The Question of Jack Pickford (1924 article)

The following article by Grace Halton first appeared in Motion Picture Magazine in October 1924.   Along with twenty-seven other interviews with silent film stars, it is reprinted in Silent Voices:  Vintage Interviews with Silent Film Personalities, available in paperback and kindle formats from Amazon online stores.  The pictures do not originate from the original article.

 

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Huck and Tom (1918)

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THE QUESTION OF JACK PICKFORD

An appreciation of this young star who, if he stood alone, and were measured in the public eyes only by the merit of his work –as an artist should be measured – would accomplish very great things indeed

Author: Grace Halton

(Motion Picture Magazine: October 1924)

He sat there behind a desk in the small studio office-room, and from time to time he lit a cigarette, rather nervously.  When he smiled, it was quickly but with no reflection of an inner amusement in his eyes.  He talked rapidly, but without ease.  I felt that in his mind he was wondering what I would ask him next and wishing quite fervently that I would leave.

Outside the summer sun beat down on the Pickford-Fairbanks lot.  The walls of Mary’s old Rosita sets seemed to curl and quiver in the downpour of tropical sunshine.[1] The minarets of Bagdad rose, an eye-piercing blaze of silver against the hard blue of the sky.  Only in the shelter of the mammoth walls of Doug’s mediaeval castle, erected for Robin Hood and later serving Mary well in Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall, was there shadow and cool.[2]

And, quite wisely, a Pickford-Fairbanks chauffeur had parked one of the family’s Rolls-Royce cars in this grateful shade.

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The Double-Dyed Deceiver (1920)

So Jack Pickford and I sat in the little office – Jack most immaculate in white trousers and well-cut gray coat – and when the riveters, working on a giant gas-tank nearby, did not drown out our conversation with their staccato clatter, we talked of various things.

But I knew, even as I asked him questions and he answered them obediently, like a little boy who hopes he’ll grade at least eighty per cent in examinations, but rather doubts it, that it was no sort of interview.

One gets no glimpse of the real Jack Pickford this way.  I know, for I’ve met him a dozen times in the last half-dozen years, at parties, formal and informal, at the various dancing places, on transcontinental trains.  Times when he was his natural, youthful self.

He was not himself the other day.  His manner was guarded.  He was earnestly striving to uphold the dignity of the Pickford family.

He endeavoured not to arouse interest in himself and in his reactions, veering ever from the personal with talk of Marilynn (sic), or Mary and Doug.[3]

“It’s lonesome around here without them,” says Jack.  “Sure.”

He has a way of saying “Sure,” as tho to emphasize his remarks.

News had come that day of a decoration upon Doug in Paris by the Ministry Beaux Arts.  Two gold palms, crossed, and suspended by a purple ribbon.  A great honor for Doug.  No actor has ever before received this decoration, which was originated by Napoleon and has heretofore been awarded only to educators.

Doug and Mary “have a new stunt” – thus the conversation continued.  They like to go down to the Orpheum sometimes, when they’re here at home.  It’s hard on Mary never having a chance to go out anywhere without being mobbed, and at last she and Doug have solved the difficult problem and how to enjoy a peaceful evening at a vaudeville show.  They buy seats in the last row on the aisle, dress more inconspicuously and put on dark glasses.  Then they slip into the theater after the show has started and out again just before the last act is over.  The stunt works fine.

Then – Marilynn.  Marilynn Miller, before whom jaded first-night Broadway has bent the knee in homage, more than once.  Mailynn of the soft golden curls, the babyish face, the twinkling toes.  The adored “youngest star on Broadway.”  Jack’s wife.

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Brown of Harvard (1926, with William Haines)

Of these he will talk.

He and Marilynn are going abroad later in the summer, he says.  Marilynn is to meet Barrie.  She’s bringing Peter Pan to the stage in the fall and, well, it seems a good idea to meet Barrie beforehand.    It’s an awful responsibility, you know, following Maude Adams in Peter Pan.  Sure.  Jack likes London.  He has lots of friends in London.  He lit another cigarette.  No – he doesn’t like Paris.

