Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Jun 14, 2020 8:16 pm 
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A glittering musical comedy of cross dressing

Elaborate Buzby Berkeley-style production numbers alternate with rhymed, sung and chanted dialogue and joyously choreographed Marx Brothers-worthy slapstick physical humor. Two losers meet and bond after getting turned down at a theatrical agency, They are Viktor Hempel (Hermann Thimig), a failed but energetic middle-aged ham (whose overdone Hamlet soliloquy is excruciatingly boring) and Susan Lohr (Renate Müller) a pretty, ambitious young woman with no performance experience. Viktor gets laryngitis and can't do his music hall female act, so he pushes Susan to do the job. Her pratfall-intense performance before a large and enthusiastic café-theater audience is a hilarious success. The payoff is when Susan pulls off Viktor's wig - making it look like she's a man performing in drag, adding a gendre-thrill to the comedy. At Viktor's insistence, Susan signs a contract she's immediately presented with in the dressing room by tall, cigar-smoking impresario Francesco Alberto Punkertin (Aribert Wäscher), a deliciously music hall character himself whose generous double-breasted suit is like cosy, thick upholstery. Proviso: she must perform in the language of each of the countries on the tour. Ironically, the puffed-up Punkertin declares he's "as safe as the Weimar Republic." (It wasn't very safe: see below.) Viktor accompanies her and splits the munificent take. A sparkling double-exposure montage signals the act's international success. The implication is, the world loves a cross-dressing act.

Not much of a plot beyond that. All the fun comes from Susan having to pretend off stage as well as on, that she's a man, a charade Viktor, to protect the gimmick behind his money cow, makes sure is never neglected. What makes this a "Pioneer of Queer Cinema" is the cross dressing. What makes cross dressing cooler in the early 1930's is the clothes. Everybody in the theaters is in white tie, pretty much. Women can look really great in white tie, so stylish, and this is the time when white tie was de rigeur. The greater preponderance of gender-defining clothing differences at this time makes cross-dressing really a thing much easier and more visual to play with, especially in the female-as-male version.

There is a long section set in London, where everybody conveniently but implausibly speaks German, and Victor/Victoria is the toast of the town. The act is seen by the upper class, and in the front row are Sir Douglas Sheffield, his beloved, Elinor, and the serial seducer Robert, played by the very handsome German actor Anton Walbrook, with whom Elinor is also flirting. All three fall for Victoria, whom the men hail at sight as "a very pretty girl." In the ambiguity, Elinor is interested too.

Robert overhears Vikktor and learns Victoria's a girl, and begins showing her around London, teasing her with difficult male rituals such as smoking a cigar, heavy drinking, a rough pub where they must flirt with prostitutes and fight their way out, and so on. He takes her for a barbershop shave where, oddly, she seems not to get found out as having too smooth a jaw by far. Eventually the vice squad comes in, tipped off that this is a drag show (hello? was there any doubt?) - and somehow, Susan is forced to hide and Viktor takes over. He's ugly, but his "Lady of Seville" turn is just as well received, and so he gets signed up to do the show.

This film is little known as anything other than the source of Blake Edwards' 1982 remake Victor/Victoria, which is bland but more "serious," less pure, gloriously mindless entertainment, than this. It's probably, for completists, worth seeing both versions. The German one glitters and charms. Somehow, though it's almost endlessly entertaining, its plot devices and routines lack significance. As I said, of the Kino Marquee three German Queer Pioneers, it's for me by far the least emotionally involving, hence rendering all the skillful business and ensemble work and festive mood a bit wasted. At the center of it is Feydeau-style light sexual comedy that seems dated today. It does however have interesting links with contemporary Hollywood work of Ernst Lubitsch, and later, of Mitchell Leisen, Gregory LaCava, the designers of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers comedies of manner, and even George Cukor's 1935 Sylvia Scarlett with its parallel plot gimmick.

More than that, Schünzel's musical film, as an artifact of its time, represents a touching, nostalgic look back at a sad turning point in German history. It's not a spectacular film, it hasn't got much bite, but think of the moment when it comes. It was the biggest hit in Germany, number one at the box office, of the pivotal year of 1933, the end of the Weimar Republic. Imagine what the Nazis who came into power the next year thought of this. Decadent! Unacceptable! Lock them up! This represents a gaudy, gay, glorious last fling. After this, the deluge, the Nazi era and Hitler's inexorable rise to power begin. Maybe Weimar intellectuals had been unfriendly to popular entertainment, but the coming of talkies at the end of the 1920's brought a rush of such pleasures - comedies, operetta movies and musicals blending Hollywood and German theatrical influences, such as we see here. And this is significant for a reveling in sound as well as for visual showpieces.

Victor and Victoria/Viktor und Viktoria, 84 mins., debuted in Berlin Dec. 23, 1933, opening theatrically also in Denmark, Hungary, Finland and Sweden, coming to the US Jan. 27, 1935. Watched on a screener (again a beautiful digital restoration) as part of the Kino Marquee trilogy of pandemic "Pioneers of Queer Cinema" films starting Jun 12, 2020.

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