CHICAGO — “What if?” Two words; one question.
The movies love that question. It fulfills the weirdest daydreams, unearths long-buried treasure, imagines what might’ve been and might be still.
Three of the films screening this week at “Reeling: The 39th Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival,” held at the Landmark Century Centre, dig into cruel, mercurial American show business history and what might’ve been.
Two are documentaries, intriguing and bittersweet: “Boulevard! A Hollywood Story” and “Invisible: Gay Women in Southern Music.” The third, “The Sixth Reel,” is co-written, co-directed and stars Charles Busch in and out of drag. His comedy wonders what might happen among a group of rabid Greenwich Village cinephiles if the lost 1927 Lon Chaney silent feature “London After Midnight” got itself found. Together these films convene a sort of seminar devoted to popular culture’s shadow history.
In “Boulevard! A Hollywood Story” (2:30 p.m. Sept. 26), director Jeffrey Schwarz tells the ripely improbable story behind a musical that never came to pass, at least until Andrew Lloyd Webber got his mitts on it. For a time in the 1950s, in the wake of her dark triumph in the venomous masterwork “Sunset Boulevard,” Gloria Swanson pursued the rights and worked with fledging songwriting partners (and lovers) Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley on a Broadway musical adaptation: “Boulevard!”
Behind the scenes, Swanson tried to break up the wobbly coupledom of her collaborators. Then it all went to hell, the details almost entirely unknown until decades later, when Hughes created an L.A. cabaret show “Swanson on Sunset” that delved into the backstage drama of the making of the musical that wasn’t.
The documentary features new interviews with and about the key collaborators, and what emerges is a portrait of institutionalized, ingrained homophobia at a time when “openly gay” wasn’t financially possible for practically anyone in any branch of showbiz. Lloyd Webber went on to become the “first” to musicalize “Sunset Boulevard” on Broadway, in the 1990s. That show didn’t really work, either — it’s watery and musically sentimental, where the movie stays hard as nails. But it has the aura (and the Tony Awards) of a sort-of hit. Sometimes that’s enough to obscure what lies beneath, or in the mists of projects that never came to fruition.
The stunningly various singer-songwriters showcased in director T. J. Parsell’s “Invisible: Gay Women in Southern Music” (7 p.m. Sept. 29) tell another true story, this one about the Nashville country music scene in and around the 1970s.
At the time — and those times haven’t changed in country music all that much, as we hear from the subjects — coming out meant career suicide in the face of the industry’s bedrock homophobia. The Nashville code was mirrored by the strict, sometimes abusive fundamentalist upbringing experienced by several of the lesbian songwriters interviewed.
Songwriter and performer Dianne Davidson begins and ends the documentary, and her reunion decades later with Linda Ronstadt, who she backed up as a vocalist on tour, provides a lovely sense of closure. “Invisible” sees progress and hope where it can; the footage of Ruthie Foster, for example, fills your heart as well as your ears with joyous appreciation for what a Black lesbian singer-songwriter managed despite every industry roadblock. But the film is also a chronicle of dreams dashed and careers brutally sidelined.
“The Sixth Reel” (9:15 p.m. Sept. 30) is all about the fun. While co-directors Carl Andress and Charles Busch settle for some agreeably chintzy touches (dippy musical score, mistimed mugging) the movie offers considerable wit and some nice payoffs.
Busch plays Jimmy, a longtime Greenwich Village denizen, desperately broke when he comes into the possession of a cinematic Holy Grail: the final 10 minutes (the sixth reel of the title) of Tod Browning’s “London After Midnight.” Wasn’t the last surviving copy lost in a fire in the 1960s? Not according to this movie! And there’s the what-if: What if it lives?
One discovery leads to another, and before long Jimmy’s circle of obsessive “London After Midnight” fans proves there’s no limit to what a serious collector will do for a celluloid recovery project. Some of the banter is high-grade Busch, familiar from his films but especially his stage triumphs. The verbal gags resemble vintage Neil Simon, in spike heels and a “cunning chapeau,” as one character notes.
The ensemble includes such zesty ringers as Julie Halston, the splendid Dee Hoty (hauteur incarnate as a kleptomaniac waiting for her close-up) and “Wings” alum Tim Daly as a British NYU film professor on the hunt for the lost silent relic. “I thought you might be an actor,” Halston says early on. “No. Just affected,” he replies.
It’s an enjoyable lark, but Busch also wants a little heart, as well as notion or two about what film history and film preservation can mean to so many. Together these three films say a lot, directly or indirectly, about luck, chance, sexuality — and cultural legacies, grand and inglorious both, still with us.
The “Reeling” festival’s in-person screenings conclude Sept. 29 with “The Sixth Reel.” Digital online screening access continues through Oct. 7.
“Reeling: The 39th Chicago LGBTGQ+ International Film Festival” runs through Sept. 29 at Landmark Century Centre, 2828 N. Clark St. Masks and proof of full vaccination (or negative PCR test result within 72 hours of screening) required. For screening schedule, ticket prices and online festival offerings, go to reelingfilmfestival.org.