Saturday, November 27, 2021

Robert Wiene | Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari)

a great big beautiful doll

by Douglas Messerli

Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer (writers), Robert Wiene (director) Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) / 1920

As anyone who has seen Robert Wiene’s strange German Expressionist film of 1920 will remember, the first half of the film deals with a mad doctor, Caligari, who, it is later revealed, runs the local lunatic asylum. The “cabinet” of  Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) reveals, through his journal and revered book, that he has become obsessed with a story about another doctor and his somnambulant subject whom he uses to destroy those who cross him or even question his power. Repeating the historical doctor’s experiments, Caligari becomes the mad doctor of history, creating havoc in the small town of Holstenwall as first the town registrar and, later, another young man are murdered.

     As the film critic Siegfried Kracauer argues, the script was originally an indictment of the war-time German government and their lust for power, to which the director added a framing device—in which his character, Francis, tells a horror story that, it is revealed late in the film, is one of his own imagining. In fact, the man he believes is Caligari is simply the head of the asylum in which Francis is incarcerated, argues the critic, along with the very figures he has described, the woman he characterizes as his fiancée Jane and the somnambulant Cesare (Conrad Veidt)—all of which, so Kracauer argues, obliterates Mayer’s and Janowitz’s more subversive script.

      Frankly, I don’t read this film as Kracauer did. Indeed, I see it even more frightening that our “hero” has apparently been locked away under the control of the man he believes to be the evil Caligari; and the doctor’s proclamation at the end of the film, “Now I know how to cure him,” seems to me less of a rational announcement than a threat that Francis may soon also become one of the living dead. But then, at the beginning of the 21st century, it may be that we find it harder to believe in even normal-seeming systems.

     This is, however, quite obviously a matter of interpretation: in either case, the core story is a horrific tale of mad power and perverted love. For it is clear that, like the creators of other monstrous figures (Frankenstein, for example), Caligari seeks through his acolyte, Cesare, control over those about him, and that Cesare serves him as a kind of passive son-lover, whose intense beauty covers for the ugliness of Caligari’s own aspect.

     It is these concerns which lead the devious doctor to want to show off his “creation” at the fair, and like all such other power-seekers, to bring attention to his own evil acts. It is never enough that the creator control the surrounding world, he necessarily must show that embodiment of power to the world, demonstrating his mad desires become flesh.

     The real cabinet of Dr. Caligari, accordingly, is not the closed shelf in which lies the evidence of his crimes, but the small tent and coffin-like container wherein he keeps the sleeping beauty over whom he has such power. In short, Caligari is willing to risk everything simply to show off his achievement: the encapsulation of all that others may desire—beauty and knowledge.

      The important question of this film, accordingly, does not seem to me to be about whether or not the doctor is actually Caligari, or if Francis is sane or mad, but why Caligari—real or imaginary—is willing to risk everything by putting his “doll”—one must remember that when he sends Cesare out to do his evil murders, he replaces his sleeping friend with a dummy—on such obvious display.

     Why do so very many successful heterosexual businessmen trot out beautiful wives at every possible social event and occasion when others of equal power are gathered. Obviously they see their wives not as individual beings with whom they have equally joined in marriage but as extensions of themselves which through marriage, a contract of supposed desire, proves their value.

      For the ugly Caligari the attractive asexual-looking Cesare, with his heavily made-up eyes, his rouged lips and cheeks, and his lean body represents his own kind of trophy wife, which also perhaps reveals his obvious homosexuality. Yet the true horror here is that he behaves toward his male lover just as would the worst heteronormative patriarch. Like so many wives of the day, Cesare does what he has told as if under a hypnotic trance, not even pausing to question the murderous actions with which he’s also been charged. But by enacting those wishes, Cesare proves time and again, in Caligari’s thinking, his love for and devotion to his master. To hide the fact that Dr. Caligari is capable of keeping such an attractive obedient robot-like human near would be to reject all evidence his own masculinity and virility, even it appears to the community as something outside the heteronormative husband-wife relationship and, therefore, perverse, worthy of showing off only in a carnival-like atmosphere.

