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“Images of homo-eroticism in the Golden-Age of Hollywood” – date unknown

Well, your humble host had the cast taken off her wrist yesterday. She fondly assumed it would emerge all healed and wonderful! Sadly she was wrong. I have a fat-lady wrist, and fingers like frankfurters, and I can hardly move the thing. The doctors tell me happily it will be six more weeks before the bone is properly mended and the swelling goes down and it stops being stiff and hurting like crap. So, no long wordy posts for a while.

Which is why I’m taking the moment to post something sent to me by reader-Cherry whose marvellous blog I’ve mentioned previously. She recently featured a quote from Fred Cavens, fight-supervisor on at least two of Rathbone’s swashbucklers. I asked her if she knew where it came from and she sent me this interesting article she found some years ago on a now-defunct Queer-theory website. We don’t have an author name, but if he/she should read this please inform us and we will add it. (Any muffled detonations you hear will be our Claude Rains’ head exploding)

I don’t necessarily agree with this interpretation wholly or even in part, but no one’s going to deny the bizarrely explicit double-entendres in ZORRO are they?

“The Capitaine’s sword is not so firm!”

“Firm enough to run you through!”

“…do you fancy the weapon?”

Errmm…ok…

IMAGES OF HOMO-EROTICISM IN THE GOLDEN AGE OF HOLLYWOOD:
THE FORMALISED DUEL.

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Two men are locked together, their eyes devouring one another, their hot faces only inches apart, and contorted with the intensity of their physical and emotional experience.

For a second their bodies pulse together almost rhythmically, as they work to inevitable and almost ritualised climax. We watch, knowing what to expect and we aren’t disappointed. It ends in dissolution, stillness and a little death.

What is this? A piece of gay pornography c. 2000? No, it is the celebrated duel scene from the 1938 movie ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood,’ featuring Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone. Watch the sequence again. Reappraise it – other have already done so. In fact for gays in the new millennium it has become a potent piece of subversive symbolism, the annexation of the very heart of Entertainment’s machismo.

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The erotic significance it holds isn’t hard to understand. Here we have two profoundly beautiful men, movie stars, one a sexual icon, both in great physical shape. They wear clothing that emphasises and glorifies the lithe beauty of their competing bodies. They entangle, they sweat in a heat and intimacy the Hays office of the time was powerless to outlaw. But does it go beyond associated eroticism to a true political statement about gayness as some now suggest?

Undeniably, as Jarman said, the sequence could not be shot in this way today without admitting its own homo-erotic intent. But was the meaning present in the consciousness of the 1938 creators? At first glance this seems unlikely, but recent studies have suggested a more consciously homo-erotic substrata in the Golden Age than anyone had dared to imagine. They point to James Whale and Edmund Goulding with their unashamed celebrations of male love. They point to the bisexuality of macho icons like Flynn to suggest that they were powerfully aware of the unspoken agenda they were expressing.

Fred Cavens, fight choreographer for ‘Robin Hood’ described the dedication and trust needed to make a successful screen duel work as ‘a kind of love affair’ He said:

“The reliance on one another to go at full speed, where one slip could administer serious injury. You hold each other’s eyes. You see nothing else. The focus totally on one another, the almost telepathic sympathy, like one set of thoughts flowing through two bodies, and the hard hard work of sweating it out right time and time again. If you don’t love each other and trust each other and live in each other through the sequence you are going to fail”

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So we have a potent symbol of the intimacy and shared physicality of the formalised duel scene as an emblem for the act of homosexual love. Of all the roughcuts and out-takes the most interesting section is a 104 second sequence of Flynn and Rathbone, with the camera tracking back behind Flynn’s left shoulder. As the director cuts for discontinuity Flynn and Rathbone go into an unashamed embrace and clinch. It is as if the intimacy described by Cavens permitted expressions of intimacy and enjoyment of other male bodies in an ethos acceptable to the time. In this regard we can’t ignore the fact that two of the most prominent symbols of this brand of machismo – Flynn and Power – have both been alleged as practising bisexuals, or closet homosexuals. Do we regard this as coincident? Or as, gay writers insist, a symptom of what the formalised duel actually represented in an age when overt screen imagess of homo-eroticism were taboo? In other words, were the images of this machismo specifically selected for their sublimated gay message?

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In this regard consider the formal disrobing before the duel in ‘Mark of Zorro’, where both combatants strip down to a costume that is a near parody of flaunted masculine sexuality, with tight-fitting pants offering the closest Hollywood could then get to a genital display. In particular Rathbone’s skin-tight white pants and thigh high boots are unashamedly fetishsitic. This camp subversion of the militaristic is now a prominent feature of the gay culture. The repartee exchanged between Rathbone and Power is equally sexually loaded.Power questions the ‘firmness’ of Rathbone’s sword, and is assured it is firm enough to run Power through. What message is being sent here? The parallel with a sexual encounter could hardly be more emphatically made, from disrobing through tumescence, penetration and resolution.

