Thursday, September 30, 2021

Ed Wood | Glen or Glenda

fully attired

by Douglas Messerli

Ed Wood (screenplay and director) Glen or Glenda / 1953

 Let me begin my discussion of Ed Wood’s 1953 film Glen or Glenda by asserting that it is not in any way, as Richard Barrios and many others have described it, “funny.” Because of its atrociously bad script and acting, it is certainly, at moments, laughable, something that might make one even giggle while rolling his or her eyes. But Wood’s work is utterly serious in subject and intent, and to describe it as merely “funny” is to miss the occasion of seriously discussing one of the very first US films to actually attempt to tackle of the subject of transvestitism and transgender sexual orientation—two very different issues—both.

     Neither is this a work consist of what might be described as a “camp” sensibility. There is no irony in Wood’s narrative about the heterosexual man, Glen (Ed Wood) who loves to wear women’s clothing. Camp depends upon portraying or saying something that we know to be an overstatement or an outrageous presentation of a real situation. Camp winks at its audience, asking for its conspiracy in pretending to be serious while it satirizes or exaggeratedly portrays events. At the heart of camp is an agreed upon disbelief, a lie which when blown out of all proportion reveals a truth or several related issues surrounding it. Camp is artifice performed for the love of theater, not an attempt to explore or study what we believe to be real—although it certainly might poke at truth or reveal its buried remnants. Tim Burton’s wonderful film based on the life and career of Ed Wood is filled with camp incidents and imbued with camp sensibility. But Wood’s own work, particularly Glen or Glenda, is the director’s attempt to speak as honesty as he can, even if in so doing he reveals his naivete and outright ignorance and, most appallingly, his complete lack of rhetorical and dramatic writing talents.

     As Danny Peary argues in Cult Movies 3, Glen or Glenda is truly radical, despite its utter ineptness, a personal revelation that far more revelatory and important to the society as a whole than exists in many of the most respected auteurs’ films. Although it is difficult to keep a straight face while Glen as Glenda strolls up and down the Los Angeles boulevards in her beloved angora sweater, he’s telling you a story that the narrational structure demands you attend to as a “truthful telling,” as the early credits shout. Unlike most films which provide a disclaimer that their story has anything to do with real life, Wood’s film declares the opposite from the very start. This is a true story that its viewer need to attend to. The people you are about to see are real human beings who suffer from being rejected by those they love and arrested by the authorities for something they feel is utterly out of their control.

      Contrary to the film’s refusal to disclaim its association from true life experiences, I must begin with a disclaimer, admitting that I am no first-hand experience about subjects I am about to discuss. As a cis- gender homosexual, I have never suffered any of the obsessions or bodily dysphoria that Wood’s characters express. I have no psychological education, although I feel I am fairly perceptive when it comes to some forms of what has been long described as “sexually deviant behavior.” Certainly by watching the thousands of films I have and written about them as intelligently as I’m able I have learned a great deal about various aspects of LGBTQ behavior. But my evaluation of Wood’s psychologist Dr. Alton’s (Timothy Farrell) explanations for his various character’s behavior consists mere speculation. It appears to me that when it comes to an individual’s relationship to gender, we still have a great deal to learn.

       But before we can get to the real substance of this film, we perhaps must trim away the truly absurd melodramatic flourishes which Wood added to his movie, apparently to provide the serious narrative at its heart with cinema-world credence through the mad fatalistic gesturing of actor Bella Lugosi as the embodiment of the scientific spirit. Some of the very worst scripted lines ever put to paper are his ramblings about how the masses are controlled by forces outside of themselves, Lugosi shouting “Pull the strings! Pull the strings!” Actually the cinematic montage accompanying these words and others of their kind with views of crowded streets overlaid by the images of a superior force are rather fascinating cinematically. And, as bad as the Lugosi scenes are, they are utterly fascinating from a film history point of view simply because they reveal a once great actor at the nadir of his career, a now near-forgotten drug addict grasping on to the last moments of his long film career. And in Wood’s following movie, Plan 9 from Outer Space, we catch some sad glimpse’s of that great actor’s early powers.

