Chapter 3 – Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:

The subtle gay gangster films of the early 1930s – Little Caesar 1931, The Public Enemy 1931 and Scarface 1932

“Criminals should not be made heroes… The flaunting of weapons by gangsters will not be allowed…”

“… the fashion for romanticizing gangsters” must be denounced.

The three films also evenhandedly parcel out social pathology and sexual aberration: homosexuality in Little Caesar. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy from the novel by W.R. Burnett Little Caesar was first out of the gate and an immediate sensation. A diminutive bandit whose single-minded ambition compensates less for his stature than his repressed homosexual desire, Caesar Enrico Bandello is compact, swarthy and tightly wound; his golden boy pal Joe played by the scion of Hollywood royalty Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is tall, patrician and easygoing.

When Joe finds a female dancer and show business success, the jilted Caesar unhinged by a jealousy that dare not speak its name even to himself, makes his first mistakes in judgement. The male triangle is completed by Caesar’s worshipful lapdog Otera (George E. Stone) who gazes up at Rico with a rapturous desire that, unlike Rico, he barely bothers to sublimate. Doubly deviant Rico dies for his social and sexual sins, asking in tight close-up and choked up tones, “mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?”The famous last words inspired an incisive remark from Robert Warshow on gangster psychology:” Even to himself he is a creature of the imagination” from FILMIC – From Sissies to Secrecy: The Evolution of the Hays Code Queer by Mikayla Mislak

“This is what I get for likin’ a guy too much,” Rico ‘Caesar’ tells himself after he realizes he’s lost Joe. Joe, who he has referred to as “soft” and a “sissy.” The very pretty Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) has decided to give up the racket, to be a professional night club dancer. Robinson wisecracks, “Dancin’ just ain’t my idea of a man’s game.”

Joe is romantically involved with Olga (Glenda Farrell). ‘Caesar’ is not only jealous of Joe’s relationship with Olga, he appears to have no use for women at all.

At the end there is a telling close up, a well of tears in his eyes, a subtle quiver in his face. Rico cannot shoot Joe, even though he needs to keep him from squealing. The image of Robinson coming head on with his feelings reveals his struggle with the repressed love for his dancing pal. The scene is very effective when the camera closes in on Robinson, capturing his dewy, wide eyed stare. Behind the scenes what helped the intensity of the look of longing turned out to be a serendipitous moment when Robinson had to fire a pistol while looking into the camera, and was unable to keep his eyes open, each time he pulled the trigger. Eventually they had Robinson’s eyes held open with cellophane tape. The effect worked perfectly.

Another interesting point in Little Caesar that hints at his latent homosexuality is a scene that highlights his clumsy fussiness. Rico is trying on a tuxedo and gazing at himself in the mirror. Posturing gleefully as he swishes at his own reflection. In this scene, Rico also becomes caught in his effete sidekick Otero’s (George E. Stone) gaze, who joyfully watches his boss flit for the mirror.

In The Public Enemy (1931) there is a noteworthy scene, when Tom (James Cagney) goes to his tailor to get fitted for a suit. It’s a hilariously fidgety few moments for Cagney while the flamboyant tailor fawns over his arm muscles. When the movie was re-released, the sequence wound up on the cutting room floor.

According to Mislak In Howard Hawk’s Scarface (1932) it could be seen as having a gay subtext, as Antonio ‘Tony’ Camonte (Paul Muni) shows a repressed homosexual desire for his best friend Guino Rinaldo played by George Raft. Hawk’s film doesn’t work on a blatant exhibition of violence, instead Scarface’s subtlety draws on the subliminal impression of his sexual impulses.

Through my readings, it has been noted that there is a coded gayness inferred from the character of Camonte in Scarface. Rather than the repressed sexual desire for his close friend Guino, I catch more a wind of an incestuous desire for his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak). Camonte hovers over her with an iron will, not allowing her to have any man touch her. She even alludes to his untoward attentions at one point telling him that he loves her more than just a brother. Camonte (Muni) does focus obsessively over his hair and his wardrobe, which Poppi (Kathy Morely) tells him is ‘sweet’. But there are a few references to Guino being queer. He wears a carnation which is a code for being a gay man in film. Camonte says he’d like a carnation too, takes it out of Guino’s lapel and tells him “Better no one sees you with this.” He also makes a comment about one of the North side gang members not to be taken seriously because he owns a flower shop! Guino doesn’t show any interest in women until nearly close to the end of the picture, when he submits to Camonte’s sister, Cesca.

“The placement of homosexuality or the real possibility of it in an antisocial context is quite natural. Homosexuality when it is invisible is antisocial. The only condition under which homosexuality has ever been socially acceptable has been on the occasion of its voluntary invisibility, when homosexuality were willing to pass for heterosexuals. Obvious homosexual behavior is reflected onscreen as in real life, only in the ‘twilight world’ of misfit conduct. During the brief period of explicit reference to homosexuals in pre-Code films of the early 1930s. Gay characters were psychologically ghettoized by their routine relegations to a fantasy world or an underworld life….

….in addition to strengthening the Code in 1934, Will Hays reacted to criticism by inserting morals clauses in the contracts of performers and compiling a “doom book’ of 117 names of those deemed “unsafe” because of their personal lives. Homosexuality was denied as assiduously off screen as it was on, a literally unspeakable part of the culture. By 1940 even harmless sex-roles farces such as Hal Roach’s Turnabout were considered perilous in some quarters. The film, about a married couple (Carol Landis and John Hubbard) who switch roles by wishing on an Oriental statue, was described by the Catholic Legion of Decency as dealing with ‘subject matter which may provide references dangerous to morality, wholesome concepts of human relationships and the dignity of man.’ ” –Vito Russo

HITCHCOCK SUBVERTS SUSPENSE!

Hitchcock sensed the ambiguous sexuality in Mrs. Danvers (nicknamed Danny) who embodies the forbidding identity of the coded lesbian in 1940s films. As she strides down the halls of Manderley, there is an element of the angry older woman trope, who is vacant of male companionship by choice, with an added streak of dissatisfied longing. She embodies the sterile matron, showing characteristics of an ‘old maid’ attributed to a repressed lesbian.” Rebecca serves as Fontaine’s idealized mother and that Hitchcock’s films present images of ambiguous sexuality that threaten to destabilize the gender identity of the protagonist.” -(Tania Modleski)

Gay Coding in Hitchcock films

Article by Scott Badman & Connie Russell Hosier

“In typical Hitchcock-ian fashion, the “Master of Suspense” often employed in his films subtle references to gay culture, defying conservative attitudes of the late ’50s.”-Scott Badman & Connie Russell Hosier | February 7, 2017- Editor’s note: The following article, like many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, includes references to sex and violence.

Did Martin Landau play a homosexual in North by Northwest? Did Alfred Hitchcock really show gay sex on-screen in Rope, albeit in an unusual way? Was the whole plot of Rebecca driven by the twisted jealousy of an evil lesbian? And, most surprisingly, did Hitchcock depict a gay marriage way back in 1938’s The Lady Vanishes?”

Alfred Hitchcock was a complicated man, who put a singular stamp on all his films, infusing them with his droll and macabre sense of humor and imbued his work from the point of view of satyr. Hitchcock projects his dark and twisted view of the world as at the end of his films there is sort of a perverted release that he leaves us to contemplate. It also appears that he was playful with the use of his gay coded characters in many of his films.

Nothing Hitchcock did was unintentional, thereby reinforcing proof that there is a gay subtext to many characters in various films. He was very measured in every detail even before the camera captured the scene. But within this method of implying a queer pathology and positing queer elements to the narrative. He was ingenious in the way he veiled his ciphers within the cloak of deniability, in order to slip it by the censors in his cheeky manor.

Though Hitchcock would often imbue his pictures with coded gay characters, among scholars it is still speculative as to which side his view fell on. Given that everything Hitchcock constructed was intentional, it’s easy to see why he would be viewed as homophobic, due to his use of stereotypes that eventually led to queerness possibly being as the source of the crimes. But you have to consider that during the time he reigned, it’s a tribute to Hitchcock that he even embraced the complex issue of homosexuality. It shows me that there was a conscious level of understanding.

In his life, Hitchcock surrounded himself with gay culture be it in England or Hollywood, and he worked with many gay writers and actors. Ivor Novello who starred in two of Hitchcock’s silent pictures was good friends with he and Alma. Hitchcock was also friends with Rope stars John Dall and bisexual Farley Granger who played coded gay characters in the film. Granger also had the lead in Strangers on a Train, co-starring Rober Walker who plays another of Hitchcock’s coded gay characters, Bruno. Anthony Perkins who struggled with his sexuality in real life, plays the ambiguous, stammering, Norman Bates in Psycho. According to Jay Poole, Robert Bloch was interested in ‘abnormal psychology’ and was familiar with Freudian theories on sexual identity. His novel was more suggestive of the taboos, in terms of the incestuous relationship with Norman’s mother and his confused sexual identity.

The assessment of ‘camp’ and queerness can be seen as negative. More contemporary audiences might perceive Psycho as more campy than lurid or scary. Norman’s appearance in the fruit cellar might register with audiences as if he’s a big ugly ridiculous drag queen with a knife. The rest of the film is darkly humorous. (Doty cites Danny Peary)

In contrasting these male characters, one representative of sexually suspect psychosis, the other of gendered and sexual normalcy, Hitchcock blurs the lines between them, creating effects that will inform future depictions of American masculinity… While Lila Crane has been read positively as a lesbian character, and also as Carol Clover’s prototype for the ‘final girl” I demonstrate here that Lila is a more ambiguous figure, tied to social repression and the law. […] (Norman’s voyeurism and Lila’s examination of Norman’s room as pornographic) Infusing these pornographic motifs with addition levels of intensity and dread was the increasingly public threat of homosexuality within the Cold War context in which Hitchcock’s related themes gained a new, ominous visibility. What emerges in Psycho is a tripartite monster-voyeurism-homosexuality-pornography.” — (Scott Badman & Connie Russell Hosier)

WARNING SPOILERS:

Saboteur (1942) producer/writer Joan Harrison wrote the screenplay and collaborated with Hitchcock on many projects for both film and television. In the period of the 1940s to the 1950s, movies often conflated homosexuality with unsavory characters like Nazis, communists, and terrorists.

Saboteur stars Robert Cummings as plane mechanic Barry Kane who is framed for the terrorist bombing of a military instillation’s aircraft hanger where they manufacture planes. After he sees his friend die in the explosion, police assume that it was Kane who filled the fire extinguisher with gasoline. Kane goes on the run, to try and find the man he suspects is the saboteur, Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd) who is the real murderer who committed the heinous crime.

Kane stumbles onto a secret group of ‘the firm’, 5th columnists who are plotting to sabotage key targets, military planes, ships and dams. Kane is dropped into the middle of a cabal of dangerous Americans who have infiltrated positions of power in order to carry out their nefarious plan to disrupt the democratic system and cause chaos. Socialite dowager Mrs Henrietta Sutton (Alma Kruger) is a New York philanthropist who provides cover for the ‘firm’ run by Otto Kruger as the coldly, sinister Tobin. Kane pretends to go along with the group, and in one scene in a taxi with Alan Baxter who plays Mr. Freeman, there is a queer exchange between the two. Freeman tells Kane about his two little children, one of them is a boy, whom he wishes was a girl. He’s letting his son’s hair grow long, and hesitates cutting it. Then he shares his reminiscence about his boyhood when he had glorious long blonde curls. Kane tells him to cut his son’s hair and “save yourself some grief.”

