<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> IMPROBABLE STUFF: CAMP AND THE MGM HOUSE STYLE <p> <p> In her autobiography, Esther Williams recalls the audience response to the 1944 sneak previews of her first musical, then titled <i>Mr. Coed</i>: <p> The comment cards filled out by the audiences all over southern California were not just positive, they were glowing. There was every indication that MGM had a big hit on their hands. What the moviegoers liked best, of course, was the improbable stuff that had little to do with the script. They were wild about the swimming numbers, especially the water carnival musical extravaganza at the finale, and they were enthusiastic about me, too. As a result, a decision was made on the third floor. When the picture was released, it was no longer <i>Mr. Coed</i>. The new title was <i>Bathing Beauty</i>, and I got to share top billing with Red Skelton. (115) <p> <p> The trailer which Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer fashioned for the retitled musical, produced by Jack Cummings and directed by George Sidney, was designed to feature "what the moviegoers liked best, of course," namely, "the improbable stuff that had little to do with the script." The trailer describes <i>Bathing Beauty</i> as "A show SO BIG-SO GLORIOUSLY beautiful ... It will set a NEW STANDARD in screen achievement!" To support its grand claim, the trailer displays the somewhat eclectic assortment of talents gathered together for this musical: radio comedian Red Skelton, Harry James's swing band with Helen Forrest, Xavier Cugat's Latin band with Lina Romay, former Hit Parade organist Ethel Smith, Colombian singer Carlos Ramirez, and newly top-billed Esther Williams featured with the obligatory assembly of "girls! Girls! GIRLS!" in the "Aqua-Ballet," hailed as "the most Dazzlingly Color Spectacle Ever Filmed!" Clips from the big water ballet-showgirls dancing on stage, followed by a line of swimmers moving in perfect synchrony in the pool below-open the trailer. Introducing the film's two leads, snippets of plot scenes with the red-haired comic and muscular swimming star follow in quick succession. These give fleeting glimpses of Williams posed in her bathing suit, then of Skelton performing in a pink tutu to "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" and resisting his costar's aggressive lovemaking. The latter two excerpts are taken out of context (for in the film Skelton's drag and reluctance to kiss Williams are narratively motivated), but then plot seems insignificant to this coming attraction: afterward follow a string of clips featuring the many musical artists rounding out the cast and another preview of the grandiose spectacle of the aqua-ballet. In short, according to the trailer, <i>Bathing Beauty</i> promises to be irresistible camp entertainment on all counts. <p> As I mentioned in the introduction, the Hollywood musical's camp fan base has been equated almost exclusively with gay men. Their fascination with the musical is often attributed to the genre's exaggerated style and its great female stars, particularly when the two elements combine in the oversized, outlandish spectaculars of the sort typified by Esther Williams's "aquamusicals" for MGM, beginning with <i>Bathing Beauty</i>. "The Hollywood musical," Paul Roen observes when introducing his first of two volumes cataloguing movie camp, "is a genre which, by definition, exudes camp." Musicals, he explains, not only allow people suddenly to burst into song but they are "all awash with glitter, tinsel, and garish artifice" (11-12). David Van Leer makes the same claim, though he reverses the equation. "Camp," he states, "imitates the hyperbole of musicals and popular movies as well as other visual extravagances like overstated decor and fashion, and especially cross-dressing" (20). Whether the musical "exudes" camp or camp "imitates" the musical, it follows from both observations that, if camp had not had its own historical existence as a cultural practice, the Hollywood musical would surely have had to invent it, and vice versa. <p> Camp and the musical seem a perfectly matched couple, as fated to be mated as Astaire and Rogers, Garland and Rooney, Kelly and Sinatra, or Williams and water, but their pairing, while axiomatic today, did not stand out as noticeably when the genre dominated studio production in terms of profits, expense, shooting schedules, labor, and for MGM, reputation. At the Culver City lot, musicals were handled by three specialized units-headed by Arthur Freed, Joe Pasternak, and Jack Cummings-which between them turned out six to ten films annually. Throughout the 1940s and until the mid-1950s, their musicals, Freed's in particular, often made the difference between profit and loss for MGM's corporate owner, Loew's. The three units could deliver a reliable product because the producers had unrestricted access to major and minor stars along with all the studio artists and craftspeople who developed projects for them on a daily basis. <p> The musical served as Metro's signature product, so much so that the studio became solely identified with the aesthetic evolution of the integrated musical which seamlessly blends story and spectacle. As the trailer for <i>Bathing Beauty</i> illustrates, however, what MGM marketed was the genre's oversized spectacle, achieved by a combination of oftentimes very diverse musical elements with the aim