      But clearly the film would have been better without it, although that almost seems like haggling over what the very worst moments of this film represent. We might easily point to the “love scenes” between Wood and his girlfriend, Barbara (Dolores Fuller) which verge on producing guffaws. Both are such bad actors that we almost feel they deserve one another, although we can only feel sorry for her complete ignorance of Glen’s aberrations, and criticize him—despite the director’s endless justifications for his fears through his tableaux portraying her possible reactions and his dream sequences as he imagines some of the many sexual variances of human behavior, including sado-masochistic relationships (a man whips a woman, and later a woman joins another woman undergoing a kind of masturbatory fantasy and whips her), the representation of women of “loose morals,” and in one horrific tableau a dramatization of rape—for delaying his version of “coming out.”

      If, at first we perceive these melodramatic intervals like some insanely bad director’s notions of Sodom and Gomorrah, we suddenly recognize that is precisely what they are. Wood is playing out his psychological renditions of the horrors of sexual aberration in an attempt to fit his own “difference” within the grander scale of things. Like a young boy trying to evaluate his sudden urges to masturbate within his conceptions of the worst of human sexual behavior, Wood attempts to create a sort of graduate scale of sexual perversions wherein his wearing of women’s panties and sweaters appears to be a puny sin in comparison with the worst tendencies of human sexual abnormalities. Indeed earlier in the film, the narrator attempts to almost dismiss the entire notion of transvestism by trying to convince us that women’s attire is simply more comfortable and accommodating to the human body than are the rough fabrics of men’s pants, shirts, and ties. What role Glen’s desires to also put on makeup, dress in women’s heels, and adorn himself with other clearly more complex items of a woman’s boudoir plays in all of this isn’t quite explained. Evidently, he goes full “court” only when he gets the urge to express himself in public, primarily window shopping and pining for the items that are difficult for him to purchase as a man.

      If the sets for these dream-tableaux seem like something cooked up by a small city TV station to represent the dangers of local tornadoes, the very fact that Wood’s film brought into discussion such a wide range of sexual activity in 1953 is quite astounding. Obviously, by 1953 we’d see far too many portrayals of women trollops and even been presented with symbolic depictions of heterosexual rape; but although we may see hints of it in the Australian film Rangle River (1936) and Genet’s Un chant d’amor (1950),  I can’t think of a single previous on-screen depiction of S&M in commercial filmmaking. And the dozens images of Ed and his friend Johnny (Charlie Crafts) in women’s clothing is surely the longest on-screen time devoted to transvestism. 

      But the true focus of the film is not about Glen’s confession to his fiancée of his secret self, Glenda, but the visit the understandably confused but truly interested Inspector Warren (Lyle Talbot) makes to Dr. Alton’s office who attempts to explain not only Glen’s transvestic tendencies but the far more complex issue of transgender identification and reassignment.

      Alton at least begins with a seemingly commonsense evaluation, that when it comes to gender issues each individual case is different. So at least he does not attempt to make grand generalizations in this film. It would seem that in explaining the desire to wear women’s clothing is prescribed far too often in his telling as a psychological condition rather than any possible genetic or aspect of body chemistry. One has to remember, after all, that the profession in 1953 was still very much shaped by Freudian psychological thought and Freud identified homosexuality itself as relating to the mother complex. He diagnoses Glen’s problem as related to a lack of love from his mother which gets played out in his desire for the attention of women in general, leading in turn to his own identification with the female sex. And his wife Barbara is told that she can help him with this by replacing the lack of love with her own. By film’s end we are told that Glen has been cured.

