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''Nobody Loves a Fat Man'': Masculinity and Food in Film Noir
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‘‘Nobody Loves a Fat
Man’’: Masculinity and
Food in Film Noir
Christopher E. Forth
This article uses the proverb ‘‘nobody loves a fat man’’ to examine the interplay
between representations of masculinity, physique, and ‘‘appetite’’ in American cul-
ture during the first half of the twentieth century, with special attention to depictions
of fat characters in Hollywood thrillers designated as ‘‘film noir.’’ By emphasizing
how fluidly the concept of ‘‘appetite’’ facilitated connections between the sexual and
the culinary, it argues that fat criminals in film noir embody long-standing yet contra-
dictory ideas about manhood, consumption, and desire. To support this claim, the
article (1) explicates film noir as a site for examining the instability of masculinity;
(2) probes the historical background to perceptions of fat males as weak, impulsive,
and perverse; (3) examines representations of fat criminals in select films noirs; and
(4) reveals cinematic instances where the virtues of male domesticity smoothed out
the perceived incongruence between manhood and fatness.
film noir, fat, fat history, fat and film, masculinity, body and film, appetite
‘‘Nobody loves a fat man’’: famously delivered by the fat Sheriff William Henry
Harrison ‘‘Slim’’ Hoover in the 1907 Broadway play The Round Up, this nugget
of wisdom became part of the American lexicon in the first half of the twentieth
Humanities and Western Civilization, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, USA
Christopher E. Forth, Humanities and Western Civilization, University of Kansas, 1440 Jayhawk Blvd.,
Room 308, Lawrence, KS 66045, USA.
Men and Masculinities
ªThe Author(s) 2013
Reprints and permission:
century. Within a few years, the ragtime composer Arthur Collins recorded his pop-
ular minstrel song ‘‘No One Loves a Fat Man,’’ and variations of the slogan appeared
in shop windows and print advertisements to peddle sporting equipment and weight
loss plans (McDonald 1915). By the time the film version of the The Round Up hit
theaters in 1920, the slogan had become a proverb, its relatively recent origins
largely forgotten. In less than a decade, it went from being ‘‘an old saying’’ (Katzoff
1921, 83) to an ‘‘ancient theory’’ (Updegraff 1927, 88) that would retain its currency
through the early 1950s (Mieder 1992).
The idea that fat men were unworthy of
love was so self-evident that some authors—writing at a time when women were
being urged to slim down like never before—had to remind readers that women too
suffered from low self-esteem and undesirability if they gained too much weight. It
may be that nobody loves a fat man, quipped Cosmopolitan magazine, but ‘‘no fat
woman loves herself’’ (Ade 1922, 22).
Although the phrase was ‘‘in the air’’ at least a year before The Round Up was
staged (Andrews 1906, 86), a brief look at the cowboy melodrama that made it
famous is useful for its dramatization of the fat man’s predicament and the relation-
ship between corpulence and manhood. Contrary to the negative connotations that
his most memorable line would acquire, the very fat Slim Hoover was one of the
most respected men in his county. In the play, he is described as ‘‘one of those fleshy
men who have nerves of steel and muscles of iron’’ and is ‘‘especially admired by the
women.’’ Having persuaded himself that no woman would have him, however, Slim
was ‘‘at ease only in the company of those who were married’’ and generally quite
shy around available single women. ‘‘Hell!What’s the use, anyhow?’’ he lamented:
‘‘Nobody loves a fat man.’’ When Slim finally does try his hand at love he is rejected
by Polly, who does not disagree when he asks whether it is his fat that has ruined his
prospects (Murray and Miller 1908, 46–48). Despite having his suspicions about his
romantic prospects confirmed, Slim embodied many of the ‘‘masculine’’ virtues of
the day: strength, courage, and competence. Yet, during the cultural life course of the
proverb, most of these male virtues would fall away. By the time the proverb was
repeated in the film noir The Narrow Margin (1952), the lawman who utters it is
as incompetent as he is unattractive, a bumbling comic foil for the more slender
police detective who nabs the bad guys and gets the girl.
Rather than marking a dramatic shift in cultural representations of fat men, The
Narrow Margin crystallizes a half century of American perceptions of corpulence
and masculinity. Investigating the ambiguous masculinity of fat men is a relatively
new exercise in gender studies, where male corpulence has been typically ignored
or, building upon a personal observation made by Connell (1995, 57), cited as a
patriarchal privilege wherein men use their size ‘‘to occupy space’’ in order to
impress, intimidate, or marginalize others (Hartley 2001, 62). Some feminist critics
have directly addressed the supposed immunity of fat men from scrutiny: ‘‘It is
because the fat man believes the imagery his own culture has created that he can
gorge himself with impunity and strut about the pool with his bulging belly,’’
observes the writer Chernin (1981, 124), ‘‘while the fat women are all wearing
388 Men and Masculinities 16(4)
blouses in the water. Because his wife has agreed to carry the general shame our
entire culture feels about the body, he can proudly walk up to the younger women
who are absorbed in one another’s company; and now he insists upon opening con-
versation with them, his belly neatly held between his proud hands, as if it too were
an estimable possession.’’
While Chernin rightly observes the devastating impact that beauty and slender-
ness ideals have had on the bodies and minds of women, her reduction of masculi-
nities to the monolithic category of ‘‘patriarchy’’ fails to confront the complexity of
the ‘‘imagery’’ the fat man’s ‘‘own culture has created.’’ Recent historical and socio-
logical studies demonstrate how often fat has been gendered as ‘‘feminine’’ in the
Western cultural imagination, and reveal a generalized cultural association of fat
manhood with looseness, immorality, weakness, and cowardice—qualities that frus-
trate and threaten to undermine whatever socially ‘‘masculine’’ or ‘‘patriarchal’’
benefits such men might enjoy (Forth 2009; Gilman 2004). That the masculinity
of males is partly called into question by the changing state of their bodies thus has
a long history that has only recently received attention in sociology and the new field
of ‘‘fat studies’’ (Bell and McNaughton 2007; Monaghan 2008; Pyle and Loewy
2009). If fat is a feminist issue, as it most certainly is, it is also a ‘‘feminine’’ issue
capable of being analyzed with the tools of critical gender studies.