It is later, perhaps, one remembers that Jack’s first wife, the beautiful Olive Thomas, met her tragic death in Paris, and one senses that Jack has been remembering all the time.

One brings him back from London – and Paris to the sunshine and heat of the Pickford-Fairbanks lot, the rat-tat-tat of the riveters working on the gas-tank, the light laughter of Marilynn and some other girls playing badminton on the studio court.

Jack’s next picture, he says, will be made in New York.  Marilynn will be working there, he explains, as sufficient reason why he should desert Hollywood.  Young Mr. Dudley is the title of the story and, the plot being conveniently laid in New York anyway, they’re going to shoot everything from the Battery to the Bronx.

His ideas of what he would like to do in future seem rather vague.  The majority of actors, when one has talked to them for one consecutive minute, will tell one confidentially of their burning desire to bring to the screen some certain story or play, to create some certain character known to history or literature. But not Jack Pickford.  In the main, his life has been mapped out for him by The Family.  One feels that decisions as to what Jack will and will not do, rest with them usually, rather than with himself.  Initiative is not developed under such circumstances.  One feels also, that if he did cherish a secret longing to create some daring, difficult role, to depart in some manner from the comfortable, even routine mapped out for him, he wouldn’t be apt to say anything about it until he had The Family’s O.K.

In some obscure way, this irritates me, belonging as I do among those wilful persons who consider him an actor with tremendous possibilities.  His work before the camera is stamped with authenticity.  He possesses the rare ability to submerge himself in the character he is portraying.  He never struts and poses in the well-known Hollywood male star manner.  If his wild, primitive mountaineer boy in The Hill Billy isn’t as genuine a portrayal as the screen has seen this year, I’ll eat my fall chapeau.[4]

But he won’t talk about himself.  Facing the interviewer, he becomes inarticulate.  He’s not thinking of his work.  He’s wondering just what sort of impression he is making on me.  He is self-conscious, lacking the egotism on which a less sensitive soul might rely.

That soul of his has been scarred.  He has seen his name in ugly headlines blazed across the world.  That slight, nervous body has bent before the storm, and the years have passed.  Jack hasn’t forgotten.

As I say, it was no sort of interview.

I left him presently, and the white-hot glare of the Pickford-Fairbanks lot, with the haughty Rolls-Royce still standing in the thickening shadows of grey stone castle walls, and the silver minarets of Bagdad writing fairy tales unnumbered across the sky.

But the feeling of irritation persisted.  I found myself wishing that Jack wasn’t a Pickford.  That he hadn’t the fortunes of Hollywood’s royal family behind him.  That the rare, delicate artistry of his work might draw strength from some hardier atmosphere.  In short, that Jack wasn’t quite so smothered in The Family ermine.

After watching the sensitive play of expression across his face for an hour, it intrigues one to muse on what Jack might accomplish if, freed from all prejudice, he stood alone, measured in the public eye by the merit of his work, as an artist should be measured.

It is good work, that the boy of Seventeen,[5] The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, and innumerable other photoplays of the native American type, has given us.  To one who watches with somewhat bored amusement the tug-of-war now going on between our middle-aged film heroes and the Latin lads, a Jack Pickford performance with its blending of humor and pathos, provides a welcome distraction.

We find it within us to hope that some day he may contribute to the screen a truly great performance.

[1] Rosita (Ernst Lubitsch, 1923)

[2] Robin Hood (Allan Dwan, 1922); Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (Marshall Neilan, 1924)

[3] Marilyn Miller:  Jack Pickford’s second wife.

[4] The Hill Billy (George W. Hill, 1924)

[5] Seventeen (Robert G. Vignola, 1916)

Silent Voices: Vintage Interviews with Silent Film Personalities (book announcement)

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I’m very pleased to announce the publication of a book I have been putting together for some time!