of dazzling the spectator's eyes and ears, not of advancing the story. The studio's reputation rested on its musicals' lavish production values. These included not only extravagant sets and outlandish costumes, the saturated look of Technicolor, major stars like Esther Williams and Judy Garland, leading songwriters like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, and all those "girls! Girls! GIRLS!" but also spots for big dance numbers or dream ballets, for minor comics like Rags Ragland, for contract players who later became big stars, like June Allyson, or those who never did, like Ray McDonald, for second-string performers who always had a specialty number or two, like Ann Miller and Virginia O'Brien, for African American talent in isolated segments, primarily Lena Horne but also the likes of Stump and Stumpy (James Cross and Eddie Hartman), for popular bands like Harry James's and Xavier Cugat's-and let's not forget Jos Iturbi! <p> During the heyday of musicals production at the Culver City studio in the 1940s, when each new film was, like <i>Bathing Beauty</i>, promoted for its size and grandeur, its "Dazzlingly Color Spectacle," MGM routinely designed product with its large roster of contracted talent in mind. More often than not, the studio planned musicals around a formal principle of aggregation rather than integration. An aggregate form includes numbers "as a series of self-contained high-lights that work to weaken the dominance of a homogenous, hierarchical narrative continuity" (Rubin, 18). It harks back to the genre's stage origins in what Martin Rubin calls a "Tradition of Spectacle"-from older formats such as P. T. Barnum's American Museum, the minstrel show, the three-ring circus, and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, to newer ones such as vaudeville, burlesque, the annual Ziegfeld Follies revues, and the aquacade where Esther Williams got her start. In any of its many incarnations, this tradition specializes in "feelings of abundance, variety, and wonder" (4), the dazzle <i>Bathing Beauty</i>'s trailer tells audiences to anticipate. <p> Whereas an aggregate form accumulates numbers without regard for narrative unity or continuity, an integrated form places numbers in support of narrative, so they seem to derive from and remain bound to a plot and its characters. With the exception of revues, no single musical purely adheres to one form or the other, of course. In conformity with the standards of classical Hollywood filmmaking, almost all MGM musicals tell a story, even if simplified to make room for numbers. The history of the musical, however, is usually viewed as a progression from the primitiveness of aggregation to the maturity of integration, as epitomized by MGM's output in the 1940s and 1950s. "The integrated structure lends itself easily to supporting the American musical as art," Sean Griffin comments when summarizing the critical consensus, "providing the sense of a unified and cohesive work in which all the pieces are in concert with each other" (23). This view minimizes the genre's enduring "vaudeville tradition"-"a standardized plot broken up by various performers (who often play little or no part in the narrative) coming out and doing numbers" (29). For Griffin, an aggregate aesthetic distinguishes Fox's musicals from MGM's, typically held in higher regard because of their integrated structure. Yet as the genre emerged out of studio practices from the 1930s through the 1950s, even at MGM it built on "a shifting and volatile dialectic between integrative and nonintegrative elements" (Rubin, 12)-between the contrasting cinematic values of story and spectacle, respectively. That dialectic, central to the films' alternative history of camp appeal, is crystallized in MGM'S house style, which <i>Bathing Beauty</i> exemplifies; it is present in the form of the studio's musicals as well as their distinctive look, and made most evident when the aggregate energies of numbers, viewed individually and collectively, visually and contextually, pull against aesthetic conventions centered on an expectation of integration. <p> The MGM house style helps to account for the musicals' camp reputation because the style's formal tensions correspond with (in the sense of paralleling but also of addressing) the dialectical operation of camp as an ironic engagement with the incongruities of the dominant culture's representational systems and hierarchical value codings, particularly but not exclusively with respect to gender and sexuality. As I shall show, <i>Bathing Beauty</i> well illustrates how the MGM style can draw racialized ethnicity into this dialectic, too. The house style incites category dissonance, visualizes it as the juxtaposition of cultural binaries, emphasizes it through overadornment and exaggerated theatricality, and aims it with humor and wit. Let me clarify right away, however, that my objective is not to locate a camp intention on the part of individual filmmakers, even though I will consider the input of the studio's considerable gay labor force working behind the scenes. Rather, I concentrate on the house style's own representation of cultural incongruities for evidence of how, at their moment of collaborative production, the musicals were already addressing the possibility of a camp spectator watching alongside a mainstream audience. Furthermore, I am understanding "house style" to combine all the