Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The Leather Boys (1964 film)

I'm having a bit of an old-gay-film fest at the moment; I’ve watched The Leather Boys, A Taste of Honey, and have Pink Narcissus and Derek Jarman’s seminal Sebastian lined up (although I have seen that before).

I only knew about The Leather Boys film because of The Smiths video for Girlfriend in a Coma, and even then didn’t know that it was a classic example of early gay cinema disguised as yet another kitchen sink drama. The book was written in 1961 by Gillian Freeman at the request of her agent and publisher Anthony Blond, who suggested she write about a "Romeo and Romeo in the South London suburbs". She published it as Eliot George (after Mary Ann Evans, who published as George Eliot), possibly to distance herself form such an obvious homosexual work. Unfortunately, I saw the film before I read the book, but I do have a copy of the book which I bought immediately after seeing the film. I know the film and book differ greatly, so this review is just about the film; I’ll review the book separately.

The Leather Boys was one of the first films to violate the Hollywood Production Code (according to Wikipedia), and having read the code, I’m glad it did. It starts innocently enough: a young couple (Reggie, a mechanic and dark-haired Dot, a schoolgirl) get engaged then quickly married, and there is a wonderful sequence where the wedding party all get on a red London double-decker to get to the reception. The couple then go to Butlins on Reggie’s motorbike, and they go to bed on their first night of married life. I have to point out at this point that the title is misleading; many of the boys in the film wear motorbike leathers, but most of the angst and tension of the film occurs when at least one of the main characters is wearing a nice wool jumper, or pyjamas. It’s very British, and I think the title was chosen by Freeman’s publisher in order to sell more books.
The honeymoon doesn’t go according to plan, as it rains solidly for three days (see? Very British!) and Reggie doesn’t want to leave the room, or indeed the bed. They talk idly of having a baby next year, but Dot soon has enough. The next day she goes to the hairdresser and bleaches her hair blonde, Reggie doesn’t like it. They end up arguing and shouting and Reggie ends up staying at his Gran’s house after his Granddad dies, while Dot refuses to move from their bed-sitter. Reggie befriends a blonde young man, who wears leathers and has a powerful motorbike. Pete and Reggie soon become best friends and Reggie persuades Pete to move in with him in Gran’s house as a lodger to give Gran some income. Gran loves Pete, who is cheeky and loving to her, bringing her sweets and kissing her head. Reggie and Pete decide to go on a run to Edinburgh and back with a gang of other bikers from the biker bar they all hang out in. The bar is adorable, when Dot and Reggie arrive at the bar during an early scene, Reggie asks for two cups of tea and the lady replies “eightpence dear.” I wish I could go to that bar.
Dot cheats on Reggie (with Mike Baldwin from Coronation Street) and the relationship goes down the tubes, helped along by Pete. Pete is a very different homosexual from Geoffrey Ingham (A Taste of Honey, 1961). Pete is queeny, repressed and flamboyant, and Geoff is reserved and dignified yet still camp and artistic. Pete is obviously in love with Reggie, which is why he does his best to keep him away from Dot. Reggie has no idea that the man sharing the spare bedroom of his Gran’s house is gay and in love with him. Pete comes up with a way for them to be together, he says they should jump on a boat and sail away to America. I think he sees this as a romantic way for them to be together, and if Reggie agrees then he truly does want to be with Pete. Them sailing away has become, in Pete’s mind, them being together as a couple. Pete never actually states that he is gay, nor does the film ever confirm that he is, yet it is meant to be obvious that the audience know his sexual orientation – and thereby his feelings for and towards Reggie.
I think that Reggie might have let something happen, he’d already asked, in a round-a-bout way, if Pete was gay; this was prompted by Dot’s angry statement “Looked more like a couple o’ queers to me.” So long as both men did not admit anything to each other, then they could have this best friend, brotherly relationship that involved them sleeping in the same bed; looking after each other; sailing away together. Reggie finally decides that he wants to sail away from his life, that he has nothing to stay for, so he informs Pete who promptly packs in his job and they go to buy tickets. Pete tells Reggie to go for a drink in the pub at the docks and wait for him.
This is where Pete and Reggie’s fragile ur-relationship breaks. Reggie is surrounded by the kind of simpering gay man people were used to seeing on the screen in the 60s. Awful queeny stereotypes, all limp wrists and speaking in Polari (old British gay slang from the 50s and 60s) who swarm around Reggie, interested to see Pete’s new ‘companion’. A bald man with a terrible Welsh accent laughs when he sees Pete in biker leathers, and he says “oh, and in that drag!” which implies that Pete does not normally wear biker leathers, but he has been wearing them to be friends with Reggie. Reggie looks to Pete for help, but realises Pete knows these men and accepts a drink of gin off the bald man. Reggie then learns that the ship is going to Cardiff not America, again he questions Pete, but Pete replies that Reggie wanted to leave immediately and that was the first ship to leave.
It all becomes too much for Reggie: the old queens draping themselves on his shoulders, staring at him, a seeming betrayal from his best friend, so he takes his suitcase and leaves the pub. Pete runs after him to try and stop him. Reggie turns to look at Pete; he now knows that Pete is gay, and that he is in love with him. Reggie smiles sadly, and Pete returns the smile. Reggie walks away. It is a terribly sad ending (but homosexuals weren’t allowed happy endings back then), but not hopelessly so. Reggie doesn’t hate Pete; his sad smile is for what could have been, if both he and the world were different. I think Reggie might have been happy with Pete, maybe not forever, and probably not in a sexual way – but his companionship would have been enough. When Pete finally decided to let Reggie into his world, gay pubs, Polari, queens, it was too much for him.

