Radclyffe Hall, Una Troubridge–and Auntie Mame?

In my recent post spotlighting the several lesbian party guests glimpsed in the background of Auntie Mame I mention how for several seconds a tiny little interpersonal drama seems to play out, conveyed through gesture and expression. What I didn’t note was how these women actually brought to mind two specific historical figures: longtime partners Radclyffe Hall and Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge, perhaps the most well known lesbian couple of the early twentieth century. During the last years of the 1920’s, the exact period in which this scene in Auntie Mame takes place, Hall was at the height of her public notoriety due to public outcry against her novel The Well of Loneliness, culminating in an obscenity trial in British courts in late 1928. It’s kind of fun to think of her and Una dropping by one of Mame Dennis’s extravagant evening soirées, an unexpected convergence of queer modernist and mainstream Hollywood aesthetics.

Here is the first glimpse of the women in the tumult of the party:

lesbian party guests Auntie Mame 2

as well as a closer look:

auntie mame lesbian guests closeup detail

Here is Troubridge and Hall in 1933:

Embed from Getty Images

In the photo above Hall isn’t wearing her signature hat and it is impossible to make out the details of her jacket and other garments, but there are undeniable similarities between Hall’s distinctive facial features and the woman on the far left, and the hairstyle of the woman on right very much resembles Troubridge’s silver coiffure of this period.

Throughout her adult life Hall almost exclusively wore masculine suits, while Troubridge alternated between masculine and more conventionally feminine clothing. Which is interesting, considering the most well-known image of Troubridge is the striking portrait Romaine Brooks painted in 1924 where she appears as a lesbian dandy with a severe bobbed haircut:

romaine brooks una lady troubridge portrait 1924

Brooks’s portrait has since become an essential image of pre-Stonewall lesbian iconography.

Nearly as well known is this handsome 1928 portrait of Hall in profile:

Embed from Getty Images

So did the filmmakers of Auntie Mame, portraying a wild bohemian party from the late 1920’s, intentionally make a sly reference to the period’s most famous lesbian couple? Impossible to say, of course, though it should be noted that it was something of an open secret in Hollywood that Auntie Mame‘s costume designer, the prolific Orry-Kelly, was a gay man, and he would almost certainly have been aware of Hall, and likely Troubridge as well. And it’s not at all a stretch to imagine that as both international celebrities and artistic figures, Hall and Troubridge would have found the oversized doors of Mame Dennis’s penthouse thrown wide open to them, their hostess delighted to have them join her assembly of “eccentrics.”

But whether or not these visual resemblances between these extras and Hall and Troubridge was a deliberate choice is, in the end, somewhat beside the point. By the 1950’s, when Auntie Mame was made, the figures of Hall and Troubridge were so firmly established in the public imagination as archetypes of lesbian identity and sapphic sartorial style that American film audiences would directly link them back to The Well of Loneliness and its famous author anyway–so why not extend them a cinematic invitation to the party?

PROVENANCE:

(Top to Bottom)

Auntie Mame
. Dir. Morton DaCosta. By Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Perf. Rosalind Russell, Forrest Tucker, Coral Browne, Fred Clark, Roger Smith, and Peggy Cass. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1958. DVD.

Troubridge and Hall attending first night of When Ladies Meet (1933)
Credit: Sasha / Stringer
Getty Images

Una, Lady Troubridge (1924)
Romaine Brooks
Oil on canvas
Smithsonian American Art Museum

Radclyffe Hall (1928)
Credit: Russell / Stringer
Getty Images

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Spotlighting the “Mythical Lesbians” of AUNTIE MAME

auntie mame rosalind russell dvd coverSometimes a detail that appears in the frame of a film instantly seizes our attention and momentarily crowds everything else out–a situation I encountered during a recent rewatch of the 1958 film adaptation of Auntie Mame.