     Cesare, whatever else he represents to others, however, is for Caligari a kind of great big beautiful doll who has been brought under the spell of this otherwise unlikeable, physically unattractive pretender. And if he is unable to display his “beauty” to others then it has no purpose. There obviously are other, possibly even easier ways to get rid of one’s foes. His ability to use Cesare for that purpose is simply another secret benefit. The true importance of Cesare is that he appears completely under Caligari’s control which, for a man who does not really know love, is his definition of being loved and loving.

      Critic Harry M. Benshoof in his Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film describes Caligari’s “puppet” as a homoerotic figure, but I go further in arguing that he is a perverted sexual representation of the Doctor’s desires, a lover who transcends simple representation, even if he may only keep him like a doll in a box, acting out no sexual performances upon him. Carrying him about, touching him, displaying him are all the sensual stimulations that Caligari needs for his satisfaction.  And in that sense Wiene’s 1920 film is perhaps the first full exploration of queer sexual desire represented as a thing of horror.

      Whether or not Cesare, Caligari, and others are simply manifestations of Francis’ imagination, they exist as a true representation of sexual horror within the context of the traditional German values of the small city in which this story takes place. Fantasy becomes reality in Wiene’s oddly warped and misshapen universe as presented through the set and costume decorations of  Walter Reimann, Walter Röhrig, and Hermann Warm. And like so very many images of fantasy, they can quickly be perceived in their mad singular or even collective actuation as horrific.

Los Angeles, August 12, 2002, revised November 17, 2021

Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (October 2008).

F. W. Murnau | Nosferatu

soil of the damned

by Douglas Messerli 

Henrik Galeen (screenplay, based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula), F. W. Murnau (director) Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror) / 1922, USA 1929, the showing I saw was at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood on October 28, 2012 

Although the recent showing I saw of Murnau’s great film, Nosferatu, was clearly timed for the Halloween season, I was struck in watching it the other afternoon that, in many senses the film—despite its awe-full and horrifying images—is not really a horror film in the way the genre has come to be defined. Yes, there a monster of sorts who destroys a large number of people; there are isolated landscapes, as in the later Dracula and Frankenstein, that gives one goose-bumps. There is even, as in Lang’s M, a terrifying chase scene that reveals the evils not only of the figure being chased—in this case the mad real-estate broker, Knock—but the blood-thirsty crowd behind him. Yet, not for one moment was I really terrified.     

     That is not to say that Murnau’s startling images were not effective, but their intent lies more in the psychological world than in the supernatural or metaphysical realm. As several critics have pointed out, this film’s monster, Count Orlok (Max Schreck) is such a misshapen figure—with his bulbous nose and outsized ears, the sad indentations of his eyes, the one or two remaining fangs he has left, and those dangling tentacles of fingers bound to his body-hugging thin arms cramped, clearly by too many millenniums spent lying in the coffin—that we feel more sympathy and sorrow for him than detestation or fear. His mad disciple, Knock (Alexander Granach) is far more horrific.

    This monster also seems far more symbolic, in some senses, than real—a necessity for true horror. And Orlok’s demands and actions bring with them more questions than simple evil intent. For example, one must immediately ask, why has Orlok suddenly decided to leave his Transylvanian retreat for a decrepit warehouse in Wisborg, Germany? One presumes that in his current situation, with the fearful peasants wised-up to his dangers, that he simply cannot get enough blood where he currently lives. 

     Hutter’s (Gustav von Wangenheim) accidental cutting of his finger at Orlok’s dinner table creates in this poor beast almost a fury of lust as Orlok almost swoons in his descent to suck it up. Murnau turns this act—in response to which Hutter backs away in almost moral disgust—into one of the most homoerotic scenes in all of silent film-making. And while we are on that subject, why does Hutter, when no one else does, survive Orlok’s bites? One has to suppose that Orlok, despite his appetite for the handsome Hutter, has determined to let him live, perhaps simply for embodying all the beauty that Orlok lacks. But clearly, given the puncture wounds on Hutter's neck, Orlok has spent at least part of night in bed with his beautiful guest.  

     Certainly, it would have been far easier, given, as we are later told, the vampire’s requirements of traveling consist not only with his own coffin but several others containing the damned soil of his homeland in which he nightly is buried, to have stayed a few more nights with Hutter dining in his blood. 

