Jul 28, 2012

James MacArthur's Fade Out Kiss

James MacArthur  had already made a cinematic splash in The Young Stranger (1957), in which his character overtly falls in love with a buddy, when Disney hired him as an Adventure Boy, one of the stable of young, muscular, attractive teens who would represent "the epitome of young masculinity" (others included Tommy Kirk, Kurt Russell, Tim Considine, Kevin Corcoran, and Jeff East), MacArthur played Disney Adventure Boys four times: in The Light in the Forest (1958), Third Man on the Mountain (1959), Kidnapped (1960), and Swiss Family Robinson (1960). Unfortunately, the Disney version always required him to kiss a girl, regardless of how alien girl-craziness was to the original story.

In Conrad Richter’s original novel Light in the Forest (1953), the white boy raised by Indians bonds with boys and rejects girls.  In the Disney version, there is only a subtle homoerotic subtext between True Son  (MacArthur) and his mentor Del Hardy (Fess Parker).  But the beefcake was stunning: True Son is shirtless almost every scene, his chest and shoulders embossed with a Technicolor glow. When he is tied to a stake, his face, painted black and white, melts into a stoic mask, but his bare chest remains bright.

All Disney Adventure moves must have a fade-out kiss, so scriptwriter Lawrence Edward Watkin dug through the novel to find a servant girl, mentioned fleetingly, and transformed her into the “love interest” Shenandoe (Carol Lynley). She teaches True Son how to dance, hold hands, and kiss.

He makes mistakes, at first: at a party, he finds a ring hidden in a piece of cake. He is supposed to present it to the one he loves best, so he gives it to Del Hardy. Del corrects him, “You don’t give it to a man. You give it to the girl you love the best.” True Son has learned that modern American adolescents must express heterosexual desire.

The movie concludes with True Son and Shenandoe kissing, as the music swells. The Light in the Forest, the meaning of life, has paradoxically switched from “the wild beloved freedom of the Indian” in the Richter novel into heterosexual love.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960) also combines beefcake and the fade-out kiss.  Both national treasure James MacArthur and nineteen-year-old Tommy Kirk are bare-chested and bronzed in nearly every scene.

But early on, Father and Mother Robinson worry that, if the family is stranded in their desert island Paradise forever, their sons will grow up without girls to ogle. Dad asks, “Don’t you sometimes feel this is the life we were meant to live?” Mom responds, “It’s wonderful now, but what about tomorrow? What about our sons? What future is there for them? They’d never know what it is like to be married. . .what it’s like to have a family”

The dearth of females precipitates the decision of Fritz (MacArthur) and Ernst (Kirk) to explore the other side of the island, where they become not chums but competitors: they encounter a puzzlingly sissy “boy,” Bertie, who turns out to be a girl, Roberta (Janet Munro).

There is a girl in the original novel, an “English cousin” that no one bothers to fall in love with, but in the Disney version Fritz and Ernst spend the rest of the movie posturing, flirting, and fist-fighting over her. Roberta is always talking about how she misses London, with its color and excitement, but at the end of the movie she refuses rescue, deciding to stay with Fritz and found a colony.

“Two people,” Roberta says, “if they have each other, what more could they want?” Fritz replies, “I guess. . .to be alone.” Then they kiss as Ernst grimaces.

Ernst goes off to Europe to be educated: Fritz, Bertie, and their heterosexual desire are necessary to bring American-style civilization to the tropics, and boy-pals are merely a hindrance.

After retiring from Disney, MacArthur became well-known as an adult actor, especially as Dano on the long-running tv series Hawaii Five-O.  But he rarely had any shirtless shots or homoerotic buddy-bonding.  When asked if he would be interested in doing a big-screen version of Hawai Five-O, he said "Not as Dano.  Maybe an old man ogling the girls on the beach."  He died in 2010.