This is certainly how we can approach a proverb like ‘‘nobody loves a fat man,’’
which, like all proverbs, offers ‘‘generationally tested strategies of wisdom’’ (Mieder
2004, 15) that provide what many would consider commonsense knowledge about the
world. It thus functions as a prime example of the doxa that Bourdieu (2001) sees as
essential to the social reproduction of male domination, in this case in regard to phys-
ical distinctions between men and the ‘‘inner’’ qualities such distinctions are supposed
to illuminate. Concurring with McPhail (2009, 1022) that there is ‘‘a need for a more
nuanced reading of gender in relation to fatness,’’ this article uses the proverb to exam-
ine the interplay between representations of masculinity, physique, and desire in
American culture during the first half of the twentieth century, with special attention
to depictions of fat characters in Hollywood thrillers designated as ‘‘film noir.’’ By
emphasizing how fluidly the concept of ‘‘appetite’’ facilitated connections between
the sexual and the culinary, it argues that fat criminals in film noir embody long-
standing yet contradictory ideas about manhood, consumption, and desire. To support
this claim, this article (1) explicates film noir as a site for examining the instability of
masculinity; (2) probes the historical background to perceptions of fat males as weak,
impulsive, and perverse; (3) examines representations of fat criminals in select films
noirs; and (4) reveals cinematic instances where the virtues of male domesticity were
meant to smooth out the perceived incongruence between manhood and fatness.
Gender and Film Noir
‘‘Film noir’’ is not an easy cinematic category to define with precision. Regardless of
the stock images the phrase often calls to mind—alienated private eyes vying with
duplicitous dames in dark cities where the line between virtue and vice is blurred if
not erased—no set of common traits defines all of the films that critics describe as
‘‘noir.’’ Rather than asserting that these movies conform to a coherent genre of their
own, one can say that a production trend or cycle of crime films with dark psycho-
logical themes emerged in the early 1940s to peak after the Second World War
before waning in the late 1950s (Naremore 1998; Vernet 1993). Despite definitional
problems, most scholars concur that these films offer rich terrain for exploring repre-
sentations of gender. Several films noirs feature women in lead roles, sometimes as
the iconic femmes fatales whose desires, schemes, and independence position them
as obstacles to the male quest (Kaplan 1989). More often than not, though, one
encounters males struggling with a range of social and personal problems, especially
returning veterans facing readjustment to civilian life. So prominent are preoccupa-
tions with the limits and subversion of masculinity in these films that scholars often
dub them ‘‘male melodramas’’ (Staiger 2008). They thus offer numerous opportuni-
ties to probe the tensions that attended images of American masculinity around
If the protagonists of films noirs often seem to embody the toughness of the
‘‘hard-boiled’’ hero popularized in crime fiction of the 1920s and 1930s, this image
is never very stable and in many cases it simply fails. Noir protagonists are better
known for betraying flaws or weaknesses that frustrate their attempts at mastery and
which often bring about their demise. In such films, male control is often more
aspirational than actual, and, as Abbott (2002, 7) puts it, on the page and on the
screen hard-boiled masculinity requires ‘‘constant maintenance and reconstitution.’’
Sexuality is often identified as the chief cause of potential male collapse. The notor-
ious figure of the tempting ‘‘fatal woman’’ is usually viewed as consciously or
unconsciously enabling an otherwise constrained male desire, thus precipitating the
hero’s almost inevitable loss of control (Maxfield 1996). The inner turmoil of the
hero is often mirrored in the grotesque villains whose bodies bear and represent not
only their own corruption but also the potential collapse of the protagonist as well.
These menacing villains haunt the hero in complex ways. As Thomas (1992, 76)
suggests, ‘‘the solidity of the noir world, and of the bodies that inhabit it, invites and
displays potential or actual fragmentation ...Fragmented men—like those gone
soft—surround the central protagonist as further distorting mirrors, especially in the
shape of cripples, men with broken limbs, and little men who try to stand tall. The
twin dangers of softness and fragmentation are avoided either through toughness or
respectability or both, involving processes of solidification and control which are
antithetical to freely flowing forms of desire.’’
We can add the fat criminal to Thomas’s list of grotesque male countertypes, not
least because this figure condenses and twists desires (or ‘‘appetites’’) that have got-
ten so far out of hand that his very masculinity is called into question. Fat characters
are in fact quite common in the noir universe. From the tellingly named Kasper Gut-
man in The Maltese Falcon (1941) to the crooked police captain Hank Quinlan in
Touch of Evil (1958), successful and influential stout men are prominent and
390 Men and Masculinities 16(4)
recurring figures in film noir, book-ending the entire production cycle. Some fat
criminals exude a sense of power and physicality, not least through the way in which
they are often shot from below to magnify their imposing presence and potential
menace. This was accomplished to great effect in The Maltese Falcon, where the
monumentality of Gutman was enhanced through this technique. The tough ‘‘hea-
vies’’ often played by the character actors William Conrad and Raymond Burr also
resist any easy association with softness, even if the violence they dish out places
them beyond the bounds of ‘‘normal’’ masculinity. In fact, toughness and violence
seem to mitigate some of the potentially ‘‘soft’’ qualities that corpulence might sug-
gest. In a classic noir like The Killers (1946), for instance, Conrad played one of two
hit men who famously quibble over their order in a diner but much prefer intimidat-
ing the staff and customers to actually eating the meal. Yet the menacing bulk of the
tough characters Conrad often played melted comically in Tension (1950), a film
noir in which the chubby actor played a bumbling police lieutenant with a sweet
tooth whose appetite needs to be kept in line by his more businesslike (and slender)
partner. The gendered significance of Conrad’s fat thus shifted depending on
context, plot, and character.
