The real Bernard Natan. Memorise this face.
One of the many surprising reactions to NATAN, the documentary Paul Duane and I made a couple of years ago, is some confusion as to whether Bernard Natan does, in fact, appear in certain vintage porn films. It had been our intention to conclusively prove that none of the people identified by Professor Joseph Slade as being Natan, the major French film producer, are actually him.
The Natan story is complicated — in many ways, it’s like the Dreyfus Affair of cinema, although as film historian Lenny Borger pithily put it, “But Dreyfus was innocent.” Natan is touched by guilt — he WAS convicted of making pornographic films around 1909, and he confessed to fraud in 1938. But there are no surviving French porn films from 1909, and there is absolutely nothing to suggest that Natan ever again had anything to do with that branch of the business. And so we cannot know exactly what his original offence was: in NATAN, two different experts speculate on the kind of films Natan may have made, and reach opposite conclusions. It seems fair to give him the benefit of the doubt.
In the film we actually compare the face of Natan with that of various porno actors claimed, by Professor Joseph Slade of Ohio University, to be him. In the case of the infamous LE CANARD, a horrible goose-molesting romp from the thirties, there is no resemblance whatsoever between Bernard Natan and the husky bird-buggerer onscreen ~
The two men are obviously just that — TWO men. It seems incredible that Prof. Slade could have mistaken them.
The circumstances of Slade’s ID’ing Natan in these films should be borne in mind. By his own account, he found a box of films at the Kinsey Institute which had been labelled “Nathan.” Since rumours abounded about Natan’s past, and these rumours attained the status of myth when he was arrested for fraud in 1938, it’s easy to see why some opportunistic would-be scholar happening upon the films before Slade may have chosen to so label them. Slade did not accept the label as proof, but placed it in a mental area under the heading “evidence” and gradually added to it a tiny heap of other circumstantial tidbits and items of hearsay.
Also, Slade did not really know anything about Natan when he first saw these films decades ago. He wasn’t carrying a picture of him, so comparisons were not easy. But let’s have a look at some of the other men he identified as Bernard Natan.
This is the guy who causes our viewers some trouble. He’s one of the stars of a little movie called SISTER VASELINE. There’s a certain resemblance, audiences say. But present at our Edinburgh International Film Festival screening, fortunately enough, was Dr. Brooke Magnanti, the former sex worker whose experiences under the name Belle de Jour were developed as a TV series by Paul. Dr. Magnanti is now an expert in forensic pathology, and had no difficulty dismissing the passing resemblance between the film producer and the naughty monk. Most of us determine identity by studying a small central area, the eyes, nose and mouth. In this case, the prominent nose tends to attract all the attention. But the chin and ears are quite different, and while one’s ears do grow during one’s life, nobody acquires earlobes, and only Ernst Stavros Blofeld is on record as removing his. Natan does have tiny, recessive earlobes. The nameless monk-impersonator has great globs of cartilage swaying at the ends of protuberant, mouselike ears.
Here’s an image from LE MENAGE MODERNE DU MADAME BUTTERFLY. It’s funny how resemblance works. You may have thought the guyplaying “the randy monk” in the previous looked a lot like Natan. But you will look at the guy on the left here and probably say “That’s the same guy who played the monk!” And I think you’d be right. It’s like when you’re waiting to meet someone you know slightly, and everyone who passes looks a little like the person. But when the real person shows up, you just KNOW.
Extraordinarily, it’s the guy on the RIGHT in the faux-riental makeup who has been historically claimed to be Natan. I wanted to feature him in NATAN as part of our evidence of how silly these accusations are — it was one of my few disagreements with Paul. More comparisons, I think, would clinch it.
According to Wikipedia, the very first person to identify this bisexual performer as Natan was Thomas Waugh, who now “rejects his earlier conclusion […] based on on-screen evidence of the actor’s age and foreskin status.” Good for you, Mr. Waugh. Now how about also rejecting it on the basis that it’s blatantly NOT HIM. Scratch what I said earlier about how we identify people based on eyes, nose and mouth. Waugh evidently uses different criteria.
Sidenote — Wikipedia now identifies the actor playing Pinkerton, on the left, as one J.H. Forsell, a mainstream actor with one other IMDb credit — playing Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig in the 1919 epic THE GREAT VICTORY, WILSON OR THE KAISER? THE FALL OF THE HOHENZOLLERNS. This is not an easy film to see, or pronounce, and thus not an easy claim to disprove. But it is an American film, and so the idea of a minor player zipping across the Atlantic in order to fellate a bloke in a kimono for low pay strikes me as improbable. I’m also struck by the fact that the leading man of this lengthily-titled war flick is Creighton Hale.
This man is not Creighton Hale. He is about to do something awful through that fence.
Creighton Hale was an Irish actor who went from playing straight roles in early dramas like THE EXPLOITS OF ELAINE (1914) to stardom as a light comedy lead in THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927) and SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN (1929). He sank into the obscurity of bit parts, finishing his career as “irritated stagecoach passenger” in 1959’s WESTBOUND, but then achieved a kind of fame when Kenneth Anger, in his book Hollywood Babylon, accused him of having sex with a goat. On camera. During the height of his fame as a movie star. My friend Diarmid Mogg dispels that myth here. So I was startled when Professor Slade repeated the long-discredited allegation to me in an email: “Creighton Hale seems to have made it as a joke, and the humor certainly does outweigh the sex, which is not very explicit. He would have had little fear of discovery, given the clandestine nature of the trade.”
My God, I thought. Professor Slade has made a career of accusing forgotten film personalities of bestiality. Perhaps that was unfair of me. It wouldn’t be right, would it, if these two colossal lapses of judgement came to overshadow the professor’s other accomplishments.
Not right, no, but certainly ironic.
Some of the complexity in this situation arises because, though there are many pictures of Bernard Natan, it’s easy to say, “Well, maybe this guy engaging in a fancy-dress threesome in some scratchy old stag film is him when he was younger.” Here, loyal Shadowplayers, is Bernard Natan when he was younger ~
If you’re of my species, you’re probably thinking “That’s the same guy as the one in the picture at the top of this blog post, only younger!” Natan always looks like Natan. He didn’t go from looking like himself to slightly looking like another guy with a similar nose, and then back to looking like himself again.
Here’s a final comparison.
It’s our old friend J.H. Forsell again. Or rather, not him, but a nameless, prolific porn actor who has been given that name, perhaps by someone bearing a grudge against Field Marshall Haig. If you watch the entirety of the hardcore romp SURPRIS PAR LE GARDE-CHAMPETRE, which I don’t recommend (I had to watch A LOT of vintage porn while preparing NATAN and it was not as enjoyable as some might expect. Sort of gave me a new respect for Professor Slade who apparently forged a career “studying” this stuff) you will observe that the Bogus Forsell is putting on weight, and his hair is receding. But Natan didn’t put on weight — he went to prison. Film of him at his last trial, before he was deported to Auschwitz, shows him with his hairline unchanged. If it ever intended to recede, it wasn’t given the chance. If we assume that the careers of Natan and “Forsell” were in parallel and they were the same age (of which there is no evidence), by the time “Forsell” was cavorting for cash in this one-reeler, Bernard Natan was buried in an unmarked mass grave.