Egg ‘n’ I Column: “Your Problems Answered by Claudette Colbert”

Who was it that said “I shall do my very best to be of aid to anyone who has a problem, large or small”? If the title of this, the 824th entry into the broadcastellan journal did not give away the answer, it might have been anyone’s guess.  And perhaps it still is, the black-and-white of legacy media notwithstanding.  According to Photoplay – a publication leaving more room for doubt than any self-respecting sceptic would require – that Nightingalean sentiment emanated from the pen of none other than Claudette Colbert, a leading lady most widely known for her Academy Award-winning performance in It Happened One Night – a lady, no less, who gave anyone involved in making movies no end of problems by not letting a Hollywood studio lamp shine on the right side of her face, a cheek that came to be dubbed the dark side of the moon.  

“And what might you want?” Colbert seems to be asking in this original publicity photograph from my collection.

Dear me, I thought, when, quite by accident, I discovered that I my favorite film star lent her name to a “Dear Abby” column over a decade before the pseudonymous Abby started answering letters from all and sundry.  Having written two letters to Ms. Colbert myself – albeit not until 1991, mind – I was anxious to find out just what advice was given in her name to alleged Photoplay readers whose last names were, as is both customary and convenient, reduced to initials.

Continue reading “Egg ‘n’ I Column: “Your Problems Answered by Claudette Colbert””

“You beat time on my head”: Thoughts on Being Older Than My Father

My father, Gerhard Heuser, before I was born.

“As all the pleasures of intellect arise from the association of ideas,” Richard Payne Knight reasoned in An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste (1805), “the more the materials of association are multiplied, the more will the sphere of these pleasures be enlarged.”  He argued that, to a

mind richly stored, almost every object of nature or art, that presents itself to the sense either excites fresh trains and combinations of ideas, or vivifies and strengthens those which existed before: so that recollection enhances enjoyment, and enjoyment brightens recollection.

While I am not convinced that the “association of ideas” always brings “pleasures” or ‘brightens recollection” – experiences that are not strictly a matter of “intellect” to begin with – I am so prone to raids on the store of memories, in varying states of neglect and disrepair, that any and all matter may turn up and, often unexpectedly, turn into reassembled “materials of association.”

Tracing the proverbial dots that speckle – or perhaps constitute – my mindscape, I invariably connect the tell-tale marks that, like splotches of blood, lead right to the heart of what is the matter with me, and, without any recourse to science, make themselves felt to match my DNA.  I am dotty that way.

Call it egocentrism, call it empathy, such provoked but uncalled-for recall can lead to discoveries decidedly beyond “enjoyment.”  The compulsion to relate – to find associations relevant and revelatory rather than beside whatever the point of anything may be, according to some – keeps driving home that the past, however processed or pasteurized, like spilled milk made longer-lasting to be cried over anew – keeps repeating on us.  Hold our tongue as we may, we can still taste it.  I am tasting it now.

Continue reading ““You beat time on my head”: Thoughts on Being Older Than My Father”

“Does a big fish ever break the line and get away?”:  Boris Johnson, G. K. Chesterton, and the Case of the Deadly Prime Minister

“A thing can sometimes be too extraordinary to be remembered.”  With that intriguing overthrow of conventional wisdom opens “The Fad of the Fisherman,” a short story by G. K. Chesterton, first published in 1921.  “If it is clean out of the course of things,” Chesterton expounds, “and has apparently no causes and no consequences, subsequent events do not recall it; and it remains only a subconscious thing, to be stirred by some accident long after.  It drifts apart like a forgotten dream….”

A contemporary illustration for Chesterton’s story by William Hatherell, showing the “extraordinary” incident.

In light of the extraordinary and memorable events unfolding over the last few days like a crumpled serviette disclosing the spat-out remains of a prolonged Partygate feast – the rules-breaking incident that contributed to the eventual if only reluctantly heeded call for the resignation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson – the notion that something might be “too extraordinary to be remembered” does not quite ring true.  So much in politics these days is head-scratchingly, gut-churningly out of the ordinary, the Trump Presidency and its aftermath being a prime example.  And yet, the violation of established codes of conduct have become so flagrant and frequent that we, or some – or, I suspect, many – of us no longer recognize them to be unprecedented, unethical or unconstitutional.

It now takes greater effort to remember, if ever we knew, what once were assumed to be formal matters of procedure and protocol.  And we struggle as well to connect the tell-tale dots that, if they were examined closely – like some seemingly random Rorschach blots – and in relation to each other, might enable us not only to arrive at the “causes” – the egoistic and downright egomaniacal roots – of socio-political developments but also to realize the “consequences” of our inattention to pattern-forming details whose neglect profoundly compromises our ability to draw meaningful inferences from the reality of facts and fictions with which we are confronted: the erosion of trust in political figures who, instead of serving their country, help themselves and cling to power as if they were absolute monarchs.  How reassuring, then, are the ratiocinations that bring many a murder mystery to its logical if not always satisfactory conclusion.

It is the conclusion rather than the opening lines of Chesterton’s story – a story involving the unlawful actions of a Prime Minister – that brought to mind the astonishment with which I first reached it – a solution that I, appropriating shelved products of popular culture rather than reviewing them, am under no compulsion to withhold.  The by me highly anticipated conclusion to Mr. Johnson’s sorry and increasingly sordid Downing Street saga, meanwhile, remains unknown while I am writing this, the 822nd entry in my journal.  I might as well say it flat out: the Prime Minister in Chesterton’s story is a murderer who gets away with his crime.

Continue reading ““Does a big fish ever break the line and get away?”:  Boris Johnson, G. K. Chesterton, and the Case of the Deadly Prime Minister”

Penwomanship and Poison: The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes as an Antidote to Toxic Masculinity

The original dust jacket makes no mention of The Lodger; instead, it reminds readers of a more recent crime novel by Lowndes, which was adapted for the movies in 1932: Letty Lynton.

There is a lot of talk these days about ‘toxic masculinity.’  Making a strong case for the correlation of venom and virility, war criminal Vladimir Putin recently mocked the physique of world leaders who, by rolling their eyes at his shirtless posing, permitted themselves a moment of levity at his expense amid a crisis talk on Ukraine.  Meanwhile, COVID-19-rules violating British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, himself a noxious cocktail of mendacity and indiscretion, opined that, had Putin been born female, the invasion of Ukraine would not have happened.  Seriously, would the US Supreme court have decided differently on undoing environmental protection if more earth mothers were among the judges?

I thought the claim that toxicity is masculine had been conclusively laid to rest by Lucretia Borgia – or by Margaret Thatcher, at the very latest.  That the flip side of our fancies is still deemed to be “another man’s poison” makes me long for gender fluidity, itself a noisome notion to some.  Apart from lamenting the bane of binaries, I have nothing further to say here about exposed torsos or the merits of any remarks made by a disreputable Prime Minister.  And yet, there is no escaping the everyday – not even in the attempt to retreat into the presumably out-of-date, of pop past its sell-by date, for the sampling of which this journal was conceived.

Continue reading “Penwomanship and Poison: The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes as an Antidote to Toxic Masculinity”

“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”

“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.