Tuesday, August 31, 2021

John Francis Dillon | The Crystal Cup [lost film]

crystal clear

by Douglas Messerli

Gerald C. Duffy (screenplay, based on a novel by Gertrude Atherton), Mort Blumenstock (titles), John Francis Dillon The Crystal Cup / 1927 || lost film

We might certainly wish that John Francis Dillon’s 1927 film, The Crystal Cup would have survived to be able to give us a better view not only of early female cross-dressing in cinema, but also a peek into a possible early link with lesbian cinema. Alas, like so many works devoted to women, its mysteries mostly remain silent with only fragmentary descriptions by males.

      This film, however, seems to have been a kind of early lesbian exploitation film, a movie that offered up male and female fantasies of watching a woman dress and behave as a man while all the while knowing that, in the end, she would be safely laid back into the arms of the “right” man.

     It’s very much the kind of situation that was later played out, admittedly with much more sophistication, by German director Reinhold Schümzel’s Viktor und Viktoria in 1933 which audiences found so appealing that it was repeated by the British in Victor Saville’s First a Girl (1935), and eventually in the Julie Andrews / Robert Preston vehicle directed by Blake Edward  Victor and Victoria (1982), which went on to become a Broadway musical success, running for 734 performances—all of which suggests that as long as the lady stays true to her sex, men love to see her try to fool them by pretending to be a member of their preferred sexual club. I guess gays, when it comes to this patriarchal peccadillo, are just as guilty as heterosexual men.

      Even the promotional headlines of the day laid out the voyeuristic possibilities for both men and women:

a picture of the startlingly different woman of tomorrow.

it’s perfect for every woman who’s ever said—"god, i wish i were a man!”

for every man who’s ever said—“what’s the matter with these modern women?”

In other words, this work  apparently was for any woman who might have had lesbian fantasies and every man who wanted to secretly to go to bed with his own sex without having to wake up with even a tincture of guilt.  And the promotional department was dead-on right, it is still, so it seems, a vital fantasy today, the future of way back then.

       In Gertrude Atherton’s hack psychological plot, upon which the film was based, heiress Gita Carteret (Dorothy Mackaill), having observed her father mistreat her mother throughout her childhood has become emotionally scarred, developing an intense hatred of males. Dressing in masculine attire and abandoning all feminine mannerisms, she attends a grand ball in a tuxedo, drawing gasps from most of the women and the admiration of at least a couple of men. Even Bette Davis in Jezebel hadn’t been that daring! The gossip grows, some describing her as a lesbian, in response to which her caregiver, Mrs. Pleyden (Clarissa Selwynne) demands she either bow the controls of a chaperone or find a man to marry.

       Having already developed a platonic friendship with the novelist John Blake (Rockliffe Fellowes), she suggests they marry but occupy separate apartments in his house. She goes through the painful process of a marriage ceremony simply to protect herself from having to endure the constant intrusions in her life of a chaperone.

      Meanwhile, however, to finds herself beginning to be quite attracted to a young physician, Geoffrey Pelham (Jack Mulhall), who, having seen her only in female dress, is love with her.

       When Blake finally becomes exasperated with the platonic marriage in which he has engaged, he bursts in on Gita in her bedroom, who shoots him. Dying, he suddenly realizes that Gita and Pelham belong together as a couple. As The New York Times reviewer Mordaunt Hall quipped: “Needless to say Gita is not seen in mannish clothes in the last chapter of this film.”

        The film’s charm, evidently, was the visage of Dorothy Mackaill strutting about the screen in male outfits. Indeed Hall presents it almost as if it were a fashion show:

“The character gives Miss Mackaill an opportunity to appear in a variety of mannish costumes. Gita has long skirts with twin pockets, coats and white waistcoats. Instead of adorning herself with feminine finery for a dance, Gita appears in a black coat and skirt, a white waistcoat, a wing collar and a bow tie, not to mention a white carnation and a long cigarette holder. When she is introduced to a man she extends her hand and stands up. She even adopts a masculine method of speech and if perchance she is not puffing on a cigarette, she keeps her hands in the pockets of her skirt.”

