Saturday, May 7, 2011

Men with Pipes: Symbolic Organs.

It's pretty simple. The title is self-explanatory. I thought about who I was sexually attracted to when I first started having film crushes, and unlike the requisite DiCaprio-Pine-Pattinson hysteria, I was always the weird one who rented VHS copies of films from the 30's so I could fantasize about English sophisticated types donning cravats, 6-piece suits, pinky rings, and smoking pipes with a curiously flirty look on their faces. They spoke politely and with rhythmic intelligence, smirking sarcastically as they took a sip of their champagne and pumped on their pipe some more. They always looked ridiculously put together, walking around so composed and yet giving the sense that once they got you into the bedroom, they would tear your clothes off with violent and feral efficiency then throw you on the bed with brut force and have their way with you. I'd like to look at a few examples. The best one I can think of is Leslie Howard who couldn't look more British if he tried, even when playing Southern gentleman Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind (1939). He was raised in London, born into an affluent and well-to-do Jewish family. After serving in the Army during WWI he developed PTSD that he treated with acting lessons. By 1931 he was in Hollywood playing weak, snarky, and intellectual types opposite the likes of Bette Davis, Clark Gable, and Humphrey Bogart. He always seemed like the feeble romantic who talks more than he acts, and is completely emasculated by any actor around him (male or female) who in contrast is opinionated, fierce, and dominant. His British-ness came to a climax when he played the definitive British man; Henry Higgins in Pygmalion (1939). 
He was the sarcastic, sexually ambiguous professor of linguistics who huffs at an ever-present pipe and wears comically round glasses as to accentuate his intellectual superiority. Actors like Howard were typecast as the 'proper' straight-man to everyone else's shenanigans and unpredictability. When the world is going to hell, there's bullets flying, and Atlanta is burning, you'll always find Leslie in the corner quietly smoking his pipe, checking his chain watch, and muttering a snide comment about the ridiculousness of the world. 
Another one who uses his pipe as an indelible symbol of his manhood is gentle British soul Basil Rathbone known primarily for his work as Sherlock Holmes. Of course in this case, the pipe is part of the deal, you can't see Sherlock Holmes on the screen without his pipe, it's one of his most recognizable characteristics. He has a very sexual face. His eyes kind of droop in a stoic manner, and his facial hair just barely touches his supple lips when he speaks. He's got an amazingly arousing tone and even when talking about broken vases, curious dirt marks, and cracked tea cups is somehow still making love to the camera. 
He could read the numbers of Pi to me over and over again, it would still sound like pillow talk. Trevor Howard is another perfect example of a pipe-smoking cynic who though is not the 'strong-man' of the plot, is still able to draw sexual desire from the audience. I absolutely fell in love with him in The Third Man (1949), and next to Joseph Cotton in his prime, that's saying a lot. The way he spoke, held himself, and used his body to connote his powerful stature got immediately under my skin. Men who are emasculated in a film plot require a device that gives them their manhood back, sometimes rather literally, and none is more obvious than a swanky looking pipe that not only serves as a surrogate for their penis, but also draws attention to their mouths and how they use them to delicately and slowly puff smoke into their bodies between lines. It's a subconscious sex invite, subtle but unequivocal. Unfortunately, you have to be British to have a pipe, if you're American, you better stick to an old hand rolled cigarette a filmic ploy to illustrate a character's working class status. I just thought I'd salute a few of those who don't normally get female adoration and obsession and uneasily hover between 'character actor' and 'matinee idol'. 
This is a type that definitely does it for me, and hits on all sensual cylinders. They show actors don't have to be ripped and jacked, having their chests sprayed with olive oil between every take, and their hair tossled to give the impression of aggressiveness. Desire can come in a neat, tailored, and sarcastic package, that's both proper and animalistic, always complete with a nice shiny pipe. 

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