Purely by Hitchcockian fate, Kane is thrown together with Pat (Priscilla Lane) who comes to his aid and at one point tries to distract Fry at the top of the Statue of Liberty. The beautiful Pat, flirts with Fry in order to stall him until the police get there, but he isn’t the slightest bit interested in her at all. In fact he seems annoyed by her presence. He’s a slim effete figure, a swishy loner with a serpent like grin. Theodore Price, in his book ‘Hitchcock and Homosexuality’ (1992), has no doubt Fry was gay. (Ken Mogg 2008)

Saboteur climax prefigures that of North by Northwest between Thornhill (Cary Grant) and the sinister Leonard (Martin Landau) who is also a gay Hitchcockian figure.

We first hear a remark spoken by socialite Mrs Sutton (Alma Kruger) when Barry (Kane) is taken to the saboteurs’ New York lair, as Barry enters the upstairs room. Mrs Sutton is addressing a couple of her male colleagues, whom she reprimands: ‘I have to hover over you like an old hen.’

This is precisely the line Hitchcock uses in Rebecca to characterize the somewhat de-natured estate-manager Frank Crawley (Reginald Denny) – nearly all the men in the film are so afflicted – and will be uses again in The Paradine Case to characterize the gay Latour (Louis Jourdan).

Frank Crawley is ‘as fussy as an old mother hen’; Latour, we’re told, had been ‘like an old mother hen’ to his beloved master, the blind Colonel Paradine.- Ken Mogg (2008)

In North by Northwest (1959) Martin Landau’s character Leonard, displays an undercurrent of homosexuality, that is subtly implied. He’s a devoted bodyguard whose gaze of his boss, Phillip Vandamm, seems to be bubbling with a refined sensibility, romantically fixated Vandamm (James Mason), a communist spy being hunted by the CIA. For a 1950s film, Leonard’s immaculate fashion sense and his fastidious swagger is a cue of his being queer. Nearing the climax of North by Northwest, the telling scene set in a mid-century modern house reveals Leonard’s love for Vandamm. Hitchcock even sets up the motive for Leonard shooting the object of his affection, jealousy and rejection. A notable line toward the end of the movie, Leonard remarks, “Call it my woman’s intuition” affirming the effete stereotype of a feminine gay man. Vandamm is genuinely flattered (contrary to homosexual panic) by Leonard’s feelings, which hints at his motivation for killing the thing he loves. Vandamm (Mason) tells him in that coldly sober tone of his, “I think you’re jealous. I mean it, and I’m very touched. Very.” As Scott Badman & Connie Russell Hosier point out, Hitchcock direction shows a “progressive perspective for its time but so brief that it doesn’t fully register with most viewers. Much later, Laundau acknowledged that he played Leonard as a homosexual, albeit subtly.”

From the opening of Strangers on a Train (1951), Hitchcock frames the entrance way to the story with a close shot on the main character’s shoes walking to catch the train. Bruno wears elaborate wing tips with high heels and Guy wears a more toned down fashionable pair of shoes, which are in opposition to each other and illustrate the contrast between the two main characters.

Robert Walker’s Bruno, is a menacing, creepy guy with flashy ties, who positions himself after a chance meeting on a commuter train, to assert his influence over famous tennis player, Guy Haines (Farley Granger). Bruno begins to flatter Guy, and insinuate himself by sharing his knowledge of Guy’s personal life. He is very proud of his tie that his mother gave him. It is a garish accoutrement dappled with lobsters. Like his silken smoking robe and another tie with the name Bruno embroidered on it. Bruno also spouts a lot of ‘ideas’ he has in that ever prompted mind of his, when talking about Guy’s upcoming divorce and bigamy scandal, “I’ve got a wonderful theory about that.”

Bruno insists on Guy having lunch with him, “sent to my compartment… You see you’ll have to lunch with me.” It is obvious, though Hitchcock is very subtle about broadcasting the cues, that Bruno is wooing Guy. Bruno is very effeminate in his demeanor, you could say that he has a ‘flaming’ air about him, always dropping hints about his sexuality. “My father hates me”, insinuating that he is not the kind of man he expects of him. “I’ve got a theory that you should do everything before you die.” He tells Guy amorously, “I like you, I’d do anything for you.”

Bruno Anthony’s plan is for both men to exchange each other’s murders. There are several scenes that scream Hitchcock’s gay coding. Initially, when the two men meet each other on the train, Bruno is flirtatious, dressed in ‘flamboyant clothes’, which to gay audiences, is seemingly clear to be a gay pick up. Bruno’s not only attracted to the handsome Guy, but he is in fact stalking him as an ‘object’ to fulfill his needs and be his ‘partner’ in his deranged homoerotic plot.

His mother, Mrs. Anthony (the wonderful character actor Marion Lorne) does Bruno’s nails and dotes over her son. As Bruno tells his mother, he wants his nails to look right.

The homosexuality is not explicitly stated, but there is too strong an import for critics and audiences in the know, to ignore. And, considering Hitchcock’s fascination with homosexual subtexts, it’s not a stretch to read into various scenes this way.

There is also the insinuation that Bruno has some serious mother issues, which is one of Hitchcock’s point of reference for his gay coding, such as his use of it with Norman Bates in his film Psycho. Bruno amuses himself by antagonizing his mother (Marion Lorne) who is completely in the dark about the twisted pathology of her homicidal son.

Bruno has set-up a visit from Guy who finds himself talking to the sociopath, who’s been waiting for Guy, while lying in bed in his silky pajamas. Is this actually arranged as a bedroom seduction?

Another brief sequence takes place at the end which centers around a carousel, a possible symbol of fluid sexuality, and sexual foreplay. The scene shows Bruno and Guy wrestling with each other, the movements could be read as Bruno really achieving what he wanted, to have sex with Guy. Hitchcock even cut different versions of the movie for Britain and the U.S., toning down the implied homosexuality in the American version — proof positive that he was fully aware of the gay implications in his movies. –(Badman and Hosier)

Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) is based on the play by Patrick Hamilton’s Rope’s End is perhaps one of the more obvious coded gay films with homosexual subtexts in his canon. Arthur Laurents, who eventually came out of the closet and wrote the screenplay, said during a commentary “What was curious to me was that Rope was obviously about homosexuals. The word was never mentioned. Not by Hitch, not by anyone at Warners. It was referred to as ‘it’. They were going to do a picture about ‘it’, and the actors were ‘it’.” The original British stage play was loosely based on the sensational true crime committed by Chicago students Leopold and Loeb in 1924, who killed a fellow student, just to see if they could get away with a motiveless crime. The script was penned by Arthur Laurents in collaboration with Hume Cronyn and Ben Hecht.

Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger) are entitled, affluent snobs, who are self-aggrandizing psychopaths with a Nietzschean superiority. Hitchcock arranges a taut stage play, around a case of Folie à deux. Brandon and Philip are implied coded lovers, who used the crime of murder to stimulate each other as if it were a sex act. The intellectual discourse they have in the beginning of the picture is overshadowed by the sexual banter that precedes what ultimately will become the act of committing a murder. Rope from the beginning of the picture inaugurates a very feverish sexual undercurrent.

In real life, John Dall was gay but died in 1971 without talking openly about his homosexuality. Farley Granger was bisexual when making the movie and then was in a lifelong gay relationship starting in 1963. Alfred Hitchcock was well aware of the sexual orientations of both actors and was reportedly pleased with what is now called the on-screen “chemistry” between the two.

He coded Brandon and Philip as gay by their “sex scene.” It occurs at the very beginning of the movie, which is also the murder scene. Hitchcock is strongly equating murder with sex. The murder-sex occurs behind curtained windows. The death scream corresponds to the orgasm. Now visible, the murderers Brandon and Philip quickly put the body in a cabinet and go into a postcoital exhaustion. Philip doesn’t even want the light turned on. In an inspired touch, Hitchcock has Brandon light a cigarette, a standard Hollywood indicator for “we just had sex.” – (Badman and Hosier)

The unorthodox murderers throw a dinner party with the victim stuffed inside an antique trunk. The film was initially banned in Chicago and other cities, because of its implied homosexual relationship between the two killers. In 1959, the story was revised as Compulsion directed by Richard Fleischer scripted by Richard Murphy and based on the novel by Meyer Levin. Compulsion remains closer to the actual true life crime, and the implicit queer undertones are brought more to the surface, with less of Hitchcock’s cheeky innuendo.

Hitchcock employs many homoerotic symbology and allusions, as the couple reenact the murder, with the director conflating violence and sex. For instance, Brandon gets a bottle of champagne still invigorated by the murder, while Philip the weaker of the murderous pair, is nervous. Brandon fondles the bottle of champagne as the two stand close together very intimately. He grasps the champagne bottle as phallus and flirts with the top of the bottle, yet not releasing the cork. All this is stages as foreplay. Philip finally takes the bottle from Brandon and liberates the cork. They then toast to their victim. Film Critic Robin Wood asserts, in The Murderous Gays: Hitchcock’s Homophobia, that these films could be made as more positive or sensitive to homosexuality rather than “traffic in homophobia” and that it perpetuates the notion that homosexuality leads to violence.

Psycho (1960)

Psycho works as a warped adult fairytale about getting lost and paying for one’s transgressions. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is a Phoenix secretary who embezzles forty thousand dollars from her employer’s client, and goes on the run. Marion is also shown to be a fallen woman, a sexual deviant herself with no morals, not only is she a thief but she is also having an affair with a married man Sam Loomis, (John Gavin). Driving in torrential rain, she pulls into the Bates Motel, an eerie, remote motel off the beaten path. The motel is run by a ‘queer’ sort of young man, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who lives up in the brooding house on the hill, under the dominant authority of his cruel and elusive mother. As Poole puts it, Norman “remains locked in a disturbed world, and, as the film progresses, becomes murderously mad.”

Norman Bates: “A boy’s best friend is his mother.”

Norman is not a masculine figure, he is a mama’s boy who does his mother’s bidding. He is continually identified with his mother and, according to Freud and his psychological tunnel vision, would probably have evolved into a homosexual because of his Oedipal desires. Hitchcock perverts Freud’s narrow theory, by making sure the narrative shows Norman to be attracted to women, not men. It is when Norman’s arousal of the female body, that he dresses in frumpy dresses to represent his mother, who then takes over and annihilates the object of Norman’s desire. Many viewers assume that Norman is a repressed homosexual because he dressed in women’s clothing when manifesting his mother’s personality. Cross-dressing was stereotypically associated with homosexuality, however, Hitchcock’s film tries to make it clear that Norman is attracted to women from the very beginning with the seductive Marion. The concept of fluid sexuality was not understood in 1960, so conflating cross-dressing with homosexuality was a commonly misleading view.
Another interesting point that Jay Poole (Queering Hitchcock’s Classic) brings out is how the décor of the house is itself, queer. Referring to what he cites Foucault’s theory of ‘We Other Victorians’ which essentially invokes ‘the image of the imperial prude.’ Therefor the Bates house itself with it’s provincial Victorian style from a queer perspective represents the constraints of Victorian sexual expectations, which is — we do not speak of sex, and any relations are to remain between a heterosexual married couple in the privacy of their own bedroom. Norman is surrounded by this oppressive atmosphere, tries to fight his impulses, and his carnal desires. He does this by dwelling in his mother’s house, hoping that she will control the voyeuristic, dirty lustful desire he is having about Marion.

