Sunday, October 31, 2021

Edward H. Griffith | Rebound

going for the mail

by Douglas Messerli

Horace Jackson (screenplay, based on the stage play by Donald Ogden Stewart), Edward H. Griffith (director) Rebound / 1931

Casual commentators have been hard on Edward H. Griffith’s 1931 film Rebound, describing it as having a stagey, canned plot. As it’s directed, with a script based on the Donald Ogden Stewart stage play by Horace Jackson, I suppose most viewers might see it that way. Moreover some credit this financial flop with ending Ina Claire’s film career, while the vamp of this film, played by Myrna Loy, survived.

      What I can’t understand is why they didn’t let Stewart, later one of the best screenwriters of all time (he penned the screen scripts for The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, That Uncertain Feeling, Life with Father, Edward, My Son, and An Affair to Remember, and many others despite the fact that he was blacklisted and emigrated from the US to England) rewrite his own play as a film script. Stewart was also a member of the Algonquin Round Table, the figure on whom Hemingway based his portrait of Bill Gorton in The Sun Also Rises, and a fairly successful comic novelist. So I have a great deal of feeling for his Philip Barry-like witty dialogue when it winds itself through Griffith’s rather mediocre and, in fact, stagey directing.

    I also think Ina Claire, despite that the fact she’s certainly no beauty, is rather wonderful in this work. As the central figure who catches her husband, Bill Truesdale (Robert Ames)—on the rebound after the girl in which he was in love, Evie Lawrence (Loy) who decides to invest in marriage rather than love by marrying the wealthy but virtual walking-dead businessman Lyman Patterson (Hale Hamilton)—the wise-cracking spirited Sara Jaffrey (Claire) is highly doubtful about the benefits of marriage, particularly given the relationship of her imperious mother (Louis Closser Hale) and her loving but alcoholic father (Walter Walker), and has just herself rejected a marriage proposal when Bill surprises her with the offer. Having just batted down the matrimonial pressures of her mother and sister Liz (Hedda Hopper), and finding Bill quite attractive, she commits, a mistake that she spends most of the rest of movie regretting.

      For no sooner than the married couple run off to Paris, but Evie shows up, still interested in fanning the flames of love still smoldering in Bill’s heart while knowing by this time that Lyman is so plain stupid he will  never catch on.

      Sara, on the other hand, is so clever and savvy, she’s figured out the situation just by her contraband reading of Evie’s letters to Bill. The very day that they are about to celebrate their first anniversary, Bill goes to the bank for the mail and returns so late he misses the visit of Sara’s father and returns with Evie in tow, the beginning of a torture for the witty survivor of what she suddenly realizes is a broken relationship. 

      If the plot is clearly melodramatic, something else is happening just below the surface of far more importance with respect to the sudden reappearance the man who had originally quipped, after asking Sara to run away with him, “Oh I’ll marry you if I have to.” Johnnie Coles (Robert Williams), the man I would argue who, along with Sara, is the figure who makes this work worth watching. 

      One might almost suggest that in the character of Johnnie, director Griffith and screenwriter Jackson have almost created one of the first coded film figures, thanks to the uncut signifiers of the original Stewart script. In one of the earliest lines of the film, Bill accuses Johnnie of wearing purple underwear, particularly when writing poetry, as well as stealing his tie, stockings, and other personal items. We might just presume that Bill’s roommate was simply the borrowing kind except for the fact that usually it is women not men who share one another’s personal items of clothing; and the purple underwear, not to say the fact that he writes “poetry,” makes it clear that our handsome young quipster is most likely not the marrying kind.

      But if we had any doubts, Sara’s rejection of his offer makes it clear that she recognizes her beloved friend as one of the many gay men of the day who, finding a woman they enjoy being around, marry them to cover the trail of homosexual activities, the perfect example being Cole Porter, even if he did truly love Linda. And the list of such literary figures is a long one, including to name only a couple of examples, Charles Ryder who marries after falling in love with Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Clive Durham’s abandonment of Maurice Hall when it is clear that he will not be able to inherit his estate without marriage in E. M. Forster’s Maurice.

       If those of us who read behind the text had any doubts, when Johnnie suddenly shows up in Paris on the one of the most unhappy days of Sara’s life, when he asks where Bill is, she responds with her ready if ironic cover, “He went for the mail.” Johnnie responds: “Well, I’ve gone for the male. That’s all right.”

