Victim (1961)

Image Source: MovieGoods

Synopsis: Barrister Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde) is really going places. He’s seemingly happily married to the beautiful Laura (Sylvia Syms) and is on course to becoming a Queen’s Counsel. However, when his friend “Boy” Barrett (Peter McEnery) steals a large sum of money and then commits suicide, Farr finds himself increasingly involved in the investigation being led by Detective Inspector Harris (John Barrie). It seems Barrett was being blackmailed by someone threatening to turn him in to the police for being a homosexual — and he’s not the only victim. How far will Farr go to find Barrett’s killer — and how much is he willing to reveal about himself at the risk of destroying his career, his image, and his life?

Say, folks! If you’re interested in the topic of queer images in film, have I got an event for YOU! From June 18-22, Garbo Laughs (that’s me) and Pussy Goes Grrr will be hosting the Queer Film Blogathon. Check it out now to find out how you can contribute and even win prizes. The party simply won’t be the same without you!

Basil Dearden‘s Victim broke major ground when it was released in the United Kingdom in 1961. For one thing, it was the first English-language motion picture in which the word “homosexual” had ever been used. Secondly, in its fictionalization, it brought to light what was then a major problem in England: the issue of blackmailers using the long-outdated anti-sodomy laws as a way to extort money from gay (and straight) men. Basically, if you engaged in homosexual activities (or somebody just said you did) and an extortionist found out and said they would rat you out to the police if you didn’t give them a large sum of money, you either had to fork over the cash or let them squeal on you to the cops, which likely meant you’d face a fine or prison sentence, not to mention the complete annihilation of your career and public image.

Sound familiar? Why yes, Victim covers essentially the exact same territory as 1919’s Different from the Others, only in a different time and place and with a different outcome. While Different from the Others fell on fairly deaf ears, Victim was relevant enough to contemporary audiences to start a real public debate on the British law against homosexuality, eventually leading to the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which decriminalized homosexual acts in private between men over the age of 21. Mind you, the age of consent at the time for heterosexual acts was 16; the age of consent was not equalized for both hetero- and homosexual acts until the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act of 2000.

Bogarde’s Melville Farr is a victim no longer.

Rising to prominence as a matinee idol, Victim‘s star, Dirk Bogarde, was one of the most popular British actors of the 1950s, starring in the 1954 hit comedy Doctor in the House and the 1958 screen adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities. A consummate bachelor and rumored homosexual, it was a risk for Bogarde to take on Victim, yet one he reportedly embraced without the slightest hesitation. Not only that, but he claimed to have a direct hand in making the film as revolutionary as it was. “It was the first film in which a man said ‘I love you’ to another man,” Bogarde would later recall. “I wrote that scene in. I said, ‘There’s no point in half-measures. We either make a film about queers or we don’t.'” Although met with overt hostility from members of the film’s crew and production staff, Bogarde was proud of the ground Victim had broken. “I believe that the film made a lot of difference to a lot of people’s lives.”

Although Britain may have been ready for a film which so frankly tackled homosexuality, America – or at least its motion picture censors – was not. The Motion Picture Association of America found Victim unacceptable because of its “candid and clinical discussion of homosexuality and its overtly expressed plea for social acceptance of the homosexual to the extent that [he] be made tolerable.” Although not much could be done about the latter problem, given that it was the basis for the entire film, credit should go to director Basil Dearden for refusing to cut the forbidden words “homosexual” and “homosexuality” from the soundtrack. Victim was released in the United States without an official seal of approval from the MPAA – similar to a film today being released as “unrated” – dooming it to commercial failure. Critics, many with their own ingrained biases, refused to comment on Victim other than to note with distaste its earnest pro-homosexual message, and it achieved only mild success in the art house circuit while being overwhelmingly shunned by the general movie-going public.

Without question a historically important film and earth-shaking at the time of its release, watching it today Victim does wind up feeling sadly dated. Yet, at the same time, it’s almost too modern for me. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t have anything against the frank discussion and depiction of homosexuality in film. (I mean, I do host this blogathon.) But I think I’ve been spoiled by queer theory and using my own powers of deduction to find coded allusions in older films. It’s fun for me. Victim is kind of like receiving a puzzle that’s already been put together for you. The acting is stellar and the black-and-white cinematography is truly gorgeous, but I found myself a little bored by Victim. Still, if you’re interested in the history of queer images in cinema or even in the history of modern cultural attitudes toward homosexuality, this film is invaluable.

Victim (1961) – 3.5/5 stars

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Image Source: MovieGoods

Synopsis: On a dark and stormy night, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley beg Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) to continue her story of Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his Monster (Boris Karloff). Picking up where she left off, Shelley reveals that neither the doctor nor his abominable creation died at the hands of angry villagers, but in fact both survived the windmill blaze that was intended to signal their doom. Frankenstein is brought back to his bride Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) and vows to cease all efforts to create life, except within the more traditional bounds of marriage. However, he is quickly tempted back into his old diabolical ways by the charismatic Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), who proposes an even deadlier plan: to create a female version of the Monster, with the hopes that their two unnatural offspring will procreate, spawning “a new world of gods and monsters.”

