Broadway Melody and the Lesbian Plot|
The Broadway Melody premiered on February 1, 19298. The storyline creates the basic structure for the whole series-newcomers looking to make a break on Broadway. This first time the story focuses on two sisters, Hank and Queenie9. Eddie, Hank's fiancÚ, arranges the sisters' break, but Queenie's looks land them the job. The struggle then focuses on the sisters' desire to keep each other happy with Eddie as the pawn between them.
When looked at in this light, The Broadway Melody does not exactly fit into what Rick Altman would late describe as the structure of musicals-"a dual focus, built around parallel stars of opposite sex and radically divergent values" with the goal to bring the man and woman together through the moderation of their values10. By classifying the musical as heterosexual at its essence, Altman accentuates how this musical differs in form because of its lack of heterosexual tension. While the film does eventually bring Eddie together with Queenie, this is clearly not the resolution of the film; Queenie and Eddie marry off screen. The climax is Hank's lone sacrifice of marriage and sister, not Eddie getting together with Queenie. This climax is further accentuated by the film's final shot of Hank instead of the united couple. Instead of gaining resolution through Eddie, the men in Broadway Melody amplify the weakness of men, not the mystified masculine power that entraps women. The only thing that entraps women in The Broadway Melody is the presumption of heterosexuality.
One way to access the implied lesbianism of the plot is to note that that the Duncan Sisters, two vaudeville performers, like Hank and Queenie, were the basis for the story. In their routines Rosetta Duncan cross-dressed in the role of a man while Vivian played the woman. Rosetta also often appeared in blackface further setting off this contrast between the two11. The cross-gender roles were accentuated by the cross-racial roles because as Eric Lott has written, blackface allows for a release from sexual inhibitions because of the stereotype of blacks as innately more sexual12.
In "White Like Me," Lott looks at male homosexual desire being accentuated by a white man in blackface who is able to gain closer access to the black penis, what he labels as the "object of white male desire,"13 but as he continues his analysis, I also see how this same blackface can reveal lesbian tendencies. Lott discusses a mirror scene in "Black like Me," the movie text he has been analyzing. Griffin, the white man in blackface, writes that, "The Griffin that was had become invisible"14. Like Ellison, he sees blackness as a kind of invisibility-an invisibility that could be emotionally paralleled with the social invisibility of lesbianism. Invisibility and lack identify both female sexuality and a racial position. Therefore, Rosetta inhabits the role of the male by cross-dressing, and then further enables herself to play the sexual opposite to her sister by putting on blackface, as lesbian sexualization15.
This troupe of cross-dressing is further accentuated in Radcliffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, a popular book which was published only a year before Broadway Melody. In the book, the main character Stephen Gordon, a female, thinks of herself as an invert, a sexology term for a woman who acts and dresses like a man and desires sexual relationships with women16. Solidly grounded in the sexology of the time, The Well of Loneliness is still used as an example of how sexology used inversion as the common way to explain lesbianism at the end of the 1920s by giving women a sexual agency while trying to force the pairing into male/female terms (the women who has agency is male identified)17.
Hank reads like Stephen because of her masculine name, her occasional cross-dressing on stage, and her boxers--Stephen also wears male clothes down to her underwear. An additional plot similarity is found in Eddie. Eddie comes across as a weak male. He is a composer, but he's ineffectual in the theatre possibly because he also performs in it18. (Zanfield doesn't listen to him, even though Eddie claims to have great influence. Eddie gets beaten up when he tries to fight for Queenie.) Eddie is like Stephen's close male friend Martin, a sensitive male, who at first wants to marry Stephen, but then falls in love with Stephen's girlfriend Mary. In the end Stephen sacrifices her female companion to Martin to allow her companion a place in the world while Stephen is left rootless. Similarly, Hank tells Eddie to go after Queenie, forcing Hank to return to the road circuit to become a "trouper" while Queenie gets security in marriage.
The attention The Well of Loneliness received may have fostered material for Broadway Melody, but it may also have warned the production on how to present that material. Both England and the United States brought the publishers of The Well of Loneliness up on obscenity charges both in England and the United States19. Logically then, although the producers of Broadway Melody may have taken the idea of the invert from Hall's The Well of Loneliness, it may also have taken the advice that a more subtle representation would have to be developed in order not to create law suits.
Thus Broadway Melody retells the story of the Duncan Sisters through the trope of sexual inversion. Hank's inversion is masked by her engagement to Eddie and by the impossibility that Hank's object of desire could be her own sister. Hank and Eddie only superficially demonstrate their love. As soon as he sees Queenie he is drawn to her, and he only seems to be concerned about Hank's feelings as a matter of courtesy. Eddie exists as a way for the sisters to access Broadway and then a way for them to be separated. (His character didn't even exist in early drafts of the story.)20
Using familial connections as a way to disguise homosexuality may be an effective measure, for when discussing this movie, after the question, "do you really believe its in there?", the first argument against my theory is, "but they're sisters,"-the idea of incest immediately shutting off further investigation for some. Still, sisterhood is often used precisely for "the interruption and subversion of the heterosexual binarism that structures" the plot21 . Instead of the story constantly focusing on Hank and Eddie or Queenie and Eddie or Queenie and Jacques, the inclusion of Hank makes some of the plot solely focused on the relationship between the two women, and makes the climax of the movie not the union between Eddie and Queenie but the sacrifice that Hank makes by allowing Eddie and Queenie to be together.
