Aug 5, 2023

Andy's Gang: Beefcake and Bonding on 1950s Children's TV

The earliest generation of Boomer kids have fond memories of tv programs that, at least to modern sensibilities, seem outlandish and bizarre.  You Can't Do That On Television in the 1980s can't even begin to compete with the weirdness of Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, Pinkie Lane, or Howdy Doody.  

But the weirdest of all was Andy's Gang (1955-60), hosted by long-time Western sidekick Andy Devine (previously a radio and tv series hosted by Ed McConnell, and called Smilin' Ed's Gang)

1. A scary kid with blond page boy curls and one eye perpetually closed announced "I'm Buster Brown...I live in a shoe.  Here's my dog Tige...he lives in there,too."  Whereupon the studio audience went wild with laughter (actually, it was the same clip of a hysterical kid, over and over again).

2. The anarchic Froggy the Gremlin kept popping in to skewer human pretensions and stir things up.  Cue the same clip of a studio audience going into hysterics.

3. A cat named Midnight could talk. But she said only one word: "Nice," and it sounded more like a meow.  Cue the hysterical laughter.

But gay kids in the audience were waiting for the "Story Time" segment about Gunga, an Indian boy (surprisingly buff college student Nino Marcel).  He was supposed to be Indian, but he looked sort of like Jay North on the similarly-Indian themed Maya, or an older version of  Jonny Quest.  I'll bet he had blond hair under that turban.

Although they lived in India, Gunga and his boyfriend, Rama (a surprisingly buff Vito Scotti) got into Bomba the Jungle Boy-style adventures with animal poachers, lost cities, and savage cannibal tribes.

But unlike Bomba, they had no interest in girls, at least not in the episodes I watched. Rama was the one who usually needed rescuing.

They were amazingly physical in their interactions, always hugging, clinging together, touching arms and shoulders.

Afterwards, Andy would end the program by underscoring the buddy-bonding:  "We're pals, and pals stick together!"  Then, to keep Christian fundamentalists happy, "Remember, Sunday school or church tomorrow!"  (No Hindus in the audience, apparently.)

Nino Marcel also played his Gunga Ram character, but with a different premise, in the feature film Sabaka (1954): he is a young elephant trainer who vows revenge against the evil cult that killed his family. His costar was none other than the famous Boris Karloff.

You can watch the full movie here.

See also: Burr Tillstrom, the gay puppeteer behind Kukla, Fran, and Ollie.

"Vice Principals": Is Danny McBride's Sophomore Effort Homophobic, Genius, or Both?

The first three seasons of The Righteous Gemstones, and especially the slow-burn "are they or aren't they" romance of Kelvin and Keefe, has inspired two scholarly articles, 13 fan stories, and a blog with 190 posts (but to be fair, most of them are memes).  It has been renewed for Season 4, but with the writer's and actor's strike, we won't be seeing any new episodes until early 2025. 

 In the meantime, fans suggest that I try Vice Principals (2016-2018), Danny McBride's earlier series about two high school vice principals scheming to take down their principal so they can take her job and enjoy all that fame, power, and wealth. Really?  "Best show on television!" "Hilarious!" "McBride is a comedic genius!"

Other fans caution that it's homophobic, racist, and loaded-down with queerbaiting.  Before the kiss canonized Kelvin and Keefe in the penultimate episode of Season 3, the "they can't be gay!" crowd often used this in their arguments: "McBride queerbaited before, so that's what he's doing now." '

Uh-oh.  I'll watch an episode, just to track the queerbaiting.

One of my favorite aspects of Gemstones is the intricate plotting.  You have to pay attention to every detail, re-watch, do screen captures.   What book is Eli reading?  Does that rattlesnake sound signify that the character is secretly evil?  Hey, the BJ and Judy break-up is a precise parallel to the Kelvin-Keefe break-up.  That line in Episode 4 is repeated in Episode 6, but has a different structural significance.  I'm also interested in seeing if Vice Principals is similarly complex.

