Archive for First a Girl

You Just Can’t Get the Distaff

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on June 5, 2021 by dcairns

GIRLS WILL BE BOYS (1934) is thematically much like FIRST A GIRL, but instead of Jessie Matthews disguised as a boy disguised as a girl, we have Dolly Haas dressed as a boy, then as a girl (causing certain parties to think she’s a boy dressed as a girl).

Dolly is delightful. As a boy she’s like a prancing monkey, and her German accent runs wild, drawing out single syllables into low whoops. A strong-willed tyke, she signed with Columbia after this but declined to change her name to Lilli Marlowe, and so that went nowhere. She was chums with Hitchcock — I guess from around this time — and he put her in I CONFESS, but that role doesn’t find a use for her simian high spirits.

The script — co-credited to Curt Siodmak (!) — keeps Dolly in sexy jeopardy, much of it caused by male lead Esmond Knight. It’s always a surprise to see him in a leading role if you know him as a character man in post-war Powell & Pressburger films, heroically covering up his lost eyesight (blinded at sea). But here it makes sense: by the standard of 30s Brit leading men, he’s fairly handsome (no Leslie Banks scarring) and even has a physique.

Speaking of physique — the script’s main method of unmasking Dolly’s disguises is to undress her. While FIRST A GIRL contrived a swimming accident, at least Jessie had a cossie. Dolly, entangled in weeds in the estate’s pond (it’s a country house escapade, vaguely Wodehousian in spirit) is bare buff, save for a chaste weed bikini top.

Director Marcel Varnel hasn’t much of a rep — his IMDb bio says “his films were for the most part undistinguished” — he did go on to make too many George Formby vehicles (picture a clown car with a massive front grill) — two moments deserve special mention. One is a scene change, where a character exits through a heavy door — with a jolt the whole wall is hoisted into the air and at once we’re in a theatre. Later, in boy drag, Dolly must listen to a smutty story after dinner with the old duffers — Varnel tactfully swoops out of the room in a thrill-cam glide, then, after the shortest possible pause, swoops back in on Dolly, having missed the one about the commercial traveller and the lady with the glass eye.

Though there are fewer hints of male-male attraction, and no obviously queer-coded character like Sonnie Hale in FIRST A GIRL, the film feels more transgressive because Dolly is a more convincing boy than Jessie could ever be. So gender certainties are throw into doubt, before being happily resolved — or are they? In fancy dress for a fete, the lovers clinch for some hey-hey in the hay loft, and Esmond’s frilly sleeves rhyme elegantly with Dolly’s bloomers.

Viktor/Viktoria/Victor/Victoria

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2021 by dcairns

Victor Saville’s film FIRST A GIRL is the middle film in the cycle begun by Reinhardt Schünzel’s VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA and concluded, as of this date, by Blake Edwards’ film VICTOR VICTORIA and musical play, Victor/Victoria. Though dealing with male/female impersonation (a woman pretending to be a male impersonator), all iterations of the story seem as much gay as trans.

It’s very interesting that these films, made before our modern attitudes semi-coalesced, should seem so modern and forward-thinking. The Schünzel original was a spoof of the English music hall, with its omnipresent drag artistes, but an affectionate one. The character played by Sonny Hale in Saville’s film, reads as Obviously Gay, even though (a) he’s played by the husband of Jessie Matthews, the female lead, and (b) an unconvincing hetero romance is contrived for him in the third act. The object of his affections is Anna Lee, who gets a sexy shower scene and seems the least ambiguous figure, but even she can’t wholly dismiss the whiff of acidulated queeniness Hale projects so ably.

Jessie Matthews is never not obviously a girl, even when clad in a tux, just as Renate Müller was always a girl in the original (Julie Andrews does suggest a Bowie-like androgyny), and the obvious artifice probably helped everyone feel comfortable, who might otherwise be inclined not to be (the original came out in Germany in 1933, an extraordinary thing). Griffith Jones is a bit dull as lead boy, but he’s handsome at a time when so many British leading men were scarred, stout or snaggle-toothed, and has an ambiguous quality that suits the part. The most daring aspect of the film is the hero who falls for a girl he believes to be a boy. You can see how a German film doing this might be poking fun at the British, but a British film doing it is quite close to playing the notion straight, as it were.

