SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: BACHELOR FATHERS (IT WOULDN'T DO TO ENCOURAGE IT)
This is the twelfth chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.
Bachelor fathers (it wouldn’t do to encourage it)
In “SADDLE TRAMP” (50) Joel McCrae (again) moseys by to look up an old friend, who promptly obliges him by dying before he can get his spurs off, leaving McCrae to “adopt” his three young sons. William Holden went one better in “FATHER IS A BACHELOR”, released the same year, “adopting” four of them, chiefly Gary Gray. Not to be outdone, the 80s TV series “Father Murphy” featured a gold prospector who acquired first one, then another, stray boy, and finally went the whole hog by setting up his own unofficial orphanage, adopting priestly garb so as to stave off untoward suspicion (those were the days!) Of course there were no plain, homely children in the Wild West of “Father Murphy”. His Little Orphanage on the Prairie teemed with hand-picked candy-box cuties, each of them with a lavish topping of 1980s hair. Against this fairly preposterous scenario, the series worked its way slavishly through the checklist of US TV social “ishooz”.
In each of the above, and many like them, the “incongruous” pairing of an unmarried man with young boys was “set straight” by engineering a woman into the household by one contrivance or other at the earliest possible moment. The subtext was loud and clear: such relationships can only become truly above reproach when a woman is worked into the act, thus replicating the Great American Family. Even in the more revisionist Robert Redford Western “JEREMIAH JOHNSON” (72), the loner mountain man first finds himself landed with a boy (Josh Albee) struck mute by the slaughter of his family in an indian attack. Almost by the very next scene, the script contrives to saddle Johnson with an (equally unwanted) indian squaw, and duly marries her to him, so that distant alarm bells were not set ringing in the audience’s mind. TV’s “Batman” series concocted a spurious Aunt Harriet character for the selfsame reason, to take the homoerotic sting out of the Bruce Wayne/Dick Grayson bachelor love nest. “To the bat-poles Dick!”
One can detect this same neuroticism still at work underneath the 2004 film “CACHORRO” (“Bear Cub”) — not a Western — in which a boy of 8 goes to stay for a holiday with his HIV-positive gay uncle, blissfully accepts the man’s openly homosexual companions and metier, but then the boy’s mother is hauled off to prison and the situation threatens to become semi-permanent. On the surface the film is a typical custody battle saga, with a closed-minded grandmother using fair means and foul to gain legal custody of the boy, and it has all the expected surface trappings of “tolerance” and “live and let live”. But the script still makes haste to shoehorn a female nanny into the uncle’s home, as a guarantor that all is “above board”, and finally capitulates to “normality” by packing the lad off to a mixed-sex boarding school (just in case he’s picked up any regrettable habits, you understand). In short, the film lacked the courage of its own convictions. Why shouldn’t homosexual men adopt? What makes a female single parent — for a child of the opposite sex — snug and safe, but a male single parent — for a child of the same sex — inherently suspect? Whose bright idea was it to dismantle one set of gender stereotypes, but leave all the stereotypes about the other gender intact? Hmmm?
We should mention just a few other adoption titles of special note, beginning of course with Chaplin’s “THE KID” (21), which unleashed Jackie Coogan onto an unsuspecting world, the first great child star of cinema. True, it looks syrupy sentimental today, but sensibilities of the general public in 1920 were very different, and the spontaneity of Coogan remains endearing. It was no small thing to upstage Chaplin at the peak of his popularity, but the boy did it without half trying, and soon became one of the five highest grossing stars in the world (which included Rin Tin Tin). And yes, “THE KID” also required bachelor Chaplin to surrender his ward in due course to a woman, thereby establishing the pattern of male self-sacrifice even before the advent of sound. French director Jacques Feyder did something similar in “CRAINQUEBILLE” (22), with Jean Forest, 9, as his urchin of joy. Forest became a major boy star of French silent cinema, like Coogan a serial adoption candidate.