James Whale‘s sequel to 1931’s Frankenstein is oft noted for its camp sensibility and homosexual undertones, although it is fervently denied by many who personally knew the openly-gay director that these motifs were intentional. It doesn’t matter whether Whale intended his film to act as a sly commentary on sexual mores or not; films are living, breathing beings, which are open to an infinite number of interpretations depending on when and where the movie is seen as well as the lived experiences of those seeing it. Like the Monster itself, Bride of Frankenstein is its own entity which was out of Whale’s control as soon as the chains were off. The entire field of film theory would be obsolete if each movie had one correct reading and one only. I say, if it makes the film more entertaining for you to construe queer undertones, go for it. As for me, it always does.

It’s alive, and it’s faaaaaabulous!

That being said, there are some truly delicious moments of camp here. Although the prologue is very brief, Gavin Gordon as Lord Byron clearly had a lot of fun in his role. But it’s Dr. Pretorius who really pulls out all the stops and is the character that has most grabbed history’s attention. Thesiger truly relishes his diabolical role, and it’s obvious. Whether he’s dining with skulls in a crypt or begging Dr. Frankenstein to “reconsider” his plans to marry Elizabeth, Pretorius is a joy to watch from beginning to end. The moments of over-the-top creepy silliness (and even outright humor) are tempered by stretches of action and even some of extreme poignancy, most notably the famous sequence in which the Monster meets and befriends a blind hermit. All throughout, the cinematography is truly eye-catching and beautiful, a testament to Whale’s ability to grab the viewer’s attention and never let go.

However, I expected to like this film a lot more than I actually did. When Whale resorted to standard horror fare, I just found myself bored and wondering when the Bride would be revealed. Then again, this film really set the standard for that horror fare, so maybe it isn’t quite just to criticize it for being cliché. After all, it’s not the movie’s fault if every other horror film afterward copied from it. Still, I have to consider the film in the context of my own experiences, and I can’t deny that I was disappointed. A beautiful movie, for sure, and worth watching without a doubt. It’s just a shame that Bride of Frankenstein was spoiled for me by all the copycats that came after.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935) – 3.5/5 stars

The Maze (1953)

Image Source: Wrong Side of the Art

Synopsis: Life for the newly-engaged Kitty Murray (Veronica Hurst) and Gerald MacTeam (Richard Carlson) couldn’t be any happier – until Gerald receives a letter notifying him of the death of his uncle. Now it is his duty to take on the role of baronet of Craven Castle in the Scottish highlands. It’s expected that Gerald will settle his business at Craven and then return to Kitty, but soon he makes it clear that he’s not coming back and that the engagement is off. The heartbroken Kitty and her supportive aunt Edith (Katherine Emery) pay an unannounced visit to Craven, where they find Gerald a prematurely-aged and altogether different man. Kitty tries her best to bring back the warm and good-humored Gerald she once knew, but all Gerald wants is for Kitty and Edith to leave Craven Castle. What is affecting Gerald? Could the MacTeam family secret lie in the forbidden hedge maze in the center of the castle grounds?

Based on a novel and originally filmed in 3D, The Maze was the final film by Oscar-winning art director and production designer William Cameron Menzies, who received an honorary award in 1940 for his outstanding use of color in a little picture known as Gone with the Wind. Despite the fact that Menzies had more than twice as many artistic credits as he did directorial roles, he was also at the helm of such notable movies as 1932’s Chandu the Magician and 1936’s Things to Come. For a man who at the time had been in the business for nearly forty years, practically since the beginning of the medium of film itself, Menzies clearly knew what he was doing with The Maze. Although the plot synopsis may make it sound like a schlocky low-budget B horror picture (not necessarily a bad thing!), The Maze is definitely aided by Menzies’ directorial experience and impeccable eye for detail. It’s a beautiful movie with some stunning cinematography; Craven Castle has so many inky, shadowy corners you might think you’re in a German Expressionist film from the ’20s, not an American monster movie from the ’50s. The players, all relatively unknown (to me, anyway), also help add to the spooky ambience of the picture and heighten the mystery. The narrator is Aunt Edith, and while Katherine Emery at this point was an accomplished character actress and stage performer, here she sort of gives you the impression that she’s played by someone’s actual Aunt Edith. It’s distracting but not too much; I suppose it just adds a hint of realism.

Doesn’t it ever occur to anybody to bring HEDGE CLIPPERS into one of these damn things?!?