    Orlok’s travel may have been determined by Stoker’s fiction, but it fits the pattern of Murnau’s films. Upon regaining his youth, Faust migrates across Europe in a series of sexual orgies before returning to his homeland, where he brings his contagion with him, dooming the innocent Gretchen. Similarly, in Sunrise the county bumpkin, tempted by the woman from the city, dares a voyage to a new territory where he is not meant to be before returning to the peace of country life. In Tabu it is the white intruders who destroy the island serenity. Just as Murnau, in his films, often moves out of the studio into a real world that expands the German Expressionist staples of dark shadows and exaggerated angles into the landscape shared by the audience itself, so do different cultures in his movies effect each other, bringing about, sometimes, calamitous events.

    Throughout the early scenes of Nosferatu Hutter and others describe Transylvania as a world of “thieves and ghosts,” a world of dangerously unscientific thinking—particularly compared with the professorial demonstrations of Sievers (Gustav Botz) within the German university. Even a book from that soiled world is a dangerous commodity, against which Hutter warns his wife and, in the end, is Ellen’s (Greta Schröder) undoing, as she convinces herself, after reading it, that she must sacrifice her life to destroy Orlok. Orlok may describe Ellen’s neck as being beautiful, but, at least to my taste, the actress Schröder is no great beauty; at moments she looks almost as if she were a male in drag. And Orlok seems to have as much taste for sailors and the Hutter’s neighbors as he does for Ellen herself, who, perhaps unnecessarily, gives up her life to assure the monster's death.

      Nosferatu, accordingly, is less about supernatural evil than it is about social and intellectual contagion, symbolized by the plague Orlok brings with him, symbolized most notably by the thousands of rats brings with him, the harbinger of plagues. The small town of Wisborg and Germany in general are infected with the outsider’s ways more than by Orlok’s acts. They become like the superstitious “thieves and ghosts” of Transylvania racing through their streets, Murnau’s fluid camera transcending to the skies, as the villagers chase after Knock.

      Ultimately, it is not Orlok himself who is so dangerous—he, after all, unlike Stoker’s Dracula, can be destroyed by a single ray of sunlight—but that which he represents or signifies. As Murnau shows us, Orlok’s shadow—most vampires do not present themselves as shadows, are not visible in mirrors, whereas in the last scenes Orlok is seen in both shadow and mirror—is more horrific, I would argue, than his bite.

     The horror of this tale, accordingly, is more about an infection of inferior thinking than it is about the fangs of a vampire or an infestation of rats. Given those very attitudes of the German people just a few years later, with their belief in the "pure" German and their perception of Jews, gays—Murnau himself suffering the restrictions of homosexuals far ahead of this period—and Gypsies as "dangerous" outsiders, we comprehend the true horror of this wonderful work of cinema-making.

      And in that fact, the suggestion that it is the “contagion” that Orlok, the outsider, brings with him that represents the true terror faced by the traditional culture, we recognize that Murnau’s vampire is very much a figure which emblematicizes homosexuality, signifying danger to the heteronormative society. We might almost argue that with this film and James Whale’s horror films of almost a decade later we begin to see the use of the horror genre as a convenient cover or coding tool to discuss all things queer and outside of hetero-normalcy and the cultural and political values that go along with that. Since to the conservative heterosexual society homosexuality was already a monstrosity, it was an easy transition to cloak gay and lesbian outsiderness within the developing horror genre. And perhaps no film makes this more obviously than Murnau’s symphony of horror.

Los Angeles, October 30, 2012

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2012).

Friday, November 26, 2021

Frank Borzage | Young As You Feel

rediscovering youth

by Douglas Messerli

Edwin J. Burke (screenplay, based on a play by George Ade), Frank Borzage (director) Young As You Feel / 1931

Frank Borzage’s Young As You Feel is a slight comedy of the “you’re as young as feel”-genre with the “aw shucks” wit Will Rogers playing the role of the Chicago meatpacking tycoon Lemuel Morehouse, a man who is so consistent and precise in his daily habits the servants wonder at the fact that it appears their master has changed his habit of sneezing just before the hour he enters the room for breakfast to just after the hour as he descends the stairs to the dining room. You can tell the time by when he swallows his cereal, egg, and pills.

