Sunday, February 28, 2021

John Francis Dillon | Call Her Savage

having to do what you have to do

by Douglas Messerli

Edwin Burke (screenplay based on the novel by Tiffany Thayer), John Francis Dillon (director) Call Her Savage / 1932

The 1932 pre-Hays Code film Call Her Savage is perhaps best known today for its late-in-the-movie scene in a New York Greenwich Village restaurant were the denizens are entertained by two gay performers as they dance to racy lyrics. Arguably, it was one of the first appearances in US filmmaking of self-identifying homosexuals without any pretense of a drag comedic performance or a coded sequence of under-the-radar sexuality. Perhaps only Ralph Cedar’s western spoof The Soilers of 1923 or James Whale’s The Old Dark House of the same year so openly expressed LGBTQ figures.

     Yet, John Francis Dillon’s film, based on a novel by Tiffany Thayer, had numerous other ground-breaking themes and several more coded references to queer sexuality laced through its almost epic recounting of a doomed family, cursed by an old settler after a wagon train Indian attack “brought on,” in his imagination, by the sexual philandering of one of its leaders, Mort, who had left his wife to drive the lead wagon in order to have sex with a woman in a wagon further back. Eventually Mort becomes a wealthy Texan.

     His daughter Ruth grows up to marry another boy from that same covered wagon trek, Pete Springer (Willard Robertson), who himself has become a successful businessman often leaving his wife alone as he travels throughout the Southwest on business trips. During one of his absences, the young Ruth, in love with a local Indian named Ronasa (Weldon Heyburn), becomes pregnant with his child, Nasa (Clara Bow), who is the heroine of our story.

     Nasa, as the old man in the wagon train (Russell Simpson) had predicted, also grew up wild, presumably—so posits Edwin J. Burke’s racist screenplay—because of her “savage” blood. So mercurial in temperament is Nasa that at one moment, after have been almost bitten by a rattlesnake, she whips her lover, the “half-breed” Moonglow (Gilbert Roland) before, a moment later, she tries to nurse him back to health, tearing away part of her own blouse to serve as a tourniquet. As she explains human nature, in part justifying her own behavior:

                  Nobody is good or bad. People just do things they’ve got to do

                  that’s all. Something inside makes them. Nobody ever likes

                  the things I do, but I got to do them.”

      If there ever was an early attempt to describe non-normative behavior, both in terms of daily personal encounters and sexual desires, Nasa’s philosophy represents Hollywood’s declaration. And soon after, when she is sent away by her pious father to be straightened out in a Chicago School for Women, she proves her theory of uncontrollable vacillations of behavior by acquiring the Windy City’s journalistic moniker of “Dynamite.” As a social newspaper commentator observes in announcing her societal coming-out party: it’s hard to determine whether this is be described as a society event or as police car news.

     At the party her father is determined to announce his daughter’s marriage to the heir to another fortune, Charlie Muffet, a man she cannot abide, and to whom she later announces—when he insists that he wants to marry her—that “making arrangements for a nervous breakdown.”

     To gum up the works, Nasa invites a local lothario to her party, Lawrence Crosby (Monroe Owsley), who describes the attempt to marry her off to Muffet as “trying to hitch up Niagara Falls to a squirt gun.”

     Crosby, whose father owns a couple of banks, is in the midst of breaking up with current lover, the equally wild woman Sunny De Lane (Thelma Todd). Packing up, Crosby’s butler holds up a woman’s slip to ask “Will you take this with you Mr. Crosby?” to which his employer quips, “Do you know the difference between a woman’s dress and a gentleman’s trousers?” No answer is given.

     But when a few moments later Sunny De Lane argues that Crosby will surely eventually come back to her because, “I understand your little peculiarities,” we can only suspect that woman are not the only basis for his admission that, “I wonder if there’s any sin in the calendar I haven’t been guilty of.” When the woman to who he says this ponders how he finds time to do anything else in his life, he quips: “I lump them all together and commit five or six of them all at once,” which leaves almost any many of combination of sinful acts to our astounded imaginations.

      His ex, Sunny, is also determined to attend Nasa’s party, declaring that she’s not afraid of “dynamite,” and before the evening comes to an end the two girls have not only made a public spectacle of themselves in a good old women’s wrestling match, but Nasa finds herself married to the already gone missing Crosby. On their wedding night he returns home drunk at 2:00 to, after a 5:00 telephone message, get dressed again and return to whatever party he’s previously left.

      Realizing that her marriage to Crosby was an act of spite against Sunny, Nasa determines to make the best of it by going on a shopping spree that any stylish beauty might envy. But eventually that comes to a stop, not because as Crosby’s lawyer argues, her husband has cut off her expense account, but because he is now dying in a New Orleans hospital and begs to see her before he goes.

     Reluctantly, Nasa makes the trip to find a much weaker man in the hospital bed, but still not frail enough to prevent him from attempting to rape her—although oddly enough he seems more interested in her diamond bracelet than in her body, wrapping it around his fingers as he declares  “I haven’t had any jewels in my hands for months.” When he does get back to admiring his wife’s looks, she bonks him over the head, the doctors finally rushing in, one of them later quietly telling her that her “the disease has affected his mind.”

      Obviously, we might interpret such a disease to have something to do with alcoholism, but I’d argue the script is more clearly winking at that pre-Aids scourge to both sexually active hetero-and-homosexual lovers, syphilis. Certainly, Nasa is suddenly worried, not necessarily about her philandering husband’s deteriorating health, but for the well-being of her soon-to-be born baby. She must have been impregnated the first afternoon of their sham marriage. 