The power that fat criminals may project through their physical presence and
violence does not translate into a problem-free manhood, partly because their
potentially imposing girth is equally capable of signifying excess and loss of control.
We should recall that troubled emotions and frayed nerves are common weaknesses
of many noir protagonists and that the dangerous women they encounter are proble-
matic precisely because of ‘‘the conflicting and contradictory currents which they
activate within the hero’’ (Krutnik 1991, 112). Such ‘‘currents’’ usually refer to
sexual impulses, many of which end up being grotesquely mirrored in the criminals
the hero confronts. Yet these flows of desire are more complicated when one’s ene-
mies are fat. Frequently, the fat criminal’s power is framed by a delicacy,
connoisseurship, or ‘‘perversion’’ that marks him as deviating from the ranks of
‘‘ordinary’’ males. In such figures fat may signify the diversion of ‘‘normal’’ desires
into illegitimate and perverse channels, but also an inner ‘‘softness’’ that is both the
cause and symptom of their physical condition. The closely associated ‘‘appetites’’
for food and love (whether of a wholesome or ‘‘deviant’’ variety) betray a hidden
connection often dramatized by fat men in film noir.
While the problem of appetite will be developed more fully in the next section, a
brief look at cinematic corpulence will help to frame some of the conventions that
structured images of fat criminals. In his many stage and screen appearances, the
actor Roscoe ‘‘Fatty’’ Arbuckle exploited the widely perceived link between fleshi-
ness and childishness—sometimes appearing in drag, at other times as a child,
Arbuckle used his physique to transgress cultural categories in ways that delighted
audiences. If it was mostly women who loved this ‘‘fat boy,’’ as he was commonly
addressed in fan mail, it had more to do with this nonthreatening infantilism than any
adult romantic attraction (Ulaby 2001). Thus it made sense that Arbuckle would be
cast as Slim in the film version of The Round Up: like the character he too had a
‘‘round, boyish face [that] gave him an appearance of innocence entirely at variance
with his personality’’ (Murray and Miller 1908, 46). Women may love a fat boy, but
not a fat man.
Such perceptions were sharpened by the dieting culture of the period. The weight
loss industry that gained momentum in the early 1900s often encouraged the roman-
tic exclusion of the fat, a phenomenon that was well under way in the nineteenth cen-
tury (Forth 2012). In his best-selling book Eat and Grow Thin (1914, 23–24), Vance
Thompson pronounced fat men too ridiculous to be taken seriously as love objects.
‘‘He falls in love .... And this is his bitterest tragedy. He cannot kneel at Beauty’s
feet without a derrick to let him down; and a man who goes a-wooing with a derrick
looks like a fool .... Love is not for him!’’ Similar assumptions framed the public
response to the sex scandal that engulfed Arbuckle in 1921. Accused of having raped
the actress Virginia Rappe so violently that he had ruptured her bladder—and thus
bringing about her death—Arbuckle’s public image shifted from sexually undecid-
able child to violently brutal rapist. Rumors circulated that he had crushed the
woman with his weight or, due to the sexual impotence often associated with fat
men, had resorted to violating her with a bottle (Ulaby 2001). As we will see in the
next section, this too seemed to follow from cultural perceptions of the time: if no
one loves a fat man, the fat man himself can only love with difficulty, and then in
perverse or even violent ways.
Most important for our purposes is the shadow the Arbuckle scandal cast over
crime stories in print and, eventually, onscreen. Working as a Pinkerton detective
on the Arbuckle case, the writer Dashiell Hammett was reportedly so appalled by the
man ‘‘who expected to be regarded as a monster’’ that he began to incorporate fat
villains into his popular crime fiction. The success of Hammett’s writings and their
film adaptations helped to popularize images of‘‘thin man’’ and ‘‘fat man’’ characters.
When the third and most successful screen adaptation of Hammett’s novel The
Maltese Falcon was released in 1941—just five months after Orson Welles played the
corrupt and bloated lead in Citizen Kane—fat criminals were becoming a fixture in
crime films (Mosher 2008). The fat man’s prominence in film noir was thus to a
significant degree shaped by the specter of ‘‘appetites’’ gone out of control.
Fat, Food, and Appetite
The relationship between manhood and corpulence is complicated by the historically
vexed relationship between gender, consumption, and ‘‘appetites’’ that are at once
sexual and alimentary. Although the roots of this problem extend back to ancient
times, around 1900 the tension between ideals of manhood predicated on an austere
abstention from hedonistic comforts and consumerist pressures toward self-
indulgence was particularly pronounced in American culture (Lears 1981). As
Stearns (1997, 60) argues, for men as well as women dieting culture was a popular
method of coping with these tensions because it offered ‘‘a moral counterweight to
growing consumer indulgence.’’ If a vacillation between abstention and indulgence
392 Men and Masculinities 16(4)
characterized the paradoxes of middle-class masculinity, by the 1920s and 1930s the
pendulum swung further away from nineteenth-century emphases on savings and
sacrifice toward an endorsement of sensual indulgence and a relaxation of male
responsibilities. This approval of consumerism was often made in new magazines
like Esquire and in the cultural figure of the gangster, whose upward social trajec-
tory was marked by the accumulation of consumer goods and status symbols (Brea-
zeale 1994; Ruth 1996). Gangsters could go shopping without fear of seeming
effeminate, in part because their violent deeds compensated for their acquisition
of often tasteless commodities. Ordinary men had more difficulty pulling this off,
and frequently had to downplay their consumption by calling it something else, but
consume they did and would continue to do. Others tried to ape the style and man-
ners of gangsters as a reflection of what White (1993, 70–71) has called underworld
primitivism, but this did not necessarily mitigate the problem of consumption itself.