Norman Bates: “People never really run away from anything. The rain didn’t last long, did it? You know what I think? I think that we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.”

Marion Crane: “Sometimes we deliberately step into those traps.”

Norman Bates: “I was born in mine. I don’t mind it anymore.”

Psycho, is the first of Hitchcock’s films to break tradition from his usual cultured mystery/suspense tropes. He decided to present this narrative using a pallet of B&W to set up a different tonality. Without the use of his vivid colors that he often used with cinematographer Robert Burks. Psycho deals with a more graphic, monochromatic, psycho-sexual sickness. A sickness that erupts in unprecedented perversity and violence for the director. Hitchcock also kills off his heroine in the first 20 minutes of the film. Psycho, will forever be known for ‘the shower scene.’

It also brings to the screen one of THE most hauntingly intense scenes that will remain in the collective consciousness, for what it lacks in vivid bloodshed, it possesses an uncomfortable voyeuristic gaze that brings us into Norman’s mind with the twists and turns, it assaults us, because of its deeper brutality, a more queasy feeling of psychic angst and inverts our gaze, as Marion stares back at us with her lifeless eyes.

“It’s not like my mother is a maniac or a raving thing. She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?”

In 1950s into 1960 was a time when Americans were seeking out the American ideal, and cultural conformity. It was also a time when many audiences did not explore alternative sexualities and would have conflated homosexuality with a deviant and dangerous personality. Poole suggests “Hitchcock queers the image of sexual purity but reinforces naturalized heterosexuality as the film progresses… Hitchcock utilizes the Freudian explanation of homosexual development in his explanation of Norman’s development as a psychopathic killer despite Norman’s apparent heterosexual orientation.”

Hitchcock believed he made the perfect choice in casting Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, the homicidal misfit who put on a dress and wig to embody his cruel mother. Norman became a serial killer with a fixation on his castrating mother, because she dominated his life and turned him into a monster. Perkin’s himself soft-spoken, androgynous, even perhaps a slightly effete actor. Alfred Hitchcock envisioned another gay character whose inherent corrupted humanity stems from their conflict of being queer. By queer it can refer to the process of shattering normalcy, and the vision from the perspective of a heternormative lens. Psycho takes the audience into a place of dis-ease, where seemingly ordinary people are capable of monstrous acts. If Hitchcock’s film is subverting the value of 1950s America, and the transgressive content of Psycho breaks from societal norms, then it can be read as a ‘queer’ film.

[voiceover in police custody, as Norman is thinking]” It’s sad, when a mother has to speak the words that condemn her own son. But I couldn’t allow them to believe that I would commit murder. They’ll put him away now, as I should have years ago. He was always bad, and in the end he intended to tell them I killed those girls and that man… as if I could do anything but just sit and stare, like one of his stuffed birds. They know I can’t move a finger, and I won’t. I’ll just sit here and be quiet, just in case they do… suspect me. They’re probably watching me. Well, let them. Let them see what kind of a person I am. I’m not even going to swat that fly. I hope they are watching… they’ll see. They’ll see and they’ll know, and they’ll say, “Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly…”

As ‘Judith Butler’ Gender scholar, and ‘Hall’ speak of gender as performance, Hitchcock was clear in the way he developed Stephano and Bloch’s central characters in Psycho. In the final scene the murderer is revealed and his inner monologues keep hidden, the source of a disturbed, untroubled ‘victim’ of faulty psychological development.’ The opening montage sets the scene for the dark thing that takes place inside ordinary towns and inside the minds of ordinary people. (source: Poole)

Psycho was a vehicle that queered what the public had come to expect from Hitchcock films, and,much like its real-life inspiration (Ed Gein), it queered the notion that America was a place where ‘normal,’ was defined as a quiet, safe, small town life, free from the darkness that lurds in modest roadside motels… With Psycho, Hitchcock abetted by Stefano’s script, would shock audiences with sexual innuendo, apparent nudity coupled with a sadistic stabbing scene. Perhaps most shocking of all, he would leave audiences wondering what might lie below the surface of family, friends neighbors and themselves.” (Jay Poole)

Rebecca (1940), was not one of Hitchcock’s favorite films at all. Adapted from the Gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier, the sick soul here is a menacing lesbian. The formidable Mrs. Danver’s ( played by the equally formidable Judith Anderson) is the head Matron of Manderley, living in the shadows of the former Mrs. de Winter. She is a love sick sapphic with an unnourished desire for her dead mistress, Rebecca. Manderley itself is like a hollow mistress that consumes those inside it’s ominous hallways. ‘Danny’ resents the new Mrs. de Winter and in one revelatory scene taunts her (Joan Fontaine) trying to drive her to suicide through her cruel torments. She parades Rebecca’s lingerie with a lustful smirk on her diabolical face, running her hands under the sheer, delicate fabric, as if she were fondling Rebecca herself.

Mrs. Danvers’ jealousy of Maxime de Winters’ new bride is driven by obsession, a lesbian coded manifestation, one of jealousy and sexual desire. For Joan Fontaine’s character Danvers reenacts through story telling, all the attentions she used to lavish on her beloved mistress, running her bath, brushing her hair, admiring the finery of her monogrammed pillow cases. Though Rebecca is only seen as the painting of an alluring woman her ghost haunts Manderley and the new Mrs. de Winter.

In Hollywood movies of the 1940s, coded lesbian characters were far less common than coded gay men. Portrayals of lesbians might define them as dangerous and threatening, as is the case with Mrs. Danvers. Mrs. Danvers implies that she had been married. This allowed Hitchcock’s deniability against Judith Anderson’s lesbianism But Mrs. Danver’s eventual demise is brought about by her inability to accept Rebecca’s death or allow anyone to replace her love. And so her desire consumes her literally, in fire.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

When I first saw Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naugthon Wayne) in The Lady Vanishes my radar went off like a firehouse siren during the scene where they are both sitting up together in a small bed, one wearing the pajama tops and the other wearing the bottoms, (giving the appearance of both being naked in bed. It was such a marvelous coded moment and I knew they were a loving married gay couple. I found it so refreshing to see the British comedy duo playing a cheeky proper English couple who are cricket fanatics trying to get back to London while the Hitchcockian espionage is happening under their noses.

I enjoyed their farcical vignette about a pair of golfers, the one comedic entry in an otherwise moody collection of ghost stories- Dead of Night (1945) which like The Lady Vanishes, also stars Michael Redgrave.

Hitchcock excelled at getting fine performances from his supporting cast members. They usually are finely honed characterizations portrayed by perfectly cast actors, fascinating and funny, imbued with his dry British humor. Charters and Caldicott are wonderful examples. Played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, two fine stage actors who reprised these characters in subsequent movies and BBC radio programs, Charters and Caldicott follow a long tradition of comedy duos of older men in British Music Hall, vaudeville and stage performances. Most audiences of the time, especially British audiences, would have interpreted their relationship simply as one between eccentric, middle-aged bachelors. (Badman and Hosier)

Though there are so many elements of the duo that is ambiguous, Hitchcock imbues Charters and Caldicott with an affection and closeness that reads like a positive coded gay pairing. The two aren’t played as stereotypically flamboyant or campy. Later in the movie, Charters and Caldicott are heroic in facing down danger, during an onslaught of gunfire by fascist spies.

Charters and Caldicott are stranded at the only hotel in a tiny alpine village. The desk clerk informs them that they must share the maid’s room. When they meet the voluptuous Germanic blonde, they glance at each other with an expression that appears to be saying we’re not interested. When they follow the maid to her cramped room, Charter’s cracks “It’s a pity they couldn’t have given us one each” which could be interpreted as each having their own woman, to have a bit of a romp with. But Charters clarifies himself by saying he meant two rooms. One for the maid and one for them. A mainstream audience could read their conduct as two heterosexual British gentlemen, but if you read between the lines, it is suggested that they have no interest in women. In another scene when the maid enters their shared room without knocking, both men act startled by the intrusion. Caldicott moves in a way that conjures up the role of protective mate. Once she leaves, Caldicott locks the door.

A master of queering the screen, Hitchcock plays with sexuality using his skillful methods of innuendo and artful suggestiveness — In an already masterful way of blurring the lines of reality and adeptly flirting with transgression, Hitchcock’s milieus are perfect playgrounds for coded gay characters.

Continue reading “Chapter 3 – Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:”

Chapter 1: Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:

“I wish to join the Legion of Decency, which condemns vile and unwholesome moving pictures. I unite with all who protest against them as a grave menace to youth, to home life, to country and to religion. I condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land… Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.”

—Catholic Legion of Decency pledge

And now here at The Last Drive In, the subject of “The Third Sex in the Shadows of Cinema.”

Clifton Webb as Hardy Cathcart in The Dark Corner 1946 directed by Henry Hathaway. Waldo Lydecker: “I’m not kind, I’m vicious. It’s the secret of my charm.”

“Oh, it’s sad, believe me, Missy, when you’re born to be a sissy without the vim and voive…” -Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Growing up as a gay woman, though gender and sexuality are fluid, there was not a well spring of characters in film or television that I could grab onto as a buoy for my burgeoning self awareness – I was ‘different than the others.’ Though there are the obvious icons who became heroes and heroines to many of us because of their peerless image. And while films could not overtly represent ‘queerness’ directly, they could posit mixed messages and a whole generation of us could understand the subtext, unsheltered from an array of homophobic language.

We still had Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo, who gave us immortal androgyny– there was no one who could shatter the silence, and ceremoniously ring the bells out in the open. There were no ‘obvious’ gay role models. We had to create that worship ourselves through iconography and a variety of sublime, convention-smashing signals. For those of us who knew how to look in the dark corners, right under your nose, corners, or should I say coded corners.

There’s one thing I want to be very clear about. I am not asserting that the actors themselves were gay in their personal lives, but that what was coded was merely the particular characters they played in the film. Or that the narrative might seemingly be ‘queer’. Which I will go on to explain. Particular actors or directors private lives are not up for conversation, unless they were clearly open about themselves and their influences on their artistic work.

For instance, I am not saying that I suspect Doris Day is a lesbian, just that the character of Calamity Jane is throwing out messages for those of us ‘in the life,’ to feel a special affinity. Using comforting symbology gives us a place in the universe, especially when the story is presented by the stars we most admire. Not all coded gay characters are portrayed by gay actors, and not all coded comedy, jokes or situations denotes that the character themselves are gay, just that the humor is cannily made to be queer in the moment. It can be an off-the-center remark that speeds by almost unnoticed except for the sake of the hurried laugh or two. Sometimes it’s all subjective and at times it’s pretty obvious which way the deliberate wind blows.

(Stacey) categorizes her range of material into several kinds of identification broadly dividing them into two categories. “Cinematic identifcatory fantasies” —devotion, worship transcendence, inspiration are proper to the act of spectatorship and appear to be based primarily on difference from the star ideal and “extra-cinematic identifactory practices” —imitation and consumption —attempt to close the gap between subject and star even as they take place outside cinema.

