Dangerous Years (1947)

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The various DVD-R archive series from the major studios over the last decade have certainly helped to get many forgotten films back into the public domain, and also replaced poor quality bootleg copies with pristine ones.  Some of the films involved have been revered classics, others are not so – and yet sometimes just as interesting in their own way.

Dangerous Years (1947) is one of those not-very-good and yet interesting films.  It is chiefly remembered today for being the first film appearance of a young Marilyn Monroe (centre. below), playing a waitress in a couple of scenes and, it should be said, with a very different voice to that which we are used to!  Monroe’s appearance alone would make the film an interesting curio, but the presence of Billy Halop (here called William) and Scotty Beckett add to the film’s worth for fans of 1940s cinema.

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The film, which runs only just over an hour, is a heavy-handed tale of young men going astray during the “dangerous years” of adolescence.  Billy Halop plays Danny Jones an older boy (“of voting age”) who heads/controls a gang of sixteen and seventeen year olds who carry out robberies and, of course, one night it all goes wrong and somebody gets killed.  The rest of the film is dedicated to the court trial of Danny, together with flashbacks to the night of the crime.

The younger members of the cast manage to make the most of their clumsily-written, clichéd roles of naïve troubled kids with hearts in a story with far too many twists and turns, but it is the adults who drag the exercise down, barely speaking a line that doesn’t come across as contrived.  Clearly intended as something of a morality tale, the film comes across as remarkably preachy and one only can wonder what youngsters at the time thought of what they were seeing.

And yet the cast still makes it intriguing.  Billy Halop plays the central role of Danny in his first (and only) major role after four years away from the screen, after fighting in World War II.   While Halop performs well, much had changed during those four years.  His youthful looks had disappeared, and here he looks considerably older than his twenty-seven years (see above, left).   He is, in fact, almost unrecognisable.  It would be his last major role in a film, only intermittently on screen afterwards, and then only in small or uncredited roles.  In the 1970s, he would have a recurring role in All in the Family, but looked two decades older than the fifty-something man that he was (see below, right).  He died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-six.

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Also of interest is the appearance of Scotty Beckett, who played the young Al Jolson in The Jolson Story just the year before (below, right).  This was his last film before being signed to MGM for what must have seemed at the time like the opportunity to forge a career as a leading man (he had been a prolific child actor).  Here he steals the show as the troubled son of an abusive father, somehow adding an element of realism to the clunky dialogue and turning his role into a foreshadowing of the type that Sal Mineo would play during the mid-1950s.  However, his career at MGM would be short-lived as his behaviour became erratic and he was arrested for drunk driving.   After earning a part in Rocky Jones, Space Ranger on TV in the 1950s, he was arrested again, and subsequently fired.  As he left showbusiness, more arrests followed, and he passed away at the age of thirty-eight.

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Dangerous Years might well have been a prophetic title for the times that were to come for three of its stars, all of whom would die young:  Marilyn Monroe, Billy Halop, and Scotty Beckett.   However, while the film is hardly a masterpiece, 20th Century Fox have to be applauded for rescuing it from complete obscurity with their good quality archive release (a far cry from the barely watchable version that could be seen on YouTube prior to the DVD issue).  Despite its heavy-handed approach, it is certainly interesting to see how the talent of the young stars make it still watchable – two of which were already approaching the end of their cinematic careers, while the third was only just embarking on hers.

Wild Boys of the Road (1933)

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For some unknown reason, it’s at this time of year that I often turn my attention to films from the early 30s and B-movies of the 40s. The brisker running times of 60-70 minutes are often useful in the busy run up to Christmas!

Not very Christmassy, though, is Wild Boys of the Road, directed by William Wellman in 1933, and included in a set of his films entitled Forbidden Hollywood, volume 3. Wellman, rather like Michael Curtiz, was a remarkably fine filmmaker that probably is little known today outside of film fans simply because he moved from genre to genre. He directed the brillant war aviation drama Wings in 1927, and then turned his hand to westerns, war films, murder mysteries and even a film about God giving speeches on the radio!

Wild Boys of the Road, though, is a social conscience film which I remember first seeing on the BBC, probably about twenty years ago – although I’m guessing that version might have been edited given the fact that this pre-code era movie contains sexual assault, violence, murder, and a rather horrific accident.  Indeed, the latter caused Screenland magazine to ask whether something could be done to “spare us the anguish” of the scene in question.

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People unfamiliar with this era of film-making might be surprised at some of the content.  As with many pre-code movies, it still packs quite a punch today, and its story of kids travelling from one town to the next by illegally riding on trains (and risking their lives all too often) because their parents are out of work and can no longer afford to feed them certainly has uneasy parallels with the migrant crisis in Europe today. At one point, the kids even make their own camp in a junk yard with permission from the owner, but are forced by the authorities to disperse and move on, with water hoses used to enforce it. Sound familiar?

Frankie Darro, the young star of the movie, spent much of the 1930s playing tough kids with a good heart, and that’s exactly what he does here, but it’s the little-known Edwin Phillips, with only three screen credits to his name, that steals the show as his best friend. Darro would fall out of favour in the 1940s, and was reduced to bit parts and stunt work by the end of that decade – ending up as the actor INSIDE Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet in 1956! Wellman directs this episodic tale with typical efficiency and flair, and manages to keep sentimentality at bay until the last few minutes and the story’s rather unlikely (but welcome) end.