       The fact that Johnnie has now stuck his head out of the blind may explain why a few scenes later—long after Sara has lost her sense of grace and has begged Bill to show her the love that their marriage requires—goes down on his knees to beg Sara to divorce Bill and marry him. But even here, she recognizes his act as a ludicrous one, demands he stand up and realizes from his action just how much of herself she has abandoned for the sentiment of love. If love requires accommodation, she suddenly perceives, it should not demand a loss of one’s own identity—something her father has been attempting to tell her throughout the work with his repeated insistence that she never change.

       Sara sends Johnnie packing once more, despite her fondness for him, realizing that their marriage would be simply a travesty, while she regains her humor and wit as she begins divorce proceedings.

       By this time we’re so sick of Bill Truesdale and his silly-minded lover Evie that we wish Sara would have packed up quicker, left the house and returned to Paris where at least she might have been able to hook with Johnnie for a few glasses of champagne and a plate of bon mots. But alas, convention required Bill to ask for her forgiveness so sweetly that she remarries the lying cheat all over again, surely recognizing that as she grows older it will be hard to keep up her Djuna Barnes*-like clever patter.”

       Perhaps Johnnie’s sexuality is not truly covert enough to have kept the censors away if it had been shot a couple of years later when Joseph Breen was just beginning to catch on that his friends in the Production Code Office weren’t that keen of closing down movies. But certainly even in 1931 such an obvious queer figure would not have been allowed to communicate with the heterosexuals in this film if the Hays Office were fully aware of what the film was saying. As it is, Johnnie steers clear of nearly everyone except Sara and Bill. Few others even engage him in conversation, and for much of the film he either lights up the party by playing the piano or simply lurks outside the rooms where “normal” folk are dancing.

       In a strange twist of fate both Robert Ames, who played Bill, and Robert Williams who was Johnnie died within a month of each other within the year this film was released. I don’t want to make light of such a tragedy, but one can’t wonder whether there was something else going on during the time they served as roommates.        

*I mention Barnes, who certainly was one of the great Paris expatriate wits, because just a year before this film, with the stage play Rebound still on his tongue, Barnes interviewed Donald Ogden Stewart with a dagger clearly buried in heart with envy for all his success, his friendship with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Benchley, Phillip Barry and so many others, including Hemingway, and Rebound itself, a play which she had clearly seen and liked. Although she and he and been at the same parties, he was now famous while she was still interviewing him in the Theatre Guild Magazine to eke out a living. More than any other interview she ever did, Barnes shows her evil self, by the end even wondering if he wants to die, as if she might easily put him out of his pleasure if he so desired. Ogden: “No,” he answered lightly, “do you?” “We don’t mind,” we answered, stepping into the night.”

     I also have a soft spot for Stewart due to his friendship with the playwright Phillip Barry, whose Holiday and The Philadelphia Story he so brilliantly brought to film, both starring queer actors Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Sometime around 1972 or 1973 I published a satire on the Renaissance Borgia family very much in the manner of Stewart’s own satirical histories in The Washington Review of the Arts. One of the editors of Mary Swift reported that her dear friend, the widow of Philip Barry, portrait artist Ellen Semple Barry, had read my story and absolutely loved it. 

Los Angeles, October 31, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2021).

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Walter Lang | The Warrior's Husband

death of the pansies

by Douglas Messerli

Walter Lang, Sonya Levien, and Ralph Spence (screenplay, based on the stage play by Julian Thompson), Walter Lang (director) The Warrior’s Husband / 1933 || difficult to obtain

The 1933 film of The Warrior’s Husband, based on Julian Thompson’s 1924 play which starred Katherine Hepburn, was never released on DVD and, despite a 1970 showing on TV has not reappeared in the general media, although George Eastman House and the Museum of Modern Art both have copies. Yet both Vito Russo and Richard Barrios have written significantly about it. And given my travel restrictions I shall have to rely extensively on their comments.

