Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

08 May 2013

The Warm Embrace of the Spanish Main

I love watching movies and noticing strange homoerotic activity. Last night I watched the Frank Borzage Technicolor pirate drama The Spanish Main. It's a beautifully shot film – the "glorious Technicolor" is sort of amazing – but the only print available is via the Warner Archive and the colors fluctuate and are not quite at the level they might be were it to be restored.

Also... the movie stars Paul Henreid as a powerful swashbuckler and he doesn't quite do it for me in this role. Truth be told, he would do a couple other pirate movies after The Spanish Main, including one in which he played Jean Lafitte, the American pirate/hero. Now, don't get me wrong, I love Paul Henreid as an actor, I just don't really buy him as a dangerous pirate. He spends most of the movie grinning broadly, so I guess that isn't so bad.

And Maureen O'Hara is fine, too, (and gorgeous, obviously) but she's playing the daughter of the viceroy of México, and she doesn't look a bit Spanish and speaks in a proper mid-Atlantic accent. Walter Slezak plays some kind of petty Spanish despot and is delightful and funny (and I even sort of bought him as a Spaniard). There is also a lesbian pirate played by British actress Binnie Barnes who is sort of in love with Paul Henreid (but whom we are clearly supposed to read as queer-identified).

The thing that struck me the most about The Spanish Main, though, were two parallel scenes in the film's first hour. In the first one, Walter Slezak is being fitted for an outfit for his wedding (he is supposed to marry Maureen O'Hara) and so he is talking to one of his ministers while the effeminate haberdasher (played by Bobby Barber) measures the portly man for his suit of clothes. This happens:

Immediately after this, Slezak looks down and says to the little man: You are to fit me, not fondle me.

It's a very strange no-homo moment in this movie.

But then a couple of scenes later, after Paul Henreid has been whipped aboard a ship (we don't see any of this whipping, obviously, since it is 1945), two of his friends go to rescue him and this happens:

Aside from the fact that Paul Henreid is shirtless and so the scene is even weirder, no one thinks to comment on the odd position that Henreid's friend (Curt Bois) is in as he unties him. Henreid doesn't have no-homo moment. He just goes with it.

And then...

...the cinematographer just zooms right in. Look at Curt Bois's face! This whole situation is hilarious to me.

And it shouldn't surprise us that movies like this from the 1940s and '50s alternately embrace and disavow homoeroticism in various ways. The Spanish Main's relationship with homoeroticism (including the conversations between the two women) is incredibly complex.

As you know, I am always on the lookout for such things, and somehow it turns out that I usually find something.