“See what the boys in the [dark]room will have”: No Highway, Angus McBean, and Dietrich’s Face

Marlene Dietrich (1951) by Angus McBean, SoAM&G, Aberystwyth University
Purchase: Adrian Woodhouse (2016)
Funding support: ACE/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and The Art Fund

Of all the pictures currently on display in Make/Believe, the latest in a series of annual exhibition projects I create for staging by students of my curating class at Aberystwyth University, Angus McBean’s 1951 photograph of Marlene Dietrich is my favorite. 

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.

Continue reading ““See what the boys in the [dark]room will have”: No Highway, Angus McBean, and Dietrich’s Face”

Make/Believe: Photographs of/by Angus McBean

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.

Poster design by Neil Holland, from a photograph of Angus McBean by Robert Greetham

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.

Make/Believe installation view

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.

Make/Believe installation view

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.

Make/Believe installation view

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).

Make/Believe installation view

“Uneasy Threshold”: The Snake Pit (1948), Shock Treatment and a Straitjacket for Female Aspiration

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.

Different treatment, same old story

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.

The snake pit metaphor in Ward’s novel and the screen adaptation by Frank Partos

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!”

Women can be doctors in 1940s Hollywood movies: provided they cure the emasculated male

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.

“Uneasy Threshold”: Secret beyond the Door (1947), Room(s) for Doubt and Therapy for Bluebeard

‘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 [1948]),’ 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 GaslightSuspicionExperiment 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.

“Uneasy Threshold”: The Uninvited (1944), the Sensed and the Understood

“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.

A still image of an animated presentation slide exploring Uneasy Freehold in the context of Uneasy Threshold

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.”

”Uneasy Threshold”: Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943) and the Demise of the Gothic

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.

Variety thought this entry ‘obvious stuff.’ Less obvious to me, reading Variety, was
how much Ella Fitzgerald contributed to the success of the film at the box office.

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.

“Uneasy Threshold”: The Old Dark House (1932), “wildest Wales” and the Benighted Kingdom

Much has been said about the titular edifice of Universal Studio’s 1932 melodrama The Old Dark House, the third in the series of films I am screening as part of my Gothic Imagination module at Aberystwyth University.  Directed by the queer English Great War veteran James Whale, and adapted from J. B. Priestley’s 1927 novel BenightedThe Old Dark House is often argued to be a commentary on Imperial Britain during the so-called interwar years (that is, the period between the two World Wars, Britain having been involved in plenty of other international conflicts besides): an ancient but crumbling family home – run by aging and morally corrupt imbeciles and cut off from the world by water.  It has been called, more than once, a “metaphor for … England.”

And yet, the story is not set England but in Wales, and the novel and film alike exploit and perpetuate the stereotypes of what, presumably, constitutes Wales and sets it apart from neighboring England: the wild, the uncivilised, the superstitious and unenlightened.  Wales, according to Priestley and Whale, is gothic territory.  It is the stuff of romance – or the English definition of romance – meaning that when the English want to go primitive, they think Wales.

Here is what the dreamer Penderel, himself a war veteran, says about Wales as he is being driven around in his friend’s motorcar one dark and dismal night:

I don’t want to go to Shrewsbury.  I don’t particularly want to go anywhere.  Something might happen here, and nothing ever happens in Shrewsbury, and nothing much on the other side of Shrewsbury.  But here there’s always a chance.

The Hollywood ending aside, the film is remarkably faithful to the novel, retaining much of Priestley’s dialogue.  While I am not sure just how many US American viewers back then would have understood the reference to the border that Shrewsbury represents, both Priestley and Whale would have known that, when the name “Shrewsbury” is dropped, the meaning “borderline” is implied.  Arriving at Shrewsbury – and this is the party’s intention – means traversing the Welsh Bridge over the Severn and arriving back in England.

The party in question – Penderel and his friends, the married and bickering couple Margaret and Philip – has lost its way in what Priestley lets Philip describe as “wildest Wales.”  The colonial attitudes toward Wales as both enchanted and benighted – as a place where there is ‘always a chance’ – the chance of an improvement in infrastructure excepting – are at the heart of this modally gothic narrative.