Such tensions would resurface periodically throughout the twentieth century, and
by the 1950s anxieties about the ‘‘softening’’ effects of modern life cohered around
the issue of suburbanization and the problem of plenty. For middle-class men, the
central challenge was in fact an old one: how to remain fit and vigorous without
ceasing to enjoy the comforts of modernity (Gilbert 2005)? According to diet and
exercise gurus, the fulcrum of this consumer manhood was the ability to control con-
sumption and exercise the body without succumbing either to seductive advertising
or one’s own appetites. Among men, a fat belly could be a symbol of socioeconomic
status or an effeminate ‘‘surrender’’ to the appetites. Such military metaphors
infused Elmer Wheeler’s popular writings about male weight loss, and enabled men
to transform personal diet narratives into veritable war stories in which affirmations
of weakness were essential for a narrative of heroic overcoming. Insofar as refor-
mers like Wheeler (1950) situated the regeneration of manhood within marriage,
they charged the housewife with containing her husband’s gustatory passions (Ber-
rett 1997). Yet popular culture was equally capable of blaming men for their own
shortcomings. As a reminder to those who seemed to have lost the good fight for
fitter bodies, Life (1950, 1956) magazine weighed in with nasty reports about fat gol-
fers who lost to more physically fit competitors and bloated soldiers who risked
being court martialed for failing to lose weight. Hardly the ‘‘estimable possession’’
described by Chernin, a man’s belly could just as easily denote a womanish submis-
sion to appetites.
Doubts about the masculinity of fat men were supported by scholarly opinions
from a range of modern disciplines. Proponents of eugenics seeking to improve the
biological stock of the nation saw excess weight as a largely hereditary defect and,
for the sake of racial hygiene, generally discouraged anyone from marrying a fat per-
son (Robinson 1916). Endocrinologists approached the problem from a different per-
spective. The relatively rare pituitary disorder known as adiposogenital dystrophy or
¨lich syndrome, observed predominantly in males, was named around 1900 to
describe cases where lesions on the hypothalamus caused fatness, ‘‘feminine’’ phys-
ical features, and the arrested development of the muscles and genitals. Physicians at
the time often included ‘‘effeminate’’ psychological traits alongside these physical
symptoms, including fear and timidity, and sometimes their ideas were bound up
hereditarian theories used to promote racist and other stereotypes (Saukko 1999).
The successful treatment of this disorder, usually through hormonal means, was thus
assessed according to the degree to which the male lost weight and regained properly
‘‘masculine’’ physical and mental traits.
Hormones and heredity were just some of the tools experts used to understand fat.
Others probed connections between character and physique in an equally gendered
way. Sheldon’s (1940) famous division of male bodies into wispy ‘‘ectomorphs,’’ fat
‘‘endomorphs’’ and splendid ‘‘mesomorphs’’ was warmly received by the general
public, especially gym teachers (Vertinsky 2002). Seeking to demonstrate the con-
nection between character and physique, Sheldon linked the endomorphic body type
to the ‘‘viscerotonic’’ temperament, which consisted of such traits as love of food,
comfort, and sociability, an aversion to pain and effort, a tendency toward emotional
display, and an ‘‘untempered characteristic.’’ The latter trait revealed itself by ‘‘a
certain flabbiness or lack of intensity in the mental and moral outlook .... a dull,
vegetable-like quality [and] lack of purpose beyond the elementary biological pur-
poses.’’ Rather than demonstrating action and solidity, such a man ‘‘gives off the
general impression of soft metal’’ (Sheldon 1944, 43–44, 119–120, 356) and, in
extreme cases, may end up being beyond treatment, ‘‘hopelessly bogged in the
marshes of viscerosis.’’ Thanks to the efforts of Sheldon and others, the idea that fat
boys displayed ‘‘inadequate masculine physique’’ (Schonfeld 1950) and a ‘‘femi-
nine’’ character was well established by midcentury.
Notwithstanding such contributions by endocrinology and somatotypology, at
midcentury ‘‘obesity’’ was generally considered a psychiatric illness, and was fre-
quently viewed from the psychoanalytic perspective that dominated the immediate
postwar era (Gilman 2004). When developing his concept of the libido Freud
( 1989) explicitly likened the sexual drive to hunger, and in his discussion
of oral tendencies he emphasized the libidinal nature of infants sucking at the breast,
who upon satiety would throw their heads back in apparent bliss. Freud and his fol-
lowers thus connected eating and sex in fairly direct ways. ‘‘Hunger,’’ observed the
American analyst Coriat (1921, 3), ‘‘is merely one of the manifestations of the libido
or one of the various roads upon which the libido moves.’’ The Hungarian-born Rado
( 1956, 36) went even further to suggest that the ‘‘alimentary orgasm’’ expe-
rienced by the suckling babe was a fundamental basis of pleasure that persisted
among ‘‘normal’’ adults. Eating was therefore never a straightforward matter of
nutrition. In light of the pop psychoanalysis that circulated throughout American
culture during this period—by 1947 one film critic claimed that ‘‘psychoanalysis
is now part of the social texture’’ (quoted in Krutnik 1991, 46)—the appetites of fat
characters onscreen testified to their search for oral gratification, which in psycho-
analysis was often presented as a substitute for frustrated love.
Among Americans who were becoming accustomed to popular psychoanalysis, it
made sense that corpulence could be seen as evidence of repressed or misdirected
394 Men and Masculinities 16(4)
libido, even if only tacitly and in general terms. After all, this is how food and eating
were often described in mainstream culture. Advertising copy systematically
stressed the connection between food and love, especially in a woman’s relationship
with her family through the commodities she purchased and served. Love was also
on the menu once the kids were tucked away in bed, with marital sex manuals fre-
quently advising women to approach their amorous behavior as they would their
cooking: as a way of selflessly offering pleasure and comfort to their men, regardless
of whether their own appetites were sated (Neuhaus 2001; Parkin 2006). The
dynamic of the family circle was thus partly enabled by emotionally charged food
that symbolized love, sometimes even becoming love’s veritable substitute. If to
feed is to show love, and to eat is to accept and acknowledge that love, then food
could serve as one of love’s replacements.
