Male Queer Horror

Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1984)

The following article was written for, and published in, an Encyclopedia of Gender Studies, which can be found here: https://www.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/book/10.1002/9781119429128

Many film historians have suggested that the horror genre did not come into being until the beginning of the 1930s, when Universal began their cycle of classic horror movies. Roy Kinnard has stated that, before Frankenstein (dir. James Whale, 1931), the horror movie as we know it today simply didn’t exist, despite there being many films which were both frightening to audiences and contained horror elements (Kinnard, 1995). Likewise, Kim Newman suggests that the German expressionist films, grotesque Lon Chaney melodramas, and films based on theatrical chillers were not viewed as horror movies by either producers or audiences (Newman, 1996). These long-held beliefs have started to be challenged in recent years, most notably since the digitization of newspapers, fan magazines, and trade publications have given historians a comprehensive overview never before possible of how films were produced, marketed, and consumed in the first decades of the 20th century. Tybjerg wrote in 2004 that those rejecting the idea that the horror genre existed before the 1930s were putting forward the notion that it could only exist if named and recognized by those watching the films, and those making them (Tybjerg, 2004). Either way, the horror film (or the antecedents of it) can be traced to the very beginning of the cinematic medium. This article gives a brief overview of the genre in relation to both queer readings of some key films and the presence of LGBTQ characters within them.

Robin Wood suggests the formula for the horror film is a basic one: normality threatened by a monster (Wood, 1978). This is clearly a simplification of the horror movie but, by and large, still holds true to this day. The very notion of “normality” being threatened by a monster suggests that the monster itself can be read as “abnormal,” or, one could argue, “queer.” Using the films of the 1930s as a starting point, there are two types of queer monster at play in the horror films of classical Hollywood. The first of these attempts to disrupt a heterosexual coupling in order to allow a union for the monster with the male in most cases, and the female in the relatively few examples where the monster itself is female. This type of queer monster seems to be found more commonly in horror movies that are not wholly supernatural affairs, such as White Zombie (dir. Victor Halperin, 1932) and The Most Dangerous Game (dir. Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1932). The second type of queer monster is that which appears to be attempting to spread homosexuality among the masses as some form of contagion—although, once again, this is suggested implicitly rather than explicitly within the texts. Here, we are entering a world of werewolves and vampires as found in films such as Nosferatu (dir. F. W. Murnau, 1922) and Dracula (dir. Tod Browning, 1931). Unsurprisingly, there are moments when these two types of monsters cross over, such as in The Mask of Fu Manchu (dir. Charles Brabin, 1932), in which the title character not only plans to come between the heterosexual couple at the heart of the film, but also to have control over the male and become ruler of the masses.

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

The Most Dangerous Game (dir. Irving Pichel & Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1932) tells the story of Robert Rainsford (Joel McCrea), a renowned big game hunter, who finds himself shipwrecked on a remote island. The only house on the island belongs to a Russian, Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), who offers Rainsford his hospitality until a way can be found to get him off the island. Zaroff already has two other guests, Eve and Martin Trowbridge, a brother and sister, who have also been shipwrecked. However, Zaroff is also a hunter, but of the “most dangerous game”—humans. He provides his own entertainment by luring sailors to his island through altering the markings of the shipping channels, and thus causing shipwrecks, and then hunting them down and keeping them as trophies. Rainsford refuses to join him on his sadistic hunts, and so he and Eve become the hunted, and are given a 12-hour head start.  They will be free to leave the island  if they can survive the night in the jungle without being caught by Zaroff. Robert Lang writes that Zaroff’s request of Rainsford is perverse, and implies a sadistic homosexuality, which is present in both the film and its literary source, but always coded rather than explicit (Lang, 2002). The character of Eve in the film is clearly an attempt by Hollywood to at least partially heterosexualize the narrative. It gives Rainsford a love interest, something he does not have in the short story. Likewise, Rainsford is clothed when he arrives at Zaroff’s house in the film, but completely naked in the story—but that doesn’t stop him from losing his clothes during the hunt sequence that makes up the final third of the film. Slowly but surely, as he and Eve make their way through the jungle chased by Zaroff and his hounds, clothes are torn and removed. He may not be doing it physically, but Zaroff is effectively undressing Rainsford as he hunts him.

Zaroff is literally an (albeit human) monster who hunts men with what appears to be an explicit desire for them. The same is true of the title character in The Mask of Fu Manchu, played by Boris Karloff. The film is both sadistic and homoerotic in the extreme, as Karloff subjects his victims to various dastardly tortures, some of them surprisingly fetishistic for the time, including one in which the character of Terry Granville, played by Charles Starrett, is strapped to a table whilst nearly naked and injected with a serum which forces him to do anything which Karloff asks of him. The sexual connotations of such a scene (a sub/dom relationship or encounter, with one controlling the other), particularly given the (lack of) costumes, are likely to have been intentional in a film which seemingly lacks any form of restraint with regards to content or taste. Fu Manchu even takes delight in informing us how the victim of one of the tortures will soil his own clothes.

The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

Myrna Loy, who played Fah Lo See, Fu Manchu’s daughter, is said to have described her character as a “sadistic nymphomaniac.” This appears to be quite an adroit summation of the character, for when Terry Granville is being whipped (shirtless and hanging from the ceiling), Fah Lo See asks her father “he is not entirely unhandsome is he, my Father?” Fu Manchu, who has come into the room to watch the whipping admits: “For a white  man, no.” While Fu Manchu has a daughter and has therefore clearly been involved sexually with a woman, he admits here that he can tell a handsome man when he sees one and takes visible delight time and time again when restraining and torturing his victims, all of whom are men and often in complete or partial states of undress. His sexuality is also brought into question by the fact he is often surrounded by half-naked slave boys (Benshoff, 1997), and by his physical appearance. Gregory W. Mank suggests a campness in the way that Karloff’s Fu Manchu is presented, from what he wears to how he speaks (Mank, 1994, p. 69).

White Zombie (dir. Victor Halperin, 1932) continues the theme of one man forced to do another’s bidding, except, rather than this being a result of the taking of a serum, this time it is to do with him being turned into a zombie. Bela Lugosi plays Murder Legendre, a mill owner in Haiti whose entire work force are being controlled as zombies. Meanwhile, a young couple have been lured to the island by an older man, Beaumont, who wants the girl for himself, and plans to do anything to get her before she marries her fiancé. He approaches Legendre, who offers him a liquid that will turn the girl into a zombie, but, once this has happened, Beaumont changes his mind and begs Legendre to bring her back from her zombified state but, instead, Legendre turns him into a zombie, stating as he does so, “I have taken quite a fancy to you, Monsieur.” White Zombie is an eerie, unsettling viewing experience even 80 years after it was made. An independent production, made on a low budget and with leftover sets from Dracula, it manages to be considerably more haunting than that film, aided and abetted by Lugosi’s surprisingly restrained performance (one of his best), the cinematography, and the nods towards German expressionism.

