Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

A new look at some '40s classics...

I am not one to read gay subtext into movies [well apart from in BEN HUR], but a fascinating piece I read the other day made me stop and think and look at NOW VOYAGER in a new light. Rupert Smith, author of MAN'S WORLD - the best new novel I have read in years [still available at all good bookshops, folks] - writing in ATTITUDE magazine has this to say about it, in a feature on the nature of camp:

"NOW VOYAGER, a 1942 melodrama starring Bette Davis as a downtrodden, mentally unbalanced spinster who has a nervous breakdown, has a dramatic makeover and embarks on an affair with a married man. The movie and the book on which it was based were aimed squarely at women. All the characters and all their relationships are resolutely heterosexual. And yet for all that NOW VOYAGER is textbook camp because it mirrors so precisely - and perhaps so unconsciously - the gay experience.

Ugly, unloved Charlotte with her thick eyebrows and dowdy clothes is like a gay man in his larval stage, stuck in the family, driven crazy by frustration. She then emerges from her chrysalis with fabulous clothes, great hair and plucked eyebrows. She falls in love with an unavailable man and settles, at the end, for whatever scraps of affection she can get, with that famous last line: "Oh Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon; we have the stars". For gay men watching Bette Davis in the '40s - and there were plenty - it was like autobiography, in drag."

Rupert gets it exactly right. Poor frustrated Charlotte is left to look after and put up with her domineering mother, the other family members treat her like a doormat, she is made fun of by visiting relations. Even her mother (Gladys Cooper, excellent as ever) does not love her and bullies her - so of course, after the intervention of psychiatrist Claude Rains, she cannot accept the new svelte, confident Charlotte who returns after being the the most popular woman on the cruise (and what a camp fantasy that is...). What though is the nature of those unsuitable materials which mother found when moving Charlotte's items to a new bedroom she has designated for her? Charlotte however triumphs, with wonderful bon mots along the way: "Dora, I suspect you are a treasure" to the nurse Mary Wilkes; and "let's not linger over it" when breaking off her engagement to the very solid beau that mother approves of, but whom she does not love. She will be happy with those stolen hours with married man Jerry, and looking after his unhappy daughter.

Directed by gay Irving Rapper its certainly a timeless favourite, as good as my other two favourite Bette's: THE GREAT LIE (where we have nice Bette with superbitch Mary Astor) and OLD ACQUAINTANCE with Bette at her most brittle with that fabulous apartment (with devoted housekeeper) in wartime New York, and her on-going rivalry with flouncy Miriam Hopkins. Noble Bette sends away Miriam's husband - the man she loves - and then has a silver streak in her hair for the later third act.

My other particular '40s favourite is David Lean's THIS HAPPY BREED, as scripted by Noel Coward: his paen to the British spirit during wartime as we focus on ordinary working class folk, the Gibbons family - Frank and Ethel, together with daughter Queenie and son Reg, mother in law and spinster sister Sylvia. It follows the era between the wars as the Gibbons move to a new house in Clapham, the period detail is perfect as we follow their family life, its joys and pain. We focus on Queenie, the wayward daughter, who spurns the stifling nature of conventionality, and flees. Perhaps Coward writing as a closeted gay man in the '40s saw Queenie as a substitute gay man: forever sniping at the others and being dissatisfied with suburbia, until she runs off with an unsuitable man and is estranged from the family for years, as the mother will not forgive her. Finally decent John Mills brings her home,having married her and Queenie redeems herself and is accepted back into the fold. Its a superior tear-jerker, with great comedy moments by Amy Vaness as grumpy mother-in-law forever bickering with Alison Legatt's Sylvia. Needless to say Celia Johnson is superlative as ever as Ethel - its as good a performance as hers in BRIEF ENCOUNTER. Kay Walsh of course is also perfect as Queenie. Like THE WAY TO THE STARS its a perfect entertainment for wartime Britain.

It was interesting recently reading BEHIND THE SCREEN - HOW GAYS AND LESBIANS SHAPED HOLLYWOOD by William K Mann, focusing on how those gay directors (Rapper, Leisen, Whale, Cukor, Goulding, Arzner, Walters et al), producers like Ross Hunter, agents like Henry Willson, designers like Orry-Kelly, Adrian and Travis Banton etc worked and successed during the classic era.
Everyone has their own possible gay suspects in '40s movies then: Mrs Danvers in REBECCA?, Waldo Lydecker in LAURA and Eliott Templeton [both played by Clifton Webb] in THE RAZOR'S EDGE?, most of those characters (Greenstreet, Lorre, Cook Jr) chasing THE MALTESE FALCON?. I would certainly add in that neighbour, as played by David Wayne, of Tracy and Hepburn in ADAM'S RIB! oh, and Hepburn's supercilious, prissy, swishy male secretary in WOMAN OF THE YEAR!
In the '50s one thinks immediately of those two hoods Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman in THE BIG COMBO, those so macho jocks in TEA AND SYMPATHY, those odd military cadets in THE STRANGE ONE ('57), Plato in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and possibly (some think so..) Addison and Eve Harrington in ALL ABOUT EVE, and it may have been fun to have seen those two guys ("interior decorators I think") living in the apartment uptairs from Tom Ewell and The Girl in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH - or maybe they would have been too caricatured ? and of course that first gay bar in Otto's sensational ADVISE AND CONSENT as the '60s dawned....

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