Around a hundred years ago, film fan magazines were emerging from their infancy to become some of the most-read periodicals of their day. These were places where cinema-goers could read with anticipation about new releases, as well catch up on Hollywood gossip, see glamourous pictures of their favourite actors and actresses, and read interviews with (and articles by) some of the great stars and directors of the day.

“Silent Voices” collects together twenty-eight of these interviews and articles (many out of print since their original publication in the 1910s and 1920s), covering a dozen different screen personalities of the period: Renée Adorée, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Theda Bara, Clara Bow, Carol Dempster, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Robert “Bobby” Harron, Johnny Hines, F. W. Murnau, George O’Brien, and Jack Pickford.

The book is available in both paperback and kindle editions from Amazon.

contents page

 

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.

Destination Victoria Station: the Lost Johnny Cash album.

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A few years ago, Sony released a 63CD set called “Johnny Cash: The Complete Album Collection” which also included an album originally issued on the Supraphon label and another which was only issued in the UK.  Bearing this in mind, it seems somewhat surprising that there is still a “lost” Columbia album that hasn’t been reissued since its initial release back in 1975.

“Destination Victoria Station” was released by Columbia Special Products and could only be bought at Victoria Station restaurants, meaning that it was unavailable outside America even back in 1975.   This is basically an LP in which Cash sings about trains – one of his favourite subjects from the Sun years through to his final recordings in 2002.   Eleven of the twelve songs included are familiar to Cash fans – but not necessarily these performances of them.

Five songs previously recorded by Cash were here given a makeover to either a lesser or greater extent:  Casey Jones, Hey Porter, John Henry, Waitin’ For a Train, and Wreck of the Old ’97 were all re-recorded for the project, some in very different arrangements.  Meanwhile (and rather bizarrely) two more songs had new vocals added to the backing tracks used on previous recordings.  These are Orange Blossom Special and Wabash Cannonball.  The title song, Destination Victoria Station, was a brand new studio recording of a brand new song, which was later given a live outing on the UK-only album Strawberry Cake – an album perhaps best known for having an IRA bomb alert in the middle of the concert, causing the audience to be evacuated (all of which is heard on the LP).  Thankfully, it was a hoax.   The remaining four songs are taken from Cash albums ranging from 1968 to 1975.  Folsom Prison Blues is taken from the 1968 live album recorded at Folsom Prison, whereas Texas-1947, City of New Orleans, and Crystal Chandeliers and Burgundy come from obscure LPs from the early to mid-1970s.

This mish-mash of sources and recordings should result in a rather shoddy album, but that isn’t true.  In fact, it is actually a cut above most of what Johnny Cash was releasing at the time.  On the eight new performances, Cash is in splendid form.  He gives the remakes a rather different, less frenetic, more relaxed feel, to their previous studio incarnations, with them having more of a fatherly-tone in the storytelling – and most of these are story songs.  Only Orange Blossom Special is something of a disappointment, with the new vocal appearing to be half-hearted, but I wonder if it ever did work particularly well in the studio compared to the exciting live performances that came later.  The new song is appealing enough, even if it was never going to be a classic Cash composition – and it’s placing as the final track leaves the album with a rather bland ending.  It’s also nice to hear some of the reissued tracks here too.  City of New Orleans never deserved to be stuck on the rather appalling Johnny Cash and his Woman album, and Texas 1947 (from Look at them Beans) is as good a train song as Cash ever sang, and deserves to be much better known.

While Destination Victoria Station is not a masterpiece, it certainly deserves to be better known, and it’s a shame that it wasn’t included in 63CD boxed set.  The fact that it is a themed album means it holds together as a listening experience much better than other LPs of the period such as John R. Cash, the Junkie and the Juicehead, and Look at Them Beans which mix the great with the not so great, and the secular with the sacred.  The likelihood of it ever appearing on CD now appears to be slim – although it would be nice to see it appear in the Bootleg series, pulling together the other “lost” Cash Columbia sides at the same time.  In the meantime, the vinyl edition from 1975 is kicking around on eBay or Amazon marketplace surprisingly cheaply, and is well worth your time if you are a Cash fan.

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.

hirschfeld

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.