Queer characters and imagery in horror films continued throughout the early 1930s. The Old Dark House (dir. James Whale, 1932), is a distinctive film in the first cycle of Universal horror films. Benshoff writes that incest, necrophilia, homosexuality, androgyny, sadomasochism, and orgiastic behavior are all hinted at within the movie (Benshoff, 1997). The film tells the story of the strange occurrences when a group of people are stranded in a storm and find themselves seeking shelter at the old dark house of the title. Whale’s sense of humor makes an entrance early on, and the director wastes no time in announcing that the travelers have stumbled across the “Femm” family, no less. Horace Femm is played by Ernest Thesiger, who could perhaps be best described as an amalgamation of the sissy prevalent in films of the 1920s and an elderly fop. Thesiger would go on to play a similar role in Bride of Frankenstein (dir. James Whale, 1935), a few years later. But Whale does not stop with the repetition of the Femm name and Thesiger’s characterization. Benshoff argues that Whale encourages a queer reading of the film by having actress Elspeth Dudgeon playing the 102-year-old patriarch, Roderick Femm (Benshoff, 1997). Also of note from this period is Dracula’s Daughter (dir. Lambert Hillyer, 1936), which not only features an effeminate manservant played by Irving Pichel, but also the titular character’s seduction of a young female model with a fade out which leaves little to the imagination.

Dracula itself was one of three key horror novels that had been written within a 10-year period in the late 19th century when the race was on to invent what we know today as film or cinema, and during the infancy of the new medium. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published in 1886, The Picture of Dorian Gray appeared in 1890, and Dracula in 1897. All three novels became the basis of a number of early attempts at cinematic horror. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was filmed over half a dozen times between 1910 and 1920, miraculously with at least four adaptations of the story surviving. The Picture of Dorian Gray was also filmed with similar frequency during this period, although only one version is still known to exist—an incomplete print of the Thanhouser version from 1915. Dracula was most famously filmed during the silent era in 1922 in an unofficial adaptation entitled Nosferatu by F. W. Murnau, although Dracula’s Death was produced the previous year in Hungary, directed by Kertész Milhály, who would soon move to America and rechristen himself Michael Curtiz and go on to direct classics such as Casablanca (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1942). All three of these novels contained what can only be described as queer elements, and would continue to be some of the most-adapted novels in cinematic history. All three of these novels dealt with the idea of the protagonists leading a double life, and this common narrative trait has lent itself to queer interpretations that have been exploited across the decades as the number of adaptations increased.

Nosferatu, from 1921, loses much of the homoeroticism of the novel, partly because of changes to the characterizations of both the vampire itself and Harker (here renamed Hutter). Despite this, Murnau still manages to incorporate a sequence that is difficult to interpret in any other way. When Hutter cuts his finger while slicing bread, Orlok (Dracula in the book) moves toward him, wanting to take the finger and insert it into his mouth so he can suck the blood from it. Hutter finally realizes that something is wrong. This is the key queer moment within the film. The insertion of the finger into Orlok’s mouth is symbolic of oral sex, but the film does not stop there. When Hutter awakes the following morning, his shirt has been unbuttoned and he has a bite on his neck. Orlok has literally penetrated Hutter while he was asleep, despite the fact that Hutter is merely mystified rather than horrified at the situation.

In 1920, two American adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde made it to cinema screens. The lesser known (and lesser regarded) of the two is that starring Sheldon Lewis and directed by J. Charles Haydon. Differing from the other surviving silent versions of the story, the setting is transplanted to contemporary New York. Unlike the book, there is a female love interest for Dr Jekyll: Bernice. While this is a crudely made film considering the year of production, it suggests a queer subtext in a way that none of the other silent versions do. It was clearly made to cash in on the success of the more prestigious John Barrymore version which had opened a few weeks earlier, but this is far from a carbon copy of that film, and the lack of sheen here allows for an effectively darker atmosphere. The intertitles are key in communicating this, and successfully raise the ante with regards to queer content. One intertitle reads: “In order to better cover his dual nature, Dr Jekyll hires quarters for his other self in the squalid tenement district.” While the reference to Jekyll’s “dual nature” might more obviously suggest his good and bad side, it could also be a reference to his sexuality. Also of interest here is the reference to Hyde living in the “squalid tenement district.” Each of the four silent adaptations that survive have Hyde living in the seedier part of the city (whether London or New York). This contrasts with Jekyll’s own house, which is in a more respectable area, and reflects his upper-class status. Another intertitle in the film refers to “Hyde, the evil genius, harkening to the voice of the Tempter.” Would it be going too far to suggest that the “Tempter” was homosexuality? Possibly not, for by the end of the film not only has Hyde successfully come between Jekyll and his girlfriend, but he has attacked her as well; a symbolic attack on respectable, professional, heterosexual life.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

The Picture of Dorian Gray was one of the most-filmed stories during the years of silent cinema, although nearly all of these versions are lost, and the only one in circulation is just a fragment. The novel received a sumptuous M.G.M adaptation in 1945, with an aloof performance by the enigmatic Hurd Hatfield, whose porcelain features and quiet demeanor gave the film a queer subtext that bubbles below the surface throughout its running time. The queerest adaptation of the story was made 25 years later in 1970, in a European coproduction directed by Massimo Dallamano and starring Helmut Berger. The casting of Berger is key to the queer element of the film, with him being an openly bisexual actor, and already associated with queer roles after his infamous impersonation of Marlene Dietrich in Viconti’s The Damned the previous year. The 1970 modern-day adaptation dares to go places that previous adaptations (and the book) had not, with Dorian’s fluid sexuality explicit throughout the movie. At one point he seems only interested in women, at another he is only interested in men—and what nightclub does he visit to find people who can feed his sexual appetite? The Black Cock. The film has arguably not aged well, and today can be viewed as a rather tacky sexploitation take on the story, but no other adaptation has come close to it with regards to queer content.

Dorian Gray (1970)

However, the 1970 Dorian Gray did not exist in a vacuum. European coproductions of the period seemed to be willing to explore the subject of sex and sexuality (albeit with a somewhat more nuanced approach than Dorian Gray) much more than films from the United Kingdom or America. However, in the United Kingdom, gay or queer characters or concepts were beginning to appear in horror movies, particularly those made by Hammer. Horror of Frankenstein (dir. Jimmy Sangster, 1970) features a surprisingly nonjudgmental representation of a gay man (Benshoff, 1997). Meanwhile, Frankenstein Created Woman (dir. Terence Fisher, 1967) finds Frankenstein taking the soul of a man and transplanting it into the dead body of a woman. Interestingly, in the 1890s, influential sexologist Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld built his ideas around the notion of homosexuality being a “third sex” on the notion of a gay man being a woman’s soul in a man’s body, and a lesbian being the reverse. Hammer took this idea further still in Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (dir. Roy Ward Baker, 1971), with Jekyll experimenting with the ingesting of female hormones as a way of discovering the elixir of life. Instead of prolonging his life, the hormones result in him turning into an evil female Hyde (who he pretends is his sister), thus allowing both a man and a woman to live within the same body. In 1970 Hammer also made  a movie based on the J. Sheridan LeFanu’s novel Carmilla, written in 1872, featuring a lesbian vampire. The Vampire Lovers (dir. Roy Ward Baker, 1970) starred Ingrid Pitt, and began a short cycle of lesbian vampire movies at the studio, including Lust for a Vampire (dir. Jimmy Sangster, 1971) and Twins of Evil (dir. John Hough, 1971).