      The baby, nevertheless, is born healthy—although in a story about the damned children of several generations (the old coot from wagon train quoted from the book of Numbers from the Bible: “The LORD is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.”) it may be possible that her son, like Oswald Alving in Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, might still one day go blind. But Nasa doesn’t give the poor kid a chance. Without money, she determines to briefly work the streets in order to raise enough money to pay for her son’s medicine, and, leaving her newborn alone in the care of a young neighbor girl, returns to discover that her child has died in a rooming-house fire. But there’s good news along with the bad: her grandfather Mort has died and left her his substantial fortune.

      Now determined more than ever to get even with society, Nasa relocates to New York, hiring a male escort to show her the sights before she digs in for revenge. He takes her to various night clubs and even shares a view the city from the top of the Rockefeller Center Tower, which at the time of this film was still under construction, this clip perhaps being one of the first on-screen portrayals of the Art-Deco wonder.

       Her escort, Jay Randall (Anthony Jowitt) is yet another wealthy young, dapper, but somewhat effete man, pretending in this case to be an obedient employee just to get closer to the woman which has caught his eye, much like the jewels that Crosby so enjoyed holding.

     When Nasa requests, one night, that they go slumming, he takes her to that now infamous Village restaurant—sure to be filled, as he warns her, with wild poets and anarchists—where the two gay performers with which I began my essay, dressed as cleaning maids replete with feather dusters they flap in the faces of their admiring diners, sing a song something like this: 

                 “If a fairy in pajamas I should see, I know he’d scare the life out

                 of me. [The second responding] And on a great be big battle-

                 ship you’d like to be!”

     It’s interesting that Nasa’s escort knows all about this place, and when the couple enter appears to be widely recognized by the crowd. There is, in fact, an anarchist in the crowd who recognizes Randall to be the son of the mining mogul, Silas Jennings, resulting in a male and female kerfuffle—the likes of which the Hollywood screen would not again see until Marlon Brando flew down the missionary doll played by Jean Simmons to dinner in a Cuban bistro in Guys and Dolls. For Nasa it’s so invigorating that she immediately accepts the proper polo player’s offer to marry.

     The father, as moguls are want to do, thoroughly disapproves of  Mrs. Crosby’s  intentions regarding his son, and invites the couple along with the surprise guests of Mrs. Crosby and Sunny De Lane to dinner just to test Nasa’s mettle. Evidently the now-cured Crosby (Dr. Erlich had found his “magic bullet” in 1910) has returned, perhaps for his “peculiarities” to his former mistress.

     From the long camera pan of the dinner table after the affair and the shiner in Sunny’s eye, we perceive that Nasa has once more failed the test. Even the prudish Randall is shocked by her savageness.

     With the wedding called off and near total rejection by anyone of social importance, Nasa falls into a self-pitying drunken state, daring not even face herself in the mirror. A telegram reports that her mother, back in Texas, is near death.

     Sobering up, Nasa returns home to her mother’s deathbed, where, in her last breath, Ruth whispers the name of Ronasa. When Nasa’s old friend Moonglow tells her that Ronasa was a great Indian chief who fell in love with a beautiful white woman and committed suicide, Nasa suddenly answers the dilemma she has long faced concerning her “difference,” perceiving that she too is a savage, a half-breed. Now, finally, she is free to marry her first love, the calm and long-suffering Moonglow, the perfect foil for her “blazing sun”-hot temperament.

     It appears that critics such as The New York Times’ Mordaunt Hall didn’t quite know what to make of all Nasa’s transformations and the men spinning round them:Miss Bow does quite well by the rôle of this fiery-tempered impulsive Nasa, but whether the flow of incidents makes for satisfactory entertainment is a matter of opinion.” Hall seemed more taken by the New York theatrical sites than with the events of the plot, although strangely deleting any mention of the Village bistro, ending his November 1932 review:

“With a charming setting that gradually comes to view after introductory lighting effects and flashes of movement and color, there is on the stage of the Roxy, Maurice Ravel's composition ‘The Birth of the Waltz.’ It is a gratifying rhythmic spectacle, with graceful girls in attractive gowns, and men in uniforms swaying to the melody. The first number of Frank Cambria's footlights diversion is Edelweiss, in which there is a colorful mélange, including dancing, singing and balancing.”

    Well, he likes dancing and singing girls and boys at least, even if miscegenation, homosexuality, adultery, suicide, sexually transmitted diseases, and down and dirty female wresting bouts are deemed unworthy of being topics for entertainment. Only two years later, Hall would find in Will Hays someone who utterly agreed.

     In 1970’s The Song of the Loon directors Andrew Herbert and Scott Hanson brought many of this film’s major concerns once again to the screen.

Los Angeles, February 28, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (February 2021).

Friday, February 26, 2021

Roger Tonge | Two of Us

two out of twenty

by Douglas Messerli

Leslie Stewart (screenwriter), Roger Tonge (director) Two of Us / 1987, 1988 (re-release with new ending), 2004 USA

That Roger Tonge’s Two of Us was ever produced seems almost inconceivable to a US viewer. Imagine if the United States had a governmental channel such as the British Broadcasting Corporation—for example something like a television production wing of the National Endowment for the Arts—whose executive producer, disturbed by President Ronald Reagan’s response to the AIDS crisis, decided to produce a film about a teenage gay couple who, having contracted AIDS, were about to die because of the President’s refusal to release funds for AIDS research. Or, if that seems too much of a frontal attack Reagan himself,  what if someone in such a governmentally connected program decided to write a script aimed especially at high school students wherein two 16 year old Indiana high school swimmers, finding themselves attracted to one another and being bullied and mocked by their peers, decided to run off together to California where they live near the beach, sometimes sharing their tent with a runaway girl, thoroughly enjoying one each other’s company, with the boys managing to elude the police and living happily together until they came of age. And just for fun, the director decides to change the time period to the 1950s, when consensual sex between homosexuals was still against the law. What are the chances of such a movie being made in 1987 or 1988?*

     I can assure you that such a film would not only been rejected out of hand, but that no US citizen would possibly have been so fool-hardy to create or propose such a work to such an institution. Indeed, as we know, no such institution even existed in the US.