When the drunkard Welsh butler Morgan opens the door upon their unannounced arrival, he “produce[s] from somewhere at the back of his throat, a queer gurgling sound” that Penderel cannot translate.  Priestley tells us that “Penderel knew no Welsh.”  And yet, he says with confidence, in the book and film version alike, that “Even Welsh out not to sound like that; it was as if a lump of earth had tried to make a remark.”

Wales, to be sure, was just that to England, or many in England, a mute lump of Earth to be exploited for its resources.  It is not Wales that is gothic – or Gothic – but the perspective of the English that, fascinating as they may be with the wildness of Wales – impose their views on the nation they invade like “travellers in a foreign country,” as Priestley has Penderel see it.

Morgan, as we soon learn, cannot communicate in any spoken language.  He is a personification of Wales infantilised, gesturing like “some prehistoric monster.”  Wales, the source of mined ore – of coal and slate and lead, silver and gold – as well as Water, was often seen as little more than potential to be unearthed and funnelled for the benefit of England. The tradition was deemed to be expendable.

In The Old Dark House, as in Benighted, the nightmare vision makes way for daylight.  What we experienced was a Phantasmagoria staged by the visiting English.  The travelers depart, whether enlightened by what they experienced or just glad to have survived it.  The perspective of the hosts is not considered.

Hollywood would return to a fairy-tale Wales in The Wolf Man a decade later, in which Welsh landscape and culture, rendered unrecognisable, become the other when England was seen as the real, the upholder of values, in its fight against fascism.  To this day, visitors prefer to be enchanted by Wales, an old dark house whose perceived darkness is to a large extent a product of an English or Anglo-American imagination.

“Uneasy Threshold”: The Cat and the Canary (1927), Mammy Pleasant and the Outsider Inside

Nothing is innately trifling.  As I put it once, when I had the nerve to make a public display – in a museum gallery, no less – of the mass-produced ephemera I collect, ‘Trivia is knowledge we refuse the potential to matter.’  Now, some products of culture are more resistant than others to our realization of them as worth more than a fleeting glance, if that.  Exerting the effort to make them matter may feel downright perverse when there are claimed to be so many more deserving candidates for appreciation around.

When looking out for something to look into, I invariably draw on my own sense of otherness, of queerness.  It is not altogether by choice that I am drawn to the presumed irrelevant.  My perceived marginality is both the effect and the cause of my attraction to the margins.  What matters – and according to whom – is always worth questioning.  That is why I created Gothic Imagination, an alternative art history course I teach at Aberystwyth University.

To augment the weekly lectures and seminars, I created a series of film screenings for my students further to explore the territories of the visual ‘gothic’ beyond literary genre Gothic and the Gothic as an architectural style.  The second film in the chronologically arranged series, The Cat and the Canary (1927), is, for all its technical and cinematographic achievements, a rather undemanding old chestnut.  In part, such a view of it is owing to our belatedness of catching up with it, now that much of it strikes us as a grab bag of narrative clichés.

Well, those clichés were up for grabs even back in 1927, as the film draws on its audience’s familiarity with murder mysteries and stage melodramas.  Like Seven Keys to Baldpate before it, The Cat and the Canary is parodic and self-reflexive.  It play with conventions and our awareness, even our weariness, of them.  The Cat got our tongue firmly in cheek; and as much as we may feel sticking it out at the derivative claptrap to which we are subjected, we are encouraged to appreciate that the film anticipates our response, that it is one step ahead, dangling our tongue cheekily in front of us like a carrot intended to keep us playing along.

Is it only a single step ahead? Ahead of what? Is it ahead, retro or perhaps even reactionary? The Cat and the Canary is postmodern before there was a word for it.  Like any adaptation of a text I have not caught up with, it also makes me wonder just how what we get to see has evolved and how the film, in addition to interpreting its source material cinematically, questions, edits and revises that material as well.

One revision draws attention to itself in the credits – and it made me aware of the consequences the seemingly inconsequential can have.  I am referring to the character Mammy Pleasant, a housekeeper played in the film by the scene-stealing Martha Mattox.  Given that The Cat and the Canary was released in the same year that The Jazz Singer stridently hammered a sonic nail in the coffin of silent film – at times simply by dragging said nail screechingly across the surface of an eloquent body of work shaped over a quarter of a century – the reference to the ‘Mammy’ legend stood out like a discordant note.