      This film is important for several reasons, beyond the simple fact that it presents the males of Pontus, the land of the Amazons, as a bunch of sissies. It belongs to the nascent on-screen depiction of the male-female role reversals of I’ve discussed in Alice Guy Blaché’s Les résultats du féminisme (The Consequences of Feminism) (1906), Clyde Cook’s What’s the World Coming To? (1926), and  David Butler’s Just Imagine (1930). But the very fact that I might add a last phrase to my previous sentence, “as a bunch of sissies” should make it quite clear how very exceptional this film is. As I’ve previously stressed, an occasional pansy strewn about a landscape of heteronormative figures was before 1934 perfectly permissible, but when they joined forces, several pansy’s appearing in the same frame, even before the reign of Joseph Breen the early Hays Code saw red. And in this case, as Barrios reminds us, Fox studios let it be known that a number of real-life drag artists had been hired to portray the “men” of the country of Pontus. Barrios notes:

“The troupe had been the chorus of the BBB Cellar Revue, a gay nightclub show billed with the slogan, ‘Boys will be girls!’ Variety reported that the temperamental queens would not accept the standard men’s dressing room facilities and had to be mollified with a new deluxe changing room with lacy appointments.”

      Although there is apparently no record regarding this film in The Production Code files, clearly the censors came rushing with scissors in hand to this final assault. Variety reported that “the panze scenes” were trimmed, which explains, Barrios muses, the “absence in the film of the boys-will-be-girls BBB Chorines, who seem far less in evidence than some rather large spear-carrying women.”

      What is left in the film is still rather larger than the standard 1930-1933 sissy visitations to otherwise heterosexual films. I quote Russo at length:

The Warrior’s Husband takes place in 800 B.C., when the Amazon women...’had all the rights—and pretty good lefts too. Women who believed that a man’s place was in the home.’

     In an outrageous performance, Ernest Truex plays Sappiens, a ‘progressive thinker’ who enters the court of the Amazon Queen Hippolyta (Marjorie Rambeau) to the tune of ‘Oh, You Beautiful Doll’ and sits curling his beard while the women make all the important decisions on affairs of state.

    Two visiting Greeks, Homer and Theseus, enter the court and are shocked. They are also shocking to the gentle men of the Amazon world. Truax calls them ‘hussies’ and berates them for shaving their legs to be like women. When Hippolyta congratulates them for being ‘like women of the world,’ Homer says to Theseus, ‘By the gifts that fortune hands me, she takes you for a pansy!’ Examining Truax more closely, Homer is outraged but not speechless. ‘What is this creature?’ he demands of Hippolyta. ‘I abhor it! Why even the Greeks have no word for it.’

     Actually the Greeks had several words for it, but the movies had Ernest Truex, and there were times when words are unnecessary. In a battlefield sequence, Truex lounges inside Hippolyta’s tent, preening and adjusting his bracelets. A handsome Greek messenger arrives. Truex takes a long, hard look at the soldier and greets him by wiggling five fingers. The messenger takes a long, hard look and mutters, ‘You find them wherever you go.’”

     Although recognizing that there has obviously been a “denaturing” of the film beyond Fox’s intent, Barrios finds it rather tame fare, the most intriguing aspect of it being to imagine if it had been a bolder film. But clearly the Hays Code people were shaken by its possibilities and used the occasion of this film and other “missed opportunities” such Our Betters to send out a memo in late 1933 announcing that “pansy” was now another of the forbidden words. When a few months later, as Russo reports, Raoul Walsh’s Sailor’s Luck showed a lisping attendant in a bathhouse, James Dunn notified his sea-faring friends: “Hey fellas, etgay the ansypay!” to which the ansypay responded, wiggling his five fingers, “Hi, sailors?”

     Back in The Warrior’s Husband, when the Greek army under Theseus (David Manners) invades in pursuit of the queen's "magic girdle"—the item that protects queen Hippolyta and her sister Antiope (the latter role played by Hepburn on stage)—the appearance of real men on the scene is strange and unnerving to the women of Pontus. Struck by Antiope's beauty Theseus woos her and, reluctantly at first, she falls in love with him. Realizing the value of male leadership, the Amazons willingly allow the men to assume control, and the gender of reality of 1930 is returned to the screen, relieving any fears that audience members may have had about the detrimental influences of Walter Lang’s film.

     As another commentator fatefully observes: “If The Warrior's Husband, quite racy for its time, had come along the following year it could not have been made as it was in 1933 prior to the Hays Code crackdown.