It’s often easy to forget just how adult (and yet classy) cinema was in the early 1930s before the Production Code was enforced, and this fine drama about the effects of the depression on young Americans is just about as hard-hitting as it gets.  Such a tale involving adults would be grim enough, but with this being about youngsters makes it one of the most devastating films of the period.

A Ghost of a Chance (new novel)

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I am pleased to announce the publication of my new young adult novel A Ghost of a Chance!

Chet Barclay is a gay, jazz-obsessed sixteen year old that has been suffering from depression since the mysterious suicide of his boyfriend a few months earlier. When his parents go away on holiday, Chet is overjoyed at the thought of being alone in the house for a week – and away from his constantly fussing mother. However, it doesn’t take long before he starts hearing strange noises, and things start to move around by themselves. Chet begins to wonder whether he is alone in the house after all, especially when a friend tells him she saw the ghost of a boy there just after he had moved in. And how is everything connected to the bizarrely realistic dreams he has been having? Chet soon realises that he is about to embark on one of the strangest weeks of his life…

The book features a lead character who has depression – I myself have had bipolar disorder going back nearly two decades. I wanted to write something that had a character with depression but where the storyline didn’t revolve around that.  Therefore, A Ghost of a Chance is a surprisingly irreverent, lighthearted book at times but, through Chet’s storytelling, also portrays the difficulties that all sufferers of depression have to cope with.  I hope it will be seen as a positive portrayal of ordinary guy saddled with a difficult condition, and a far cry from the portrayals we see so often of those with mental illness seen as violent, unpredictable and about to go on a murderous rampage!

The Kindle edition will be free to download from October 29th to October 31st, 2016.

New Book: Queer Sexualities in Early Film

51NMx0RliGL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Queer Sexualities in Early Film: Cinema and Male-Male Intimacy.

I am proud to announce that the above title has now been published (in the UK) by I. B. Tauris, and is the culmination of six years of work on the homosexual and homosocial in films of America and Europe from 1912 through to 1934.

From the back cover:

Since the publication of Vito Russo’s seminal study The Celluloid Closet in 1981, much has been written about the representation of queer characters on screen. Until now, however, relatively little attention has been paid to how queer sexualities were portrayed in films from the silent and early sound period. By looking in detail at a succession of recently-found films and revisiting others, Shane Brown examines images of male-male intimacy, buddy relationships and romantic friendships in European and American films made prior to 1934, including Different from the Others and All Quiet on the Western Front. He places these films within their socio-political and scientific context and sheds new light on how they were intended to be viewed and how they were actually perceived. In doing so, Brown offers his readers a unique insight into a little known area of early cinema, queer studies and social history.

Shane Brown offers a critical and much needed addition to the fields of film history and queer studies. He brings to light a range of films and reads them through their historical moment. In the process he gives definition and depth of understanding to the way that homosexuality and the homosocial have been perceived historically both in the European and American cinemas of the early twentieth century. –Michael Hammond, Associate Professor of Film History, University of Southampton”

Shane Brown s Queer Sexualities in Early Film: Cinema and Male-Male Intimacy is a fine addition to an expanding canon of volumes which explore the covert history of queer cinema. Brown is effectively a detective opening up commentary on the roots of non-traditional masculinity in film well beyond queer cinema. –Lindsay Coleman, film and television academic at the University of Melbourne and Editor of Sex and Storytelling in Modern Cinema (I.B.Tauris, 2015).”

Films discussed in the book include Different from the Others, Vingarne, Sex in Chains, Michael, Wings (1927), the Collegian series of short films, Algie the Miner, Les Resultats des Feminisme, Brown of Harvard, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Mask of Fu Manchu, The Monster, The Most Dangerous Game, White Zombie, A Florida Enchantment, Parisian Love, Tom Brown of Culver, Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1916), Behind the Front, Shoulder Arms, Westfront 1918, and more.

Vingarne (Mauritz Stiller, 1916)

Vingarne (1916) Filmografinr: 1916/25

2016 sees the 100th anniversary of what has been called the first feature-length gay-themed film: Mauritz Stiller’s Vingarne (1916).  Whether or not it is indeed valid to refer to the film as “gay-themed” is, perhaps, in the eye of the beholder, but first a little bit of context.

By the time of the birth of cinema in the mid-1890s, Germany had become home to what was effectively the world’s first gay-rights movement.  In the 1860s, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs had coined the term Urnings to describe what would today be called gay men.  Ulrichs, like the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld who would follow two decades later, was a believer in what became known as the ‘third sex’ theory, which Richard Dyer sums up as the belief that ‘a man was a heterosexual man, a woman a heterosexual woman, and it followed that people who were not heterosexual were therefore neither one thing nor the other, neither a real man nor a real woman but something in-between’.[i]  In other words, the belief was that homosexuality was the result of nature, not nurture, although still viewed as a departure from the norm.  Ulrichs used this belief as the basis for his appeal to the Reichstag in 1870 in which he hoped to liberate Urnings from penal law.  In this appeal, he stated: ‘in all creation, no other living creature endowed with sexual feeling is required to engage in life-long suppression of this powerful drive, causing it to consume itself in cruel self-matyrdom’.[ii] However, despite Ulrich’s eloquent and heartfelt appeal, in 1871 homosexual acts between men were further criminalised both within Germany and throughout the German Empire via what became known as Paragraph 175.