     Of his two sons, Billy (Don Dillaway) is a social butterfly who spends many a night at parties, arriving home just as his father finishes his breakfast, planning to sleep most of the day instead of showing up to the office for which he paid a regular salary. The younger son, Tom (Terrance Ray) is a sports buff, who at the very same moment when Billy returns home he is off to the golf course, planning to return to the office, presumably by late afternoon.

      The indulgent Lemuel can’t even get them to sit down for a moment to talk with their lonely father, both gently mocking him for his regulated behavior. His business partner Noah Marley—reminding one a bit of Scrooge’s business partner Jacob Marley in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol—reprimands him for not taking a stronger position with regard to his sons’ disregard for the business which pays for their extravagant lifestyles.

       Indeed, Tom has apparently just made a significant contribution to his golf club and Billy has purchased an experimental sculpture—actually a piece of junk fashioned as a burial memorial sold to him by the supposed art expert Colonel Stanhope (John T. Murray), a fraudulent expect on everything artistic and legal—which he is about to unveil as a gift to the city in order to help establish his social position.

      When Lemuel returns home after his day at work, he is met at door by a temporarily hired butler, who refuses him entry to his own home without an invitation. The gentle “pater” simply smiles and walks around to the back of the house where he is met by his real butler Robbins (Brandon Hurst) who has prepared his weekly teaspoon of champagne along with his nightly milk and apple.

      Downstairs, meanwhile, a party is going on in which Billy’s attention is immediately demanded by the obviously gay Russian poet Petrov who wants to read him the “exquisite text” he’s written on the sculpture, and at which most of the men spend their time flirting with one another instead of the female guests. As the evening’s singer Fleurette (Fifi D’Orsay) describes one version of the downstairs visitors: “Whoooo! He’s absolutely vibrant!” as she leans to one side, puts her hand on her hip and shakes her hips. 

      It is the arrival of Fleurette, who has been sent upstairs to change her dress, that changes everything for the 50-some year old Lemuel who discovers her half-naked in his own bedroom and takes up a joyful conversation with her the like of which he has been seeking all day. Indeed, on this day everything seems to have changed for him, one pill having been delivered a minute late, and he himself having no desire, as he does each day, to pay a game of checkers with Marley and able to get up to the nerve to tell him he simply wasn’t interested. 

      In his room with Fleurette he shares an entire bottle of Champagne and orders up another bottle from the shocked Robbins before, having been enticed to join the party going on in his own house, stopping the action as everyone turns to watch him, dressed in his funeral suit, drunkenly descending the grand staircase.

      Before his sons can even close their mouths from their stunned reaction, Lemuel joins up with Fleurette for a week of wild living, like his sons, arriving home early each morning and on many days not even bothering to show up at his office. They are quickly convinced that she is enticing him into a relationship that will end in blackmail.

      When Fleurette tells him that she has permitted Stanhope to sell her small plot of land in Colorado, Lemuel, having discovered the sculptural fraud Stanhope has involved his own son, he decides to join her in Colorado where she is going in hopes of getting back the money the crook has made from selling her property.

      When the sons—now dating the visiting Gregson sisters, Dorothy (Lucile Browne) and Rose (Rosalie Roy), the daughters of one of their father’s old friends—fearful that their “pater” will lose thousands of dollars, join forces with Marley and with their new girlfriends fly off the Colorado hotel along with the detectives who discovered their father’s whereabouts with the hope of halting the blackmail plot before it’s too late.

       From the moment he arrives in Colorado Lemuel shifts into action, after accosting Stanhope and discovering that the “art connoisseur” plans to pay Fleurette only $2,000 of the $40,000 he made on the sale of her land, arranging for the delivery of a large stone rock to the hotel lobby where government agents have returned Stanhope before he can escape. The beef tycoon announces his own unveiling to the hotel residents and the deliverers of the rock, suggesting that it might be beneficial for Stanhope to buy his new sculptural masterpiece, “Washington Crossing the Delaware” for $40,000, so that he might not be taken away to a new home in prison by the thugs who stand on either side of him. And thus he hands over the full amount to Fleurette which she plans to send home to mother.

