Sep 7, 2013

4 Devils: Lost Gay Beefcake of the Silent Era

The 4 Devils, directed by German expressionist F.W. Murnau, was named one of the top 10 films of 1928.  The Internet Movie Database gives it a 6.3 rating, based on 100 viewers.  There are 3 viewer reviews and 5 critic reviews.

The only problem is, no one has seen it.  At least not since 1948.

It was shot in 1928, then reshot with talking scenes in 1929 to make use of the new technology.  In 1937 all of the prints in the Fox Studio Archives were destroyed in a fire.  You'd think there'd be other prints around, but no one has found any.  Rumor has it that star Marion Duncan had a print, but threw it into the ocean around 1948.

We know what it was about through synopses and the original novel.  Four orphans join the circus and become trapeze artists, known as the Four Devils.  Eventually Charles and Marion (left) fall in love, but Charles falls under the spell of the evil Lady.  Marion is so upset that she falls during an act (or, in some versions, the Lady sabotages their act), and she dies, or nearly dies, bringing Charles back to his senses.

Sounds like a Betty and Veronica, wholesome v. vamp plotline. But there must have been substantial beefcake -- circus movies are always good for displaying biceps and bulges, as David Nelson discovered.  (Barry Norton, who played Adolph, is obviously packing.)

And there must have been a gay subtext somewhere, since nearly everyone associated with the film was gay:
1. Herman Bang, the Danish novelist who wrote the original story.
2. F. W. Murnau, the director.
3. Charles Morton (Charles).
4. Barry Norton (Adolph).

Why did Marion throw the last remaining print into the ocean?  Was she upset over her performance, as Hollywood gossip says, or upset over the gay subtext?

Unfortunately, no one is talking.

Charles Morton and Barry Norton worked steadily through the silent era, but couldn't make it in the talkies, taking mostly uncredited parts. Barry died in 1957, and Charles in 1966.  His last role was an uncredited bartender on the sitcom F-Troop (1966).  
Most of F.W. Murnau's other films have been lost, but you can get a few on Amazon.  I recommend Faust.

See also: The Collegians.

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