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Throughout the movie, Rathbone even more than Power is represented as an archetype of rampant masculine sexuality, the sword used as a barely disguised phallic symbol, with metaphors of penetration abounding. ‘He is forever thrusting at this and that’. He is the lover of his employer’s wife, Gale Sondegaard, as Power is the suitor of the innocent Linda Darnell, but the true energy of the film does not lie with either of these protagonisms.

In macro terms, the movie’s themes are heterosexual. But in micro terms, this certitude dissolves. The relationship that fascinates us, the one bedecked with the film’s subliminal sexual symbolism, is the one between Power and Rathbone, representing polarities of maleness, one effete, soft and sensual, the other hard, aggressive and thrusting. . It is their confrontations that are ripe with seemingly deliberately planted phallic allusions and a raw sadistic sexuality totally absent from the aseptic ‘love-scenes’ between Darnell and Power.

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56 Comments

    • the countess says

      That move is a great Basil movie if for no other reason then watching him strut around in those painted on pants and those thigh high boots waveing that sword and lunging at every peice of furniter on the set. He can tear up more secenery then Ty and Errol put to gather.He totaly steals this show in every sceen he is in. If you have never seen it hurry and get a copy.

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  1. roesbette says

    And Bret loved his work so much that he published this trash twice, a second time under the title “Errol Flynn: Gentleman Hellraiser”, just in time for Flynn’s centennary in 2009. Basically, they are the same damn book. I feel as if Bret should be on Steve Colbert’s show as an example of “wikiality” — where if someone says something often enough, it becomes truth.

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      • Think he knows not what he’s talking about.Far more believable writers dispel his theory of Flynn and Baz as lovers and most everything else and people are rightfully indignant of his libel of Baz.Baz wasn’t offendedat what Flynn said,they became friends,and I say Baz worked with him to make him feel more in character.Curtiz ordered Baz to rile Flynn,hence the money/salary remarks and Flynn gave back what he got.No hard feelings between the two.

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  2. Well if I ever meet Mr whoever Bret..NO he dosent deserve the title of Mr..I will smack him! As roesbette says just saying it dont make it so!

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  3. roesbette says

    Just because someone wrote it, doesn’t mean it’s true. In fact, Matzen, Druxman and other will attest that Flynn was actually getting less than “independent agents” like Rathbone and Claude Rains and felt resentment about it. Many of us have already cast doubts on Bret’s reliability.

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    • AnnaPindurka says

      I agree with Rosebette. David Niven calls Basil “this kindly man, the highest paid freelance actor in the world” in the second part of his autobiography, Bring on the Empty Horses.
      (It only slightly bothers me that DN, like Joan Fontaine, calls Ouida Russian, which I’m not sure at all is true. Maybe Ouida wanted people to believe this at the time? I have no proof either way.
      The full quote is: “Basil Rathbone and his Russian wife Ouida were inveterate middle-sized party givers and several times a year this kindly man, the highest paid freelance actor in the world, who specialised in playing mean, hiss-provoking villains, provided extravaganzas into which went a great deal of inventive thought.”)

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      • Margaret G says

        Of course Sheridan Morley revealed that Niven had borrowed many of his “memories” from other sources or even made them up. For example he was never as close to Flynn as he related, never shared a house with him. “Cirrhosis by the Sea” was a house two other guys lived in. So his memoirs should always be treated with caution. The “nice man who played baddies” feels like a cliche developing. Not that I think he wasn’t nice, but that it’s a mark of lazy stereotyping by Niven, who doesn’t seem to have been a deep thinker anyway.

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    • I agree, I was just posting it not promoting it. Bret is talking through his ignorant and slightly homophobic ass

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    • cinegeek says

      Absolutely, it was Flynn who resented Rathbone because he was being paid more though he was only in a supporting role

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  4. David Bret’s book has been referenced repeatedly on this blog, but no one seems willing to actually quote it. So here is one of the “offending” passages:

    “Movie mogul Jack Warner had to pay Errol Flynn $3,600 pw for the shooting of Captain Blood in the late 1930s, an absolute fortune back then. Only Clark Gable and Robert Taylor were on bigger Hollywood wages, such was Errol’s crowd-pulling power. Colleagues including Basil Rathbone despised him for leapfrogging them on pay. Basil, who was gay, brushed Errol up the wrong way off set one day: “I hope you’re happy now that you’re making more money than me you dirty little Aussie!” Without batting an eyelid, Errol fired back (in front of everyone): “Never mind, Old Sport! You’re still getting to suck more dicks than me!” The openly bisexual Errol soon became great pals with the wounded Basil. – Satan’s Angel” by David Bret p. 69

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  5. I think any gay guy claming Basil was gay is just wishfull thinking on part of same said gay guy.IMHO.He’d also better not say it in front of me or he’s likely to get smacked in the chops for his rudeness.I might forget I’m a Countess and a Lady!

