Friday, May 25, 2007

QUEER CINEMA—Spotlight On Jean Malin

This entry is dedicated to George Chauncey, whose masterful erudition recovered Jean Malin's biography from oblivion. My heartfelt thanks for his generous permission to use such hefty quotes from his historical study Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (BasicBooks, 1994).

* * *

When I first saw Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), I was thrilled by a scene towards film's end where Laurence Olivier's character Maxim DeWinter reveals to Joan Fontaine—whose name we are never given; she is simply characterized as "the Second Mrs. DeWinter"—exactly how Rebecca, the First Mrs. DeWinter, met her untimely death. He describes her final movements evocatively, cueing the camera's pan across the room, so that you all but see Rebecca moving around the room, you hear her scoffing laughter, you are seduced by her cool ruthless beauty. Through the camera's intent notation of her absence, Rebecca's presence is vividly summoned. It is a masterful stroke of insinuation, of conjuration, that Hitchcock utilized once again in Rope (1948) when Jimmy Stewart's character Rupert Cadell pieces together how Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) have done away with David Kentley. Hitchcock's conceit became one of my first articulations of how someone's absence can become a palpable presence; what Raymond Carver calls "the white shadow."

There are, of course, the absences created by narrative deaths, characters who leave a story through the plot's permutations, and then there are absences created by the omissions and erasures of calculated censorship; but, the dynamic remains essentially the same—a presence is created through absence. If you are a marginalized individual—a gay male, let's say—who cannot find images of himself in the mainstream culture, then you develop the facility to mine the margins for representation, to read between the lines, and to locate presence in absence. The sheer fact of an absence of representation incites and encourages such compensatory strategies.

In his landmark study, Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art (Oxford University Press), Richard Meyer argues for a "dialectical concept of censorship" whereby "the censorship of visual art functions not simply to erase but also to enable representation; it generates limits but also reactions to those limits; it imposes silence even as it provokes responses to that silence." (2002:15) Adapting the concept of "structural absences" introduced by Pierre Macherey in his volume A Theory Of Literary Production (which describes how literary texts are shaped by their own absences and avoidances), Meyer mines the cultural and material absence of queer art within the public sphere to sift out its presence within twentieth-century American culture from the forces of censorship that sought to eradicate it. (2002:291, fn. 52.)

When Richard Barrios indicated to me during our recent conversation that the one film added to the TCM Screened Out lineup that had not been included in his eponymous book was the comedy-drama Double Harness (1933), he provided a good reason: the film had simply not been available for nearly 50 years and was only recently brought to light due to resolution of a longstanding legal dispute between King Kong creator Merian C. Cooper and former RKO and Selznick International Pictures finance executive Ernest L. Scanlon (the details of which can be gleaned from the TCM press release). But there was an equally good reason for Barrios to include Double Harness in the Screened Out program; namely, that Jean Malin was not in the film. His absence is historically important. As the TCM press notes point out: "Jean Malin, who had gained fame as a female impersonator in the 1920's and was part of the so-called 'pansy craze' of the early 1930's, was originally cast as dress-shop owner Bruno in the opening scenes. He filmed the sequence and can still be seen in some publicity stills. But the scenes were reshot with Fredric Santley, at the then-sizeable cost of $1,669, after RKO executives ruled that Malin was too flamboyant a presence even for those liberal times. Studio president B.B. Kahane wrote in an inter-studio memo that 'I do not think we ought to have this man on the lot on any picture—shorts or features.' "

It's odd to watch a film to gain a sense of an actor who's not in the film. But as Double Harness was available on Comcast On Demand—and intrigued enough to take a look before its Screened Out broadcast—I took a look at Double Harness.

Wikipedia's succinct profile of the "brief meteoric rise of the career/phenomenon of Gene (Jean) Malin" is unabashedly dependent upon George Chauncey's excellent discussion on Malin and the phenomenon of the Pansy Craze, Chapter 11—"Pansies on Parade: Prohibition and the Spectacle of the Pansy"—from his fascinating study Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (BasicBooks, 1994).

Gene Malin, Wikipedia writes, was born Victor Eugene James Malin in Brooklyn on June 30, 1908 to working class Polish/Lithuanian parents. He had two brothers and two sisters. As a child, Gene attended P.S. 50 in Brooklyn and then went on to Eastern District High School for a while. One brother became a cop the other worked for a sugar refinery, but Gene had other inclinations early on. As a teenager Gene was already winning prizes for his costumes at the elaborate Manhattan Drag Balls of the 1920s. [Chauncey claims he "was said to have won prizes for an outfit of black velvet and silver lace and for several other more exotic creations consisting entirely of pink or gold feathers" (1994:314).] By his late teens Malin had worked as a chorus boy in several Broadway shows ("Princess Flavor", "Miami", "Sisters of the Chorus") [but lost several jobs because he was too effeminate]. Around the same period, Malin worked at several Greenwich Village clubs as a drag performer, [first at Paul and Joe's but] most notably the "Rubaiyat".

Several columnists noted his talent and in 1930 (age 22) Malin was booked at Louis Schwartzs' elegant "Club Abbey" at 46th and 8th Ave. It was at this point that Malins' career and fate took a most interesting turn. Although Malin was at times assisted by "Helen Morgan JR.", a popular drag artist of the day, he did not appear in drag himself. The crux of his act was not to impersonate women, but to appear as an openly gay male (emphasis on the Male). Here he moved on stage and amongst the audience members as tuxedo clad, elegant, witty, wisecracking Emcee, Master of Ceremonies. He still often resorted to a broad exaggerated swishing image and the many other such "Pansy acts" that followed—often had a tone of a straight vaudeville man doing an exaggerated impersonation of an effeminate "Pansy". Perhaps the joke had several levels—as the performer was often a gay man doing his impression of a straight man doing his impression of a gay man. (Shades of Victor Victoria, anyone?) Regardless, in doing so, Malin and other such performers as "Karl Norman" and "Ray Bourbon" ignited a "Pansy Craze" in New York's speakeasies and later in other cities as well. Malin became the top earner of Broadway for a time. After headlining numerous New York Clubs, he took his act to Boston and ultimately to the West Coast. While in Hollywood, he appeared in several films (such as Arizona to Broadway and Joan Crawford's Dancing Lady) usually as the stock character of a witty limpwristed clerk.

