Camp / Drag / Film

The Gay Girls Riding Club Provides the Camp Cinema You Need to Survive the Rest of Pride

Freida as Baby Jane in Gay Girls Riding Club’s What Really Happened to Baby Jane?, dir. Ray Harrison (1963) (all images courtesy of Metrograph)

I can’t be the only one who has come to dread Pride month. Every year when that calendar turns to June 1, I feel a looming sense of trepidation. What will it be THIS year? What will set off the online gladiator battle now? Kink at Pride? Puppy play in front of the kiddos in their rainbow baby bjorns? Catholics getting their rosaries in a twist about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence? And what will the various marches have to atone for publicly THIS time, leaving a trail of Instagram apologies in their wake? Not properly centering certain voices? Scattering trash all over parks?

And don’t even get me started on the endless war over corporate Pride, a yearly throwdown that used to be exclusively between those homonormative assimilationist gays and the radical anti-capitalist queers! (I’ve previously made it clear where I stand on this issue. More rainbow mouthwash! More burrito donger floats! More Citigroup logos!). That forever war has somehow become even worse this year as a smattering of continually tweeting edgelord right-wingers realized they could get those much-yearned-for rage-likes by expressing their own dismay at bland rainbow Target displays, throwing tantrums over unicorn tattoos and “Love is Love” pap. While there is something amusing about watching those rabid anti-rainbow capitalism types now having to drape themselves in big box store merch to counter the conservatives’ attention-seeking pearl-clutching, the drama has reached such a fevered pitch that even corporations that used to paint their logos rainbow are shying away. And you know what? I miss it! Don’t you feel a certain nagging sense of lack and loss when weapons manufacturers like Raytheon don’t have the rainbow?! What does America even mean if we don’t have rainbow-painted drones killing civilians in distant countries?! Thankfully, not all the military-industrial complex hid from Pride. We still have the CIA boldly proclaiming: WELCO-ME!

When I hear openness and wellness, I immediately think of CIA black sites! Why not try waterboarding with Absolut Vodka?!

This is not to say Pride 2023 hasn’t had its moments, namely trans model, influencer, and activist Rose Montoya flashing her tatas on Instagram while on the White House’s South Lawn for their Pride celebration, forcing Biden to ban her from any other events. Was this Girls Gone Wild at the White House disrespectful to the utmost seriousness of the highest office in the land (*snicker*)? Maybe. Was it iconic? ABSOLUTELY. A total role model move, if you ask me.

Even still, while there is a certain thrill in watching Rose act bad, as well as seeing the previous years of infighting turn outward (We are all corporate Pride!), I can’t muster up the energy to be anything but exhausted. Ho-hum…this again. So what do you do to survive the rest of Pride? Pick a side and shriek endlessly into the void? Punch a conservative Tik Toker over a Pride display at Kohls? Binge-drink Bud Light? Write angry letters to the White House wondering why Filthy Dreams wasn’t invited to the topless party?!

Tempting…but seems like a lot of effort. Instead, what I’ve been doing is immersing myself in the pure transcendent camp joy of the rarely seen, largely pre-Stonewall films of the Gay Girls Riding Club (GGRC). Five of their films, spanning a decade, from 1962’s raucous silent short Always on Sunday to 1972’s ambitious technicolor talkie All About Alice, are currently streaming on Metrograph At Home as a part of their Pride month programming. These films—all freewheeling drag send-ups of then-contemporary instant gay favs, from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (here rebranded as What Really Happened to Baby Jane?) to The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (again retooled as The Roman Springs on Mrs. Stone)—were resurrected from the archives of filmmaker Pat Rocco at UCLA and restored by the American Genre Film Archive in association with the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project. Much of this rebirth of interest in the Gay Girls Riding Club comes courtesy of the passion of queer film historian, programmer, and filmmaker Elizabeth Purchell who guest curated the Metrograph At Home selection.