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    • Yes, but with the greatest of respect this is just some anonymous person quoting an anonymous story. It’s meaningless because anyone can say anything. Would you like your life to be defined by baseless rumor? I doubt Rathbone would either.

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  6. Annabel Lee says

    Edmund Goulding’s all male Dawn Patrol is a feast of gay subtext IMO. And the chemistry between Rathbone and Flynn is as near sexual as makes no difference in almost everything they do on screen together. They ignite the screen. if one of them were a woman this obvious fact would be openly acknowledged

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    • roesbette says

      The real male chemistry in Dawn Patrol is between Flynn and Niven. There’s that great scene where Flynn gets Niven drunk and tucks him in before going out himself to fly Niven’t mission. Also, the great reaction shot when Flynn thought Niven’s character had died, and he returns. That being said, most of the 30s WWI movies, particularly about flyers, such as Hell’s Angels and Wings feature strong male bonding and even love scenes. I believe in Wings, one character kisses the other before dying — however, they are not considered homosexual scenes in that sense, but the sense of the strength of male friendship and love in battle. While there may be a homoerotic component, those characters may not necessarily have been gay. There’s a bond between men who serve together in war that transcends all that from what I understand.

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      • Annabel Lee says

        Have to disagree. The script calls for Flynn and Niven to be best buds, but the actual chemistry between them is minimal, whereas between Flynn and Rathbone it’s electric and intense and visceral. They look at each other and sparks fly as another poster said. I don’t know if the basis was attraction of some kind, sexual or otherwise, or if it was entirely unconscious between them and only showed up on camera, but by God it was there.

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  7. Alyssia says

    I’d like to say I am intending to start my own Basil Rathbone website which will include my evidence

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  8. granny Gingrich says

    Well, I so want there to be sexual chemistry between these two sexy men that maybe I am seeing it where it isn’t, but I think it’s there. The spark in their eyes when they look each other up and down. There’s just something there between Errol and Basil there never is between Errol and the other men he plays against.

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    • roesbette says

      Maybe the something was that Olivia deHavilland. Errol had a deep crush on her (possibly love) and apparently was annoyed throughout the making of Robin Hood over Basil’s charming and courtly behavior toward her.

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  9. Kendrick says

    I find this a little demeaning of fine actors and fine films. I don’t ee any double-entendres in the lines you quote either.

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  10. roesbette says

    An interesting perspective. I think a “queer interpretation” might apply to Mark of Zorro because even though he was straight, the director Rouben Mamoulien was a veteran of the precode era and often played with sexual boundaries in his films; he directed Queen Christina (in which Garbo cross dresses and is clearly bisexual). However, it doesn’t work as well with Robin Hood because Curtiz, who was hardly an “auteur” director, but more of a workman who excelled at action sequences and regarded actors as cattle, not a well-liked guy.

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    • Claude Rains says

      I think that’s a sober analysis. I don’t think there is any subtextual intent behind the homoeroticism in TAORH, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a genuine sexual chemistry between the protagonists. I think there is plenty of actual and anecdotal evidence that there was. Flynn has been alleged as a bisexual and so has Rathbone, though in his case I would suggest the obvious dearth of overt heterosexual connections might suggest he was predominantly gay.

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      • Claude for God’s sake the man was married twice, the second marriage lasted his entire life and was apparently happy and fulfilling. If this is a ‘dearth of heterosexual connection’ then I’m gay too, and so is almost everyone I know.

        Ah, suddenly everything you say makes so much more sense 😀

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  11. Claude Rains says

    Well, I think I have to remain on the sidelines here for fear of being consumed by the homophobic wild dogs that run in packs here 🙂

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  12. Elaine says

    Well, it’s a POV I suppose! The innuendo about swords and thrusting is real enough certainly as you say – but why does it need a homosexual context? Both the protagonists are in love with or having sex with women

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      • But there’s no context to imply one man as the object of desire by the other is there? Taunting a man’s lack of potency “the captain’s sword is not so firm” is just part of the bid to do down a competitor. I don’t see any gay implication. I think a stronger case could be made for the alleged sexual chemistry between Basil and Errol. I see no spark, real or implied, between Power and Basil

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  13. Robert says

    but surely subtext is in the eye of the beholder, and homosexuaity simply didn’t enter the thinking of most mainstream people then

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