       Obviously, the costumes were an important feature of this film. In her Girls Will Be Boys, Laura Horak noted that Gita’s attire was cited as one of the growing signs of sexual perversity in the cinema of the day.

       In short it was the sheen and luster of The Crystal Cup, the surface, that truly mattered and not the actual contents of what that cup held. No need for tea and sympathy for Gita; for she was a woman within, not a truly to be dreaded sexual freak. Like the woman dressed in a tuxedo and monocle in Rowland Brown’s Blood Money (1933), Gita isn’t truly serious about her affectation of dress. Within, she’s a good ‘ole heterosexual gal at heart, in whose banner Dillon’s movie eventually drapes itself after its audiences have gotten a good gawk at the alternatives. The same was true, of course, for many a male actor affecting gay mannerisms or who was involved in plot devices which might have suggested his sexual deviance; generally he married a woman by film’s end, whether his name was Roscoe Arbuckle, Cary Grant, or Rock Hudson. At least a pansy was still a pansy after the screen turned dark. 

Los Angeles, August 31, 2021

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



Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle | Back Stage

professional amateurs

by Douglas Messerli

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (screenwriter and director), Back Stage / 1919

In one of the very first of the film genre of  the “amateur back yard musicals” that Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland later made so very famous, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s 1919 26-minute movie is a true gem.

     It begins in an amateur theater with the rude mechanicals of the backstage management left to the unsteady stagehands of Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, and Al St. John.

     Arbuckle is busy posting a new announcement for the theater’s next fare, but fortunately, troubled by a pest of a young boy—who at one point, in an example of appropriate early 20th century child abuse, he plasters to the poster itself—gets it all wrong, leaving the sign, with the barn door open, to read, instead of  

                                                                     YOU MUST NOT MISS


                                                                     GERTRUDE McSKINNY


                                                                      FAMOUS STAR WHO WILL


                                                                      PLAY THE LITTLE LAUNDRESS


                                                                      FIRST TIME HERE


                                                                      TOMORROW AT 2PM

 to announce: MISS SKINNY WILL UNDRESS HERE AT 2PM. Predictably the show draws a large crowd.

     In the meantime the two “stars” arrive, both demanding their ego-driven celebrity attention, which Keaton provides through a shifting star sign that travels from door to door.

     The first of these frauds, in one of the earliest of cinematic pansy routines, is the “eccentric” dancer (John Henry Coogan, Jr.), a tall acrobatic leg lifter in the manner of the later long-legged comic dance performer Charlotte Greenwood (you may remember her as Aunt Eller in the film version of Oklahoma!). But this character is also about as fey as you can get, with the aloof hauteur, the limp hand gestures, and self-contentment of every snippety sissy who ever set foot on stage. His dancing is a sight to behold, but even better are the comic imitations of his terpsichorean traipses by Keaton who plays out an early version of a hurricane-blown man and a lovely series of twirls and twists by the always  surprisingly light-on-his-feet Arbuckle.

      The brute of a strong man (Charles A. Post) enters with five heavy suitcases lugged about by his frail assistant played by Molly Malone, presumably the “Miss McSkinny” of their poster. She not only is forced to carry his load, but soon after is tasked with emptying out a trunk of his barbells and weights, which she drags out one by one as he lazily looks on. In a wonderful scene of sympathy for the much-abused woman, Arbuckle, Keaton, and St. John hook up his barbell to electrical currents and temporarily knock him out as punishment for his treatment of the poor girl, with whom Arbuckle almost immediately falls in love.

      As the show is about to go on the two leads suddenly go on strike and the show seems doomed until Molly whispers the inevitable words into Arbuckle’s and Keaton’s ears: “Hey kids, I’ve got an idea, let’s.....,” and put on a show they do.

