What draws me in is the blankness of Dietrich’s face, her eyes looking not at us but beyond us, at nothing in particular, with a lack of any definable expression, emotion or urgency. The vacant gaze, bespeaking an unavailability and a refusal to engage, suggests the subject’s control over an image that is all surface: like theatrical curtains, the lids may come down on those eyes any moment now, shutting us out entirely.
It is a blankness that is not nothingness, invested as it becomes with the spectacle it makes of our longing. It is a blankness that is not openness; it gives nothing away while it commands our attention and inspires our awe at its sublime perfection – a perfection that belies the sprezzatura, the rehearsed effortlessness and nonchalance of the performance.
Nothing here encourages us to imagine what those eyes are looking at; nothing that invites us to see anything through those eyes. Those eyes are the event in a face – a site – that is all look. I am glamor, this face says, and what else, what more could you – or anyone – possibly be looking for!
The photograph holds me because the look withholds so much. What we are not getting is a portrait of the sitter, then in her fiftieth year. This photograph, clearly, is not of Dietrich, the person. It is the image of a mask that is already a persona. In this masquerade, as intriguing as anything conceived by Cindy Sherman in her film stills, the image is a simulacrum – the fiction of a fiction of a fiction.
“Theater Is Not for Fags,” the sign reads. It was brandished, among other such boards, in a rather unconvincing crowd scene in “The Other Vibrator,” the possibly well-intentioned but insipid eleventh episode of Grace and Frankie’s third season, with which I eventually caught up only a few days ago. The morning after, I finished reading Ngaio Marsh’s Killer Dolphin (1966). And the way that my wayward mind works, I put it down with that slogan in mind.
Retitled Death at the Dolphin, Marsh’s mystery novel was published in Britain in 1967, half a century before the Grace and Frankie episode first aired. That means it came before the public just as the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalized consensual – and private – homosexual acts among adult males in England and Wales. This being Gay Pride month, I am perhaps especially alert to anxieties surrounding gender and queer identity. At any rate, I detected an unease – or a playful response to public misgivings, actual or perceived –about homosexuality in Marsh’s narrative, which features a single gay character, and a minor one at that, while most of the other players – actors and creatives all – are carefully coupled in more or less, and mostly less, cosy heterosexual bonds.
Could it be, I wondered, that Marsh, herself a theater director, was sharing the sentiment that public playhouses – in swinging London, to boot – are not a platform for gay men?
Bitch. Moan. Whine. I certainly do a lot of that. Always have. The complaining probably started around the time my mother first pulled away her nipple. These days, though, there just seems to be more to “bitch, moan and whine” about; from the cumulative fallout of the unending pandemic, the new normal of war in Europe and the aftermath of Brexit and the Trump presidency to the burnout and sense of deflation I experience in my line of work as a newly promoted ‘Senior Lecturer’ whose recent and long-fought-for £8 a week pay increase feels more like a slap in the face than a patronising pat on the back for services rendered, albeit not without bitching.
Quit whining about that last one, you might well say; indeed, I try to remind myself that it is nothing compared to what others are suffering, possibly of necessity in the silence that does not necessarily translate into acquiescence. Seeing things in proportion – which is proper, according to some – or putting them into the perspective that, by definition, depends on your angle, tends to be more difficult when you feel ever more keenly that everything is related rather than being relative by default. When you are living in that fragile ecosystem of despair that some might deride as egocentricity, anything is apt to become everything, and it can weigh you down something awful.
“Bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and whine.” That is hardly a comprehensive, let alone compassionate, assessment of the voicing of dissatisfaction by your contemporaries, however motivated. It is a derision and dismissal of criticism as selfish, pointless and downright destructive. As the quotation marks indicate, that does not reflect my general views on disaffection.
In fact, those words – “Bitch, bitch, bitch, moan and whine” – were uttered in the 1980s by Clarence Thomas, now a US Supreme Court Justice. And they were voiced not in response to finicky folks rolling their eyes at just about anything – the kind of ‘why me’ injustices of our everyday – but to civil rights leaders who, in their rejection of the status quo, aim to address actual, momentous and seemingly insoluble inequalities.
The illusion of the stage. The magic of the movies. The glamour of fashion. In a career spanning half a century, Angus McBean (1904–1990) turned instances of make-believe and masquerade into enduring records of enchantment.
McBean was born and raised in South Wales. His father had worked in the collieries. Encouraged by his mother to make art his life, McBean moved to London. After working in banking and retail, he became a theatrical mask-maker and designer before achieving international fame as a photographer.
