Aug 17, 2012

Fonzie Before Happy Days

Lords of Flatbush (1974) was a precursor of next year’s Happy Days, about four Brooklyn greasers (about 30 years old but still in high school) whose same-sex relationships are doomed by the “discovery” of girls. Chico (Perry King) courts a rich girl, and Stanley (Sylvester Stallone, pre-Rocky, never shirtless but filling out his t-shirts beautifully) gets his girlfriend pregnant.

 The other two gang members, Butchie (Henry Winkler) and Wimpy (Paul Mace), seem not particularly interested in girls, in spite of their obligatory smooching sounds and breast-grabbing gestures whenever girls pass. 

 Butchie especially, short, slim, with a desperate, haunted look in his eyes and a curious diminution of a name that protests too much, behaves in a decidedly transgressive fashion.  He likes boys, but the objects of his interest keep rejecting him.

Late one evening, the others decide to look for girls, but Butchie wants to hang out at the deserted soda shop with Eddie (Joe Stern), the dark, curly-haired soda jerk. No one else is present, so Eddie asks if they might “get personal.” Butchie, grinning, says: “as long as you don’t come over here and give me a great big kiss, anything goes.”

This is a curious response; although his grin suggests that he is stating a laughable absurdity, his quickness at considering it, and the accumulation of adjectives (it’s not just a kiss, it’s a great big kiss) suggest that it is close to conscious thought: perhaps Eddie could kiss him. Indeed, he has specifically rejected an evening of girl-chasing to be alone with a man. What does he expect to happen? 

 But then Eddie rejects him, telling him that he is wasting his life by spending all of his time in the soda shop, oblivious to the possibility that Butchie might hang out there because he likes Eddie. Understandably angry, Butchie goes home.

Later, Chico sneaks into Butchie’s room. They sit, one on a chair, the other on the bed. “Do you have anything to tell me?” Butchie asks. They gaze at each other for a long moment. 

 Chico considers telling him something, but then decides against it. What are they leaving unsaid? Somewhat angry, Butchie prods him further: “Because if you don’t have anything to tell me, I guess I could go to sleep.”

Chico stares at him for a moment more, and then angrily jumps up and runs for the door, refusing to tell him, leaving Butchie silent and frustrated, rejected twice on the same evening. Butchie remains silent and frustrated as Chico, still refusing to tell him, weds the rich girl.

Henry Winkler went on to superstardom as Fonzie on Happy Days, a sitcom that also had tons of gay content.

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