On my list of things to post about, I am approximately a zillion movies behind, but I have to make a note of Way Out West
(1930), a Western comedy-romance directed by Fred Niblo for MGM, because I have finally seen William Haines in a talkie and I was not expecting the way it turned out to be pre-Code. I wish I had some kind of seminar about Hollywood treatments of queerness to screen it in. I should just watch The Celluloid Closet
(1996) already, shouldn't I?
I discovered Haines a couple of years ago with King Vidor's Show People
(1928), a delightful piece of late silent Hollywood meta starring Marion Davies as a natural comedienne who gets derailed by her studio into becoming a phony tragedienne and has to be rescued by a stiff spritz of seltzer in the face and the down-to-earth fellow-feeling of true love; Haines plays her baggy-pants co-star and was one of the more lively, naturalistic, and charming actors I'd seen from the silent period. He has great playful chemistry with Davies, a clown's limber body and the kind of fresh face that can flip from good-looking to goofy—or vice versa—with a grin. Van Heflin
can mime fish-catching like nobody's business, but Haines remains the only actor I have ever seen loop-the-loop a bite of spaghetti or make his eyes pop like a Tex Avery wolf with a pair of hot dog rolls and it's sweet
. He plays what Mary Renault calls "the standard boy-meets-girl manœuvres" with tongue lightly in cheek, as if inviting the heroine to join him in the masquerade; he plays the emotional connection for real. I left the Somerville desperately curious to know what he was like with sound. When one of his talkies came around on TCM, I seized my chance.Way Out West
is a classically pre-Code combination of not much to write home about and unfiltered id. Most of Haines' starring features revolved around a wisecracking anti-hero who needed to be taken down a peg before he could get the girl; here that's "Windy" Windermere, a sideshow talker slick enough to fleece the crowd of heavy-breathing cowboys he enticed backstage for a few minutes of private time with cooch dancer "La Belle Rosa" ("She's too hot to handle with bare hands and it's against the law for her to sleep in a frame building") and too full of his own cleverness to twig when La Belle pockets the take herself and skips town. With no way to repay the $200 when his suspicious marks circle back and catch him packing up his rigged roulette gear, Windy finds himself shanghaied to the ranch to work off his theft through a regimen of menial and mocking tasks, as the different hands take their turns "riding herd" on their tenderfoot toy. I'm sorry, this premise comes with kink goggles built in. As the weeks go by, the hard-rode Windy begins to pick up the responsibilities of ranch life despite his best intentions; he falls in love with spirited boss Molly Rankin (Leila Hyams, one of Haines' silent co-stars) almost the same way. Initially as unimpressed as her men, she's the first to notice that their captive con man is "taking his medicine without a whole lot of kicking" even when it almost actually kills him. The knockabout slapstick of the early scenes eases off in favor of the real possibility of Windy proving himself—not to the still-sore cowboys, Molly's protective brother (Charles Middleton) and would-be boyfriend (Francis X. Bushman Jr.) included, but to himself, with the challenging encouragement of Molly who believes he's better than chiseling and weaseling and running away all the time. Of course, dramatic tension being what it is, he chisels, weasels, and runs away at least once each before the heroic denouement, but anyone who thinks he won't come through in the clinch has not been paying attention to Hollywood. All throughout, Haines is as charming as I'd hoped from Show People
, his breezy, boisterous voice translating as easily from intertitles as his physical expressiveness from silent comedy. He is also playing with masculinity in ways that I find fascinating even while I feel I can only parse about half of them. Put it this way: I had sort of gotten the idea that the major exponent of camp in pre-Code Hollywood was Mae West. On the strength of Way Out West
, it may have been Billy Haines.
It is not quite the same phenomenon as Edward Everett Horton in RKO's Roar of the Dragon
(1932), although it's in the ballpark. The difference is that Horton is a character actor, a supporting player with the latitude to depart from the conventional virtues of his gender and station, so that while we can be treated to the extraordinary sight of his maiden-auntish hotel clerk courageously manning a machine gun while wearing more eyeliner than a Cure concert, the A-plot still presents Richard Dix as the actual hero, a two-fisted riverboat captain with a rugged jaw and one of those macho drinking problems to overcome. There's no actual hero in Way Out West
. Or there is; it's Haines, with the looks and voice of a leading man, convincingly playing a late-breaking mensch with more spine than he thought and depths he's a little embarrassed to admit to. He saves the life of the woman he loves at the risk of his own, he holds his own with his fists against a man he previously lost a fight to, he stages a shootout and braves a sandstorm with the best of them. His specialty at the start is the quick grift and the quicker fade; by the credits there's no doubt that he can face all comers head-on. That's heroism by the book. And it's performed by a hero who is snarky, slippery, and frequently, deliberately, camp. Actual lines spoken by Windy include "No, sir! I ain't flirting with no bull's wife" and "Well, I'm the wildest pansy you ever picked," not to mention the subject header, spoken in reference to Bushman's six foot four of well-built cowpuncher. He cuts his eyes sardonically at the ranch hands, who whistle at him and call him beautiful when he appears dandily modeling his carnival duds, cane and boutonnière and crisp straw boater and all (right before they send him to muck out a stable). A similar catwalk ensues when he turns up to dinner in the full Western rig he swindled out of Cliff Edwards' doleful Trilby, announcing that he doesn't just have the clothes—ten-gallon hat, dudely neckerchief, and woolly chaps out to here—he has "the figure to wear them" (right before they send him to scrub out the kitchen). Reluctantly facing a corral of surly longhorns with a milk pail in his hand, Windy gives his tormentor of the day a dirty look and then sallies forth with saccharine daintiness: "'A-milking, sir,' she said." Flirting with Molly over breakfast, he sticks an unpeeled banana in his mouth like a stogie and then tells a racy joke with it, just in case you thought it was maybe just a cigar.