This year’s exhibition at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, showcases McBean’s work in advertising, his commissioned portraits, and his annual Christmas cards. It offers rare glimpses of McBean’s private life, holidaying on the continent, as captured in two unique photo albums. Also featured in the exhibition are portraits of McBean at home, in later life, by the contemporary photographer Robert Greetham.
Not all the personalities on view in this exhibition – Marlene Dietrich, Ruth Draper, Audrey Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Claire Luce, Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, and Welsh icon Ivor Novello among them – are as familiar today as they once were, even though some of them, including Rosemary Harris and Maggie Smith are acting to this day. All of them, like McBean, lived by their passions, whether performing on stage and screen or playing on the tennis court, as Wimbledon champion Helen Wills Moody did.
McBean’s photographs were made in the pre-digital age of the medium. Using scissors and paste, montage and collage, as well as elaborate sets and props, McBean employed every trick of the trade to bring out the beauty, vitality and personality of his subjects. His photographs were staged, not taken.
Drawing inspiration from Salvador Dalí, whose exact birthday he (incorrectly) claimed to share, McBean ‘surrealized’ many of them. ‘This thing of truth doesn’t really come into it,’ MacBean said in late life of his portraits.
The theater, to McBean, was ‘fantasy.’ It was ‘what you wished it to be.’ It was also the refuge McBean needed at a time when being queer was a crime. During the Second World War, he endured a two-and-a-half-year sentence of imprisonment and hard labour. His work is a testament to the imperatives of making, believing, and make-believe.
Make/Believe, which draws almost entirely on the School’s collection, opened to the public on 16 May 2022 and runs until 30 September 2022.
Curators: Hannah Beach, David Eccles, Helen Flower, Ellie Hodnett, Mayu Maruyama, Ekene Okoliachu, Lucija Perinic, Joanna Reed, Katerina Vranova, Portia Sastawnyuk, Anna Slater, and Helena Zielinska. with support from Senior Lecturer Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Senior Curator Neil Holland (staging and design).
As the world awaits news from Ukraine and its people awake daily to the sounds of shelling, many of us, having survived the pandemic that at once isolated and united us, become alive anew to our connectedness to world events and to the urgency, the necessity, of connecting dots in plain sight, and of listening out for tell-tale signs, be it the rumble of tanks or the roar of tyrants. We should have seen this one coming, we might suspect; but such hindsight provides no relief in the face of local destruction and global upheaval.
I am reminded of the events that came to be known as 9/11 – an attack that did not, as some claimed and many felt, hit us ‘out of the blue’ on that bright September morning – and of feeling both helpless and useless in the wake of the terror that would shape history. I was teaching writing in the Bronx, and I was researching radio drama of the 1930s. None of that seemed to matter at a moment when digging in and digging up – literally and figuratively – was felt to be needed to uncover lives lost and recover the history that had gotten us to that point. I kept on teaching writing, and I kept on researching radio – and I strove to find the usefulness and relevance of both. That is, I did not carry on “regardless.”
Instead of retreating into the past of broadcasts decades old, I tried to retrieve messages pertinent to the present. And while we might think that messages are merely repeated rather than being heeded, we may also find that we did receive them and that we are capable of learning from history even as a world leader insists on repeating it.
Take, for instance, Archibald MacLeish’s “The Fall of the City.” First produced and broadcast in the US on 11 April 1937 – with a cast including Orson Welles and Burgess Meredith, and a score by Bernard Herrmann – it was a response to the rise of a dictator who, unchecked and unresisted, conquers a city despite warning voices from the past – the ancient and the dead. In MacLeish’s allegory, the ‘conquerer’ is not a person: it is fear. It is fatalism. It is the surrender of freedom to fascism.
In “The Fall of the City,” a radio announcer (played by Welles in the 1937 production) serves as our eyes, an observer by proxy reporting from the scene of an unnamed city. MacLeish’s plays – from “Air Raid” to “The Trojan Horse” – are never simply plays for the medium of radio but also plays about that medium – about tuning in from a distance, about mediation and reception, and about misinformation and deception. The listeners are implicated, their role in the event of listening reflected upon in the shared act of telling stories and hearing histories in the making.
“The sun is yellow with smoke,” the announcer informs the audience, “the town’s burning…. The war’s at the broken bridge.” It is impossible to listen to those lines now without seeing the cities under siege in Ukraine; and yet, “The Fall of the City” – which was broadcast just two weeks prior to the arial bombing of Guernica in April 1937 but written some months earlier, in 1936 – not about the reality of any particular invasion but about the real threat posed by evasiveness. It caution against giving in to ideas and being enslaved by ideologies, for which it was criticised during the Second World War: “In these last years,” Randall Jarrell, himself a poet, wrote in 1943:
many millions of these people, over the entire world, have died fighting their oppressors. Say to them that they invented their oppressors, wished to believe in them, wished to be free of their freedom; that they lie there.
