Sturges, Sissies, and Comic Genius

Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July (1940) is a firecracker of a movie – an early sign of the greatness to come, with oodles of romance, verbal comedy, social commentary, and humanistic charm packed into 67 minutes. Dick Powell plays a wide-eyed dreamer (and office worker) who enters one contest after another in hopes of winning big. But when some coworkers convince him that he has won big, the situation rapidly flies out of control. It’s a hilarious, lightning-paced movie, but the part that most captivated me was the opening 2-3 minutes.

In the opening scene, Powell and his sweetheart sit on the roof of their tenement, listening on the radio for the results of an all-important coffee slogan contest. (Powell is counting on his terrible, counterintuitive entry: “If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee, it’s the bunk.”) The rooftop is intercut with the interior of the radio station, which in turn is intercut with shots of blue-collar Americans of all races and occupations. Clearly, a lot of folks have their hopes pinned on this contest. And so, radio announcer Don Hartman gives his opening spiel…

This spiel is my favorite part of the film, and that’s because Hartman is played by character actor Franklin Pangborn. Pangborn (1889-1958) was ubiquitous in comedies throughout the 1930s and ’40s, generally playing effete, officious bureaucrats, butlers, clerks, and civil servants. In The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo describes how Pangborn was one of the prime embodiments of the “sissy” character in classical Hollywood films; this was basically a recurring gay stereotype – although never explicitly identified as such.

In Hollywood under the Production Code, the sissy type primarily existed to neutralize the threat of non-normative sexuality. If queerness could be reduced to a trait of harmless, much-ridiculed supporting characters, then hetero masculinity could triumph. (And as Russo demonstrates, sissies were constantly used as counterexamples against which to measure real men.) But of course, the full story is more complicated than just “Hollywood was universally homophobic, and therefore all gay men were portrayed as effeminate nonentities.” Pangborn’s performance in Christmas in July exemplifies some of this creeping ambiguity.

While discussing the sissy’s stereotypical qualities, Russo adds that Pangborn was “an inventive satirist with expert timing. [He] seized on his brief screen moments and made them shine… He could turn a one-line part into a tour-de-force.” This is really the crux of my point. Although the radio announcer in Christmas in July never expresses any queer desires, he still displays the decidedly unmasculine verbal flourishes and mannerisms of Pangborn’s usual characters – he’s still obviously a sissy. (On the topic of verbal flourishes: Russo cites A Star Is Born [1937], where Pangborn uses the word “divoon,” a red flag for effeminacy if there ever was one.)

But with his versatility, his comic timing, and his inimitable vocal flutter, Pangborn overcame (or undermined?) the implicitly homophobic limitations written into his characters, making them more than the giddy, cowardly ciphers that the screenplays would have them be. Of course, it helps that Sturges’ screenplay for Christmas in July is brimming with nearly poetic dialogue, and despite being onscreen for only a few minutes in the film, Pangborn is captivating. In his opening monologue, he delivers bon mots with unbeatable precision and delight:

As you may well imagine, ladies and gentlemen, all that sugar draws a lot of flies! And the jury here has been struggling for a week to try to pick the winners from a little snowdrift of 2,947,582 answers. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a lot of answers in any language, including the Scandinavian! Heh, heh, heh…

Coming out of Pangborn’s mouth, a seven-digit number oozes with class. Pangborn’s characters are never really witty or superior; they’re always at the behest of their situations and subordinated to the protagonist’s plight. In Vivacious Lady, for example, he’s nothing but a stumbling block in Jimmy Stewart’s frantic rush to rendezvous with Ginger Rogers. In Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (a metafictional oddity where Pangborn plays a fictionalized “Franklin Pangborn”), he’s just the flustered straight man for W.C. Fields’ nonchalant nuttiness.

But whenever Pangborn got a break from doing double takes and was given chance to rhapsodize – as he was under Sturges – he just flew with it. He had the voice of an irrepressible raconteur, nonthreatening but with a veneer of distinction. That voice, along with his highly emotive body language, have become icons embedded in Hollywood’s past. I’ll conclude with a great example of this: when I saw Guy Maddin doing a live audio commentary on The Saddest Music in the World, he paused to note that the effusive radio commentators played by Talia Pura and Claude Dorge were inspired by character actors like Hedda Hopper and, of course, Franklin Pangborn. He may be long dead, but his cultural memory lives on.

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Filed under Cinema, Sexuality

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