      To thank her dear friend,  Fleurette, always flirtatious, finally gets him to her room in order to thank him, but at the very moment her husband suddenly appears, Lemuel convinced that finally he has met up with the moment of blackmail he has long expected. Taking out his checkbook to pay the amount they demand, both are shocked by his suspicions. They have fought and broken up only because of jealousy, Fleurette in particular becoming angry to his belief that she would take advantage of her dear friend. And when her husband discovers that they simply friends, he too takes umbrage at the businessman’s implications. Lemuel asks for their forgiveness, and all is about to end happily until his sons, business partner, the Gregson sisters, and detectives barge in.

       Lemuel explains, finally, that he at first began his odd behavior, imitating his son’s lives in order to teach his boys a lesson; but in fact he learned a lesson himself, that age is merely a word to which has been attached a requisite prescription. He feels suddenly as young as a 20-year-old and wants to die as an infant. His next stop is Paris via a long ship cruise. On the deck he stands with his arms about Fleurette and her husband as Marley suddenly shows up with two young women, all of them waving goodbye to Billy and Tom and Dorothy and Rose who may now settle down to the regular routine that their elders have left behind.

      As in many of this director’s films the romantic life finds a way to survive even under seemingly impossible conditions, but this is hardly the best example of his increasingly outdated convictions.


Los Angeles, November 16, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2021).

Frank Capra | The Matinee Idol

washing away the mask

by Douglas Messerli 

Elmer Harris (screenplay, adapted from a work by Robert Lord and Ernest S. Pagano; with continuity by Peter Milne), Frank Capra (director) The Matinee Idol / 1928, restored 1997 

Frank Capra’s silent film of 1928, The Matinee Idol, was long thought to be lost, and was only rediscovered by accident when Cinémathèque Française in the late 1990s was given a gift of old films kept in a weed-covered out-building. The was restored in 1997 and is now housed by the Cinémathèque Française and Cineteca di Bologna. A DVD of the restoration is now available from Columbia Pictures.

     This film is interesting in how it reveals Capra’s early development, in particular his sense of the injustices against the “common man,” as he would describe it, even if his vision of everyday American life is perhaps based on a mythologized vision that parallels other such celebrations of common day life by sentimentalists such as Norman Rockwell and populist writers.

      But this film is perhaps even more important for its reiteration of early 20th century racism—the film’s hero, Don Wilson (Johnnie Walker) is a popular actor who performs in blackface like Al Jolson—and its remarkable depiction of a gay sissy that does not at all conform to the standard cinematic representations of the day. 

     The general plot is quite a simple one. Worn out from his performances, Wilson’s producer, director, and a friend have suggested that he take off a weekend for a country trip, where the four of them accidentally come across the local theater presentation which seemingly draws a crowd of nearly the entire community. By accident, Wilson, mistaken for an actor seeking work, is signed up to take a small role in the play, speaking only he lines of a dying soldier, “I love you,” which is answered by a kiss on the lips by Ginger (Bessie Love), playing his girlfriend. The visiting New Yorkers howl at the performances’ numerous gaffs while the locals sit in total wonderment and enjoyment throughout the play, revealing in fact the true lack of recognition of what lies at the heart of theater by the supposedly “sophisticated” city folk.

      Ginger’s theatrical presentation is an immense hit in the provincial town in which she and her father, the writer of the play Jasper Bolivar (Lionel Belmore), reside, where the “lower class” hicks appear to take history—even punctuated as it is in the Bolivar company production with melodramatic flourishes and theatrical mishaps—far more seriously and treat the storytellers/actors with greater reverence than the New York audiences who simply laugh at and deride their art because of its honest primitiveness.

      Cruelly, the visitors together determine to take the whole company to New York to perform in Wilson’s play as a comic routine—without revealing to the actors, of course, their true intentions. Although Wilson is fired after his performance, in part for contributing to the comic elements of the production by his seeming ineptitude and his repetition of the words “I love you” so that he might be kissed by the pretty local girl again and again, his cronies deviously demand that the entire cast be retained, forcing the actor to play two roles, the New York blackface artist and the happenstance actor who has given Ginger the name of Harry Mann.