Los Angeles, October 30, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2021).

    

Lowell Sherman | Broadway Thru a Keyhole

the choice of flowers

by Douglas Messerli

C. Graham Baker, Gene Towne, and Walter Winchell (screenplay), Lowell Sherman (director) Broadway Thru a Keyhole / 1933

The sissy in Lowell Sherman’s 1933 film Broadway Thru a Keyhole appears for absolutely no reason as an interior decorator showing off a posh Park Avenue apartment where chicken racketeer Frank Rocci (Paul Kelly)—he charges the shippers of chickens to Manhattan a special fee for the protection of their animals on the way to market, arranging, if they fail to pay, unfortunate accidents en route—plans to put up his girlfriend singer/dancer Joan Whelan (Constance Cummings) until the day when he can free himself of criminal activities so that he might marry her.

     The interior decorator who shows them about the place (Fred Santley) only gets few words, the most notable being the sibilant excessive sentence “The drawing room is simply stunning, the last two words of which he draws out the first consonants into a long lisp. He has a brief argument with Rocci’s lieutenant Chuck Haskins (Hugh O’Connell) about a Ming vase which Haskins wants removed since it appears to have cracks, the decorator responding, when he hands it him, “Where do you want me to put it?” And the sissy decorator muses on why anyone might  want to put drapes over a set of metal shutters, offering Rocci a choice of colors which is quickly interrupted by the chatter of a machine gun, which having just pulled shut one of the previously inexplicable shutters saves the decorator’s, Rocci, Haskins’, and Joan’s lives. We are not told what happens to the sissy, but Rocci does tell Haskins to make sure he doesn’t talk about the incident, so perhaps as in so very many later after he is simply killed off.

      Yet, as in so very many of these heteronormative films of the early 1930s just before the Hays Code was taken seriously, there are numerous other gay references strewn about the film perhaps just to remind us, as I argue elsewhere, that gay men and lesbians were still part of the larger society. Soon after, if you mistakenly look to film to witness reality, LGBTQ figures disappeared from the planet. But here, even before making any reference to actual gay and lesbian stereotypes, Rocci sets up the film’s substantial pre-code patter by suggesting that Haskins order a selection of roses, pansies, and orchids to be strewn upon the grave of Esther and Joan Whelan’s mother, neighbors of Rocci as he grew up in the Bronx.

      Indeed, the selection of the three flowers, one might argue, covertly come to suggest the three forms of love that are expressed throughout the film, the roses representing, obviously, romantic love, the orchids suggesting fealty and commitment, and the pansies?: silly infatuation, insincere fondness of course, the rubric under which, were there to be any more than one at a time, sissies might express their love for their own kind. There isn’t any love between fairies in this film because they never appear together, which certainly would have been unallowable even as early as 1933. 

       Rocci, who after a visit from Joan’s older sister Esther finds a chorus-line job for the girl he knew when he was teenager, inevitably falling in love with Joan, sends her roses; while the owner of the of the Broadway night spot were Joan now works, Tex Kaley (the wonderful Texas Guinan) describes Joan’s love for Rocci—when Joan declares “He’s the best” even after having discovered that her new benefactor and would-be lover Rocci is a gangster—“Now that’s what I call orchids.”

    The pansies only appear now and then, as when chorus-line choreographer and director Max Mefoofski (Gregory Ratoff) exhorts his chlorines to “You’ve got to float over the floor like elves, like Peter pansies,” adding, “Not you Adolf, just the girls.”

      Earlier Joan does a lovely number with the other chlorines that might remind you of an entire chorus of Marlene Dietrichs if only they had any sexual allure to convey instead of their rote dance paces. And late in the film, returning home from Miami, Haskins’ saucy girlfriend Sybil Smith (the legendary early jazz and ragtime singer and later vaudevillian Blossom Seeley) dresses up in a Romaine Brooks-like lesbian attire which terrifies her boyfriend, fearing that if he kisses her people might not “understand.” When indeed somebody comments on their reunion kiss, he cracks, “Serves you right! Nobody knows you with pants on!”

      Thank heaven for these sparse pansy and female cross-dressing scenes, for without them this movie would be almost impossible to endure.

