Chaplin, screwball, and sexual ambiguity

There’s really so much to blog about, and so little time. I want to dive head-first into the strange intersections of film history and sexuality – for example, Ashley and I have recently been watching many, many Charlie Chaplin films – right now we’re halfway through Monsieur Verdoux. Here he plays a Bluebeard, seducing women and then killing them for their money (to support his ailing wife and child). However, I recently noted that one reason we can sympathize with the Tramp or Buster Keaton is because they’re so unthreatening; they’re lovable and couldn’t genuinely, intentionally hurt a fly. So Chaplin’s turn from harmless icon to mass murderer is pretty astounding, and creates a kind of absurd confusion. It reminds me of the oddity that is Adenoid Hynkel, one of Chaplin’s dual roles in The Great Dictator.

Megalomaniacal whimsy

In the Politics & Film class I took last year, the professor made a note of Chaplin’s hilariously weird movements when he’s dancing around with the globe, as well as the way he scuttles up a curtain when telling his assistant Garbage, à la Greta Garbo, “I want to be alone,” and she suggested that it might indicate some kind of, oh, fruitiness or queerness of his character – thereby implying the same thing about Adolf Hitler (for which I turn your attention to the WWII song “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball“). This makes me wonder about queer characters in classical Hollywood films, and the role of sexuality in a comedy icon as timeless and endearing as the Tramp.

As a little more textual evidence regarding queerness and Chaplin, watching City Lights the other day, Ashley and I noticed a funny little scene where Chaplin flutters his eyes at a half-naked boxer, prompting the boxer to recede out of Chaplin’s view. Maybe it’s the possibility of homoeroticism being played for laughs. But I think it’s at least interesting to see how sexual fluidity works in comedy; another example is Bringing Up Baby, which we watched a couple days ago, where Cary Grant makes the (supposedly) first use of “gay” as a synonym for “homosexual” on film. (Watch it here, at 1:33.)

David: Because I just went gay, all of a sudden.

This, in a totally off-the-wall ridiculous screwball comedy where the rules of the normal universe seem to regularly break down – since identity, social class, dignity, everything is able to bend (and break) in Bringing Up Baby, why not sexual norms as well? And, thinking about all the cross-dressing going on (in Katharine Hepburn’s excessively garish outfits, no less), I remembered that some years later, Grant starred in another Howard Hawks film, I Was a Male War Bride, which also involved cross-dressing. I feel like I need to somehow get a handle on Cary Grant’s on-screen sexual persona.

Since I’m not sure where I’m going with this discussion (this is a relatively short, superficial post), I might as well also touch on another interesting topic brought up by Gloria in a comment on an earlier post:

I often wonder how many comings out of the closet of deceased people are actually true or just the result of unconfirmed rumour… when not the result of fan-fiction!

When personal affairs aren’t meticulously documented, when sources conflict, or for whatever reason, it can be hard to pin down facts about historical personages, even ones who lived in the 20th century. And one aspect of identity that’s especially hard to ascertain is sexual orientation. One reason could be that in many parts of the world, sometimes until relatively recently, homosexuality was considered not just perverse, but also a mental illness, or even a crime. (Cf. the sad case of Oscar Wilde, or the film Victim with Dirk Bogarde.) And so a question can be, does it matter? Do you regard their art, their life any differently whether they were hetero or not? Well, I think I would argue (I’m sleepy, mind you), does it matter if they were male or female? Black or white (or other)? Religious or nonreligious?

I guess this all just goes into this big question of how much life and art do or should interact. Can we set life aside and regard art as detached, or can we even admire someone from a purely biographical perspective? All I know is, I like to know the facts about artists (in this case, in film) who I’m interested in. And just as I enjoy looking at representations of or by female or black filmmakers in an era where their contributions were generally unappreciated, the same goes for queer actors, directors, etc. Just to give a random example, I think James Whale’s sexual orientation is very worth considering when analyzing The Old Dark House or Bride of Frankenstein. Not that the films are brimming with gayness or anything; just that it’s one of many parts of the artist’s identity to take into account.

And so, that brings us to the fact that it’s often hard to determine sexualities in retrospect. This causes all manner of problems; I’d recommend Cheryl Dunye’s intriguing film The Watermelon Woman for an example of this. One scene involves Cheryl interviewing a relative of a lesbian director from the ’30s about her relationship with the titular black actress. The relative, an old woman, is infuriated, insisting that the director was straight and that it’s nothing but rumors. This reaction seems to happen a lot, as if the suggestion that a deceased person may have been queer is akin to calling them a crazed sexual deviant and does a disservice to their memory. Maybe it’s related to the sentiment “speak no ill of the dead”: “speak no sexuality of the dead.”

My point, ultimately, is that as with anything else, we should base our conclusions about people on solid research. Random, poorly-formatted Spanish-language websites that speculate wildly, however entertaining, should not be taken as solid evidence; reputable biographies should. And so, I think I’ll wrap up this little post for now – I want to write about more actors and actresses, but I’m not sure who. I realized that the closest this blog has come to addressing the subject of pussies going grrr is my earlier exploration of the film Cat People, which gets better and better every time it enters my mind. But in the interest of further accuracy to the title, despite my hatred of lolcats, here you go.

Yakov Smirnov, eat your cat out.

1 Comment

Filed under Cinema, Sexuality

One response to “Chaplin, screwball, and sexual ambiguity

  1. Pingback: Happiness and drag kings « Pussy Goes Grrr

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