Jarrell wrote this in the aftermath of air raids, and the war of ideas were not uppermost on his mind.
I do not know whether I am writing at a moment that future records might document to be days or weeks before the start of a Third World War. I know I am writing it in wartime. Unlike in the scenario envisioned by MacLeish, the world is not only watching the atrocities perpetrated by Russians in the towns and cities of Ukraine; it is responding, both to aid Ukrainian civilians (my sister in Germany has welcomed Ukrainian refugees into her home) and to avoid an escalation of military conflict. Unlike the abstract “citizens” of MacLeish’s play, men and women are resisting. Cities do not fall. They are attacked. They are defended. They are fought over. And it is citizens – civilians – that are doing the fighting.
How different this fight is from the defeat as MacLeish conceived it. “The city is doomed,” the Voices of Citizens in his play declare,
The age is his! It’s his century!
Our institutions are obsolete.
He marches a mile while we sit in a meeting.
Opinions and talk!
Deliberative walks beneath the ivy and the creepers!
His doubt comes after the deed or never.
He knows what he wants for his want’s what he he knows.
He’s gone before they say he’s going.
He’s come before you’ve barred your house.
He’s one man: we are but thousands!
Who can defend us from one man?
Bury your arms! Break your standards!
Give him the town while the town stands!
We know the price of such surrender. Putin might have believed that his invasion would meet with little or no resistance, and that the global community, understood as a community, is powerless in the face of his aggression. Putin’s methods date from the past; his mind, however made up it may be, was made up last century. It is no match for what humanity can achieve if we – and that includes the people of Russia – put our minds and methods to it. Right now, his thinking and his tanks, his misfiring strategies and his unwillingness to listen, are being answered by the rallying cries of the present that will help us secure a future.
What a fitting end this was to a mostly “stinky” 2021. Just as I was plonking myself down to subject my unsuspecting husband to a viewing of Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933), news reached me of Betty White’s death. The year could hardly have expired on a more cheerless note, with the last of the Golden Girls not living to see her hundredth birthday in January 2022. Like so many other celebrations these days, that centenary now has to be called off as well. As the clock ticked relentlessly toward midnight, I shed a tear, remembered the laughter and called to mind the many years I spent in the company of … Rose Nylund.
I know that White, who started out on radio, played many roles on screens small and big. I also know better than to confuse an actor interpreting a script with a person inhabiting a character. Nevertheless, it was as Rose on The Golden Girls that White had the most profound influence on my life, especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was trying to adopt a more colloquial American English, to make the vernacular mine and make it work for me to boot.
Now, I’m not one to “blow my own gertögenflögen” – or however you might spell Rose’s pseudo-Scandinavian additions to my vocabulary – but, with the aid of White’s Rose, I managed to find the joy in speaking in at least two tongues, resigned to the likelihood that none quite conveys what I am aiming to say, particularly in the face of that “precise moment when dog do turns white.”
Peroxide blonde like me, White’s Rose was reassuringly naïve, curious and enthusiastic. She was generally good-natured and, trusting in fellow human beings she remained even after the end of her relationship with the man she had assumed to be Miles, was especially kind to animals, among them Mr. Peepers, the cat she reluctantly gave up on the day she met her future housemate Blanche Devereaux; Count Bessie, the piano-playing chicken she dreaded consuming; and Baby, the aged pig she agreed to adopt – or indeed to all the injured animals back on the farm on which she grew up. Rose’s character and the situations in which she found herself reflected White’s commitment to animal activism.
Rose was an outsider, too, an adopted child (with a monk for a father, no less). After the death of her husband, Charlie – of whom the bull on her family farm “would have been jealous” – she moved from Minnesota to Florida, struggling to acclimatize. She felt even more out of place visiting the “Big Potato.” Never having “seen so much of everything” in her “whole life,” she did not know “how people live here.”
Rose was also highly competitive, filled as she was with the “bitter butter memories” of having lost Butter Queen – a disappointment she revisited on the night she was arrested for prostitution – and occasionally exhibited a sarcastic streak, all qualities that I possessed anno 1990 without quite having the language to give them adequate expression in my temporary home of NYC.
Rose, as brought to life by White, never left me; indeed, the Girls helped me when I relocated from Manhattan to Wales, ill equipped as I was in my knowledge of that nation. Only yesterday, in the shower, I was making up another St. Olaf story that Rose might have tried to spring on Blanche, Dorothy and Sophia – a story sure to sound incomprehensible beyond that shower door.