Anoother of my favorite aspects is its happy endings: every season finale wraps up all the plot threads (no cliffhangers).  Every relationship has reconciled, every broken heart has been mended, and the ghost of the kids' mother Aimee-Leigh looks down approvingly.  I wanted to see if Vice Principals has similar happy endings, so I watched the Season 1 finale.

Scene 1:
Ganby (Danny McBride) and Lee (Walton Goggins) have lured Principal Brown into a night of drunken debauchery to discredit her.  They leave her passed out in the bathtub of a sleazy hotel, then gather all the incriminating evidence and burn it, marveling at how beautiful it is.

Scene 2: Ganby is giving his daughter a horse named Charlemagne to make up for the loss of her motorcycle, named Shadowfax. She is angry, and ignores him. 

Later he asks how she likes the horse.  She still prefers the motorcycle.  Besides, aren't horses expensive to keep up?  Ganby tells her that he'll be principal soon, so money is irrelevant.  Are principals really rich?  

Scene 3: In the school cafeteria, the guys criticize Principal Brown for eating too much. They have a highlight reel of the footage they shot, which will destroy her forever, but Ganby isn't excited: he can't even remember his line, "End of the line, Slut!"  He gazes at Amanda, the lady he was having an affair with, who is now ghosting him.

Scene 4: The guys lure Principal Brown in the woods by claiming that kids are sneaking out there to smoke marijuana.  She tries to explain her "gin-soaked evening," but it's all a  blur.  "I'm glad you were there to help me," she continues.  "I really appreciate it."  Uh-oh, they're having second thoughts. 

Ganby tries to say "End of the line, Slut," but can't.  Lee steps in: "We have this here video of you acting all crazy."  Not having sex with randos?  "Your career is over!  We won, bitch!"  

He brags about some of the other things they did to her, like burn down her house, causing her to attack, punching and kicking them.  If you've been waiting your whole life to see a middle-aged black lady and white man in a fist fight, your prayers have been answered.  I find it a bit uncomfortable due to the overlay of institutional racism and patriarchy.  She is a far superior fighter, if that helps.

Finally Lee blackmails her: step down as principal, or the video goes viral. Hey, isn't that a plot arc of the first season of Righteous Gemstones: give us a million dollars, or we'll post this video of your sex-and-drugs party?

Scene 5:  As a final act, Lee threw Principal Brown's shoe away, so she has to walk down the rocky trail half-barefoot.  She walks to her car in slow motion, gazes longingly at the school, and drives off. 

Cut to Ganby watching his daughter ride her horse.  Ray (Shea Whigham) drops by.  Wikipedia says that he is the husband of Ganby's ex, whom Ganby hates even though he is a nice guy.  So the daughter's stepfather? 

They are happy that the daughter is "doing what she loves again," "out of death's way."  Call back to an earlier crisis?  Ray complains that, as stepfather, he'll always be second in the daughter's heart. (Ok, ok, I looked up her name: Janelle.)  "I'm jealous.  Whatever I do, she'll always love you more."  They bond.

Scene 6: Ganby drives to the school, and sees that Principal Brown's car is not there.  He asks around: no one has seen her since yesterday.  Also, the Superintendent wants to set up a meeting with you.

Cut to the guys telling the faculty about her resignation: "We have no idea why.  The woman had many dark secrets.  It was probably substance abuse."  They keep stacking it up, don't they?

Edie Patterson (Judy on The Righteous Gemstones) makes a ruckus, yelling Amanda, at the woman who ghosted Ganby, for talking. She plays a Spanish teacher with a crush on him, so that makes sense.  Ganby yells at her, too.

Scene 7:  Out in the hallway, the ghost girl Amanda wants to know why Ganby singled her out, when everyone was talking.  Because he hates you?  She explains that she was turned off by how he handled Bill Haydn, and he counters that they aren't meant to be together anyway, because he's moving up in the ranks, and she's stuck as a lowly English teacher.

Scene 8: Ganby and Lee outside the South Carolina Public Schools building, congratulating each other for fulfilling their dream of principal superstardom. They assure each other that, whoever is selected, they will still be buds. They shake hands.  No gay subtext here. but no queerbaiting, either.

