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.

Monday, 17 June 2013

'30s classics: First a girl .... then Victor/Victoria

The British Film Institute (BFI) has a very interesting webpage on gay (or, as they say, queer) cinema ...
They also have some fascinting lists: 10 Japanese gangster films / 10 films about childhood / 10 films set in the roaring twenties / 10 films set on the Mediterranean - which annoyingly includes THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY but not its original PLEIN SOLEIL ....  Here is their 10 British gay films:

FIRST A GIRL – 1935 
VICTIM – 1961
WEEKEND – 2011. - more on these at the BFI link above, with comment and photo on each.

I would also have to include: 
SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY 1971, MAURICE 1987, and those gay undercurrents in THE SERVANT, the mad camp of MODESTY BLAISE / Orton's ENTERTAINING MR SLOANE  and that '60s camp in HERE WE GO ROUND MULBERRY BUSH and SMASHING TIME... as well as ground-breaking (for their time) TV productions like THE LOST LANGUAGE OF CRANES, THE HOUSE ON THE HILL (SOMETHING FOR THE BOYS - Gay interest label) and THE LINE OF BEAUTY, no, not VICIOUS! I will return to THE LEATHER BOYS soon, but had an enjoyable look at FIRST A GIRL yesterday. 

Here is what the BFI resident queer expert has to say:
One of the first spottings of the GBF (Gay Best Friend), a creature maligned and adored in equal measure. Here it’s  Sonnie Hale serving up sardonic asides and platonic friendship to Jessie Matthew's down-on-her-luck showgirl. Although made at a time when homosexuality was unmentionable on screen, Hale’s gestures and waspish delivery clearly code the character as not the marrying kind.
In this zingy comedy, based on the 1933 German film Viktor Und Viktoria, Matthews plays a woman who earns her coin pretending to be a man who masquerades as a female impersonator. Matthews is fantastic, but Hale matches her as her supportive mentor, himself a drag queen, who at last gets his moment in the spotlight in an unforgettable final number. The story was adapted again in 1982 as  VICTOR/VICTORIA starring Julie Andrews in the lead.

Well yes, its a delirious farrago with some marvellous dance sequences and so mid-1930s like Hitch's THE 39 STEPS and his early British films, with dancing to match Fred and Ginger or a Busby Berkeley spectacular. We first see Jessie toiling in the salon of dress designer Madame Serafina (Martita Hunt, nice to see her a decade before her Miss Havisham). The plot is nicely worked out, Sonnie Hale (actually married to Matthews then) scores too.  There is of course no mention of anything gay or queer in FIRST A GIRL, being a female impersonator seems a jolly good entertainment job for a chap to have - why, Hale even romances that knowing Princess whose boyfriend makes a play for our hero/heroine.

I have a memory of sometime in the '60s of being on the London underground and noticing a plumb middle-aged woman sitting down and realising it was Jessie Matthews who was well-known then too in her late middle-age as, being the trouper she was, for playing Mrs Dale in MRS DALE'S DIARY on the radio. She was one of the greatest British stars of the time, like Gracie Fields, and her career continued to 1980. Jessie Matthews: 1907-1981. The disk I watched also included some of I THANK YOU, a 1941 comedy featuring that other great British original Arthur Askey, who used to feature in my "Radio Fun" comics. Delicious.
Julie Andews too makes that androgynous quality of hers work perfectly for her turn as VICTOR VICTORIA in '82, with Robert Preston as usual firing on all cylinders as Toddy, her drag queen mentor.  Their scenes together are a joy, I particularly like the restaurant scene where the starving Victoria has the cockroach to put in the salad so she can get a free meal, particularly the moment when the snooty head waiter turns to Toddy and says "But there was no cockroach in YOUR salad"!. But after Julie's terrific "Le Jazz Hot" number it gets rather dull in the second half after James Garner has spied on her and knows she is a girl. It all seemed so much more innocent back in the 1930s and FIRST A GIRL. I would imagine though that director Victor Saville and those who made FIRST A GIRL would be surprised now to see their saucy musical comedy (which has no mention of anything gay) described as a great British gay film! 

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