     Although we certainly recognize this film’s use of blackface as yet another example of early 20th century US racism, because this is a silent film we do not have to encounter the vocal imitation of a white man pretending to intone the dialect and linguistic choices of a black man nor listen to any racial comments made on the side to his audiences. Basically, the blackface is used in this film as a mask or cover to hide the real identity of Wilson from Ginger with whom he has fallen in love. Moreover, in the last part of the film, when Wilson in blackface is necessarily forced to “replace” Harry Mann on stage in the Civil War drama headed by Ginger and her theatrical company, the representation of a black within the context of the play takes on new significance. And later, when sorry for his abuse of the girl and her theatrical troupe, he tries to salve her anger as she stubbornly stands in the rain, his disguise washes away to reveal another being beneath his makeup, an incident which long before Ralph Ellison’s transformational exploration of black identity in a majority white world, hints at that same invisibility while at the simultaneously making a rather ironic indictment about it since the figure in this case is a white man pretending to be black.

      Just as interesting, the regular small town company members treat one another with a kind of innocent respect that appears the city folk cannot imagine. In particular, one of the actors, Eric Barrymaine (David Mir), who we first discover crouched inside his suitcase—either suggesting he is attempting to dress in utter solitude or hinting at his totally closeted existence, perhaps both—is clearly what the other films I discuss of this period would label as a true sissy, or, given his continued effeminate behavior throughout might even describe him as “flaming queer queen.” The intertitles introduce him with the words: “Eric Barrymaine—who played deep-dyed villains with a soprano voice....”

     Nonetheless, his peers who describe him as a great actor do not even seem to notice any oddities about his behavior, and are stymied when Harry/Don disparagingly asks about him, “Who is that, Helen of Troy?”

     As Richard Barrios has written about this fascinating figure in his book Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall

“Whatever his personal life or theatrical gifts (his bows look more like curtsies), outsiders. ...Later, when he first sets foot in a Broadway theater, a burly stagehand immediately gets the message, suddenly mincing, batting his eyes, waving one hand flittingly, and calling out, ‘Whoops, dearie!’ Eric, who doesn’t understand this mockery, seems hurt and confused—Capra seems to imply that the man is still a stranger to his own sexuality, or at least to the stereotypes he seems to evoke.” 

     Taking it even further, for a masquerade party which Wilson throws to introduce his New York cronies to the country bumpkins, Eric dons a Mary Pickford wig of curls and a short dress without his peers even bothering to comment on his choices. Much like the lesbian couple working with the theater company in another Bessie Love vehicle, Charles Reisner’s Chasing Rainbows (1930), or like the sissy stage manager Clarence in Al Boasberg’s 1933 film Myrt and Marge, the homosexual figure in Capra’s film has been totally assimilated into the society of his fellow small town thespians, who not only don’t seem to mind but don’t even register his “differences,” while fully recognizing his special talents. 

      Reminding ourselves that this film was almost lost, we might well wonder, as Barrios suggests, how many other films of the period, lost or forgotten, took such far different attitudes toward queer behavior. Given the late date of its rediscovery, Vito Russo could not have known of this movie, and he makes no mention of either Chasing Rainbows or Myrt and Marge in his The Celluloid Closet; yet these films demonstrate that at least on a few occasions, but perhaps far more than we still recognize, LGBTQ figures were not simply derided, dismissed, or killed off in the movies in which they appeared, but were loved and embraced by the smaller societies in which they thrived. It is precisely this “other” view of homosexuality and simply the vast numbers of gay characters presented on film, negatively and positively portrayed, that led me to explore this terrain in such a maniacal manner. No matter what one thought of homosexuality and other disparate sexualities, they mattered enough to catch and present their images over and over on celluloid. And the very codes created to obliterate their existence only appeared to encourage directors and writers to find news ways of demonstrating their power in a society that generally did not wish to be reminded of their existence. 

Los Angeles, November 26, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2021).

