John Herbert

Toronto , ON
Ontario CA
January, 2001

Playwright, scriptwriter. The English Canadian theatre’s great gay pioneer Herbert is known most for his international stage hit Fortune and Men's Eyes (1965), based on his experiences in the Guelph Reformatory on “gross indecency” charges. Herbert participated in the adaptation of his play to the screen under the same title during the first surge of publicly financed Canadian feature film production (dir. Harvey Hart, Montreal, 1971). This Hollywood-financed, CFDC-backed project feature had its hopes pinned to the momentum of the commercial gay cycle of 1969-70 (Midnight Cowboy, Women in Love) but it ran into production squabbles and mixed reviews, and failed to live up to the success of the play. Trained in CBC drama, director Hart (1928-1989) was parachuted into the production, but managed to deliver a creditable narrative. Despite a few rough patches (due in part to the imported American leads, and to changes in the original play, such as the suicide by the gay rapist bad guy Rocky), Fortune was carried by the intense conviction of the original property (The New York Times grudgingly conceded the film’s “depressing authenticity” [17 June 1971]). The innocent, “straight” hero Smitty, imprisoned for pot rather than Herbert’s original charge, discovers a prison world of gang rape, sexual blackmail, and corruption, portrayed with brutal honesty, but also bonds of tenderness and loyalty. Smitty ends up corrupted, but along the way he also discovers the possibilities of resistance incarnated in the ebullient character of Queenie. This bottle-blonde is usually thought more than Smitty to represent Herbert’s own persona and was played by swishy American actor Michael Greer, who had starred in the New York theatrical productions of the play and effectively steals the movie. Filmed in the same de-commissioned Quebec City prison as that other canonical film Lilies a quarter-century later, Fortune and Men’s Eyes was removed from its Canadian context and severely and undeservedly chastised in Vito Russo’s Celluloid Closet (1981). The film remains an underrated milestone in the trajectory of Canadian queer narrative cinema.