key elements of the MGM brand: the mise-en-scne's display of artifice and excess interacting with other crafted elements of spectacle, such as performance and choreography, and the formal arrangement of numbers with narrative. As a means of establishing the basis for putting together camp and the MGM musicals historically through their distinctive studio look, I now follow a route that will lead me to the "fairies" in the studio's famous Arthur Freed unit, Lucille Ball's tangling with some cat-women, the significance of the aggregate form for MGM, and eventually back full circle to Esther Williams's swimming pool, Harry James's horn, and Xavier Cugat's maracas. <p> <p> SINGING LOUD WITH THE FREED UNIT <p> The labor force working at MGM when musicals dominated the studio's production schedules was, in discrete circles at least, fully versed in the idiom of camp. Much of this labor force remains anonymous. In the departments responsible for the specialized work that went into the making of a musical, the people involved exceeded the credits on any given motion picture, since only the department head and his or her senior assistant was listed. According to William J. Mann's history of gay and lesbian labor in Hollywood, the hegemony of homosexual workers was pronounced in certain units and absent in others, with the distinction based on gender stereotypes of the job and reinforced by hiring practices: the more technical the task (camera, sound, set construction), the more rigidly heterosexual the environment. <p> For instance, the art decoration department (responsible for the architectural design of sets) was predominantly heterosexual, though headed by Cedric Gibbons, a man rumored to be homosexual despite having been married twice. But the set decoration unit-headed by Edwin B. Willis, married once but not heterosexual-was accepted as an occupation suitable for gay men, who comprised about a third of the total workers in the division. This distinction was industry-wide, but "the trend was most obvious at MGM, where [among the set decorators] homosexuals were considerably higher in the pecking order" (Mann, 217). At MGM, the same applied to research, which, with the exception of two secretaries, was an all-gay enclave who worked closely with the set dressers on decor and props. The research department head, Elliot Morgan, recalled the conviviality among them: "Oh, my, yes, camp humor certainly did bounce off the walls" (197). As for the properties division, "the standing joke around Hollywood was that whenever anyone would ask where to get the best antiques in Los Angeles, they were told the MGM prop department"-all four fully stocked floors (219). Of all departments, though, "the most obvious and undisguised gay ghetto in Hollywood remained wardrobe" (227). At MGM wardrobe included queer fashion designers (Walter Plunkett, Irene Sharaff, Gile Steele, possibly Adrian) but also their assistants, sketch artists, fitters, sewers-<i>everyone</i> in wardrobe was rumored to be queer, even if they were not (236-37). <p> Aside from wardrobe, the most recognized queer presence on the Culver City lot was in the Arthur Freed unit, including many of its important directors, composers, arrangers, and choreographers, all interacting closely with the studio's set dressers, researchers, and costumers. Nicknamed "Freed's fairies" (Mann, 270, Ehrenstein, 82), the unit's queer reputation still holds fast. A 2000 special issue of <i>Daily Variety</i> on "Gay Hollywood" charts an eight-decade chronology of gay and lesbian milestones, and it lists, as one of only two exceptional moments in the forties, "the Arthur Freed unit at MGM, aka 'Freed's fairies'" for their "many musical classics," beginning with the 1944 production of <i>Meet Me in St. Louis</i> (11 October 2000, a3). Freed, a renowned lyricist before he started producing, was not himself homosexual, but his assistant, Roger Edens, was. Edens, who started working for MGM in the mid-1930s, arranged and wrote musical scores for the films, decided which numbers to include or exclude and where or how to place them, and ran day-to-day operations for Freed, eventually receiving an assistant producer credit. The Freed musical as it evolved into MGM's most prestigious and reliable line of product would have been unthinkable without Edens. <p> "Freed's fairies" seems to me a double-edged honorific; it designates begrudging, even disdainful or prejudicial recognition of a visible queer niche within the otherwise conservative studio. The nonconformity of the unit's members troubled nervous straight outsiders, but their value for MGM's reputation as the supreme producer of musicals could not be denied. The nickname may call to mind a group of effeminate men working together to put on a show in the best tradition of MGM's musicals with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, but the homosexual, bisexual, and effete men associated with the Freed unit differed amongst themselves in their openness at the studio and in private life, just as they by no means resembled each other in demeanor or conformed as a group to the "fairy" stereotype. <p> <i>(Continues...)</i> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>Incongruous Entertainment</b> by <b>Steven Cohan</b> Copyright © 2005 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS . Excerpted by permission.<br> All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.