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Harry Beaumont | The Broadway Melody

the lavender door

by Douglas Messerli

Edmund Goulding (screenplay, with dialogue by Norman Houston and James Gleason, continuity by Sarah Y. Mason), Harry Beaumont (director) The Broadway Melody / 1929

Long before two sisters from Ohio arrived in New York City—one of them determined to become an actor, while the elder, less conventionally attractive one serves as their manager—and seeing their new quarters lament their decision to have left home in works adapted from Ruth McKenney’s stories remade into the play and movies My Sister Eileen (1940 on stage and 1942 and 1955 on film) and Leonard Bernstein’s hit Broadway musical Wonderful Town (1953), the Michigan sisters Hank (Harriet) Mahoney (Bessie Love) and Queenie (Anita Page) settle down with anticipation and second thoughts in a barren Empire city hotel room where they plan to take up residence until they make it as a singing-dancing duo on Broadway. They have an advantage of knowing Hank’s old boyfriend Eddie Kearns (Charles King), who has pioneered the Broadway trek and made it good, with noted producer Francis Zanfield (Eddie Kane) having just bought one of Eddie’s new songs, “The Broadway Melody” which he plans to perform with the two sisters in Zanfield’s upcoming production. They are at a disadvantage for having a lack of talent that they couldn’t even imagine.

     Their wailings and clumsy moves almost get them thrown out of their audition, Zanfield keeping on Queenie for his show only because of her looks. When Queenie hears the news she quietly makes a deal with Zanfield to keep his sister in the act if the two work for one paycheck, begging him, when he agrees, not to let her managerial sister know about the bargain deal. He agrees and Hank pushing her way into the pretend contractual details is delighted for the easy negotiations. But soon after, in rehearsals, even their paltry breakout scene with Eddie is cut, and the girls are almost ready to be tossed back onto the streets until a leggy blonde falls from platform upon which she stands as eye candy while a self-centered tenor warbles out a song below, as Queenie is quickly whisked into her place. 

      Except for several stagey but unspectacular theater numbers with songs by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown—the scenes that evidently helped this basically bland movie offering win the Academy Best Picture Award, the first given to a sound film—that pretty much sums up this piece.

      The rest of the work consists of a meaningless melodramatic story wherein the film’s dominant threesome, Eddie, Hank, and Queenie—all deeply caring for one another, torture their fellow lover and sisters in order to protect them from the truth. Although Eddie and Hank begin the film as a couple destined to marry, upon seeing the grown up Queenie, Eddie is unable to resist her and she him, both he and Queenie, however, so determined not to let Hank know that they create rifts in their relationships, Queenie in particular pretending to be interested in the attentions of the wealthy cad Jacques Warriner (Kenneth Thomson) who awards his new girlfriend with a diamond bracelet, an glamorous apartment and other promised gifts in exchange for.... She, Hank, Eddie, and we all know what it will end up, which is why the motherly Hank and Eddie—who sees Warriner as a challenger—gang up against Queenie to protect her, she, in turn, insisting upon courting Warriner to hide the truth of her and Eddie’s newfound love from Hank.   

      Only when, at the last moment, Hank puts the missing links together does she pretend to be disinterested in Eddie sending him off to save Queenie from the final coils of the reptilian playboy around her lovely body. Eddie rushes into the room where Warriner is engaged in making his pass  to save the day, but leaves it with a sore cheek where the villain has slugged him, and a bad hip where Warriner’s guest have landed him on the hallway floor. But Queenie. finally ready to fess up to their love, leaves with him, and soon after the two are married, Hank having gone back on the local vaudeville circuit, unable to shake her gypsy theatrical aspirations.

       Indeed, the whole film is rather uninspired and not a great deal of fun, except for the backstage goings on where, for example, after the narcissistic tenor keeps demanding that the spotlight be thrown upon him, the lighting operator literally throws the spotlight down upon the singer, nearly killing him. Hank and a nasty blonde chorine have several near-cat fights as the blonde, Flo (Mary Doran) finds ways to deter Hank and Queenie’s act; by the end of the film, ironically, Hank has joined up with the nasty peroxide-minded girl to tour the provinces. Indeed, the film seems determined to make fun of it stereotyped subluminaries as it mocks the speech impediment of the girl’s stuttering uncle Jed (Jed Prouty); the endless drunkenness of one of Zanfield’s investors who his partner has nicknamed “Unconscious,” a man so confused that he will evidently follow anyone male or female off for an imaged sexual interlude; and, most importantly, the gay sissy costume designer Del Turpe (Drew Demarest) who is given a far meatier role (with three long scenes) that would be allowed a year later after the more codified but still not entirely enforced list of moral and sexual restrictions took effect.