The worship of Doris Day is not surprising, she was one of the top box office draws of the 1950s. Day performs a cross-dressing role in the biopic of a legendary lesbian. Indeed, Day and Calamity Jane in particular in which the star sings both “Secret Love” and a duet with another, feminine character called “ a woman’s touch” are regularly cited by lesbians as crucial cinematic texts. (Jackie Stacey’s Star Gazing)

There was a period when Peter Lorre, George Sanders (and his equally effete brother Tom Conway), Anne Revere, Judith Anderson, and Agnes Moorehead played movie villains, fanatics or oddballs. Each of these actors suggested queerness in their androgynous personas. Each became iconic character actors of classic cinema.

Characters like Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius, Clifton Webb’s Waldo Lydecker in Laura (1944), Judith Anderson in Rebecca (1940), or Gloria Holden as Countess Zaleska in Dracula’s Daughter (1936), stood out to us, though they were despicable and unwelcoming characters. Although I see Gloria Holden’s character as strangely sympathetic. Usually queerness that was veiled behind a coded role, exhibited a disturbed or desperate personality. They might be a person who is ambiguous in their maleness or femininity. And at times, they were full on, deadly.

However, there was so little for those of us who are part of the ‘hidden audience’, we needed to catch sight of something familiar. That meant grabbing onto what ever little crumbs were thrown to us. So whether those characters were inherently insensate evil had nothing to do with our empathy or revulsion. The real power lay in the ability to identify with the essence of ‘otherness’ and more to do with familiarity and belonging. I longed to find that ‘something‘ that signified a relative identification of their sexuality. To see that subtle finger motioning, come closer, you’re in the right place kiddo, you’re one of us. Andrea Weiss writes: “[In the 1930s] for a people who were striving toward self-knowledge, Hollywood stars became important models in the foundation of gay identity.”

The films I have uncovered throughout my endeavor to write this immense blog post, either commonly fall within the queer canon or can be liberally dissected and/or challenged. We can read into any film if we so choose. I am merely putting it out to you that these films do seem to meet the criteria for coded queer paradigms. I also began this piece thinking that in order to understand the evolution of coded characters, you first have to look at the origin of the queer presence in silent and Pre-Code films, and how the Code influenced and constructed the way being queer had to be hidden in plain sight.

I echo Susie Bright, in her feelings that we (the queer community) would hang on anything close to a hint of gayness, and it would change the whole world of the motion picture, just to see that famously analyzed moment when Marlene Dietrich plants that sensuous kiss on a woman’s lips in Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco 1930. Or the first cinematic lesbian romance when vamp Louise Brooks slinks on the dance floor with her androgynous female admirer Alice Roberts as Countess Anna Geschwitz in director GW Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929).

The boldly androgynous Marlene showcased another masculine appearance when she ascends the throne at the end of The Scarlet Empress (1934).

Greta Garbo portrays the Swedish monarch who declares herself not an “old maid” but “a bachelor” in Queen Christina (1933)

Because of the social relationship between non-normative gender and sexuality and the symbology of fashion and the role of work, women only had to dress like their male counterparts and be employed in a man’s job to seem queer. In the movie directed by George Cukor, What Price Hollywood? (1932), the very drunk filmmaker notices a woman having lunch at a fashionable Hollywood restaurant. The drunks inquiry goes like this, “I beg your pardon, old man… who’s you tailor?

In Victor Fleming’s Red Dust (1932), Jean Harlow is adorable as Vantine as she she handles the heat, and hands out the jibes.

Other members of the lesbian parade inhabit spaces that, as with the men, connote queerness. Consider the lesbian couples in the Greenwich Village dive in Call Her Savage (1932), seated alongside male same-sex couples while pansy entertainers, dressed as maids, perform for their amusement. Mannishly garbed women barflies, sometimes wielding cigars, often pal around with men, or sometimes confuse and emasculate them, in Lawyer Man (1932), Grand Slam (1933), and Blood Money (1933). (Lugowski)

Blood Money (1933) Rowland Brown’s atmospheric jaunt that embraces the gritty underworld, includes racy subjects like sadomasochism, empowered women, and fluid sexuality. Kathlyn Williams credited as the “Nightclub Woman Wearing Monocle”, is a beautiful androgynous off-cut in the film. In one notable scene George Bancroft as Bill Bailey enters Ruby Darling’s (Judith Anderson) nightclub and comes across a young woman at the bar, dressed in a man’s tuxedo and sporting a monocle. Baily offers her a cigar. She smells it and nonchalantly mocks the husky guy, “Why, you big sissy!” and hands it back to him. The nature of this adventurous passage into a subversive world, it generated a lot of sexual tension. With Blood Money, the subject of homosexuality is a non issue, belonging to a subculture that invites those who are outsiders.

In Blood Money and Call Her Savage, 
homosexuality is just another pocket of an underworld that exists outside the law. When George Bancroft warns a timid taxi driver not to betray his destination to the police, he threatens, “Lissen fag” -and is rebuked by Judith Anderson for “scaring the little fellow half to death.”

Keeping along the lines of the connection between women working at men’s jobs, within a wide range of social status, you can see this example in Heat Lightning (1934) starring interestingly handsome actress Aline MacMahon when she, covered in grease, working on cars in her desert garage/gas station wearing a filthy jump suit and hair wrapped in a bandana. She sheds her desire to be desired by men, and exudes a solitary quality, as if she has given up on, performing femininity for men. She seems independent and strong and in her ‘male’ attire, you can see her projecting a queer attitude, though the film deposits a past love interest with bad boy Preston Foster as a distraction. The attraction is doomed from the start.

Olga (MacMahon) balances the duality of loving Preston Foster, donning her ‘womanly’ dress when she decides to submit to a heterosexual liaison which goes wrong. Then she shuns the idea of her femininity, re-asserting her hyper-masculine posture in greasy mechanics overalls and once again hiding her ravenous hair under her bandana, to protect herself from performing as a straight woman again.

To be clear it is not my belief that she’s not “all woman,” even using these props to represent masculinity. She is not truly changing her gender but for the purposes of the narrative, in the movie’s time period, it suggests a superficial interpretation of gender for our spectatorship.

In Jame’s Whales’ The Kiss before the Mirror (1933) there is sophisticated female lawyer Hilda Frey (Jean Dixon) who is stern and stiff-backed, is dressed in severe clothing, a “new kind of woman” which allows for an undercurrent of lesbianism.

In The Kiss before the Mirror (1933), Nancy Carroll as Maria Held is a career-oriented lawyer, who wears men’s suits and considers herself a “new woman.” There are tinges of heterosexuality, which serve to shield her character from scrutiny. But, she does appraise heterosexuality in vaguely cynical terms. She talks to another woman about a case where the husband has murdered his wife, “At least no one will ever murder me.” She also responds to , “What are you? A lawyer, or a new kind of woman?” by saying, “By day, I’m a lawyer. At night, well, you might be surprised.” Either it went undetected by the SRC (Studio Relations Committee) or they felt that the connotations of her lesbianism were ambiguous enough to slip by an unsophisticated audience.

We learn to watch out for signs that there are ‘others’ out there on the screen – those we can relate to. A young person exposed to old films, as I grew older and dove head first into classic film with a critical eye, I could read those sign posts and cues that led me to become consciously aware of the invisible affinity laid out in plain site for me, and those of us who knew the secret whispers behind the storyline.

Women wearing men’s apparel, like Dietrich’s wonderful drag performance, kissing a women in Morocco 1930. Or Clifton Webb’s often effete superiority as with his character, Waldo Lydecker in Otto Preminger’s Laura 1944, or his role as Hardy Cathcart’s with a pathological objectification of his wife Mari’s aesthetic beauty in Henry Hathaway’s The Dark Corner. Greta Garbo in Queen Christina 1933 “I shall die a bachelor!” Gloria Holden’s vampiric desire to embrace the necks of beautiful young female models in Dracula’s Daughter 1936.

Nan Gray and Gloria Holden in Lambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

The Production Code Administration (PCA) saw the obvious connection between vampirism and lesbian sexual desire in Dracula’s Daughter (1936) They only gave two warnings concerning the ‘queerness’ of Countess Zaleska and her thirst for young female victims. Universal, even hyped the idea that women were not safe from unnatural desire using this publicity catch phrase, “Save the women of London from Dracula’s Daughter!”

Throughout these films coded lesbian characters, scattered their rose petals of longing for their dead lost loves or the nymphs just out of their reach. There was the tragedy within the tragedy of the horror story! As long as these queer women monsters also became victims, the PCA could negotiate it’s release, being comfortable with the narrative in that form.

The most overt representation of lesbians was her stylized look, a severely tailored suit, monocle, slicked back or bobbed short hair, or stuanch, with a strait backed, severely repressive temperament. The coded dyke is typically less seen on screen than the pansy who enjoyed more of a character actors trademark in popular films. However, it could be said that covert lesbians are more subtle in their presence than their queer male counterpart – the sissy.

Major female stars could be seen as having indirect lesbian undertones, though their ambiguous sexuality might be camouflaged by her independent streak, her strong spirit or shaded by her exotic, mysterious nature. Thus we find some of our lesbian icons like Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Clara Bow, Greta Garbo, and Barbara Stanwyck. Lesbian vibes, can often be signaled by a playful tomboyishness. And what we have is a diametrically opposed result, the pansy is perceived as failed manhood, but conversely the lesbian performing manhood is perceived as a threat.

And if they weren’t tomboys they could be man-less shrews, castrating veragos or in need of a man, who can make her come to her senses, give up her career and her disruptive way of life. The threat of strong women is still equal to the threat. The gay man elicits a laugh.

Thus, discourses about queer sexuality in this period are never purely homophobic against men. To a sizable extent, they have their basis in sexism against women, for it is the power of femininity, the “feminization” of 1930s culture mentioned, and the threat of working women “wearing the pants” that are being policed.

The metaphorical nature of the pants-wearing, money-earning woman attaining independence from men connoted lesbianism as a complete break from the interwoven financial and sexual economies of patriarchy. Thus, if “clothes make the man,” the wearing of pants in and of itself suggested a link to lesbianism that films of the time simultaneously offered as spectacle and punishment. (Lugowski)

In particular classical horror and science fiction films spoke to the sense of “otherness” installed in my psyche. That does not mean that I viewed things through a dark lens, but classical horror and science fiction are effusive metaphors and inherently philosophical. When some of us, like Frankenstein’s monster were figuratively chased with flaming torches, horror and sci-fi movies afforded us shelter from the angry mob. Their use of mythic undertones and symbolic context provided for so many of us, psychic release and catharsis.

It’s also why I love and identify with the monster in classical horror films. The iconic or tragically fated monster has always been portrayed as the ‘other’. Gay people understand what it means to be an outsider. And filmmakers encoded that sui generis into our beloved classical horror genre. It worked like waving that meaningful finger at the audience, saying, you found us, we’re here.

WHAT IS A CODED GAY CHARACTER?

CODED–verb [with object] 1 convert (the words of a message) into a particular code in order to convey a secret meaning: express the meaning of (a statement or communication) in an indirect or euphemistic way: (as adjective coded)

films allude to homosexual meanings in more of less coded ways. From today’s perspective, one can view these films as excellent examples of the very discourse of the closet-they employ connotative and symbolic meanings to signify homosexuality for those ‘in the know’ while ostensibly being about something else. Such connotative meanings were the way homosexuality could be signified under the dictates of the Hollywood Production Code.