I am used to talking to myself, unable to make myself understood about my distant past, which is another country not on anyone else’s map. Like Rose, though, I never quite stopped trying.
On 23 March in 1991, during my first semester of college at BMCC in downtown Manhattan, and toward the end of what would be the final season of The Golden Girls, I devoted an entry to the girls in my journal – an assignment for my English 101 class with Ms. Padol – insisting that those “four women [we]re not just knitting sweaters.” After all, there were “episodes on artificial insemination, gay marriage, racial problems, Alzheimers, homeless[ness] and death.” As I pointed out to my audience of one, “the show is liberal but does not come along too preaching or moralising.”
When you keep watching the show you come to know the characters[,] learn a lot about their relationship. And even though the four leading ladies are slightly off-beat you can get a lot out of the show; you can often relate to some of their various problems.
There is life and sex after 50. Some youngsters seem to forget that and some old people find it hard to compete or fight for their rights in the fast-paced world of today
As a queer young man growing up at the height of the AIDS crisis in the West, I certainly could relate to Rose and her agony of waiting for the result of an HIV test. I found comfort in the fiction that they had made it past the age of forty and envied the close and safe commune of the Girls. When I taught an English literature class on friendship back in the late 1990s, I played the theme song that had inspired the theme of my class.
Now that I am over fifty (Rose was 55 in the first season of the show, even though White was already in her sixties then), I think of The Golden Girls as a cultural product that made it easier for me to transition from silver to gold. And while I did not pick up many medals along the way, I did it all without access to the professional services of Mr. Ingrid of St. Olaf and his moose. Rose never divulged which part of the moose he used. “But,” she declared, “it’ll keep your hair in place in winds up to 130 miles an hour.”
I could always count on Betty White to see me through a storm.
I had misgivings about screening The Snake Pit (1948) as part of a festival of gothic films that included chestnuts such as The Cat and the Canary and The Old Dark House, many of which, for all their darkness, make light of mental health. Aside from the plot to deprive Annabelle West of her millions by robbing her of her senses (The Cat and the Canary) and the miasmic madness of the Femms (The Old Dark House), there is cuckoo Miss Bird, in The Uninvited, collecting pebbles like eggs in a basket. There are the convalescent servicemen in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, whose nervous breakdowns are trivialised as ticks and foibles. And there is psychoanalysis surrealised in the romance of Secret beyond the Door.
By comparison, The Snake Pit, which is set in a mental institution, aims to deal seriously with mental disorder and health practitioners’ at times disorderly approaches to it. To call such a film “gothic” – or to place it in the context of the modally gothic – may seem insensitive and insulting. After all, ever since Vasari called medieval architecture “gothic,” the term has generally been used pejoratively, denoting products of culture that are beyond, and thus beneath, the grand narrative of the Enlightenment – beyond truth, beauty, and “all ye need to know.”
And yet, by choosing The Snake Pit as the concluding entry in my festival Uneasy Threshold – which explored non-genre gothic films that prominently feature houses as contested territories – I aimed to explore just how far that term may be stretched until it loses whatever elastic usefulness it might have when defining and describing certain or uncertain aspects of narrative film (such as imagery, cinematography or costume design) and film narrative.
Academics engaging with the gothic tend to draw attention to the challenges and perils of such an engagement, in part to cast themselves in the role of intrepid explorer by insisting on the treacherousness of the path they do not fear to tread. It is a postmodern move as well to create a scholarly persona only to tear it off and examine it as if it were some uncanny other.
Ushering us into her study Gothic Contemporaries (2012), for example, Joanne Watkiss performs the part of an educator who is taught by a student asking her “is there such a thing as the contemporary Gothic?” to question her subject:
I hesitated before I answered, because I realized this was an impossible question to answer. For starters, there is no such thing, entity or body of work, delineated as the contemporary Gothic. So his question raised all kinds of other interesting questions: was there such a thing as the Gothic in the first place? If so, where and when was the Gothic? Has it been and gone? Can it be located within a specific time frame? Impossible. How can limits be place upon concepts that frustrate those very limits?
Her “convoluted answer” to the student’s question was “that the Gothic has never been a genre to define,” and that that is “certainly the current critical consensus – a move, as outlined by Catherine Spooner, ‘towards understanding Gothic as a set of discourses rather than simply as a genre.’”
As Watkiss acknowledges, that conclusion, such as it is, has already been reached, which raises the question: why claim having been challenged or perplexed when the answer is argued to be so obvious? Besides, the student’s question has not been answered, as the question was not whether the gothic is a genre but whether it is “a thing” – meaning, I presume, a subject, something to go on about.