In the film’s second scene the young Patrick is introduced to his Aunt; she has misremembered her nephew’s date of arrival and he and his prim caretaker subsequently stumble into one of the lavish fêtes she regularly hosts at her extravagant Manhattan penthouse. Dumbstruck, the pair ogle the scene before them, and the film carefully showcases the wide range of eccentric individuals Auntie Mame associates with at the height of the hedonistic Roaring Twenties: a pianist playing ragtime while on his back, elderly Russian expatriates, raucous flappers, any number of “colorful” Asian and/or Middle Eastern figures in “traditional” garb–basically anyone conservative American audiences of the 1950s would likely find outré and/or politically suspect. As Mame careens through her rooms introducing her young nephew to anyone she encounters, she pauses momentarily to listen to the philosophical musings of one Acacius Page who is holding forth… to an indifferent room.

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But honestly I’m a bit hazy about the whole interaction because I was immediately distracted by the two other figures literally perched on the edge of the widescreen Technicolor frame: two older women, clearly coded as bulldaggers. I was equally mesmerized by their unimpressed glaring–they contemptuously amused by Acacius’s demagoguing–as by their chic fedoras, tailored pinstripes, and wide masculine lapels.

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Going back to take these screen captures, I also noticed that the pair exchange an eye roll and even a knowing wink when Acacius declares that the uniform at the children’s school he founded is to “wear nothing.”

auntie mame lesbian party guests wink 1

The appearance of these women–who never utter a line–reminded me of the fantastical and outlandish opening chapter of The Young and Evil, where the second line which reads:

“There before him stood a fairy prince and one of those mythological creatures known as Lesbians.”

There’s lots to unpack here–which I do in my thesis!–one of which is the tongue-in-cheek presentation of lesbian women who indeed have been historically treated as “mythological creatures” (consider the widely circulated legend that lesbianism was never illegal in Britain because Queen Victoria refused to believe such a thing existed). This isn’t a far cry from how they are presented in Auntie Mame, kooky “types” just as strange and “exotic” as a brownface maharajah with a monkey perched on his shoulder, intended to make the audience pop their eyes in wonder.

And yet, problematic representation aside, I have to admit I was still glad to see them there at all.

I also later realized I hadn’t registered that the same women appear earlier in the scene, foregrounded for several seconds during Patrick’s first glimpse of the party. Only this time they are smiling and sharing a laugh with another guest–a woman who presents as more femme, but on closer inspection sports neckwear that evokes a man’s string tie.

lesbian party guests Auntie Mame 1

Slowing down the pace to capture images, it also became clear a small interpersonal drama seems to take place between the three, which include a disapproving grimace and indifferent drag on a cigarette…

lesbian party guests Auntie Mame 2And for the briefest of moments, these queer ladies seem more than mere “types” and seem to possess a life of their own.

WORKS CITED

Auntie Mame. Dir. Morton DaCosta. By Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Perf. Rosalind Russell, Forrest Tucker, Coral Browne, Fred Clark, Roger Smith, and Peggy Cass. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1958. DVD.

Ford, Charles Henri, and Parker Tyler. The Young and Evil. 1933 New York: Masquerade, 1996. Print.

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.

Currently In Production: a Djuna Barnes Film Adaptation

Ladies Almanack still Dolly & Djuna

Dolly Wilde (Slaveya Minkova) and Djuna Barnes (Josefin Granqvist) appearing in a cinematic reimagining of the “Ladies Almanack” by Djuna Barnes

Shame on me for failing to make some kind of mention of Djuna Barnes’s birthday last Friday (June 12), but considering that the date of her passing is June 18, I figure it would be appropriate over the next several days to celebrate all things DB.

For my first post, I thought I’d bring some attention to a fascinating project I’ve been following for a while now, a film adaptation of Barnes’s fascinating/bewildering/bewitching roman à clef Ladies Almanack which is currently in production. It is being written and directed by Chicago-based writer, performer, and filmmaker Daviel Shy.