      Indeed the quick-witted humor of both Seeley and Guinan sustains the first half of this movie, particularly after it’s been made clear that Whelan’s and Rocci’s love can go nowhere given that she’s a trusting innocent and he, despite his criminal activities, is at heart an honorable man just waiting for the proper moment to announce his reformation.

      But then everything is postponed by rattles of that machine-gun, Rocci forced to send the “little women,” Smith and Whelan off to Miami for their own protection. There the former star of Minsky’s struts herself, picking up a stranger, Peanuts Dinwiddie (Hobart Cavanaugh), something close to a sissy, who takes the girls out for dinner and drinks where his friend radio crooner and bandleader Brian Clark (Russ Columbo) spots Joan and when he discovers who she is, invites her up to sing.

      Clark himself is fairly suspect as a possible male hero in this “find-the-macho-hero”-type film, he himself admitting that not only is he a chronic hypochondriac but is a “coward,” something about which he clearly is about to say more but is never given the opportunity to fully speak. As Vito Russo noted in The Celluloid Closet, even today in the fourth edition of Roget’s International Thesaurus the synonyms of the word “coward” include “weakling, weak sister, milksop, Milquetoast, mouse, and sissy,” by association, a homosexual.

       Instead of sending roses, Clark sends Whelan a gladiola corsage, certainly not the usual macho-inspired choice. And he spends the last half of the film having to prove his love of Joan  by traveling to New York, standing face to face with the criminal murderer and announcing his love for her and his right to take her from Rocci into marriage. Even Rocci has to admit that this mouse has finally roared and gives in, only to appear to go back on his word by kidnapping Joan, hiding her away in a hotel, and threatening to kill Clark if he comes after her.

       However, so we eventually discover through the “heroic efforts” of real-life journalist Walter Winchell—one of the writers of this strange romance—that Rocci, shot by the police in the event, was innocent, the real kidnapper and plotter of Rocci’s death (fortunately, he survives) having been his even more crooked partner, for whom when the police finally kill, as Rocci puts it, no flowers are necessary.

        So Joan can return to married life, about which Smith quips: “Marriage is a wonderful thing, no family should do without it. As for me, it’s carrying love a bit too far!”

       Based allegedly on the real-life love triangle between Al Jolson, Ruby Keeler, and mobster Johnny “Irish” Costello, Sherman’s film is mildly amusing only because of its “queer” figures, the heterosexual pairings offering up only yawns of disinterest. Clark may not be truly cowardly, but he’s hardly more than a pretty face who might have floated in as a Peter pansy, while Rocci’s nice guy social villain doesn’t quite know whether to put a rose into his mouth and dance a slow tango unto death or take up a machine gun and shoot down the audience for their obvious boredom whenever his image appears upon the screen. If the rumor of the source material is true, Jolson must have been ready to paint himself in blackface just to hide his blushing embarrassment. 

Los Angeles, October 29, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2021).

 

Friday, October 29, 2021

José Luis Torres Leiva | Vendrá la Muerte y Tendrá Tus Ojos (Death Will Come and Shall Have Your Eyes) / 2019

another story of love and dying

by Douglas Messerli

José Luis Torres Leiva (screenwriter and director) Vendrá la Muerte y Tendrá Tus Ojos (Death Will Come and Shall Have Your Eyes) / 2019

Chilean director José Luis Torres Leiva has created a work in his Vendrá la Muerte y Tendrá Tus Ojos (Death Will Come and Shall Have Your Eyes)—the title based on a poem by Italian writer Cesare Pavese—that might easily have slipped into good-willed sentimentalism given that its characters, Ana (Amparo Noguero) and María (Julieta Figueroa) are two late 40ish lesbians, one of whom (María) is suffering from terminal cancer and the film is basically a tracing of her progression into death. Even a few years ago, a Hollywood production who have drained any sexuality from their lesbian relationship in order to show how queers suffer just like heterosexual women, allowing them only a few sweet kisses while carting in and out their numerous straight male and female friends to wish María a well-deserved goodbye, perhaps with even a bit of sanguine pleasure in the fact that all LGBTQ figures just have to go before the camera shutter closes, and hinting, accordingly, that perhaps Ana may find a way back into the “wider” community (i.e. hook up with a sensitive straight guy who she’s always admired since “before” her sexual exploration).