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Building on Ulrich’s efforts, Dr Magnus Hirschfeld (above)began his campaign for the repeal of Paragraph 175 in the 1880s, and the prevalence of blackmail was one of the major arguments Hirschfeld used  in his 1897 appeal to the Reichstag.  This, and all later appeals by Hirschfeld, were unsuccessful with the exception of a vote for reform in 1929.  Blasius and Phelan write that ‘in 1929, socialist and communist Reichstag delegates voted to reform Paragraph 175, but this proposal was scathingly denounced by the burgeoning Nazi Party, which repudiated Weimar culture as decadent and promised to wipe out homosexuality’.[iii] Hirschfeld left Germany for a world tour in 1930, never to return.  He died in Paris in 1935, just over a year after watching newsreel images showing the destruction of his Sexual Institute and the burning of its library by the Nazis.

Though Hirschfeld’s name is recognisable today due to his work for gay rights, there was also a second, distinct gay movement in Germany during the same period.  This was known as the Gemeinschaft der Eigenen/Community of the Self-Owned, and was headed by Adolf Brand.  Brand and his followers believed in what Glenn Ramsey calls an ‘older, nationalistic aesthetic of classical male eros or Freundesliebe (‘friend-love’ between males)’.[iv] Brand was also the founder and editor of the world’s first gay journal, Der Eigene, which was devoted to fiction, articles, photographs and drawings which celebrated Brand’s concept of homosexuality.  The journal ran intermittently from 1896 until 1932.   Brand’s opinion of what a homosexual man should be and how he should act led  to a number of attacks on Hirschfeld’s theories and the more effeminate (and often eccentric) gay men with whom he associated.  In contrast to Hirschfeld, Brand and his followers were advocates of a teacher-pupil model of male/male relationships.  The love of an older man for a younger one – the sort of relationship advocated by Brand – had also been spoken about by Oscar Wilde during his infamous trials.

der eigene

The silent era saw two films based on the novel Mikael  by gay Danish author Hermann Bang:  Vingarne/The Wings (Mauritz Stiller, 1916) and Michael (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1924).  The narrative centres on the relationship between an older artist and his younger protégé.  Both films follow the same basic plot:  Zoret, an aging artist, helps and supports Michael, a young aspiring artist who also models for him.[v]    The two begin a relationship (whether sexual or totally platonic is only hinted at through the subtexts of both films) but, through Zoret, Michael meets a Princess and the two begin an affair. Michael sells the gifts Zoret has given him, as well as borrowing and then stealing from him in order to sustain his now luxurious lifestyle.   As Zoret becomes aware of the affair and the fact that he has been used by Michael, his health deteriorates rapidly and he dies before Michael can reach him in order to make peace with his mentor.

Vingarne survives today only in fragmented form, but Michael has been issued on DVD both in the USA and in Europe, with the American release part of Kino’s series called ‘Gay-Themed Films of the Silent Era.’  The problem with discussing “gay-themed films” of the silent era is that, all too often, modern ideas of queerness, masculinity and sexuality have been transplanted onto these texts created over 90 or 100 years ago.  In the case of Vingarne, we are now privy to information regarding many of the participants in the film that encourages a queer reading even though this information would not have been widely-known at the time of release.

In Vingarne, the narrative is supplemented by a framing device in which the director, Mauritz Stiller, and the actors all play themselves during the casting and making of the film.  This involves a sequence where Nils Asther is cast in the role of Michael and filming begins, only for Asther to be told by Stiller early on in the production that he thinks he is too young and inexperienced an actor to play the role.  He is replaced by Lars Hanson in the role of Michael, although Asther remains on set during the production.  Once the film has been made, the cast and crew attend the opening of Vingarne which we, the audience, then watch as a film within a film.  Once the premiere screening is over, attention once again turns to the cast and crew as Egil Eide, who plays Zoret in the film, attempts to console Asther after his advances towards Lili Bech, the actress playing the Princess, are rejected.

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Richard Dyer, in the second edition of Now You See It, goes to great pains to suggest that this framing device is significant when exploring the homosexual element of the film, not least because of the sexuality of both Stiller and Asther who were gay and bisexual respectively and who themselves had a relationship.[vi]

However, there are problems here, not the least of which is that this whole framing section of the film is lost, leaving us with just the film within a film section, ie. the dramatisation of Bang’s novel.  While the current restoration reconstructs the beginning and end section of the film in detail with stills and explanatory intertitles, it is difficult to explore these sections of the film and come to conclusions without resorting to supposition.  What the framing device clearly does give us, however, are examples of the mentor/pupil relationship advocated by Adolf Brand, with the role of mentor split between Stiller (in the opening segment) and Egil Eide (in the closing segment).  While the parallels between real-life relationships, those in the framing device and those in the film within a film are fascinating, for Dyer this is partly because of the sexuality of the real-life participants:

The key personnel were all gay.  Herman Bang’s novel, published in 1904, was well known and he himself was a notoriously gay figure, a kind of melancholy Oscar Wilde…The scriptwriter and designer, Alex Esbensen was gay.  Mauritz Stiller, the director, was not only gay but a flamboyant man about town…One of Stiller’s most important relationships was with Bnils Asther, the Danish actor who plays himself in Vingarne, his first film.[vii]