      I can think of numerous reasons why males might be attracted to wearing women’s attire having absolutely little to do with their relationships with their mother, many just for the fun of it, for the identification with sexual difference that dressing up as the opposite sex provides. And, of course, one doesn’t at all have to see it was something necessarily in need of a “cure”—although such behavior still is found highly disconcerting to most straight and gay males and females, who accordingly demand some explanation for such behavior.

      What I find more disturbing however, is the easy slide the movie doctor makes from transvestism into transgender desire. Even the film makes clear the two are necessarily related. Glen is evidently a cis heterosexual who simply enjoys the feel and thrill of wearing women’s clothes. But Dr. Alton immediately provides his curious-minded listener with two examples of transgender individuals, both of them related to hermaphrodism, one full hermaphrodism (with the organs of both sexes on the outside of the body) and a second concerning pseudo hermaphrodism (with some of the organs of the opposite sex inside the body), in the second instance, the documented male raised as a female and desiring to become a woman, a process through which through hormonal shots Alan successfully becomes Anne. Today, I believe, most of the men and women desiring to change their sex are neither hermaphrodites nor merely psychologically driven to make that significant change, but describe a more profound sense of gender identification which does not align with their sex at the time of their birth. So this film’s “answers” to the reasons for such gender changes do not fully explore the vast territory that is still often inexplicable to us today.

       Yet you have to give credit to Wood’s film for opening up that discussion, and for its narrator’s advocating an acceptance of these and other sexual differences that during that same period put many in jail, ruined their careers, and broke up their relationships.

        In Glen’s case, even Barbara eventually accepts his transvestic pleasures, offering up her favorite angora sweater for his personal delectation. But in an earlier film cut, still shown in the theatrical trailer, Barbara hands over her angora sweater, tossing it to Glen in a huff. 

        I haven’t read the complete biography of Ed Wood, but from Burton’s film Ed Wood it appears that he was not at all “cured” of his enjoyment of women’s attire, and in fact increased the time he spent with homosexuals and other sexual “deviants” as he worked to make his second film. 

Los Angeles, September 30, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (September 2021).


Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Tay Garnett | One Way Passage

brief encounter

by Douglas Messerli

Wilson Mizner and Joseph Jackson (screenplay, based on a story by Robert Lord), Tay Garnett (director) One Way Passage / 1932

The truly delightful heterosexual fantasy, directed by Tay Garnett, One Way Passage (1932) is interesting for gay and lesbian viewers only for a few seconds, when once again, almost as if it were an requirement for early 1930 films or as if  purposely speaking against the newly established Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America Code, this director also trots out a trio of singers, two burly men, likely gay, and a heavy-set woman, most certainly a lesbian, who looks very much like her partners. As they sing, people toss them coins, one landing in the nearby spittoon, all three every-so-often staring over to the open mouth of the metal monster as if wondering how they might gracefully retrieve the coin in its liquid soil. Obviously they need the money.

     Suddenly, as if to make certain that the audience has noticed that the third singer was of the female gender, a woman comes up to her and whispers in her ear, the dyke replying, “First door to the left, dearie,” obviously in response to the question of the location of the women’s toilet. There is little else in this film that is even remotely concerned with LGBTQ behavior, although all the figures of this work are outsiders in one way or another.

     The handsome hero, Dan Hardesty (William Powell), we soon discover is a wanted murderer, having evidently killed—according to his later outlaw accomplices—a man who everybody hated. No matter, he’s wanted and is soon arrested outside the bar in which the film begins by Steve Burke (Warren Hymer) a flatfoot detective determined to take his prisoner back to San Francisco from Hong Kong the long way, by ship, with a stop in Honolulu on the way.

         The beautiful woman he falls immediately love with in the bar is Joan Ames (Kay Francis), one of the many lovely but frail heroines of early talkies who because of a heart condition is soon to die. Clearly just the sight of Dan sets her heart aflutter, worrying her doctor (Frederick Burton) whether she will even survive the boat trip.

        The two, individually served by the bartender the house special, the Paradise Cocktail, back into each other, turning around to be hit by Cupid’s arrow, tossing down up the remainder of the drinks, breaking their glasses, and leaving the crossed stems on the bar counter, presuming that they will never see each other again.