     But Torres Leiva nearly bans all “well-wishers,” except for Ana’s quiet and profound-thinking sister, and dismisses any male admirers. This is a woman’s world where the two lovers can remain precisely that, two women expressing their love and regrets so openly and with such mixed feelings of hope and fear that at moments it is hard to believe this film isn’t a documentary. 

     Ana, who works as a nurse, is perhaps the perfect companion, moreover, for her lover who has determined to cease all further treatments and the two, choosing to spend the last few weeks or months of María’s life in an intense and quiet solitude where they can focus simply on one another, move to a hut in a forest still close enough that Ana can commute back and forth to work.

      In this special retreat, they face their own fierce love for one another, sometimes let loose of their tears, and at other moments, particularly in María’s case momentarily release her anger and frustration for having to be treated by her companion almost as a child. They listen to the sounds about them: the wind, the birdsong, the sea, and their own breathing, adding to it only their gentle comments during sometimes painful dressing and eating sessions and stories, two of which become central in reinforcing Torres Leiva’s LGBTQ-centric approach, pointing up distinctions that his film makes from so many hundreds of earlier films made by homophobic bigots or well-intentioned liberals, both of whom found ways around truly facing their characters’ and others’ queer sexualities.

     If there is any flaw in this beautiful work in which the director allows his camera to focus for long periods of time simply on the faces and bodies of his central characters, it may be these signifying stories, both of which have no central role in the lives of the lesbian characters upon whom the film focuses.

      Writing in The Guardian critic Cath Clarke argues: 

“Two sizable digressions in the middle spoil the film a little. One dramatises a strange fairytale María tells about a naked feral girl living alone in the forest; the other is a family story about her uncle. Both felt a bit generically arthouse, slightly awkward experiments.”

       But I would argue that these two unrelated episodes, not only help to reconnect these otherwise temporarily isolate figures with the larger community around them, but sets up paradigms for LGBTQ story-telling that might be useful to future directors whose works include queer figures of any kind.

      Late in the film, moreover, when Ana’s sister joins them for one of their last night’s in retreat, she suggests that the eerie light, the sound of María’s heavy breathing, and the wind around them reminds her of the many nights their spent as children in the days of military dictator August Pinochet under curfew, during which outside they would hear occasional gunshots and screams, each telling one another stories to help them get through the frightening nights. It is often just to storytelling that we often turn when we are have no answers of how to face the horrifying present and the unknowable future. And both of the stories told in this film seem somewhat like mythical tales that present an extraordinary occurrence that helps to heal and salve our fears.

       Both also take place is a wild outland such as that to where Ana and María have retreated. In the first tale María tells an old woman one days spots a wild child who has apparently been surviving like an animal in the jungle around her. Gently awakening the sleeping girl, the woman lures the animal-like child into her house through gentle strokes and words, offering her food, gently trimming her hair, and showering and cleaning her, but otherwise most specifically allowing the strange wild-child to remain just as she is, without demanding that she alter her ways to meet the expectations of the “developed” world who live outside and near the jungle in which the child has survived.

       One terribly rainy night, the old woman worries for the well-being of her new “friend,” placing a lamp in the window and also peering out to see if she might find her trying to make her way back to the protection of her house. What she does observe is the girl joyfully engaged with the heavy pelt of the raindrops, completely covered with mud but laughing and crying with pleasure for the natural downpour. It is an ecstasy that a so-called “civilized” person might never even have imagined, but so beautiful to observe that one might almost describe it as pleasure akin to sexual orgasm, so overwhelming enjoyable for the individual that one almost wants to pull one’s gaze away in shame for observing something so singularly meaningful. 

      One only has to recall François Truffaut’s film of 1970 about another wild-child, Victor of Aveyron who, taken in by the equally well-intentioned Dr. Jean Itard, instead of being left as he is, is gradually transformed into a version of the paternalistic, normalized version of a boy of French society who cannot help but feel tortured and fragmented from the being he was before his discovery, the same structures and concepts played out again in Werner Herzog’s Kaspar Hauser (1974) which, in this case, perhaps succeed in destroying the gifted child of that film.