A slide from my introduction to the screening

What is ‘Mammy’ about Mammy Pleasant, particularly when the role is performed by a white female actor? The 1922 stage melodrama by John Willard, who also acted in the play on which the film is based, describes the character as an ‘old negress.’  Not that Blanche Friderici, who originated the part on the stage, was black.  She performed it in blackface.  

As The Jazz Singer and other early sound films such as the ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’ vehicle Check and Double Check (1930), blackface and minstrel shows were very much part of Western popular culture at the time, and they were not effectively challenged – that is, were not permitted effectively to challenge – until decades later.

And yet, the film does not partake of that tradition, retaining the character’s name only.  In the play, Mammy Pleasant is a servant who has gained enough independence to choose whether or not to serve the future heir to the fortune of her deceased employer, as is clear from this exchange with the family lawyer, Roger Crosby, prior to the reading of the will:

Crosby.  Six! All the surviving relatives.  By the way—Mammy—your job as guardian of this house is up to-night.  What are you going to do?

Mammy.  It all depends.  If I like the new heirs—I stay here.  If I don’t—I goes back to the West Indies.

There is no such exchange in the film, and the ethnicity of Mammy Pleasant is not made central to the characterisation, which in the play is rooted in stereotypes surrounding superstitions to be rooted out in the act of ratiocination.  The Cat and the Canary is, after all, not a Gothic romance but a whodunit in which weird goings-on are shown to have a logical, albeit preposterous, explanation.  

The name Mammy Pleasant, in Willard’s play at least, carries with it a reference to an actual person – the businesswoman and abolitionist Mary Ellen Pleasant, who, by passing as white, managed to become the first African American millionaire.

In the stage play, produced nearly two decades after Pleasant’s death in 1904, the reference is facetious and derogatory.  Mary Ellen Pleasant, who lost the fortune she had made and shared as an activist, and whose character was destroyed when her passing as a white cook and landlady was exposed, is misremembered in the film as a not altogether trustworthy and slightly threatening outsider operating on the inside of a dead white millionaire’s mansion.

Why did the reference remain? How many viewers back in 1927 would have recognised it as a reference to Mary Ellen Pleasant? And how many would have found comic relief in what might have been some sort of white revenge fantasy that renders Pleasant odious while keeping her in her supposed place?

It is a gothic reading, as opposed to a reading of the gothic, that refuses to privilege the center and, imagining alternatives, lets the canary chase the cat for a change.  An unlikely scenario, to be sure; but to expose what is cultural it is useful to conjure what is unnatural.

“Uneasy Threshold”: The Lodger (1927), Trespassing and the Unhomely

I am not an academic.  I am a human being.  That’s not just me misquoting The Elephant Man.  It is a cri de cœur expressive of what is at the core of my identity as a creative person who happens to have transmogrified into an art history lecturer. To interrogate what that even means, I teach “Gothic Imagination” at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University. 

As part of that class, I present an extracurricular series of film screenings exploring the boundaries of the ‘gothic’ beyond the furnishings of the genre ‘Gothic.’  That ‘gothic’ is a term so broadly applied and ill-defined as to render it practically useless is a by now thoroughly predictable way of opening a debate about its practical uses.  Then again, the gothic has little to do to with practicalities.  

I have no intention to make the term, “salonfähig,” that is, reverting here to my native German, to make it acceptable or viable in an academic setting.  Rather, I use the word, which I am applying to visual culture instead of literature, to contest progress or avant-garde narratives traditionally espoused by academies in order to suggest alternative histories and alternatives to the teaching of art history.  Attention to the popular, presumably lesser arts is essential to this strategy.

The first series of screenings, coinciding with my previous iteration of “Gothic Imagination,” was titled “Treacherous Territories.” The phrase was meant to capture that challenge of defining and the dangers of inserting a mutable term such as ‘gothic’ into the lecture theaters and seminar rooms that cannot quite accommodate, let alone confine it. 