This is what the psychoanalyst Hilde Bruch discovered when she probed the fam-
ily context of weight gain in the 1930s and 1940s, concluding that food is ‘‘offered
and received not alone for the appeasement of a bodily need but it is highly charged
with emotional value’’(Bruch and Touraine 1940, 203–204). Bruch recognized that
the food and love nexus had serious implications for health and self-image, including
perceptions of masculinity. Studying childhood corpulence among immigrant fam-
ilies, she explained that the ‘‘erroneous concept that obesity and [male] sexual mal-
development are allied symptoms is so popular and prevalent amongst physicians
and lay people alike’’ that she felt the need to ask her subjects about this issue
directly. The problem of sexual maturation turned out to be of ‘‘outstanding impor-
tance in dealing with the parents of obese boys’’ (195) but less of an issue among
parents of overweight girls. Although Bruch found no evidence of physical sexual
maldevelopment among the boys in her study—no Fro¨lich syndrome here—she
admitted that ‘‘psychologically dependence on the mother has a connotation of sex-
ual retardation’’ (195). In contrast to the domineering and overprotective mothers
she studied, the fathers of fat children were revealed to be ineffectual men, ‘‘weak
and submissive persons unable to give positive and manly guidance’’ (203). Disse-
minated in popular culture through the many articles she wrote for women’s maga-
zines, Bruch’s views on fat and the family dominated the psychological landscape in
the 1940s and 1950s (Gilman 2008). The idea that fat boys were the result of over-
bearing mothers and weak fathers would have surprised few at a time when many
feared that ‘‘Momism’’ was already deteriorating American manhood (Wylie
So how could such weak and timid boys ever grow up to be criminals? Since at
least the nineteenth-century physicians in the West have drawn connections between
nonnormative bodies and an array of criminal or perverse deeds, and in the early
twentieth century several authors probed the hidden connections between criminal-
ity and corpulence. Building upon long-standing images of the fat capitalist, which
were often linked to stereotypes of exploitative Jews, some associated fat men with
financial crimes like embezzlement and fat women with poisoning, murder, and
prostitution (Lombroso and Ferrero  1909; Taylor 1910; Thompson 1917).
Refining an old a stereotype that would become common in Hollywood thrillers, one
popular study portrayed the fat villain as ‘‘the man who sits behind the scenes and
directs a band of criminals’’ (Blackford and Newcomb 1916, 76). That a fat man
might even commit violent crimes of passion was also conceivable, especially since
he was generally viewed as unappealing and sexually frustrated (this is how
Arbuckle was seen when he was charged with rape). In his study of criminality and
physique, the anthropologist Earnest Albert Hooton found that short fat men who
turn to crime tend to be unmarried and ‘‘decidedly lecherous.’’ Unlike men with dif-
ferent builds, they are more prone to rape and other sexual offenses but less likely to
commit murder and robbery. Whether or not he had the Arbuckle rape case in mind,
Hooton (1939, 174, 185) confessed he was unable to make sense of this special pro-
pensity toward sex crimes by short fat men. But he had a theory: ‘‘Can it be that no
one loves a fat man and that he must seek his sexual satisfaction in felonious
assaults?’’ In light of the proverbial status that ‘‘nobody loves a fat man’’ had
attained, most readers knew the answer to this largely rhetorical question.
Given the rather common slippage between the affective and the nutritive in Amer-
ican culture, we can see how easily cinematic representations of eating could sym-
bolize the fluidity of appetites. Immersed in a culture that so closely associated food
and love, many American moviegoers would have surely recognized their confla-
tion—and potential interchangeability—onscreen (Epstein 2005). In the film noir
Born to Kill (1947), for example, food, sex, and emotional expression are closely
bound together. This connection is made explicit in an early scene where a hand-
some psychotic killer, aptly named Sam Wild, is introduced to wealthy socialites
Georgia Staples and Fred Grover. Hot for Georgia’s adopted sister, Helen Trent,
Sam calls at the Staples home as the trio are about to go out to a restaurant. ‘‘No
matter what’s going on,’’ Georgia jokes, ‘‘Fred has to eat. You know, I think that
indicates a deterioration of the moral fiber, or something.’’ In the face of this Vic-
torian reference to moral character, Fred’s half-joking reply repositions eating on
more modern psychoanalytic ground: ‘‘Perhaps it’s a compensatory thing. You
know, lack of emotional satisfaction.’’ Fred then dutifully and pointedly kisses
Helen, who happens to be his fiance´e and whose coldness has presumably forced
Fred to find some other outlet for his desire. Although Fred is slender rather than fat,
his appetite compensates for his blocked emotional connection with Helen.
Although Born to Kill does not deal much with fat per se, the film is replete with
images of food and eating that symbolize sexuality and violence: Sam murders his
girlfriend in a darkened kitchen, has his first kiss with Helen in another, and is pur-
sued by a fat and seedy private detective who is hungry for business but reduced to
using a local diner as his office. The pop psychoanalysis that informs Born to Kill
thus illuminates a cinematic framework within which misgivings about consumption
could be conceived in terms of orality and love, but also excess and disgust. Fat
396 Men and Masculinities 16(4)
functions in a number of ways within this framework. In some cases, it may repre-
sent an appetite seemingly derailed from its socially acceptable ‘‘normal’’ trajectory,
whether in terms of object or degree of intensity. Thus, the overeating that many saw
as the cause of corpulence could appear as an oral substitute for ‘‘normal’’ emotional
gratification or even as a symptom of ‘‘perverse’’ sexuality. Here the quality of the
food ingested can be just as significant as the quantity, with fattening sweets and des-
serts representing mere sensual pleasure that bring none of the nourishment of heal-
thier fare. Corruption and consumption are thus often entwined in fat characters,
especially when love has been refused or withdrawn. By the same token, fat men fall
short of expected norms of male beauty and thus fail to awaken the appetites of
women (more often they elicit disgust). This section considers select examples from
across the film noir cycle to reveal the complicated ways in which fat and manhood
relate to one another onscreen.