Outside of Hammer, queer characters had started featuring in horror films made elsewhere. The Haunting (dir. Robert Wise, 1963), an adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson, never explicitly states that the characters played by Julie Harris and Claire Bloon are lesbian, but it is also difficult to come to any other conclusion. Meanwhile one of the vampires in Roman Polanski’s horror comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) is homosexual.

In more recent years, the horror genre has been one of the first (and possibly the first) to include queer characters on a semiregular basis in mainstream films aimed at teenage audiences, even if the characters in question often don’t survive until the end of the movie. Notable examples are Bride of Chucky (dir. Ronny Yu, 1998), Cherry Falls (dir. Geoffrey Wright, 2000), Soul Survivors (dir. Steve Carpenter, 2001), Cursed (dir. Wes Craven, 2005), and Mortuary (dir. Tobe Hooper, 2005). What is perhaps key about these movies is that the gay characters are interwoven into an ensemble cast with little or no emphasis on their sexuality within the script. The gay and lesbian characters are, by and large, accepted by those around them with little fuss—something which seems at odds with Hollywood films of the period in general.

For the queerest of all mainstream horror films, one has to go back to 1984s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (dir. Wes Craven). This sequel, rather unusually, concentrates on a male protagonist, Jesse, who moves into the house featured in the first of the series. The film features Jesse, played by Mark Patton, repeatedly seen wearing nothing but tight white underwear, writhing in bed, covered in sweat, while he has yet another dream about Freddy Kreuger, at one point declaring “he’s inside me!” Added to this, Jesse has a friendship with a jock at school that can easily be read as homosexual, and the school’s football coach is a gay man who visits an S&M bar and meets his end after being dragged to the school showers by unseen hands, having his clothes ripped off, and getting a whipping from a towel. In 2016, the film’s writer stated that he attempted to draw on the homophobia that was present in society at the time the film was being made, and how that was affecting the core audience of teenage boys. (Peitzman, 2016).

Voodoo Academy (2000)

In recent years, a series of low-budget horror films have been made that are aimed specifically at a male gay audience. David DeCoteau has been directing films since the mid-1980s, including a number of entries in the Puppet Master series. In 2000, he released Voodoo Academy, a low-budget movie set in a Bible college at which not all is what it seems. DeCoteau’s cast are a group of young male actors with model-like good looks that spend much of the film wearing little (if anything) more than tight white boxer shorts (rather like the protagonist in Freddy’s Revenge, which may well have been DeCoteau’s inspiration). There are no gay characters here, at least not explicitly, but the entire movie is of a homoerotic nature—something which is emphasized above the horror element. The film began a long series of straight-to-DVD movies from the director using what is essentially the same formula—a mild horror narrative with a cast of pretty 20-something males at its core, with plenty of skin being shown throughout thanks to scenes set in dorms, showers, swimming pools, changing rooms, and gyms.

Finally, perhaps inspired by the success of the DeCoteau movies, other independently-made queer horror movies have been made over the last decade and a half. Perhaps the best and most well-known is Hellbent (dir. Paul Etheredge, 2004), a film that is essentially a slasher movie aimed at a gay audience. While still low-budget, production values are higher than in the DeCoteau movies, and the characters are gay rather than just baring skin to titillate a gay audience. This was followed by the likes of In the Blood (dir. Lou Peterson, 2006), Otto; or, Up With the Dead People (dir. Bruce La Bruce, 2008), Vampire Boys (dir. Charlie Vaughn, 2011), Unhappy Birthday (dir. Mike Harriot & Mike Matthews, 2011), Girl House (dir. John Knautz & Trevor Matthews, 2014), and B&B (dir. Joe Ahearne, 2017). Whether there is a future for these kinds of independent movies made by queers for queers is likely to depend on whether Hollywood incorporates more such characters into their mainstream horror films. Television has been leading the way in this regard for some time with horror or horror-related programming (True Blood, Riverdale, The Walking Dead, Teen Wolf), and only time will tell if cinema follows television’s lead in this regard.

References

Benshoff, H. M. (1997). Monsters in the closet: Homosexuality and the horror film. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Kinnard, R. (1995). Horror in silent films. A filmography. 1896–1929. Jefferson: McFarland.

Lang, R. (2002). Masculine interests. Homoerotics in Hollywood film. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Mank, G. W. (1994). Hollywood cauldron: Thirteen films from the genre’s golden age. Jefferson: McFarland.

Newman, K. (1996). The BFI companion to horror. London, UK: Cassell.

Peitzman, L. (2016). The nightmare behind the gayest horror film ever made. Buzzfeed. February 21, 2016. https://www.buzzfeed.com/louispeitzman/the-nightmare-behind-the-gayest-horror-film-ever-made?utm_term=.eq0NJP5Eob#.fj93EWzNwj

Tybjerg, C. (2004). Shadow-souls and strange adventures. Horror and the supernatural in European silent film. In S. Prince (Ed.), The horror film (pp.15–39). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. Wood, R. (1978). Return of the repressed. Film Comment, 14(4), 25–32.


Film Review: Sherlock Holmes (1922)

John Barrymore looking for a decent film.

**Contains spoilers**

I have been treating myself over the last week to re-reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which I last consumed when I was about sixteen. I realise, thirty years on, that not all of the stories in the collection are classics, and oddly I have enjoyed more the ones that I had forgotten about, like The Blue Carbuncle and the very silly The Engineer’s Thumb. Both of them are slight, but never take themselves seriously.

Anyway, being in a Holmes mood, I thought it would be a good time to finally watch the 1922 Sherlock Holmes starring John Barrymore – and with early appearances by William Powell and Louis Wolheim, among others. The film was lost for a number of decades, only to be found literally in pieces in the early 1970s – not only were the sequences out of order, but multiple takes of each scene were also found. This was then painstakingly restored over the years, and a restoration of that restoration found it’s way on to DVD in the early 2000s. And a further restoration of that is now on blu ray. I have seen the DVD, which looks reasonably decent given the history of the film, although the screencaps online of the blu ray look decidedly better.

It is very much a case of a lost film being found and turning out to be a very ordinary film. Hype generally gets built up about the famous lost films – most notably London After Midnight – and they are rather inevitably not as good as the myth would lead us to believe. My understanding is that the same can be said of the William Gillette Holmes film, which was found a few years back, but I have yet to see that. John Barrymore stars in the 1922 film, which is likely to have purists running for the hills. It starts off with Holmes and Watson at university, where they first encounter Moriarty, and ends (wait for it) with Holmes getting married – well, I guess that romantic lead John Barrymore could never be left single at the end of a film.

None of this would be quite so bad if it was exciting, intriguing, mildly interesting, or if the plot even made sense. None of this is the case. In fact, it’s a remarkably dull film, not helped by the overuse of intertitles – look away for just one and you’ll be completely lost (you might get lost anyway!) – and a rather vapid performance by Barrymore. Barrymore does at least look like Holmes, but he doesn’t act like him. In fact, he doesn’t seem to act at all. He just meanders along, looking stern and as thinkers are meant to look like when they think. Meanwhile, Watson is barely seen after the university prologue (which lasts half an hour!). This is something of a shame as he looks as if he would have made a rather good Watson. And, to add insult to injury, we have Carol Dempster as the female lead – and she is as convincing as she is in all her roles (ie. not convincing at all).