         Once aboard the ship, the now hand-cuffed Dan observes the pocket into which Burke tosses the key and an unlocked gate the leads straight into the ocean. At the right moment, he grabs the key, pulls up the gate-latch and leaps in the water, talking the cop, who can’t swim, with him. Terrified of drowning, Burke does little to stop him from grabbing the key from his pocket and unhooking the cuff, presumably willing to let the cop drown—except at that very moment he spots the beautiful woman from the night before aboard the same boat from which he has just leaped.

         Impulsively working against all logic, Dan saves the drowning Burke, bringing him back aboard the boat, all presumably so that he can once again meet the woman with whom he has fallen in love, Joan.

         At first it appears that the cop will hound him for the entire voyage. Indeed, when Dan hooks up with Joan again with Burke beside him he seems almost resigned to the new relationship between him and the other man. “I’d like to introduce you to Mr. Burke. We’re travelling together,” he tells Joan. Burke adds: “Yeah, we’re together all the time.” “Practically inseparable,” Dan chimes in, almost hinting the movie might move in another direction, focusing on the unwanted attentions of one man for another while the second tries to mange a heterosexual relationship within the seemingly homosexual one.

         But so astounded is Burke that Dan has saved his life that he allows the murderer free reign of the ship for almost the rest of the voyage, giving Dan plenty of time to court his newfound love by the moonlight of a ship sailing across the watery horizon. Director Garnett gets shots of them from every lovely position possible as they both wonder about the magical fate of having run into one another again, each marveling as much by their knowledge that they suddenly and deep love can only be temporary.

        Meanwhile, another criminal kind and friend of Dan’s, the always drunken petty pickpocket Skippy (Frank McHugh), a man wanted in every port and not for his sexual prowess, has escaped to the ships temporary protection. And already on board and busy seducing a wealthy British Lord is Countess Barilhaus (Betty Crowley), known the Dan and police all across the USA as “Barrel House” Betty, a figure of the same ilk as the Barbara Stanwyck character Lady Eve Sidwich in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941). She and the charmingly hilarious Skippy keep the cop busy and confused enough that Dan is freed up to make love and, when they reach Honolulu, even escape the brig, spend another lovely day with Joan, and escape the jaws of justice just in time.

        As they tend to do in such movies, however, things get bollixed up, as Burke falls for the Countess who falls equally for him—both having the same dream of escaping from their lines of work and to marry and live happily ever after on a chicken ranch—and at the end of their beautiful day, just as Dan is about to reveal to Joan that he can’t return aboard the ship, she faints from all the pleasures of the day, and he is forced to carry her back up the gangplank to her doctor, where he discovers the truth about her heart condition.

       As the arrive the golden gate portals of San Francisco the handcuffs are clicked into place, as Burke tries to sneak him off to San Quentin. But not before Joan also discovers his fate, running to him and planting a final kiss on his wanted mug, she passing out as he goes ashore.

      The lovers have finally met their sad fates.

      The last scene in the bar in Agua Caiente, Mexico—where they’d promised to meet one another in New Year’s Eve—shows us that the party is almost over, when suddenly the bartenders hear the sound of breaking glass and see upon the bar two glass stems crossed, despite the fact the bar has only one last customer, the drunken Skippy who hasn’t heard the glass or observed the stems laying atop one another on the bar. Throughout this film Skippy, as he ticks Burke, pulls billfolds from the pockets of unsuspecting pigeons, and fools the bartender into providing him free liquor ends all his escapades with a charming hehaw of a laugh. But now, with the absence of his dear friends, he stands alone saying nothing, missing the mysterious reunion of his two former friends.. Perhaps only the viewers can provide the provocative laugh that he, now sadly serious, formerly announced that he had won the game.

