Arriving more than a little late, we finally caught up with the closing event in Fringe! Queer Film & Arts Fest’s QUEER SQUEE season, a celebration of film & TV fandom (27 JUL 2019). Here’s what we discovered.
By RADIANT CIRCUS
Sometimes you just need a cinema event to put a big grin on your face, leaving you ready to grapple again with London’s many charms in a better mood than the one you went in with… So it was on Saturday evening after we arrived half an hour late (long story…) for the last of Fringe!’s QUEER SQUEE season: a double bill of films teasingly titled JUDY JUDY JUDY.
Our late arrival meant that we missed what would have been, we’re sure, a welcoming intro from Fringe! programmer Sean McGovern and a first act performance from queen ShayShay. Sliding into The Cinema Museum’s cafe seating, determined not to interrupt the audience, meant that we also saw two-thirds of Morgan White’s jaw slackening documentary THE SLIPPERS from between the legs of a giant Charlie Chaplin room divider. Fortunately, the film didn’t need silent cinema’s most famous limbs to bring it to life.
“Evil tends to attach itself to things that are precious.”
THE SLIPPERS d. Morgan White, 2016/USA
Multiple copies were made of Dorothy’s famed ruby slippers for both wardrobe tests and actual filming. The story of how they came to be salvaged from near ruin, smuggled into the market place and repeatedly resold at auction is an alternately sweet and bitter tale of obsessive fandom, greed and villainy. Along the way we learn about the emergence of film memorabilia as a global commodity, the movie studios slowly transitioning from treating costumes and props as disposable assets to the modern day when they are closely guarded, carefully archived treasures.
The various pairs of slippers retain an air of supercharged mystery as one of the most iconic bits of wardrobe to ever be fought over by gay men of a certain age. That one pair was stolen after being on loan at the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids Minnesota – their remaining highlights include “Judy Garland’s original work permit, 1933” – only adds to the drama, acrimony and near-hysteria that surrounds shoes destined for dust. Our favourite anecdote? Possibly where the precious owner of the to-be-stolen pair, Michael Shaw, denies a young blind girl the opportunity to touch them in her faithful pursuit of a cure…
Ultimately, it’s also a tale of yet more creativity lost to HIV/AIDS as the original emancipator of the shoes from the backlot skips – ROCKFORD FILES and THE A-TEAM costume designer Kent Warner – died never seeing the twisted forces he had unleashed. And in case you’re worried about those missing slippers, they were recovered by the FBI in 2018, after 13 years on the road and two years after the doc was made.
After a welcome interval – the Cinema Museum’s well stocked beer collection almost insists you pair a beverage with your movie – the stage was taken by Fringe!’s chief programmer Muffin Hix to introduce THE HARVEY GIRLS, a curious Garland musical chosen by the director of THE SLIPPERS to accompany his doc. Before the film, ShayShay delivered a lip-curled mime of The Trolley Song from MEET ME IN ST LOUIS mashed with The Trolley Problem, an ethical consideration about whether it’s better to kill one or ten with runaway public transportation.
Which delivers us neatly to THE HARVEY GIRLS.
“Nice girls can ruin a town”
THE HARVEY GIRLS d. George Sidney, 1946/USA
Don’t come to a 1946 musical set in a USA frontier town if gender conformity, race and the eradication of indigenous peoples are your various trigger points… THE HARVEY GIRLS might be pure of heart, but they really don’t care. The film itself isn’t a universal success either, never really building up a head of steam, the plot lurching along like the locomotive carriages that deposit our company in town at its opening.
Arriving in Sandrock, Arizona as the victim of catfishing, Judy steps off the train to marry a man she’s never seen before seeing him and shacking up with a bunch of high-buttoned waitresses instead. The Harvey Girls have arrived to open another in the booming Harvey’s House track-side restaurant chain, credited in the opening titles with cleaning up joint after joint as the western territories were claimed.
This “nostalgic whiff of the old west” (The New York Daily News) comes saddled with an overwhelming sense of weirdness due to its fumbled herstory. It’s that rarest of things: “a technicolored musical celebrating the coming of chastity, clean silverware, and crumbless tablecloths to the pioneer Southwest” (Time). Whilst it’s great to see so much women on women action in the telling of such tales – a bar brawl between the Harveys and the whores, complete with waitress riding a chandelier through frame like an avenging valkyrie, grabs more attention than any of the songs – we always know where everyone has to end up come THE END.
What really works is the simmering stand-off between a smokey-eyed Angela Lansbury as the hooker-in-chief at the town’s established Alhambra and the doe-eyed Judy as she battles for love, truth and wholesomeness in the only way she can (even going so far as preparing to join the oldest profession in pursuit of the man she loves…). In addition to the brawl, three further sequences stand out. Garland flexes her comic genius when staging a gun-toting meat heist to rescue stolen supplies that threaten the restaurant’s opening night. Butch blacksmith Virginia O’Brien grabs a horseshoe fresh from the fire before showing Judy’s old sissy pal from the Yellow Brick Road, Ray Bolger, how it’s done. And then Bolger pretty much steals the entire show with a trademark, endlessly looping, rubbery tap-dance.
Time has moved on, but you’ll probably still sit there with a big grin. We sure did.
HUNGRY FOR MORE?
- Fringe! Queer Film & Arts Fest promotes a year round programme of delights. The festival returns in November.
- The Cinema Museum is home to many a queer gathering as part of their revolving programme of guest and in-house attractions.
- You can see THE SLIPPERS on Vimeo.
FILM FEELS: OBSESSION
QUEER SQUEE was part of the nationwide Film Feels: Obsession season exploring the enduring appeal of obsession on screen. Find out more: filmfeels.co.uk
FRINGE! QUEER FILM & ARTS FEST
“Since 2011, Fringe! Queer Film & Arts Fest has been an entirely volunteer-run organisation rooted in London’s queer creative scene. In Novembers, and throughout the year, we showcase an eclectic mix of films, arts and events celebrating LGBTIQA+ stories from around the world, welcoming everybody.”
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