Butching up Fred

 

fred 2

There’s a lovely moment in Swing Time (George Stevens, USA, 1936) when Fred and Ginger finally kiss. She’s been after him for most of the movie by then. Bewildered by what she sees as a lack of response, she begins singing her reproach: ‘A fine romance, with no *kisses*’:

A fine romance, my friend this is
We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes
But you’re as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes
A fine romance, you won’t nestle
A fine romance, you won’t wrestle
I might as well play bridge
With my old maid aunt
I haven’t got a chance
This is a fine romance

When they finally do begin to kiss, a door closes so that we don’t see the kiss itself. We just know they have because when the door opens Fred’s face is smeared with lipstick, which I’m often tempted to colour in, badly, as above.

What compels me is not that I think that elegant symbol of love, romance and Hollywood cinema is gay or even ‘feminine’. Indeed the image above is a cut-out of the image below. I’ve removed and then restored Ginger from where she rightly belongs, figuring that dream of love and romance *with* Fred.

 

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The films, however,  in trying so hard to reassure the audience that Fred Astaire is *not* effeminate create so many spaces where other men can be: Fairies delightedly prance through the Astaire and Rogers series inciting dreams of being just as Fred and Ginger themselves incite dreams of love and romance.

Fred is usually surrounded by Eric Blore, or Edward Everett Horton or Franklin Pangborn or Erik Rhodes — all the lovely pansies of Thirties Hollywood — and often a combination of two or more in the same film — to shore up his masculinity. Sometimes as with Erik Rhodes, those characters are doubly othered by being shown as ‘effeminate’ AND foreign. It’ true that they’re there to be funny, to in some sense, be laughed at for their otherness. But they’re there. And they may be the butt of the joke but they’re also loveable and often elegant, witty, well-dressed and just as as at home in the Art Deco splendor of the world of the films as Fred and Ginger.

Thus, so often, butching up Fred results in gaying up the film and leads to moments like the lovely one below with Victor Moore (and let’s draw the veil over the blackface).

 

 

I wonder what those moments meant to a gay male audience, to a black audience, and to a black and gay audience in the 1930s?

 

Jose Arroyo

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