A great tradition which essentially disappeared when the studio system collapsed was what one might call the variety film. The variety film was a kind of cinematic vaudeville show—a hodgepodge of comedy bits, some singing, dancing, and whatever else a cast of players under contract could fill out the average running time of a movie with. They were goofy, hurried, made on the cheap, and meant to be light entertainment. A great example of this would be International House (1933), a film about a hotel in "Woo-Hoo" China where W.C. Fields, Bela Lugosi, George Burns, Gracie Allen, and Cab Calloway all cross paths in very silly ways.
A variety film with the same spirit as International House but with more urgent purpose was Hollywood Canteen which chronicled a day spent at the famous club for GIs during World War II. The Hollywood Canteen originally came to exist through the efforts of Bette Davis and what she created with it really represented Hollywood at its best. From its opening day the Canteen was staffed with movie stars who volunteered their time nightly to serve GIs coffee and donuts or sign autographs. Girls came to dance with GIs and it was possible to see famous orchestras or comedians on a nightly basis there. Hollywood Canteen was made at Warner Brothers and the film features an all-star cast of contract players at the studio during the mid-1940s. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the entertainment world of the time with delightful cameos from everyone from Barbara Stanwyck, Ida Lupino, and Joan Crawford to Jane Wyman, John Garfield, the Benny Goodman Orchestra, Roy Rogers, the Andrew Sisters, and many more.Continue Reading
A lot of directors who worked with Joan Crawford probably thought they had tapped into whatever unique strain of neurosis made her “La Joan” in order to get the best performance out of her in their films. She had always played a version of herself throughout her career, whether as a jazz crazy flapper in her silent films, a shop girl looking to marry up in her 1930s films, and in the double-crossed dame roles she took on in the hardboiled noirs of the 1940s. By the fifties, the Joker-esque lipstick started to appear, looking all the more frightening in Technicolor, and her eyebrows reached new levels of ferocity. I think of this as her middle-aged gender bending period. It seems to me that a lot of middle-aged American women start to look kind of androgynous after awhile out of what I always assumed was a weary resignation to having to keep up the scopophilic charade but Joan’s particular version of androgyny seemed more trenchant than that. It was kind of accidentally subversive. Or what the hell do I know? She may have been totally onboard as a proto-transgender performance artist. Maybe she was the first Ziggy Stardust and we weren’t hip enough to catch on. Well, whatever was going on no director found the resolute queerness of Joan’s 1950s persona quite like Nicholas Ray did with his weird western Johnny Guitar.
Joan had plenty of experience playing ball busters and vamps, but she had never played a character quite like Vienna, the saloon owner whom everyone in town seems to want gone. Vienna wears high-waisted black pants and boots, a bolo tie, and a holstered gun. She employs a staff of men who seem weary of having such a powerful female boss. All day they spin the roulette wheel in her club, even though there are no gamblers, and they serve drinks at her bar even though there are no drinkers. A former flame of Vienna’s named Johnny Guitar (played by Sterling Hayden) is ostensibly hired to strum some tunes for her clientele. But there's never anyone there, except for the nefarious bank-robbing gang that hangs out at Vienna’s including members with names like The Dancin’ Kid and a guy named Turkey. So yes we have Vienna, Johnny Guitar, the Dancin’ Kid, and Turkey--just for starters.Continue Reading
Joan Crawford grabbed at life the only way she knew how—by the balls, baby. She fled a hard scrabble childhood full of the horrors to become the reigning queen of Hollywood. She defied so many odds put in front of her and she almost always came out on top. Joan was many different versions of herself throughout her life: gold digger, jazz baby, Pepsi hawker, perennial MGM shop girl, terrible, terrible mother, the greatest star the world has ever known, poster woman for mental illnesses, bizarre recipe creator, transgender identity pioneer, role model to the uneducated, black market baby taker, dubious advice giver, enemy of slovenly hippies, the world’s most famous neat freak, world class fashion don’t… she did it all. Her crazy life was her greatest work of art.