Ladies Almanack cover Djuna Barnes

Cover of “Ladies Almanack” with illustration by Djuna Barnes

According to the film’s website, The Ladies Almanack will be “a feature-­length experimental narrative film,” and that it will be “a kaleidoscopic tribute to women’s writing through the friendships, jealousies, flirtations and publishing woes of authors and artists in 1920’s Paris.” For those not familiar with Barnes’s original text, it was written in 1928 and privately published that same year, and reportedly undertaken for the amusement of Natalie Clifford Barney and the circle of lesbian artists associated with the celebrated salon she hosted in Paris. Drawing equally upon literary elements both archaic and modernist, in mock-Rabelaisian style Barnes casts Barney and her friends (which include Romaine Brooks, Radclyffe Hall, Mina Loy, Janet Flanner, and many others) and almost beatifies them, casting the coterie’s various in-jokes, tangled relationships, and interpersonal tensions almost as a form of medieval hagiography. I haven’t at all managed to do justice to Ladies Almanack in this brief description, but will just say that while I found this a strange and perplexing work on my first reading, after some research and several more reads I now find it to be as screamingly funny as much as it is artistically and conceptually innovative. Barnes’s witty and characteristically eccentric illustrations only further emphasize these qualities.

ladies almanack film still daviel shy

Mimi Francetti (Fannie Sosa) and Lily de Gramont (Merci Michel) in “The Ladies Almanack”

I’m pexcited about Shy’s adaptation precisely because all available information and imagery makes it seem like there is little interest in “faithfully” adapting Barnes’s anarchic text, but rather Shy is extensively–and I’d say appropriately–reimagining the project Barnes herself originally set out to undertake. According to the film’s website, “each character is a hybrid of the historically researched figure and the contemporary artist who portrays her,” and, intriguingly, Shy is casting Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Monique Wittig as narrators, with Cixous actually portraying herself and Eileen Myles embodying Wittig. Iconic queer filmmaker and actress Guinevere Turner (Go FishThe L Word) will play Liane de Pougy. My impulse is that Shy is undertaking some really clever strategies to access this text within the context of 2015, with the potential for representing how the queer legacies of this particular storied moment of the queer past possesses a legacy that continues to resonant in the queer present.

Ladies Almanack collage Sarah Patten

Collage Cover of “The Ladies Almanack” by Sarah Patten

I’m also particularly pleased that the film is intentionally taking on an experimental style, and the images that have been shared on the film’s website and through other social media sources have brought to mind the work of numerous queer artists, from the lush style and evocative anachronism of Derek Jarman and Werner Schroeter, to Barbara Hammer’s erotic utopianism, to the stylized posing of Claude Cahun’s portraiture, to the inventive and insatiable cultural bricolage of Jack Smith. The film’s stated “Bibliography” demonstrates that Shy & co. have definitely done their homework in regards to literary based research, and I’m expecting the same regarding the film’s visual sensibility, which certainly seems to be operating within the tradition of queer non-mainstream filmmaking.

The film’s Profile page also excites me, as it is clear that the Ladies Almanack will be representing a large swath of the contemporary queer community in all of its diversity, beautiful idiosyncrasy, and immense creative energy.

The production is still raising funds to help get the project completed–I donated last week during a fundraiser they were holding. Otherwise, keep up the project through the website’s news page, its Facebook page, or tumblr site. I’ve also been enjoying wandering through Daviel Shy’s personal site.

To close, several more collages by Sarah Patten, which are reportedly going to serve as chapter headings in the film. To say I’m obsessed with them is an understatement.

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Mina Loy (Brenna Kail) by Sarah Patten

thelma todd collage sarah patten

Thelma Wood (Erin Jackson (aka Audio Jack)) by Sarah Patten

 

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Dolly Wilde (Slaveya Minkova) by Sarah Patten

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Renée Vivien (Caitlin Baucom) by Sarah Patten