    Yet in Great Britain, playwright and screenwriter Leslie Stewart not only wrote a work aimed at young adults, but she found a willing director in Roger Tonge, who since the late 1960s had directed and produced the BBC series Scene, a mix of documentaries, dramas, and family-oriented works directed toward high school and college students.

    In their film the high school junior Phil (Lee Whitlock) is going steady with his girl friend Sharon (Jenny Jay) who like many a high school sweetheart demands his total attention. Phil is a popular student on the school swimming team. But somehow he has remained friends with Matthew (Jason Rush), previously a school swimmer who dropped out of school for his senior year because of the continual bullying he received from fellow classmates for his apparently open expression of being gay.

     Even Sharon’s friend Vera (Kathy Burke), despite her belief that Matthew might be the man of her dreams, perceives that Matthew and Phil’s friendship is a strong one that often pulls him away from Sharon just at the moment she wants him to join her in extracurricular activities or to just show off her “conquest” to her friends. Certainly, anyone who perceives Phil’s gentle sensitivity realizes almost immediately that the gum-chewing, constantly chip-consuming Sharon is not the right girl for him.

    Early in the film we observe Phil’s and Matthew’s camaraderie and the movement of the eyes as they shower together after a swim. Phil is almost ready to dump his girlfriend any time Matthew calls, yet he has no understanding of why he is drawn to his male friend and no comprehension of how to define that admiration and deep devotion.

     Yet one day in school when a teacher attempts to bring up the issue of homosexuality in the classroom, with things quickly getting out of hand as Phil’s homophobic classmates begin to throw epithets out one by one to show their disgust of faggot perverts the teacher attempts to regain the conversation by also noting that, first, homosexuality is against the law, and secondly, statistics suggest that 1 out of every 10 individuals will eventually seek out a same-sex relationship. Before he can get his students to think carefully, given  their homophobic preconceptions, one particularly nervous kid jumps up demanding which two out of his 20 fellow classmates are gay. The teacher, eventually quieting him, begins to read a letter from a gay person expressing the difficulties he has had in being coming to terms with his sexuality. But before anyone but a few sympathetic girls can react, the classroom bell rings determining the end of possible insights about non-normative sex..

     Clearly something has hit home, however, for Phil, who stays after for a moment to talk with the teacher. The instructor, however, is busy, having to babysit his daughter so he doesn’t have the time for a chat. But it is clear that the question behind the boy’s tentative attempt to communicate is related to the same kinds of question that the hero of the American CBS School Break special of the same year asks in What If I’m Gay? He too seeks out the advice of a school advisor without much success.  

      Fearful about what his attraction to Matthew portends and attentive to the growing suspicions of Sharon, Phil attempts to steer clear for a while of his boyfriend. But watching him make a  perfect high dive into the pool pulls him back into his friend’s orbit. After a first kissing session in the shower and a commitment of “womb to tomb” friendship he brings Matthew back to see Sharon, introducing them to each other as “Matthew meet by girlfriend; Sharon meet by boyfriend,” making it clear that he now perceives them as having equal status in his newfound bisexual reality.

     Of course, neither likes the sudden equality, and Sharon, in particular, now sends word around the campus that Phil is queer since he apparently cannot give up the known homosexual Matt.

     Meanwhile, even on his way home Matthew is tortured by a torrent of projectiles being thrown from the upper stories of the high rise in which he lives. And when he finally reaches the safety of his apartment his infuriated father is there to greet him, having just discovered his son’s gay porno magazines hidden under his bed.

     Now both outsiders for no apparent reason, they have little choice to but imagine a better world, which for them is anywhere but the place in which they currently are trying to come to terms with themselves. Together, they pack up their belongings, a folding tent, and enough money to temporarily survive on, and head off into what they can only imagine is a wonderful new world of adventure as they thumb their way to Seaford on the Sussex coast, where many new couples spend their honeymoons, as Phil describes their destination to an unsuspecting driver. Presuming that one of them is meeting up with the bride at their destination, he goes on to a long rant of how he abuses young girls. But when Phil quite innocently and joyfully corrects him—“no, it’s our honeymoon”—he immediately pulls the car to a halt, almost heaving in horror, as he shouts: “It’s against the law.” Matthew shouts back, “So’s rape.”

      Their honeymoon paradise, predictably, is out of season, but it doesn’t bother the two in the least who, just happy to finally be able to have each other to themselves without the torrent of abuse with which they’ve just been faced, couldn’t be happier.

      In a warren of closed-down beach cabins, they find one open only to discover another person already has taken up encampment, Suzie (Zoë Nathenson) a free-wheeling runaway who, if nothing else, is completely open to sharing the space with them with no strings attached. She also has the advantage of knowing her way around the place, keeping clear of those who might cause trouble and attending to the food stands where she can nab free eats.

      She even shares their tent, insistently sleeping in between them for warmth. But they have now become desirous of just being together and finally, although they admit their fondness for her, send her away. Soon after she his captured by the police and bundled off, presumably from whence she came.

