Retrosexual: The Notorious Work of Bettie Page and Irving and Paula Klaw 

by Ellen Wright of De Montfort University, Leicester, UK.

Model Bettie Page and filmmaker/photographers Irving and Paula Klaw have left a curious cultural legacy. Their work together, between 1952 and 1957, often filmed in a studio above the Klaw’s photo and bookshop, resulted in a catalogue of pin-up and fetish photographs, a clutch of burlesque revue B-movies and a number of short, silent 8mm and 16mm, mail order fetish ‘specialty’ films, intended for home exhibition. In these films Page, clad in lingerie, stockings and vertiginously high heels, would enact requested fetish and BDSM scenarios, either alone or with other young women. 

The resurgent popularity of fetish and pin-up films and photographs starring Page, from the 1980s onward, is part of a broader subcultural sentimentality for cult subversion, Americana, pin-up, burlesque and all things retro. These materials, while initially subversive and illegal, now appear curiously naïve and almost innocent. Their mise-en-scène – décor, costuming, props, the quality of the stock – prompt a nostalgia for the historic moment in which these films were produced and, perhaps more more troublingly, a nostalgia for ‘that American collective fantasy of the 1950s as the time of everyone’s youth in a white and mainly middle America setting, in the last moment of calm before the storms of Vietnam, civil rights and finally feminism.’ [1]

As is often the way with such things, the transgressive charge of these materials appears to have diminished over time, seen from the rose-tinted perspective of a different, considerably more permissive context. To some, these texts are now considered either ‘old hat’ or playful, even artistic, vintage ‘erotica’, preserved in the archives of the Kinsey Institute and celebrated in glossy coffee table books, granting them a cultural cachet they were previously denied. [2] Their original production and reception context has shifted and the signs and signifiers in these films can now offer up very different readings.

What interests me about these films is Page’s performance. In her films and photographs, she would rotate playing ‘dom’ and ‘sub’ roles but what remained constant was what Maria Elena Buszek affectionately refers to as the ‘hammy gusto’ [3] with which she performed across her fetish films and photography and in her more mainstream pin-up work. This ‘awarish’ [4] (i.e sexually self-aware and self-confident) and extremely camp performance style was Page’s trademark and it is a key part of her ongoing appeal as a cult star and of her subsequently being reclaimed as a potential figure of female agency in the face of restrictive industrial processes and patriarchal structures.

Page had some training as an actress but how apparent that is in her performances is a subject of debate amongst fans and detractors. [5] Whether she is animately cat fighting, goggle-eyed and bound and gagged, or enthusiastically brandishing a whip, realism or a subtle, nuanced performance is not Page’s intent. The best way to describe Page’s idiom is as both ardent and active. This is no mean feat to pull off when working in a form where one is so frequently physically restrained and is part of the larger adult entertainment industry, a business so frequently charged with objectifying and oppressing its female workers. 

Page’s professionalism and uninhibited performances made her a firm favourite with amateur photographers and camera clubs who, under the auspices of ‘art’, produced an array of titillating materials untroubled by the police. Through this work, Page found herself featured in the various ‘girlie’ pin-up magazines, filled with ‘leg art’ and with suggestive titles such as Eyeful, Titter, Whisper and Flirt, that were popular and abundant in 1940s and 1950s America. It was in these same magazines that the Klaws advertised their ‘specialty’ loops and ‘cheesecake’ photographs available by mail order.

The legal constraints as to what wasn’t obscene and could therefore legally be sent through the US mail very much dictated the format and content of these films and photographs. As a result, by today’s radically different standards they could be considered tame, laughable and, because of their repetitious nature, possibly even monotonous. They couldn’t feature any nudity, sex (simulated or actual) or sex play and all ‘action’ was girl-on-girl or girl-alone. Titillation occurred through suggestion rather than explicit display.

These texts are iterative in a number of ways, from their conventional use of shots (close-ups of feet in high heels pacing back and forth, or of stockinged legs; seams perfectly straight), to the catalogue of stock moves performers undertook and the repetition of the specific acts (stroking one’s stockinged legs, flicking one’s hair, pacing back and forth in one’s heels, cracking a whip), to the stock cast of performers and crew who worked collaboratively to produce this catalogue of films, to the typical mise-en-scène of these films (a couch draped in a satin counterpane and a particular backdrop feature in a significant number of the Klaw’s films). While this iteration can make for dull viewing, it is in these films’ subtle differences that my interest lies. 

In his work on film cycles, Peter Stanfield refers to Janet Staiger’s discussion of film production as a ‘collective mode of manufacture’ whereby a ‘standardised product’ was produced through ‘collaborative work’ by ‘craftspeople’ [6] observing how:

filmmakers formed creative alliances and partnerships, where knowledge is traded, exchanged and put to work, but they are not the sole authors of these films […] Film is an industrial art, but it is not a conveyor belt product designed to be indistinguishable from others in the same run. [7]

This brings to mind the Klaw’s back catalogue of remarkably similar, but crucially different films that catered directly to very distinct sexual peccadilloes. For serially-produced texts such as the Klaw’s film output, there is often, as Phyll Smith notes, a ‘seriality [in content] that has at its heart a tension between repetition and variation’, in order to attract and hold the audiences’ attention. [8]

Here Page’s knowledge and understanding of the nuances and conventions of the ‘specialty’ film and her awareness of her role within it is key. Through her familiarity with and mastery of this standardised product, Page as ‘craftsperson’ asserts her creativity and agency within the collaborative production process through a combination of compliance and subtle variation in her performance. 