      The first two acts go fairly well with Molly doing an exotic dance, and, in the second act, Keaton as a princess “king” (part of an explicable plot that goes along with “The Fall of the Reign”), this time Keaton performing in drag instead of Arbuckle. As usual, Keaton isn’t very convincing as a girl, but he’s quite astonishing as a dancer who, as the intertitle reads, “thinks he’s an acrobat.” The great comedian was indeed an amazing athlete, and there is no better evidence of it in these scenes when in full “dress” he performs a no-handed cartwheel.

      The third act results in chaos as the entire front of the set’s house falls to the floor, Keaton stepping out of an open window unscathed as he later does in his film Steamboat Bill, Jr. Fortunately, the audience believes the series of set disasters are part of the show and are delighted. But when finally the Strongman, who sneaks into the theater to watch show, becomes violent when he witnesses Arbuckle kissing Molly and shoots her, the entire audience is suddenly put into danger. Discovering a backstage swing, Keaton sweeps up into the balcony to bring down the bully who is finally subdued when St. John drops the entire truck of his weights upon his thick head. Applause. 

     Arbuckle ends this charming piece of silly heroics with a visit to Molly where she is nicely recovering in the hospital, offering her an apple from which he promptly takes a large bite, suggesting perhaps that he is the willing Adam to her Eve.

Los Angeles, August 31, 2021

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


Monday, August 30, 2021

Hobart Henley | Night World

leaving happy

by Douglas Messerli

Richard Schayer (screenplay), P.J. Wolfson and Allen Rivkin (story), Hobart Henley (director) Night World / 1932

You might describe Night World’s roving camera as a kind of low-budget rehearsal for the 1934 film Wonder Bar, which also takes us gradually through the regulars’ and backstage dancers’ machinations showing that there’s no true “happiness” in such a night-world bar, even if this one, run by “Happy” MacDonald (Boris Karloff) is named Happy’s Bar. As the doorman, Tim Washington (Clarence Muse) observes, the people come out sadder than they go in, and “everyone loves the wrong person,” which leads the local cop to describe him as a philosopher.

       Washington has good reason to be sad given that his wife has just had an operation in the hospital—for what ailment we’re never told—and he can’t get any straight answers from the nurse who responds to his phone calls with stock responses such as “She’s resting” or “She’s doing the best she can.” MacDonald won’t let him take off for the night, and he’s rightfully worried; by film’s end he discovers she has died.

      MacDonald has long been unhappy watching his double-timing wife, Jill (Dorothy Revier) try to keep her love affair with the bar’s stage director, Klauss (Russell Hopton) secret. Even the chorus girls see through her ruses, and it’s clear Happy is not blind to facts. He lies to a husband with whose wife he has obviously spent time while the man was out of town on a business trip. More importantly, the mob is after him, and, although he’s got a good quick punch, he knows he needs a gun to settle this score—which his wife has emptied of all its bullets.

     Bar-going husbands lie to their wives, and wives to their husbands. One date spends the entire night giggling so obnoxiously that by the time the couple is ready to leave, her companion is almost ready to strangle her so he won’t have to accompany her home.

     Most of the savvy chorus girls nonetheless are just hoping some wealthy of good-looking customer will scoop them up for the night. But after their clumsy hoofing during which they share the intimate knowledge of their customers with one another, Klauss orders a rehearsal after closing hours, frustrating their bedside dreams as well. Even choreographer Busby Berkeley can’t get these girls to properly line up for the camera riding under their spreading crotches.

      A handsome young man enters Happy’s Bar and proceeds to nip on his “under the table” bottle  for the rest of the night, forgiven because everyone knows he’s Michael Rand (Lew Ayres), the son of a society gorgon—a role perfect for the later nasty right-wing gossip columnist Hedda Hooper—who shot the boy’s father for just seeking the pleasure of a kinder and caring woman. That other woman, also at the bar this evening, is Edith Blair (Dorothy Peterson), who drops by his table just to tell him how much she and his father were in love and remind him that his father loved him. It surely doesn’t improve the boy’s spirits much.