Scene 9: The Superintendent wants to know how it is possible for two principals to leave in the same year.  Plus the missing textbooks.  So he wants them to serve as co-principals. 

Wait -- I thought Principal Brown was going to be there, getting an evil vengeance.  Or the Superintendent would blame the guys for everything that happened, and fire them.  They get what they want?  But they are awful people!

They leave in slow motion, hollering and hugging and kicking the air.  Still no gay subtext.

Scene 10: Ganby goes home to a surprise party thrown by the ex-wife, daughter, and Ray, who made him a hunting knife in the shop.  Chekhov's gun: somebody better use that knife in the next 10 minutes.

And, by the way, Ganby bought his daughter Janelle a new motorcycle.

Scene 11: Lee is home with his wife, waiting for the school website to be updated.  There it is, the co-principals!  He complains about the picture they used, but his wife tells him to "Be happy."  Still waiting for some comeuppance, McBride. But then again, on RG, Peter kidnaps Jesse, Judy, and Kelvin, plans to kill them, and then plans to blow up the church, and he gets forgiven and reconciled just because he sacrificed himself to save the family.

Lee wants to know where his mother-in-law is, so he can rub her face in his victory.  But she already knows: she went into her room to pout.

Scene 12: The co-principals raise the flag on their first day. Lee congratulates Ganby on being evil enough to get the job done, but Ganby counters that they both did evil shit.  But they don't have a change of heart: they walk in slow motion through the school, enjoying the adulation.  Did Lee just slap that boy on the butt?

In the cafeteria, the chef has prepared special pancakes for them. 

Ganby gets the courage to talk to the ghost girl Amanda. He apologizes for treating her like shit and spreading rumors. They reconcile and kiss.  Interesting: they discuss their relationship in work terms. Kelvin and Keefe do that all the time.

Emergency!  Ganby is called to the parking lot: both their cars are on fire!  Then they explode! Former Principal Brown walks up in a scary mask and shoots him twice.  He lies on the pavement, dying.  The end.

Beefcake: None.  Not even on the internet.  I had to dig to find Shea Whigham and Ryan Boz (who appears in only two episodes).

Homophobia/Queerbaiting:  I didn't see any.  No gay subtexts at all.

Intricate plotting: Not at all. Very straightforward. Set-ups that go nowhere. The lost shoe should have played a role in the resolution. That knife should have been used to stab Ganby.

All plot threads resolved: no, cliffhanger.

Happy ending:  Two reconciliations, I think, but definitely not a happy ending, with the main character dying. 

My Grad
e: I don't know what those fans were talking about.  No homophobia, no queerbaiting, but no genius, either.  A sophomore effort at best

Maybe I should just re-watch the Gemstones.

I need more hits on my Gemstones blog. It's still not appearing in Google searches.  Here's the link

Skeezix of Gasoline Alley: 1930s Gay Icon

When I was a kid in the 1960s, Dad would call me Skeezix when I misbehaved:
"Put down that comic book and clean your room, Skeezix!"

Particularly when my misbehaving had some connection to same-sex desire, like when Bill and I became a "mama and a papa", when I was disappointed at the lack of muscles at A Little Bit O'Heaven., or when I asked for a statue of a naked man for Christmas.

He never used that name on my brother or sister, just me.  I had no idea why.

One day I stumbled upon a book in my Aunt Nora's attic, starring a boy named Skeezix.  Turns out that he was from the long-running comic strip Gasoline Alley (1918-).  Originally about four buddies who hung around in an alley to talk about cars, it took a domestic turn on February 14, 1921, when Walt Wallet found a baby on his doorstep, and named him Skeezix.

The strips were now about a single dad raising a small child -- who aged in real time.

By the late 1930s, when my father was a kid, Skeezix was a teenager, and the undeniable star of the comic strip.  You could buy Skeezix toys, clothes, shoes, ice cream, coloring books, pin-backs, sheet music, and a full line of big little books.

