Get Your Filthy Hands Off Me!’ Gorgeous George’s Glamorous Legacy

Rather than watch the Olympics, and all that noble, ser­i­ous sport­ing uplift, I’ve been read­ing a book about a carny, corny, shame­less 1940s-50s American wrest­ler: Gorgeous George: The Outrageous Bad-Boy Wrestler Who Created American Pop Culture, by John Capouya.

My American chum Chris Supermarky recom­men­ded it to me, think­ing it would be of interest. He wasn’t wrong. It was noth­ing less than a rev­el­a­tion. It was like find­ing the Rosetta Stone of met­ro­sexu­al­ity. Or at least, post-war male glamorousness.

George Wagner was a baby-faced bru­nette, pint-sized, some­what unre­mark­able 1940s US wrest­ler who decided he needed a gim­mick to get noticed. And boy, did he find one. By turn­ing him­self into Gorgeous George, a vain, primp­ing, preen­ing pea­cock who per­ox­ided his hair, had it metic­u­lously ton­sured, fussily held in place by gold-painted ‘Georgie’ pins, and wear­ing flam­boy­ant robes that were out­rageous cre­ations of lace and silk and chif­fon in mauves and pale pinks, he suc­ceeded in invent­ing per­haps the most per­sist­ent and suc­cess­ful gim­mick of the post-war world: The glam­or­ous, dec­ad­ent, ‘effem­in­ate’ male star.

Before Beckham. Before Boy George. Before Bowie. Before Jagger. Before Elvis. Before Liberace. Before Little Richard. Before James Brown there was Gorgeous George.

Under the shrewd guid­ance of his Svengali wife Betty (there’s no evid­ence, aside from his gor­geous­ness, that George was any­thing other than het­ero­sexual), who made many of his most dar­ing robes her­self, The ‘Human Orchid’ as he liked to be known, had deduced that the best way to get ‘heat’ from a wrest­ling audi­ence – and thus book­ings – was to trans­gress 1940s gender norms. Wildly. And cheat. Equally wildly. Not for noth­ing was his favour­ite slo­gan: ‘Win if you can. Lose if you must. But always cheat.’

The Sensation of the Nation’s pan­to­mime per­form­ance of sis­sy­n­ess was a kind of cheat­ing in itself: in 1940s and early 50s America men, par­tic­u­larly the blue-collar kind that Wagner wrestled for, were not allowed to enjoy chif­fon and affect­a­tion. George was bend­ing the rules and gender.

To help milk his act, and mul­tiply his crimes, Wagner would hold his pre-match press con­fer­ences in local beauty par­lours while hav­ing his hair mar­celled and employed a tail-coated valet (a device later appro­pri­ated by GG fan James Brown) who would snob­bishly spray the ring with cologne before George would deign to grace it with his aris­to­cratic pres­ence. When the ref­eree tried to search George before the match as required by wrest­ling rules he would recoil offen­ded, shout­ing ‘GET YOUR FILTHY HANDS OFF ME!!’

Such were the pas­sions aroused by George’s gor­geous­ness that his incen­di­ary appear­ance often led to fights and some­times mini-riots when incensed mem­bers of the pub­lic would storm the ring in an indig­nant fury and try to take him on them­selves. The dir­ector John Waters recalls watch­ing GG on TV as a kid, spell­bound by this appar­i­tion of queen­i­ness — while his offen­ded par­ents yelled insults at the lacey freak. GG was someone that America loved to hate but ended up just loving.

Although largely for­got­ten today, GG was about as fam­ous as you could get back then: a by-word for fame itself — even mak­ing an appear­ance in a Bugs Bunny Warner Bros car­toon (as ‘Ravishing Ronald’), and one of the first proper stars of the new medium of tele­vi­sion. Wrestling had been taken up by the early net­works as a cheaply-staged way of inter­est­ing the masses in this new-fangled gad­get. The small screen turned out to have been made for GG’s big glam head.

