Working Like a Homosexual: Camp, Capital, Cinema

Working Like a Homosexual: Camp, Capital, Cinema

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by Matthew Tinkcom

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Rather than seeing camp as a mode of reception, a way of reading straight popular culture, Tinkcom sees it as an intentional product of gay men within the film industry.

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Rather than seeing camp as a mode of reception, a way of reading straight popular culture, Tinkcom sees it as an intentional product of gay men within the film industry.

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“A brilliant, innovative study of camp that exceeds the terms in which this topic traditionally has been conceived. The result is a reformulation of camp as queer industrial labor, from the perspective of the production as well as the reception of that work. Anyone working on camp will hereafter have to reckon with this book.”—Steven Cohan, author of Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties

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Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
Series Q
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.00(d)

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Working like a homosexual

Camp, capital, and cinema
By Matthew Thinkcom

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-2889-5

Chapter One

Working like a Homosexual: Vincente Minnelli in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Freed Unit

Vincente [Minnelli] was not a man who was a dictator. He tried to do it in a soft and niceway. Heworked in let's say ... I don't know whether you will understand what I say ... he worked like a homosexual. I don't mean that nastily. I have nothing against homosexuals ... -Lela Simone, production assistant at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Nowhere is the challenge to locate the positive image of same-sex desire in film representation so pronounced as it is in relation to the classical Hollywood cinema. Since Vito Russo's groundbreaking 1977 volume on the subject of gay and lesbian imagery in film in The Celluloid Closet, scholars and historians of modernist sexualities have found their task grounded in the opposition between (apparently nonexistent) "positive" Hollywood representations of queer men and women and all too plentiful stereotypical vilifications of male and female same-sex eroticisms. Critical treatments of the relations of queer sexualities to the production of cinema have thus largely taken two approaches. The first stresses the pathologizing effect of Hollywood cinema in its portrayal of queers, with Rope and Caged, for example, offering to those in pursuit of queer-positive images particularlyobjectionable depictions of queer life. From this perspective, the presence of queers in Hollywood studios seems a remote possibility. The second approach, then, embraces queer filmmakers outside Hollywood, independent from Hollywood both in terms of the economic conditions under which they make movies and in terms of the array of film styles available for contemplating the role of gender and sexuality in contemporary life. The exceptions to these two approaches are notable, particularly in terms of how Hollywood can be understood as a site of production for queer filmmakers: for example, Dorothy Arzner has rightfully taken her place as a figure of an anti-auteur auteur, and George Cukor and James Whale have only recently begun to be rethought as queer directors. In the wake of the assessment that Hollywood has traditionally been hostile to queer laborers (at least at the level that their cinematic visions might reach the big screen) and that therefore it is only outside corporate studio production that queers might make movies, we are left with a historical and theoretical vacuum when we consider that queer men and women have been instrumental in the productions of some kinds of Hollywood film that are not entirely homophobic.

This chapter rethinks the situation by fixing its attention on the films made by Vincente Minnelli in the Freed unit of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer during the late 1940s and attempting to dislodge these films from universalizing accounts of classical Hollywood cinema. My interest is in accounting for the contributions of queermen, and the specific example of Vincente Minnelli, to the Freed unit, and in rethinking the status of their labor as crucial to the films' hallmark style. Although I will consider Minnelli at the greatest length in terms of camp and queer-inflected production, there are numerous opportunities to discuss queer figures in the Freed unit, the most important being Cole Porter and Roger Edens. Porter composed many of the most popular songs to be performed in Freed musicals; Edens was responsible for the unit's daily operations, and his vocal arrangements are immensely important in the history of the American film musical and the popular song. In this respect, this chapter forms an attempt to render more visible the labor of queers and their sensibilities within the production of a dominant cinema, sensibilities that I discuss in terms of camp. Further, the "queer labor" of camp is a strategic category for understanding the camp markings affected by the production of these films, and therefore queer labor, in the form of camp encodings, functioned for the studio as a way of enhancing the final product by way of "product differentiation." At stake are both a recuperative account of the contributions of men whose difference vis-a-vis sex/gender are largely ignored because of the imperatives of the closet and, equally important, the challenge to our impulses to ignore differences, whether they arise in terms of race, ethnicity, class, or gender, as such differences informed the ideological practices and the material production of Hollywood film in its larger social dimensions.