My response to the student, fictive or otherwise, would have been: what is your understanding of “gothic”? And would you prefer I use lower case for that word, being that it is not a genre? Undeterred by the copyeditors of a book chapter on the “Gothic of Audition” who insisted I use upper case consistently, I am making a case for the modality of gothic by using lower case.
The gothic mode is a questioning of the conventionalising of purported wisdom, of classifications, of the tyranny of systems, and of the false sense of clarity achieved by staying clear of – disregarding, discarding, or else deforming and reforming – whatever does not fit the picture as framed. In The Snake Pit, the pendulum swings from realism to romance, from therapy to terror, from civilisation to barbarism; but, to those receptive to its weight, its trajectory is the equilibrium-defying gothic.
As Lindsay Hallam observes in her notes on the film, The Snake Pit shows the “grim reality” of therapy by “employing techniques more commonly associated with Gothic horror.” For instance, in the scene in which Virginia Cunningham, played by Olivia de Havilland, receives her
first electro-shock treatment the hospital becomes akin to a torture chamber or a Gothic pile, full of evil villains and threatening devices. This is further emphasised through the prevalence of high-angle shots looking down on Virginia and the other patients, accentuating their powerlessness and vulnerability and making the medical staff and the hospital itself into menacing figures.
Aside from the visualisation of the titular Pit, a teeming abyss in which women are locked up, as Virginia remarks, like “animals” in a “zoo,” and in which authority figures such as a jealous, vindictive nurse and a repugnant doctor, stand in for the monks and sisters encountered in the fictions of Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis, what makes Anatole Litvak’s film a candidate for the gothic – as experienced by me – is its insistence on its own allegedly good intentions: it is gothic in spite of itself.
Virginia Cunningham, a writer who suffered a nervous breakdown, endures shock treatment and straitjacket so that, upon release, she may once again function as wife to a husband she has quite forgotten. “I have no husband,” she insists, remembering only the name she had before marriage, and the system is devoted to disabusing her of that notion. “Let me go. Don’t touch me,” Virginia screams when her husband, visiting her in the Pit, tries to take hold of her. “No, you can’t make me love you! You can’t make me belong to you! You can’t!”
The Snake Pit, like so many Hollywood films, aims to convince us that he not only can but must, for her own good. Post-Second World War Hollywood, with its codes and prejudices, its blacklist and censorship, its narrative straitjackets and Christian cover stories is as gothic a structure as any house capable of haunting us with our pasts.
‘I remember, long ago I read a book that told the meaning of dreams. It said that if a girl dreams of a boat or a ship she will reach a safe harbor. But if she dreams of daffodils, she is in great danger.’
Delivered by Joan Bennett in a low, velvety voice capable of turning balderdash into portent, those opening lines, from Secret beyond the Door, are the stuff of romance. If you are otherwise inclined, and not amenable to gothic excess, they might strike you as stuff and nonsense. And yet, whether you are buying it or not, what you are getting is not simply dreaming but rationalising. What you are getting is a man’s idea of family romance, packaged as what has been termed ‘ gothic romance film.’ Secret beyond the Door is a ‘women’s picture’ that frames a woman’s perspective so shrewdly that female audiences might believe they are the subject.
Just wherein lies the danger of daffodils? Not since Katherine Hepburn got to utter once more, quite out of context but now for posterity, that much derided declaration about the strangeness of ‘calla lilies’ did florid inconsequence have such an impact, the mystery surrounding ‘Rosebud’ excepting.
There is only one other mention of daffodils in Secret beyond the Door, which has a rather less varied flora than Ophelia got to monologise about in Hamlet, shortly before drowning, even though lilacs play a prominent role. Yes, as Celia Lamphere discovers, ‘lilacs have something to do with it.’
‘[E]verything in romance seems potentially meaningful because its conventions evoke that stage of development where everything is perhaps meaningful,’ Anne Williams writes in Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic (1995). The opening voiceover sets us up for the kind of dreamworld you might expect from Frank Borzage, not from Fritz Lang, even though being Bluebeard’s wife, whatever the headcount, is no Seventh Heaven.
‘Like the Freudian uncanny,’ Williams says of the literary Gothic, ‘the conventions of romance reinstate primitive, pre-Symbolic modes of significance.’ Natalie Schafer’s comic relief aside, that fairy tale mood of romance is sustained in Secret beyond the Door until Celia exists, presumably murdered, and we learn that what we were being told, and what she gets to tell us, is not the story of Celia Lamphere but the story of her husband, the Bluebeard she, according to whatever logic there is in this post-war Hollywood fantasy, is expected to cure.