Although it was continually challenged throughout the 1950s (by films such as The Moon is Blue 1953 and Baby Doll 1956) The Production Code still exerted a profound effect on the content on Hollywood film, especially in relations to homosexual themes. The Production Code Administration (PCA) edited queer backstories and subtexts of the film adaptations of Tennessee William’s plays A Street Car Named Desire (1951) , Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Vincente Minnelli’s film of the Broadway hit Tea and Sympathy… (Jeffrey Sconce)

 

Continue reading “Chapter 1: Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:”

The Little Foxes that Spoil the Vines:

THE LITTLE FOXES (1941)

At the turn of the century the ruthless Hubbard clan has spread their greed and opportunistic fervor all throughout the South. Bette Davis commands the screen once again playing the hard-hearted Matriarch Regina who keeps an iron hold on her lovely daughter Alexandra (Teresa Wright). Regina is separated from her husband Horace (Herbert Marshall) who suffers from a serious heart ailment and is living in a sanitarium being treated by doctors in Baltimore. Regina summons her husband after her two conniving brothers Charles Dingle as Ben Hubbard and Carl Benton Reid as Oscar Hubbard conspire to make a killing by forging a lucrative merger with a Chicago cotton magnet. In order to come up with their part of the investment they must rely on Horace’s part of the money. Horace has been estranged from the family and his bitter wife, and has no intention of releasing any part of his money to the cunning Hubbard siblings.

Oscar is married to Birdie whom he only married for her money and the her family’s plantation which once he owned both begins to abuse her psychologically and verbally to the point that she takes to talking incessantly to anyone who will listen and quietly drinking away her sadness. Trapped in a loveless marriage, and receiving the brunt of such distasteful ire by her husband. She is like a sweet flower that has been trampled upon by the brutal ugly want of greed. Birdie is brought to life by one of the great character actors I can imagine, the wonderful Patricia Collinge who manages to make her pain seem so palpable it’s almost unbearable to watch.

Birdie doesn’t even like her own son with Oscar who is already showing signs of the father’s avarice. Leo is played by another favorite of mine, the versatile Dan Duryea, who manages to play a smarmy noodlehead. One of the lighter characters of the film are Jessie Grayson as the unflappable and sagacious Addie the maid who is the true person who keeps the household going smoothly. Richard Carlson plays David Hewitt who encourages Zanda to break away from under her mother’s thumb. The music by Max Steiner has his signature emotional washes of grand mood and the cinematographer Gregg Toland creates a claustrophobic chamber piece for the incredible ensemble cast to work their magic.

Here is one of the most powerfully consequential scenes of the film:

The beautiful heart that pulses within the rotten venomous soul of this old Southern Hubbard family, are those who in this one scene sum up all the love and compassion that director William Wyler presents to us with the help of Lillian Hellman.

This is your EverLovin’ Joey saying The Last Drive In has Tender Grapes!

What A Character! Blogathon 2019 Thelma Ritter “Always a bridesmaid and never the bride”

It’s here again, my favorite blogathon that honors those unsung actors we love to see inhabit films and most often enhance them immeasurably !

I want to thank Paula’s Cinema Club, Once Upon A Screen… and Outspoken & Freckled for hosting this important event that brings to light those essential personalities that populate memorable films and television programs with their own rare brilliance. This year I am honoring the great Thelma Ritter!

With her warm and weather worn face, Thelma Ritter is the quintessential expression of a working class dame, the working class mother, the everywoman. And no one can deliver a snappy quip quite like Thelma Ritter. Between her mournful tones of better days or raising a stink about this or that, you can almost see the cleaning rag over her simple brown hairdo hanging out the window in Brooklyn just chatting it up with the neighbors. Thelma Ritter, with hands on hip, spouts barbs and verbal gems from an endless fountain of every day wisdom.

And I want to make this clear from the start, Thelma is no plain, dowdy or shabby spinster, she’s a beautiful woman. So there’ll be no agism or misogynistic observations in this tribute.

“Usually looking like a cross between Mother Courage and a cafeteria lunch lady, [Mankiewicz], who would repeatedly explore the theme of the effects of ambition on his characters, was blessed with Ritter‘s presence in allegedly subservient roles as truth-tellers disguised as maids in… All About Eve (1950).” —Moira Finnie Streamline, The Filmstruck Blog

Thelma Ritter’s legacy is that of the wise-cracking and world weary characters who informs us in any role that she is just a regular gal like you or me. We feel empathy for her, and we laugh along with the sharp witted come backs she so famously utters. When ever she shows up on screen she enlivens what ever plot she was sent out in to explore with that cynical and bold approach to life offering that dialogue that had razor sharp teeth.

Ritter was one hell of a character actor/comedienne who worked on radio then quickly established herself in top billed supporting roles in post-war Hollywood. She was nominated 6 times without winning a single Oscar between 1950-1962. She tied with Deborah Kerr for the most nominated without winning the award. It is a crime that she never won a statue or a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

As writer Paddy Chayefsky wrote in his New York Times tribute for her death: “She was never properly publicly recognized as an actress. […] She was a character actress, which means only that they don’t write any starring parts for middle-aged women.”

Frank Capra called her “the best of all character actresses.”

Even in her performances of the most plain of women, she exuded sophistication, often classier than the upper class people that satellite around her. She often played characters who had the answers and the gumption to say it like it is, the truth that circulates through each story, driving sanity, stability, clarity, and compassion into the narrative.

None of her roles could ever be considered ordinary. Her characters always exuded her own brand of humanity. The people she played were immediately relatable to all of us.

Thelma Ritter was born in Brooklyn New York in 1902 on St Valentine’s Day on Hart Street in South Brooklyn. Born of a Dutch immigrant father and a Scottish mother. Thelma would have to rely on her wits as the family was not of an advantaged background. Maybe that’s why she has a keen witty charm, lovable persona and a certain pluckiness and curt wisdom that doesn’t allow for quick comebacks by the other actors. Though cast as a supporting actress, her name always appears on the bill or right up in the title close to the stars often being the more memorable in the picture. She brought cracking wise to a whole other level of artistry.

She attended the Academy of Dramatic Arts, the class of 1922, but did not graduate with her class as she had to quit to earn money. She made her Broadway debut in a comedy called The Shelf, costarring with other notable character actors Jessie Ralph, Lee Patrick and Donald Meek. She appeared in 32 performances before the show closed in 1926. Then she was in Times Square (1931) which didn’t have a very long run on Broadway. She took some time off to raise her children then went back to work initially in radio. Her daughter Monica Moran is an actress, they appeared together in the 1966 road company of Bye Bye Birdie co-starring Tab Hunter.

Thelma Ritter was actually 41 at the time of her wonderful film debut as the uncredited harried Christmas shopping mother in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Ritter left such an impression on director George Seaton and 20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck that they lengthened her small part in the film and decided to cast her in other pictures. This sparked a career where she wouldn’t make a multitude of films, but a film a year from 1947 until her retirement in 1969. The films she did appear in were extremely popular and received well by the critics.

Ritter’s uncredited role of Captain’s secretary in Call Northside 777 (1948) was left on the cutting room floor. The credits were left in, but she is nowhere to be seen in the film. Though again uncredited she appeared as the sharp tongued maid Sadie Dugan in director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1949 melodrama A Letter to Three Wives starring Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell and Ann Southern.

In A Letter to Three Wives, Thelma Ritter plays the maid Sadie Dugan who works for an upper middle class couple George (Kirk Douglas) and Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern). Kirk Douglas plays an English teacher and his wife Rita is a writer for a radio soap opera, played by Ann Sothern. Sadie ingratiates herself into the family feeling right at home telling Rita “The cap’s out. Makes me look like a lamb shop with pants on” when Rita asks her to wear a frilly hat while serving dinner to important guests. Ritter has wonderful lines that she expresses with ease. The writing was handpicked for her brand of comedy that cuts through the melodrama of the film. While describing her disdain for Rita’s radio program she comments, ”Do you know what I like about your program? Even when I’m running the vacuum, I can understand it.”

Ritter’s first major role as a lady’s companion was Birdie Coonan in All About Eve (1950). Director Joseph L. Mankeiwicz was so taken with Ritters style, that she was first choice to play Birdie, the edgy ex-vaudevillian maid to theater Diva Margot Channing (Bette Davis in her Oscar-nominated role). He claimed he wrote the screenplay with Thelma Ritter in mind. Aside from Addison Dewitt (George Sanders), Birdie is the only one who isn’t fooled by Eve (Ann Baxter). Ritter’s character has a keen understanding of the realities of life and is honest and gruff with the waif-like manipulative and ambitious Eve. Her role was so impressive that she received her first of six nominations for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

When Eve first recounts her sad background to Margot, Birdies reacts with the infamous line “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end.” The original line used was ‘ass’ instead of ‘rear end.’ But Joseph Breen’s office was clamping down on “morals” and found the original word too vulgar.

All through the film All About Eve, Birdie tries to inform Margot of Eve’s duplicitous nature, while everyone else is also taken in by the ‘kid’. Margot asks, “Birdie, you don’t like Eve, do you? Birdie answers, “You looking for an answer or an argument?” Margo, “An answer.” Birdie, “No.” Margo, ”Why not?” Birdie, “Now you want an argument.”

Thelma Ritter’s most significant trademark is her sassy streetwise meddling, to offer her wisdom and advice even when not being asked for it. After All About Eve, she would be cast in strong supporting roles for the rest of her career.

The next year she would once again be nominated for the wonderful picture directed by underrated directed Mitchell Leisen’s The Mating Season (1951) co-starring Gene Tierney, followed by With a Song in My Heart (1952), Pickup on South Street (1953) as Moe Williams (A film she should have won the Oscar for her outstanding performance) then came Pillow Talk in 1959 and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962).

John Lund and Thelma Ritter in a scene from the film ‘The Mating Season’, 1951. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Getty Images)

While most older female character actresses go loveless in their films, Thelma Ritter is one who manages to not always fly solo in the story lines. She often gets to have a love interest. The Mating Season (1951) directed by M. Leisen, is a satirical look on class culture, and a hilarious story of mistaken identity. Thelma as Ellen McNulty runs a small hamburger joint in Jersey and when the bank forecloses she goes to Ohio to be with her son Val (John Lund), who has just married socialite Maggie (Gene Tierney). Maggie is not a snob, but Ritter’s son is embarrassed by his humble background. Miriam Hopkins plays Tierney’s mother and former ambassador’s wife and pretentious elitist, Fran Carleton.

Robert Osborne called The Mating Season a delightful romantic comedy that most people don’t know about. The film brought Thelma at age 48 “the closest to inheriting the mantle of the great Marie Dressler than anyone in Hollywood since Dressler’s death in 1934.”

Ellen secretly works to make enough money to buy an $18 hat to wear when she meets her daughter-in-law. The way Thelma Ritter uses the hat as a prop in the storyline adds an endearing touch in the film. Thelma drops in unexpectedly to meet her new daughter-in-law and is mistaken for a domestic that the new bride has hired to cook and serve at her dinner party. Her son’s boss, Mr Kalinger (Larry Keating) falls for Ellen after she rubs liniment on his chest while he is sick. She finds out he’s much like her dead husband— the kind of guy stray dogs take to.