At the time of release, Variety, were not exactly complimentary either, stating that “while it seems to be one of those specials certain to make money because of the combination of names in it, there isn’t much from a picture standpoint to recommend it. The story is badly handled, the continuity leaping along by fits and starts.” Anyone knowing the story of the restoration process might be forgiven for thinking that the continuation issues would have been caused by missing footage – but Variety confirms they were present from the start, which is a little bemusing.

I would recommend getting your fix of silent Holmes elsewhere. Flicker Alley released two silent versions of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1914 and 1929) a couple of years ago, and both are considerably better films than this, even if they are lacking the starry cast. The 1929 is relatively faithful to the book, and the 1914 is a very bizarre loose adaptation, but both are at least engaging and entertaining. Also much better are the Eille Norwood films – some of which have been issued by Grapevine Video, and the feature-length The Sign of Four is available on YouTube, and well worth a look.

100 Years of Agatha Christie: The (Unofficial) Agatha Christie Awards!

With this month being the 100th anniversary of the publication of Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, I thought it would be rather fun to have a completely-unofficial and somewhat tongue-in-cheek Agatha Christie awards ceremony – with a couple categories that nobody would want to win! The panel (that’s me) has come up with the shortlist for each category and decided upon the winners! The winners are in bold.

Best Debut Novel of a Recurring Detective

Shortlist: The Mysterious Affair at Styles (Poirot); The Secret Adversary (Tommy & Tuppence); The Secret of Chimneys (Superintendent Battle); The Murder at the Vicarage (Miss Marple).

There was a fierce debate (with myself) in this first category as to whether the Miss Marple or Poirot debut novel was more impressive. There was also some debate over whether Miss Marple should be disqualified for having appeared in short story form prior to her debut novel, but The Mysterious Affair at Styles won out for Poirot anyway. It was, after all, the book that started it all, and remains a wonderful read even one hundred years after its publication. The Christie style isn’t quite fully-formed here, though, with this book and Murder on the Links still showing the obvious influences of earlier masters of the genre, from Arthur Conan Doyle to Gaston Leroux. But what a place to start a writing career from!

The Best Collection of Short Stories Released During Christie’s Lifetime (UK only)

Shortlist: The Mysterious Mr. Quin; The Thirteen Problems; The Hound of Death; The Listerdale Mystery; Poirot’s Early Cases.

It’s fair to say that all of Christie’s short story collections have things going for them – and all of them have their faults. This was very much a three-way tussle between The Hound of Death, The Listerdale Mystery, and The Thirteen Problems. Agatha even stated one time that The Thirteen Problems was one of her favourite books, but The Listerdale Mystery wins out for me, not least for the wide range of stories contained within it – including the classic Philomel Cottage, filmed twice as Love From a Stranger.

The Best Opening to a Christie Novel

Shortlist: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans; Murder Is Easy; 4.50 from Paddington; At Bertram’s Hotel

Agatha Christie was a master at grabbing the reader within just a few pages of her novels, and the four in the shortlist are first class examples of this. Three of them include dead bodies within just a few pages – or talk of a dead body – but it is the odd one out that lifts the award on this occasion. The opening pages of At Bertram’s Hotel show that Christie had lost none of her power in the 1960s, and often was writing better than ever. Here, she is like a film director. She guides us through London to the street where the hotel is, and then we go inside the hotel lobby and gaze on the various characters there until, finally, the “camera” comes to rest. It is brilliantly written, and a gift to anyone adapting this book for the screen.

The Best Screen Adaptation of a Novel, Short Story, or Play.

Shortlist: And Then There Were None (1945); Witness for the Prosecution (1957); Endless Night (1972); Death on the Nile (1978); Nemesis (1987); Five Little Pigs (2003).

It is, perhaps, telling that the shortlist doesn’t include anything made after 2003 – and that the ITV “Marple” series wouldn’t have even have made a list that was twenty or thirty titles in length. All of the shortlist have a great deal going for them, but Witness for the Prosecution (pictured above) wins out thanks to the wonderful direction of Billy Wilder and a cast that includes Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and Charles Laughton. It doesn’t get much better than that. I should add a note here that the ITV production of The Last Seance from 1986 may well have made the shortlist if it had been available to view. Sadly, it seems to have vanished from our lives for good for whatever reason – a great shame, as I remember it to be excellent.

The Worst Screen Adaptation of a Novel, Short Story or Play

Shortlist: The Alphabet Murders (1965); Appointment with Death (2008); The Secret of Chimneys (2010); Partners in Crime (2015); The Witness for the Prosecution (2016).

The prize that nobody wanted to win goes to the ITV “Marple” concoction that called itself The Secret of Chimneys, but had precious little to do with the book (pictured below). Poor Julia McKenzie wanders around as if Miss Marple doesn’t know what the hell is going on (and there’s no reason why she should as she’s not in the book) – and by the end of the two hour episode, the viewers don’t know either, and most likely don’t care. It is difficult to come up any ITV drama series that went on for this many years that was so badly written, lazily directed, and had virtually no production values. A complete disaster.

Best Actor or Actress in a Leading Role

Shortlist: Tyrone Power (The Witness for the Prosecution); Margaret Rutherford (Miss Marple); Peter Ustinov (Poirot); Joan Hickson (Miss Marple); David Suchet (Poirot)

I confess that after I came up with this category, it wasn’t that easy to fill it with a shortlist – but there was little competition as far as I could see. While Suchet’s Poirot is popular for many people, Joan Hickson really understood Miss Marple without becoming so obsessed with how she’s portrayed in the books that her performance became the series of idiosyncrasies and mannerisms that Suchet became from time to time. It was a superb performance, and one unlikely to be bettered – although a new TV adaptation of The Body in the Library is due to be aired late next year.

Best Play

Shortlist: And Then There Were None; The Mousetrap; The Witness for the Prosecution; Spider’s Web; Verdict; The Unexpected Guest

This was a very tough category, but I would imagine most people who have seen it will know that The Mousetrap was never going to win out. I’m sure most would go for Witness for the Prosecution, but I’m going for the little- known Verdict. This isn’t a mystery as such, despite its title, but a wonderfully dark and sober character study which is quite different to the style of writing that Christie is known for. Sadly it never got turned into a novel, but it would work so well as one, and, yes, I’d very much like the job!!! If only!

Most Under-rated Novel

Shortlist: The Seven Dials Mystery; Sad Cypress; Five Little Pigs; Taken at the Flood; Cat Among the Pigeons

It would never win out if there was actually a panel of people choosing these winners instead of just me, but Taken at the Flood clinches it. The first half is the nearest that Christie got to writing a Mary Westmacott novel under her real name, and the characterisation is superb. Poirot finally appears half-way through for the second half, which is the whodunnit element. It’s beautifully written, and a classy piece of work that never seems to get mentioned in the best-of lists.

Best Stand-alone Novel

Shortlist: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans; And Then There Were None; Murder is Easy; Crooked House; Ordeal by Innocence; Endless Night

There was considerable competition for this category, with all of the shortlist being fine novels in their own right – and a couple of them having examples of Agatha’s cleverest twists. If we were looking at the best traditional Christie, then And Then There Were None would have won quite easily, but Endless Night wins out as one of Christie’s greatest achievements – and something completely different from an author who was 77 at the time of writing. If And Then There Were None was a great mystery novel, then Endless Night was a great novel in its own right.