      And then there’s the standard bar loners and wanderers, the gay patron (Bryon Foulger) who looks so effeminate that you might think him to be a female transvestite. When one of the chorus girls, trying to interact with her audience, sings out “Hi baby,” he responds, “Mister Baby to you!”

      Another jolly drunk wanders about the bathrooms and the dance floor trying to find someone who, like he, is from Schenectady. When he asks a fellow bathroom patron, the man lisps back, “No, Syracuse is where I was born.” When Schenectady takes his search to the women’s room,  Syracuse scolds him for trying to enter when men are not permitted, perhaps hoping to lure back in the men’s john. But in the meantime, the women have doodled up his face with lipstick, so that, as he turns around to speak with Syracuse, the pansy screams out “Frankenstein!”—obviously an inside joke since Karloff had created the role in James Whale’s masterpiece that was released only 7 months previous—as he skedaddles off, Schenectady calling after, “Relax, you powderpuff.”

       Other than the doorman Tim, only the club’s singer Ruth Taylor (Mae Clarke) appears to be a decent human being, joining up with the increasingly confused Rand, and encouraging him to stop his endless thirst: “You know they can make it faster than you can drink it.” She’s just sung “Prisoner of Love,” which obviously is now her position with regard to Rand, particularly when,  after the boy gets violent, Happy slugs him out cold. In the bosses’ office she nurses Rand back to health, to sanity—when his mother seeks him out he suddenly vents the spleen he’s obviously been holding in for months, finally cutting off relationship with the viper—and finally lures him into love.

       But just as the two are about to run off the Bali and Washington is about to rush off to the hospital to retrieve his poor wife’s body, the gangsters show up, shooting down the doorman by mistake and killing the now defenseless Happy and his double-crossing wife. Discovering the two love-happy kids still in the back of the bar, the mobsters determine to do away with them as well. They are saved by the return of the cop, checking up on his friend Washington, who takes them away in the paddy car for questioning. They could care less as long as they remain in one another’s arms for the night. And for the first time someone has come out of the bar happier than they went in.

    There’s not much here in the way of edification for the LGBTQ audience, but at least we know that Happy’s contains a couple of sissies. And in the 1930s they were to be found, evidently, in every bar and theater in New York or any other big city.

Los Angeles, August 30, 2012

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2012).

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Leo McCarey | Liberty

getting it on

by Douglas Messerli

Leo McCarey (screenwriter and director) Liberty / 1929

Although Stan Laurel and Ollie Hardy have been far more involved in domestic relationships in other films such as That’s My Wife (1929) and Their First Mistake (1932), playing husband and wife in the former and fathers to a newborn child in the latter, and they share the same bed in numerous of their comedies, they have perhaps never been as physically intimate as they are in the film Liberty of 1929, written and directed by Leo McCarey.

     The film begins with them escaping from prison, obviously having been jailed for one of their numerous crimes that have brought them to the attention of authorities. With the prison guard chasing them with a shotgun, they run toward a getaway car where a friend throws them their clothes he’s removed from their apartment, as they proceed to disrobe, tossing away their prison garb from the back seat.

      They finally elude the chasing guard by standing outside an automobile in their street clothes as the police car speeds past. But just as suddenly they discover that they are wearing one another’s pants, Stan barely able to hold up Ollie’s britches, while it’s a wonder that Ollie has even been able to fit into Stan’s breeches. For the next 8 ½ minutes they attempt to change pants in alleyways, behind a basement storage lift, in the back seat of a waiting taxi, at the back door of a fish shop—when a crab sneaks into Stan’s trousers and continues to nip him in the butt from time to time, sending him into an involuntary leap of motion—and finally in a construction elevator site. At each location they are interrupted by window-viewing neighbors (in one case the woman who leans out her window is a young Jean Harlow), shop owners, and various other passersby, including the suspicious policeman who’s on their case. To anyone who catches their act, one might imagine they are a new phenomenon of a duo of flashers.

