Joker to Django: The "Blue Boy" Cinematic Universe

Post-conservation image of Thomas Gainsborough's The Blue Boy, about 1770. Photo: Christina Milton O'Connell. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens
The Huntington has released images of its newly conserved Blue Boy, showing a more stridently blue costume. The Gainsborough painting has been rehung in the Thornton Portrait Gallery, awaiting visitors (whenever that may be). 

Blue Boy is unique in having had a modest through surprisingly sustained influence on film history. Its impact spans the century from Marlene Dietrich and Laurel and Hardy to Django Unchained and Joker. Most of the films discussed in this post are available for pandemic bingeing. 
Frame from F.W. Murnau's The Boy in Blue, 1919
The first film referencing Blue Boy appears to be F.W. Murnau's Der Knabe in Blau (The Boy in Blue), 1919. It was silent and is now lost except for a few random clips in Berlin's Deutsche Kinemathek. The Boy in Blue was Murnau's first film, three years before Nosferatu (which jump-started the vampire genre). It starred Ernst Hofmann as a young aristocrat who believes he's the reincarnation of the Blue Boy in the painting.
Marlene Dietrich as Blue Boy with costume, 1927
A photo of Marlene Dietrich in Blue Boy drag was taken to publicize a 1927 comedic revue in Vienna. Valerie Hedquist wrote, "Dietrich as The Blue Boy initiated her life-long reputation as a gender-bending actress who appropriated male dress adopted by lesbians, such as top hats and tuxedos… to achieve what Rebeccan Kennison called 'double drag.'"

Dietrich's Blue Boy costume is preserved in Berlin's film museum. The outfit is green—as was the costume in the painting when Blue Boy was in the collection of the Duke of Westminster. Joseph Duveen convinced Westminster to sell and engaged conservator W.A. Holder to remove centuries of yellowed varnish to reveal the original blue. 
Oliver Hardy in Early to Bed, 1928, and Harry Bernard and Dell Henderson in Wrong Again, 1929
Pleased with the results, Henry Huntington bought the portrait from Duveen for a world-record price of $729,000 in 1921. It instantly become one of the most famous paintings in the world. The New York Times wrote that "there are many who are now saying that The Blue Boy is not only the finest English painting but perhaps the world's most beautiful picture." Less open to dispute is that Blue Boy was the most famous painting in Southern California for decades afterward. Hollywood scriptwriters and set decorators adopted Blue Boy as shorthand for high culture, wealth, and pretentiousness. 

Two silent Laurel and Hardy shorts were filmed within months of the Huntington's opening as a public museum in 1928. In Early to Bed (1928) Hardy is a bum who inherits a fortune from a rich uncle. He buys a mansion, complete with Blue Boy, and hires Laurel as his butler.

In Wrong Again (1929) stable grooms Laurel and Hardy hear of a $5000 reward for the stolen "Blue Boy." They assume it means a horse named "Blue Boy," and chaos ensues.

Shirley Temple did a mild cross-gender take on Blue Boy in Curly Top (1935). She's adopted by a childless millionaire who collects British paintings of children. Temple does tableaux vivant turns of pictures by Joshua Reynolds and John Everett Millais as well as Gainsborough. 
Tony Dow and Barbara Billingsley in Leave It to Beaver
Blue Boy translated to the small screen in the sitcom Leave it to Beaver (1957–63). Paired reproductions of Blue Boy and Pinkie are omnipresent in shots of the Cleavers' suburban home.
Cesar Romero in Batman
A few years later DC comics' Batman was adapted as a TV series (1966-68). Aging Latin hottie Cesar Romero was cast as the Joker. "I swear it on a stack of Blue Boys!" he says in one episode. Romero-Joker is presented as an implicitly gay artist-manqué, alluding to the press-hungry Andy Warhol. He robs the Gotham City Art Museum of its Renaissance masterpieces and vandalizes a gallery's traditional paintings with a paint gun.
Jack Nicholson in Batman, 1989
That bit in the TV show morphed into a scene of Tim Burton's 1989 Batman. Jack Nicholson's Joker spray-paints the masterpieces of Gotham City's Flugelheim Museum, including Blue Boy.
Joaquin Phoenix in Joker, 2019
Blue Boy sat out the Heath Ledger and Jared Leto Jokers to be revived in Joaquin Phoenix's portrayal. The Todd Phillips-directed Joker (2019) casts Phoenix as psychopathic party clown Arthur Fleck, before he evolved into the Batman villain. The grim apartment Fleck shares with his mother features reproductions of Blue Boy and Pinkie, echoing the Cleavers' mid-century home.
Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained, 2012
Both title and costume of Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained are based on a film nerd pun. Jamie Foxx wears a Blue Boy-like suit. Tarantino explained the costume as an allusion to Murnau's The Boy in Blue. Murnau also pioneered the dolly shot, used extensively in Django. Murnau called the technique "unchained camera," hence Tarantino's title.
Mike Myers in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, 1997
Not every online cineaste got the allusion. Many were puzzled by the similarity of Django's costume to one that Mike Myers wore in Austin Powers. Both Powers' and Django's outfits are blue velvet; the costume in the painting is satin.

What does Blue Boy mean within his cinematic universe? Over the past century Gainsborough's painting has been an emblem of gender nonconformity; a populist punchline for bumbling American stooges; a nostalgic reference to privileged childhoods; a high-culture MacGuffin for nihilist criminals.
Joaquin Phoenix in Joker
Anthony van Dyck, Self-Portrait with a Sunflower, after 1633
Gainsborough couldn't have intended any of these meanings. He did conceive Blue Boy as cosplay. The costume is not the sitter's ordinary clothes but one like those worn in van Dyck's portraits of about 140 years previously. The boy (Jonathan Buttell, Gainsborough Dupont, or whoever) is playing a masquerade, as much as Arthur Fleck (if he's really the Joker) is. Blue Boy is an 18th-century painting with an afterlife as a 21st-century meme—no small distinction for a distracted age.
Post-conservation installation view of Blue Boy. Photo: John Sullivan. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens


Anonymous said…
Per Christopher Knight's Twitter today: "An essential short history of Gainsborough's "Blue Boy" in the movies, plus a side trip to "Leave it to Beaver" & "Batman.""
Blue painting said…
Hello there, I have a picture dated 1929 of Little Boy Blue that was handed down to me from my father's family that were from Germany. It still has the original hanging wire at the back and most of the parchment backing. It is approximately 20cm tall and 15 cm wide. Any other information/interest would be greatly appreciated