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s Ado Annie “I Can’t Say No,” this titled “I Want to Find a Boy.”
      And then this dog of a film does offer up Benny Rubin (as Benny Krantz) who plays out his vaudeville “nice Jewish boy” routine in which he can perceive no evil in his roommate, Jim Grant (Rex Lease), who performs another vaudeville routine in which he asks Benny to pick him up a block of ice, ginger ale, and lemons, the placement of which he uses to comically humiliate both Benny and his father—you know the routine, “don’t put it here, put it over there”; “don’t put it there, put it…,” a somewhat anti-Semitic rant, in this case, which goes on far too long.
     Rubin, however, takes it all in good faith, seemingly able to muddle through the most painful of abuses with a linguistic onslaught against normative English language that shakes everything inside out, so to speak.
     The actor, I might mention, not only had long been a big hit in vaudeville but later went on to host a comic radio show, Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One, but also performed on radio and television in My Friend Irma, The Bickersons, The Jack Benny Program, and The Joey Bishop Show, as well as in numerous films including Here Comes Mr. Jordan, A Hole in the Head, The Errand Boy, and Pocket Full of Miracles.
      At least when the boy-hungry Kane and the endlessly gullible Rubin are on-screen Sunny Skies are bathed in a little light. But the darkness soon descends with the impossible romantic triangle of Jim, Mary, and Lease’s football-playing nemesis Dave (Robert Livingston), all rather boring and, in Norris’ case, priggish, beings. In one fell swoop football hero Jim gets drunk and is kicked off the team for low grades before breaking Dave’s arm in a row over Mary. With its two major players out of action, Stantech’s hopes for athletic acclaim is squelched, and in embarrassment, Lease’s character takes off a semester, disappearing from the film’s directorial view, along with the other two players in this seemingly pointless trio of hormone-heavy adolescents.
      Benny counts down the calendar pages a bit like a longing lover for his roommate’s return, meanwhile attempting to acclimate himself to the ways of his collegiate acquaintances. He purchases a garish new suit, replaces the portrait of grandfather with a picture of a girl, and casually throws women’s stockings over an imitation trophy he’s picked up to make Jim feel more comfortable upon his homecoming.
       Upon his reappearance, Jim claims he’s made major changes, mostly so that he might get back into the good graces of Mary and his coach. But he also does seem to now have a fondness for his rather transformed former roommate, and quickly arranges for Benny’s new bookish roomie to take over his newly assigned dorm room so that he and Benny can get back together again.
       Jim returns to the team and, even though Benny has arranged what he describes as an “orggy,” he only tentatively celebrates. Yet Benny, apparently, has now gone “whole hog” in his embracement of collegial behavior.
       After Doris spins out a new arrangement of “Must Be Love” and follows it up with a dance that might make the rubber-legged Ray Bolger a bit envious, a now totally plotzed Benny shooshes the crowd to sing a quite unexpected ballad given his ealier celebratory mood: “Laugh the Blues Away” with lyrics such as

             If you’re a total wreck
             And you’ve fallen on your neck
             Ha-ha, laugh away the Blues.

             If St. Peter at the Gate
             Says you’re just ten minutes late
             Ho-Ho, laugh away the Blues.

Like Doris, he also moves into his own stiff-legged comic dance, but suddenly in a long lateral motion crashes out the window, falling to the concrete below.
      An ambulance is called, and Benny temporarily survives but, as the doctor puts it, his condition is tentative, particularly if he can’t get an immediate blood transfusion.
      The reformed Jim comes to his friend’s aide, which allows Benny to survive, before suiting up for the last inning of the Stantech football game and rushing to the goalpost to win the game, in the process almost killing himself.
      Back in the revived patient’s room, he, Mary, and Doris gather to wish Benny well. When Mary hears exactly what Jim has done, she forgives him for his past evil ways as the two kiss, and Doris, now evidently having found her “boy,” drops her head next to Benny’s. THE END.
Sorry to had to take you through this rather inane plot, but I felt it necessary to help explain my startlement when I read, in the only line of commentary of the Wikipedia site, this description of the movie:

Sunny Skies is a 1930 American Pre-Code musical comedy film directed by Norman Taurog, starring Benny Rubin and Marceline Day and produced by Tiffany Pictures. It is notable for a same-sex romantic subplot, involving a young man's tragically unrequited love for his football hero roommate.

