The Sixth Reel | QFest St. Louis 2023

Interior decoration does a lot of heavy lifting in Carl Andress and Charles Busch’s The Sixth Reel, beginning with the title sequence. The first thing you see is a mannequin with attitude, followed by a classic poster of Joan Crawford in Rain, a ruby slipper atop a pile of theatre books, a collection of teapots, and several walls adorned with framed costume sketches and the like. Yes, I think we know who lives here: Jimmy (Charles Busch), a theatrical luftmensch with a sharp eye for the fabulous. Unfortunately, mundane matters like making a living don’t hold Jimmy’s attention nearly as well, so he’s always broke and has a sharp eye for any hustle that might bring in enough to stave off eviction for another month.

Jimmy drops in on an old friend, Gerald, only to find that he’s died. OK, that’s sad, but it’s also an opportunity, since Gerald was quite the hoarder (his apartment is your basic urban Collyer,  as grubby and messy as Jimmy’s is archly arranged) and has long been rumored to own the sixth and final reel of a Tod Browning film, London After Midnight. Since the film has long been thought lost, such a find could be worth a lot of money. Keeping his on eye on the main chance, Jimmy volunteers to help sell off the apartment’s contents via a “memorial service slash rummage sale,” but of course he’s really hoping to find the film and sell it on the side. Jimmy’s not the only one with that bright idea, however, and the great question of the film soon becomes not “will they find it?” but “who will get away with it?”

Busch, a well-known drag performer, has a sharp feel for the ridiculous and a well-practiced talent for embodying the essence of classic movie divas. He’s joined in this film by an exemplary cast including his long-time collaborator Julie Halston as Helen, the brassy niece of the dead man; comedian Margaret Cho  as Doris,  a haughty memorabilia dealer; Doug Plaut as Rodney, a much younger and very sweet friend; Richard Bekins as the suave Leland; and André De Shields as the scheming Gavin Plimsol (what was the name of that missing film again, Gavin?).

The screenplay by Andress and Busch is both a strong and a weak point of The Sixth Reel. On the plus side, it’s packed with bitchy quips which I won’t ruin by quoting here (you’ll have to buy a ticket to hear them, so there!). On the minus sign, sometimes those quips leave you thinking “well that was meant to be funny.” Another snag: some of the actors deliver their lines in a way that does them no favor, as if they had first encountered them five seconds before speaking them in this film, with no time to try out alternative readings or think about how their character would say them.

Since the acting crew is for the most part quite experienced, it’s hard to know how this state of affairs came to be, but it’s a shame because the effect is to take you right out of the world of the film and back into your own head. Such lapses are particularly surprising in a film that takes such care with the visuals, props for which go to, among others, production designer Dara Wishingrad, set decorator Margie Verghese, and costume designer Sarah Laux. Cinematographer Jendra Jarnagin shows a real feel for capturing both the everyday streets of New York and the carefully-crafted interiors that tell us who each character is. If you’re a fan of Busch’s particular brand of humor, what works in The Sixth Reel is more than enough to make it worth seeing. | Sarah Boslaugh

The Sixth Reel will screen at the Hi-Pointe Theatre on May 6 at 4 pm as part of QFest St. Louis 2023. Single film tickets are $15 for general admission, $12 for Cinema St. Louis members and students with valid current photo IDs. Further information is available from the festival web site.

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