20th Century Transinema


jack benny

by Zack Carlson

With great social changes rapidly sweeping the nation, it’s time for us to educate the less progressive minds around us on the increasingly important topic of gender identity. Fortunately, America has recently been slapped upside the head with an unmissable transgender news onslaught about a 1930s tennis star or something. But for those out there who are still wrestling with basic comprehension on this topic, the following movies— all available for rental from Scarecrow Video —will only confuse things further:

Chronologically, we begin with Charley’s Aunt (dir. Archie Mayo, 1941, 20th Century Fox).Tackling transvestitism rather than transsexuality, this was basically a golden age cross-dressing vehicle for primordial funnyman Jack Benny, and was the fourth big-screen US adaptation of Brandon Thomas’ play of the same name. The barren comedic soil of 1890’s Oxford University is the epicenter for a multi-layered mistaken identity romp featuring our protagonist in drag, years before Uncle Miltie would monopolize the straight-guy-in-a-dress schtick. Harrumphing monocled lords abound to gape at the infant-safe ribaldry. The most shocking recurring gag has Benny’s faux-hag locking lips with a couple young women who don’t much seem to mind making out with a little old lady. Pratfalls, rump-kicks and minor concussions keep things moving despite the fact that Benny would remain the least convincing woman in Hollywood until Randy Quaid leapt into a flowered smock for the Charles Bronson movie Breakout.

No-budget skin flick My Third Wife George (dir. Harry Kerwin, 1968, Something Weird Video) is also played for laughs, though they’re harder to find when buried beneath so much excessively dimpled flesh. A voiceover informs us that “the makers of Strange Rampage are pleased to present” this tale of love and loss between the physically repulsive. William Kerwin (here shamefully credited as Thomas Wood) is Ralph, a wealthy, nigh-virginal man-child who spends his evenings peeping though keyholes at his mother’s frumpy housecleaning staff. Despite an immediate dose of flapping breasts, the movie maintains an unlikely air of wholesomeness until the following roguish exchange in Ralph’s favorite dive bar:

HOOKER: I play games.
RALPH: What kind of games?
HOOKER: Naughty games.
RALPH: Do you play with nuts?
HOOKER: If they’re not too salty.
RALPH: These nuts come in a bag.

They proceed to take turns sucking on each others’ tongues. Graphically. While he’s clearly a man of action, Ralph can’t get past his emotional barriers, and bores a fellow drunk bachelor with the ragged details of his exploits with the fairer sex. He’s sampled marijuana with a nubile hippy and been attacked by her free-loving ladyfriends. He’s wed a cheating nymphomaniac maid with an unhealthy primate obsession. His next wife was a cash-hungry, conniving prude. But then there’s his third wife…well, you know. Though marketed as a taboo investigation into “homosexual perversion,” the gay angle is minimally explored, and only in the film’s last thirty seconds.

My Third Wife George was a product of the then-active Florida b-movie industry, now mostly remembered for the works of exploitation legends David F. Friedman and Herschell Gordon Lewis (who cast William Kerwin as the lead in several of his more enduring films). Greater Miami was surprisingly a flourishing TV and small-budget feature production hub through the ‘60s and early ‘70s. The Kerwins–William, Harry, Betty and Edmund–worked their way into all levels of the burgeoning scene, though it was William who rose to become its most familiar face…and even managed to marry former Playboy playmate Connie Mason in the process. His goofball mugging in this movie is a welcome shift from his brow-furrowing “dramatic” work in A Taste of Blood and 2000 Maniacs. His pasty, formless naked torso is a delight.

dinah east

Last up is the deeply mysterious Dinah East (dir. Gene Nash, 1970, Substance Video). When a Hollywood leading lady dies, the world is shocked by the revelation that the glamorous Dinah East was actually a man. The story is told in a series of flashbacks via those closest to her, from her former lovers to her unknowing adopted son. Though shot with the nudity and production values of the era’s exploitation output, the film is really an impressively structured, sympathetic and almost Sirkian view of transgender issues. Dinah’s pro-boxer boyfriend Tank Swenson (Matt Bennett) is eminently likable, and a dignified performance by Jeremy Stockwell in the title role is particularly impressive considering he wouldn’t work in the industry again for another twenty years. By all means, this film should have amassed an enormous cult following among both art house enthusiasts and trash hounds, but remains unknown largely due to none other than Mae West. The then-77-year-old actress had endured rumors that questioned her plumbing as well, and felt that both the name and exploits of Mz. East fell a little too close to home. She took the case to court and effectively silenced the threat to her reputation, allegedly then purchasing all known 35mm prints from distributors and having them destroyed. Even stranger is the fact that she starred in the major studio sex change comedy Myra Breckenridge the very same year.

VHS VAULT: Did somebody say “sex change”? Much less likely to hit the DVD market in the next ten decades is stirring drama The Woman Inside (dir. Joseph Van Winkle, 1981, Simitar Video). Wounded Vietnam War soldier Hollis MacKenzie has an epiphany while collapsed on the battlefield. He strokes a young Vietnamese girl’s face with his bloody hand and moans, “This is right. This is how it should be. I’m hideous and deformed. This is right.” Upon returning home, Hollis decides his only course to true happiness is through gender reassignment. A friendly specialist aids in the preparations, prescribing hormones and speech therapies that magically transform the soldier boy into the beautiful, graceful Holly. Not everyone is as supportive; Aunt Coll (the legendary Joan Blondell in her final role) is disgusted by the entire undertaking: “I always knew you were weird, but I didn’t know how weird. You’re sick…SICK WEIRD!!” After enduring gawking sleazoids and giving an earthshaking nut-smash to a would-be rapist, Holly falls for drunken Irish caricature Nolan. Afraid to reveal her secret to her irritating idiot boyfriend, she attends a support group for transsexuals, two of whom look like Walter Matthau and Fred Flintstone. NOTE: I don’t mention this to make light of their appearance, but rather to praise the filmmakers for including non-femme examples of trans people (which was not Hollywood’s norm in the ’80s).

Actress Gloria Manon does a pretty incredible job as both the masculine and feminine MacKenzie, and carries the clunky developments and dialogue with unexpected nobility. Eventually, the intricacies of the human heart are laid bare and Holly dances with a guy wearing a gorilla suit and novelty sunglasses while he plays the saxophone on a wharf.

Scarecrow board member (and former employee) Zack Carlson is a film programmer, screenwriter, producer, author, hobo, and carnivore. He lives in Austin, TX with his wife, cat, and over 4000 VHS tapes.


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