While this information is of interest to modern viewers, and no doubt encourages queer readings within the characterisations and narrative, it is safe to assume that, with the possible exception of Herman Bang, the sexuality of the participants would not be common knowledge to those viewing the film back in 1916 when the film premiered.  For example, Stiller himself, although having directed a number of films since 1912, had not yet reached his zenith as a filmmaker by the time of Vingarne, meaning his best work and most significant period of fame was still to come.  Bearing in mind that he was not a household name, and that Nils Asther was a newcomer to film (Vingarne was his first film), just how much of the homosexual element of the film would contemporary audiences have picked up on, and how much are modern audiences giving queer readings of the film simply because of personal information that we are privy to?  Richard Dyer writes:

Vingarne’s framing story … seems to emphasise that the actors in “Vingarne” are not implicated in the characters’ predilections.  Lars Hanson, at the premiere, says he’s terrible at Mikael and can’t understand why Mikael leaves the Princess, while Egil Eide (Zoret) says that he is glad the film is over.  In other words, the men who play the lovers in “Vingarne” seem to want to have nothing to do with it.[viii]

Here Dyer bases his observations on textual features of the film, specifically the dialogue (via intertitles).  However, it is just as likely that these comments were inserted into the film as instances of self-referential and self-deprecating humour on the part of Stiller as much as to distance the actors from the parts they have been playing.  Similar self-referencing moments can be found in Stiller’s comedy Thomas Graal’s Basta Film/Thomas Graal’s Best Film (Mauritz Stiller, 1917) from the following year.  While playing gay characters – whether implicit or more overt in character – could be viewed until recently as damaging to an actor’s career, the homosexual element in Vingarne (or, at least, what exists of it today) is buried so far beneath the surface that it is possible for many viewers not to notice it at all.  In other words, the comments to which Dyer refers are likely to be interpreted in different ways depending on what the viewer themselves bring to the film.  It is almost impossible to come to definite conclusions about a segment of film that survives only via a handful of stills, original intertitles, and explanatory intertitles added later.  How can one comprehend whether the comments to which Dyer refers were intended to be taken at face value or as a joke without access to the footage?

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Near the opening of the film, ‘when Stiller is discussing the project with Asther, he takes the novel Michael off the shelf … and says that his script is “faithful to the ideas” in it’.[ix]  This could certainly refer to the gay element to be found in Herman Bang’s novel, although even in that source novel the nature of the relationship between Zoret and Michael is hardly overly explicit.

Bearing this in mind, and the seemingly impossible task of finding an element of the film that spells out for certain that homosexual content is present, what is it about Vingarne that has given it its position as being regarded as the first ‘gay’ feature length film?  After all, there is nothing here to inform the viewer of the nature of the relationship between Zoret and Michael. While the connections with Bang and the gay and bisexual members of the cast and crew are fascinating, it does not make the characters involved any more or less homosexual – not least because the actors playing Zoret and Michael were both, as far as we know, heterosexual.   Matthew Kennedy, in his review of the DVD release of Dreyer’s film Michael, may provide the answer, suggesting that ‘if the Master’s obsession with Michael isn’t carnal, the plot veers into meaninglessness’.[x]

Kennedy is writing specifically about the later adaptation, Michael, here, but the same thing can certainly be said about Vingarne.  If Zoret and Michael are not in love, then why is Zoret so upset when Michael begins a relationship with the Princess?  It could, of course, be that Zoret simply objects to losing the platonic attention of his young protégé, and especially that Michael begins fleecing money from Zoret in one way or another.  What is more, Zoret could be said to be looking for a successor.  We know his quality of work is falling from when he is painting the portrait of the Princess.  He is having trouble getting the eyes right in the picture, and becomes frustrated.  It is at this point that Michael enters (meeting the Princess for the first time).  While Zoret’s back is turned, Michael picks up the brush and makes the necessary adjustment to the eyes which his mentor has been struggling with.  With Zoret getting older and his touch failing him, he seems to spend more time in mentoring his pupil than actually painting.  Therefore, it could be said that he fears all of his work with Michael is going to waste as he now spends all of his time socialising with the Princess.

This is a valid reading, but fails to work dramatically.  After all, this is not a revenge narrative, in which Zoret plans to get some form of pay back on Michael for his abuse of their friendship and through sheer envy on Zoret’s part.  Instead, the artist’s health starts to fail and, at times, he appears to be on the border of losing his sanity as well as his physical well-being.  It could be argued that he is, simply, love-sick.

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Viewing the film in relation to the thinking of both Hirschfeld and Brand, identifies elements of both men’s ideas at work in the scenario despite their seeming contradiction.  But it is Brand’s philosophies that are most in evidence here.  In Vingarne, as in the later Michael, a love is portrayed that has grown out of a mentor-pupil relationship of the kind which Brand advocates and describes in an article from 1925:

[We promote] a close joining of man to youth and of youth to man, so that through respect and mutual trust, and not least through the offering of one to the other, through the case of the older for the younger, through assistance in his education and progress, as well as through the promotion of his whole personality – to educate each individual to loyalty, to voluntary subordination, to civil virtue, to a noble ambition, free from all social climbing, to a noble courage constantly ready to act, and to a sacrificing willingness and joy in working for the national cause![xi]

Bearing in mind Brand’s comments, and those of another contributor to the same journal some two decades earlier in 1902 who wrote that ‘the ideal love union of a mature man with a growing adolescent can be of the greatest social value’,[xii] it is difficult to view the film in any way other than advocating Brand’s thoughts and ideals.

