Considering everything that’s been happening on the planet in the last several months, you’d have thought we’re already in November or December – of 2117. But no. It’s only June. 2017. And in some parts of the world, that’s the month of brides, fathers, graduates, gays, and climate change denial. Beginning this evening, Thursday, June 1, Turner Classic Movies will be focusing on one of these June groups: LGBT people, specifically those in the American film industry.
Following the presentation of about 10 movies featuring Frank Morgan, who would have turned 127 years old today, TCM will set its cinematic sights on the likes of William Haines, James Whale, George Cukor, Mitchell Leisen, Dorothy Arzner, Patsy Kelly, and Ramon Novarro. In addition to, whether or not intentionally, Claudette Colbert, Colin Clive, Katharine Hepburn, Douglass Montgomery (a.k.a. Kent Douglass), Marjorie Main, and Billie Burke, among others.
But this is ridiculous! Why should TCM present a film series based on the sexual orientation of actors and/or filmmakers? People’s private lives should remain private. Anyhow, why should anyone care whether or not Claudette Colbert or Katharine Hepburn or Van Johnson or Kerwin Mathews was gay or bi or tri or whatever?
The curious thing about the people who come up with this sort of argument is that they have absolutely no problem when people wonder about whether or not screen couples such as Clark Gable and Joan Crawford, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, or Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland were also romantically involved when the cameras were not rolling. Or whether or not Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are still together. Or how many children they – or Mia Farrow, for that matter – have adopted.
Don’t be fooled. Concerns about safeguarding the private lives of celebrities only when the issue of sexual orientation comes up is nothing more than anti-gay bigotry disguised as disinterested privacy concerns.
Note: This post is being revised and expanded. Please check back later.
Now, how about the movies themselves?
One of William Haines’ weakest talkies, Just a Gigolo (1931) is a curious choice to illustrate the career of one of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s top stars of the late 1920s. Haines’ fast-fading sound film career was already in the doldrums by the time Just a Gigolo, which barely broke even, came out. This particular effort surely didn’t help matters any, as it’s a romantic comedy lacking in both romance and humor. Its best asset: running time = a mere 66 minutes.
William Haines’ shtick, a mix of know-it-all arrogance and sexual cockiness, could be – and frequently was – hard to take, but for a handful of years he was an important box office draw in the United States (way less so elsewhere). During the late silent era, his major hits included Tell It to the Marines (1926), with Lon Chaney and Eleanor Boardman; Jack Conway’s Alias Jimmy Valentine (1928), with Lionel Barrymore and Leila Hyams; and King Vidor’s Show People (1928), in which he supports Marion Davies.
If you’d like to check out William Haines’ at his gayest, then Fred Niblo’s Way Out West (1930), filled with innuendo that’s both homoerotic (Haines & cowboys) and homoneurotic (Polly Moran’s enamored flirt suffers from what sort of mental affliction?), is the movie for you. If you’d like to check him out at his best, then Sam Wood’s surprisingly effective New Adventures of Get Rich Quick Wallingford (1931), with Haines delivering what may well be his most subtle, most nuanced performance, is the movie for you.
Also worth noting re: Just a Gigolo, in 1931 Bing Crosby recorded his rendition of the two-year-old song of the same name, adapted by Irving Caesar from the German original “Schöner Gigolo, armer Gigolo” by Leonello Casucci and Julius Brammer.
Something else: there’s no connection between the William Haines movie and David Hemmings’ overwrought 1978 Nazi-era-set Just a Gigolo, starring David Bowie and Sydne Rome, though there’s a definite connection between the German song and the Bowie drama (even if only in the film’s original German-language title and perhaps the fact that guest star Marlene Dietrich, in her final film role, gets to sing it).
Some consider James Whale’s 1931 version of Waterloo Bridge (made at Universal) far superior to Mervyn LeRoy’s glossier 1940 version starring Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor at MGM. I couldn’t disagree more, but the 1931 film does feature the vastly underrated Mae Clarke as a sex worker and the very handsome Douglass Montgomery (billed as Kent Douglass) as a World War I soldier. The two leads, in addition to Bette Davis in a supporting role, make this romantic melodrama worth a look.