Daffodils belong, of course, to the genus ‘narcissus’ – and, not to soft-pedal matters, Celia’s husband is a narcissist preoccupied with the image he created for himself. Unlike Ophelia, he is saved from drowning.
In Secret beyond the Door, gothic romance meets psychoanalysis, and Hollywood’s idea of a woman’s picture is revealed to be a psychological melodrama about the psyche of the emasculated male. No doubt, men could relate to this picture, as they were reassured that what ailed them was not the trauma of war but the threat of being usurped by the women who were expected to wait for them once the fighting, at the front, at least, was over.
[T]he female protagonist tends to be both victim and investigator,’ Jerrold E. Hogle writes in the Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction (2002), citing as examples the ‘1940s cycle of “paranoid woman’s films” (e.g., Rebecca or Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door ),’ films, he claims, in which ‘a wife invariably fears that her husband is planning to kill her.’ Yet despite Celia’s wedding day jiggers – ‘Suddenly I’m afraid. I’m marrying a stranger, a man I don’t know at all’ – this does not describe the narrative that becomes central.
Celia Lamphere remains in control for most of the story – at one point, she even offers to carry her new if frayed husband over the threshold – until she collapses in the fire set, by another woman, to her husband’s extravagant collection of felicitous ‘murder rooms.’ Celia’s role is to cure the man who might kill her. She is his nurse, loving to the end even if it is the ending he, driven by an idée fixe, has in mind for her.
What Celia has to do – according to the perverse logic of Secret beyond the Door – is to sacrifice herself so that he may gain control of his life, which is also hers. ‘[W]hereas the noir protagonist, and hence the subject of paranoia, is male, in the female Gothic paranoia is feminized,’ Hogle argues. In Secret beyond the Door, which defies genre classification, the husband-killer is ‘feminised,’ a man dominated throughout his life by women, and his wife needs to surrender control – even at the risk of her life – to restore the manhood as Hollywood defines it.
On the surface of it, narratives like Secret beyond the Door improve on gothic romance films such as Gaslight, Suspicion, Experiment Perilous or Sleep, My Love, in which women are tormented by the thought, justified or not, that the men to which they are married may not be the men they thought they wed. However, when post-war films present us with stronger women – even professionals such as Ingrid Bergman’s character in Spellbound – those women only get to play doctor to their male patients if they are prepared to turn nurse once the treatment they administer is successful. Scheherazade got a better deal.
The true secret beyond the door is that men hold the key, even though, in the 1940s, women are given the (wax) impression that they have temporary access to the corridors of power in Bluebeard’s patriarchal mansion. After all, the book that once told Celia the meaning of dreams – and that promises a ‘girl’ that she ‘will reach a safe harbor’ when her supposed dreamboat comes in – was written by a heterosexual male.
“Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood, / The land of spices, something understood.” As I shared with members assembled for “Redefining the Sacred,” an English Literature class I took many years ago as a graduate student at CUNY, these lines from George Herbert’s “Prayer” never fail to get to me. The last two words alone have more awe and wonder packed into them than I could hope to experience stepping into a gallery surrounding me with Sublime landscapes. “[T]hey express both my longing and my not-belonging,” I wrote then.
Trying to make sense and use of the “Sacred” for my queer atheist self, I reflected on my Protestant upbringing and that yearning for communion, for a community forged by a certain “something understood,” as experienced, or so I assumed, by the Catholic peers from whom I, along with half of my high school class, was segregated during religious instruction. Compared to the austerity of Protestantism – which in my family had congealed into a work ethic that made sweat and pain criteria for an entitlement to praise and recognition – the Catholics were joined in majesty and magic. Wondering about it from without, I felt both suspicion and envy.
That is a roundabout, even misguided, approach to the make-believe of The Uninvited (1944), a Paramount picture based on the novel Uneasy Freehold (1941) by the Irish writer and Republican activist Dorothy Macardle (1889–1958). But The Uninvited is a queer film in more than one sense. It is a movie about absent mothers, false and true, and about siblings who, by taking possession of a possessed house, become caught up in a mystery whose solution may prove more destructive than a secret kept.
The Uninvited is a ghost story that at once meshes and transcends the tried Hollywood formulas of 1940s murder mystery, psychological thriller and so-called “gothic romance” to arrive at a hybrid in which solution does not mean death to belief by detection or psychoanalysis. True, there is an end to a particular case of haunting – but the spirit can linger since it is not a spook that is a means to an end.