Despite this, in Vingarne, Michael himself is full of contradictions and ambiguities.  When we first see him, he is an excitable and bubbly youth in the company of some girls with whom he appears to be flirting, a scene which is clearly not intended to spark questions about his sexuality in the minds of the audience.  Zoret, on the other hand, can be characterised as almost predatory in this scene.  He observes Michael from afar and promptly walks down to him and asks him to model for him.  The modelling, we later discover, involves Michael being nearly naked and posing for a sculpture that Zoret is working on.   Michael simply stands while modelling with his arms above his head, his chest pushed forward and a sheet draped over his waist in order to retain his modesty.  While hardly the most masculine of poses, if Stiller wanted to make more of the relationship between Zoret and Michael it would have been more effective to simply film Michael from the waist up and therefore give the viewer the impression that he is, indeed, posing naked.  Instead, we are afforded no close-ups of Lars Hanson as he poses for Zoret in this scene.  We the audience have to content ourselves with viewing him from afar, although the long shot of Zoret working on his sculpture with Michael in the background does allow us to view Zoret studying his near-naked model’s torso as he perfects his work of art.

Here, as throughout the whole of Vingarne, it is impossible to ascertain whether Zoret is in love with Michael as a person or Michael’s youth, a question which brings us back to the influence of Oscar Wilde.    During his testimony in his first criminal trial, which took place between April 26 and May 1, 1895, Wilde said ‘I am a lover of youth…I like to study the young in everything.  There is something fascinating in youthfulness’.[xiii]

The influence of the Wilde case on European culture should not be underestimated, with the prosecution of Wilde sending shockwaves through homosexual communities both in the UK and in mainland Europe in the mid-1890s.  With Wilde becoming something of a martyr for the gay cause following his conviction for gross indecency, it is hardly surprising that his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas can be seen as the model upon which that of the two main characters  in Anders als die Andern/Different from the Others (Richard Oswald, 1919), a 1919 German film calling for tolerance towards homosexuality, was based.  After all, Wilde’s work was remarkably in vogue on the silver screen during the 1910s and early 1920s.   At least seven film adaptations of The Picture of Dorian Gray were produced between 1912 and 1919 (four of these were European productions, three were American; most are lost).  There were also versions of Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1916 and 1925, two of Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime in 1920 and 1922, and three of Salome in 1908, 1920 and 1923.  The sheer number of these adaptations point to the fact that Wilde and his works were very much in fashion during this period, and his influence is very much to the fore in Vingarne.

The queer element within both Vingarne and the later adaptation of the same book, Michael, is difficult to pin down.  Neither film explicitly refers to or depicts the Michael/Zoret relationship as homosexual, and even if it was homosexual in nature, there is nothing to suggest that the relationship was consummated.  It is only through subtexts, and references to scientific thinking and the attitudes of society at the time in which they were made, that the queer nature of these films can reveal itself.  In the case of Vingarne especially, our knowledge of the sexuality of the participants within the film only complicates our readings of it, and makes it difficult for audiences today to relate to the text in the same way as audiences did one hundred years ago when it was first released.  In fact, if we strip away all of the knowledge about the writers, actors and director, this first film version of the story becomes by far the lesser of the two screen adaptations if we are looking at indicators of homosexuality or queerness.

What we are left with is actually a rather confusing film which never quite manages to spell out to the audience the nature of the relationships within it.  While those familiar with Bang’s source novel would be aware of the nature of the relationship between Michael and Zoret, those without knowledge of the novel may well even find the plot somewhat nonsensical and preposterous.  Despite this, the complex structure of the film (for the time), the lives of the partipants, and the mystery surrounding the film’s actual intentions make it a fascinating relic that is well worth viewing should the opportunity arise.

(Queer Sexualities in Early Film: Cinema and Male-Male Intimacy is available to pre-order.)

[i] Richard Dyer, Now You See It.  Studies on Lesbian and Gay Film (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 17-18.

[ii] Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, ‘Araxes.  Appeal for the Liberation of the Urning’s Nature from Penal Law.  To the Imperial Assemblies of North Germany and Austria’, trans James Steakley, in Mark Blasius and Shane Phelan (eds), We Are Everywhere.  A Historical Sourcebook of gay and Lesbian Politics (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 64.

[iii] Blasius and Phelan, We Are Everywhere, p. 134.

[iv] Glenn Ramsey, ‘The Rites of Atgenossen: Contesting Homosexual Political Culture in Weimar Germany’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol 17, no. 1, pp. 89.

[v] Michael is referred to in differing prints of the films as ‘Michael’ and ‘Mikael’.  For clarity, I shall refer to this character throughout  as ‘Michael’.

[vi] See Dyer, Now You See It, 2nd edition, pp. 8-22.

[vii] ibid, pp. 11-12.

[viii] ibid, p. 15.

[ix] ibid, p. 12.

