Franklin Pangborn’s been called an aesthete, prissy, flighty, a nance, a pansy, an effeminate fussbudget. Along with Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore, and other beloved character actors of the classic era, he made queerness affectionately visible at a time when it couldn’t even be mentioned. This bit part in A Star is Born illustrates why: listen to the intonation on the first line ‘Flash!’, the stress he puts on the word ‘peak’, the phrasing – does he change divine to devone? — the way he holds his hands, the passion for the inconsequential, the evocation of a slight superiority to what he’s doing, the uppity accent and the careful phrasing; the kind of guy who’d visit your home only to offer proof that your antiques are really repros: watching him speak, a whole other way of being, one then unmentionable, materialises and edges its way into representation.
One of the joys of watching Pre-Code films is the array of gay pansies on offer: Tyler Brooke, Franklin Pangborn, Eric Blore, Edward Everett Horton and many others. I’ve been watching a lot of Preston Sturges films recently and have been struck by how often characters coded as effeminate or homosexual figure in his work. In the first clip, which was adapted from one of Sturges’ Broadways plays, Child of Manhattan (1933), we see Tyler Brooke insisting that he is Dulcey Inc. and not *Madame* Dulcey! The character is funny and endearing but like so many homosexual characters then as now is linked to surfaces, appearances, fashion, the ‘feminine sphere’. In the second clip, Easy Living (1937), this time from afrom a screenplay by Sturges, we see Franklin Pangborn, an actor to appear in so many subsequent Sturges films, also selling women’s couture, this time to the Bull of Broadway. Lastly we see Brian Donlevy in The Great McGinty, Sturges’ first film as director, making fun of William Demarest for not ordering a manly enough drink. It’s interesting to note how there doesn’t seem to be much difference in the representation of the Brooke and Pangborn pansies even though one is pre-Code and one post. It is also interesting to note how in all of these films the poof is used to shore up the masculinity of the hero. Moreover, in the films adapted from or merely written by Sturges, the gay character is endearing (in the case of of Easy Living, perhaps aided by the personal understanding of director Mitchell Liesen). In the McGinty clip, Donlevy’s camping it up feels nasty and one is left uneasy: it feels mean, brutish and exactly like the type of bullying that is still so fresh a memory for many of us. This observation leaves me with some questions: what was Sturges preoccupation with homosexual men and can his work be considered homophobic? I don’t yet know.
The Merry Widow is a shallow masterpiece. Sonia (Jeanette MacDonald), the richest woman in Warshovia has been widowed, might be hooked by a foreigner and send the country’s economy into a tailspin. Danilo (Maurice Chevalier) gets caught by the King (George Barbier) making love to his wife and the Queen (Una Merkel) is so complimentary that he is chosen to be the one to woo and win The Merry Widow back to Marshovia. It’s a film full of delights; the magnifying glass over the map that introduces us to Marshovia (figure 1), the first meeting between Danilo and the Widow which begins by her reading the letter saying he’s terrific and ends with him following her to the palace and saying ‘I tried to bring a little moonlight into your life…..Forget me – if you can!…and Don’t include me, even in your dreams!’; The montage of black veils, shoes, corsets and dogs that signify her life and whose change in colour symbolises a decision to change that life; How the King discovers his wife is cheating on him — a scene that Billy Wilder used as an exercise with students at UCLA asking them how would they stage it and then showing how Lubitsch did it; the fabulous waltz sequence, with hundreds of dancers waltzing through a palatial hall of mirrors, a still from which illustrated countless early film books (see fig. 1); the charming prison sequence at the end; Sam Raphaelson’s witty dialogue. The film is a delight, a joy, a mini-masterpiece of cinematic inventiveness. Barbier and Edward Everett Horton, as the Marshovian Ambassador to France, are particularly enchanting. It’s only of Lubitsch that one dares ask for more.
The film was based on Franz Léhar’s operetta and was remade by Curtis Bernhardt in 1952. I quite like the Bernhardt version with Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas but to see the two films side by side is to be convinced of Lubitsch’s genius. Both films were for MGM, the Lubitsch version, the most expensive film made to that point and, though a considerable hit, it still lost money.
N. T. Binh and Christian Viviani have called The Merry Widow the quintessential Lubitsch film (Lubitsch, T. &B Editores: Madrid 1991, 2005, p. 160). It contains the elements of spectacle evident in his early silent (from Carmen onwards), the operetta form of his early thirties musicals (e.g. The Smiling Lieutenant) — hugely popular then and unjustly marginalised in historical accounts of the musical genre now — the rhythmic elements evident in all of his great works (note the dance number in the silent The Oyster Princess from as early as 1919), the use of doors, the indirect way of showing, the ingeniousness and comedy that infuses the whole film, the sophisticated comedy of manners of his greatest films (Trouble in Paradise), the great dialogue of most of his great talkies (Ninotchka), the controlled, precise, and poetic imagery of is late masterpieces (the letterbox sequence from The Shop Around The Corner say). One can’t help but agree. The Merry Widow might not be the best Lubitsch – it doesn’t quite touch our hearts – but it is the quintessential Lubitsch in that it delights the eye, the ear and the mind.