He starred in three radio series and two movies (played by Jimmy Lyndon of Tom Brown's School Days fame, with the bisexual Scotty Beckett as his brother Corky).

The strip was not known for beefcake -- Walt was rather pudgy -- but Skeezix got some shirtless and underwear shots, and displayed a nice physique.

And he had a buddy to bond with, Spud, who accompanied him on the adventures Skeezix in Africa (1934) and Skeezix at the Military Academy (1938).

So my father connected my homoerotic hijinks to the  shirtless, buddy-bonding, arguably gay Skeezix of his childhood.

The gay symbolism didn't last.  Skeezix got a girlfriend, Nina Clock (pronounced Nine-a).

He graduated from high school, served in World War II, and returned to run the gas station.  He married Nina, and had two kids: Chipper and Clovia.

Clovia grew up, managed the gas station after Skeezix retired, and married Slim Skinner.  They had two kids: Gretchen and Rover (born in 1978).

Rover grew up, graduated from high school, and married Hoogy Boogle.  They had a son, Boog, in 2004.

And so on and so on.  In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone in the six-generations of the Wallet family to date who isn't involved in a hetero-romance.  There are no confirmed bachelor uncles or maiden aunts anywhere to provide queer subtexts (except for the outsider characters Rufus and Joel).  Gasoline Alley remains a holdout from the time when gay people were assumed not to exist.

Yet for kids growing up in the 1930s, there was Skeezix.

See also: Was My Grandfather Gay?

Aug 2, 2023

Barbarian Heroes: Conan, Brak, Kull

Depression-Era pulps often invoked the unimaginably ancient and unimaginably decadent civilizations based vaguely on the Orient: the cities all warrened with harems, opium dens, dungeons,  lairs, and oubliettes; the rulers all fat, bejeweled, and lecherous; the people childlike; the laws brutal; the religions by turns esoteric and superstitious: the distant past worlds of Hyperborea and Atlantis, the distant future world of Xiccarph, or the aging jungle-cities of Mars.

Placing Adventure Boys in realms of Oriental myth allowed for a lushly sensual homoromance.  In H.P. Lovecraft's "Quest of Iranon”(1921), a young man wanders a stern, unfriendly world in search of the city of Aira, where there are “men to whom songs and dreams. . .bring pleasure.”  He meets “a young boy with sad eyes” who also dreams of escape, to a city where  “men understand our longings and welcome us as brothers, nor even laugh or frown at what we say.”    They travel together, happy in a way yet always longing.  They grow old together and finally die, never finding their true home.
Often the outskirts of these unimaginably ancient cities were teaming with mighty-thewed, sword-wielding barbarians -- Henry Kuttner’s Elak, Clark Ashton Smith’s Tiglari, Robert E. Howard’s Conan, Brak, and Kull (played by Kevin Sorbo in the film version).  Their plots usually involved a masculine/feminine colonizer/colonized myth, with the muscle man rescuing a naked woman from some effeminate, ruby-ringed satrap.

Fellow muscle men appeared only as bullies, cads, or at best, untrustworthy companions who ended up betraying the hero -- except when the barbarians are teenagers rather than men. Then they rescue no naked women, and their same-sex bonds are true.

Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian spends his seventeen stories in Weird Tales rescuing the requisite naked woman and being betrayed by men, except in the only story set in his adolescence, “The Tower of the Elephant” (1933).   About sixteen years old, a “tall, strongly made youth” with “broad, heavy shoulders, massive chest” and so on, Conan sneaks into the Tower of the Elephant with the hope of stealing a fabulous jewel hidden there.  At this point, plot conventions decree that he find a naked woman.  Instead, he finds a naked man.

An alien named Yag-kosha, elephant-headed but otherwise human, has been blinded, crippled, and imprisoned in the tower by an evil sorcerer.  They become friendly, and Yag-kosha asks Conan to rescue him through the strange-sounding expedient of cutting out his heart.  Conan never hesitates about killing monsters and enemies, but he will not kill a friend, and complies only when Yag-kosha assures him that he will not die.  In fact, he uses the magic of the heart to take revenge on the evil sorcerer, and then, restored to his original strength and beauty, he jubilantly flies away to join his companions on his home planet.