It’s hard not to see why Purchell is endlessly fascinated. The Gay Girls Riding Club’s films provide an enchanting peek into the lives, cracked cinephile fanaticism, and wonderfully wacky humor of a circle of gay men in mid-20th-century Los Angeles. The GGRC was a social club that would meet every Sunday to brunch, ride, and make these delightfully zany little films that they would, then, screen at local watering holes, drag shows, and parties, as well as eventually in theaters with the burgeoning midnight movie scene.

The beautiful Ilya (Melina Hoover) in Always on Sunday, dir. Gay Girls Riding Club (1962)

Their first short even references this weekly date by transforming Jules Dassin’s 1960 proto-Pretty Woman hooker romantic comedy Never on Sunday to their own Always on Sunday. Always on Sunday is a manic black-and-white romp, which, with its broad physical comedy and title cards, feels like a silent film from the 1920s. Set in a Grecian bar, a gaggle of drag “working girls” bursts in, blinking back their gigantic drooping false eyelashes, swinging their purses and strings of pearls, and chewing up gum and the scenery. These girls loonily rub on and fight over the male bar flies, most of all heartthrob Taki (Sauroka Silva), “the lonely lover of Piraeus.” However, they are no match for the allure of platinum blonde-wigged glamazon, Ilya (Melina Hoover, a pseudonym play on Never on Sunday‘s star Melina Mercouri). And she, it turns out, is no match for two sailors with some cash as trade Taki happily takes their money and leaves, the trio striding arm in arm. One of the final shots is a close-up of the sailors’ feet, adorned with strappy high-heeled sandals. A perfect punchline. “Those Greeks are all alike,” shrugs Ilya in the title card, as she disappears into the crowd for a drunken dance party.

Sailors in heels. Lonely trade. Drag queen dance breaks (of which there are many in the GGRC filmography). This is precisely the cheeky wit of mid-20th-century gay humor at its best. And it’s not just Always on Sunday. From haggard Mrs. Stone (Michele Lay) cracking a mirror with her dark eyebags before desperately hiring a Demi-Gods-paging hustler, Paulo (Antonio Vierra), with a calling card that reads, “Anything for a buck” in The Roman Springs on Mrs. Stone to Agent 0069 (yes, they made 69 jokes in the 1960s, apparently) turning into a drag double-agent after a hearty sniff of amyl nitrate in Spy on the Fly, it’s as if the Gay Girls Riding Club gave their audience an ongoing lesson in Camp 101.

Mrs. Stone (Michele Lay) considers the damage in The Roman Springs on Mrs. Stone, dir. Ray Harrison (1963)

Granted, some of the highest camp in the GGRC’s output owes a huge debt to the preexisting source material. Turns out that a drag parody of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is only marginally more bonkers than the original. Rightfully so—it’s a challenge to out-camp Joan Crawford and Bette Davis at their most berserk, though Freida, playing Baby Jane Hudson, certainly tries her best, bugging out her eyes, pursing her lips into an accurate imitation of Davis’s toad-like psychotic grimace, and soaring into an unhinged rendition of “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy.” Though What Really Happened to Baby Jane? and its Oscar-inspired miracle on the beach finale may be the Gay Girls Riding Club’s magnum opus, made rapidly after the original’s release, I may actually prefer the silly spy thriller Spy on the Fly specifically because its source isn’t already a pre-made camp classic. Who wouldn’t want to imagine Bond preferring poppers over a martini or getting a cross-dressing makeover in Madame Tussaud’s beauty salon (“If you have the cracks—we have the wax…”)?