The Maltese Falcon’s Kaspar Gutman, easily the most iconic fat man of the clas-
sic noir cycle, offers a good example of desire diverted from its ‘‘normal’’ channel.
Played by Sydney Greenstreet in a manner designed to enhance stereotypes of
refined British homosexuality, impressions of Gutman’s effeminacy are enhanced
through references to his boyishly young henchman as a ‘‘gunsel,’’ a veiled refer-
ence to a catamite (Studlar 2005). Yet while Gutman’s massive size receives peri-
odic comment there is little in this film that connects fatness per se to sexual
desire or even to food, though the viewer could assume that he became fat through
offscreen excess (Mosher 2008). Another early noir, This Gun for Hire (1942), offers
a more explicit denigration of fat manhood alongside its emotionally and physically
scarred male protagonist. A relatively faithful adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel,
A Gun for Sale (1936), which was written at a time when the British were becoming
especially concerned about male corpulence (Zweiniger-Bargielowska 2005), the
Hollywood version predictably differs in some respects. In the novel the hired gun
Raven has a harelip, but this would not do for pretty Hollywood newcomer Alan
Ladd, who was given instead the far less conspicuous infirmity of a broken and
deformed wrist, as well as the added psychological complexity of a traumatic child-
hood. Like the novel, however, the film is replete with withering references to fat
and eating, which are closely related to perverse sexuality in the character of the fat
nightclub owner, Willard Gates. A wealthy and refined gourmand (‘‘a fat man who
likes peppermints’’), Gates’ obsessions revolve around food, women, and the exotic
travel books he reads (alone) in bed while munching on candies. Having hired Raven
to commit murder, Gates pays the assassin at a lunch meeting where he is the only
one eating. Breathlessly claiming that ‘‘I can’t stand violence,’’ he nevertheless
presses Raven for details on how it feels to kill and what he himself would do if
he were ever to be double-crossed. Holding a switchblade menacingly to Gates’s
wrist, Raven reveals that he would, among other vengeful deeds, ‘‘whittle off a little
of that blubber’’ (Gates, meanwhile, looks as if he’s about to swoon).
If the sociopath Raven is hardly a model of well-adjusted manhood—arguably he
has more in common with the troubled cinematic teens of the 1950s—his wounded
psyche makes him sympathetic in a way that the thoroughly corrupt Gates does not.
The fat Gates thus throws the slender Raven’s redeeming qualities into relief. The
actor who played Gates, Laird Cregar (1945), was well acquainted with such roles.
Cregar had earlier played another corrupt fat man in I Wake Up Screaming, Police
Inspector Ed Cornell, a representative of the law whose passions compel him to stalk
and finally murder a beautiful waitress who could never have feelings for ‘‘a worm
like me.’’ Though corpulence is never mentioned, the viewer would most likely be
able to deduce what had made Cornell so unsuitable. Shot from below, and often in
shadows, Cregar’s bulk is used to convey the extent of his corruption and menace.
No wonder Twentieth-Century Fox touted Cregar as its answer to Sydney Green-
street, who had played Gutman to great acclaim in The Maltese Falcon (Mosher
2008). Cregar’s appearance as a toweringly bloated Jack the Ripper in The Lodger
(1944) reinforced links between corpulence and violent sexual perversion.
Unloveability and perversion are especially evident in the wealthy magazine pub-
lisher Earl Janoth in The Big Clock (1947), a fat man who has no problem seducing
impressionable young women more attracted to his money than his bullying person-
ality. When his mistress throws this in his face during an argument, Janoth is driven
to the murder that sets the plot in motion. ‘‘You think they’d look at ya twice if you
weren’t ‘the great Mr Janoth’?’’ she rages: ‘‘You think you could make any woman
happy? Have you lived this long without knowing that everybody laughs at ya
behind your back? You’d be pathetic if you weren’t so disgusting .... ’’ Signifi-
cantly, the only one who really loves Janoth is his male aide Steve, whose affection
for the boss goes beyond the usual employer–employee relationship. While the
source novel suggests that Steve’s love may have been physically reciprocated
(Fearing 1997), this whiff of homosexuality in the film evokes that of Gutman in The
Maltese Falcon. There too the fat man’s ability to tower over others and throw his
weight around is sharply undercut by his inability (or unwillingness) to truly appeal
to the opposite sex.
A similar challenge faces the fat nightclub owner of Night and the City (1950),
Phil Nosseros. A successful businessman with underworld connections, the bulky
Nosseros is often shot from below so that he towers over the reedy conman Harry
Fabian, whose frantic and fruitless schemes ‘‘to be somebody’’ keep him thin if not
exactly solvent. Yet all of this power is for naught when Nosseros’s gold-digging
young wife Helen remains physically repulsed by the man whose name and body
both call to mind ‘‘rhinoceros.’’ A lack of willpower seems to be the main fault
of Nosseros, evident in his apparent inability to curb his appetite and almost maso-
chistic tendency to dote on the contemptuous Helen. When, with Fabian’s help,
Helen finally leaves him to start her own club, Nosseros not only warns her that she
will come crawling back (which she does), but sadly admits to himself that he will
want to take her back. Nosseros happily exacts his revenge upon Fabian by arranging
for his murder, but when it comes to Helen a bullet to his own head is the only release
from his profound lack of will, the emotional softness that seems to make so many
fat men less than manly in the noir universe.