      The boys themselves have been caught cuddling together in the tent by policeman, who instead of arresting them, thankfully, just forces them to decamp. Besides, to keep the authorities off their own necks, the writer and director have whipped up an unbelievable sidebar of the plot wherein the boys kiss and cuddle but don’t yet aren’t ready to touch their penises. They’re romantics, they claim, not yet ready for sex.

     Yet all is not perfect in their conjugal paradise. Phil is still having some difficulties in leaving his previous identities in the past and, unknown to Matthew, finally telephones Sharon, who without hesitation is speeding their way, so he finally admits, to recapture her “fella.” When asked by Matthew, what he plans to do by bringing her to them, Phil admits he hasn’t the vaguest idea.

      Despite her refusal, he insists that she confront Matthew, witnessing the remnants of their relationship as well. She does so, but as quickly as she can, pulls Phil off and with tickets in hand intends to drag him back home.

      As Matthew slowly takes down the tent, folds it up, and begins to pack it away, obviously determined to continue on his own into the new frontiers which Phil is not yet ready to embrace, we see the train speeding across the landscape. It is a sad ending, but almost inevitable given the circumstances of the British societal attitudes of the day.

      Fortunately, that ending was the second one forced upon the studio in its re-release the following year in 1988. In the original 1987 version, Phil shows up, joining his now truly life-time friend for a swim in the ocean. It appears they might be able to hold out at least until they grow of legal age or, despite Phil’s sea-sickness make their way across the English Channel where they will be safe.

     In the same year, in June 1987, Thatcher addressed the Conservative congress in Blackpool, emboldened by the rise in homophobia created in part by the AIDS/HIV crisis and commentary in the right wing press, arguing her belief that "Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay. All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life. Yes, cheated."

     To waylay further attacks, BBC, which had originally planned to air this film during the daytime hours, changed it to nights. And the next year, the Thatcher government issued Section 28 which called for banning the “promotion” of homosexuality by local authorities and in Britain’s schools which meant, when put into practice, that teachers were prohibited from discussing even the possibility of same-sex relationships with students. Libraries were forbidden to hold material that contained gay or lesbian themes.

      Without knowing the precise schedule of the plans for enacting that horrifying provision, one can only conjecture whether the BBC movie was an early response for what the media knew was soon coming or another example of what Thatcher saw as how children were being cheated of their traditional moral values.  

      The LGBT community immediately decried the implementation of such recidivist provisions, many regularly protesting parliamentary sessions. On May 23, 1988, activists stormed the BBC offices, handcuffing themselves to a TV camera and disrupting a broadcast of the Six O’Clock News. In Manchester more than 20,000 people marched against the provision, actor Ian McKellen among them, publicly coming out as a gay man.

       The clause was not revoked until June 2001 when Scotland voted it out. In 2003 it was repealed in the rest of the United Kingdom. By that time, surely, the middle aged Phil and Matthew had already sent up a London flat or flown off to Paris to start new lives.     

*You might recall that, in 1989, during the Reagan administration museums that had received NEA funding to exhibit art works by Andres Serrano (who had created a photograph titled “Piss Christ) and Robert Mapplethorpe (a homosexual who had recently died of AIDS and created photographs of nude gay males) did, in fact, create a huge row in Congress, resulting in several members threatening to gut the National Endowment for the Arts Funding and, despite an eventual temporary compromise, resulting in the Endowment’s refusal to fund controversial performance artists Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, John Fleck, and Tim Miller (who came to be known as the NEA Four), all of them having ties to the LGBTQ communities, whose works were described as obscene. Today all of these artists, the two artist photographers and the performance-based artists are widely recognized for their numerous contributions, none of which is now perceived of as being obscene by the artistic community or most museum and theater-goers. My husband Howard, in fact, was on the NEA panel that originally chose to fund Serrano and was formerly the president of the board of the Washington Project for the Arts which took on the Mapplethorpe show when the Corcoran Gallery of Art cancelled it because of the controversy. That year I refused to apply for a NEA grant from my Sun & Moon Press—despite the fact that my press had received NEA grants for the previous 9 years—writing letters to the Head of the Literature Program of the NEA and to several senators and congresspeople explaining my decision to protest their decisions. Even today I cannot quite forgive Dianne Feinstein, the only one who answered my letter, for her statement that she supported the NEA decisions concerning the four rejected artists.  I later became acquainted with John Fleck and Tim Miller and published a play by Holly Hughes.

Los Angeles, February 26, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (February 2021).


Derek Jarman | The Queen Is Dead

take me out

by Douglas Messerli

The Smiths: Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke, and Mike Joyce (composers and performers), Derek Jarman (director) The Queen Is Dead / 1986 

For decades Morrissey had been enticing young British and US followers with his and The Smiths performances of songs that blurred gender boundaries and toyed with vaguely homoerotic narratives. Finally in his 2013 Autobiography he admitted to having had a long term relationship with a man. Yet even then the formerly declared “celibate” hedged his sexual bets by describing himself as “humasexual,” presumably suggesting that he was bisexual or possibly tri-sexual if he dared explore relationships within the Q factors of the LGBTQ sexual community. As one entertainment outlet put it, “everyone rolled their eyes” as if to ask, “so what’s new?”

     In a sense, it doesn’t matter, for The Smiths’ work had always toyed with cross dressing and adolescent sexual angst, particularly in their 1986 album The Queen Is Dead for which the out and proud gay filmmaker Derek Jarman filmed a fascinating music video which included three songs from the recording, the title song “The Queen Is Dead,” “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” and “Panic.”