In Teaser Girl in High Heels, she reclines on the couch draped with a satin counterpane, wearing a long, satin dressing gown. Smiling directly into the camera, she slowly lifts the hem of her gown to reveal her patent heels and stocking-clad legs. She removes her gown, repeatedly flicks her hair and intermittently poses for her audience, lengthening and caressing her body, her direct gaze inviting her audience to contemplate its sensuousness with her. She paces in her killer heels, back and forth, back and forth, then seats herself again, picks up a brush and compact mirror and brushes her hair. As she does so, she smiles contentedly at her reflection and even winks into the camera, making a direct invitation to the viewer to linger on and vicariously enjoy her recognisably feminised physical form and performative gestures. 

Other than the close-up shots of her stocking-clad legs and her feet repeatedly pacing, she is filmed in mid-shot, posing, adjusting her stockings, running her hands up and down her legs and rolling her stockings to the knee, then quickly rolling them back up. All the while her facial expressions are mischievous and knowing, intended to tantalise, tease and directly engage the viewer. Her behaviour and facial expressions playfully pose the question, will she remove the stocking or won’t she? 

In several films she blows a kiss to the camera and/or waves farewell to signal the end of her performance. It is a gesture that is not only typical of the ‘self-conscious, formulaic and exhibitionist manner’ [9] of these and other more explicit specialty films, but that also connotes agency within the collaborative film production process by seemingly limiting the duration of her audience’s visual access to her body. 

Bettie and movie camera
Bettie Page being filmed by Irving Klaw (date unknown)

Page’s expert contribution to the collaborative filmmaking process and role in its shared success becomes all the more striking when one considers the occasionally more stilted and self-conscious technique of other performers who appear elsewhere in the Klaw films. While some performers draw attention to the fact that their performances are quite closely directed from behind the camera, direction tends not to be apparent in Page’s performances. In Betty [sic] Page Gets Bound And Kidnapped, there are several obvious cuts where presumably mistakes have been made or detailed direction is required. Page’s co-stars Shelley Leigh and Tina Farrar are hesitant throughout and in a couple of instances inadvertently nod or glance off-screen, presumably to acknowledge an off-camera instruction. Page’s activities and gestures, while clearly intended for an audience, nevertheless appear autonomous. 

Such performative gestures might not ordinarily be noteworthy or even noticeable in other film forms. But, because of the incredible genericism and deliberate tendency to repetition that were requirements of the Klaw’s production processes and films, the iterative variation in Page’s performance style becomes so striking because it is one of the few points of difference these films offer. While the differences in Page’s performances were enough to make her stand out from her co-stars even contemporaneously and mark her as a star model and performer, secondary audiences, possibly without the expertise to read these film’s intended fetish content, instead prioritise Page’s performance as the locus of the film’s attraction, erotic or otherwise.

For the original audience for whom Klaw’s genericism was originally designed, these gestural details may have gone unnoticed or were likely largely irrelevant. But, as subsequent audiences with differing agendas to the fetishistic niche come to encounter these films, these stylistic points have emerged from the background of the sexually mundane and utilitarian functionality of repetition. This assemblage of gestures has subsequently coalesced over time, across shifting social contexts and in the absence of detailed knowledge of Page’s private life, to inform an impression of Page as a naughty but ultimately reassuring figure of female sexuality, a symbol of women’s agency or oppression, depending on your perspective.

Notes

[1] Laura Mulvey. 1991. ‘A Phantasmagoria of the Female Body: The Work of Cindy Sherman’. New Left Review 188, 141.

[2] For a discussion of pornography as a challenge to bourgeois social values, see Constance Penley. 2004. ‘Crackers and Whackers: The White Trashing of Porn’. In Linda Williams, ed. Porn Studies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 309–319.

[3] Maria Elena Buszek. 2006. Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 247.

[4] See Buszek. 1999. ‘Representing “Awarishness”: Burlesque, Feminist Transgression, and the 19th-Century Pin-Up’. The Drama Review 43 (4). Winter, 141–162; and Buszek. 2006.

[5] In her 2008 obituary in The Guardian, Michael Carlson observes, Her ‘routines lacked the grace and intimacy of her still photos, as if, once moving, her focus was forgotten. Page’s infamous “bondage” films, whose wardrobes are much copied in today’s mainstream, seem almost comic in their exaggeration’. 

[6] David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson. 1985. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 82–83.

[7] Peter Stanfield. 2016. ‘Run, Angel, Run: Serial Production and the Biker Movie, 1966-72’. In Austin Fisher and Johnny Walker, eds. Grindhouse: Cultural Exchange on 42nd Street, and Beyond. New York: Bloomsbury.

[8] Phyll Smith. 2015. ‘“Westerns Not Talkers”: The Coming of Sound To The Serial House’. In What is Cinema History? conference papers. University of Glasgow, 11.

[9] Amy Herzog. 2008. ‘In The Flesh: Space and Embodiment in the Pornographic Peep Show Arcade’. The Velvet light Trap 62. Fall, 29.  

Contributor

Ellen Wright is the VC2020 Lecturer in Cinema and Television History at De Montfort University in Leicester. She writes on the material culture around the American film industry between the 1920s and the 1960s. Her PhD was on the British reception of the Hollywood film star pin-up during WWII and she has published work on Hollywood and the swimsuit, on the pin-up marketing and camp performances of Monroe and Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the star persona and work of pin-up photographer and exploitation film star Bunny Yeager. She has a regular blog and podcast on the intersection of performance, spectatorship, gender and sexuality called Here’s Looking at You.

ellen.wright@dmu.ac.uk / @DrSmut

 

 

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