Dec 1, 2012

Tom Brown's School Days


I saw Tom Brown’s School Days (1940) on Matinee at the Bijou, a 1970s tv series that replayed classic movies.   I had never heard of the original novel by Thomas Hughes (1857), about the agonizing love between two boys in an elite British boarding school, but later I sought it out.  Robert Drake writes that it became “one of the more influential texts for emerging gay writers, or writers with a gay sensibility."  The same can be said for the movie.



A tall, slim seventeen-year old named Jimmy Lydon plays Tom, “the typical American boy” even though he is still scripted as upper-class British.   He expresses his typical American boyhood by being stoic, courageous, and adventurous, by taking off his shirt to reveal a slim physique.  And by ignoring girls.  The daughter of a local shopkeeper plays a pivotal role in the plot, but Tom never gives her a second glance.  Instead, he falls in love with an aristocratic upperclassman.

East (Freddie Bartholomew, previously in Captains Courageous), tall, thin, brittle-looking, and as feminine as a young Quentin Crisp,  takes the initiative in the courtship, approaching Tom the moment he gets off the train, showing him around, taking him by the arm or shoulder, and gazing at him with rapt ardor.  He gives Tom a picture of two ancient Greek warriors shaking hands -- a 19th century beefcake poster -- and marks them as “Brown” and “East."

East carefully dismisses or outwits Tom’s other suitors.  When they go out for “murphys” (baked potatoes sold as a snack), he protects Tom from a groping, leering boy named Tadpole.
Tadpole: Is this the new fellow? Nice looking, isn’t he?
Tom: How do you do?
Tadpole: (Looks him up and down.) Hungry, thank you.

A more violent threat comes from Sixth Formers (high school seniors), led by the bestial Flashman (Billy Halop of Dead End, shown here playing Humphrey Bogart's gunsel).  He offers several shirtless and semi-nude scenes, with a more muscular physique.

Flashman bullies Tom, and forces him to endure dangerous hazing.  Their fight, oddly, serves as the subject for the lion's share of lobby cards and posters.











When Tom is accused of “telling tales,” the worst crime in the boys’ honor code, East breaks up with him, tearing up the picture and sending him his half.  Even after Tom is found innocent, East refuses to take him back, using oddly romantic rhetoric: “I’m not interested in you or anything about you!  I never want to see you again!”

Adult women in movies of the era rely on the phrase “I never want to see you again” to angrily break up with their boyfriends, but this is nearly the only example of its use among "buddies."  The implication, of course, is that Tom and east are not buddies, but homoromantic partners: their relationship is emotionally intense, physically intimate, and exclusive, and but for their breakup, it would be permanent.

The movie ends years later, when Tom and East encounter each other by accident at the tomb of their beloved headmaster.  Tom asks “Can’t we be friends?” and East grudgingly shakes his hand, thus giving closure to their romance.  In the original story, Tom stands at the tomb alone. Only in the 1940 are Tom and East homoromantic partners, so only in 1940 do they require closure.

Bartholomew and Lydon were paired again in Cadets on Parade (1942). Rich kid Austin Shannon (Freddie Bartholomew), an eighteen-year old military cadet, is bad at sports and reviled as a “sissy” by his self-made-man father, so he runs away and encounters street tough  Joe Novak (Jimmy Lydon).  The two set up housekeeping together (in a flat with only one bed).  Joe never mocks his partner's sissiness, but he does gently suggest that success at school may depend on an increased manliness.  Austin’s salvation, his return to middle-class society, comes through learning to box and play football, not through heterosexual experience: no girls appear or are mentioned in he movie.  But Austin draws Joen into civilization through the same rubric that girls use with jungle boys, through teaching him to read and use proper table manners.  In the end they both enroll in the military academy.  The tagline is: “The Story of Two American Boys…On the Road to Being Men!”


 The last of the Jimmy Lydon - Freddie Bartholomew pairings was The Town Went Wild (1944):  gangly sophisticate David (Freddie) and blue collar Bob  (Jimmy) are best friends, but they do not share a homoromantic bond.  David is dating Bob’s sister, but there is no hint at triangulation: he really does spend all of his time with her, while Bob is relegated to the status of third wheel.  It is interesting that the sissy gets engaged, while the he-man never expresses any interest in girls, but still, one must wonder why the scripted homoromances between Freddie and Jimmy ended so abruptly.  Perhaps the subtext was becoming too obvious, veering too close to conscious thought.