“The supernatural is dealt with seriously in this dynamic, suspenseful melodrama, chock full of fine acting that will hold audiences glued to their seats for its entire 93 minutes,” a reviewer of the Paramount picture The Uninvited predicted in the 5 January 1944 issue of Variety.
Yet while the critic welcomed a movie that necromances what Blithe Spirit or Topper make light of without feeling heavy-handed or weighted down in the attempt, there was room for doubt as to its prospects. “Once in, they’ll like it,” the reviewer declared, but getting audiences into the seats to stay “glued” there was less than a dead cert due to the film’s “unusual and controversial subject.”
What the trade paper hints at but refrains from stating, is the treatment of motherhood in The Uninvited, a treatment that is in keeping with the spirit of Dorothy Macardle, a politically engaged writer whose fictional freehold, haunted by two restless mothers, both past their final rest, is a metaphor for an Ireland in which the role of women in society was being codified and curtailed in the 1937 constitution. As Abigail L. Palko points out in “From The Uninvited to The Visitor: The Post-Independence Dilemma Faced by Irish Women Writers,” Macardle, proudly Irish though she was, saw her work as an activist and writer come under attack by a government whose constitution “recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.”
The Uninvited gothicises this threat in its haunting of a young, motherless woman by a memory of what she believes to have been a good mother. What sets her free is the exorcism of that spirit, disabusing her of a vision that kept her from maturing.
While none of that political context is retained in the film adaptation, The Uninvited nonetheless resonated with women who identified differently, so much so that concern was raised by the League of Decency at the time about its attracting “large audiences of a questionable type,” as Rhona J. Berenstein explored in “Adaptation, Censorship, and Audiences of Questionable Type: Lesbian Sightings in Rebecca (1940) and The Uninvited” (1944)” (1998). The Uninvited manages to negotiate the Production Code in such ways that the familiar specter of the Hays Office is does not have the ghost of a chance to spoil the party like an officious inspector who comes unbidden but must be accommodated.
Now, I did not know anything about the histories of Ireland, Hollywood or the Gothic/gothic when I first watched The Uninvited. As is almost invariably the case, though, the film spoke to me about my own sense of otherness. And even though I never watched it surrounded by an audience of “questionable types,” or friends of Cornelia Otis Skinner, it invited me to question what membership might mean.
The moment I realised that the Fitzgeralds, the pair who happen upon and fall in love with a haunted house, are not husband and wife but brother (Ray Milland) and sister (Ruth Hussey), I sensed that the narrative of a young person (Gail Patrick) in search of answers about her mother would take me where fairy tales had taken me years earlier: a territory the navigation of which could make my everyday journey seem less treacherous as I came to terms with the inability to belong, the feeling of being a changeling in my parent’s house.
Dreamlike without being unmoored, The Uninvited seemed to welcome me with a spirit of understanding, of “something understood.”
Just what is ‘gothic’? And how useful is the term when loosely applied to products of visual culture, be it paintings, graphic novels, movies or the posters advertising them? Aside from denoting a literary genre and a style of architecture, in which usages I recommend setting it aside by making the ‘g’ upper case, the term ‘gothic,’ understood as a mode, can be demonstrated to take many shapes, transcend styles, media, cultures and periods. It can also be demonstrated not make sense at all as a grab bag for too many contradictory and spurious notions many academics, to this day, would not want to be caught undead espousing. Those are the views I take on and the potentialities I test out with students of my module Gothic Imagination at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University.
As the gothic cannot thrive being crammed into a series of seminars, let alone been exsanguinated or talked to death in academic lectures, I created an extracurricular festival of film screenings to explore the boundaries of the visual gothic beyond genre and style. The fourth film in the chronologically arranged series, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943), demonstrates that the gothic struggles to thrive as well when its sublime powers are expended in a game of wartime chess.
The fourth entry in a series of Universal B-movies that began in 1939, prior to the end of US isolationism, as feature films, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is a formulaic whodunit in which the gothic is an accessory to crime fiction, and in which suspects, some more usual than others, are lined up like cardboard grotesques for deployment in a mock-Gothic extravaganza executed on a budget.
Now, as a lover of whodunits and epigrams, I do not object to formula or economics. I can appreciate budget-regard even when I long for that rara avis. For the gothic, however, a cocktail consisting in measures equal or otherwise of solvable mystery and final-solution mastery is a cup of hemlock. Granted, the attempt to serve it and make it palatable to the public creates a tension of intentions that may well give motion picture executives and censors nightmares.
I discuss such messaging mixers in the context of radio plays in a chapter of Immaterial Culture I titled “‘Until I know the thing I want to know’: Puzzles and Propaganda,” in which Holmes and Watson also feature.