[x] Michael Kennedy, ‘Tears for Queers.  Different from the Others, Michael and Sex in Chains on DVD’, Bright Lights Film Journal, issue 48 (May 2005), retrieved Aug 11, 2012 http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/48/queersilents.htm

[xi] Adolf Brand, ‘What We Want’, trans Hubert Kennedy, in Harry Oosterhuis and Hubert Kennedy (eds), Homosexuality and Male Bonding in Pre-Nazi Germany.  The youth movement, the gay movement and male bonding before Hitler’s Rise: Original transcripts from Der Eigene, the first gay journal in the world  (Binghamton: Harrington Park Press, 1991), p. 161.

[xii] Reiffegg, ‘The Significance of Youth-Love for Our Time’, trans Hubert Kennedy, in Harry Oosterhuis and Hubert Kennedy (eds), Homosexuality and Male Bonding in Pre-Nazi Germany.  The youth movement, the gay movement and male bonding before Hitler’s Rise: Original transcripts from Der Eigene, the first gay journal in the world  (Binghamton: Harrington Park Press, 1991), p. 167.

[xiii] See http://www.mr-oscar-wilde.de/ retrieved November 28, 2010.

[xiv] Blasius and Phelan, We Are Everywhere, p. 191.

Bobby Darin at 80: 10 Key Tracks

bobby judy

May 14, 2016 would have been the 80th birthday of Bobby Darin.   In celebration, here is a look at ten key (although not always obvious) recordings from the five hundred or so that Bobby made between 1956 and 1973.

Silly Willy (1956)

Some singers find their voice the very first time they set foot inside a recording studio, and record some of their greatest work during their early years.  Elvis Presley is probably the best example of this, recording the classic That’s All Right at his very first professional recording session.  This was not the case for Bobby Darin, however.  In fact, it was over two years after he entered a studio before he recorded his breakthrough single, Splish Splash.  Prior to that, Bobby seemed to be constantly in search of his own sound, with many of his early records adopting the styles and mannerisms of other singers of the period.  He needed something to make him stand out from the rest of the would-be pop stars trying to carve themselves a career in the mid-1950s, and that something was his own identity.  Nowhere is this more noticeable than during the eight sides he recorded during his short tenure with Decca.

Recorded at his first session was a song that saw Bobby turning his attention to the novelty rock ‘n’ roll material with which he would eventually find stardom.  Silly Willy is no Splish Splash, however.  Much of the problem with the song is the awkward transitions between the two different tempi and rhythms that the song employs.  It is a shame, for there is much to enjoy in Darin’s performance, but the various elements simply do not gel together in the way that they should.

Silly Willy is interesting, however, in that it provides us with our first audible clue that Bobby wanted to be more than just a pop singer.  The number has its roots in a 1920s risqué jazz number about a drug-addicted chimney sweeper called Willie the Weeper which, in turn, provided the inspiration for Minnie the Moocher, which Darin would record a few years later.  The lyrics of the first verse of Silly Willy and Willie the Weeper are so similar that it’s clear that Bobby knew the more obscure song and was drawing from that rather than the better known Minnie the Moocher.  The first verse of Willie the Weeper reads:

Have you heard the story, folks, of Willie the Weeper?/Willie’s occupation was a chimney sweeper/He had a dreamin’ habit, he had it kind of bad/Listen, let me tell you ’bout the dream he had.

Silly Willy barely changes the lyrics at all:

Listen to the story about Willy the Weeper/Willy the Weeper was a long time sleeper/He went to sleep one night and dreamed so bad/Now let me tell you about the dream that little Willy had.

What is remarkable here is not the fact that Bobby Darin “borrowed” lyrics from an older song (this was not a rare occurrence in pop music at the time), but that he knew the lyrics to Willie the Weeper at all.  Most of the well-known recordings, such as those by Louis Armstrong and George Lewis, were instrumentals – possibly with good reason due to the song’s repeated references to “dope” and taking “pills” – and so one has to wonder where Bobby heard the lyrics in the first place.  If nothing else, it shows just how wide his knowledge of popular music was even at the tender age of nineteen.

Softly as in a Morning Sunrise (1958)

Bobby struggled to find a breakthrough hit following his move to ATCO in 1957, but eventually made the big time with Splish Splash.  However, never one to rest on his laurels, he wanted to try new things and avoid being pigeon-holed as just another rock ‘n’ roll singer.  In late 1958 he recorded his That’s All album, which would feature the track which would become his signature song, Mack the Knife. 

On the same album was Softly as in a Morning Sunrise, taken from a 1920s operetta called The New Moon.  The treatment it receives here is raucous and brash, both in the arrangement and the singing, and it’s clear that the whole point is that it is going against how the song was originally conceived and normally performed (particularly within a vocal arrangement).

There is a possibility that Bobby got this idea from the 1954 Hollywood biopic of the song’s composer, Sigmund Romberg.  In Deep in my Heart (Stanley Donen), Romberg, played by José Ferrer, attends a show in which the song is being performed and is mortified at the up-tempo, crass arrangement of his beloved composition.  There is more than just this casual link between the two performances.  For example, towards the end of the song, Bobby changes the lyrics in exactly the same way as they are in the film sequence by repeating words:  “Softly, softly, as in an evening sunset, sunset.”  But he goes yet further, breaking the “fourth wall” and talking to arranger/conductor Richard Wess, telling him “the title of this tune is Softly, so can we do it that way please?”  He then proceeds to sing it louder than ever.  It’s a brash and cocky move, totally breaking with convention, and the kind of thing which separates him from Sinatra, who treated his material somewhat more reverently.

