One of the joys of whiling away one’s meaningless life watching movies comes from making connections between a certain film and pictures that came out years, even decades before it. In this new, occasional series we will track down the disparate elements that have influenced great films. Today’s subject: John Waters’ 1974 trash classic, Female Trouble. The film stars Divine as a fame-obsessed high school drop-out who will literally do anything to be a star. It’s cheap and vulgar in the extreme. It’s also pretty great.
Waters throws everything into Female Trouble, giving it more plot than many features twice its length. His inclination to be shamelessly histrionic recalls nothing more than the lush melodramas of director Douglas Sirk. A Sirk film, with its implausible dramatic turns and emotional insanity, shares far more with Waters’ work than one might first expect. Divine‘s face being mutilated after an assault with acid recalls Jane Wyman going blind in Magnificent Obsession.
One of Waters’ clear creative forebears is director Tod Browning. Browning’s career was always fixated on outcasts, weirdos, and monsters, including his most famous film, Dracula. While Browning’s work with Lon Chaney is essential (and calls to mind the close working relationship with Waters and Divine) the film that affects Female Trouble the most is 1932’s Freaks. Freaks was the most controversial film of its era and its disastrous reception effectively killed Browning’s career. The film is set in the carnival world with all manner of “freaks” who ultimately wreak vengeance on a greedy, villainous beauty that cheats them. The film’s ending is reminiscent of a particular Female Trouble scene which finds Mary Vivian Pierce mutilated and kept captive in a cage.
Divine’s addiction to fame no matter the cost is a quintessentially American idea. The quest for tabloid immortality has been explored in countless films over the years but few have had quite the impact of Chicago, which first debuted as a play in 1926. The following year saw release of a silent movie version. Fifty years later the story was revived as another stage show — this time a musical — a year after Female Trouble debuted, which subsequently lead to one of the most execrable Best Picture winners ever in 2003. (Female Trouble is art posing as trash while Rob Marshall’s Chicago is trash posing as art.) Perhaps John Waters and his low budget classic were in some small way responsible for the revival. In the end it all comes full circle.
~posted by Mike