      While changing clothes in the elevator they accidentally push the lever which sends the car up to the top floor of the unfinished 20-story building, where for the remainder of the film they attempt to make their way across the narrow girders to a ladder, holding on to each other’s legs, feet, arms, and other body parts and, at times, undressing each other in the process all over again. Now in his own pants again, Ollie is convinced that the crab whose claws grab him are Stan’s hands “nipping” him (“This is no time for nipping”) presumably suggesting that he imagines his friend is pinching his ass?  

      Their acrobatics are astounding, matching almost anything that Harold Lloyd did in his many high-wire building ascents and descents. 

       But the important thing here that what saves them is simply one another’s bodies, who push, pull, lean-to and away from each other as if performing a highly abstract sexual act. Eddie Cantor briefly performs just such an intimate investigation of another man’s body a year later in his film, Whoopee!, but his and the other gentleman’s activities are performed mostly as bravado, an attempt to show off the various scars of their hospital operations; but here—given that they literally attempt to get into one another’s pants and save one another from falling to their deaths—their bodily maneuvers come as close to male on male sex as possible while pretending it is nothing more than silly physical slapstick. The liberties here taken are definitely just as seriously as those who fought for the cause—as the story suggests with its beginning narrative, Washington, Lincoln, and...even “Black Jack” Pershing (whose military actions led to the death of over 11,000 American soldiers in World War I). Liberty represents physical comedy at its very best.

Los Angeles, August 29, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2021).  

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Thornton Freeland | Whoopee!


by Douglas Messerli

William M. Conselman  (screenplay), William Anthony McGuire, Robert Hobart Davis, and E. J. Rath (story, based on the play The Nervous Wreck by Owen Davis), Nacio Herb Brown, Gus Kahn, and Walter Donaldson (music and lyrics), Thornton Freeland (director) Whoopee! / 1930

Eddie Cantor’s cinema musical, Whoopee!, fresh off the Broadway stage, closing in 1929 after 407 performances was also a hit in the movie theaters. The songs are quite wonderful, including from the original production Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson’s, “Making Whoopee,” "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby" (not in the movie), and “My Baby Just Cares for Me”; and despite the kitsch parade of the Goldwyn Girls (which included Virginia Bruce, Paulette Godard, and Betty Grable) choreographer Busby Berkeley, in his first movie outing, had already established some of his wondrous aerial-viewed numbers that created remarkable kaleidoscope effects never before seen on film.

      But then there’s Eddie Cantor (as Henry Williams), Ethel Shutta (as Mary Custer), Paul Gregory (Wanenis), Eleanor Hunt (Sally Morgan), Spencer Charters (Jerome Underwood), Chief Caupolican (Black Eagle) and a whole crew of cowboys and cowgirls, many of whom can’t act, who play out a script determined to demean nearly everything it touches: Native Americans, Jewish businessmen, blacks, women, and in particular, queers which throughout Eddie Cantor’s character keeps claiming as his default personality. Racial and sexual stereotypes in the late 1920s and 1930s were obviously seen as something so funny that it drew audiences in droves to the theater, since, except for the music, that’s primarily what this equal opportunity offender of a work delivers up for your delectation.

      You have to give Cantor some credit simply for his audaciousness of playing a hypochondriac weakling who, as he himself keeps repeating, is simply too “delicate” to get married. Besides at any moment he may die of one of his dozens of ailments which, to protect him against, his nurse Mary Custer keeps spooning out liquid medicines and doling out pills.

      Actually, the same kind of figure also made Hollywood a great deal of money in Rock Hudson’s 1964 film Send Me No Flowers, Rock playing a figure who also assumes he’s about to die and, accordingly, begins to look for a new husband for his wife, Doris Day, attending only throughout the film to the look and sexual appeal of other males and, eventually, even sharing a bed with his next door neighbor, Tony Randall.