By treating the question of narrative integration in the musicals of the Freed unit, I demonstrate that the stylistic anomalies of the Freed films that are most pronounced indicate an extra-added labor on those texts. Keeping in mind both how camp has previously been understood as a fascination with artifice, excess, and performance and how a history of queer Hollywood lives continues to circulate anecdotally, I claim here that these features of some Freed productions (which occur most often for this account in regard to the art direction) provide an opportunity to understand camp as a kind of queer labor, but queer in that the erotic dimensions of queer male Freed laborers' lives were masked by camp, and labor in that the conditions for their productive output were predicated on the particular economic practices of the studio in the period that I am describing. Thus I am attempting to bring together questions of stylistic differentiation and the economic conditions for such difference to appear; by extending the idea of camp beyond its being a hallmark of consumption, I offer an analysis of how queer subjectivity emerges within the dynamics of capitalist cultural production for audiences that extend well beyond queer male subcultures.

Freed Productions at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Claims that the Freed film musicals of the post-World War II period can be set apart from contemporaneous musicals of the period cannot derive solely from perceived formal qualities of their mise-en-scene and choreography, and the forms of distinction that we might draw around their anomalous production cannot necessarily be adduced through other kinds of labor history. Striking as these aspects of the films may be, it is imperative to consider the industrial conditions under which these forms of spectacle could arrive at the large screen. When we recall that Metro was enduring numerous challenges in order to remain competitive with other studios, we need to account for the Freed unit's almost singular eventual success as the unit on the MGM lot that earned box office profits.

Important to consider is Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's unwillingness to reorganize itself in light of its competitors, an unwillingness that positioned the studio after World War II as burdened with high overhead costs, convoluted bureaucratic practices, and fewer exhibition outlets. Tom Schatz describes Metro's organization as "the consummate example of waste and excess," and he amply demonstrates the studio's numerous unhelpful maneuvers to respond to a changing economic climate for the Hollywood studios. Unlike its competitors, Metro did not move in the direction of making fewer and frequently more tightly budgeted films that represented potentially smaller losses if a product failed and greater gains if it garnered healthy receipts. Rather, the abortive attempts to sustain Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's signet reputation as the producer of Hollywood's most lavish movies resulted in financial disaster for the studio, with one notable exception: Freed productions.

Arthur Freed originally came to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as a lyricist, having written with his collaborator, Nacio Herb Brown, the music scores for The Broadway Melody (1929), Hollywood Revue (1929), and Going Hollywood (1932). Early in his career, as Hugh Fordin notes, Freed became known within Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as possessing a capacity not only for writing song lyrics but also for seeking out performance talent for the film musical. This positioned him ideally to become a line producer on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot, and by the late 1930s, he had been put in charge of his own unit, which sponsored the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland vehicles Babes in Arms (1939) and Babes on Broadway (1941). Based on these successes, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer allowed Freed to recruit talent for more extensive musical properties, and it was with employees already on the lot, such as Judy Garland and Roger Edens, and in conjunction with figures such as Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly, Cole Porter, and Betty Comden and Adolph Green, all of whom were brought fromNewYork, that Freed was given comparatively large budgets to realize such projects as Yolanda and the Thief (1945), Ziegfeld Follies (produced 1944, released 1946), and The Pirate (1947).

It is remarkable that the Freed unit was budgeted in such comparatively lavish terms, as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was currently undergoing significant pressures from a changed post-World War II Hollywood economy. At a moment when it would have seemed imperative to rein in budgets and to supervise production more closely, Metro's executives allowed for a relatively autonomous production unit that was simultaneously a place of exclusivity. Lela Simone, an important figure for the unit's day-to-day operations, recounts that within the studio, unit members were mockingly referred to as "the royal family." Stanley Donen recalls that "you had to want movies more than life itself, and all these things were unsaid and unspoken. But that's how you got in ... that's how Freed selected you." Freed himself referred to the unit as "my own little Camelot." The process of selection to which Donen refers is often remarked on as Freed's most marked contribution to the Hollywood musical; Freed recruited talent for the unit and then often seems to have given the unit's employees a large measure of creative independence.