After all, at the same time the pair set the world aright in twentieth-century wartime scenarios, Holmes and Watson continued to solve crime in the gaslit alleyways of late-Victorian and Edwardian London, or suitably caliginous settings elsewhere in the British Isles, in pastiches in which Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were heard on the New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes radio program that aired in the US at the same time:
As Sherlock Holmes director Glenhall Taylor recalled, the series was one of several sponsored programs whose “services were requested by the War Department.” The charms of an imagined past were to yield to visible demonstrations of the responsibilities broadcasters and audiences shared in the shaping of the future. To promote the sale of defense bonds during the War Loan Drives, Bruce and co-star Basil Rathbone appeared in “special theatrical performances,” live broadcasts to which “admission was gained solely through the purchase of bonds.” (Heuser, Immaterial Culture 189)
To be sure, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is less overtly propagandist than the previous three entries in Universal’s film series, all of which are anti-fascist spy thrillers. Adapted, albeit freely, from a story by their creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the case they took on subsequently recalled the titular detective and his faithful sidekick from Washington, DC, and released them back into their fog-shrouded habitat in and for which they had been conceived.
And yet, whatever the setting, in motion pictures Holmes and Watson continued to face adversaries that were recognisably anti-democratic – stand-ins for the leaders of the Axis. The villain of Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, diagnosed as egomaniacal by Holmes, is no exception.
Much of the action of Sherlock Holmes Faces Death takes place in an ancestral pile that has been temporarily converted into a convalescent home for wounded soldiers. Those inmates may have their idiosyncrasies, as all flat characters do, but, to serve their purpose in a piece of propaganda, they cannot truly be plotting murder, unless there are exposed as phoneys, in which case the reassurances of wartime service honored and government assistance rendered would be called into question.
The unequivocal messages the Sherlock Holmes films were expected to spread in wartime did not allow for such murky developments. A post-war noir thriller might sink its teeth into corruption; but the Sherlock Holmes series did not exhibit such fangs.
Nor could the recovering soldiers be shown to be so mentally unstable as to kill without motive; according to the convention of whodunits, even serial killers like Christie’s Mr. ABC follow a certain logic that can be ascertained. The heiress of Musgrave Manor may be momentarily distraught, the butler may be exposed as an unstable drunkard – but the soldiers, whatever horrors and shocks they endured on the battlefield, can only be moderately muddled.
Most of the recovering servicemen – in their fear of unwrapped parcels or their fancy for knitting – are called upon to provide comic relief, bathos being a key strategy of the domesticated gothic. In the Sherlock Holmes series, that is a part generally allotted to Dr. Watson, a role he performs even in this particular installment, in which his expertise as a man of medicine is put to use for the war effort. Inspector Lestrade serves a similar purpose, which is probably what made the ridiculing of military personnel seem less objectionable to sponsors, as it made them look fairly inconsequential to the crime caper unfolding. Aligning those men with Watson and Lestrade assists in eliminating them from the start as potential suspects.
While missing legal documents and cryptic messages are certifiably Gothic tropes, the gothic atmosphere in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is fairly grafted on the proceedings with the aid of visuals. There are genre Gothic trimmings aplenty in – secret passages, a bolt of lightning striking a hollow suit of armor, and pet raven assuming the role of harbinger of death – but there is no real sense of menace as, guided by the infallibly capable hands of Sherlock Holmes, we negotiate with relative ease the potentially treacherous territory of a mansion as makeshift asylum and contested castle.
The climax, which tries to cast doubt as to Holmes’s perspicacity, plays out in a dimly lit cellar. It is here that the gothic could potentially take hold if the plot had not preemptively diffused the dangerous situation hinted at in the film’s title. The trap for the killer below has already been laid above-ground on the newly polished surface of a giant chessboard, in a display of strategy choreographed by Holmes himself. By the time the game moves underground, it is no longer afoot; rather, it is fairly limping along.
Gothic and propaganda can mix; genre Gothic fiction often served political purposes. Gothic and whodunit are less readily reconciled. Although John Dickson Carr tried hard to make that happen, often in an antiquarian sort of way, the Victorian Sensation novelists and the had-I-but-known school of crime writers come closer to achieving that. But the handling of all three of those form or raisons d’être for writing – Gothic, whodunit and propaganda – by the jugglers employed here, at least, is not a formula designed to make the most of mystery and suspense. As I concluded in my discussion of the “identity crisis” of the wartime radio thriller, “propagandist work was complicated by the challenge of puzzling and prompting the audience, of distracting and instructing at once.”
Sherlock Holmes faces death, all right, but the demise he encounters is that of the gothic spirit.