Best Tommy and Tuppence Book

Shortlist: The Secret Adversary; Partners in Crime; N or M; By the Pricking of my Thumbs

N or M grabs this one. The Secret Adversary and Partners in Crime are great fun, but don’t really hold up to close scrutiny beyond that. By the Pricking of My Thumbs is one of the better of the final novels, but its creepiness seems to have been over-exaggerated during the ensuing decades. N or M, though, is genuinely interesting, not least because this was the period when Agatha finally started to draw on world events for her plots. This is something of a cross between the young adventurer-type novels and a genuine whodunnit, and it works very well indeed, even if it doesn’t come close to the best Marple or Poirot books.

Best Miss Marple Novel

Shortlist: The Body in the Library; The Murder at the Vicarage; The Moving Finger; A Murder is Announced; 4.50 from Paddington

This is really a fight between the final three on the shortlist, all of which are fine works. But The Moving Finger is really in a league of its own – even if it only sneaks into the category because Miss Marple is in it for such a short time – in fact, her appearance is probably to the detriment of the novel. But it’s a brilliantly written account of village life with likeable and fleshed out characters, and the mystery itself makes up only part of the narrative. Agatha herself stated that this was one of her favourites, and it’s hardly surprising.

Best Poirot Novel

Shortlist: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd; The A.B.C. Murders; The Murder on the Orient Express; Appointment with Death; Taken at the Flood; Cat Among the Pigeons.

I will be honest and say that Appointment with Death is included in the shortlist as a nod to the many people who find it to be one of Christie’s best novels. I personally do not, for its filled with unlikeable, sometimes idiotic, characters that are difficult to care about. So my award goes to The A.B.C. Murders. Unlike Ackroyd and Orient Express, it doesn’t rely on a big twist in its conclusion. Instead, it’s a perfectly crafted book that really is engrossing from the first page to the last. For those still reading by this point, Taken at the Flood would have been in second place.

Best-avoided Novel or Short Story Collection

Shortlist: Poirot Investigates; Passenger to Frankfurt; Elephants Can Remember; Postern of Fate; While the Light Lasts

We can forgive the bland nature of the stories of Poirot Investigates as Agatha had clearly not yet mastered the art of the short story (if she ever did). We can excuse Passenger to Frankfurt, Elephants Can Remember and Postern of Fate because of the effects of old age. But we can never excuse the appalling attempt to scrape the barrel and issue the not-worth-the-effort While the Light Lasts, a (perhaps thankfully) slim collection of short stories that had never been issued in book form for a very good reason! There’s little doubt that Ms. Christie would have been appalled at these trifles being resurrected.

Best Biography or Book about Christie’s Work

Shortlist: Agatha Christie’s Complete Secret Notebooks (John Curran); Agatha Christie: A Biography (Janet Morgan); The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie (Charles Osborne); Agatha Christie on Screen (Mark Aldridge); Curtain Up. Agatha Christie: A Life in Theatre (Julius Green)

This is the only time when we have a joint winner, but it is too difficult to make a call between the (relatively recent) books on screen adaptations of Agatha’s work and her work in the theatre. Both Mark Aldridge and Julius Green present lengthy, in-depth, brilliantly-researched tomes on their respective subjects, shedding light on these two important areas. Aldridge literally takes each adaptation and tells us about its inception and success (or otherwise) with both audiences and critics, as well as giving an honest critique himself. Meanwhile, Julius Green sheds light not only on the famous plays, but also the ones that rarely get revived, and a significant number that have never been performed or published at all. Highly recommended books.

Best Novel

Shortlist: The A.B.C. Murders; And Then There Were None; The Moving Finger; Endless Night

And so we come to the big one. All four books are excellent novels, but The A.B.C. Murders is the clear winner here, with it being a novel featuring one of the greatest fictional detectives ever created in what is most likely his finest hour. Of course, the return of Hastings is also most welcome, and through his eyes we learn a considerable amount – not just about the case, but about changes occurring in Britain at the time and Christie’s view on them. It remains a fascinating read.

And that brings us to the end of our little ceremony. Hopefully, it’s been a bit of fun, and maybe created a bit of discussion. If nothing else, perhaps it will get you going to the bookshop and hunting down some of the titles mentioned here. And, of course, happy birthday to The Mysterious Affair at Styles!

Mini-Review: Postcards from London (2018)

Directed by Steve McLean, Postcards from London is about a young man, Jim, who moves to London and falls in with a group of high-class male escorts who, as well as sex, offer their clients long, intelligent discussions about art afterwards – the problem is that he has Stendahl syndrome and faints every time he sees a beautiful artwork.

As might be gleaned from that quick description, this is a strange movie. The entire thing is filmed on artificial theatre-like sets, giving it a kind of fairy-tale or dream-like quality, that people are either likely to love or not get on with at all – and which is a clear nod to Fassbinder’s final film, Querelle, which was also filmed in the same way. There are a number of short dream-like sequences: when Jim faints, he imagines himself within the picture that has caused the fainting, more often than not posing for a rather short-tempered Caravaggio.

While Postcards from London tries to be arty itself, I’m not sure it succeeds in that, and yet it is surprisingly involving – although it’s a shame that the final act isn’t brought in earlier and developed further to give the film more of a narrative drive. It might have regarded some genuine peril for the young hero to face. But the intention here is clearly to make this a character-driven piece, and there’s nothing wrong with. There are many references here, visually and verbally, to the films of Kenneth Anger, Fassbinder, Jean Genet, and Derek Jarman.

Postcards from London features fine performances from two up-and-coming British actors. Firstly there is Harris Dickinson, who has since been prominently featured in the TV series Trust as well as the 2019 Maleficent film. And then there is Jonah Hauer-King, most recently seen on the BBC in World on Fire and who will be seen as Prince Phillip in the Disney remake of The Little Mermaid. He has the supporting role here, but still is a considerable screen presence. Hauer-King also sang the song over the opening sequence of the film, and provides vocals for a surprisingly effective version of “My Funny Valentine,” heard midway during the movie, and which deserves to be heard in full.

This talkie, intentionally-artificial movie is not for everyone, although spotting the film references to Fassbinder, Jean Genet, Derek Jarman, and Kenneth Anger becomes rather fun – even if they are so plentiful at some points that they become distracting. Despite this being an oddity, I have to say I find it an oddly entrancing movie, and, having first seen it a couple of years ago, it lost none of its appeal second time around.

Postcards from London is available to buy on both blu ray and DVD on the Peccadillo label.

Review: Poster Boy (2004)

About ten or fifteen years ago, long before I had any of my writing published, I started work on what was intended to be an encyclopedia of films with gay characters. There were other such books out there, but most of them didn’t seem to understand that such films existed before 1980. I wrote about 200 entries and then put the project aside and forgot about it. I think I had got to the stage where I just couldn’t watch another American gay indie film, even if I tried. This was still the period when many of the gay indies making it to DVD were, to say the least, awfully poor – non-existent plots, actors who really couldn’t act, directors who couldn’t direct, and (perhaps worst of all) writers that couldn’t write. These films had ultra-low budgets, and basically sold themselves on the fact that the actors were cute and invariably got naked for the camera at some point. Watching literally dozens of these was a depressing assault on the senses. Despite this, and as might be expected, amongst the dross there were some really good films, and Poster Boy was one of them. I re-watched it tonight for the first time in seven years, and was interested to see that I still stand by the comments I wrote for the encyclopedia back in 2008 when I first saw the movie.

