Book Review: INCONGRUOUS ENTERTAINMENT by Steven Cohan

incongruous entertainment steven cohanIn Incongruous Entertainment Cohan directly takes on the fascinating paradoxes presented by studio-era, “classic” Hollywood musicals: how can they be considered both wholesome family fare and longtime objects of gay fetishization? Mainstream yet niche? Canonized yet marginalized? Primarily interested in those glossy MGM musicals of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s both major (Singin’ in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis) and much more minor (I Love Melvin, Esther Williams’s whole filmography), Cohan’s strategy in making sense of the “incongruity” of these mass “entertainments” is via that ever-amorphous concept of “camp.” What is interesting is that Cohan is interested in demonstrating that camp readings do not just apply to a consideration of the long-acknowledged relationship gay men have had with these films, but, rather counterintuitively, are also the source of their reputations for wholesome family-friendly fare.

Beyond my simple cinephilic interest in the films themselves (which was the reason I took this volume up in the first place), what is of particular value to me is Cohan’s deft overview of “camp as a historical practice,” which considers Sontag’s foundational 1964 short essay “Notes on Camp,” Esther Newton’s equally crucial ethnographic study Mother Camp (1979), Andrew Ross’s essay “Uses of Camp” (1988) as well as The Politics and Poetics of Camp, a collection edited by Moe Meyer (1994). Cohan notes how “the general currency of camp as a recognizable term” is its ability “for audiences to describe their pleasure in films so old they are bad and so bad they are good” (6). However, this has resulted in “the gradual erasure of [camp’s] materiality as a queer practice,” a dynamic Meyer attempts to recuperate by positing “the camp trace” which gives “an unthreatening ‘queer aura’” which in turn gives “special value straight tastes within the domain of heterosexuality (6, 7). [Personal Note: The concept of a “camp trace” seems an extremely productive and generative way of approaching the nuances of camp practice which I plan to investigate more fully.]

Cohan also takes pain to carefully historicize the term, noting how “from the 1920s through the 1960s, camp was the code and custom for the closet,” allowing homosexual men to necessarily pass as straight within the dominant culture while at the same time allowing for “a distinctly queer idiom through which to articulate their censored, usually precarious cultural location” (9). This inherent incongruity not only “defined camp as a practice,” but also constitutes “a style and strategy inexplicable from passing,” a dynamic which Cohan see as fundamental to the films, histories, and other cultural artifacts he subsequently considers (17).

judy garland get happy summer stock

Judy Garland and the chorus boys in the immortal “Get Happy” sequence from “Summer Stock”

Despite the deep theoretical engagement noted above, I appreciate how overall Cohan never loses sight of the fact that these films—and a camp sensibility in general—generally pivot upon pleasure, humor, and, in his own words, “fun, though not with the intent of trivializing” (11). Thankfully, this recognition is reflected in his writing and even analytical style (how many times have I sighed over theoretical readings of topics like “pleasure” and found the objects of scrutiny hopelessly wrung of any such thing? Too many).

gene Kelly and Jerry anchors aweigh

Gene Kelly and Jerry the Mouse dancing together in “Anchors Aweigh”

Each chapter centers a different facet of Cohan’s overarching thesis, ranging from the groups of “sissy” chorus boys always seeming to accompany glamorous female stars during their musical numbers, Judy Garland’s eternal but polyvalent persona and star appeal, the ambiguous “camp masculinity” of Gene Kelly, the non-heterosexual figures crucial to the storied “Freed Unit,” etc, etc. I was also particularly interested in his final chapters which consider the intricacies of nostalgia inherent in the That’s Entertainment! series, as well as the much more daunting task of making some kind of sense of Judy Garland internet tribute websites and message boards and the complexities that go along with the legacy of a beloved—and incredibly complicated figure. Certainly a diverse range of topics, but all, in the end, demonstrating how viewers are required to constantly “negotiate the incongruous cultural dualisms” deliberately embedded within these films, and the importance of considering camp when doing so.

Works Cited

Cohan, Steven. Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value, and the MGM Musical. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

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