Mid-Century Victoriana, Gaslight Romanticism

In my continuing obsession with the 19th century, the fin de Siècle in particular;I have been ruminating about that curious, often sanitized version depicted in mainstream  American culture (particularly  film) during the  mid century (give or take a decade or two).


Perhaps it was just nostalgia, Walt Disney, when describing his vacuous horror Main Street stated: “For those of us who remember the carefree time it recreates, Main Street will bring back happy memories. For younger visitors, it is an adventure in turning back the calendar to the days of their grandfather’s youth.”

Although the Disney oeuvre offends my sensibilities, his interpretation of what I call Gaslight Romanticism was extremely influential. In his own Main Street pied-e-terre, the cobwebs of Victorianism have been swept away in a cheery attempt at nostalgic recollection.

Images of his apartment will follow.

The 19th century, being such a close memory for many of the mid-century inspired some really beautiful interpretations as well, Saul Steinberg and Ben Shahn coming to mind.

Ben Shahn

Farewell to New York- All That is Beautiful

watercolor on paper

ca. 1965

I recently stumbled upon this wonderful illustration by Max Bignans, circa 1961, it beautifully captures the era’s fascination with Paris during the Gay 90’s.

Max Bignans illustration

ca. 1961

Thank you Chateau Thombeau.

Perhaps it was just the sauciness of the 90’s that had such great appeal for mainstream audiences. What I love about the fin de Siècle, the Decadent movement, Oscar, Beardsley et al are given little play.

Heteronormative fantasy is the fashion of the period.


It is difficult to not be seduced by the charms of Montmarte during the 90’s , what bothers me is how chaste (yet vaguely sexy) the depictions were, the 1952 Moulin Rouge starring the very pretty Zsa Zsa Gabor a prime example.

As pretty as she is, the clip fails to capture what I find so very appealing about the Montmartre scene.

George Cukor’s 1964 My Fair Lady offered a much more stylized interpretations, at least based upon Miss Hepburn’s costume, a pared down confection seemingly inspired by Charles Worth.

Cukor’s vision, although a little nauseating for my tastes- I may be the only gay man with a deep rooted aversion to the musical genre- admirably captures the Victorian/Edwardian interior.

Vincente Minnelli’s 1958 Gigi offers a particularly vivid interpretation of the 19th century interior; again I suggest muting the clip, it is way too shrill for my ears.

Some folks seem to really enjoy this stuff.

My curiosity for this Hollywood spin on Gaslight Romanticism was inspired by my recently watching the very silly 1965 comedy The Great Race, directed by the late great Blake Edwards. I have never seen Tony Curtis so fey , Natalie Wood so charming(and shapely) or so many adorable pug-dogs.

It goes down as one of my favorite movies.

the very adorable Miss Wood

I particularly love the opening credits, very period, both 1890’s and 1960’s, an admirable accomplishment.

Two films from my youth depict the 90’s , the first that I remember being Gene Kelly’s 1969 Hello Dolly, starring Louis Armsrtrong and Miss Streisand.

I am only just beginning to understand her appeal (a little too much of  a middle- aged -gay -homo cliche for my taste) but she does seem to have quite an impressive voice.

I might convert yet.

Of course we mustn’t forget Miss Channing

Miss Channing

The other film of my childhood, one that haunted me with boyhood nightmares was the 1968 film directed by Ken Hughes, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

The Child Catcher of Vulgaria ( gotta love it!) sent my brother David and I into fits of terror.

We of course adored it.

Sally Anne Howes as the deliciously named Truly Scrumptious is really quite scrumptious.

The only film depiction of the 19th century that I am wild about is from a little earlier; Orson Welles 1942 masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons based upon the equally stupendous 1918 novel of the same title by Booth Tarkington.

The film ( and the novel) captures the somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere of the 19th century that I perversely find so very appealing.

I love how Welles captured the spirit of the Victorian painted backdrop of the traveling photographer.

This clip clearly captures Welles understanding and perhaps sympathy for the 19th century sensibility.

The following image is of the now demolished Indianapolis mansion that inspired the Amberson mansion of Tarkington’s novel.

It is undeniably magnificent.

I include the following clip from the 2002 A&E interpretation of Welles’  masterpiece, only because it features pretty boy Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

Ridiculous of me, ridiculous of A&E.

As I mentioned before Uncle Walt ( that moniker  has ALWAYS creeped me out) was perhaps influential for this whole “bright & cheery” spin on my beloved dark and romantic 19th century aesthetic. His apartment certainly looks a heck of lot like my own Nana’s home, although she chose the particularly bilious palette of “peach and Wedgewood blue”, trust me it was a horror. God rest her antiquarian lovin’ soul!

Uncle Walt in situ , above MainStreet’s Firehouse.

A true horror.

Evidently this frightful lamp is left burning to honor the great man’s passing.

God this is one ugly lamp.

I don’t fully comprhend the vitriol I have towards this man and his vision; a tremendous number of people ( friends and family included) adore this fellow. For more info concerning Walt,  his vision of Victoriana, and  his apartment follow this  link.

I for one will take my 19th century straight up, clutter, moodiness, romanticism intact,

although perhaps at times a clearing out of clutter is in order.

I appreciate your indulgence in this particularly long post; if for some reason you want to further explore Hollywood films depicting the fin de Siècle follow this link.

Respectfully submitted,

Babylon Baroque

10 Responses to “Mid-Century Victoriana, Gaslight Romanticism”

  1. Great post! My ambivalent feeling to “Gaslight Victorian” stems from the way it tends to desex the whole era and conceal the relentless modernism of it all.”My Fair Lady” is a fine example- the original play “Pygmalion” was a pretty radical statement on feminism and class politics, and the movie ended up a very pretty statement on set design and frocks.

  2. babylonbaroque Says:

    Thank you, yes it is deeply dis-satisfying, leaves you wanting more. Which is perhaps a good thing as we both dug deeper and found the period to be full of great richness.
    LG @ BB

  3. Thank you for this wonderful eclectic peak at the twentieth century’s often skewed memory of the last years of the nineteenth century. Thanks also for making me seem not the only one to find Uncle Walt the creepiest Uncle you could possibly imagine.

  4. babylonbaroque Says:

    at least you are spared the overwhelming devotion to this creepy uncle :), seems to be an American vice,

  5. hi great article, Thank you!

  6. I thoroughly enjoyed this post….several things I learned; one being Walt Disney called ‘Uncle Walt’ and the other; Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in The Magnificent Ambersons….this was a surprise…I did see the movie originally but not very cognizant as to the cast…I also checked out the L.A.Opera post on Freyer’s Ring….Saw the first two….the production to me was a comedy of errors, but beautifully sung..Love the Gaslight period and sad for its demise….

    • babylonbaroque Says:

      Hi Dan, Good to hear from you!
      Uncle Walt is a term I have heard bantered about, not sure if it is Disney approved.
      I have never seen the Rhys-Meyers Ambersons, not sure if i want to, so love the original.
      The Ring was ridiculous, agreed, blinders were the best option i’m afraid.
      Thanks for commenting,

  7. I wish I could read the comments with less eye-strain. It is SO REASSURING to find others who want to run from the room screaming at the mere thought of Walt Disney.

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