Sinatra did come close, however, on the rarely heard attempt-at-a-hit Ya Better Stop, recorded in 1954, in which he shouts as the song starts to fade: “Oh here now, this ain’t gonna be another of those fade-away records.  Get your grimy hand off that dial, man!”  The chief difference here is that Sinatra waits until the song is over before his interjection, whereas Darin is making out that he has almost no regard for the song itself in the way it was originally intended.  That, no doubt, was not the case, but Romberg was probably turning in his grave despite the fact that Bobby had just exposed his relatively obscure song to a new generation. Ya Better Stop remained unreleased until 1978, nearly twenty years after Bobby’s recording of Softly as in a Morning Sunrise.

Milord (1960)

Bobby wasn’t just recording in different genres, he was now recording in different languages!  Only one song appears to have been recorded at the session on June 20, 1960, in New York, but it’s a Darin classic, albeit one that is not particularly well-known.  A year earlier, Bobby had appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on the same bill as Edith Piaf, and here he takes one of her signature songs and turns it into a tour-de-force.

Milord is one of Bobby’s most infectious recordings, and there are few recordings within the Darin legacy where his enjoyment of singing a particular song jumps out of every groove as much as it does here.   He sings the entire number in the original French, although he changes a few words to account for the song being sung by a man instead of a woman.  There is a Gallic element to the orchestration thanks to the use of the accordion, but the arrangement gains momentum with each verse, until Darin lets loose completely during the instrumental, singing along and clearly having a ball.  The only fault, perhaps, is that it’s all over in two minutes – but what a great two minutes!

Despite the wonderful singing and arrangement, ATCO clearly didn’t quite know what to do with a song sung completely in French, and it languished in their vaults for four years before they released it as a single, reaching #45 in the U.S. charts during a period where Darin was having something of a lull when it came to chart success.  The Daily Mirror in the U.K. called the release “interesting, but I can’t see it tearing the charts apart.” Likewise, the Australian press weren’t too excited either, saying “as great an entertainer as Darin is, he doesn’t inject into the number the mood and feeling that Piaf did.”

It’s hard to tell what the critics were listening to, but it certainly didn’t seem to be Bobby’s version of Milord.

I Got a Woman (1961)

Darin had already recorded I Got a Woman at the jazz combo sessions nearly two years earlier that had produced the Winners album (that version remains unreleased), and also for the Darin at the Copa album.  However, he tackled it again for his Bobby Darin sings Ray Charles LP – for a whole six and a half minutes.  The song starts off in normal fashion, but then Bobby keeps the “alright” ending of the song going for over three minutes despite it being basically the same line repeated over and over again.  This is Darin at his most self-indulgent, and yet there is still a point to it, for he finds almost every possible variation of singing that line during this extended coda which listeners are going to love or tire of quickly and simply hit the “next” button on the remote control.  There is also a rawness here, particularly with this song.  During the main section, he reaches for notes and misses them, but it doesn’t matter – Darin is showing us that this music is all about “feel” and not about technical perfection, and he hits that message home time and again during the course of the album.

I’m on My Way, Great God (1962)

In July 1962, Bobby started work on his first album of folk songs.  Earthy wouldn’t simply tap into the then-current vogue for folk music, though, but would instead pull together both traditional songs from around the globe as well as newer compositions written by the likes of Tom Paxton.

I’m on My Way Great God is the first of the spiritual/gospel songs on the album, and it is quite an epic.  It starts off with minimal instrumentation, with the arrangement growing subtly with each subsequent verse.  The song also utilises a choir, but here they are not at all intrusive in the way that they are on the big band album recorded during the same series of sessions.  It’s interesting to note just how controlled Darin’s vocal is, starting off at barely a whisper, and then slowly but surely getting more and more powerful over the four-and-a-half minute running time.  Bobby, no doubt, was aware he had a showstopper on his hands, and included the number in the folk section of his live concerts through 1963 as well as when he appeared on The Judy Garland Show filmed just days after the assassination of President Kennedy.

Gyp the Cat (1964/5)

In 1964, Bobby couldn’t get a hit record for love nor money.  In September 1964, he made his first attempt at recording his own composition Gyp the Cat, a clever pastiche of Mack the Knife, this time about a thief, and using a similar melody to the Kurt Weill song.  As with Mack the Knife, the song tells a story, and the arrangement works in the same way, with it gaining in intensity with each successive verse.  It’s a lighter affair lyrically, with a nice twist in the final verse, and would have been a better choice of single than Hello Dolly which was released instead.  Despite the British Invasion, there was clearly still a place in the singles charts for this type of material, as Armstrong’s Hello Dolly and the Darin-produced Wayne Newton hit Danke Schoen had shown.  The 1964 version of Gyp the Cat remained unissued until thirty-odd years later, with a 1965 recording of the same song issued as a B-side.  It was something of a waste of a fun Darin original, in his signature style, and showing that he could poke fun at himself through a pastiche of his earlier hit.