“THE SEARCH” (48) was a refreshingly unsentimental-ised look at the plight of displaced orphans in the ruins of post-war Germany, focussing on one particular boy (Ivan Jandl) who falls into company — but guardedly — with a young G.I. (Montgomery Clift). The man at first nurtures the child as one would a stray dog or cat, but then resolves to take the boy home with him to the States. However Jan’s mother is still alive, it transpires, and scouring the chaotic displacement centres for her son, so Fred Zinnemann’s sensitive film, like “SHANE”, is more the study of a relationship nipped in the bud. It is still a tentative special friendship title, but friendships cannot proceed very far when neither speaks the other’s language (although — see “VOOR EEN VERLOREN SOLDAAT” below). “THE SEARCH” was a US production, but shot on location, and deserves to be counted among an exceptional crop of post-war European childhood titles: “IRGENDWO IN BERLIN” (46), “SCIUSCIA” (46), “GERMANA ANNO ZERO” (47), “JEUX INTERDITS” (52).
“IVANOVO DETSTVO” (“Ivan’s Childhood”, 62), though not an adoption title, was a splendid Soviet film from that same crop. The account of a boy partisan, 12, who spies behind German lines for his army superiors, this characteristically bleak and unrelenting childhood portrait still contains a fleeting but tender scene between Ivan (the excellent Kolya Burlyayev) and one of his army handlers. Ivan is dispatched on yet another mission, then the film skips forward to the end of the war, where soldiers searching the ransacked Gestapo headquarters in Berlin find, and discard, the terse notation of Ivan’s summary execution. The almost unimaginable sufferings of the Russian people in WWII remain a largely untold story, the forgotten holocaust, thanks to the fog and disinformation of the Cold War. It was after all the Soviet Union that did the lion’s share in defeating Nazi Germany, though that isn’t the way American cinema tells it.
Away from the grimness of war to the grimness of peace, “MONDO” (France 96) follows a homeless gypsy street boy in his diligent campaign to find someone who’ll adopt him. The boy (Ovidu Balan) is altogether charming, and it’s of piquant interest that director Tony Gatliff discovered Balan on the streets, homeless and diligently looking for someone to adopt him. After completing the film, Gatliff obliged and adopted the boy himself. In that sense, it echoes Robert Duvall’s curious debut film in the director’s chair, “ANGELO MY LOVE” (83). Duvall had spotted New York gypsy boy Angelo Evans in 1977, and was so amused by the junior gigolo’s self-possession that he shot a film around him. There was a “special friendship” in that film too, but it was an off-camera one.
“LE CERCLE PARFAIT” (99) was a Bosnia Herzegovina / French / Dutch co-production in which two orphan boys are sheltered by a middle-aged poet during the siege of Sarajevo. Director Ademir Kenovic had already scripted several boy-centred films for Kusturica. “KOLYA” (96), from the Czech Republic and Byelorussia, told a similar tale of a Prague cellist who finds himself reluctantly saddled with a five-year old Russian stepson who cannot speak a word of his language. Both films were well received in the West for their message of integration and reconciliation, but did not promote a greater receptiveness in the English-speaking world to the vibrant cinema of Eastern Europe, so that hundreds of interesting titles from the cinema of boyhood remain virtually unseen in the West.
One of the latest titles to add to the adoption pile would be “MONSIEUR IBRAHIM ET LES FLEURS DU KORAN” (France/Turkey 2003), about an elderly Turkish shopkeeper (Omar Sharif) befriending a Jewish boy (Pierre Boulanger), aged 13 in the source novel, whose parents are indifferent to his existence. It’s the kind of film that transmits its multiculturalist message by loud-hailer, and only repeats what has been said a thousand times before, as in “MARVIN & TIGE” (83), where lonely white man John Cassavetes adopts orphaned black kid Gibran Brown. Or on the other hand, since the boy in “M. IBRAHIM” is called Momo, it could be seen as a disguised retread of “LA VIE DEVANT SOI” (aka “Madame Rosa”, 77), in which aging Jewish madam Simone Signoret takes in all the by-blows of local younger prostitutes, chiefly a stunning Arab boy called Momo (Samy Ben Youb). “Why can’t we just be pals? Where does all this prejudice come from?” the cinema continues to screech at us. When it isn’t casting dirty foreigners as the bad guys and terrorist scum in all its other films.