It’s a great film, with some lovely comedic moments, and more than a few tragic moments too. The acting and script are of a high enough standard; but as a queer movie-goer viewing the film now, it seems that there is something missing. I’m sure the studio had a lot to do with how the openly-gay men were portrayed (terrible Welsh accents and all), and how the story ended. I hope the book ends on a happier note, or if I’ll have to re-read E.M. Forster’s Maurice again afterwards.


Anonymous said...

I love this film. I watched it again at the weekend. My feeling was that Reggie wanted a deep relationship with somebody, because he appears to be an only child and seems remote from his ageing parents, and I think, after the disastrous marriage to the scheming Dot, he sees for himself that a relationship based on mutual affection, regardless of the sex of the other person is preferable to sex in a marriage which has no emotional bond for him.

Another interesting thing is that the book was written in 1961, the film was, I think made in 1962/1963 but it's release held up, and of course, until 1967 even sharing a bed with another man was illegal. I recall reading some time ago a book by Peter Wildblood ("Against The Law") which mentioned that if a landlady suspected that the "two gentlemen sharing" her spare room were having a relationship, she could (and often did) let the police know, and they would come round and inspect the room for signs of cohabitation. If they found what they regarded as "evidence" either or both men could be prosecuted.

It must have been terrifying for men like Pete, and I suspect that Reggie might have had feelings for Petge but was too scared (and had the sort of tough upbrining) that made it difficult for him.

Two facts emerge clearly from the film: Reggie loses sexual interest in Dot, round about the time he meets Pete and there is no doubt that Pete really cares for Reggie, even if he doesn't love him (though I suspect he does. Both men, though always playing the clown are damaged emotionally - Pete through being an orphan, and Reggie not being entirely certain of his true feelings.

Had Reggie and Pete met up in 1970 rather than the start of the sixties I think their relationship would have been straightforward and lasting


Andrew Craig Williams said...

Hi Alan,

Thanks for taking the time to comment.

I think you're right, if it had been written/set in the 70s it would have been a very different story. I don't think Reggie is gay, but I do think their relationship would have been more than just friendship.

I'm going to have a look for the book you mention, thank you.

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