        It’s a touching scene, reiterating the gentle fantasy romance of the film entire. Many critical observers have named this work one of their favorites of the generally hard-boiled Depression movies of the early 1930s.

        Robert Lord won an Oscar for this film’s original story.

Los Angeles, September 29, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (September 2021).


Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Martin McDonagh | In Bruges

killing time

by Douglas Messerli

Martin McDonagh (writer and director) In Bruges / 2008

Martin McDonagh's 2008 film, In Bruges, is a movie that tries so hard to be likeable, that it seems almost mean-spirited to say anything else. By combining a witty and tough dialogue, dangerously petty criminals who are tender at heart, and story that walks a tightrope between a bloodbath and a tale of impossible love, the film pleads for its audience to find some kind of center with which to hold on.

      It was hard for me, however, to believe in anything McDonagh had cooked up except for the beautiful streets and churches of Bruges where his preposterous plot takes place. The directors' characters, no matter how many "fucks" they spew and no matter how insensitive they are to human life, seem more like Damon Runyon figures than the London murderers they are supposed to represent. 

     Ray (a likeable Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) have just blundered in a hit, intentionally killing a priest their boss Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes) has ordered dead, but also unintentionally killing a small child as the bullet passes through the priest's body.

     Together this unlikely duo are sent out of town to the Flemish city of Bruges, until things cool down. Ken, who has apparently been in the business for some years, is a slightly sophisticated and curious gay man, who is delighted to get the opportunity to see the beautiful "Venice of the North," while Ray, who is the one who accidentally killed the boy, is a course and most definitely heterosexual, undereducated Dubliner who has no patience for touring and even less time for Bruges:

 “There's a Christmas tree somewhere in London with a bunch of presents underneath it that'll never be opened. And I thought, if I survive all this, I'd go to that house, apologize to the mother there, and accept whatever punishment she chose for me. Prison...death...don't matter. Because at least in prison and at least in death, you know, I wouldn't be in fuckin' Bruges. But then, like a flash, it came to me. And I realized, fuck man, maybe that's what hell is: the entire rest of eternity spent in fuckin' Bruges. And I really really hoped I wouldn't die. I really really hoped I wouldn't die. Holed up in one room with Ken.”

      Ray is a time bomb ready to explode, and does fizzle, at least, several times, punching out a Canadian couple who complain about his and his lady companion's cigarettes, and, later, shooting out the eye of his girlfriend's cohort in crime—she picks up men after which her boyfriend shows up to rob them.

     There are a lot of absurd subplots, one about a movie being shot throughout the city with a dwarf (Jordan Prentice) as the lead—apparently Ray is fascinated by what he calls "midgets"— and other extraneous encounters. The important thing, however, is that a strange rapport develops between the two criminals, Ken and Ray, as they take in the city sights.

     Despite his tough-guy demeanor, Ray is truly haunted by his act, unable to get it out of his head, and is seriously guilt-ridden, conditions which Ken tries to ameliorate without success. By the time Ken hears from Harry that he must kill Ray, he discovers Ray holding a gun to his own head, about to commit suicide.

    Ken, who in some senses has also come to love Ray, saves his ridiculous friend’s life, and sends him off by train to any other European town so that Ray can start over again, while Ken will be left to face the consequences.

      The consequences begin with Harry arriving in Bruges, at first cloaked in a sort of gentlemanly regard between himself and Ken before quickly turning murderous, as Harry shoots out Ken's knees. Discovering that Ray has been returned to Bruges by the police for the incident with the Canadian couple, he runs from the tower into the square intending to kill Ray himself. To warn Ray, Harry jumps from the tower, sacrificing his own life for that of his friend-become almost a son.

      For a brief time, the film switches to an action-adventure tale, as Harry chases Ray down the narrow, cobblestone Bruges streets. Returning to his hotel, Ray collects his gun, and jumps from the window into a moving canal boat below, Harry at the chase. Harry's final shot goes through Ray's body, hitting and killing the dwarf, which Harry believes is a child. A man of deep conviction if not of moral values, Harry turns the gun upon himself. To murders of children are beyond salvation!

