Val Lutton and the gilded boy

I was about a half hour into the 1942 horror classic Cat People last night, when I decided to take a break and do a little research into the film’s Russian-born producer, Val Lewton. Well, one thing led to another, and I fell asleep listening to episode number three of Karina Longworth’s brilliant podcast, You Must Remember This, which is all about Lewton’s struggle within the Hollywood studio system to create b-movies with meaning. [At the beginning of his career as a movie producer, RKO would essentially give Lewton a title that had tested well with focus groups, instructing him to deliver 70 minutes of film which they could then market under that name, and it was his job to come up with an idea, get a script written, secure the actors and crew, and get the whole thing shot, all within about four months’ time.] Anyway, it was through Longworth’s podcast that I learned about this scene in Lewton’s 1946 film Bedlam, which it probably one of the darkest things I’ve ever seen.

In the above scene, Master George Sims (played by Boris Karloff), entertains visitors at the mental asylum he operates by having his “loonies” put on a show for them. During the performance, a mentally ill young man covered head-to-toe in gold paint, is introduced to the party-goers as “The Golden Age of Reason,” and forced to read a speech written by Sims as he slowly suffocates to death from skin asphyxiation (like the character of Jill Masterson in Goldfinger). Lewton, as I’ve since read, based Sims’ character on John Monro, the infamous head physician at England’s Bethlem Royal Hospital, who, up until 1770, allowed paying visitors to observe, laugh at, and even prod the mentally ill patients in his care… The following clip comes from the genealogy site Finding My Past.

…The Mornos demonstrated a galling lack of shame regarding their practices, even inviting members of the public – for a fee – to explore the hospital during the evening and poke fun at the unfortunate inmates, who were often chained inside their tiny rooms. If the subject wasn’t being entertaining enough, observers prodded them with sticks until they were.

The admission price for this sport comprised a significant proportion of the hospital’s overall budget. Thrift was the watchword at Bethlem, and food or other donations were often sold, leaving patients starving. The hospital was also used as a means of corrupt social control, and for the right price people could have critics put away, or husbands could lock up their wives…

I’m not sure why I’m sharing this now. God knows there’s enough darkness in the world today. Sometimes, though, I just find myself on one of these tangents, and feel compelled to share. And I’m very much enjoying learning about Lewton, and how he fought the studio system to address things like mental health reform within the framework that was given him, which was that of b-movie horror.

What’s more, when you head down these rabbit holes, you never know what you’ll find… Right now, reading about Glen Vernon, the actor who played “the gilded boy,” I just discovered that he also appears, if only for a split second, in the RKO film It’s a Wonderful Life.

That’s Vernon’s photo in the picture frame above, being stared at by Mr. Gower, the pharmacist who, just moments later, would strike the young George Bailey, causing him to go deaf in one ear. [Gower, as you’ll recall, had just received news that his son Robert, the young man in the photo, had died of influenza.]

Sadly, I don’t have any deep insight on the plight of the gilded boy. I’m sure there’s much to be said, but, having watched this scene four or five times now, I’m just left with overwhelming sadness. And I’m at a total loss as to what to say, or how to tie it all back to the contemporary world… My apologies.

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  1. Eel
    Posted December 11, 2017 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    So THIS is what happens inside Mar-a-lago. I always wondered.

  2. Jean Henry
    Posted December 11, 2017 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    That clip. Should not have watched. Existential hyper-drama. We have enough daily dread these days. (give us this Day our daily dread…)
    As counter narrative, I had a brilliant and completely mad schitzophrenic uncle who wrote homoerotic plays about Ancient Greece and Rome obsessively. They were dirty and funny and sometimes brilliant and sad and a bit Beckett like, if Beckett were hornier. He was lucky enough to also be gay and live in New Orleans and so instead of life in an institution, lived a full rich life with a devoted husband of 35 years and accepting Community. For his 60th birthday his friends produced one of his plays, Peter Puck, in his back garden. It was not a freak show. It was a demonstration of love and acceptance and even a celebration of difference. I have it on VHS somewhere. The only line I remember:”The streets of Athens are lined with statues of naked men.” Anyway your story reminded me of that better story. People are horrible and wonderful.

    I keep waiting for a return to absurdist theater in the wake of Trump. Maybe it lurks in some corner of the Internet. I’m also reminded of a repeated story my very recently deceased friend Earl (who many mayknow from the Fleetwood or his porch on William and Ashley in A2) : “You’ve never seen Halloween until you’ve spent Halloween in a mental hospital!” RIP Earl. Hope he looks up Uncle Alfred. They’d enjoy each other. Somehow the most tormented can also locate joy and humor and kindness. I don’t know why we’re made that way but I think it’s necessary. I’m sticking with the weirdos.

  3. Anonymous
    Posted December 11, 2017 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Who will play the gilded boy in our community theater production? Steve Pierce has already signed on to play Master Sims.

  4. Posted December 19, 2017 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    The gilded boy has to be Matt Jones.

    And, Jean, I warned you that it was troubling… It’s been over a week, and it’s still with me. I’m thinking about watching the whole movie, but I don’t know if I can take it. I’m on a Karloff kick, though. I just watch Targets, which is brilliant. And also very troubling.

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