     While Jarman’s work sometimes references images suggested in the songs themselves, one might also argue that his film was basically created with a narrative logic that is not beholden to the lyrics. In general, Jarman is far less sexually explicit in this music video than he is in his own films, particularly given his images in Sebastiane of a decade earlier and Carvaggio of the same year. In the music video there is little nudity, and the intensity of the male on male gaze is kept to a minimum. Indeed in the first song, the director almost reaches back to the 60s and 70s hippie world to encapsulate the new world of freedom experienced upon the occasion of the Queen’s metaphorical death. Young children transmogrify into childish-like adults, one dressed in a stripped shirt and short black pants who trips around a vacant industrial lot spray-painting the song’s title upon concrete walls. Young girls in dresses are a moment later transformed in what appears to be a young man in a long gown, suggesting the song’s lyrics about Prince Charles’ secret desires:

                           I said Charles, don't you ever crave

                           To appear on the front of the Daily Mail

                           Dressed in your Mother's bridal veil?


                           And so, I checked all the registered historical facts

                           And I was shocked into shame to discover

                           How I'm the eighteenth pale descendant

                           Of some old queen or other

    The dancing boy in dress at one point drops the top of his bodice to reveal a woman’s breasts, suggesting that perhaps what has appeared to be a boy is actually a woman with hair closely cropped. But later, the image again appears to be a boy with a fairy flitting about it. 

     Throughout this section—and indeed throughout the entire video—the royal crown spins about the young apparently cross dressing figure who embraces roses, a sunflower, and what appears to be a nettle, perhaps hinting at Johnny Marr’s song “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” not represented in the video.

      To the strains of  music that suggests “We can go for a walk where it's quiet and dry /  And talk about precious things / But when you're tied to your Mother's apron / No-one talks about castration” the boy-girl begins to spin and by song’s end the young transsexual figure is rotated almost into a wild Turkish dervish, a flame lit where once was his/her face.

      My favorite song of the video (and one of my two favorites of the record as a whole) is the true centerpiece of Jarman’s tribute “There Is a Light...” To me this narrative song, about a young man in the car who is clearly enjoying the trip to someplace “Where there's music and there's people / And they're young and alive,” with another, perhaps slightly older boy at the wheel, represents all the wonderment and confusion of a first date. The song reminds me a bit of Luther Vandross song sung by Teddy Pendergrass two years earlier in Alan Randolph’s film Choose Me, “You’re My Choice Tonight,” the five syllabic phrases, “Take me out tonight,” and “You’re my choice tonight,” that ends in a molossus (three equally stressed metrical syllables) in each case assertively pleading the other provide him with pleasure.  

      But in this case the narrative goes far deeper. The boy at the center of the song is also seeking an escape from home:

                     Driving in your car, oh, please don't drop me home

                     Because it's not my home, it's their home

                     And I'm welcome no more [.]

 This young man clearly has been kicked out of his own home, which suggests to me that it has something to do with his sexuality as expressed in the rest of the work. The young man with who whom he’s riding is obviously someone with whom he’s in love but is too shy to express that fact:

                      And in the darkened underpass

                      I thought "Oh God, my chance has come at last"

                      But then a strange fear gripped me and I just couldn't ask [.] 

So delighted is the presumably younger man that he ridiculously imagines that even if a double-decker bus of “a ten-tonne truck” [sic] crashed into them, he’d be happy to die:To die by your side, well, the pleasure, the privilege is mine.”

       I read this work, in short, as a coming out story, about a young man forced out of his own home by his parents because of his sexuality being taken out on a wild night by the boy he clearly adores.

       Apparently, Jarman reads it similarly since he represents a handsome young man who eventually appears shirtless before finally being kissed by another boy hovering over him. The short sequences of this portion of the work are presented almost as in the thousands of young gay coming of age films that by the next couple of decades had become so popular that currently they dominate LGBTQ filmmaking.

      Here too, as in the previous work we see flames, but in this case instead of representing the end of the old regime they signify the possibility of being killed by the crash. And in a sense the young man, demanding to move forward without a return, can only imagine that he might be consumed in his young love for the driver, the male in charge. Jarman reveals the truth of this song: that it speaks not only of love but of a desperate search for a replacement of the familial love he has lost. Death would be better than going back as long as he was in the arms of the driver of the vehicle taking him to a new destination. 

      As the two again kiss, the surface becomes scratched over by what eventually appears to be gains of wheat—for an instant Jarman almost seems willing to romanticize their love into a Hallmark card image—the golden stalks appearing to embody the hair of the blonde boy being kissed, and finally blotting out the faces of the two lovers as Jarman’s frame resolves into an abstraction that if one focuses long and deeply enough ephemerally reveals a series of lithe nude dancers.

      The third song, “Panic” begins, in Jarman’s vision, with an image of a cool handsome young man in a leather jacket who slightly resembles a British version of James Dean who seems to stand against and apart from everything that the lyrics are announcing:

Panic on the streets of London

Panic on the streets of Birmingham

I wonder to myself...

Could life ever be sane again?

The Leeds side-streets that you slip down

I wonder to myself...


Hopes may rise on the Grasmere

But, Honey Pie, you're not safe here

So you run down to the safety of the town

But there's panic on the streets of Carlisle

Dublin, Dundee, Humberside [.]

      While the figure smokes and stares off into the bay, we also get glimpses of derelict streets, graffiti-laden walls, alleys filled with garbage, and buildings that appear to have been shot-up by bullets. Is the young man a product of these war-torn streets?