Ellen –“If you’re a chicken, you can fool people about your feathers. But when you start laying eggs all over the place, they know you’re a chicken.”

Ellen: “You don’t know what it was like working with her yesterday. I felt like I was 21 again.”
Val: “Oh Malarky”
Ellen: “Look wiseguy, I didn’t feel like I was 21 when I was 21.”

“Despite the fact that she usually played variations of a Shakespearean “wise fool”, she often played a person whose keen awareness of her place in our supposedly classless society made her secure enough in it to voice her opinions without fear.” -Moira Finnie

Ritter finally receives above the title star billing in George Cukor’s delightful romantic comedy starring Jeanne Crain and Scott Brady, The Model and the Marriage Broker (1951) Another highly underrated picture. Director Cukor’s adds a sensitive touch to this endearing film creating a world with plenty of witty dialogue and quirky characters. The cast is filled with lonely hearted misfits including Nancy Kulp, Zero Mostel, and Dennie Moore. Ritter plays good hearted, wryly witted yet sympathetic matchmaker Mae Swasey who just doesn’t want anyone to be alone after her own husband had left her for another woman years before. Mae goes on a mission of mischief to fix up Matt Hornbeck (Brady) with model Kitty Bennett (Jeanne Crain) though Hornbeck initially puts up a good fight saying he has no intention of getting married… that is until he meets Kitty.

Mae to Mr. Wixted (Zero Mostel) about planning a date with Nancy Kulp, “A real live wire, low voltage but steady.”

THE MODEL AND THE MARRIAGE BROKER [US 1951] SCOTT BRADY, JEANNE CRAIN, THELMA RITTER Date: 1951

“Anybody with four pints of blood that can stand on their two feet long enough to say I do is in a position to get married.”-Mae

Dan Chancellor (Jay C. Flippen) “Beautiful up here, isn’t it? Those trees. I’ve always liked that poem that said, “Only God can make a tree.”

Mae Swasey, “Yeah, but on the other hand, you gotta figure, who else would take the time?”

As Young as You Feel (1952) Monty Wooley, Allyn Joslyn and Thelma Ritter

Following the romantic comedies Ritter appears in one of the most extraordinary and evocative noir masterpieces by director Samuel Fuller, Pickup on South Street (1953).

In Pickup on South Street 1953 directed by Samuel Fuller, Ritter plays Moe Williams the best pick pocket stoolie in the business. A police informant who sells neck ties on the street corners and wants a fancy funeral and a nice plot out on Long Island. Robert Osborne couldn’t have stated it better, “Moe Williams lives in the underworld and ekes out a living by selling secrets and information for a price. It’s a far cry from the kind of roles Thelma usually plays. More sinister than lovable.”

Moe is streetwise and world weary. She’s broken down by her years getting by on the rough streets of New York City selling ties and secrets to the police. She’s also cares about what happens to Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) one of the local petty thieves who picks pockets and chills his beer in the river.

Jean Peters is fantastic in the role of Candy, and Thelma Ritter in Pickup on South Street.

As Moe Williams In Pickup on South Street (1953), Ritter inhabits a darker world than we’re used to seeing her in. Worn down by life on the street as a tie hustler and informant to the law, her weakness for telling the truth puts her in harms way. It’s one of the most gloomy and heart-rending roles in any of her films as it takes a hardened dismal look at crime, postwar greed, and the fear of Communist infiltration. Throughout the picture Moe is fatalistic about her future. She is a character we feel empathy for, and I think it’s one of Ritter’s finest performances.

In a heartbreaking tour de force Ritter gives a performance that should have garnered her the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Director Sam Fuller created a role just typed for Ritter’s blood, as she poured every ounce of her soul into the character that’ll make you hold your breath, then weep.

She appeared in the 1953 version of Titanic with Barbara Stanwyck. She plays affluent Maude Young who once again, is mistaken for a domestic, with some of the best lines in the picture added for the comic relief.

Maude Young: [after Richard (Clifton Webb) has rejected his son Norman and refused to play in the shuffleboard match with him] “It certainly clouded up. Well, word’ll do it faster than a hickory stick any time.”

Maude Young: “Where I come from this is either a revival meeting or a crap game.”

Maude Young: “I’ve seen that look before. He’s a runaway. Earl Meeker: From what, some woman?Maude: No, he’s running too fast for that.”

Ritter made several significant appearances on the small screen between 1953 and 1962. In 1955 she played Mrs. Fisher in The Show-off, Agnes Hurley in Paddy Chayefsky’s The Catered Affair (Bette Davis played Agnes Hurley in the film version a year later). Playwright Paddy Chayefsky was so taken with Thelma Ritter that he wrote about the 1955 television play, “The Catered Affair was an unfocused piece in which the first act was farce and the second was character comedy, and the third was abruptly drama. There aren’t a dozen actresses who could make one piece out of all that; Miss Ritter of course, did.”

The Farmer Takes a Wife 1954 as Lucy Cashdollar plays Betty Grable’s friend on the Eerie Canal Lucy Cashdollar- “Don’t forget, I’m a five time widow, and when they died they all left me everything they owned. Rest their souls.” Fortune Friendly “What do you want with me I’m broke?” Lucy Cashdollar-“Well, I figure after five rich husbands, the next one would be on the house.”

Also in 1955, Thelma Ritter played Abby in 20th Century-Fox Hour’s television adaptation of Sidney Howard’s play, Christopher Bean. Thelma is often compared to the great Marie Dressler, who played the same role in the 1933 film Christopher Bean. Thelma Ritter takes on the ironic and poignant role of a woman who’s worth is seen through the eyes of an alcoholic artist who paints a portrait of her.

Ritter finished her 6 year contract with Twentieth Century Fox in 1955, playing Alicia Pritchard in director Jean Negulesco’s Daddy Long Legs. Ritter did return in The Second Time Around in 1961.

When explaining why her contract had not been renewed, Ritter joked that “I don’t look so good in a toga.” Referring to Fox’s preference at the time for epics filmed in CinemaScope centered around all things ancient.

Rear Window 1954 Thelma plays the feisty wisecracking nurse, Stella. The scenes with Thelma and Jimmy Stewart were marvelous. Her character’s voice delivered both reason and common sense, and in their scenes we learn about Jimmy Stewart’s character. Thelma brought her comic flair to the role of Stella. As Pat Hitchcock explained “The humor that Thelma Ritter brought to Rear Window was absolutely wonderful. And my father, he loved that because he knew that you couldn’t keep going and keep going. You had to give the audience a break. You had to have them laugh at something. His whole life was the importance of having a sense of humor with whatever you do.”

Deborah Kerr rides in a jeep with Thelma Ritter in a scene from the film ‘The Proud And Profane’, 1956. (Photo by Paramount/Getty Images)

After twenty-six years away, Thelma returned to Broadway in 1957 to play Marthy in the hit musical New Girl in Town, based on Eugene O’Neill’s play Anna Christie. For her part she won a Tony Award (in a tie with Gwen Verdon who won for Anna). This was the first time in history that two actresses won from the same show.

Cameron Pru’Homme, Thelma Ritter and Gwen Verdon –On the set of New Girl In Town

American actors Thelma Ritter (1905 – 1969) and Cameron Prud’homme (1892 – 1967) in a performance of the Bob Merrill play, ‘New Girl in Town’ at the 46th Street Theatre, New York, New York, mid 1957. (Photo by Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

At the Tony Awards with Robert Preston Thelma RItter Helen Hayes Ralph Bellamy

She went on to appear in the hit romantic comedy Pillow Talk (1959). She played the supportive lead with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, exchanging her usual barbs this time with Doris Day about her love life. “If there’s anything worse than a woman living alone its a woman saying she likes it.”

She continued to act in successful roles in the 1960s in films like John Huston’s The Misfits in 1961 (playing Isabelle Steers, co-starring Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, and Eli Wallach). Then, in How the West Was Won in 1962, and then she was once again paired with Doris Day and James Garner in Move Over, Darling in 1963.

Ritter also appeared on television shows like General Electric Theater in 1960 and the popular westerner Wagon Train in 1962. She appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Presents in a very chilling, nail-biting episode called The Baby Sitter.

In director John Frankenheimer’s Birdman of Alcatraz (1963) Thelma Ritter delivers quite a drastic departure from any of her other roles. She portrays the numb and obsessive mother, loyal to her son Robert Stroud (Burt Lancaster) in one of his most lucid performances. The movie creates a claustrophobic relationship between mother and son, as she is stricken with a miopic vision of championing for him while he is locked away in prison. Axel Nissen calls it “one of the most emotionally ugly characters in her filmography she is cold and uses stillness brilliantly.”

Ritter received her last Oscar nomination or her performance as Burt Lancaster’s controlling mother. She lost to Patty Duke for The Miracle Worker.

In 1963 she was in A New Kind of Love (1963) starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Ritter plays Leena, who wears a perfume called “My Sin” and is a buyer at Bergner’s Department Store. Leena is attracted to her boss, George Tobias.

She also appeared in the disastrous Broadway production of UTBU 1966 with Margaret Hamilton and Tony Randall.

Coming full circle, Ritter made her last big screen appearance in a small role in George Seaton’s What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? 1968 In Feb 1968 she co-starred with Tab Hunter and her own actress daughter Monica in a stock production of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park at the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey, before retiring. She did not live long enough to enjoy her retirement.

Thelma died of a heart attack in New York City just nine days before her 67th birthday. Thelma Ritter was very beloved amongst her colleagues and co-stars, and also critics adored her.