It’s the latter blink-and-you-might-miss-it jokes that especially endeared Spy on the Fly to me. Madame Tussaud’s is just one of many sight gags. Agent 0069 also rushes into a gay bar with the sign “The Fly is Open” and does the twist in The Club Foot Discotheque with the regular band, “The Four Skins.” Packing in as many puns as possible reminded me of Ari Aster’s allusions to “chicken fat” in Beau Is Afraid. Aster cribbed this term from MAD Magazine’s Will Elder in reference to endless background gags. Spy on the Fly certainly owes as much of a debt to MAD Magazine’s Spy vs. Spy as Bond so it’s no surprise that they would take inspiration from this flurry of chicken fat as well (and I’m sure the GGRC would have their own quip about chicken fat). However, the other films also reward viewers with a perceptive eye, particularly The Roman Springs on Mrs. Stone with Countessa Vaselinni (get it?) and her boys’ advertised number: “Call PI-zza 0069.” Even the credits have jokes buried within. For instance, GGRC regular Loretta becomes Loretta Magnani in The Roman Springs on Mrs. Stone, a loving nod to Mamma Roma herself, Anna Magnani.

Agent 0069 (Warren Freming) in disguise in Spy on the Fly, dir. Ray Harrison (1967)

This Magnani mention points to what becomes blatantly obvious throughout the films: the sheer overwhelming adoration the GGRC had for cinema. These queens were cinema fetishists! Film freaks! I mean, they somehow managed to acquire real set pieces and props from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? for their own version. Doesn’t that Baby Jane doll look a little too accurate to be a replica? Doesn’t that child star Baby Jane poster look a bit familiar as well? Beyond the props, while these shorts were underground, they were no low-budget dalliance. With an emphasis on the quality of film and detail, it’s not a shock to learn that more than a few of the GGRC members worked in Hollywood themselves, including James Crabe, who would go on to become cinematographer for Rocky and The Karate Kid, and GGRC’s main director Ray Harrison (sometimes credited as Connie B. DeMille) who worked on The Spike Jones Show.

It’s this cinema kink that also cements the GGRC’s perfection of the camp aesthetic. While these films are hammy and hysterical, they never mock the original films or the actors. There’s no bile or biting critique here. Instead, they’re love letters to the original films and the stars that inspire them. As Christopher Isherwood said of camp, “You can’t camp about something you don’t take seriously. You’re not making fun of it; you’re making fun out of it. You’re expressing what’s basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance.” The Gay Girls Riding Club undoubtedly took Hollywood seriously. So much so that some of the films like the final All About Alice seem almost too faithful to the original with Freida, now billed as Warren Fremming (perhaps a consequence of gay liberation that they did away with pseudonyms towards the end of their movie-making), rekindling a frazzled aging Bette Davis role. The only difference is that All About Alice includes a dash of full-frontal male nudity and Mary Vivian Pearce-style line delivery from the secretly conniving Alice (Jarman Christopher).

Alice (Jarman Christopher) and Mona (Warren Fremming) in All About Alice, dir. Ray Harrison (1972)

The Dreamlanders reference isn’t pulled out of thin air. The Gay Girls Riding Club and the John Waters set were producing homemade movies around the same time—with John only a few years behind with his first short, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket from 1964. Even so, the humor within the Gay Girls Riding Club films appears like a product of a much earlier era of gay culture, worlds away from the trash slick of bad taste that would come oozing into midnight cinema from Baltimore. The same could be said for other gay filmmakers of that underground movies era: Kenneth Anger, the Kuchar Brothers, Warhol, Jack Smith, and even, The Cockettes whose Tricia’s Wedding has a similar party-gone-rogue feel to the perpetually boogying GGRC. Perhaps this distinction has something to do with class as the GGRC obviously had money to spare as seen in the high-end quality of their film, props, and sets.

No matter the cause, unlike those multiple maniacs, the Gay Girls Riding Club comes off as quite wholesome—even cute. Less confrontational but no less enthralling. Now, if I wanted to seem relevant, I’d make some overture to how drag history as seen in the GGRC is important “now more than ever” with drag under attack as the Proud Boys clash and get bayonetted by queers and allies with rainbow umbrellas outside of public libraries. But again…*sigh* I’m spent. Luckily, the Gay Girls Riding Club’s infectious camp adulation of Hollywood seems to be an essential form of escapism anyway, which, rather than being brushed away as frivolous, is just as necessary of a tonic sometimes as spewing political rage into the abyss—so why not use as intended?

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