      And like Rock’s perverse take on things, in Whoopee! he have entered into a very strange universe. Sally is about to be married, and a whole contingent of cowboys and cowwoman have descended upon at the Morgan ranch to celebrate. Unexpectedly, her former lover Wanenis also returns from working in the mines in Montana. He’s definitely not made welcome back in his childhood stomping ground, and is told to stay away from Sally and the wedding.

       Why most the cowboys are wearing pink ties when they’re not wearing pink shirts is something we’re not privy to. Let’s just say that costume designer John W. Harkrider was one of Florenz Ziegfeld’s favorite art directors and costume designers.

     And why the asthmatic, nervous, terrified pansy Henry is hanging out on their ranch in the American Southwest is never explained; perhaps he has traveled there simply for his health. But what he does otherwise or did prior to his endless kvetching, we’re never told. Somehow this strange fish out of water keeps getting hooked by women who make his life quite difficult.

       In Whoopee! Cantor mostly spends his time running away from the caresses of his nurse (as he explains to her: “Why do you keep pestering me with your overtures when what I need is an intermission?”) and—when Sally Morgan, about to be wedded to Sherriff Bob Wells (John Rutherford), gets cold feet and runs off with Henry, lying that she and he are about to elope—attracting the attentions of nearly everyone else in the work who chase after the couple determined bring back Sally and to do away with Henry.

     You see Sally is really in love with the local half-breed Wanenis (Gregory) who can’t marry her because of his part-Indian blood. Both Sally’s father and Wanenis’ dad Black Eagle refuse to even discuss the possibility; but then due the miscegenation laws of the time it was also a felony. So what’s a poor girl like Sally to do but grab onto the underdog weakling Henry and catch a ride to the nearest ranch where she hopes to escape. On their way he sings of his one “girlfriend who turned out to be a friend of a boyfriend of mine.”

       To describe the plot that follows would be bit like trying to chart out in a few paragraphs a trip from Texico, New Mexico to Wayne, Maine. And I’m not about to attempt it. It’s better to focus on just a few views along the route.

      They run out of gas and steal a gallon by gunpoint from a passing auto. They arrive at a ranch where Henry is immediately put to work as a chef (although he’s never cooked nor hardly eaten a full meal in his life), and there he encounters the man whom he robbed, also, it turns out, a very “nervous nellie.” Together the two talk about their operations and attempt to show one another their scars, peering into one another pants and lifting up each other’s pant legs before tumbling over and over one another in attempt to see just each bodily scar is and observe its full length and width. When Canton finally gets a good look and is told the outrageous prince Underwood had to pay for the operation, Cantor quips: “Oh well no wonder, you got hemstitching!” Obviously, it’s one of the most blatantly gayest scenes ever put to film before a couple of gay men and lesbians laid down together with one another on the screen to have sex.

      While pretending to be chef he hides in the oven which, as expected, explodes, turning him into a blackface character which serves as another cover and gives him the opportunity for a few more distasteful racial jokes, as well as a few jibes at Al Jolson. Fortunately, he does attempt a “darkie” accent although the situation obviously requires him to do a song and dance number in the style of Bojangles.

       For a long, awfully unfunny vaudevillian-like skit that is clearly meant to satirize modern-day psychiatry they all call in the ranch owner’s bratty college-educated son who, requiring all the suspects to hold plates in both hands, requires them to free associate with the words he tosses out, presumably forcing them to tremble and drop the dishware to their feet. They don’t, but Henry cheats.

       For the next episode he and Sally return to the road, running off to the nearby reservation (“I called ahead to get a reservation”), the whole gang on their tail. Meeting up with Black Eagle again, he’s forces to smoke a peace pipe and is inexplicably made a member of the tribe. And there, after a truly abysmal Indian fashion show with Goldwyn Girls as models, Henry meets up with his friend Wanenis and, seeing him for the first time naked from the waist up, spends several moments commenting on and stroking his pectoral muscles and lean chest. As Richard Barrios observes, it may represent “only a wee moment of shtick, but nevertheless would hardly have been acceptable by a ‘regular’ leading man instead of a comic”—or, more specifically, by a comic playing a sissy.