398 Men and Masculinities 16(4)
Since neither Janoth nor Nosseros is shown eating in these films, the viewer may
assume that their girth is the result ofappetites fed by their opulent and largely sedentary
lifestyles. More subtle, perhaps, is the emotional dimension of weight gain observed by
Hilde Bruch, whereby frustrated desires fuel eating that promote corpulence. If we sim-
ply do not know whether Janoth and Nosseros havebeen caught in this vicious circle, the
situation is somewhat clearer in the case of Hank Quinlan, the fat sheriff in Orson
Welles’ Touch of Evil. When we first encounter Quinlan he is massive, jaded, and fati-
gued by years of self-abuse and professional corruption. Nevertheless we soonlearn that
somebody did love Quinlan when he was younger and leaner, and that several close
coworkers are still fond of him, but mostly when they remember what he used to be like
in the early days. Significantly, food is the central symbol of Quinlan’s lost relationship
with the fortune-teller Tanya, whose spicy chili he had relished along with her compa-
nionship in his younger days. Losing access both to the chili and Tanya’s companion-
ship propelled Quinlan toward pleasures of a decidedly unwholesome kind. Quinlan’s
expanding waistline thus advanced in step with his growing appetite for junk food and
his descent into corruption, leaving behind him a trail of dead bodies and candy wrap-
pers. ‘‘You’re a mess, honey’’ aptly conveys Tanya’s repulsion at what Quinlan had
finally become. In addition to the fact that Welles’s performance (not to mention his
body) almost completely eclipsed that of the slender Charlton Heston who played the
bland Mexican narcotics detective Ramon Miguel ‘‘Mike’’ Vargas, the contrast
between the characters could not have been starker.
If in many films noirs corpulence signifiesthe corruption and weaknesses of fat crim-
inals, in The Narrow Margin it is actually central to the plot. In this thriller, Detective
Sergeant Walter Brown escorts a key witness on a train while mobsters try to knock her
off. To accomplish this, he hides her in one of the two rented compartments while pre-
tending to travel alone. However our hero Brown is no model of hard-boiled toughness.
Deeply shaken by the murder of his partner and noticeably jittery throughout the film,
Brown struggles against his own overwrought nerves as he tries to safeguard his witness.
The woman he is charged with protecting—who turns out to be an undercover police-
woman posing as the witness—taunts him for his lack of sang froid. Brown’s shortcom-
ings are grotesquely mirrored in a mysterious fat man who is alsoon the train. The first
appearance of Sam Jennings in the film is as an anonymous passenger who obstructs the
corridor on the train as Brown tries to discretely follow a suspect from car to car. The
reasons why nobody loves a fat man are thus clear at this initial encounter: Jennings’s
265-pound body literally blocks the flow of traffic, leaving but a ‘‘narrow margin’’ by
which anyone can pass. At this early stage in the film Jennings is a simple object of fun,
just another throwaway stereotypewho laughs along with the viewer at his own ridicu-
lousness. Yet, in subsequent meetings, Jennings gradually changes both his demeanor
and his persona. Having become suspicious of Brown’s insistence that he retain a sep-
arate sleeping car despite the absence of a partner, he volunteers to take the apparently
vacant car off his hands (and threatens to file a complaint when his offer is rebuffed).
From this point, Jennings becomes a darkly obstinate presence: the next time the
two meet, he irritably insists that Brown must now make way for him. A figure of
ridicule and then of obstinacy, Jennings undergoes a third transformation when his
actual identity as a railroad detective is revealed and he takes a gangster into custody
with surprising efficiency. Having finally established himself as a confident author-
ity figure, ostensibly the equal of Brown and any other lawman, Jennings quickly
falls from grace when another gangster gets the jump on him, easily knocking him
out and depositing his unconscious bulk in an empty compartment. As if to under-
score the source of his weakness, the last blow Jennings receives is a violent punch to
the stomach. Whatever male respectability might have been generated by Jennings’
brief emergence as an authority figure turns to pity as his basic incompetence is
made plain. Jennings finally has a useful role to play at the end of the film: while
the successful Brown departs the train with his witness and her son (who have been
hiding in plain sight as passengers traveling under aliases), it is his bulk that blocks
the nosy reporters seeking access to the trio. In this noirish echo of The Round Up—
‘‘nobody loves a fat man’’ is repeated at the end—yet another fat lawman stands
aside while someone else gets the girl.
Fat and Domesticity
These select examples from across the classic film noir cycle illustrate Textor’s
(1999, 222) claim that ‘‘fat men have an uneven purchase on ‘masculinity’ within
American culture.’’ Yet because cultural representations of male bodies, fat or thin,
are always unstable, contradictory, and open to resignification, it is the ‘‘uneven-
ness’’ of this purchase that needs to be kept in mind. Alongside the general cultural
tendency to denigrate fat men as weak, cowardly, or disgusting, films noirs can also
offer positive images of corpulence that reflect the contradictions of postwar Amer-
ican masculinity. Film scholars have charted a transformation of the cinematic tough
guy from a laudable exemplar of male aggression in the 1940s to the more proble-
matic figure of the psychopath in the 1950s, an evolution that roughly corresponds to
the emergence of a new domestic ethos in American culture and a fascination with
juvenile delinquency (Cohan 1997). While tough male characters would continue to
circulate in popular culture, Hollywood sometimes sought ways of negotiating the
virtues of male toughness with the rewards and responsibilities of domestic life.
The films noirs directed by Nicholas Ray are notable in this respect. Whether in
In a Lonely Place (1950), Rebel without a Cause (1955), or Party Girl (1958), Ray
probed the murky depths of postwar masculinity and prided himself on ‘‘exposing
the feminine in the roughest male symbol the public could accept’’ (Ray 1993,
28). In Ray’s 1952 feature On Dangerous Ground, the tough cop Jim Wilson is
depicted as pathological, mainly due to how violently he expresses rage over the
futility of his job. On Dangerous Ground makes it clear that Jim needs a nurturing
domestic context that would moderate his anger, and explicitly aligns food and love
in its endorsement of domestic life as a way of soothing frustrated male loners. As in
other noirs the protagonist is surrounded by men who have gone ‘‘soft’’ in one way
400 Men and Masculinities 16(4)
or another, but here their softness serves a civilizing and humanizing function that
throws into relief Jim’s imbalanced and dangerous masculinity.