     Now, I have certainly been criticized from time to time about reading in gay meanings into otherwise heterosexual films by decoding works such as Orson Welles The Third Man and many of the films of Cary Grant and Rock Hudson, I was truly puzzled, a least at first, by the last sentence here. It’s author, I discovered after a little research, was someone named Glen Cram, who writing on his internet blog in 2018, announced that after he “flipped through it, a revelation hit [him]: this movie is totally gay!”
      Cram then proceeds for about 20 further paragraphs to make his case for why this film so thoroughly fits his argument.
      Several of his points seem almost comical in themselves (“He-man Jim [Rex Lease] arrives on campus and tries to pick up rather mannish-looking Mary [Marceline Day]. For some reason she likes him, even though he’s an obnoxious, touchy-feely creep who wears more lipstick and eyeliner than she does.”) and others are simply overstatements.
        I would hardly describe Marceline Day as “mannish.” Along with Joan Crawford, Mary Astor, Janet Gaynor, and Dolores del Rio, Day was picked as one of the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers 13 WAMPAS Baby Stars, honoring each year those they believed were on the threshold of movie stardom. And Day went on make films with many of the leading male stars of the period, including Lionel and John Barrymore, Ramón Novarro, Buster Keaton, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., the last three in particular handsome leads who were generally paired with beauties. And as for Jim’s lipstick and eyeliner, those were simply the tricks of the silent movie era to accentuate the male star’s often bland faces.
       As for his numerous overstatements I have never once described the mostly heterosexual films of Grant, Hudson, and others as being “totally gay.” My suggestions have primarily been based on subtexts within their works that define for knowledgeable audiences another level of meanings.
    And most certainly I would never have described a film that ends with all four of its major characters being paired off as man and woman destined by the Hollywood film genres to live presumably “happily ever after” as representing a “tragically unrequited love.” If Benny had died, one might have suggested such a possibility, but with Jim’s blood now beating through his veins, Benny looks to be anything but a tragic figure.
       I’ll just ascribe Cram’s somewhat absurd claims as being a product of his over-enthusiasm for detecting gay elements in an otherwise not very cheery cinematic project.
       Moreover, too many of this writer’s assumptions do not quite take into account Benny’s naiveté and near-complete ignorance of the language, mores, and social positionings of the new world into which he has suddenly been transplanted. A great deal of his admiration of his new roommate has little to do with love but with the possibility of having a knowledgeable and protective elder brother by his side. In the film My Personal Bodyguard, the young boy Clifford Peache admires Ricky Linderman’s muscles not because he is secretly in love with him (although the two later do develop a friendship), but because those muscles might be able to protect him from others who might wish to make his life hell. One need only witness the college boys who pour water down from their window upon Benny at the very moment when he is trying to woo Doris, to realize how difficult his life must be without Jim at his side.
      After a great deal of mulling over Cram’s assertions, however, I’ll have to grant that he is on to something. Even if Benny does not truly “love” Jim, he has formed a kind of romantic-like alliance with him that, in fact, is a bit closer to a bromance, I’d argue, than an example of unrequited gay love. After all, by the time Jim returns to college, Benny does well know that his friend can never feel the deeper closeness that he has developed. And his absurd attempts to imitate his hero are not meant to lure him to his side as much as they are a struggle to understand the heterosexuals around him.
       Yet, this film is chock full of linguistic innuendos to the gay world. Early on in the film, when Jim decides to take a shower after he has attempted (I must say unsuccessfully) to humiliate his new acquaintance, he asks him to make a drink for him, using the bottle of gin in his suitcase. Benny does seem more bemused that shocked, as Cram suggests, by finding within Jim’s suitcase feminine apparel (Jim has mistakenly walked from his encounter with Mary with he suitcase) After spitting out that perfume-infused drink that Benny has concocted from her luggage, Jim demands that Benny bring him his underwear—with results a series of literary confusion of placement (under where?) and privacy (under you pants you are wearing underwear, to which Benny replies "Yes, but it belongs to me.") ends in the neophyte’s question: “Why don’t you make yourself more explicit?” Jim is already naked in the shower, and Benny’s suggestion of further explicitness might just as well be interpreted through that word's second meaning: ”open in the depiction of nudity or sexuality.”
      On their first night out, paired off with Doris, Benny interrupts Jim’s attempt at love-making to ask him to explain how he might express his feelings to the new girl, just as happy, it appears, to have his friend  express those sweet words into his own ear than in passing that language on to the girl he’s “coconuts about,” a phrase which might suggest he’s “nuts about her,” but might also simply express that he likes her. And as Cram has pointed out, just a few moments earlier, as she has tried to kiss him, Benny “defends his virtue heroically,” even angrily. The only women he has admired, moreover, have been his teachers. If Benny is to become heterosexual, he will certainly be a clueless straight man, the role he, after all, is playing on the screen.
      I certainly agree with Cram, moreover, that Benny’s tearful goodbye to Jim, when the footballer player temporarily drops out, says something far deeper about their relationship, particularly when he discovers that Jim has left a wad of money in his pocket, which can only now assure him that at least the friendship is reciprocal. If he doesn’t actually run after Jim’s train in sad farewell, his face says it all.
      As I mentioned above, the way throughout the next few minutes of the film that he flips through the calendar while awaiting Jim’s return is the standard stock of hundreds of male-female romances depicted on the screen. “Longing” is generally the major theme.
       All of this finally helps to make sense of Benny’s sudden expression of having the “Blues” before, a bit like the gay dancer Fred Herko who in 1964 while dancing leaped out his apartment window to his death. Given the emotions hinted at in his song, Benny likely defenestrated himself on purpose.
       I might add that during this same period in which Hitler rose to power, numerous Jewish university students were thrown out of the windows of their schools. One need only think of the Vanessa Redgrave character in Fred Zinneman’s 1977 film Julia or read Marjorie Perloff’s autobiographical musings in her The Vienna Paradox: A Memoir to confirm this.
     In yet a further demonstration of a solid link between the two, Jim lends his friend his own blood, surely one of the more selfless acts of football player’s entire life.
      I’d agree, finally, that although the final scene might seem to indicate Benny’s conversion to heterosexuality (a simple requirement of most popular films), the wink and fey left hand with which he says farewell to his moviegoing audience indicates that no matter what, Benny will always remain an “other,” a true outsider when it comes to sexuality and most everything else in the world with which he comes in contact.

Los Angeles, August 14, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2020).

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