      We end the film not knowing whether or not Ray has survived, but his voice pleading for his life, seems to suggest that he lived through the ordeal. The question is, which Ray? The murderous, crazy one? The boyishly good man at heart? The slightly clever conman? The drunken and drugged out lunatic?

      The problem with nearly every figure in this film is that they have no center—as well as no place in which to exist. Ray's disdain of Bruges—as beautiful as the city obviously is—seems justified. Why "In Bruges?" You can almost hear McDonagh say, as might Harry, "Cause I'd like to fuckin' go there; it's a kind of fantasyland."

      But so too is his film a kind of garish fantasy world where no real human being dare show up. All are types, figures shifting in and out of various situations and set pieces, drifting always between the humorous and the downright ugly. Who could ever believe characters who converse as follows?:   

RAY: What am I gonna do, Ken? What am I gonna do?

KEN: Just keep movin', keep movin'. Try not think about it.

           Learn a new language, maybe?

RAY: Sure. I can hardly do English. [Pause]

RAY: That's one thing I like about Europe, though. You don't have

           to learn any of their languages.

From a sort of conscience-ridden, even it sentimental pondering, we quickly jump to the kind of advice one might receive on a cozy talk show, then on to a self-aware joke that seems incompatible with Ray's previous behavior, straight to the beat (1-2-3) before the punch line, a stale joke about the loss of European countries' identities, all in a few short sentences and interjections!

       McDonagh seems unable to keep any one character in his mind for more than a few lines, so that ultimately we lose all possibility of belief in anything but the writer's whims. Next time I go to Bruges, it will be alone!

Los Angeles, April 28, 2011

Claude Chabrol | À double tour (Leda)

penelope’s reign

by Douglas Messerli

Claude Chabrol (dialogue), Paul Gégauff (writer) (based on a novel by Stanley Ellin), Claude Chabrol (director) À double tour (Leda) / 1959

Chabrol's third film, À double tour, is the first in which he begins to find his métier of the psychological thriller. While it may lack the intensity of his later films, it is still a self-assured work that has worn well over the years. Looking at it once again upon learning of his death on September 12, 2010, I found it totally enjoyable. When it originally appeared in 1959, the film was compared extensively to Hitchcock, whose Vertigo appeared just the year before. Indeed, Chabrol's film even contains a mesmerist's wheel, which produces images similar to the whirling credits of Hitchcock's masterwork.

     Chabrol's work, in retrospect, while sharing Hitchcock's fascination with psychological-driven acts of mayhem and murder, moves much more horizontally than Hitchcock's winding and spinning narrative. By film's end, À double tour turns into a fairly standard "who dunnit," as opposed to Vertigo's incorporation of an entire society in Madeleine's and Judy's deaths. In Hitchcock, murder is most often a societal act, a collaboration of several individuals and, often, authority itself; while in Chabrol it remains the province of the individual, or, in this example, an event within a family. The absolution from personal confession, so important to Chabrol's early film, has little significance to Hitchcock's work (with the exception, perhaps, of his I Confess of 1953).

     Indeed the Marcoux estate near Aix-en-Provence, France, is, by and large, a private paradise, whose only "outsiders" consist of Roger, the milkman—sexually teased, along with the gardener, by Julie, the maid—and the Marcouxs' daughter Elisabeth's fiancée, Laszlo Kovacs (wonderfully brought to life by a young Jean-Paul Belmondo). Scandal is the worst fear of Marcoux's wife Thérèse (brilliantly acted by Madeleine Robinson), and her bourgeois values are ultimately shared with her daughter, son, and even, to a great extent, by her husband.