The film opens with each of the main characters preparing for a night shift patrol-
ling the city. While the others bid farewell to their families, Wilson finishes a soli-
tary dinner, his only company consisting of the mug shots of criminals suspected of
shooting a fellow cop. While Wilson bears the strong physique and tough demeanor
of the typical noir hero, his partners’ bodies pose stark contrasts. Of his two partners
Wilson is closest to the chubby and aging Pop Daly, whose girth seems to be vali-
dated through his apparently happy home life. Nursing a sore shoulder (which he
hurt while planting roses rather than while throttling some thug), Daly expressed
concern about Jim’s emotional state and keeps encouraging him to come for Sunday
dinner (an invitation Wilson continually declines). Wilson’s other partner seems less
attached to his wife, whose clinging complaints that she hates to be left alone while
he goes to work elicits little more than a cold ‘‘gotta go’’ from him. Nevertheless one
might say that at least has a wife. Like Daly, he too has a sweet tooth, and, during a
stop at a soda shop, asks Wilson to bring him an ice cream sundae. When Wilson is
himself offered food by the flirtatious young woman at the counter, he characteris-
tically declines. By rejecting food offered by others Wilson reveals his general
avoidance of intimate personal relationships.
Wilson’s problems come to a head when he vents his rage on a suspect who—
despite quite literally asking for it—ends up in the hospital as a result of the beating.
Summoned to meet the stocky Captain Brawley in a restaurant, Wilson abstains from
the veritable feast his boss is devouring for lunch. Their conversation is repeatedly
disrupted as Brawley comments approvingly on various dishes and asks the waiter to
bring more. This odd scene establishes the importance of gustatory pleasure in
Brawley’s ability to cope with the rigors of police life without ‘‘going soft.’’ Early
in the film, we meet a tough Brawley who grimly implores his troops to keep an eye
out for a trio of cop killers. Though we do not know if he has a family (one may
assume he does), it is obvious that Brawley nourishes his softer side through culinary
indulgence. Thus, while On Dangerous Ground uses food to symbolize domesticity
and affection, such indulgences complement rather than diminish the disciplined
masculinity of the police. None of Wilson’s partners can be called weak or submis-
sive, and Captain Brawley never advised him to ‘‘go soft’’ on criminals, but simply
not to inflict serious or lasting damage upon them. Wilson’s personal redemption
takes place in the second half of the film, where he joins a hunt for a rural killer and
falls in love with a blind countrywoman who restores his faith in humanity. Whether
or not he ends up gaining weight, by forsaking the big city for a more idyllic rural life
Wilson seems ready for the softer pleasures of domestic life.
A film noir like On Dangerous Ground dramatizes inconsistencies in representations
of fat men at the mid-twentieth century. Its apparent validation of fleshier and
‘‘softer’’ manhood remained in a state of tension with recurring fantasies of warrior
hardness. Even when fat men were depicted in a positive light—for instance, the fat
detective Nero Wolfe in Rex Stout’s popular mystery novels—whatever kind of love
life they might have once enjoyed becomes inhibited after they put on weight (Gil-
man 2004). Moreover, while many fat character actors were popular with fans and
remained gainfully employed, some struggled against typecasting or had to content
themselves with comedic roles For the actor Laird Cregar the problems of food and
love came together in a most tragic way. Acclaimed for his work in I Wake Up
Screaming,This Gun for Hire, and The Lodger, the 300-pound Cregar grew weary
of being typecast as towering villains and sexual psychopaths. Wishing to be taken
seriously as a romantic lead, in 1944 he sent a ‘‘letter to Santa’’ to Photoplay with a
Christmas wish from ‘‘one large man to another.’’ ‘‘[D]o I have to be a mysterious
and sinister oversized guy, year after year? ...[N]obody hates a jolly fat man, espe-
cially when he’s so free and easy with the presents. But my kind!Little kids whimper
when they pass me in the streets.’’ Not betting on Santa’s help, Cregar had already
gone on an unsupervised crash diet, shedding around 100 lbs before undergoing both
plastic surgery and stomach reduction surgery. The stress this put on his system was
so severe that he died from heart failure. By the time Cregar’s Christmas wish was
published in January 1945, the actor was already gone, a cinematically unlovable fat
man literally dying of a broken heart at twenty-eight (Cregar 1945; Mank 1979).
This rather melodramatic end bears a family resemblance to the male melodramas
that so many films noirs seemed to be. The case of On Dangerous Ground notwith-
standing, it is unlikely that Cregar’s career prospects would have changed had he
waited a few more years. Rather he would have seen diet culture continue its relent-
less condemnation of corpulence throughout the postwar era, which only encouraged
health gurus like Wheeler (1950, n.p.) to infantilize fat men even further: ‘‘no one
really loves a fat man—but his mother!’’ Although the proverb itself was losing cur-
rency by the time Wheeler invoked it, its ideational content would remain operative
in American culture to the present, for women as well as men. To suggest that men
have also suffered from stereotyping about the body need not diminish the force of
feminist arguments about the negative effects of the beauty industry on women.
Rather it reveals the extent to which fat itself remains bound up with deeply
engrained cultural images of the ‘‘feminine’’ that are not exclusively connected to
Many thanks to Daniel Farr, Roger Westcombe, Ron Wilson, and the two anon-
ymous readers for comments on earlier drafts of this article.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.
402 Men and Masculinities 16(4)
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article: Research for this article was facilitated
in part by a Discovery Grant from the Australian Research Council (DP0558452) and
by the Howard Professorship in Humanities and Western Civilization at the University
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Christopher E. Forth is the Howard Professor of Humanities & Western Civilization at the
University of Kansas. He is the author of Masculinity in the Modern West: Gender, Civiliza-
tion and the Body (2008) and co-editor of Fat: Culture and Materiality (Bloomsbury, in
406 Men and Masculinities 16(4)