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.

auntie mame lesbian party guests 3

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.

auntie mame lesbian party guests 5auntie mame lesbian party guests 6

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.

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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.

Event: H.D., Jean Epstein and Queer Modernist Cinema

Wishing I was in New York City this time next week: lectures and a screening is taking place at Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum centering around issues of queerness in H.D. and Jean Epstein’s cinematic writing and filmmaking practice.

Here is an excerpt from the event’s webpage, which can be found in its entirety here:

H.D. and Jean Epstein: Queer Modernism, Spectatorship, and The Specimen

EpsteinA lecture and screening with Mal Ahern and David A. Gerstner, presented by Amy Herzog 

Date: Friday, May 16th 
Time: 8:00 PM 
Voluntary Donation: $8 (but tickets must be procured beforehand to present at door)

Tonight, join us at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn to consider two queer film theorists alongside one another: the French filmmaker Jean Epstein, and the Anglo-American poet H.D. Both wrote prolifically about cinema in the interwar period, and both were filmmakers as well as critics. Both privileged the visual and tactile sensations that cinema offers its viewer. And, perhaps most interestingly, both evince a keen interest in the idea of cinema—as well as the cinematic spectator—as a specimen: a body subjected to a probing, scientific gaze.

In addition, see the event’s Facebook page and the Facebook page for the Morbid Anatomy Museum. The Museum seems to be opening in a new space this month–check out its website for more information. From the information provided, it reminds me of the wonderfully whimsical Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles.

I addition, I am familiar with both Gerstner and Herzog’s work, and, frankly, I would attend this event just to hear them present even if I didn’t find the topics under discussion so fascinating in and of themselves.

Hope the proceedings from this event are made available after the fact for those of us on the wrong side of the country!