     In the second story told by the two women of Torres Leiva’s film concerns María’s uncle (Ignacio Agüero), somewhat of an adventurer who always brought her gifts upon his many returns. A married man with three girls, the story tells of his awaiting his families’ arrival in a woodland vacation home, as he takes exploratory forays in the deep woods only to uncover a younger man (Edgardo Castro) swimming naked. Suddenly overcome with lust for the stranger, the two walk together in the woods for a while before engaging in a passionate sexual encounter, which the uncle later admits to his niece—the only one which he seems comfortable confessing his long held secret—was a completely transformative sexual experience he ever before or again encountered. The two men corresponded in secret for a long while before losing linguistic contact and the memory of their intense touches.

      Why, one wonders, in a work almost entirely focused upon the love of two women and in which there are no other significant male figures would the director have chosen to introduce a gay love scene, particularly one representing such passionate lovemaking.     

     In an interview with Cédric Succivalli for the ICS (International Cinephile Society) asks:     

“There is a gay sex scene right in the middle of the film that comes a little bit out of nowhere, which I really liked, but I would like you to expand on it. How did it build up? Why did you want to incorporate that gay encounter?

JLTL: For me this subplot is important because it talks about desire and the discovery of love and desire.”

     Still, one might ask, why chose a gay scene to show the love and desire that the ailing lesbian couple can no longer demonstrate having obviously occurred perhaps 20 years earlier in their life which has become the basis of their relationship?

     But then, the true wonder of Death Will Come and Shall Have Your Eyes is that it is not simply yet another lesbian film made by a male, but that it’s central figures seem so true to life because they are not defined by their sexual desires—just as María’s uncle was not—but upon the love between two bodies, one healthy and one ill, who come together to help and save each other. As the director himself summarized it elsewhere:

It’s a film which stresses bodies (healthy and ill) and faces like landscapes of human nature,” Leiva Torres commented. “It’s a film about love, death, family, the need to create close bonds which go beyond any condition or gender.”

     What is perhaps most interesting is not simply that Levia Torres was able to capture a beautiful lesbian relationship in action, but chose to represent his ideas about loved, death, family, and bonding firmly outside of the heteronormative majority which has always felt that it defined this territory, posting it firmly instead in queer territory.

     Still, one might ask, why chose a gay scene to show the love and desire that the ailing lesbian couple can no longer demonstrate having obviously occurred perhaps 20 years earlier in their life which has become the basis of their relationship?

                     For everyone death has a look.

                     Death will come with your eyes.

                     It will be like terminating a vice,

                     as seen in the mirror

                     a dead face re-emerging,

                     like listening to closed lips.                 

                     We'll go down the abyss in silence.

Los Angeles, October 28, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2021).

 

 

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Hal Roach | Turnabout

worshiping an idol

by Douglas Messerli

Mickell Novack, Berne Giler, and John McClain, with Rain James (screenplay, based on a fiction by Thorne Smith), Hal Roach (director) Turnabout / 1940

Hal Roach’s 1940 film Turnabout is described by Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet as a “harmless sex-role farce,” a film which, in fact, is not truly an LGBTQ film nor even a cross-dressing comedy, although the argumentative happy couple at the center do change “voices” and, almost incidentally, normative male/female attire; basically, however, it is closer to the kind of early feminist films such as Alice Guy Blaché The Consequences of Feminism (1906) and Clyde Cook’s What’s the World Coming To? (1926) or The Warrior’s Husband (1933) intended to explore alternate world views rather than focusing simply on the comic potentialities of switching the roles of male and females to express imitation or confusion in a reversal of sex or gender—definitely something that might rile conservative establishments such as the Breen office and the Legion of Decency without actually breaking any of the written rules of the Hays Code.

     Yet critic Richard Barrios not only devotes several pages to this work, but features a photograph from it on cover of his insightful Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall, revealing just how delimiting both the Hays Code and the PCA (the Production Code Administration) had become beginning in 1934. Barrios joyfully lays the blame on one of the greatest of on-screen sissies, Franklin Pangborn, who, he points out had 26 roles in 1937 alone, many of them movie sissies. It’s clear that Pangborn had long been on Joseph Breen’s radar. It was one thing to be a sissy but to represent an actual interchange or relationship between a heterosexual and such a deviate figure was most certainly, in Breen’s vision, against the rules. 