Poster Boy tells the story of Henry, the gay son of a Republican senator running again for re-election. The senator doesn’t know his son is gay, and there are certainly indications that he is an abusive father. He asks/tells his son that he will be introducing him when he is going to give a speech at the university campus. Henry wants to say no, but can’t do it. The film portrays the few days between the senator asking his son and the day of the speech itself. There is a framing device, set six months later, where Henry tells the whole story to a reporter.

Like so many other gay-themed indies from the time, the film has a low budget, but it overcomes that because of the sassy way it is filmed. The hand-held cameras are prominent but not overused; there is often quick-cutting between shots; and finally the director makes great use of often- extreme close-ups. None of these stylistic choices are new, but they are combined in such a way to give the film a sense of urgency, and to give it a semi-documentary feel.

What’s more, the film isn’t an excuse for frequent male frontal nudity or elongated sex scenes; indeed, there are neither here. And the male leads, while good-looking are not the model-like, chiselled-faced guys with six-packs that populate most gay indies of the period. And the cast is superb. Michael Lerner plays the senator and Karen Allen plays his wife. Matt Newton is superb as Henry (sadly we didn’t get to see a whole lot more of him on screen in the years following Poster Boy), and Jack Noseworthy is equally as good as the activist he meets and hooks up with the night before the speech. None of the characters are cardboard cut-outs – and everyone in the film is a flawed human being. Even the characters we are meant to root for do some decidedly horrible things.

I seem to recall reading somewhere in the past that the film had quite a long gestation time between being written and actually being made, and that may well explain why some elements of the script do seem a bit dated, even for 2004. And I’m certainly not saying that this is the best movie ever made. Some lines are corny, and some sequences are uncomfortable or misjudged – and the framing sequences with the reporter perhaps only serve to pad the film out a little too much. Indeed, those sections often come over as if the makers aren’t convinced that the viewer totally understands what’s going on and has to explain the motivations of characters. They needn’t have worried, and I’m sure the movie would work better without the framing sections.

And yet, after four or five viewings since its release on DVD, it remains one of my favourite films, and one that I get something from each time I get around to watching it. More than fifteen years after its first release, Poster Boy is one of the relatively small percentage of gay-themed indies of the period that still has much to offer today – and I certainly wish there were more like this out there.

The film is available to stream in the US on Amazon (and possibly elsewhere). Elsewhere, the region 1 DVD (now deleted I think) can often be found on eBay.

Mini-review: The Happy Years (1950)

This evening I had the pleasure of watching The Happy Years, which stars a young Dean Stockwell, Scotty Beckett, Leon Ames, and Leo G Carroll.

I have to confess that this school-based story set in the turn of the century through a Meet-Me-In-St-Louis-style nostalgia is the last thing I would expect William Wellman to direct, but direct it he does. And it’s a good movie, too, despite tanking at the box office – something which maybe happened because it was made five or ten years too late. The world was far less innocent in 1950 than it was in the early 1940s, and this is certainly a rose-coloured view of the past.

Dean Stockwell plays a brat sent off to school to try and teach him the error of his ways. Cue an episodic tale in which he meets, falls out with, and then befriends the various other kids at the school while playing football, fighting and eating pancakes. Leon Ames plays the father (adding even more of a feel of Meet Me In St Louis), and Leo G Carroll is the Latin master and football coach. Leo G Carroll as a football coach – interesting casting. Robert Wagner appears on screen for around five seconds, and then is gone. And all of the above (except Wagner, who really is just an extra) are superb in their roles, even if Dean Stockwell is encouraged to overplay how horrible his character is in the first reel or so.

This is really enjoyable and fun, and while it’s not a masterpiece, it certainly deserves to be better known. It is available through the ever-wonderful Warner Archive series, and the print on the DVD is good for the most part, although a couple of shot here and there suffer from problems with the colour.

As a side-note, Darryl Hickman, who has a significant role (and who played the boy in Leave Her To Heaven) is still with us at the young age of 89; Dean Stockwell is also still with us at 84, and Robert Wagner is a mere 90. Leo G Carroll made it to 86, and Leon Ames passed away aged 91. Sounds like being in this film could have been a way to longevity.

Opinion: Amazon removes The Birth of a Nation

NB.  I am not going to give a summary here of the 1915 Civil War epic Birth of a Nation or why it is such a notoriously racist film.  If you are not aware of the film, you probably won’t be reading this post anyway, but information on it is available in many places, and the Wikipedia page isn’t a bad place to begin. 

A few years ago, I had a clear-out of some films and music that I no longer wanted and sold them on eBay and Amazon Marketplace.  Amazon Marketplace is a bit unusual because, even when you’ve sold something, the listing remains but is “inactive” – presumably because many sellers there are businesses who get stock back in repeatedly.  Anyway, one item I decided I no longer needed or wanted as I was no longer teaching was the blu ray of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.  And so it was sold, but the listing remained “inactive.” 

Zoom forward to about ten days ago, and I got an email from Amazon, telling me that the version of Birth of a Nation I had been selling three years ago was being removed from the Amazon site, and so gave instructions how to delete that old listing, which I did.   But I was curious – why would the Eureka edition of the film be deleted from Amazon UK?  Even when something goes out of print, the selling page stays open.  When I went on to Amazon to have a snoop around, I found out that the BFI blu ray of the film in the UK and the Kino blu ray in America had also been deleted.  In short, the three in-print versions of the film on blu ray were deleted from the website. 

It wasn’t that Amazon had simply stopped selling them (or they had gone out of print) and the item was unavailable, but that the selling pages were taken down entirely.  Also gone is the streaming of the film on Amazon UK. When I started writing this piece, the Kino version was still available for streaming on Amazon.com.  That now, too, appears to have gone.  I should also add that, at the time of publishing this post, the BFI’s own online shop seemingly no longer has a page for their blu ray edition of the film, although the movie is available to stream via BFI Player.

To try to avoid angry comments saying I’m making it all up, at this point I am going to make it perfectly clear, selling pages still exist for public domain issues of Birth of a Nation on DVD, as well as the out-of-print Twilight Time edition.  But the major releases are gone entirely. 

Interestingly, there has been no reports about this in the media (that I can find), and silent film fan forums and Facebook groups are generally quiet on the subject – some of the Facebook groups don’t even allow a mention of Birth of a Nation, they see it as that problematic.  But, even so, when Gone with the Wind was withdrawn from some streaming platforms for a few days a month or two back, it was everywhere in the news.  The same is true when The Germans episode of Fawlty Towers was also withdrawn from a streaming service for a short time.   So, it seems rather odd that this decision by Amazon about possibly the most notorious film in cinematic history results in no mention at all.

Now, anyone who has chatted to me about films or, indeed, read some of the posts from this blog in the past or Twitter comments etc will know that I generally have no time for D. W. Griffith.  I confess I admire the ambition of Intolerance and find it an entertaining movie, but beyond that I find that his films are a bore made by a boor. 

