On a stall in a market in the part of Nottingham where I live, I acquired a package with one part of The Stewart Granger Story, so a batch of dubious 40s melodramas on DVD.
I previously borrowed this package from a lending library of DVDs, now deceased, so I know how bad the films are. And I have a special desire not to see anything with Granger – a non-actor with Chiselled Features and natural authority and height. But he was a star, so he was in expensive and occasionally good films. As a cultural historian, you have to watch bad films sometimes. Caravan (1946) is a ridiculous film which I previously abandoned watching. The plot is that a wild tearaway son of good family, Stewart Granger, is the victim of amnesia and assault, and wakes up to live with the gypsies, with whom he has a natural affinity. He engages in picturesque escapades. Then finally the injustice is reversed, he remembers who he is, and he returns to enjoy the heroine and bourgeois life. It’s The Student Prince, or Doctor Syn (once Captain Clegg, the pirate; first novel 1915). We have seen this plot a few times before. It allows us to see scenes of low life, actually of life without responsibilities or inhibitions, while marginalising the people to whom that life is natural. It is strikingly different from a plot in which the hero would come from income group E. The plot involves Darrell (Granger) as the author of a novel. Helpmann, employed by villain Dennis Price, arranges the assault, by Spanish Gypsies. Darrell also loses a necklace which he was transporting and is then wanted by the police for stealing it. Price hopes to carry off Darrell’s girlfriend (played by Ann Crawford).
H plays a servant, named Wycroft, who is malicious and out for himself. He does not take any responsibility seriously and clearly has no loyalty to his employer. That is an implicit threat to the social order. But, we might continue, the social order is evidently a threat to him fulfilling his desires. He seems childish because he rejects responsibility. But also he is prepared to conform when someone in authority is watching. He is the classic quick-witted slave of a corrupt master. His willingness to accept the role society has allotted him means a profound rift in his being: he has no belief in the merits of his master or in the role he continues to carry out. Any kind of malice or humiliation excites him. He is amused much of the time, but sensitive and easily disgusted. I suppose prissy is the word... so held back by a strong sense of propriety even while rejecting moral restraint. His reactions are quick and ever changing; he seems to be leading his life at ten times the speed of the Stewart Granger character.
The second time I tried to watch it, I was worried about the prospect of a gypsy dancer scene in some bodega. I feared this would be embarrassing. It calls for archaic theatrical virtues. But that dancer is played by Jean Kent and she has archaic theatrical virtues in abundance.
The interest of Caravan is a few scenes in which two obviously gay actors engage in interaction outside the main plot. The claim is not based on them being defined in the film as gay, but on their facial expressions, speech melody, gestures, and so on, which were inevitably gay. That is not to say that they were anything but a minority of gay men, more that if they were allowed on screen then they released a great flow of visual information which says among other things that they were camp and gay. The presupposition is that Granger is going to get 30 times as much screen time as Helpmann. We can guess that Helpmann’s vivacity is related to the need to say everything in such a brief time... in between long days of conformity and deference to employers. Is that guess right? Certainly it is hard to imagine a film in which the normative world had withdrawn into the shadows and Helpmann could be camp and vivacious for the entire film. That film does not exist but we can try to imagine it.
Helpmann says to Jean Kent at one point “You are a wicked girl, but it’s no use trying out your wiles on me.” He is correct, we feel.
Helpmann comes across as frustrated, making the most of a brief stretch on camera. That is like a spectator who is watching a bad film and seizes on some aspect that is much less bad, as a way out of boredom, hoping for it to be prolonged. This is what childhood was like, so much of the time… a state which I have managed to reproduce, in adult life, by involving myself in “the history of culture”. That history is largely made up of bad films. At least in my country.