      Sally finally catches up with her lover, who—after they restate and re-sing their love for one another—is about to walk away from her once more knowing they can never be married. Miracle of miracles, Black Eagle reveals the truth: Wanenis is a white boy he pulled from a ranch whose father and mother had died, raising him as his own son. Blessed be the saints, he’s of pure blood and can marry his white squaw. Sorry folks, but that’s all!

       That’s the way this film works, creating such a comic disaster, that against all odds the nurse gets her Henry, even if why she wants him cannot be explained. As the song goes:

                                       I wonder what's wrong with baby

                                       My baby just cares for me

       Looking at this movie today, with its vision of any “others” who don’t fit the all-American white heterosexual standard as being simply targets of vaudevillian humor, it’s hard for anyone to like this bawling bigoted baby. 

Los Angeles, August 28, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2021).


Marc Heustis | Miracle on Sunset Boulevard

let it be

by Douglas Messerli

Marc Heustis (director) Miracle on Sunset Boulevard / 1977

Marc Heustis’s seven minute film Miracle on Sunset Boulevard advertises itself as a sped-up version of Sunset Boulevard, but in fact has almost nothing to do with Billy Wilder’s film except that it features an aging actress shopping in Beverly Hills on Wilshire Blvd. where unexpectedly she is greeted by a fan wanting her autograph. So horrified is she in being reminded of her long ago career that she lets the wind whip the piece of paper which she attempting to sign out of her hand as she goes on the run.

     Late at night, a bit like Norma Desmond, she watches her old movies, but once again grows terrified by the process of re-living passionate love scenes from decades earlier and cries out several times (silently of course) “STOP!”

     Utterly devastated to be so continually reminded of her age, she is suddenly visited by the vision of a lovely woman who, a bit like a cartoon vision of a figure just escaped from a Maxfield Parrish painting shows up and evidently serves as a sort of mother-confident, campily reintroducing our troubled movie star to the four elements of earth, air, wind, and fire. And suddenly she materializes a young female child which the actress takes into her arms. Either the mysterious seer is pimping as a provider to agèd pedophiles or reintroducing our elderly wunderkind to her younger self, but the result is a true miracle as the actress seems suddenly entirely content as she walks off into the woods with her new child.

     Starring Gregory Cruickshank, Viva DeLuxe and Marzipan with a background mix of music by Mahler and Prokofiev, Heustis’ film is simply silly, its redeeming quality providing seconds of bearable camp. We are told it captures the spirit of the early films, of which Heustis was a founder, of the San Francisco Frameline Festival.


Los Angeles, August 28, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2021).


Friday, August 27, 2021

Charles Reisner | Chasing Rainbows

happier days

by Douglas Messerli

Wells Root (screenplay, with dialogue and additional scenes by Bess Meredyth, Al Boasberg, Kenyon Nicholson, and Charles Reisner [based on the story “Road Show” by Robert Hopkins and Bess Meredyth]), Charles Reisner (director) Chasing Rainbows / 1930

     Except for it’s special 1249 feet of 2-strip Technicolor footage for the big song and dance numbers by composer Milton Ager and lyricist Jack Yellen—footage that is now lost being only summarized in the black and white segments of the film still available—Chasing Rainbows of 1930 had nothing special to offer its audiences. Headed by the mild-mannered and, as his cast members describe him, kind and respectful Jack Benny as the stage manager Eddie Rock, the characters of this traveling musical are basically a mean bunch of cynics, with a few notable exceptions. 

    The poor tenor lead, Terry Fay (Charles King) keeps falling in love with the wrong women who lead him on and abuse him (he evidently has a rich father who controls New York theaters) before they leave, each time the romantic fool going into to a deep funk and threatening suicide. Early on in the film the wonderful Marie Dressler figure Bonnie comments “It’s his sixth threat of suicide this year!” His so-called “partner,” the loyal and indomitable Carlie Seymour (Bessie Love) with whom he first joined up to create an act which has brought them into theater, is called in to talk him out of his depression and get him on stage for the next matinee despite his suicidal threats. 