Matthews is a delight, gets several spectacular musical numbers, costumed by Coco Chanel, and while the plotting isn’t perfect — Lee has to step up to the role of villainess, then hurriedly step down — it’s simpler and more efficient than Edwards’ multivalent farce narrative. And it’s huge fun.

FIRST A GIRL stars Millie the Non-Stop Variety Girl; Freddie Rathbone; Bronwyn; Narcy; Wackford Squeers; and Miss Havisham.

Flight of Fancy

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 26, 2021 by dcairns

We’d enjoyed THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK so much, on re-viewing it in our weekend watch party, I went looking for other films with its cast members. Frank Cellier, who plays the evil Mr. Wright — part property speculator, part actual Satan — had a patchy film career, but apart from his crooked Scottish Sheriff in Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS, he seemed to have a big role in NON-STOP NEW YORK, which starred Anna Lee, so that one seemed worth a punt. We double-billed it with FIRST A GIRL, which also features Lee.

After a glossy moderne title sequence, we’re into a thriller narrative in which unemployed chorine Lee is witness to a mob hit in New York. She’s the only one who can save an unoffending hobo from the gallows, so (after considerable comic footering and subplottery) she hops the “mail plane” back to NYC on a desperate mission to save the poor blighter. But also aboard are —

John Loder, amiable London detective

Frank Cellier, blackmailer and all-round schemer (lots of good blustering)

Francis L. Sullivan, the real murderer, disguised as a Paraguayan general (!)

Various other comic relief parts.

The stratosphere is so bracing!

The whole film is very entertaining, but once we’re on the fanciful plane — every passenger has their own stateroom, and there’s a kind of balcony or sky-veranda where you can go outside and ENJOY THE FRESH AIR — things get really endearingly silly. The plane is basically designed like an ocean liner. It takes off from the water but it doesn’t have those ski-things boatplanes have. The story, scripted by Roland Pertwee (of THOSE Pertwees), with an uncredited assist from Curt Siodmak, who had form in this kind of civic engineering sub-sf, is based on a novel called Sky Steward. The steward does appear in the film, played by Jerry Verno, the stage door man from THE RED SHOES, but he’s a very minor character.

Very nicely directed: Cellier & Lee are surprised by a BIG REVEAL of Francis Sullivan

The ensemble thriller format probably owes something to ROME EXPRESS and would soon yield THE LADY VANISHES. This weird variation is directed by Robert Stevenson, who would skip across the ocean himself as a conscientious objector and wind up working for the biggest wingnuts in Hollywood — Howard Hughes and Walt Disney, giving us everything from THE LAS VEGAS STORY to MARY POPPINS, or if you want to be cynical about it, THE WOMAN ON PIER 13 to THE GNOME-MOBILE. Around this time he was making fun stuff like KING SOLOMON’S MINES, repurposed as a Roland Young comedy: by the time he’s at Disney, the matte painters are making the movies.

Anna Lee is very smiley, which she isn’t in the films I know her best from — BEDLAM and PASSING OF 3FB (it is, I acknowledge, appalling that I have yet to view HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY). She’s very smiley in FIRST A GIRL also.

Although the airplane stuff is joyous, I regret the fact that Lee’s old mum, a cockney comic relief type played by Drusilla Wills, drops out of the story early on. First, it’s great to see that Lee’s character comes from this earthy stock, and the idea of a chorus girl playing detective aided by her unglamorous mum is a very winning one. I would happily accept sequels starring the pair — perhaps they could solve a murder on an iron mole heading for the earth’s core, or catch a fifth columnist on a time bus taking a sight-seeing tour of the Morlock mines…

NON-STOP NEW YORK stars Ianto; Bronwyn; Mr. Bumble; Capt. Jeremy Stickles; Marcel Escargot; Mrs. Karswell; The Professor; Mrs. Grudden; Arthur Bleeby; Thwackum; and One-Round.