Many claimed to have been influ­enced by GG (includ­ing Bob Dylan of all people) but per­haps his most fam­ous dis­ciple was a young, rel­at­ively down­beat Mohammed Ali, who decided to adopt GG’s vain­glori­ous, pro­voc­at­ive per­sona – to dev­ast­at­ing effect:

I made up my mind after [meet­ing] Gorgeous George to make people angry at me.… I saw fif­teen thou­sand people comin’ to see this man get beat. And his talk­ing did it. I said this is a gooood idea!’

And so Ali became the mouthy black boxer who bragged about being the ‘pret­ti­est thing you’ve ever seen’ – ‘The Greatest’. Ali really was gor­geous. Facially and bod­ily. Wagner on the other hand… slightly less so. I’m not sug­gest­ing of course for one moment that GG was ugly – but at 5′ 9″, with a Roman nose and a bit of a pot belly his gor­geous­ness was per­haps more aspir­a­tional than Ali’s. Particularly in the lat­ter part of his career George’s appear­ance puts me in mind of Freud’s fam­ous phrase: ‘His majesty the baby.’

There was a dark side to all this glam­or­ous­ness. Wagner reportedly began to believe his own pub­li­city and insisted his own chil­dren refer to him as ‘Gorgeous George’, or ‘GG’. He was also, even by the stand­ards of the time and his pro­fes­sion, a hardened drinker. After both his mar­riages failed he took to drink­ing even more. And as TV fell out of love with wrest­ling, and the years – and the booz­ing – took their toll, he of course drank even more.

By the late 50s early 60s Gorgeous George was reduced to nov­elty fights in which he was billed as for­feit­ing his lovely locks if he lost. And of course, he did — sub­mit­ting to the indig­nity of being clippered seated on a stool in the centre of the ring, like a lat­ter day Samson. A great box-office suc­cess the first time, this ritual humi­li­ation became less and less so the more he repeated it. Even see­ing Gorgeous George finally get­ting what had been com­ing to him all these years wasn’t enough of a draw second or third time around.

When the final bell rang in 1963 and George Wagner died of liver dis­ease and heart fail­ure, aged 48, all the large wedges of cash that had passed through his hands dur­ing his stun­ningly suc­cess­ful career had van­ished without trace: he was pen­ni­less. But fam­ily and friends made sure he was given a glam­or­ous send off.

The Human Orchid was dressed in his favour­ite purple satin robe (the ‘George Washington’), his hair was ton­sured and pinned one last time and he was exhib­ited in a highly pol­ished purple cas­ket — before being ‘planted’ in the ground.

While he may have been largely for­got­ten, George’s glam­or­ous ‘gim­mick’ of course took root in the cul­ture, and lives on.



Too Big For Their Breeches

I’m try­ing my best to dis­tract myself from the des­per­ate dis­ap­point­ment of THAT single – you know, the one that defin­it­ively proved that there really is such a thing as ‘too gay’. Even for G*g*.

So here’s a blast from the past – when pop music was still vital and vig­or­ous instead of gal­vanic and twitch­ing. Homoerotic instead of gay­ist. Climactic without the ‘anti’. And what a dis­trac­tion! This is basic­ally a bunch of young bucks in breeches f***king fully-dressed on national TV. In 1966. Note the gui­tar­ist brazenly, two-handedly toss­ing off his ‘axe’ above his snugly out­lined pack­age and flared thighs at 1.50

‘Girl, you bet­ter get straight.’

Fat chance with you provid­ing kicks like that, lads.

This per­form­ance of ‘Kicks’ by Paul Revere and the Raiders a rather good example of how boy bands (and that would include of course those boy bands who call them­selves ‘rock bands’) have always ten­ded to have that slashy, man­love for ladies thing going on.

I sup­pose the rel­at­ive ‘inno­cence’ of the 60s meant you could get away with so much more. I’m not entirely sure even the chaps in the skin-tight white breeches are fully aware of what they’re doing, even if their styl­ist was. Mind, this is only a dec­ade after Elvis the Pelvis was fam­ously filmed strictly from the waist up on the Ed Sullivan show. And he was wear­ing flannels.