“On screen Ritter projected a wonderfully sanguine and calm acceptance of human frailty and need. It is this quality, combined with her rueful humor and notorious wisecracks, that give depth to her finest performances…{…} Though she played a few middle-or upper class women towards the end of her career, Ritter was obviously best suited to playing women on the lower echelons of the social ladder…{…} She represents the legion of women who keep the wheels of the world turning”– Alex Nissen

CLIPS

Miracle on 34th Street (1949) Peter’s mother

A Letter to Three Wives (1949) Sadie Dugan the maid uncredited

City Across the River (1950) Mrs. Katie Cusack

Perfect Strangers (1950) Lena Fassier

All About Eve 1951

I’ll Get By 1951 Miss Murphy

The Mating Season 1951

The Model and the Marriage Broker 1951 as Mae Swayse

As Young as You feel 1952 as Della Hodges

Titanic 1953

Pickup on South Street 1954

The Farmer Takes a Wife 1954 as Lucy Cashdollar

Rear Window 1955 as Stella

Daddy Long Legs 1955

Alfred Hitchcock Presents 1956 The Baby Sitter Lottie Slocum

The Proud and Profane 1956 as Kate Connors

A Hole in the Head 1959 as Sophie Manetta

Pillow Talk 1959 as Alma

The Misfits 1961

Birdman of Alcatraz 1962 as Elizabeth Stroud

Move Over, Darling 1963

The Incident 1967 as Bertha Beckerman

FILMOGRAPHY & AWARDS

Thelma Ritter won a Tony Award on Broadway in 1957 for the hit musical New Girl in Town, for which she won a Tony in a tie with Gwen Verdon in 1958. She won an Emmy (in 1956), Nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for the Goodyear Television Playhouse production of The Catered Affair. A Golden Globe Awards Nominated for Best Supporting Actress for: All About Eve (1950) The Mating Season (1951)) With A Song in My Heart (1952), Pickup on South Street (1953), Pillow Talk (1959) and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and nominated for a Golden Globe for All About Eve, The Mating Season and Boeing Boeing (1965)

  • Miracle on 34th Street (1949) Peter’s mother
  • A Letter to Three Wives (1949) Sadie Dugan the maid uncredited
  • Call Northside 777 (1949) captains secretary uncredited her scene was left on the cutting room floor
  • City Across the River (1950) Mrs. Katie Cusack
  • Perfect Strangers (1950) Lena Fassier
  • Too Dangerous to Love 1951
  • All About Eve 1951 as Birdie Coonan —companion to theater Diva Margot Channing the only character aside from George Sanders’ Addison Dewitt who isn’t fooled by conniving Eve.
  • I’ll Get By 1951 as Miss Murphy
  • The Mating Season 1951 as Ellen McNulty
  • The Model and the Marriage Broker 1951 as Mae Swayze
  • As Young as You feel 1952 as Della Hodges
  • Radio Broadcasts 1953 Theater Guild on the Air “A Square Peg”
  • With a Song in my Heart 1953 as Clancy
  • radio shows such as Radio Broadcasts Theater Guild on the Air “A Square Peg” (1953).
  • Titanic 1953 as Maude Young playing a version of the Unsinkable Molly Brown done up to the nines again mistaken for a housekeeper or maid.
  • Pickup on South Street 1954 directed by Samuel Fuller as Moe Williams the best pick pocket stoolie in the business
  • The Farmer Takes a Wife 1954 as Lucy Cashdollar plays Betty Grable’s friend on the Eerie Canal
  • Rear Window 1955 as nurse Stella
  • Lux Video Theatre 1954 Christmas in July theatre guest
  • The Best of Broadway The Show Off 1955 Mrs. Fisher
  • Daddy Long Legs 1955 as Alicia Pritchard
  • Goodyear Playhouse 1955 The Catered Affair as Mother created the role that Bette Davis adapted to the screen.
  • Repertory Theatre 1955 The Ghost Writer as Muriel
  • Lucy Gallant 1955 as Molly Basserman
  • The 20th Century Fox Hour 1955 “Christopher Bean” as Abby
  • Alfred Hitchcock Presents 1956 The Baby Sitter Lottie Slocum
  • The Proud and Profane 1956 as Kate Connors
  • New Girl in Town (1957) on Broadway
  • The United States Steel Hour 1957 The Human Pattern as Ma Garfield
  • Telephone Time 1957 plot to save a boy as Mary Devlin
  • A Hole in the Head 1959 as Sophie Manetta
  • Pillow Talk 1959 as Alma plays her housekeeper who likes to drink she’s hilarious
  • General Electric Theater 1960 Sarah’s Laughter as Doris Green
  • Startime 1960 The Man as Mrs. Gillis
  • The Misfits 1961 as Isabelle Steers
  • The Second Time Around 1961 as Aggie Gate
  • Birdman of Alcatraz 1962 as Elizabeth Stroud plays Burt Lancaster’s mother
  • Wagon Train 1962 The Madame Sagittarius Story as Madame Delphine Sagittarius
  • How the West Was Won 1962 Agatha Clegg a middle aged woman looking for a husband on the wagon train heading west across America
  • For Love or Money 1963 as Chloe Brasher
  • A New Kind of Love 1963 as Lena O’Connor
  • Move Over, Darling 1963 as Grace Arden plays James Garner’s mother, a wealthy upper class woman which is an atypical character for her
  • Boeing, Boeing 1965 as Bertha
  • The Incident 1967 as Bertha Beckerman
  • What’s so Bad about Feeling Good? 1968 Mrs. Schwartz

This is your EverLovin’ Joey saying you may have thought you were often only a bridesmaid but to so many of us, you’ll forever be the Queen of character actors and unrelenting quips! We love you Thelma Ritter…

A Trailer a Day Keeps the Boogeyman Away! What can’t be explained, must be explored: Watcher in the Woods (1980) & Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

WATCHER IN THE WOODS 1980

It was just an innocent game… until a young girl vanished for thirty years

Once upon a time in the 70s Disney took guardianship of some pretty dark films. The Watcher in the Woods is one such film. Directed by John Hough (Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry 1974, Escape to Witch Mountain 1975, Return from Witch Mountain 1978, The Incubus 1982).

The film works as a teenage adventure/fantasy meets Modern Gothic story based on the novel by Florence Engell Randall with contributions to the screenplay by Brian Clemens.

An American couple Helen and Paul Curtis, played by two distinctly charismatic actors David McCallum and Carroll Baker, and their two daughters Lynn Holly Johnson and Kyle Richards as Jan and Ellie Curtis, travel to an isolated house in rural England. Bette Davis commands the screen with less blaze and more secretive self-control as Mrs. Aylwood, a strange widow who befriends the girls and whose daughter went missing 30 years ago. The two young women investigate the mysterious happenings at the manor house and stumble onto the truth behind Karen Aylwood’s disappearance. I will not spoil the reveal of this film, in fact the DVD has alternative endings due to extensive cuts as well as additions of scenes added under the un-credited supervision of Vincent McEveety. — I can say that prefer John Kenneth Muir’s interpretation of one considered outcome as Karen leaving and returning as a “kind of Orphean Underworld story.” For those of you who might not like just one explanation, I’ll leave it as an enticement to watch Watcher through to the end/ends!

While some critics found Watcher in the Woods abysmal there are enough fans who remain devoted to the film as a cult classic. Setting some whiny moments, a few meandering plot potholes, Watcher in the Woods maintains a certain atmospheric bubble that surrounds the the story, and adds nice touches of Gothic motifs, like the abandoned church, as John Kenneth Muir says in Horror Films of the 1980s the crumbling church “representing decay.” 

I see it also as how the old waits quietly for youth to return…

SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES 1983

After he fulfills your deepest, lifelong dream…he’ll tell you the price you have to pay… Never whisper your dreams, for someone might be listening…

Both novel and screenplay for Something Wicked This Way Comes was penned by the prolific fantasist/dreamer Ray Bradbury.

Directed by one of the most interesting directors Jack Clayton, a man who summons uncomfortable images and mind frames around dysfunction in the so called conventional family structure, and even more diffuse in his work he personifies the children, those innocent little souls with a will that can not only be menacing but truly threatening and evil. Clayton has painted landscapes of chilling psychological horror and Something Wicked This Way Comes embraces his haunting perceptions in perfect sync with Bradbury’s malevolent story equal parts fantasy equal parts horror. Bradbury retained the nightmarish poeticism that his novel possessed in the screenplay then adapted to the screen.

Bradbury’s fantastic tale began as a short story entitles “Black Ferris” which was originally published in Weird Tales Magazine in 1948. Then he adapted it to his screenplay for use by Gene Kelly who unfortunately was not able to get the funding for the project. Then success found Bradbury’s story when he released it as a novel in 1962 which found it’s way yet back once again into a screenplay in the 1970s where an interesting collection of directors were approached– from Sam Peckinpah, Mark Rydell, and even Steven Spielberg. By the time 1982 came around it was Jack Clayton (The Queen of Spades 1949, The Story of Esther Costello 1957, Room at the Top 1959, The Innocents 1961, The Pumpkin Eater 1964, Our Mother’s House 1967), who was tapped to directed the film, perhaps Spielberg might have added a great commercial veneer to the picture, but the dark dreams that Jack Clayton is capable of envisioning, I think, is the right kind of poison (And I mean that in a good way). The atmosphere of the sleepy little Green Town, Illinois, circa 1920 needed to wash off that mainstream Rockwell Painting style veneer and lay bare the secretive and dreadful things that suppurate in a small old fashioned and quite often repressed Americana town.

For into this quaint and picturesque Midwestern town comes a dark & arcane carnival led by the mysterious Mr. Dark played exquisitely by Jonathan Pryce. And unlike the lyrical circus of The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao starring the wonderful Tony Randall, this carnival is pure evil.

The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao starring Tony Randall

As enigmatic as Pryce is in this role, equally mesmerizing is Pam Grier who inhabits the sensuous yet deadly Dust Witch! The otherworldly train that is veiled in fog and spirit lights brings “the Autumn People”  who march through the town slowly like a funeral dirge preparing their secret ceremonies that will summon the darkness to coax and bedevil the unsuspecting yet desperate people of Green Town who are hungry for magic to change their lives.

The carnival seems to tap into the desires of many of the townspeople providing them with wish-fulfillment, to make their every dream come true. Many of the town folk like Mr. Crosetti played by Richard Davalos out of their loneliness seek companionship or Ed the Bartender played by James Stacy who lost a leg and an arm in the war would love to be that football hero again.

What ultimately happens after these unsuspecting but naive town folk should have realized that they have sold their souls and are damned for an eternity to suffer the irony of their wishes. And in the end it is a lesson in what we desire weighed against what we regret.

As one of the vehicles for Mr. Dark’s malevolent magical conduits, he employs a menacing merry-go-round which can make the rider can grow either younger or older depending on which direction it turns.

Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade are boyhood buddies–Will sees his father struggle with feeling like an old man, while Jim waits hopelessly in vain for his father to return.

Jim buys a lighting rod from Tom Fury (Royal Dano) who warns of the storm that is coming. That night the boys sneak out into the woods and watch as the train pull in with no one aboard. They do however learn that it is bringing Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival to their boring little town.

At the centerpiece of the story comes Jason Robards an aging father and local librarian Charles Halloway who feels he’s failed his son Vidal Peterson as Will Halloway. In the end it is up to the two to fight off Mr. Dark who would like nothing better than take most of the town along board the malefic train to the next destination, collecting souls along the way.

With music by James Horner, and co-starring Royal Dano who sells much needed lightning rods, Diane Ladd plays Jim Nightshades mother, Mary Grace Canfield plays Miss Foley who has lost her youth and beauty, and narrated by Arthur Hill as an older Will. The special effects of the 80s creates a moody, fantastical little carnival nightmare that moves like a beautiful & maudlin ballet.

YOUR EVER LOVIN’ MONSTERGIRL SAYIN’ ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE IF YOU BELIEVE IT SO!

May 16th celebrates #NationalClassicMovieDay! with FIVE STARS BLOGATHON

Classic Film TV Cafe hosts Five Stars Blogathon!

May 16th is a day to celebrate classic movies, and we’re inspired to pick our 5 favorite stars as if that would be easy!

BETTE DAVIS

Never settled for less than perfection in her work, though studio head Jack Warner did not consider her a beauty, Davis possessed one of the most striking, sensually expressive and memorable faces of all time. Not least are those mesmerizing eyes of hers, and that classy devil may care, cigarette in hand, she had a style she aged with forever gutsy and graceful.

She fought with integrity and grit against a studio system that held down strong women’s voices, but she persevered regardless. In her private life she remained an eternal romantic though she suffered many failed relationships, yet she forged an image of a strong, independent woman on and off screen– a heroine for the ages.

With performances that didn’t always paint her as ‘attractive’ –an ingenue, a seductress, nor a obviously sympathetic character -she had the bold courage to take on intricate roles that challenged her to prevail as one of the truly great actresses of all time.