For the climax Hank performs a reverse blackface scene that removes her sexual connection with her sister. Hank sits in her dressing room after telling Eddie "If I loved a girl like you love Queenie, I'd go out and fight for her." Since Hank thinks that love is shown by fighting, a masculine activity, she excludes herself from the battle for Queenie, relegating herself back into the position of sister. In this position, her vocal cries of loss must be about Eddie and not her sister. Hank sits in the dressing room alone, reminiscent of Jack Robin in The Jazz Singer putting on his blackface, but Hank applies cold cream-a white face22 . In removing her make-up she removes the fašade of heterosexuality-the desire to impress men with her make-up-while at the same time "whitening" her face, making herself visible and white which represses the very sexuality she reveals by taking off her mask. She cannot have Queenie or Eddie.
Additionally, their relationship points to homosexuality because of the outdatedness of the sisters' interactions. Companionate relationships between women had long been acceptable, but during the twenties these kinds of relationships faltered in their acceptability as the percentage of women who chose not to marry began to dropped from 20% to 5%)23 . Women were no longer supposed to engage in embraces and kisses, and unless the movie was making a point of ignoring these norms, it seems unlikely that these women interact the way they do-from sleeping in the same bed with Queenie's head on Hank's breast to Queenie soaking in the tub with Hank in the bathroom with her-without some lesbian current. A further compromise occurs to the sisterly relationship with the admittance of the role of sisters as a selling point, a construct. When Hank is looking for a new stage partner, Uncle Jed tells her, "I can book you up with this blonde and still bill you as the Mahoney sister." Hank and the new girl would keep up the appearance of sisters as a false front and a marketing idea. The label of sisters reveals as a way to cover other unnamed possibilities.
The movie shows the closeness between Queenie and Hank physically but also socially. Hank tells Eddie with sexualized adoration, "I'm just so crazy about her, Eddie, she's so young and beautiful," but Hank's biggest moment of love for Queenie, is laid out in a marital context. Hank gives Queenie a diamond ring for her birthday. By itself the diamond ring looms large enough as a symbol of the union of love, but the plot has focused on the importance of a ring for Queenie. Queenie needs a ring so that men don't take advantage of her sexually without a promise of dignity around it. Hank warns her in reference to Jacques, her rich pursuer, "That guy don't mean to marry you. His kind don't never marry. He ain't the type to take a girl out and buy her a couple of drinks and let it go at that. You know that, and you know what the finish will be." By buying Queenie a diamond ring, Hank is jumping into the competition for Queenie's heart, and interestingly she wants to jump into marriage, a normally conceived heterosexual context.
This attempted is short lived, however, because we never see Hank give Queenie the ring, because Jacques offers her diamonds, in the form of a bracelet, and because Eddie successfully marries her without any discussion of his own in the form of a diamond. Eddie is the only practical marriage partner because he wants to marry her, unlike Jacques who just wants her as a girlfriend, and because he can marry her, unlike Queenie who legally stands outside the realm of marriage. Still, this off-stage marriage does not create resolution.
At the end of the movie Hank loses her home. Still, Hank takes the consolation of a new "sister" with her acceptance of a new partner. Lesbianism does not have a solid place to rest, but it is important that it is shown to exist. Once the Depression hits, lesbianism loses the ground beneath it feet, with the roles of sisterhood and cross-dressing disassembled.
Already by the next year, when a spoof on Broadway Melody, Dogway Melody appears, the plot does not contain a lesbian angle. That angle fades away with two changes. Hank disappears as a character, and Eddie's weakness vanishes; he is able to successfully fight for Queenie. By removing Hank and removing Eddie's weakness, the movie eliminates the obstacles to the heterosexual focus, a desirous sexual female in Hank and a man who can't "earn" the woman in Eddie, and conforms to the mainstream view of musicals today--having a dual focus narrative that brings together a male and female during the course of the movie24 . Additionally Queenie's main concern in this spoof is marriage, "if we make good we can get married," she says. Queenie now fulfills the role of a woman with her priorities supposedly in line.
by Abby Manzella, American Studies at the University of
Virginia, Spring 2001
8. Richard Barrios, A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 66.
9. The movie actually held the title The Sister Act for a time (Barrios p. 61)
10. Rick Altman, The American Film Musical (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 19.
11. Stephen Railton "The Duncan Sisters in Topsy and Eva" Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture (2001) University of Virginia 4 May 2001 .
12. Eric Lott "White like Me: Racial Cross-dressing and the Construction of American Whiteness" in Cultures of United States Imperialism, ed. Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 486, 487.
13. Lott, p. 487
14. Lott, p. 488
15. Anthony Slide, The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville. (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994), p. 144. supports the idea that Rosetta was "trying to hide her lesbianism."
16. Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity (Durham: Duke University, 1998), p. 76.
17. Halberstam, p. 76, 77
18. "men could be harmed by the identification of music with feminization and/or effeminacy, or they could be empowered by their dominant role in music history" from Judith Tick, "Charles Ives and Gender Ideology," in Musicology and Difference, ed. Ruth A. Solie (Berkeley: University of California, 1993), p. 97. Eddie is clearly effeminized.
19. Halberstam, p. 97
20. Barrios, p. 61
21. Helena Michie, Sorophobia: Differences Among Women in Literature and Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), p. 16.
22. See Michel Rogin, Black Face, White Noise (Berkeley: University of California, 1996) for a description of the Jazz Singer mirror scene.
23. Susan Ware, Holding Their Own: American Women in the 1930s (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1982), p. 64, 65.
24. Altman, p. 19