When, I won­der, are tight white breeches going to make a comeback, other than on fox­hunt­ing toffs? And prefer­ably without the frock coat cov­er­ing the but­tocks. Have they already? Did I blink and miss it? I sup­pose they did moment­ar­ily with Adam Ant’s won­der­ful dandy high­way­man per­sona back in the early 80s – though he usu­ally wore his punk leather trousers (and watch­ing this clip I’m reminded that des­pite what he tells the press, Johnny Depp’s fop­pish pir­ate Jack Sparrow prob­ably owes more to dandy high­way­man Adam than it does Keith Richards).

Either way, I decree that the male thigh should def­in­itely get much more atten­tion. Along with the male but­tock. While the male packet should prob­ably be on dis­play in a few more pub­lic places than photo-shopped designer under­wear ads.

Until the 19th Century it almost always was. The shape of a man’s leg was con­sidered one of his most desir­able fea­tures. But even the tarti­est male tarts today, seem to shy away from that kind of dis­play. Instead like Mikey Sorrentino, they want to dis­tract your atten­tion upwards – towards heaven – and have you admire their divine abs and cleav­age instead, while pro­tect­ing their vir­tue with those baggy jeans/track-pants/board-shorts/male burkhas that American males (and their Anglo admirers) have worn reli­giously since the 80s, with the advent of the Age of Speedophobia.

Tip: Frances Eby

Shameless Slashiness

I’m not much of a Robbie Williams fan. ‘Bromance’ leaves me cold. And I hated Brokeback Mountain. But per­haps I’m a big softy really because I rather like this video for Williams’ single ‘Shame’ which brings all these themes together, adds a hairy Gary Barlow, Robbie’s once-reviled Take That col­lab­or­ator, and takes its top off. What was it Dusty said? ‘The best part of break­ing up is when you’re mak­ing up’

Yes, the ‘Toys R Us’ line is a real clanger, a reminder of Robbie’s gurn­ing, annoy­ing­ness, and the song is a little bland. But the video suc­ceeds, just about, in bring­ing it alive. Despite the com­plaints of some gays that the promo ‘mocks’ Brokeback Mountain there’s a real sense of long­ing and intim­acy in the way they look at one another that is almost more con­vin­cing than much of what appeared in the movie it’s ‘spoof­ing’. Or, to be hon­est, in many gay male relationships.

Actually this promo’s not really ‘bromance’ at all, which is almost defined by its snig­ger­ing, para­lys­ing fear of any­thing phys­ical – it’s a know­ingly slashy pop promo video: man­love for the ladies (and the gays). It plays on both the ‘gay­ness’ of Take That, who, des­pite the leather har­nesses, disco and baby oil — and the fantas­ies of many of their fans — were prob­ably all straight (more or less), and the fam­ously pas­sion­ate love-hate and now love-again affair between Barlow and Williams. Though of course, for all the looks and strip­ping off they don’t ‘take the plunge’. Which is a bit of a relief, frankly.  And in its way rather less cow­ardly than ‘gay cow­boy romance’ Brokeback Mountain’s five seconds of darkly-lit tent sex.

But that end­ing to ‘Shame’, in which Robbie and Gary run to the top of a cliff to jump into the water below (but chicken out) seems to ref­er­ence a much older and bet­ter cow­boy romance – the fam­ous scene in Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid where Robert Redford and Paul Newman laugh­ingly jump into the river together to escape a pur­su­ing posse.  Butch Cassidy was a favour­ite of early slash­ers – ‘strange’ ladies who liked to bring out the homo­erotic sub­text of main­stream movies, TV shows and bands, and per­haps of male het­ero­sexu­al­ity itself, and make them the text, some­times with eye-popping illustrations.

Forty years on, the auto-slashiness of the video for ‘Shame’ seems to illus­trate how main­stream and accep­ted slash itself has become in pop culture.