Helpmann was mostly a dancer with the Vic-Wells Ballet. He wasn't technically a great dancer, we understand, but made up for it by his abilities as an actor – in fact as a mime. His ability to use flows of information other than verbal is what puts him ahead of other performers within a film. His presence is what allows us to connect Caravan, and the world of Gainsborough melodrama, with high culture of the 1940s. The main display in the 1987 Barbican exhibition of the “New Romantics” was a sensational backdrop designed by Leslie Hurry for Helpmann's production of Hamlet with himself as the hero. (Confusingly, there was also a ballet Hamlet in which Helpmann played the lead character, also designed by Hurry.) I presume he didn’t deliver the verse in a camp speech melody… but since it has all disappeared we can't know this. Those Hamlet productions were certainly a key part of the Apocalyptic style which lasted for several years in the Forties. They represent the collapse of objectivity and the advance of feelings and dreams into three-dimensional form. But Caravan does not fit into that (even if other films in this same DVD package do). Nor really is Helpmann’s droll-sinister turn in ‘Caravan’ connected to the visions of the apocalyptics. The ambiguity of a neurotic 40s poet-type is dissimilar to the ambiguity which Wycroft is governed by.
Wikipedia lists the five most successful (box office) films of 1946, with Caravan at number five. One of the others is another Gainsborough melodrama – The Wicked Lady, which also has the “double life” plot. Clearly this is what people wanted to see, and that might explain why some of the projects were not only inherently vacuous but also badly and hastily prepared.
Price marries the girlfriend, who believes Darrell is dead. At one point he cancels a dinner party she has lovingly prepared but replaces the guests with a roomful of high-class tarts, who seem to know him well. This is a bizarre scene. Later he suggests, when she leaves him, that she has no money and also has no talent for following the only profession which is open to her. This indicates that she has not let him sleep with her in their marriage... he had invited the tarts in to educate her about sex. This is a desperate attempt to make the situation stronger than the quality of writing would allow. This isn't melodrama, just bad taste I think.
I see Granger worked for Roger Corman at one point. I hope Corman made him work a bit harder than he usually did. Helpmann played possibly related characters on screen in The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann.
The same package has Madonna of the Seven Moons, which I actually enjoyed. It starts with a frightening sequence in which a little girl (twelve maybe) is menaced by an adult male. We don’t really find out if she is sexually assaulted but it looks bad. Later a character is shown as split into two personalities... although the rape incident is never mentioned again, it is a medical fact that abuse in childhood can lead to dissociative personality disorder. The film would certainly benefit if there was someone to point this out, on screen or in a voice-over at least. The adult woman is played by Phyllis Calvert. She is a conventional wife of a wealthy man in some Italian city, but periodically she disappears and comes back six months later with no explanation. We found out that in these fugues she takes up a quite different role, as the landlady of a tavern called The Seven Moons, which has a sign with as many half-moons, a motif echoed by earrings which Calvert wears. I never worked out where the word ‘Madonna’ came in. This is an excuse for her to dress in a completely different way… extravagant and sexy as a bar owner who is also the mistress of a prominent bandit. Fairly obviously the “alternate” personality of Calvert is a parallel to Granger’s adventures with the gypsies in ‘Caravan’. The theme is respectable people disappearing into an unrespectable life, a license to daydream. We don’t get a scene in which Granger is sexually abused by a gypsy as a child… that would be a very different film.
The earrings bear a noticeable resemblance to ones worn by Jean Kent in Caravan. The Mediterranean floozy part in Madonna is played by Patricia Roc… a sort of alternate Jean Kent. Gainsborough needed such actresses. And Rank didn't.
David Bourne in his book Brief Encounters mentions the Helpmann role in Caravan as part of a book about gay characters in British films from 1930 to 1971 (and some glimmer of liberation). Each encounter is brief because gays were never the central characters in any script. This approach gives us maybe 80 seconds of a film… from a hundred films. This does seem like the most effective way to approach the subject; given both how crap the films were and how much the unrelated snippets actually do connect to each other, revealing deeper structures. The method is especially likely to reveal changes over time, so between gay stereotypes in 1930 and gay stereotypes in 1960.
The Gypsy character (Jean Kent) remarks to the boring English character (Ann Crawford) at one point that the custom of her people in love rivalry is to fight it out in a duel. We don’t see this take place but the producer obviously remembered it because he went on to make this:
"Idol of Paris is a 1948 film based on the novel Paiva, Queen of Love by Alfred Schirokauer, about a mid-19th century French courtesan Theresa who sleeps her way from poverty to the top of Second Empire society. It was an attempt by its makers to imitate the success of the Gainsborough melodramas."
This is a lost film, I understand, but it did feature a duel between two women (using whips) and that was on the poster. It may actually have broken the company which made it, Premier Films, and who knows where their prints went to. At the time, Picturegoer said it was “a complete farrago of nonsense”.