George Cukor’s The Women (1939) remains one of the funniest movies of the studio era. Norma Shearer’s performance as the cuckolded housewife borders on the treacly, but some of the supporting cast is outstanding, particularly Joan Crawford as the ambitious shopgirl with a knack for seducing eligible married men, Rosalind Russell as an unscrupulous busybody who doesn’t quite know where her limbs should go, and Mary Boland as a dowager/cougar afraid of the dangers of la publicité.
Directed by Mitchell Leisen, No Time for Love (1943) is a sentimental romantic comedy (not melodrama) that should work only for those who are inveterate fans of the Claudette Colbert-Fred MacMurray movie duo. Others will likely have a better time checking out Dorothy Arzner’s unusual Christopher Strong (1933), starring Katharine Hepburn as a determined aviatrix who at one point dresses up as a glittering moth.
Norman Z. McLeod’s There Goes My Heart (1938), with shades of My Man Godfrey – heiress works as shop clerk – was one of the few A movies featuring Virginia Bruce in a leading lady role, while Fred Niblo’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) was not only the biggest pre-Gone with the Wind worldwide box office hit – and costliest film production – but also the epic that turned Ramon Novarro (also on TCM earlier today in The Cat and the Fiddle and Douglass Montgomery’s bud in the early 1930s) into a superstar. Ben-Hur itself has lots of ups and downs, while Novarro’s performance as the Jewish hero turned Christian convert ranges from excellent (e.g., post-chariot-race mix of exhilaration and exhaustion) to awful (literally tearing at his hair after witnessing Jesus play healer at the film’s finale), but the chariot race, the cinematography, and Carl Davis’ 1987 score for the restored version are all flawless.
8:00 PM JUST A GIGOLO (1931). Director: Jack Conway. Cast: William Haines. Irene Purcell. C. Aubrey Smith. B&W. 66 mins.
9:14 PM HOW I PLAY GOLF BY BOBBY JONES NO. 11 “PRACTICE SHOTS” (1931). Short film featuring gold champion Bobby Jones & actors Anthony Bushell, Louise Fazenda, James Cagney, Donald Cook, and Evelyn Knapp. Director: George Marshall. B&W. 11 mins.
9:30 PM WATERLOO BRIDGE (1931). Director: James Whale. Cast: Mae Clarke. Kent Douglass. Doris Lloyd. Bette Davis. B&W. 81 mins.
10:59 PM MOVIE MEMORIES #2 (1934). Silent era archive footage featuring the likes of Thomas Meighan, Betty Compson, Ronald Colman, J. Warren Kerrigan, William Powell, Lon Chaney, Rudolph Valentino, Nita Naldi, Noah Beery, and others. B&W. 8 mins.
11:15 PM THE WOMEN (1939). Director: George Cukor. Cast: Norma Shearer. Joan Crawford. Rosalind Russell. Mary Boland. Paulette Goddard. Joan Fontaine. Virginia Weidler. Lucile Watson. Marjorie Main. Virginia Grey. B&W. 133 mins.
1:45 AM NO TIME FOR LOVE (1943). Director: Mitchell Leisen. Cast: Claudette Colbert. Fred MacMurray. Ilka Chase. B&W. 84 mins.
3:14 AM ALL-STAR VAUDEVILLE (1935). Short film featuring Blossom Seeley, Pat Rooney, and others. B&W. 11 mins.
3:30 AM CHRISTOPHER STRONG (1933). Director: Dorothy Arzner. Cast: Katharine Hepburn. Colin Clive. Billie Burke. B&W. 78 mins.
5:00 AM THERE GOES MY HEART (1938). Director: Norman Z. McLeod. Cast: Fredric March. Virginia Bruce. Patsy Kelly. B&W. 83 mins.
6:30 AM BEN-HUR: A TALE OF THE CHRIST (1925). Director: Fred Niblo Cast: Ramon Novarro. Francis X. Bushman. May McAvoy. B&W. 143 mins.