When people talk about Joan’s essential artifice (and likewise the supposedly superior talents of her chief star rival, Bette Davis) I don’t understand why they mean it in a bad way. Her artifice was the whole picture and it was riveting. It gave her a unique kind of depth. It set her apart. She didn’t want to be liked; she demanded to be worshiped. Whether in a black market stag film early in her career (as was rumored) or any number of MGM prestige pictures or in her obsessive assembling of her bizarre family set up, Joan’s way of life was to attack. Her ambition was her identity. This can be either repulsive or, if she was in the right film, it can be put to very compelling use.Continue Reading
The Women 
I watched The Punk Singer (2013) – Sini Anderson’s adoring biopic of Kathleen Hanna – and, perhaps in a mini-rebellion from her feminist electro orthodoxy, I watched The Women as a follow-up. Of course I mean the original George Cukor-directed The Women and not the roundly panned remake from a few years ago. That big ol’ bomb reportedly tried to assert a more inexplicably positive “sisterhood” sort of tone to this story of caustically ridiculous females - an assortment of Park Avenue trophy wife types scheming, backstabbing, gossiping, and delivering withering putdown after…you get the idea, right? Which is kind of like trying to make the Khmer Rouge camp managers in The Killing Fields a little nicer to their captives.
In Anderson’s documentary and in the writings of chroniclers of Hanna’s work there is a lot of talk of “queerness.” Hanna is a heterosexual woman who has played “feminist electronic music” with her band Le Tigre featuring self-described “gender outlaw” and lesbian J.D. Samson. But “queerness” isn’t maybe entirely best understood through the work of people such as Hanna. For a theoretical perspective of what queerness means in a gay male context it is worth seeking out the work of academic David Halperin and specifically his hefty pink book, How To Be Gay. Halperin seeks to better describe the sensibility of queerness as defined by gay cultural touchstones such as Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest, and yes, in Cukor’s The Women (featuring Joan Crawford). Queerness in this context isn’t always as friendly to women as queers and their allies might wish and that’s an uncomfortable truth that Halperin seeks to wrestle with.Continue Reading
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a movie lodged right into our pop cultural DNA somewhere between Psycho and Stonewall, and I would wager that its reputation as a “camp classic” might precede it to the film’s detriment because its greatness is in spite of its cultural baggage as a Hollywood Babylon-style punch line. Throughout the years since its release the film has been referenced, paid homage to, and parodied more times than I probably know about. There’s just something about the premise of two notorious aging movie queens tearing into one another—no one seems able to resist that glamorously morbid premise. By the early 1960s Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were at the point in their careers where they had to spoof themselves in a Hollywood horror story to get the attention of an audience that had long since deserted them. It was a risk that paid off and ultimately redefined the kinds of roles being offered to aging movie stars. …Baby Jane? was more than just a sleeper hit that resuscitated a few careers; it became a phenomenon that helped spawn a whole cottage industry of films starring has-been actresses pouring on the fake blood and brandishing pick axes. People wanted to see these one-time "it girls" playing murderous grandmas. It was the age of the Hagsploitation horror flick and …Baby Jane? was the one that started it all.
But let me reiterate, I come to praise What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as a sharp Hollywood satire, not to bury it under more faint praise as a “camp classic,” though there’s no denying it’s the Shakespearian gold standard for that. The problem is that identifying something as camp tends to negate it as anything other than a joke—even a knowing joke— and what makes What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? memorable goes far beyond its kitsch value. It’s a darkly comic satire in the vein of Sunset Boulevard but with weirder and more compelling characters. And it’s not just Davis and Crawford who remind us of why they were great to begin with. The supporting cast is just as good as they are—Victor Buono as the portly would-be suitor and artistic collaborator of Jane is particularly excellent. And in Robert Aldrich the film has a curiously awesome choice for a director. Aldrich could be described as a man’s man kind of director who made war pictures and nasty offbeat noirs like Kiss Me Deadly. Hiring him to direct a movie about two old Hollywood legends at each other’s throats was an inspired choice. Aldrich liked perversity and clearly the innate perversity of the film’s premise must have appealed to him. But he also locates the pathos in the characters and makes us care about what happens to them. It’s hard to categorize What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as anything other than a classic. It’s a Hollywood satire, it’s a lurid tragedy, a gothic noir of sorts - kind of horrific, certainly camp, and very funny. It has much to say about the two legendary leads and their notorious dislike of each other as it does about an industry that treats women terribly.Continue Reading