In the above clip, Dear Mr. Ernest arrives at Lady Grayston's courtesy of the Pansy Craze. The Pansy Craze era ran pretty much concurrently with the pre-code era in film - late 20s till early 30s. The phenomenon would have been impossible without prohibition, when the manufacture and sale of liquor became illegal, effectively driving nightlife, drinking and good times underground. Once down there, all propriety, social norms and bets were off! Negros and Pansies and Dykes, oh my.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Born Victor Eugene James Malin on June 30 (my birthday!), 1908 in Brooklyn, not much can be uncovered about his childhood, save the facts that he had 2 brothers, 2 sisters and doesn't appear to have completed High School. By his mid-teens he was winning prizes for his costumes in the drag balls of the 20s. Some of these creations included, an outfit of black velvet and silver lace and for several other more exotic creations consisting entirely of pink or gold feathers. After one win, still in drag, he wandered into a nearby cafeteria, and was attacked by four thugs, but was able to beat three of them unconscious. (Atta girl!) By his late teens he did the chorus boy bit in several Broadway shows, but lost as many more for being too effeminate. (Too effeminate to be a chorus boy, now can you imagine?) Jean first became a professional drag artiste at Paul And Joe's in the Village using the stage name Imogene Wilson and soon bumped up to playing the Rubaiyat.
The game changer, for both Jean and Manhattan night club entertainment came in 1930 when, at 22, he was hired to headline at the swanky Club Abbey on W. 54th. You see, he was funny, camp and swishy, but he appeared in a tuxedo! A Professional Pansy!
If heckled by the mostly straight clientele, his quick wit and sharp tongue would give them what for. (in other words, he could read a bitch) Both the club and the act were a smash. Vanity Fair said, "Jean Malin's smart Club Abbey is the embodiment of urbanity. Through a lavender mist, somewhat bewildered clientele smirk with self-conscious sophistication at the delicate antics of their host." Even the trend setting New Yorker endorsed Malin's show in it's "Goings On About Town" column. Jean Malin was suddenly the top earner of Broadway!
"Gene Malin at the Club Abbey"
Vanity Fair February 1931 issue
With success of that caliber, the expected happened; an explosion of copycat clubs. The Pansy Craze was born! Broadway columnist Mark Hellinger said, "before the main stem knew what had happened, there was a hand on a hip for every light on Broadway." Female impersonator extraordinaire Karyl Norman went so blatant as to open a joint called "The Pansy Club".
In true show biz style, it's about time that something happened to gum up the works, and it did. In January of '31 in the pre-dawn hours, after Jean had finished his act, there was a gangland shooting in the club between "Dutch" Schultz and Charles "Chink" Sherman. This was all the boys in blue needed to start a crack down of nightspots in violation of the blue laws. Club Abbey was closed and Malin was out of a job. But this was a trouper who could role with the punches. He took the act on the road, first to Boston, then Hollywood.
In a confluence of right time, right place right queen, Jean opened a subterranean hot spot on Hollywood Blvd.
He enjoyed the patronage and friendship of the best and brightest.
Top: Stanley Smith, writer Harriet Parsons, Malin, Sally Eilers.
Bottom: Colleen Moore, Malin, Bessie Love.
The studios came calling too. He played small parts in a handful of pictures including "Dancing Lady". And, climbing back into a dress for the first time in a long time he does a pretty great Mae West as the character Ray Best in a completely forgettable RKO mess called, "From Arizona To Broadway".
He recorded two sides for Columbia Records:
"I'd Rather Be Spanish (than mannish)"
"That's What's Wrong With Me"
It is clear from the picture below that he was being included in the groups of the 'big kids'
In May of '33 Malin closed at the Club New Yorker and walked across the street to perform at The Grauman's Chinese Theater in the prologue for Warner Bros. "Gold Diggers of 1933". Following that gig, he did a two week booking at The Ship Cafe, a hotcha spot on the Venice Beach Pier.
On the night of August 10th, 1933, he took the bows on his final show at the 'Ship' his room mate Jimmy Forlenza and his good friend, actress and comedienne, Patsy Kelly were there with hugs of congratulations. Exuberant but exhausted, the three piled into Jeans beautiful sedan. Apparently confusing the gears, he threw it into reverse instead of first and hit the gas. The car went careening backwards off the pier into the ocean. Kelly sustained enough injuries to keep her in the hospital for two weeks. Jimmy lucked out with only a broken collar bone, and Jean Malin, trapped by the steering wheel never made it out of the car alive.
As the crowd gathered up on the pier, the lights on the marquee of the Ship Cafe still glowed "The Last Night Of Jean Malin". He was 25.