It’s good that the atmosphere is so strong, because the film relies on it a lot to pass the time. That’s my way of saying that nothing much happens until the last ten minutes or so. While many reviewers complain that The Maze is too slow, I rather enjoyed the build up of suspense and thought that it helped those last ten minutes really pack a punch. I don’t want to spoil it too much – seeing as how the poster above specifically requests that I don’t give away the ending – but I will say that there is a monster at the center of the maze, and it is definitely worth the wait. I can’t say you’ll be scared, though, but hopefully you’ll be entertained. There’s also some very silly science in the last few scenes which I enjoyed probably too much. Overall I was pleasantly surprised by The Maze, which I had never heard of prior to stumbling across it on Netflix (which predicted I’d give it a very low rating). It’s a wonderfully eery little picture with the perfect hint of schlock thrown in for good measure. I can definitely see adding it to my annual must-watch Halloween roster.

The Maze (1953) – 3.5/5 stars

’50s Monster Mash Blogathon: 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)

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Synopsis: An American astronaut (William Hopper) is rescued by fishermen when his ship crash lands in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Sicily. Later that day, a local boy (Bart Braverman) finds a curious organic artifact on the beach and sells it to a visiting zoologist (Frank Puglia) on a trip to Sicily with his granddaughter (Joan Taylor). Soon, the object reveals itself to be an egg, out of which hatches a tiny and strange creature. But the alien doesn’t stay small for long, growing at an incredibly rapid rate. The monster escapes the confines of the zoologist’s cage and flees into the countryside. With the Italian police force on its trail trying to protect humanity and the American Army trying to recover their valuable scientific specimen, what fate awaits this monster on this planet where he was never meant to be?

This is an official entry in Forgotten Classic of Yesteryear’s ’50s Monster Mash Blogathon, a truly fantastic event celebrating the joy, pleasure and pain of 1950s monster movies from around the world. Organized by Nathanael Hood, this blogathon spans from today until August 2, and with forty talented bloggers pledged to participate, a fun and wacky time is sure to be had by all. Please click the banner to view some of the contributions, and keep checking back on Forgotten Classics as the contributions roll in all week long.

First of all, sincerest apologies to Nate for the lateness of this review! Dealing with a lot of illness and business ’round these parts, not to mention planning a trip out of town and a possible move out of town after that. I’m going to keep my intro brief so that I actually have some chance of getting this post up before the day is through. 20 Million Miles to Earth was directed by Nathan Juran for Columbia Pictures for the sole purpose of displaying the incredible, jaw-dropping, still-as-of-yet-unparalleled stop-motion animation effects talents of the legendary Ray Harryhausen. While a lot of the film seems quite low-budget, Harryhausen, as always, shocks and awes. Come take a trip with me into this monster movie classic, this B-grade gem, this long long journey… 20 Million Miles to Earth!

Warning: This is a Full Recap review, meaning it includes screencaps and commentary on the film in its entirety. Therefore, it is much longer than a regular review, and spoilers are pretty much guaranteed. (more…)

Maedchen in Uniform (1931)

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Synopsis: When sensitive Manuela (Hertha Thiele) is sent to a strict boarding school for officers’ daughters, she is thrilled to discover that her new classmates are anything but miniature versions of their fathers. Immediately she is informed by the rambunctious ringleader Ilse (Ellen Schwanneke) that Manuela is lucky to have been placed under the care of Fräulein von Bernburg (Dorothea Wieck), the one instructor who elicits the budding passions of every girl in school. Manuela seems especially desperate for the affections of the young and beautiful teacher, who reciprocates by giving Manuela the nurturing she so obviously craves. However, the nasty Prussian headmistress (Emilia Unda) believes young girls are best formed into strong women by discipline and hunger, and does not support Fräulein von Bernburg’s soft hand.

Here on Garbo Laughs, I’m dedicating the entire month of June to the topic of Queer Cinema (LGBTQs, and depictions thereof, in classic film). This includes reviewing one relevant film from each decade from the 1910s to the 1990s. This is all leading up to my Queer Film Blogathon on June 27th. Won’t you join me in celebrating LGBTQ Pride Month by contributing a post or two (or three)?

Based on the novel and play Gestern und heute (Yesterday and Today) by lesbian author Christa Winsloe, Leontine Sagan‘s polemic against the strict Prussian education system was released in 1931 to enormous financial success. However, historically it seems this success is attributed less to the film’s strong anti-fascist message and more to the groundbreaking all-female cast and the fact that this was one of the first films produced to feature an explicitly pro-lesbian storyline. It is quite astonishing to see lesbianism portrayed as a de facto way of life here; it is almost immediately introduced and not viewed as strange or different at all by the boarding school students. It’s disapproved of by the school administrators, but not so much due to its Sapphic nature but rather because any sign or expression of emotion is frowned upon. There is never any mention of the notion that these girls might be “settling” for lesbian relationships due to the lack of males in their lives, at least not in the English subtitles. You can definitely see why this film was viewed as revolutionary for its time; hell, there are very few movies even today that treat queerness so matter-of-factly. (more…)