Birth of a Nation is a putrid film, and the fact that, for so many years, it was a core element of silent film courses at universities is, at best, unfortunate.  It wasn’t on the silent film course I took during my BA in 2005, but I know that it was during later years at the same university under different course organisers.   

While I am, for the most part, overjoyed that the most famous store in the world is dropping the most racist film in history, I do still have reservations. The film is never going to go away, but at least the three blu ray editions that are involved are the best ones on the market, and do not shy away from the realities of the film and the effects it had on society in the decades after it was issued.  As foul as the film is, it is an important part of 20th Century history, and the blu rays tend to present it as the museum piece it should now be viewed as, with a great deal of extraneous information, documentaries etc to contextualise it and inform the viewer of its major part in the resurgence of the KKK in the decades after its release. That isn’t the case for those seeking the film out on YouTube, for example.

In fact, why is the film still on a platform like YouTube? It clearly goes against the policies that they outline on their site, and surely the film is more problematic as a free-to-view stand-alone video rather than as part of a blu ray package with documentaries and a booklet to contextualise it?   If there was a choice, I would rather see it removed from YouTube than have the physical products removed from Amazon – after all, the current various incarnations on YouTube have reached half a million views, whereas sales of the title on disc would be a small fraction of that. What’s more, it’s free on YouTube, meaning people are much more likely to see it there than pay £10-£20 for the privilege (although I agree that it’s a cheaper way for students to see it if their fiend of a unit organiser insists on including it on on the syllabus).

I guess that I am actually surprised by Amazon’s decision, and even more surprised that there was no big announcement for the media with it.  Has Amazon stopped selling the film because they have a moral conscience?  That would be a nice thought, but it seems odd for a company that is alleged to have not paid anything like its fair share of taxes and which has been severely criticised for its working conditions to suddenly get a conscience over a film that was made in 1915.   And one cannot say it is a publicity stunt either – as there has been no publicity.  The removal of these selling pages was done quietly and with no fanfare.  Indeed, prior to writing this article, I checked Google to see if the move by Amazon had gained more publicity, but it hasn’t.  I would also be less surprised had this happened, say, six or eight weeks ago when the Black Lives Matter protests were at their peak, as a way of, perhaps, pre-empting any calls to have the film removed.   But that isn’t the case either.  But, as W. S. Gilbert wrote for H.M.S. Pinafore, “never mind the why and wherefore.”  It has happened.

Many people will no doubt say, “but where will this end?” Indeed, when I raised the Amazon move over on a  forum last week, some of the responders essentially asked this same question. 

A myth seems to have been built up in the last year or so that “cancel culture” is real.  It isn’t.  To my knowledge, no books or films or music have been somehow banned simply because much of the population is far more sensitive to how other people feel than they were a decade ago.  Birth of a Nation hasn’t been banned – or “cancelled” if you’re down with the middle-aged, often-affluent, white men, with steam coming out of their ears, who get in a huff at the thought of other people getting some of the power in society that they used to have.   

There are those that say that, if we remove Birth of a Nation, then other films reflecting attitudes of the times in which they were made will follow.  But there is a huge difference between Gone with the Wind’s grossly distorted view of history or Jolson in blackface and Birth of a NationGone with the Wind and Jolson might have elements we view as racist, but Birth of a Nation encouraged racism.  It was propaganda for the racist community, and that is a far different situation. 

One thing that isn’t up for debate is just how much things have changed and how far we have come in the last five years (and mostly in the last year).  Kino, the British Film Institute, and Eureka video all released new, deluxe editions of Birth of a Nation in and around 2015 to tie in with the film’s 100th birthday.  It is quite clear that none of these companies would be likely to produce such a release in 2020 – indeed, I doubt if there will ever be a new release of the film from any major label in the future, even if some form of new technology comes along and takes the place of blu rays and streaming. I won’t be shedding any tears about that.

I am genuinely interested in hearing people’s opinions on the matter, so please feel free to leave a comment. 

NB. The Eureka and Kino editions of Birth of a Nation are still available from these labels’ websites. The BFI no longer appears to have a page on their online store for the film.

Review: The Red Lily (1924)

Oh, I’m going to get some abuse over this post!

I confess that I don’t think I have ever seen a more preposterous film than the 1924 silent The Red Lily, written and directed by Fred Niblo, and starring Ramon Novarro and Enid Bennett.  This following contains considerably spoilers, which are likely to stop you enjoying the film if you haven’t yet seen it – however, quite why you would enjoy the film anyway is something we don’t have time to argue about.   But I will give a full summary of the story, so you can see the merits of the film.  Or not.

Ramon Novarro and Enid Bennett live in a French village.  Novarro is the mayor’s son, Bennett is the cobbler’s daughter.  They are madly in love, but the mayor won’t allow them to marry.  The cobbler dies, meaning that Bennett has to go and live with some other relations in a nearby village.  (Quite why, as a grown woman, she can’t look after herself is something we don’t know.)   

When she arrives at her new home, she finds that the family she is now to live with is ruled by a husband and wife who are a dab hand at domestic abuse.  When the husband comes after Bennett with a whip, she runs off back to her old house, which is now empty.  Novarro spots the light in the window, and goes to see what’s going on (lucky he was passing, really).  He comforts Bennett as they sit in front of the fire, but nosey neighbours believe they have slept together (quite why when they can plainly see they have spent the night clothed and in front of the fire is anybody’s guess).  When they are discovered the next morning, Novarro tells his father that they will marry, no matter what – but the mayor thinks this is only happening because they have slept together,  and so Novarro and Bennett run off to Paris to get hitched. 

It’s at this point that the film falls apart and becomes even more unsavoury.  At the Paris train station, Novarro says he is going to find out where they can get married (obviously that’s more important than finding somewhere to live in a city where they know no-one).  He leaves Bennett for a few minutes, at which point he is arrested on suspicion of robbing his father (he didn’t do it).  While he eventually escapes from the police, nearly a day has passed.  He arrives at the station just as Bennett leaves, and they don’t see each other because a stone pillar is separating them.  (Yes, it’s that sort of film.) 

They wander the streets of Paris.  She gets a cleaning job, but is fired when she refuses to sleep with her boss.  She makes her way to the banks of the Seine, where she sits down on a bench.  Behind her is Novarro, gazing out into the river.  Despite only being about ten feet from each other, they don’t spot each other.  Yes, it’s still that sort of film. 

Novarro turns to crime.  She contemplates suicide, but becomes a prostitute instead.  (No, I’m not making this up).  One night, Novarro and Bennett are reunited.  But he is so repulsed by the ageing, weary woman she has become that, instead of running into her arms, he hits her in the face.  (I’m really not making this up.)  Shortly after, he gets shot by the police, and Bennett nurses him back to health.  During this time, he verbally and mentally abuses her and then walks out on her, returning to his criminal friends.

She follows, and is there when the police raid.  She gets shot saving Novarro, and Novarro escapes into the sewers.  When he returns to the bar full of criminals, he is told that Bennett is in hospital, dying.  He goes there to see her, and is arrested at her bedside. 

Two years later, she has miraculously recovered and is doing rather well as a seamstress.  Novarro is recently out of prison.  He arrives there in a nice new suit and a bunch of flowers.  They return to their village a married couple, and live happily after. 