We Didn’t Ask to Be Brought Here (1965)

We Didn’t Ask to be Brought Here (recorded just after he returned to Atlantic in 1965) was a fine, adult, contemporary pop song with a clear message and, as such, was Darin’s first overtly political single.  While there were no specifics mentioned within the song, it would have been clear to listeners at the time that the song was referring to events such as the Vietnam War and the Cold War when he sings “the world’s gone mad.”  Billboard called the single “his greatest chance for the charts since Mack the Knife.  In the current commercial protest vein, he excels with his own composition backed by a hard driving dance beat.”  Sadly, very few got to hear it, and the single sank almost with trace.  One has to wonder if both Darin and the advertisements for the song had something to do with it.  An original advert is shown in Jeff Bleiel’s book, That’s All, and tells the reader that the song has a “great message” but then has a picture of Darin in a suit and tie – hardly the image associated with someone singing a protest song in 1965. The image and the content were simply an anachronism.

If I Were a Carpenter (1966)

Bobby Darin told many times in concert a humorous story of how a couple of agents came to see him in 1965 or 1966 and offered him songs by the likes of John Sebastian and Tim Hardin that he rejected and that went on to become hits.  Quite how much of the story is true is debatable, although it was no doubt at least partly based in fact, even if it had been somewhat embellished.  “When they came to me the next time, I was lying in wait for them,” he told an audience in 1973, and the song he ended up recording was If I Were a Carpenter, a number which would introduce yet another phase in the career of Bobby Darin.

Despite the fact that Darin spent time trying to ease the rumours that Tim Hardin was annoyed at him “stealing his song,” the original stories still make for good copy.  Fred Dellar, in the liner notes for the CD release of the If I Were a Carpenter album, repeats the story that Hardin was “incensed” that Darin had “copied Hardin’s own vocal approach.”  He even quotes Hardin as saying “he played my version through his headphones, so that he could copy my phrasing.”  While Darin was clearly inspired and influenced by the original Tim Hardin demo, he certainly wasn’t listening to it through headphones when he recorded the song as he makes a number of small, but not unimportant, changes to both the melody and the timing.  The bridge section, for example, is sung faster in Hardin’s version, but in tempo in Bobby’s.  Meanwhile, certain notes are exchanged for others in Darin’s rendition, particularly in the second verse where this happens on multiple lines.  Finally, Bobby’s vocal is far more intimate, more delicate, than Hardin’s.  Somehow, from somewhere, he had found yet another new voice that had only ever been hinted at over the previous decade.

Me and Mr. Hohner (1969)

In 1968, Bobby moved away from traditional record labels and set up his own:  Direction, where he would spend the next two years recording songs of protest and social commentary.  Darin’s second album for the label opens with Me and Mr. Hohner, and finds Darin talking, almost rapping, the lyrics, producing a sound that was considerably ahead of its time.  At face value, this is a song about police harassment in general, but the references to “South Philly” at the end of each verse makes it clear that this is Darin’s view of Frank Rizzo, who was Police Commissioner in Philadelphia at the time.  His obituary in the New York Times states that Rizzo was often viewed as a “barely educated former police officer who used a hard line and tactics bordering on dictatorial to suppress opposition and keep blacks out of middle-class neighborhoods.”  The 1991 article goes on to say that “Mr. Rizzo personally led Saturday-night round-ups of homosexuals and staged a series of raids on coffee houses and cafes – saying they were drug dens.”  This, together with the multiple charges against Rizzo (all of which were dropped) regarding the beating of suspects, fits in with the picture the song paints of a young man and his harmonica “not doing nothing to no-one/When a squad car stops and out jumps cops/‘You’re one of them if I ever saw one’” and the fear at the end of each verse of getting a beating.

The track is brilliantly executed, with a fine production and Darin’s vocal sounding completely natural despite the nature of it.  Billboard called it “another strong message lyric set to an infectious beat [with a] top arrangement and vocal workout.”  Later in the year, Variety stated that Bobby was told he couldn’t sing the song during his appearance on This is Tom Jones (he sang Distractions instead).

Happy (1972)

Finally, we come to Bobby’s last single, which was released in December 1972.  The effect of television appearances could be seen when Happy was sang twice on Darin’s TV series in early 1973, and the song went on to reach #67 in the US charts.  That may not sound much, but it was his highest charting single since The Lady Came from Baltimore in 1966, and his first to chart at all since 1969.  Happy is subtitled Love Theme from Lady Sings the Blues, but this is a little confusing.  The song itself never appeared in the film sung by anyone.  Indeed, it hadn’t even been written at the time of the film’s release.  Instead, the song simply borrows a melody from the incidental music in the film and adds lyrics to it – much like Somewhere My Love (Doctor Zhivago) or Stella By Starlight (The Uninvited).

Darin turns the song into an epic.  There is a huge orchestral arrangement but, even when the full force of the band is heard during the bridge section, Bobby shows that he can compete and he belts out this section before turning on a dime to a much softer voice for the end of the vocal.  The single clocks in at just under four minutes, but the version released on LP is two minutes longer, although Darin doesn’t sing a single note extra.  Instead, the extra two minutes are an extended orchestral outro, with backing vocals at the very end adding a gospel feel to the proceedings.  The number and production were atypical Darin, but show that Bobby could still deliver even this late in the game.  Billboard called the single “one of Darin’s finest performances on record.”

(Bobby Darin: A Listener’s Guide is available in Kindle and paperback format from Amazon)