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A Bit of Scarlet

Not so much a "Celluloid Closet" as a cinematic playroom, Andrea Weiss' "A Bit of Scarlet" is an amusing montage of gay-themed cliches and stereotypes from 60-odd years of British cinema. Pic is best suited for festivals and international TV markets. Weiss, who co-directed the slightly similar "Before Stonewall" (1985), is more determined to entertain than enlighten. Not only does she refuse to place her film clips in any kind of historical context --- she doesn't even identify the clips by movie titles --- individual scenes are juxtaposed for comic or ironic effect, to illustrate various "rules" about gay cinema. ("Your purpose in life is to disrupt the heterosexual plot"; "The buddy picture can get by with more than the usual male boding.")

Ian McKellen is used sparingly but effectively as narrator to announce those rules.

There is an air of wink-wink, nudge-nudge knowingness to “Scarlet” as it showcases scenes that, in an earlier, more innocent time, might have seemed totally innocuous. During a clip from “This is the Army” (1943), Irving Berlin appears to sing a sweet tribute to “My English Buddy.” He’s backed by a chorus of uniformed soldiers, many of whom have their arms around each other.

At other points, Weiss undercuts “serious drama” or classic melodrama through artful cross-cutting. A clip from “The Trials of Oscar Wilde” has James Mason’s prosecutor asking Peter Finch’s defendant: “One could describe your relationship as intimate?” Quick cut to Finch kissing Murray Head in “Sunday, Bloody Sunday.” Then quick cut back to “Oscar Wilde,” so Finch can meekly reply: “Yes.”

Weiss also has some fun with the sequence in “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” in which Robert Stephens’ great detective pretends to be on intimate terms with Dr. Watson. By simply intercutting shots of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce camping it up, Weiss suggests that maybe Holmes isn’t pretending after all.

“A Bit of Scarlet” also includes clips from such diverse pics as “Victim” (Dirk Bogarde as a blackmailed homosexual), “The Killing of Sister George” (a butch Beryl Reid dominates Susannah York) and “If…” (British schoolboys eye each other longingly). But even dedicated film buffs might have a hard time identifying many other clips, and that could be a major annoyance for some viewers.

In researching her film, Weiss has uncovered a genuine curio from the 1920s and ’30s that includes Ella Shields, a British cabaret performer who favored men’s attire while warbling clever romantic tunes. Based on the clips from her film appearances, she seems worthy of a documentary — or a dramatic feature — all by herself.

Selected clips are in first-rate condition. Other tech values are fine.

A Bit of Scarlet

British

Production: A Maya Vision production in association with the British Film Institute. Produced by Rebecca Dobbs. Executive producer, Ben Gibson. Directed, edited by Andrea Weiss.

Crew: Graphic design and animation, Royston Edwards; music, John Eacott; sound (Dolby), Chris Haralambous, Delle Grimsmo. Narrated by Ian McKellen. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 15, 1997. Running time: 75 MIN.

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