The current series, “Uneasy Threshold,” continues that playful investigation.  What, for instance, carries a mystery or a romance over the threshold of ‘gothic’? What is that threshold? And what is the ‘gothic’ interior – the environment in which ‘gothic’ may be contained both as a subject for discussion and as an experience to be had by the viewer of, say, a crime drama, a thriller, a film noir or a horror movie?

As a literary genre, the Gothic began in and with a house – in Strawberry Hill and with the Castle of Otranto, both conceived by Horace Walpole long before Frankenstein, Jekyll/Hyde and Dracula came onto the scene.  Those names are on the letter box of the Gothic mansion of our imagination, and I do not mean to evict their bearers; but might there be room as well – be it a closet, a cellar or a boudoir – for a few hundred other, less usual suspects, such as the title character of The Lodger (1927)?

The Lodger insists on moving in on the party assembled at the Gothic castle, just as the Lodger – who may or may not be a serial killer called The Avenger – emerges out of the fog. edges himself into the home of the Buntings, and comes to preoccupy their thoughts and nightmares.  Invited, perhaps, but deemed suspect or queer all the same.

When the Lodger first made his appearance, in 1911, in a short story by Marie Belloc Lowndes, the figure was already lodged in the collective consciousness of urban dwellers who, like the author, were old enough to recall the Whitechapel Murders of 1888 or else were raised with the legend of Jack the Ripper, an alternative to a nursery rhyme all the more terrifying for having neither rhyme nor reason.

The Lodger transforms the story, which Belloc Lowndes turned into a novel, by pouring more sex into the mix.  That the layered cake did not quite rise to Hitchcock’s satisfaction was, legend has it, due to the casting of Ivor Novello in the title role: a queer Welsh matinee idol who, Hitchcock argued, was not allowed to get away with murder but was to be pronounced blameless by virtue of his status as a star. 

Whether or not that is the true reason for the direction the movie adaptation takes, it does not make the story any less intriguing – or gothic.

The Lodger is the story of a home that becomes “unhomely” – German for “uncanny.”  The lodger is no architect or bricklayer; rather, he transforms the dynamics of the group of people dwelling in the house he enters.  Blameless he may be, but he is an Avenger all the same, as Sanford Schwartz points out in “To-Night ‘Golden Curls’: Murder and Mimesis in Hitchcock’s The Lodger” – not the killer, but the victim of the killer avenging her death, a victim-turned-vigilante who, misunderstood, dreaded and feared, becomes the subject of her other lover’s revenge. 

 It is the other, ostensibly sane and safe lover, a police officer, who trespasses – who abuses his power – to trap the innocent man who threatens his supremacy as a prospective husband. The handcuffs he suits to his own pursuits prove harmful to his lover’s trust and nearly cause the death of his rival even after that rival is proven innocent of crime.

The Lodger is gothic as James’s Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) is Gothic.  It is a story of injustice and sanctioned tyranny.   Like Frankenstein’s creature, the Lodger is hunted and tormented. Law, reason and morals are being questioned; and the pillars of civilisation are proven to be unsafe as houses.

The next time I am (re)viewing The Lodger, the film will be accompanied by Neil Brand at Gregynog Hall, 6 Nov. 2021, when I shall be in conversation with the playwright-composer about silent film music and the language of pre-talkie cinema.

Destinées Imagined: Film Stills and Storylines

The most recent additions to my collection of movie memorabilia – and of images featuring the likeness of stage and screen actress Claudette Colbert (1903 – 1996) in particular – are stills for the 1954 motion picture Destinées.  The French-language film, released in Britain as Love, Soldiers and Women and in the United States as Daughters of Destiny, is one of the few works in the Colbert canon that I have not yet seen.  Rather than relying entirely on plot synopses provided by Colbert biographers William K. Everson, Lawrence Quirk, and Bernard F. Dick, I am imaging and imagining the film’s story, or, rather, the story told in one of the three vignettes that constitute Destinées.

Even before I determined on an order for the five film stills, what came across is that this is a story about absent men and relationships between the women they left behind.  From the image I chose to begin my stills-inspired version of the story, I can tell that Destinées is as much about the future as it is about the past: fate, fatality and a fatalism to be challenged.  The number of aligned grave markers, impersonal yet collectively inspiring awe, distinguish this site as a war memorial.  This woman might be a war widow.