Tip: William Godwin

Army Dreamers: A Backwards Salute to Recruitment Films

by Mark Simpson, The Guardian

As a boy grow­ing up in the 1960s and 70s I was raised to fight The Second World War all over again. Airfix mod­els. Commando com­ics. Air tat­toos in June. Watching The Battle of Britain and The Longest Day on telly with my dad, just so I’d know what to do if I ever found myself pinned down on a Normandy beach or with an Me 109E on my tail.

All of which made me easy prey to an RAF recruit­ing film about a buc­can­eer squad­ron train­ing sortie from Gibraltar, set to a Vangelis soundtrack. I promptly signed up to the air cadets and spent Tuesday after­noons and a week or two in the sum­mer hols wear­ing itchy shirts and a Frank Spencer-style beret, learn­ing how to march without fall­ing over. I loved it, and would prob­ably have signed up for the real thing if it hadn’t been for a sixth-form flir­ta­tion with Quakerism.

Alas, that old recruit­ing film isn’t included in They Stand Ready, a new col­lec­tion of Central Office of Information (COI) armed forces recruit­ment and pro­pa­ganda shorts made between 1946 and 1985, released by the BFI. But sev­eral sim­ilar ones are, includ­ing Tornado (1985), about a sim­u­lated attack on a Warsaw Pact surface-to-air mis­sile site, and HMS Sheffield (1975), about life onboard a Royal Navy frig­ate (that was later hit by an Exocet dur­ing the Falklands war with the loss of 30 lives).

With their prom­ise of escape from hum­drum life, oppor­tun­it­ies for new mates, good times, for­eign travel and play­ing with really expens­ive toys – though strangely silent on the pos­sible phys­ical cost – these films offer a glimpse into the list­less, regi­men­ted world that was mid-to-late 20th-century civil­ian Britain, wait­ing impa­tiently for Xboxes, EasyJet, the inter­net and proper drugs to turn up.

Perhaps it’s because prime min­is­ter David Cameron is around the same age as me – or pos­sibly because the armed forces, or at least the army, are still largely run by lah-de-dah Ruperts like him – that he seems so nos­tal­gic for this van­ished old world. Cameron recently vowed to make the forces “front and centre of national life” and “revered” again, in a speech to UK per­son­nel in Afghanistan.

Not that increased prom­in­ence is a guar­an­tee of increased rev­er­ence, how­ever. A short cel­eb­rat­ing national ser­vice, They Stand Ready (1955), which dates from a year before the Suez débâcle punc­tured the UK’s global pre­ten­sions, recalls the last time that the armed forces really were front and centre of national life. Yet con­scrip­tion proved to be highly unpop­u­lar – both with most of those who had to do it and those who had to find some­thing to do with them.

Once the last national ser­vice­men left the ranks in 1963, army life could then be sold as some­thing glam­or­ous and excit­ing instead of an oner­ous black-and-white duty. This is exactly what Ten Feet Tall (1963), a rock’n’roll-soundtracked recruit­ing film does in glor­i­ous Technicolor. It show­cases a matinée-idol young Scottish squaddie’s ruddy com­plex­ion, per­fect white teeth, and the (now omin­ously) nicotine-stained fin­gers of the army careers officer.

• The COI Collection Volume Three: They Stand Ready, a BFI DVD release, avail­able from July 2010


Danny’s top but Mikey is bottom

…acccord­ing to a head­line in today’s Sun news­pa­per. Glad to see they’re finally report­ing the news that people really want to hear.

Far be it for me to con­tra­dict Britain’s best-selling tabloid, but I won­der whether Danny Young isn’t more ‘vers’.

You can watch his top­less Rocky on the tra­gic­ally awful and appar­ently end­less ITV real­ity show Dancing on Ice here.  Danny is favour­ite to win because he and his perky nipples (I’m sure it’s the ice) are the only reason any­one watches it.

I’d like to see him skat­ing with Johnny Weir.  Then we’ll really find out who’s top.