      Yet, despite his seeming bemused attitude, a war even against the music itself is brewing as the lyrics invoke that the discos be burned down since the music that they play has nothing to do with the narrator’s life, ending, of course, with the now famed final invocation that they should

                                 Hang the DJ, hang the DJ, hang the DJ

                                 Hang the DJ, hang the DJ, hang the DJ

                                 Hang the DJ, hang the DJ, hang the DJ

                                 Hang the DJ, hang the DJ

                                 Hang the DJ, hang the DJ.........

 By video’s end the young man seems to almost be kissing a smoking skull, an expression of the necrophiliac relationship the man has had, apparently, to that DJ or the music itself.


     In 2019, writing on the internet site Far Out Kelly Rankin nicely summarized Jarman’s contributions to the art of musical videos and to the work, in particular, of Morrissey, Marr, Andy Rourke, and Mike Joyce.

 “Jarman’s fragmented style perfectly suits the cult-classic band The Smiths. All of the footage was shot on film; the Super 8 was notoriously Jarman’s favourite companion. There are multiple accounts talking about his early days and how he would never leave the house without it. You can tell from the first second; there’s an abundance of hand-held camera action of urban scenery. Followed by shots of punk behaviour, alarming figures and costumes, highly contrasted shots of Buckingham Palace, other places around London, the crown—and of course the Queen herself—all giving a nice salute to Morrissey’s anarchistic lyrics. Layers of film overlap, these shots cross over each other… you might not always be sure of what you’re looking at exactly, but you are definitely intrigued. You want to know why he chose each detail and what everything represents.

     All of this has happened in just the first five minutes. It’s a piece of visual art, not just a music video. Although each song and section of imagery is completely different, there are still clear themes that run throughout the thirteen-minute film. Shots of flowers, fire and angels; an eighties take on romanticism. It’s thirteen minutes of a decaying Britain, with flashes of beauty and queerness. If you love The Smiths, Derek Jarman, eighties should give it a watch.”

     It would have been interesting to see how Jarman might have approached another song on the 1986 album, “The Vicar in a Tutu”:

I was minding my business

Lifting some lead off

The roof of the Holy Name church

It was worthwhile living a laughable life

To set my eyes on the blistering sight


Of a Vicar in a tutu

He's not strange

He just wants to live his life this way


A scanty bit of a thing

With a decorative ring

That wouldn't cover the head of a goose

As Rose collects the money in a canister

Who comes sliding down the bannister?


A vicar in a tutu

He's not strange

He just wants to live his life this way [.]

But perhaps that would simply be too literal for Jarman’s more subtle talents. Yet I’d love to have seen the vicar slide down that bannister.

Los Angeles, February 26, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (February 2021).


Thursday, February 25, 2021

Frank Capra | Arsenic and Old Lace

buried bodies

by Douglas Messerli

Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein (screenplay, based on the play by Joseph Kesselring), Frank Capra (director) Arsenic and Old Lace / 1944

It has always been my contention that if you stare at the screen of a Cary Grant movie long enough you’ll spot a naked limb—poking out of a closet or from under the bed—of some other man living in the same house where the actor has just married or is about to marry his female co-star. That other man may be a secondary figure in the plot or perhaps another version of our hero, one that looks very much like him but behaves in an entirely different manner, a kind of inverted doppelgänger. But in either case he is dangerous force ready to destroy the couple’s conjugal life as soon as the credits scroll to the film’s end. 

     Of course, most people don’t spot the arm, the leg, or even the penis of the “other,” and if they do by the time they’ve returned home after seeing the film, they’ve forgotten all about it. And no one I know imagines the film as having a life after the screen has declared “The End.” But I’m queer that way, always wondering how he’s going to explain the other man living in his house to his wife the next day or the day after when she opens the closet door or attempts to run the vacuum cleaner under the mattress.

     Given her own sexual interests, Katherine Hepburn as Susan Vance would probably have never given it a second thought; and if Irene Dunne playing Ellen Wagstaff Arden might have been a little surprised to see her former companion Adam (Grant’s real-life lover Randolph Scott) swimming in their family pool, she’d probably be happy to have such an intimate friend hanging around, and besides she already knew “the awful truth” way back in 1937; given her beauty, Grace Kelly as Frances Stevens could easily find herself another man than the former cat burglar she still suspected of stealing her mother’s jewels; Joan Fontaine’s Lina McLaidlaw Aysgarth was already on her way to her mother’s house in terror the man she married; Eva-Marie Saint pretending to be Eve Kendall, was accustomed to duplicity and had herself lived a morally suspect life; and after all those marriages to Rock Hudson, Doris Day portraying the hard-to-get Cathy Timberlake was perfectly at home with the idea that there might be another man in her husband’s life.*

     But poor Priscilla Lane after all that waiting around for hours and hours for her husband Cary to settle his family affairs in Arsenic and Old Lace. I worry about her. She’d not only be disappointed, but, as a preacher’s daughter, probably quite shocked, even if by film’s end she knows he’s left a fairly large number of buried bodies in his path to the marriage altar. But I’ll talk about that later.

      Lane, playing Elaine Harper, Mortimer Brewster’s (Grant) next door neighbor, has the deck stacked against her, sexually speaking, from the very first frame. Elaine and Mortimer have escaped the wild woods of Brooklyn—where even the Brooklyn Dodgers’ baseball game quickly devolves into a violent donnybrook—in order to get married, as the early intertitles proclaim, in the United States “proper,” Manhattan. But once there, we see Mortimer, still hiding in the closet or, at least, trying to cover up his identity, not because he might be recognized as a gay man but because he’s waiting in the line to register his marriage with Elaine. It’s an odd twist, but it establishes from the very beginning of the work that there is something definitely queer about him. In this case, we discover, the noted drama critic has also penned several volumes arguing against marriage and has become, as he puts it, “the symbol of bachelorhood,” and he’s terrified of the press reporting his perfidy to the cause. When, despite his dark glasses and attempts to whisper his name to the wedding clerk, reporters catch a glimpse of who’s behind the “cheaters,” he grabs Elaine and bolts, joining another unsuspecting man in a suddenly overcrowded telephone booth.