      By 1930 panzes, as sissies were described, were not allowed to have general contact or verbal communication with their heterosexual counterparts, while in this 1929 film Del has full conversations with his straight adversaries, at one point after he leaves in a huff, a chorus girl intoning: “Don’t mind him. She’s just one of us.” If she is mocking the gay costumer as being “one of the girls” she is nonetheless expressing a kinship with a gay man rather than the utter segregation of such figures that will occur only a few months later.

       The two scenes in which Demarest “shines” have been quoted fully in both Vito Russo’s and Richard Barrios’ compendious studies of early queer cinema, so I won’t repeat them again in full. One involves the outlandish large hats he has created for his chorus girls, who find it difficult to wear without crushing as they leave their dressing room for the stage, the fact of which brings the fussy designer into confrontation with their careless exit. A large-framed wardrobe mistress (a figure that in later prison movies might be perceived as a lesbian bull-dyke), however, stands in his way, hands on hips, to remind him “Say, listen. I told you they were too high and too wide.”

        Clearly used to her assaults, Del hissingly retorts: “Well, big woman, I design the costumes for the show not the doors for the theater.”

        Big woman comes back at him: “I know that. If you had, they’d have been done in lavender.”

        Yes this is offensive, relying on the fact that we know that by associating him with the color lavender, she was really throwing back in his face something close today to calling him a faggot. But somehow the very fact that his scene and others in the film call the viewers’ attention to the fact that there are gay men and possibly lesbian women working in the theater is of far greater importance than any name-calling involved. Even if they are represented as absurd figures of derision, gays are not yet entirely invisible on the screen in 1929 (or throughout the early 1930s before the code got serious in 1934, banning even sissies from celluloid).

       In the first scene we feel that at least the two figures in dialogue are cohorts, fellow workers behind the stage action, but in the second scene those of the heterosexual hierarchy square off with our exaggerated queer, mocking him rather than just pointing up his difference.

     Bearing an ermine coat over his arm, Del presents Zanfield, surrounded by admiring investors, with a bill for two thousand dollars. Shocked by the price, the producer in a loud voice proclaims he will not pay such a price for a coat worn by an actress for less than two minutes.

      The often giggling costumer retorts: “But you said ermine. It’s a gorgeous garment, isn’t it?” as he looks to the two investors to Zanfield’s right for confirmation.

      The heavy set man outrightly mocks him, imitating a stereotypical gay lisp and baby talk, neither of which our huffy hero has displayed in his statements, “Oh! Isn’t it gorgeous? In fact, it’s gorgeoussest thing we ever saw, you sweet little cutie.”

      Rightfully offended, Del marches off, now half-wearing the coat, while the fat man’s drunken companion begins to follow him as in his repeated chases throughout the film after sexual satisfaction, his partner pulling him back to address him as “Unconscious.” Is story writer Goulding suggesting that even the he-man, in his unconscious state, may be interested in trailing after queer sex every now and then, especially in after they can wake up after and declare “I was so drunk last night I didn’t know what I was doing?” 

      Clearly, the script was not suggesting any such thing, but its accidental implications are nonetheless fascinating, particularly since such interchanges between gay and straight would soon not be permitted for several decades except in language hidden under and within the pretended “normalcy” of the plot. By allowing figures such as Del Turpe to storm off and on screen, the actor and writers were declaring, if nothing else, his right to be there, granting him at least a layer of recognition that he and others like him existed in everyday life.

     And surely Del and his kind were a lot more fun to be around than the unnecessarily suffering ninnies at the center of this pic. And it’s sad that soon cinema producers, directors, and writers would feel it necessary to close those lavender doors.

Los Angeles, November 25, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2021).