This story is fascinating because it precisely mirrors the adventures of the adult Conan, only transformed from hetero-erotic to graphically homoerotic.  In the shimmering tower, the adult Conan would find a female object of desire (naked, beautiful, benevolent) contrasted with a male threat (clothed, hideous, evil).  However, the teenage Conan finds a male, both object of desire (naked, benevolent) and threat (blind, crippled, aged, with a hideous face “of nightmare and madness”).  Then ritualized death and resurrection removes the threat, leaving only desire: Conan perceives the new Yag-kosha as beautiful.

Even the hints of heterosexual intimacy that the adult Conan often enjoys with the naked ladies he rescues  are mirrored when the naked Yag-kosha gets to “know” Conan by caressing his chest and shoulders with his soft phallic trunk: “its touch was as light as a girl’s hand,” Howard tells us, suggesting a tender, gentle sexual congress.  Conan’s desire here is for the male, a yearning for masculine intimacy that must be sublimated beyond all recognition among the adults in Cimmeria but can be expressed freely, with only a veneer of euphemism, during the paradox of youth.

Aug 1, 2023

The Flying Nun

My parents weren't as anti-Catholic as my church.  We were allowed to watch movies with Catholic characters, especially nuns:  The Sound of Music (1965), The Singing Nun (1966), A Change of Habit (1969,).  (With Elvis Presley, right, as a hunky priest).

And on Thursday nights, squeezed in between  Batman and Bewitched so you couldn't skip it if you tried, The Flying Nun (1967-70), a "girl power" sitcom that all but eliminated hetero-romance.

Novice nun Sister Bertrille (Sally Field, previously of Gidget), assigned to a convent in San Juan, Puerto Rico, develops an amazing power: she can fly!  It's no miracle: she has a petite frame, and all of the nuns wear hats with flappy wing-like things that are perfect for taking off.  The Reverend Mother naturally disapproves, like Darren in Bewitched and Major Nelson in I Dream of Jeannie, and insists that Sister Bertrille stay grounded, especially when a representative of the Vatican is visiting.

Critics thought it silly and derivative, Sally Field hated it, and TV Guide named it #42 on the list of the 50 Worst TV Shows of All Time (just above Woops!, about the hilarious adventures of the survivors of a nuclear holocaust).  The adults kept changing the channel to Hawaii Five-0 or The Glenn Campbell Goodtime Hour (one of the dreaded variety shows).  But kids all wanted Sister Bertrille as our big sister; she was cool, adventurous, funny, and never too busy to play.  Girls and boys alike bought (or asked for) the coloring books, comic books, lunch boxes, and toys.

And there was a special attraction for gay kids:

1. No heterosexual romance.  Nuns didn't date.

2. Hispanic beefcake.  Scores of hunky Hispanic (and non Hispanic) actors were trotted in so that Sister Bertrille could help a gangster reform, a boxer regain his confidence, a handyman become a bullfighter, and a priest overcome his fear of public speaking.

3. There was a full contingent of teen idol guest stars, including Craig Hundley (left), Manuel Padilla Jr., Michael Gray, Paul Petersen, Keith Schultz, Dwayne Hickman, and Boyce and Hart.

4. Carlos (Alejandro Rey), who ran the local casino,  was often annoyed and infuriated by Sister Bertrille's hairbrained schemes.  They became friends, but he never displayed any romantic interest in her.

Even today, you almost never see a male-female friendship on tv. From Sam and Diane (Cheers) to Ross and Rachel (Friends) to Mulder and Scully (The X-Files), no matter how much they deny it or bandy around words like "arrogant" and "infuriating," any male-female pairing inevitably results in romance.  And in the 1960s, male-female friendships were even more rare.

So seeing Carlos and Sister Bertrille together gave gay boys "permission" to be "just friends" with girls, to hang out with them but not approach them as dark mysterious creatures whose curves and breasts held the key to manhood.

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