     As he attempts to explain to his about-to-be-wedded wife: “How could I marry you? Me? ...l’ve written four million words against marriage. ...Marriage is a superstition. It’s old fashioned. ....I can’t go through with it. I won’t marry you and that’s that.” In short, Mortimer seems to represent, as they used to describe homosexuals, a man who is “not the marrying kind.”

      Yet inexplicably before he has returned to the New York borough where “anything can happen and usually does,” he has, to use in this case a very appropriate metaphor, “tied the noose.” He and the new missus seem so utterly delighted with one another that even the taxi driver (Garry Owen) complains, upon delivering them up to the Brewster mansion situated next to ancient cemetery on Halloween night, that they have so oscillated the frame of the cab that he may have to get new shock absorbers. Elaine and Mortimer stop by their homes for a change of clothing before they’re off to Niagara Falls to enjoy every honeymoon cliché in the marital scrapbook. Mortimer’s doting aunts Abby and Martha (impeccably performed by the extraordinary duo of Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) are delighted by the news and insist upon serving up a cake which, having predicted the event weeks before, they have kept ready in the cooler. And even Elaine’s disapproving father (Grant Mitchell) is finally prepared to bless the event. Mortimer goes so far as to demand his aunts burn his notes for his new manuscript of Mind over Matrimony. When Mortimer finally realizes that nearly everyone near him had long ago presumed that he and Elaine would marry, he asks “Did everyone in Brooklyn know I was getting married except me?” Twenty minutes into the film, accordingly, it might seem that, despite the couple’s rocky start, Arsenic and Old Lace—if somehow you’ve managed to miss one of the thousands of annual high school and amateur theater productions—is about to present a seemingly perfect world of normalcy.

      But it is at the very moment that things begin to go awry. Just as I described in the first paragraph of this essay, bodies, although in this case apparently completely clothed ones, begin to appear. Mortimer discovers the first stashed away in his aunt’s window seat. It’s a Mr. Hoskins, they explain, who Abby entertained while Martha was out on an errand. He’s a Methodist Abby announces. As the aunts scold Mortimer “We never dreamed you’d peek.” 

     “It’s one of our charitable endeavors,” the women calmly explain to their astonished nephew. Apparently when elderly gentlemen ring their doors in response to their “room for rent” sign, they serve the generally unhappy, lonely men without families—translated from the polite parlance of the day into what we now might describe as elder homosexuals—a delicious homemade elderberry wine, with Martha’s recipe of a few spoons of arsenic and strychnine and “just a pinch of cyanide” stirred in.

     Calling upon the help of their delusional brother, Teddy (who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt) to take these suffering men to the basement and bury them in the locks of the Panama Canal he digs for the occasion, they have provided peace to twelve such men, “a baker’s dozen,” marking their graves with flowers and praying over them. 

      Needless to say, the previously excitable would-be lover now suddenly develops the ticks of a hysteric, forcing his eyes to nearly pop from their sockets, and dropping his jaw with the regularity of his stuttering incredulity for the rest of the film. Indeed, Grant’s new tics grow so severe that the first time I saw this film decades ago, I thought the actor was undergoing some sort of nervous breakdown from which I feared he might never regain his formerly suave surety. But Capra often has had that effect upon his actors, and Grant, fortunately, regained consciousness two years later in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, where his film-studio-intended bride promptly marries another man. (Regarding Capra’s effect on his leading actors, if you recall Gary Cooper was ready to hurl himself off the top of the city’s highest skyscraper in Meet John Doe and the suicidal James Stewart jumped into the local river in It’s a Wonderful Life.)

      But then what is a character to do upon discovering that his beloved aunties—who almost raised him during what we soon discover was an abusive childhood—are serial murderers? He does what any good nephew might do, accept the bodies as his own responsibility (after all, as I declare above, male bodies have always been left behind as evidence of Grant’s sexual interests in his films so he’s a pro), and to deflect Abby and Martha’s terrifyingly good intentions by locking away their more obviously mad brother in the institution they’d already agreed upon, Happydale, a kind of pretend therapeutic retreat.

      Mortimer spends much of the rest of the film looking after the details about Teddy’s (John Alexander) incarceration: a call to the director of Happydale (the always implacable Edward Everett Horton), and signatures from a lawyer, a doctor, and Teddy himself, all of which lead to further frustration as the lawyer attempts to burst into various cliché-ridden speeches, the doctor fusses over his meeting with the mad President who elevates him to the position of an ambassador, and the patient signs as Roosevelt, needing to be convinced that Brewster without the ‘b,” rooster and a forthcoming coming trip to the African veldt is code for the 26th President’s name.

     Clearly the newlywed no longer has time to attend to a wife. When Elaine calls, Mortimer answers “Not now! Not now! Whatever you do, keep your shirt on!” When she finally storms over for a showdown she’s met with complete rejection: “What are you doing here? You better go home. Will you get out of here!” Their love seems as dead as the first syllable of his name.

     Throughout Joseph Kesselring’s play, skillfully adapted by the noted screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein, people keep transforming into other beings: the uncle has permanently become Roosevelt (when his sisters suggested another identity, they tell us, he crawled under his bed and “refused to be anybody”), the sweet Brewster aunts become murderous villains, and now Mortimer himself becomes more and more unhinged, as he mistakenly wears the dead man Hoskin’s hat, and reverts to his pre-martial self, a harsh critic of marital bliss. As one of the aunt’s observes, “Mortimer doesn’t quite seem to be himself today.”