      In this case Pangborn plays the head of a company who hopes to use of the services of the Manning, Willows, and Clare advertising company. The Pangborn character, deferentially named for the significant sissy Pingboom does not like the services of Pil Manning (Adolpe Menjou) or Joel Clare (William Gargan), the first a closet alcoholic and the second a confused business idiot, but will not be satisfied until he meets with Tim Willows (John Hubbard), a truly homophobic jock who outrightly admits “I don’t like swishers” and is afraid if he meets with Pingboom he might slug him within minutes. Knowing this, certainly detracts from any of the comic charm of the hero of our story, who keeps throwing his detested pansy into the arms of Manning and Clare; but the day Pingboom has insisted that he must meet with Willows on the very same day that—frustrated with each other’s complaints about their daily lives and each claiming he or she would love to live each other’s “easier” lives—the Willow couple Tim and Sally (Carole Landis) are transformed by their bedroom sculptured “idol” Mr. Ram (Georges Renavent) who comes alive to grant their mutual wish.

      While Tim cannot bear to be in the same room with the sissy, Sally playing Tim for the day obviously finds him a kindred soul, the two getting so nicely that Pingboom joyfully pays out $10,000 for an add while chastising Manning and Clare for their rudeness. Evidently, his company makes women’s stockings, and in the film version we have today, Tim/Sally can be seen lovingly holding a stocking as he appreciatively admires Pingboom’s demeanor, the two obviously having become good friends. In the original, apparently, their friendship went even further, verging, Barrios describes it, “perilously and amusingly on gay bonding. ‘They’ve kept us apart too long,’ Pingboom gushes, as the bond between client and employee seems to spill into the personal arena.”

      Breen wrote director Hal Roach, “This characterization of Mr. Pingboom as a “pansy” is absolutely unacceptable, and must be omitted from the finished picture. If there is any such flavor, either in casting, direction, or dialogue, we will be unable to approve the picture.” Nor was he willing to permit Tim’s characterization of Pingboom as a “petunia” or his statement “The guy swishes, and I don’t like swishes.”—an admonition with which most of the gay community today might agree, but for very different reasons. Even the stage direction “he flutters out” was verboten.

      Although there is plenty of winking and nodding by all his associates about Tim’s sudden female affectations, particularly his high voice which they winkingly describe as laryngitis, the rest of the film is pretty uninteresting. Sally as Tim, somewhat inexplicable, takes umbrage on her husband and his associates use of two women who pretend to be Tim’s relatives who fawn over another client who is planning to cut his spending for his pineapple juice account, and spoils the deal which consists of one of his largest accounts.

      Tim playing Sally, in turn, bored with the chit-chat of his associates’ wives who admit how they lie and cheat on their husband regarding their clothing allowances, that she/he tells them how their bedtime attire of mudpacks and hot water bottles makes them sexually undesirable to their husbands, Sally’s “friends,” in turn, wondering how she has come by this information if she hasn’t been meeting up with their husbands on the sly, accordingly, cutting off all further relationships with their former luncheon companion.

      All of this is rather bland stuff compared with the Pingboom / Tim romance, and once the married couple, distressed by their shift in identities pray for the idol to turn them back into themselves, they quickly work to fix up the problems they created for one another during the day. But the Pingboom “affair,” even as censored, isn’t so easily washed over, and the Hays committee and the Legion of Decency folk were so busy worrying about how Roach might try to get around them, they almost forgot that at film’s end, Ram is able to change back everything—but forgets to reassign Sally’s pregnancy, leaving the delivery to jocko Tim. That switch remains in the final version of the film we still have today, to be repeated later in Jacques Demy’s A Slightly Pregnant Man (1973) and earlier in Michael Gordon’s representation of Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk (1959).

      I’m not sure that, in hindsight, Roach’s Turnabout, even without its substantive cuts, is something of great interest, although with a cast that includes Pangborn, Landis, Menjou, Mary Astor (as Marion Manning), Donald Meek as the valet, and Marjorie Main, once more playing a cook, one could certainly do worse.

      But I do love Barrios’ insistence given the dark days of queer hysteria that had descended upon Hollywood that “you can still feel, as Roach puts Landis and Hubbard and the cast through their fey-frenetic paces, the cheerful whiff of sedition in the air.” For the next couple of decades you had either to read between the lines or find a way to watch the growing independent film world of Curtis Harrington, Kenneth Anger, and those who followed. 

Los Angeles, October 27, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2021).