In the early hours of August 10, 1933, Gene Malin was killed in a freak accident. He had just performed a "farewell performance" at the "Ship Cafe" in Venice California. He piled into his sedan with roommate Jimmy Forlenza and Comedic actress Patsy Kelly. It seems that Malin confused the gears and the car lurched in reverse and went off a pier into the water. Malin was instantly killed (pinned under the steering wheel) the other two were seriously hurt, but miraculously survived. It is staggering to realize that Malin was only 24 years of age at the time of his death. Although many in his audience probably saw him as one more oddity, in a short span of time Malin had made and changed the course of history!

Malin left behind two recordings, released posthumously and pressed in a single royal blue shellac 78, "That's What's the Matter With Me" and "I'd Rather Be Spanish Than Mannish"; the latter can be heard here.

The Queer Music Heritage site has a great video clip of Malin in Arizona to Broadway (1933), perhaps the earliest clip of a performance by an actual female impersonator. Malin had an uncredited role as Ray Best, a female impersonator who's conspicuously channeling Mae West. Synopsis: Gangster Tommy Monk wants to have a Broadway show so at gunpoint he coerces Malin, Jimmy Durante and Ed Wynn to perform.

There are a couple of things that strike me in this wonderful and valuable video clip. First, as indicated above, this was not Malin's characteristic representation. He normally did not perform in drag. He performed as a pansy, not a female impersonator. Chauncey writes (1994:315): "By the time Malin moved his act from the Village to the Club Abbey, he had transformed his stage role from that of a female impersonator to that of a pansy. A large and imposing man, he strolled about the club, interacting with the patrons and using his camp wit to entertain them (and presumably scandalizing them with his overtly gay comments). …Malin's 'act' was simply to bring the camp wit of the gay subculture from Greenwich Village to the floor of one of the city's swankiest clubs, although virtually no evidence remains concerning the precise content of that act. He 'wore men's clothes,' one paper explained, 'but [he] talked and acted like women.' Some newspapers continued to call him a female impersonator, even though he wore men's clothes; others called him a male impersonator, as if his male clothes were the only manly thing about him."

What is of equally distinctive importance here is that Malin gained notoriety for being "a pansy playing a pansy." Chauncey clarifies (1994:316): "Malin, in other words, was regarded as a gay man whose nightclub act revolved around his being gay, not as a 'normal' man scornfully mimicking gay mannerisms or engaging in homosexual buffoonery, as was the case in most vaudeville and burlesque routines." Further, Malin's nightclub act disrupted conventional spatial arrangements between performer and audience. He was not isolated on a stage; he wandered freely among the Club Abbey clientele, frequently ridiculing the straight men who heckled him.

Chauncey expounds (1994:317): "His very presence on the club floor elicited the catcalls of many men in the club, but he responded to their abuse by ripping them to shreds with the drag queen's best weapon: his wit. 'He had a lisp, and an attitude, but he also had a sharp tongue,' according to one columnist. 'The wise cracks and inquiries of the men who hooted at his act found ready answer.' And if hostile spectators tried to use brute force to take him on after he had defeated them with his wit, he was prepared to humble them on those terms as well. 'He was a huge youth,' one paper reported, 'weighing 200, and a six footer. Not a few professional pugilists sighed because Jean seemed to prefer dinner rings to boxing rings.' Although Malin's act remained tame enough to safeguard its wide appeal, it nonetheless embodied the complicated relationship between pansies and 'normal' men. His behavior was consistent with their demeaning stereotype of how a pansy should behave, but he demanded their respect; he fascinated and entertained them, but he also threatened and infuriated them."

One instantly recognizes the precedent Malin set for subsequent performances such as Terrence Stamp's Ralph/Bernadette Bassenger in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), not only by his actions in the video clip from Arizona to Broadway but through his own life. "A story told about Malin highlights the image he developed as a street-smart defender of his dignity as a gay man and the degree to which his fans thought his stage and offstage personas were one and the same. Published in the Daily Mirror after he had become famous, and presumably circulating in the gay world before then, the story explained that after winning the prize for being the 'best-dressed woman' at a Greenwich Village drag ball, he had wandered into a cafeteria without having bothered to change his clothes. This was … a common step for a man to take after experiencing the heady solidarity of a drag ball, and the heckling he started to receive from some of the other customers at the cafeteria was also fairly routine. But what happened next was not. 'When a party of four rough looking birds tossed a pitcher of hot water at him as he danced by,' the columnist reported, 'he pitched into them. After beating three of them into insensibility, the fight went into the street, with two taxi drivers coming to the assistance of the surviving member of the original foursome.' The story portrayed Malin as claiming his right to move openly through the city as a drag queen. Still, it ended on a suitable camp note. When the fight was over, Malin was said to have had tears in his eyes. Yes, he'd won the fight, he told another man, 'but look at the disgraceful state my gown is in!' " (Chauncey, 1994:317-318.) One might even add that Malin not only influenced subsequent performances, but set the tenor of the Stonewall (East Coast) and Compton Cafeteria (West Coast) riots.