     Enter his brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) who looks like Boris Karloff (and in the original Broadway production was hilariously played by Karloff pretending to be someone else) along with Jonathan’s “partner” in crime Dr. Herman Einstein (a role perfectly cast with another hyperthyroid figure, Peter Lorre).

      Jonathan and Herman are also a kind of queer couple who together commit murders, having racked up by traveling throughout the world twelve male victims of their own. Accordingly, the aunts, as Einstein observes, are just as good as Jonathan, the quartet having together done in 24 men, one for each hour of day. The sadistic Jonathan and his passive cohort are clearly more into sadomasochism and torture, and their love making, so it appears, consists mostly of Einstein lovingly practicing plastic surgery upon Jonathan’s face. The scene in which Lorre, hovering closely over the scarred Frankenstein-like creature he has created as he sensuously describes what he plans for Jonathan’s ears, nose, eyes, and chin is far sexier, I’d argue, than Grant’s languid kisses of Lane.

     Indeed, Lorre may be the most loveable figure in the entire work, as he shyly pleads for another drink, a little sleep, and less torturous methods of the murder than Jonathan is planning for his brother. When late in the work, Einstein sneaks away from his former companion, escaping arrest and imprisonment through the miracle of the absurdly unobservant police chief, it is with such an appreciative smile of delight that we almost want to applaud him as he closes the otherwise endlessly opening door of the Brewster house.

       The sudden arrival of Jonathan along with the window seat appearance of yet another body not only heightens the sense of chaos but forces the now hysterical dramatic critic to turn into a silent observer of the very story he has helped to concoct, including his own being gagged and hog-tied to a chair as the police, through mere happenstance, save the day by almost accidentally arresting Mortimer’s mad brother. By coincidence, the two guilty sisters suddenly get a hankering to join Teddy in the sanatorium to where he’s about to be whisked off. It’s a perfect solution to Mortimer’s problems, particularly since the aunts are now even admitting to the police that there are 13 bodies in their basement. 

      Once he is finally released from his gag and bindings, and—through his aunts’ confession that he is actually the son of a sailor married to the family cook—freed from his previous blood-links to the Brewster ancestors, relieving his fear of insanity which seems to gallop through the family genes, Mortimer now needs only to establish the unreliability of his two aunts as well, hoping without calling them insane to their faces, he can prevent the chief of police from investigating their claim of all those buried bodies.

      In a grand acting out of a charades-like game, Mortimer goes charging up the stairs like his uncle, and when the aunts once more claim the burial of the 13 men, he ludicrously insists he himself has hundreds more in the attic. The dense-headed police chief still can’t quite make sense of his extravagant camp-like message, Mortimer takes up a new tact; when Abby and Martha insist all the graves are marked with flowers, their nephew argues that his graves feature neon lights. When the sisters claim that, despite the one intruder put there by Jonathan and Einstein, that the other twelve are all their “gentlemen,” Mortimer minces in the manner we’ve become accustomed in Hollywood films’ portrayal of faggots, “Oh, you’d like mine better. None of mine are gentlemen!” If we ever wondered what Mortimer Brewster was doing between shows all those years he covered Broadway, we now have the evidence.

     Finally, of course, the chief decodes the message, realizing that it might be better to send off the Brewster women to Happydale and leave the cellar to myth and exaggeration. Yet anyone who can read gay code realizes the true message is that Mortimer clearly does have all sorts of male bodies in his attic—or at least locked away in his head if not in his actual past. And now that he is freed to become his “real” self, the son of sailing cook, who knows on what voyage his mind might take him?

     Meanwhile, the completely ignored and almost forgotten Elaine has snuck into the basement through the storm cellar door only to discover the truth. Her claim that “There really are 13 bodies in the basement” must be silenced by Mortimer’s long kiss, as he carries her off to her own bedroom where presumably he will demand his spousal rights and restore the film to the normalcy of its first quarter.

      Yet the wife, at film’s end, still knows the truth. And the bodies her husband has been trying so hard to cover up won’t simply go away. How will Mortimer deal with her questions the next morning? Who are all those men and where did they come from? His aunts and uncle will surely never have answer for them since Mortimer has freed them from suspicion by assuring they are safely locked away.

      You see what I mean? In this film there’s not only a few male limbs to account for but an entire crypt full of skeletons in the closet which Grant’s character has worked so hard to keep others from checking out. Given all the queer goings on in both the film and stage version of Arsenic and Old Lace (although the Epstein’s clearly added the juicer tidbits) it’s a wonder that high school students and amateur actors keep putting new flesh on this work’s old bones. But then, as I recall, when my high school presented this play, I acted the role of one of the dense-headed cops without imagining anything unusual at all might be going on.

*For those acquainted with Cary Grant’s oeuvre, I am referring obviously to the films Bringing Up Baby (1938), My Favorite Wife (1940), Suspicion (1941), To Catch a Thief (1955), North by Northwest (1959), and That Touch of Mink (1962). I’ve written about the first two films within the LGBTQ context as well as both Hepburn’s and Grant’s sexually ambiguous roles in Sylvia Scarlett (1935) and Grant and Dunne’s divorce and reunion in The Awful Truth (1937). I’ve also discussed Grant’s confused sexuality in regard to Kiss and Makeup (1934) and I Was a Male War Bride (1949).

Los Angeles, February 24, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (February 2021).