     As the drama opens, however, we perceive her husband, egged on by his future son-in-law, is having some difficulty with family life, particularly since he is engaged in a not-so-quiet affair with a woman living in sight of his chateau, Leda (Antonella Luaidi). If the Marcoux house is all vertical, an upstairs/downstairs world of purposeful hierarchy, Leda's is a horizontal, Japanese-like construction, flooded with seemingly eternal daylight and a view of the Marcouxian "paradise."

     Although the affair is the center of Marcoux and his wife's endless quarrels, they both delude themselves that their grown children know nothing of it, despite the fact that at table in the backyard Marcoux can be seen kissing his lover goodbye.

     Life, nonetheless, might continue on as it is were it not for the rambunctious anarchist who insistently commands Marcoux to pack his bags and leave his wife behind and orders up full meals for his lip-smacking delectation from the flirtatious Julie. One of his first acts of the film is to undo his mother-in-law's knitting, forcing her to play a kind of Penelope before Odysseus' voyage has even begun.

     For a few moments Chabrol's film almost seems that it will take up a theme similar to Pasolini's Teorema as we glimpse that all in this family, save the harpy matriarch, are enamored by the intruder. The father and his daughter both speak of their love for him. And for a long period late in the movie, Laszlo stands with his arms draped over the shoulders of the uptight mother's boy, Richard (André Jocelyn), who seems quite at ease in the embrace until he self-consciously removes Laszlo's hand.

      But the evil queen of this estate is vengeful, threatening, like a Fricka in full force, to do everything in her power to stop her husband from going through with his plans to leave; and, in her moralistic declarations and pleas, she requires her children to take sides. Accordingly, Elizabeth attempts to send her fiancée packing while Richard turns inward, attempting to calm his somewhat adolescent sexual confusions in his beloved music. Only Henri—who, like Julie "can't help but feel happy" (he is symbolically, if not literally, drugged by Leda as they cavort through a field of poppies)—seems to be able to make a break, and travels with Leda into town in order to create the scandal his wife so fears: "Leda and I want to be seen!"

     As the family comes together for what may be their last supper, Laszlo ratchets up the unhappy family's hurts, until the dam breaks as Julie suddenly runs in to report that Leda has been found dead, murdered.

     The police investigator quickly arrests the least obvious of suspects, the milkman, as the viewer can't help but feeling this is a huge mistake, and Laszlo, with the help of his uninvited dinner friend Vlado, becomes convinced that he knows who the real murderer is. Discovering the son Richard standing before what seems to be a funeral, while serenaded by the music of Berlioz, Laszlo wrestles him into a nearby pond, in a clearly homoerotic embrace, forcing him to admit Leda's murder. Richard claims he has committed the act for his mother's sake. Lazslo, offering him another kind of love, declares he will keep the secret within the family coven.

     Thérèse, in what may be her most obviously evil speech of the film, demands the family cover up the truth, but Laszlo and Elizabeth urge Richard to tell the police what he has done, while Henri sits passively, destroyed by what he conceives as "beauty's" death. We realize that for him there will be no odyssey, no escape.

      Gradually Richard perceives that he can never be freed of his mother unless he admits his crime, and marches off like a crippled Frankenstein to Leda's house. Madame Marcoux sits stoically, comprehending, as Laszlo has told her earlier, her "reign" is over.

      One can only hope that Elizabeth and Laszlo may be able to transverse the worlds of their universe with the utter abandonment of youth, but at least Laszlo has broken the dam of the family pent up sexualities and emotions, offering, after all, like Pasolini’s vagrant angel, a kind of angelic peace. 

Los Angeles, September 24, 2010

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (September 2010).