   Carlie succeeds because, as she puts it, she completely knows him, and unbeknownst to this blockhead, deeply loves him despite being forced to watch all the other women go in and out of his life. Despite the warnings of Bonnie and other cast members, she basically cleans up his room, dresses him, and wipes up his messes without so much of as flicker of sincere appreciation. It’s hard to like such a narcissitic clunk, and if, in the end, if we do give him some leeway it’s only because Carlie cares so much.

      But that’s just the trouble with this fairly whiny musical in which Fay keeps repeating his errors and following up with complaints, Bonnie constantly battles with the ridiculously clutzy promp woman Polly (Polly Moran), and the sleazy Don Cordova (Eddie Phillips) stands in the background ready to join up with the insincere women who pretend to fall in love with Fay. As Eddie summarizes the situation as the company is about the break up at the end of their tour: 

                 Just think of it, 42 weeks together and only one fight. It started

                 the opening night and it’s still on. You know this company should

                 never have had really had a stage manager. What they really needed

                 was a referee.


    Given the truth of his comments, it’s hard to like this hard-hearted Depression film, particularly when, after the former leading lady leaves Fay and the company, they hire on the gold-digging Daphne Wayne (Nita Martan) whose major talent seems to be insincerely batting her eyelashes at Fay and singing as if she were trying out for the role of Betty Boop. At one point when Fay, after momentarily paying attention to Carlie and actually inviting her out for dinner soon after announces he just married Daphne, the devastated girl, always trying to take the punches as they come, begins to laugh with a sense of false hilarity that goes on so interminably long that we desperately wish someone like Dressler, who is the witness, would give her a good punch so that she might break out in the sobs she’s holding inside. At times like these, we truly wish the plot called for her to go home with Benny to his beloved mother and binge on the canned preserves he keeps gushing over.

     When a film scholar mentions this film in connection with LGBTQ moments such as Richard Barrios briefly does, it’s generally concerning the existence of Benny’s assistant Lester, performed by the great pansy actor George K. Authur—the burbling, snippy, “sissified and funny” Madame Irene of the 1926 musical—who here speaks his few lines as close to straight as was possible given his effiminate voice. In fact, one might not even notice him in this role were it not for the fact that after Benny has lectured “the quarrelling pair”—to steal the title of a miniature puppet play by writer Jane Bowles—about their unnecessary argumentation, Lester finds Bonnie and Polly both nearly passed out drunk hidden behind a standing rack of costumes, reporting it to his boss in near hysteria.

    We soon discover, mid-play, that the two women have spent most of their lives together, Polly having even worked hard for a year, as Bonnie fondly reminds her, to pay for the elder’s surgery years earlier. And we are forced quickly to conclude that these two women who previous to this have done nothing but insulted one another, are in actuality not only long-time friends but a lesbian couple, the reason perhaps for their constant arguing now made quite evident. Nothing more is particularly made of this discovery. Dresler merely attempts to administer a bromide to her completely drunken companion without being able to successfully open the bottle top. Declaring, “In five minutes, I'll have you as sober as I am,” Dressler nearly crashes to the floor before accidentally ripping the sink out of the wall in her attempt to snap off the cap of the precious liquid that might restore her friend to sobriety. It’s never explained how she’s able to perform her final number on stage, which we’re told by the film restoration’s credits was “My Dynamic Personality.”

      Apparently after Eddie announces to the audience that “Since the leading lady has broken her leg, we had to shoot her,” Carlie goes on in Daphne’s place, making a hit of the third act and finally getting her man to see her as the one he truly loves, the cast merrily intoning the musical’s major number, “Happy Days Are Here Again.” After his divorce, I presume, Terry and Carlie will live relatively happy forever. If nothing else, we’re happy that we’ve made it through this basically joyless movie to its end. 

Los Angeles, August 27, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2021).