It was 73 years ago that George Cukor made the Academy Award–nominated MGM picture Gaslight, and although I love the film and its performances from Ingrid Bergman and a young Angela Lansbury, it wasn’t until the age of Donald Trump that I’d thought about it so often — on a near-daily basis now.
After Lauren Duca’s Teen Vogue op-ed smartly pointed out the president-elect was in fact gaslighting the entire world — that is, blatantly doing or saying something and then denying he ever did it by calling us absurd to think he did — everyone I know has been using the term “gaslight.” And a few have gone back and looked at this MGM production for its origins: A woman’s new husband repeatedly dims the gaslights in her home, telling her it’s all in her mind, playing off a traumatic incident in her past, so he can search for some hidden jewels in the attic. Essentially, he tries to drive her mad by warping her sense of reality.
Obviously, this is currently apt. But the story of gaslighting goes back further than 73 years and that MGM production or the British production in 1940, to Patrick Hamilton, the man who wrote the play on which the films were based.
Hamilton was enigmatic and angry. He loved whiskey and hated the wealthy, even though two of his plays, Gas Light and Rope (adapted to film by Hitchcock), eventually made him rich. The money didn’t make him happy; it made him drunk. Six years before he wrote Gas Light, he was hit by a car and dragged through the street, rendering one of his arms paralyzed and disfiguring his face. He spent a great deal of those six years alone, thinking, stewing, trying to keep a firm grasp on reality. At the same time, Hamilton had his eye on world politics.
Before 1938, Hitler was heavily courting the British into alliance. Hitler would regularly release statements that the British were good Aryan people, and the German newspapers would widely disseminate these. He praised the British “ruthlessness” in their empire building and promoted biographies of prominent Aryan Brits, while looking to British boarding schools and nationalist youth organizations to model what would become the Hitler youth, and then telling the British that’s what he was doing. To borrow another film title that’s worked its way into our lexicon, he was Single White Female-ing them hard.
Fortunately, Hitler didn’t actually understand how the British Empire worked or how Britain ruled, which was far more moderate than mere domination and mostly opened up trade lines for globalization, as long as Britain was the central benefactor. Britain did not, in other words, immediately seek to exterminate entire races and countries though, of course, it exploited them badly. Britain ultimately did not side with the lunatics.
Hamilton, like many critical writers of that time, was adamantly anti-Hitler — one of his most famous novels, Hangover Square (1941), is beautifully and explicitly anti-fascist. Though Gas Light is seen as a domestic Gothic drama, which many have rightly gone on to interpret through a feminist lens, what we often fail to miss is that it’s also an allegory for standing steadfast against propaganda from those who do not have your best interest at heart and who seek to hurt you. Hamilton lived through a time when even seemingly good British people found themselves swayed by the adulation of a violent dictator, and watching Nazi sympathizers bloom in that atmosphere must have been a mindfuck. At the same time, Americans also were falling in love with the flashy new fascist, and those Brits who were close to the frontlines were scratching their heads raw. Could they believe what they were seeing? Remember that it took years, multiple British anti-Nazi films (including some from Hitchcock) and the bombing of Pearl Harbor to get Americans to recognize Hitler as the danger that he was.
So as we continue to wake up to the reality that we have been, are and will continue to be gaslit under this new administration, and with new potentially disastrous allies in Moscow who’ve mastered the art of gaslighting, let us remember Patrick Hamilton, his play and the movie that gave us the vocabulary to voice our worries. And let us remember a sentiment I’ve said and will say again and again: Movies can provide us with escapist relief, but they can also deliver unto us a biting and necessary reality.