An icon she will always remain… I will love her forever…

Bette Davis – by George Hurrell 1940 – The Letter. Scanned by jane for Dr. Macro’s High Quality Movie Scans website: http://www.doctormacro.com.

Though one of my favorite performances will always be for the beautiful and tragically stoic Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager 1942 there is of course these Davis gems– Dark Victory 1939, Dangerous 1935, The Petrified Forest 1936, A Stolen Life 1946, Mr. Skeffington 1944, Beyond the Forest 1949, and especially her brilliant performances in– All About Eve, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte and yes, for those of us that enjoy a good Grande Dame Guignol certainly her dual role as twins in Dead Ringer 1964

The tragic Joyce Heath in Dangerous 1935, Gabrielle Maple in The Petrified Forest 1936, Valerie Purvis in Satan Met a Lady 1936, Julie Marsden in Jezebel 1938, Judith Traherne in Dark Victory 1939, Leslie Crosbie in The Letter 1940, Maggie Patterson in The Great Lie 1941, Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes 1941, the devious Stanley Timberlake in In This Our Life 1942, Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager 1942, Kit Marlowe in Old Acquaintance 1943, Fanny Trellis Skeffington in Mr. Skeffington 1944, Kate and Patricia Bosworth in A Stolen Life 1946, the ruthless Rosa Moline in Beyond the Forest 1949, the wise and witty stage icon Margo Channing in All About Eve 1950, Joyce Ramsey in Payment on Demand 1951, Janet Frobisher in Another Man’s Poison 1951, Marie Hoke in Phone Call from a Stranger 1952, Aggie Hurley in The Catered Affair 1956, the ethical Alicia Hull in Storm Center 1956, sympathetically tragic anti-heroine Jane Hudson in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 1962, Margaret Delorca/Edith Phillips in Dead Ringer 1964, ravaged by time and renegade Charlotte Hollis in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte 1964, the twisted Nanny in The Nanny 1965, Mrs. Taggart in The Anniversary 1968, The Widow Fortune in The Dark Secrets of Harvest Home 1978, Mrs. Aylwood in The Watcher in the Woods 1980, Libby Strong in The Whales of August 1987. I can’t think about her short role in Burnt Offerings 1976 ugh...

ELIZABETH TAYLOR

Elizabeth Rosamond Taylor is a woman possessed of layers upon layers of intricate emotional turmoil and passion. In her later years she had done some pretty challenging and offbeat roles but she always manages to evoke pathos and a strong inner manifesto of an ineffable deity about her. On and off screen. No matter who she is performing, Taylor is a wild fire that will burn up the screen. Elizabeth Taylor is one of the most evocative actresses, who can either bring me to raw agonizing tears or make me clench my body because she’s manages to trigger an emotion that just needed to get out!

One of my particular favorites is her portrayal of the misunderstood Gloria Wandrous in Butterfield 8 (1960) and Catherine Holly who is tormented by her horrid aunt Katherine Hepburn in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer 1959.

I still believe Taylor is one of the most intensely beautiful women that has ever emerged in this lifetime, and there is a wild and untamed passion in Elizabeth Taylor that I find so compelling, it’s hard for me not to fall in love with her and those violet eyes. Whether she’s Maggie a Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 1958, Leslie Benedict in Giant 1956, Angela Vickers in A Place in the Sun 1951, Susannah Drake Shawnessy in Raintree County 1957, or the emotionally tortured Catherine Holly in Suddenly, Last Summer 1959, as Laura Reynolds in The Sandpiper 1965, or Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ? 1966, Helen in Doctor Faustus 1967, Leonora Penderton married to a closet homosexual (Marlon Brando) in Tennessee Williams’ Reflections in a Golden Eye 1967, as Flora ‘Sissy’ Goforth in Boom! 1968. She still showed her vast array of colors as Leonora a woman who embarks on a strange relationship with an even stranger young woman in Joseph Losey’s odd and disturbing Secret Ceremony 1968 co-starring Mia Farrow and Robert Mitchum. And yes I admit it, I loved her as Zee Blakeley in X, Y and Zee 1972 and consider these others to be additional guilty pleasures, Night Watch and Ash Wednesday 1973

and The Driver’s Seat 1974.

1948: British-born American actress Elizabeth Taylor. (Photo by Clarence Sinclair Bull/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

ANNA MAGNANI

Referred to as Volcanic – Anna Magnani is a bold and beautiful woman who bares her soul on the screen. A fine Italian actress who could command the rain and thunder to appear with just one of her passionate pleas, she has that kind of ascendancy. Anna Magnani has a raw and natural sensual quality that allows her ability to tap into the primal dimensions of emotion. She is truly real when she is on the screen. It’s like the earth moves with her! Of course one of my favorite performances is from Tennessee William’s adaption of The Fugitive Kind 1960 where she plays the poignant Lady Torrance opposite Marlon Brando. I also adored her as Maddalena Cecconi in Bellissima 1951 and as the widow Rose in The Rose Tattoo 1955 with Burt Lancaster as well as her enigmatic role in ...and the Wild Wild Women 1959 and Mamma Roma 1962. She has appeared in the intensely evocative Roma, Open City 1945, as Sister Letizia in The Awakening 1957 Magnani has appeared as Maddalena Natoli in William Dieterle’s Volcano 1950, in George Cukor’s Wild is the Wind 1957, The Passionate Thief (Risate di Gioia) 1960, The Secret of Santa Vittoria 1969.

1949 — Italian actress Anna Magnani on the set of “Volcano” (Vulcano), directed by William Dieterle. — Image by © Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

ITALY. Rome. 1951. Italian actress Anna MAGNANI.

Anna Magnani in The Fugitive Kind

… and the Wild Wild Women 1959

1951, Rome, Italy — Italian Actress Anna Magnani — Image by © Studio Patellani/CORBIS

 

Mamma Roma 1962

The Passionate Thief 1960

Rome, Open City 1945

The Fugitive Kind 1960

The Rose Tattoo 1955

The Secret of Santa Vittoria 1969

SHELLEY WINTERS

Was a thoughtful and evocative, sexy blonde bombshell who wore her heart on her sleeve. She had a unique zest for life that she exudes, from her earliest diverse supporting roles in romantic comedies, noir, melodramas and cult classics Winters wasn’t afraid to delve into the more aggressively quirky and profane performances even as a bloody mama, Ma Barker in Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama 1970, and a few flaming psychopaths scattered around! A sensuous screen actress who was also adorable, lovable, seriously talented and off screen in life was kind, courageously honest and loyal.

From her role as the sympathetic wife to two time loser Robert Ryan in Odds Against Tomorrow 1959, to the love deprive wife Charlotte Haze in Lolita and as the heartless Rose-Ann D’arcy in Guy Green’s A Patch of Blue 1965. To the doomed Alice Tripp in A Place in the Sun 1951 and equally imperiled Willa Harper in Night of the Hunter 1955.

Winters’ life was filled with a collection of interesting lovers & relationships with some of the most impressive men in Hollywood, and a dear friend to Marilyn Monroe. Though she freely spoke in her memoirs of the midnight dooms she would get, you can ultimately see that Shelley Winters was consuming life for all it’s treasures. She will always be a kind and ebullient goddess to me…

Title: ALFIE (1966) ¥ Pers: WINTERS, SHELLEY ¥ Year: 1966 ¥ Dir: GILBERT, LEWIS ¥ Ref: ALF001DE ¥ Credit: [ PARAMOUNT / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]

SHELLEY WINTERS FROM “I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES” 1955 WARNER BROTHERS PHOTO:BERT SIX/0065-1004/HA-LFI
NO USA OR GERMANY

A Double Life 1947 with Ronald Coleman

With Dan Duryea in Johnny Stool Pigeon 1949

A Cry in the Night 1949 with Richard Conte

Winchester 73 (1950)

Shelley Winters as Eva Bademan and Paul Douglas as Josiah Walkter Dudley in Executive Suite 1954

With Frank Sinatra in Meet Danny Wilson 1951

With John Garfield in He Ran All the Way 1951

With Jack Palance in I Died a Thousand Times 1955

with Jack Palance in The Big Knife 1955

With Robert Ryan in Odds Against Tomorrow 1959

With James Mason in Lolita 1961

 

Bloody Mama 1970 here with Robert DeNiro

With Debbie Reynolds in What’s the Matter with Helen? 1971

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? 1972

Next Stop, Greenwich Village 1976

With Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure 1972

Some of my favorite performances were for Brenda Martindale in Cry of the City 1949, as Faye Lapinski in Next Stop, Greenwich Village 1976 , as Alice Tripp in A Place in the Sun 1951, as Terry Stewart in Johnny Stool Pigeon 1949, as Lola Manners in Winchester ’73 (1950) as Joy Carroll in Meet Danny Wilson  1951, as Fran Davis in Playgirl 1954, as Eva Bardeman in Executive Suite 1954, as Marie Garson in I Died a Thousand Times 1955, Dixie Evans in The Big Knife 1955, as Peg Dobbs in He Ran all the Way 1951, Binky Gay in Phone Call From a Stranger 1952, as Lorry in Odds Against Tomorrow 1959, as Charlotte Haze in Lolita 1961, Rose-Ann D’arcy in A Patch of Blue 1965, Fay Esterbrook in Harper 1966, as the insane Helen Hill/Martin in What’s the Matter with Helen? 1971, as ‘Ma’ Kate Barker in Bloody Mama 1970, as the wonderful Belle Rosen who saves the day in The Poseidon Adventure 1972!

GENE TIERNEY

Gene Tierney whom I’ve always attributed such grace and gentility flips that persona and is masterful as the icy & enigmatic Ellen Berent in Leave Her to Heaven… And though she manages to create a perfect 1950s psychopathic villain — Tierney still brings me to tears with her portrayal of widow Lucy Muir in The Ghost & Mrs. Muir 1947.

There is an otherworldly quality to Tierney that makes her seem almost unreal, like there are  treasures and journeys happening within those sparkling eyes of hers. Perhaps her eyes transport you to another world, because they are so beguiling and dreamy. Tierney has the ability to make you feel like you must hang onto the dulcet tones of her voice, yet she is also capable of thrusting you into turmoil when she demonstrates that she can invert that angelic face and become almost menacing. Well, only once but what a performance –it lasts a lifetime of re-watching Leave Her to Heaven! But I can’t forget all her other extraordinary performances as Ellie May in Tobacco Road 1941 and as Poppy, also that year in Belle Starr,  in The Shanghai Gesture 1941, as Martha in Heaven Can Wait 1943, in Otto Preminger’s noir masterpiece Laura 1944, as Miranda Wells in Dragonwyck 1946, as Isabel Bradley in The Razor’s Edge 1946, Sara Farley in That Wonderful Urge 1948, in three noirs from 1950- Whirlpool, Where the Sidewalk Ends and as the sympathetic Mary Bristol in Night and the City. As Marcia Stoddard The Secret of Convict Lake 1951, as Midge Sheridan in Close to My Heart 1951, as Ann Scotti Scott in The Left Hand of God 1955, as Albertine Prine in Toys in the Attic 1963

Actress Gene Tierney, performing in the motion picture, Dragonwick. 1945
Actress Gene Tierney, performing in the motion picture, Dragonwick. 1945