Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 33 / 17 August 2017
 

Castro classic returns

DVD


Director Marc Huestis on the set of Whatever Happened to Susan Jane?
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"The past is a foreign country: we do things differently there." – This quote, courtesy of the late English author L.P. Hartley, can certainly be applied to Whatever Happened to Susan Jane?, the delightful early Marc Huestis film that takes us back to the Golden Age of the Castro.

Whatever Happened to Susan Jane? began filming on the very day Ronald Reagan became President, according to the director. By the time the film opened, we were experiencing the first wave of AIDS. The film now stands as "the last great burst of innocence before the dawning of the age of AIDS," Huestis says.

"Susan Jane came from trash, literally," says Huestis. "I was walking in the Haight in the early 80s and spotted an old 16mm film in a trash can. It turned out to be The Outsider, the campy 50s 'educational' film that is the glue that holds Susan Jane together."

Now commonly known as "school scare films," these educational shorts were produced by small independent film-production companies from the late 1940s until the early 80s. Most were produced specifically for classroom viewing, and were designed to teach the era's children how to avoid the horrors of VD, how to be a "good sport," etc. Often overly preachy and cast with non-actors, most of the films, when viewed today, are unintentionally humorous.

The Outsider is set somewhere in Virginia, and tells the woeful tale of Susan Jane, a lonely girl who just can't seem to fit in, until kind-hearted Marcie Clark invites poor Susan to a party, rescuing her from oblivion. In a stroke of genius, Huestis took a few select scenes from The Outsider and shot new scenes around them, updating the lives of Susan Jane and Marcie when they meet again, years later in the Castro.

After we see "the girls" in glorious black & white, the film abruptly switches to color, when Susan Jane, who now calls herself Sujana (brilliantly deadpan Francesca Rosa) is living in the Castro, hanging out with kooky artists, punk rockers and drag queens. Along comes Marcie (magnificent Ann Block), still dressed as though she were in a 50s sitcom. Marcie comes looking for her old friend and gets a strong, mind-altering dose of neighborhood life in the early 80s.

It's Block's film all the way. Her acting style is very much in keeping with the one-note line readings of those old educational shorts, but with a campy self-awareness that lets viewers in on the joke. Her big glasses, polyester outfit, tacky kerchief, and "gosh gee" approach to everything she sees are part of a hilarious send-up of the values of suburban USA, circa 1950.

Lulu, a famed drag performer of the period, steals a few scenes with her over-the-top, somewhat foul-mouthed persona. Her table-top dance in Cafe Flore is classic drag hilarity. Huestis expertly weaves these new scenes with footage from The Outsider. The laughs never stop coming in this short, sweet look back at an unforgettable SF era.

"What I liked about that period was that there was an infectious energy that transcended sexuality," Huestis says. "Gay and straight artists were collaborating in theatre and music. There was an innocent 'let's put on a show' spirit that permeated the scene."

Whatever Happened to Susan Jane? has been missing in action for years as Huestis busied himself with other projects and his popular stage shows at the Castro Theatre. But after a long wait, this early gay indie is back, on DVD and fully remastered. The film is as funny as ever, and now, with so many from that period no longer with us, it's bittersweet as well. It's a time capsule, a history lesson, and a wonderful example of what a talented filmmaker can do with little cash but lots of panache!

Whatever Happened to Susan Jane? is available at Amazon.com.






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