In this sense, the unit exemplifies the transition in postwar Hollywood from the producer system to the package system. Janet Staiger describes this change as one from a mode of production organized around a larger number of films being put into production with a sta. that labored on vehicles in serial fashion to a shorter-term arrangement in which fewer productions were realized, often hiring on a per-production basis. Of course, the transition was not immediate, and the Freed unit operated as a hybrid; I call attention here to Staiger's analysis to remind us that the opportunity for queer men to labor in this venue stemmed less from the impulse by Metro to sponsor a queer subcultural setting and more from the studio's interest in extending profits. This means that the question of the economic does not have to arise in the last instance, but helps to explain how the distinguished Freed style, in large part a queer style, became visible. Further, Freed productions continued to secure their large budgets because more often than not, over the course of Freed's supervision, they showed healthy profits.

Freed pictures were eventually profitable. In spite of their large budgets, the general pattern of the films was to be their increasing box office success, not to mention the prestige that the Freed productions earned in the critical and popular commentary on them. The problem for the studio was that they would have been profitable for the comparatively autonomous system of the package-unit system that figured in Hollywood's future, but not for the producer-unit system. For one thing, the heavy demands of musical production on studio resources meant that Freed produced only two to three films per year through mid-1953, and in most years after that only one. If the unit had been able to put more films into production per year, Metro might have sustained the more customary producer-unit practices of the earlier classical mode of production; the problem here was that the scale of budgets for such films made producing more of them unthinkable in terms of the demands for studio capital and human labor investment.

While musicals were for any studio a large commitment to undertake, the films coming out of the Freed unit were particularly expensive and labor-intensive projects. And generally speaking, musicals offered by other units within Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and by other studios were profitable at the box office, but Freed films, particularly those produced later in the unit's history, such as An American in Paris (1950) and Singin' in the Rain (1951), proved to be particularly successful with audiences. My focus, though, is on earlier Freed films, some of which, from the viewpoint of the studio, were tremendous disappointments. Among the films of the 1940s, Ziegfeld Follies would show a small loss, while Yolanda and the Thief lost substantial money, and The Pirate proved an outright financial disaster. Nevertheless the earlier films have come to enjoy a status within hierarchies of camp readings greater than that accorded later Freed efforts. As Jane Feuer suggests,

A queer subcultural reading would elevate these two Minnelli masterpieces [Yolanda and the Thief and The Pirate] of the 1940s above the currently more esteemed Freed Unit musicals of the 1950s-Singin' in the Rain and The Band Wagon, whose sophistication stems more from their smart Comden and Green scripts than from elements of excess in their mise-en-scene.

Later Freed productions of the 1950s would herald a compromise between camp visual style and tighter narrative integration, and it is remarkable that despite money losers like Yolanda and the Thief and The Pirate, the unit continued to secure its financing. Indeed, Freed budgets did not diminish but expanded from production to production. In this, the studio seems to have gambled by investing in stylistically idiosyncratic productions that held no guarantee of showing a net profit. What Metro potentially stood to gainwere films markedly different from their competitors, difference that could (but did not always) reap returns for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's initial investments. Here I can only suggest that the later productions would more carefully balance the camp visual elements (no small feature of An American in Paris, for example) with the demands for "streamlined" (i.e., assertively heteronormative) narrative. In this respect, though, the earlier productions that I am discussing stand out as emblems of the unit's experiments with cinematic art direction, experiments whose failures at the box office served to aid in the refinement of subsequent films' camp style.

In the context of the remarkable contradiction of Freed productions within Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where a unit within a troubled corporation was allowed to produce seemingly with little or no executive supervision beyond that of Freed himself, camp style allows us to distinguish Freed productions from other Hollywood films and in fact from other film musicals of the period. How, though, do we align camp, which has long been understood as a practice performed by audiences on texts (which Feuer outlines) with an analysis of production? The realignment of camp as the labor that queers contributed to the production of these films should be underscored with an important caveat: at the very least, we should remember that the corporate interests of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in distinguishing its products were hardly identical with the interests of its queer laborers, as the latter brought features of queer metropolitan culture to the forms of mass entertainment. There is, however, the possibility of seeing such interests as coinciding with one another, particularly when the studio can profit from commodities that bear the marks of distinguishing efforts of queer laborers and camp philosophy.


Excerpted from Working like a homosexual by Matthew Thinkcom Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this

Steven Cohan
A brilliant, innovative study of camp that exceeds the terms in which this topic traditionally has been conceived. The result is a reformulation of camp as queer industrial labor, from the perspective of the production as well as the reception of that work. Anyone working on camp will hereafter have to reckon with this book.
author of Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties

Meet the Author

Matthew Tinkcom is Assistant Professor of English and of Communication, Culture, and Technology at Georgetown University.

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