Monday, September 27, 2021

William Keighley and Howard Bretherton | Ladies They Talk About

blind faith

by Douglas Messerli

Brown Holmes, William McGrath, and Sidney Sutherland (screenplay based on the stage play  Gangstress, or Women in Prison by Dorothy Mackaye and Carlton Miles), Howard Bretherton and William Keighley (directors) Ladies They Talk About / 1933

As one of the most noted of the numerous “girls in prison” melodramas—the film was remade as Lady Gangster in 1942—you might imagine that Howard Bretherton’s and William Keighley’s Ladies They Talk About (1933) might be filled with just those kind of women of whom people like to gossip: lesbians. But in fact, the three writers basically have erased such figures, concentrating instead on the classy former socialite-gone gangster’s moll Nan Taylor (Barbara Stanwyck), arriving at prison with a huge hat box and a stylish gown; the mean cheerleader type, ‘Sister’ Susie (Dorothy Burgess), the kind of girl in high school who’d scheme and plot to take away another girl’s boyfriend and go home to complain to her wealthy daddy if she didn’t get her way; a dotty, formerly wealthy Long Island matron who served ground-up glass to her social rival; a former Madame of a brothel Aunt Maggie (Maude Eburne); a nice, tougher but wiser girl, Linda (Lillian Roth); and a strict but truly caring Prison Matron (Ruth Donnelly), all of whom who don’t so much act as perform true to their character types—which permits the film’s audience to applaud Linda and Aunt Maggie, while booing the pretend civility of ‘Sister’ Suzie.

     Stanwyck, always a watchable actress, has two contradictory parts to play as Nan in this movie, the tough and hardened gangster moll and the would-be sweet “if they’d only trust her” Deacon’s daughter who somehow lost her way. Nan works hard to keep up her tough front, arranging with her now imprisoned gangster friends for a way they can tunnel up from the men’s ward of San Quentin into her room, from they will all hope to escape. 

     But at the same time the religious broadcaster David Slade (Preston Foster), who’s trying to run for the job of District Attorney, inexplicably falls in love with his former hometown acquaintance, ready to forgive almost anything she does, in part to rectify his sending her to jail in the first place after she has confessed, given his unexpected faith in her, to having helped Lefty Simons (Harold Huber) and his gang rob a bank. Now he’s not only sorry but evidently so head-over-heels in love with her that he sends her endless letters which she never answers, arranges finally for a meeting, mails off an illicit letter from her to Lefty with a drawn impression of the prison front door lock, and allows her to shoot him in the shoulder just to get her down the church aisle and into their matrimonial bed.

       The only one who continues to stand in her way is sweet ‘Sister’ Susie who has fallen for the religious radio megastar—the Jim Baker, Michael Pitts, or Richard Rossi of his day—and is determined to make the man hers. The only major lesbian scandal of the movie is when she plants a “love letter” in Nan’s coat—presumably written to another woman in the prison compound—which gets her sent to work in the laundry with visitation rights cancelled for a month. Susie also witnesses, predictably through the keyhole, that Nan shoots Slade believing, mistakenly, that he has betrayed her to the authorities about her involvement with the failed prison escape (Nan: [immediately after shooting Slade] “I didn’t mean to do that.” Slade: [holding his hand to his shoulder]  “Why, that's all right, Nan. “It's nothing."). 

       Susie’s squeal to the detective this time only hurries the couple off their honeymoon, although even the film’s audience by this time have dropped their jaws a bit in complete disbelief.

       The original play on which this film was based was written by Dorothy Mackaye and Carlton Miles, Broadway actress Mackaye having had her husband beaten to death by her lover when her husband suggested she stop seeing him. And the character of Nan is clearly based on the writer herself, who, as the Pittsburgh Press described it, “showed up at prison with silk stockings and a modish dress,” spending ten months in San Quentin State Prison for her crime. So you’d think she might have been able to come up with some far juicer lesbian scenes. Maybe there are some in her play, but nothing much shows up in this movie. Other than the planted letter all screenwriters Brown Holmes, William McGrath, and Sidney Sutherland are able to provide is the female equivalent of the male pansy, a bull dyke whose cigar butt Nan finds on a prison cell floor, Suzie nodding her head to a woman who throughout the film does not nothing but exercise, Linda cautioning her new friend: “Be careful about her. She likes to wrestle.”

Los Angeles, September 27, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (September 2021)