What stands out in the field of Christian crosses is the prominently positioned star of David behind her, suggesting a memorial to those who were killed during the Second World War.  Either the narrative of this mid-1950s film is set in the recent past or Colbert’s character, for whatever reason, is only belatedly coming to terms with her loss.  She may have come to bury the past, or else to uncover it.  

Yet this is not the story of her loss and of her past only.  The flowers on the ground are not placed there by her hand, at least not at that moment.  They are dry and withered.  Someone else may have been at the site before her – someone else may be mourning the loss she is experiencing.

A sense of probing into a dark past is communicated by the still of Colbert holding a lamp.  Light of day makes way for dead of night, the open field for the enclosed space.  The rough and worn interior contrasts with the sophistication of the woman’s clothing but corresponds with her careworn expression.  The scratches on the wall suggest that smooth surfaces are being challenged: anger and despair are on display in this place.

The image that continues my version of the story is of Colbert and the boy.  In a dark and seemingly cheerless place, she comes face to face with innocence.  Colbert’s character seems to be reaching for the child’s hand; but they are not touching.  Her hands are encased in gloves.

The boy staring at her is clutching a toy.  At first I thought it was she who placed it in his hand; but the apparently hand-crafted object – a cheerful fantasy figure, not a mass-produced toy soldier – is too singular to suggest that she has bought it for him.  More likely, she has just learned of the child’s existence.

The image I chose to come next in this sequence is of Colbert sitting on the bed opposite a woman (played by Eleonora Rossi Drago) who is younger and plainly dressed.  What they have in common is grief, as their facial expressions and postures tell me.  Are they grieving for the same person? Are they sitting on a bed that was once shared by a man whom they both loved? This might be the site where the child was conceived.  These women are joined in yet separated by more than grief. 

The image to complete my story suggests reconciliation.  The two women are breaking bread, and the lamp on the table is the same light that, in the other image, communicated a desire for clarity that is now being achieved.  Colbert’s character remains reserved, even skeptical.  The clenched hand, with its wedding band on display, suggests her clinging to the claim of legitimacy, even though that legal right seems to provide no comfort besides financial security.

But the woman sitting next to her is so lacking in guile that she might ultimately convince her unannounced visitor that theirs is not a destiny of contest but a bond of love: the war that has separated one woman from her husband has created another love that, in turn, begot what used to be called a love child.

Close to the battlefield, a life was created, while far from the war zone – in the cosmopolitan setting of a remote metropolis, New York rather than Paris, suggested by the affluence, and the affront, even, of Colbert’s designer clothing – a woman being left by a husband-turned-soldier could only see loss.

Initially, my story unfolded somewhat differently.  I had Colbert’s character confront the lover of her husband first, then learn about the child and change her attitude as a result.  Then I noticed the gloves, which have not yet come off when Colbert’s character meets the boy that might be her dead husband’s son; and, looking again at that other image, I noticed the rough, barn-like setting of their encounter, which more closely corresponds with the scratched wall and the lamp shedding light on the issue of a heretofore hidden love.

However inconsequential Destinées might have been, in terms of box office or impact on Colbert’s waning career in film, these images are remarkable in their ability to make readable what matters about this common story – a story told without Sirkian melodrama but with the neorealism of post-Second World War European filmmaking.  

French-born Colbert who, years earlier on US radio, had proudly and publicly exclaimed “I Am an American,” may have embraced this assignment as an opportunity to return to her roots.  Instead, cast as a visitor in Destinées, she was obliged to rehearse her estrangement and uneasy reintroduction.  France and cinema were moving on, away from the Hollywood paradigm of It Happened One Night; this is not the ersatz old world of Colbert’s I Met Him in Paris or Midnight.  And yet, the destiny that the new Europe was forging in the 1950s remained inextricably intertwined with the United States.  As the dresses of the two women make plain on one side and up-to-date on the other, there were destined to be clashes in style as well as in substance.

[Since posting this entry, I came across a download of Destinées on YouTube.]