It's all diegetic. This is what keeps the movie from turning into a 71-minute pansy joke: Windy uses camp exactly as it is used in the offscreen world, for self-defense, for subversion, burlesquing his position as citified sissy among the butch cowpokes, for self-assertion and survival. Narrowly escaped from the lynching that was the cowboys' first inspiration for dealing with their "thieving galoot," he coughs off his near-death experience with bravado petulance: "I don't want to play with you kids—you're too rough!" That provocative line about inhaling another man comes out when Windy's facing a fight that he knows he's going to lose, so he might as well get pasted saying something that was worth it. Even his silent responses are eloquently theatrical: realizing that he's dressed in his best for the benefit of a pile of horseshit, he checks his cuffs and tie as meticulously as if he's about to step in front of an audience and starts shoveling; when Molly rolls up in her jalopy to see how he's getting on, he makes a production of arranging the last wisps of hay on top of the heap like a prize entry in a flower show. He always does the work—he doesn't have a choice about it—and increasingly he does it well. Damned if he's going to do it on their terms, though.
It's not the only note in the character's repertoire, either. He has serious moments and some of them are startling. We don't see him lose his fight with Bushman's Steve when they step outside at the eve-of-roundup party; we watch an unruffled Steve come back afterward, dismissing the incident as "one wallop and he was through." Cut to Windy outside in the darkened yard, looking rather more grazed and bruised than one wallop would seem to account for. It feels like a pre-Code touch that he has the kind of busted nosebleed that makes a mask of his face; he's trying to clean himself up and stop the bleeding with the same overmatched handkerchief when he sees figures emerging from the house and takes cover in the brush, from which vantage point he observes and misinterprets Molly's gentle but firm letdown of Steve—complete with platonic parting hug—for its exact opposite. The camera closes on his face after the other two have gone. He looks hurt and he looks cynical with himself for being hurt. Molly's the boss; Steve's her best friend since childhood, not to mention her best hand. Windy's as weightless as his name, the "coyote" who clowns his way through the scut work, the flim-flam man who got caught. He helped Molly decorate for the party, but was informed by her brother in no uncertain terms that his "kind" weren't welcome among the guests (carnies, con artists, Easterners, queer men, whatever: this means you). Getting knocked down by a bigger, tougher man doesn't surprise him. Losing out romantically because of it shouldn't. But it still hurts. And his nose is still bleeding. And I hate misunderstanding as a plot device almost as much as I hate love triangles, but Haines' wordless acting makes this one work. The one that drives most of the climactic action, I'm sorry, not so much. The last lines are still cute.
These days, Haines is almost certainly less famous for his pictures than his place in Hollywood history as the never-closeted gay silent star whose career snapped off short in 1933 when he refused to trade his longtime boyfriend for a beard at the express request of Louis B. Mayer; he never made another movie after 1934 and he lived openly with Jimmie Shields until his death in 1973, the two of them making a name for themselves as successful interior designers and "the happiest married couple in Hollywood." This was the only thing I knew about Haines going into Show People
, where it's enlightening but not vital information; it's impossible for me not to see it in Way Out West
. On the one hand, this is a movie about a swishy city slicker who builds character through hazing and finally comes out on top by doing a bunch of manly stuff even better than the manly men. On the other, it's a movie in which the hero's bravest act is to walk into a party with the person he loves on his arm and start waltzing together in full view of a crowd of very straight, very hostile men who have promised to beat him up for it—one of whom actually will. "I don't stand a Chinaman's chance around here and you know it. But that ain't saying I'm yellow. Do you want to dance?" Sure, Windy's asking a woman. But Billy and Jimmie were inseparable from the moment they met in New York City until long after Mayer's cold feet about Depression finances and impending Code enforcement had kicked them both off the red carpet and it's not difficult to draw a line from one kind of courage to the other: they must have walked together into similar rooms many times. On the third hand, even if you take the plot at face value, I find it pleasantly anti-heteronormative to watch a leading man flame through a movie and still get the girl in the end, never quite straightening out along the way.
I have plans to meet my mother for a different movie entirely, so I should put this post to bed before I start doing research. The fact that Way Out West
exists still kind of amazes me. It can't be the gayest thing I've seen from the pre-Code era, but it's up there. The use of camp and the relatively open in-jokes make it feel as though it must have been linked to the short-lived but nationwide "pansy craze" of the early '30's, when drag performers were trendy and flamboyant queerness was a box-office draw rather than a bridge too far, but it was a bust financially, which is fair, because I'm not actually sure that aside from Haines (and Hyams, with whom he has real chemistry when the script stays out of their way) it's much good. Cliff Edwards has a nice musical number with his ukulele, after which spatch
pointed out that I'd have recognized him immediately if he looked like Jiminy Cricket. The opening scenes in the sideshow are glittery, seedy, and just business as usual for the performers. I'm not sure how the Hopi village got into the third act, but at least the stereotyping was kept to a minimum. If you want to track this one down, do it strictly for Billy "The boys wouldn't let me go if I wanted to" Haines, but I can tell you that at least for me he was worth it. This crack brought to you by my wise backers at Patreon