Quite what anyone was thinking making such (rather unsavoury) tosh is anybody’s guess.  Novarro was put into some pretty potty vehicles towards the end of his career, but this shows that he was in some potty ones at the beginning too.  At this point (1924), we was basically being viewed as a poor (wo)man’s Rudolph Valentino.  But we can see even through this ridiculous movie that Novarro was easily the better actor.  Despite this idiotic fare, he manages to somehow make something of the young innocent in the first half and being a complete bastard in the second.  Enid Bennett is also extremely good.  If Novarro was being seen as a poor man’s Valentino, then Bennett was the equivalent with regard to Lillian Gish. But on the basis of the current film, she was far more subtle in her own acting skills. 

Quite what Fred Niblo was doing when he wrote this story, I have no idea.  Perhaps he’d been at the absinthe.  Oddly, he wasn’t given a writing credited ever again after The Red Lily.  I can’t think why.  Perhaps they ran out of absinthe.   The best thing to come out of the Red Lily was Ben Hur.  Niblo and Novarro worked well together (and had made a previous film together), and so when George Walsh was deemed unsuitable part of the way into filming the epic, it was Novarro who stepped in.  And the rest is history.   

Should you wish to see The Red Lily (and who wouldn’t?), it is available in the Warner Archive series. And while I might have not liked this movie much, it is wonderful just how many rare silents that the Warner Archive releases have given us access too. The print is good for the most part, with a bit of nitrate damage near the beginning. The score is also very good.

A Queer Romance: Gay Characters and Male Bonding in Early Film (video)

Let me begin my saying that I hope the readers and followers of the blog have managed to remain healthy during the current situation.

Looking at social media, many people have done their best to remain active and busy during the lockdowns that are going on around the world. I also needed a new project, and so I purchased some very basic video editing software and decided to revisit the research I did for my PhD and book on gay characters in silent film. My plan was to create a short video about it, lasting about ten minutes – but it ended up at 68 minutes instead.

“A Queer Romance” is a video essay, written and narrated by yours truly and covering gay characters and romantic friendships in European and American film up to 1934. Clips are included from three dozen movies, some of which are obscure or hard to find. Sadly, a couple of edits had to be made when uploading the finished product to YouTube due to copyright claims on a couple of clips – I could have argued the case given that my use falls under “fair use,” but given the current situation I just thought it best to make a couple of edits and upload it anyway or I could potentially be sitting on the video for weeks.

Hopefully the video will be of interest to some of you. Stay safe.

Review: It (Chapter Two)

Is it really three months since I last shared my inane thoughts with you? How time flies!

I saw “IT (Chapter Two)” tonight for the first time, having been too ill to get to the cinema to see it when it came out.

What in hell’s name are we meant to make of this likeable mess of a film?

Credit where credit is due – the film is nearly three hours, but it doesn’t feel it. It zips along rather quickly, in fact, but then it has got a lot of things to fit it. The telephone calls at the beginning of the film are done especially well, I think, and I like how they are linked through visual elements. Here we have nigh-on two hundred pages of the book condensed into ten or fifteen minutes of film – quite an achievement. In fact, I would return to the book more often if it wasn’t for the thought of wading through that lumbering section at the beginning. Also I’ve got to give credit to the fact that the acting is ten times better than how the adults were in the 1990 version (I still prefer the 1990 kids). In five cases, the casting is superb, and the performances believable. The casting and portrayal of Eddie is the exception here – nothing like what he was like in the book or the first adaptation, and that is a mistake. Ritchie doesn’t need a jokey buddy as Eddie is portrayed here. The whole point of the seven people coming together was that they were all so different. Eddie has morphed into a gym-fit second Ritchie and it doesn’t work, and nor is it logical.

MILD SPOILERS IN NEXT PARAGRAPH!

There are some other changes which are very strange. Much of the tension in the adult part of the book comes from the fact that Audra, Bill’s wife, follows him and gets caught by “It.” That is completely missing here, and a huge mistake I think. I’m not quite sure what the thinking was behind that. I also don’t know what the thinking is for changing Bill’s reason for not playing with Georgie when he was a kid. In fact, that change makes no sense whatsoever. He didn’t want to play, but was happy to spend several hours making a boat? That is completely nonsensical – and also goes against what we see in the first movie. It’s a twist too far which, thankfully, can be put to the back of the mind, but it seems odd that, considering how many problems the film has to surmount, time was given over to adding something in which didn’t need to be addressed.

SPOILERS OVER

But the main issue I had with the film is that it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, and that it misses the reason why the book is so acclaimed. The movie should have been serious and terrifying, and for much of the time it doesn’t come across as either because the so-called horror is so comic-book and juvenile. When Beverly goes back to her home and sees the old woman, she turns into what? A CGI naked eighty year old with boobs down to her knees that looks like Ann Widdecombe on a night out. What’s THAT all about? And then we have the animated Stan’s head. Again, absolutely ridiculous – and not in the book, as far as I recall. The fortune cookie sequence has always been problematic enough for its comicbook nature – both in the book and in the previous adaptation – but the new film seemed to have an identity crisis outside of this. There were times when it felt like a serious movie, times when it felt more like “House” or “Idle Hands,” and then it moved into an adventure movie at the end akin to “Raiders of the Lost Arc” or “Romancing the Stone.” At least there wasn’t a giant spider, I guess.

The other issue is the underlying message at the core of the book – that the clown/monster/It was a kind of representation of the corruption and failure of society. Floating Dragon by Peter Straub (written just prior to It) does exactly the same thing. And perhaps that element is why the second half of the story simply doesn’t work well on screen. It is missing its guts. Whereas the book has some gravitas, the film versions eventually turn into a monster movie and little else. What we get is enjoyable and likeable popcorn fodder – an epic, big budget, three hour B-movie, in fact, and the text of the book is much more than that, which is no doubt why it disappointed many people. No doubt the running issue of Bill not knowing how to finish his books was intended as an in-joke about this very issue – the last section of the book is notoriously hard to translate to screen. But even that attempt at humour was somehow heavy handed. And, despite the fact that the adult characters are better drawn, acted, and cast (for the most part), the film still only really shines when the kids are back on screen during the flashbacks.

Finally, it was interesting that the decision was made to include the gay-bashing incident at the opening – and even more interesting that it turned out to be the most horrific sequence in the whole movie, and not because of CGI. Many thought it would be cut – and a few years ago I think it would have been. But with hate crime increasing in western countries, it suddenly became more relevant again.

I would like to say that I was surprised by the level of violence in those few minutes of Xavier Dolan’s cameo, as it is really quite severe, but for some reason both American film and TV seem to have upped the violence quota in the last five or six years or so. I watched the first few episodes of Titans on Netflix at the weekend (no, I don’t think I’ll be watching the rest) and was rather shocked by the gratuitous violence in that as well. Even something as inane as Riverdale or as ridiculous as Supernatural has become seem all too keen to make their violent sequences as dark and bloody as possible. I’m not quite sure how I feel about this trend – especially considering three of those examples are either from comic-book adaptations or in that style of storytelling. Whatever happened to traditional comicbook violence? Perhaps I’m just getting old and squeamish, but I’m guessing I’m not alone in my thinking given the commentary there has been on Joker since it was released (although I confess I haven’t seen it).