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One of inventor Thomas Edison's first
experimental films depicted two men dancing. There is no reason to believe
that Edison intended this as a depiction of homosexual behavior, but it has
given gay film scholars an amusing and early starting point for their studies. As
silent film became a major industry, there were numerous intentional
depictions of homosexual stereotypes, usually for comic effect -- effeminate
cowboys, mincing neighbors, etc. However, few filmgoers of the early 20th Century were aware
of the tremendous contribution gay talent made to early Hollywood.
Gays played a prominent role in the American film industry from the days of the silent
screen onwards, and the fact that so many of them escaped press scrutiny
suggests that they knew the value of discretion. While straight stars like Charlie Chaplin,
Fatty Arbuckle and Clara Bow got into devastating sexual scandals, gay stars
managed to keep their sexual preferences out of the headlines.
The only thing that mattered to anxious studio executives was the bottom line. As
film historian William J. Mann explains
The studios were called dream
factories, after all the
makers of myths. That was their commodity, the goods they sold: the
image translated into dollars. So long as you held up the image, so long
as you made the dollars, there was indeed no problem . . . "It was
the best of times and the worst of times," said the costume
designer Miles White of the gay experience during the studio era.
"On the one hand, they didn't care, and you had extraordinary
freedom, but on the other, of course they did, and you weren't free at
- Behind the Screen, How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood,
1919-1969 (New York: Viking, 2001), p. xi.
Top silent stars Ramon Novarro and William Haines had
legions of female fans who never suspected that these handsome hunks were homosexuals,
but damn near everyone in the film industry knew. Directors
George Cukor and James Whale were prominent (and often at odds
with each other) in Hollywood's gay social
circles, and screen divas Greta Garbo
and Marlene Dietrich were known to enjoy liaisons with members of both
sexes. There were occasional whispers in the press, but open attacks were
rare -- as when bisexual superstar Rudolph Valentino was described by
one disgruntled columnist as a "pink powder puff."
The First Queers in Talking Films"
vs. "Fag"? A snippy dressing
room confrontation featured in
Broadway Melody (1928).
Homosexual stereotypes were common in silent
films. It is perhaps appropriate that the first depiction of a
blatantly homosexual character in a sound film was in the first all-sound movie musical,
MGM's The Broadway Melody (1929). Granted, this nameless character
(portrayed by character actor Drew Demarest) is a mean spirited gay caricature,
but he's there. Broadway Melody depicted
the backstage drama surrounding the production of a lavish Ziegfeld-style revue. The effeminate
male costume designer is seen fussing, prancing and going into girlish raptures over
women's accessories. When this designer complains that he didn't design the
narrow dressing room
doorways that endanger the voluminous chorus hats, a painfully butch costume mistress
responds, "Yeah, if you had designed them, they would have been lavender!"
In a later scene, the designer begs the show's producer ("Mr. Zanfield") to
cover the cost of an expensive fur for the leading lady, inspiring one of
the producer's nastier flunkies to mockingly lisp as he rhapsodizes over the "gorgeousnessssssss"
of the fur before pinching the designer's cheek.
Hollywood was and is a product/tool
of popular culture, reserving its comic barbs for targets that the largest
possible audience will recognize.
Broadway Melody verifies that the stereotype of the backstage
theatre queen was recognizable to a nationwide audience in the 1920s.
There were many other examples of obvious homosexual
characters in early musical films. The first screen
version of the stage hit The Desert Song (1929) turned the comic character of Benny
into a blatantly limp-wristed caricature.
Confronted by a burly Arab freedom fighter, Benny asks, "How's
everything, big boy?" Later, when asked what he's doing in Morocco, Benny responds,
"Make me an offer."
The Great Depression
Hard times often bring repression of minorities. In the United States,
behavior tolerated during the
"Roaring" 20s was no longer accepted during the Great Depression
of the 1930s,
and anti-gay legislation proliferated nationwide. For example, New York State denied liquor licenses
to bars and restaurants that served homosexuals. But the beginnings of a community were
already in place, and gays learned to live in a more covert manner.
Gay stars were relatively few in number on the musical
screen, but one of director George Cukor's biographers writes that
the gay experience was a
bit different in 1930s Hollywood
Many film people, however, especially
those with theatre backgrounds, recognized and accepted homosexuality. There
was a continuation of the tradition of show business as an open door for all types
- Patrick McGilligan, George Cukor: A Double Life (New York: St.
Martin's Press, 1991), p. 115
The Production Code
The contents of Hollywood films changed with the rise of the Production
Code. Officially instituted in 1930, these self-enforced regulations were ignored
for several years. Gay characters and situations continued to appear as part of the accepted cultural landscape
in many films. Musical examples include
In Morocco (1930), Marlene Dietrich plays a tuxedoed cabaret singer who thanks a female fan with a full
Mae West refers to two affectionate prison
inmates as "The Cherry Sisters" in She Done Him Wrong
As Bing Crosby croons "Temptation" in
Going Hollywood (1933), two women share an intimate
Bobby Watson played an effeminate costume
designer in Moonlight and Pretzels (1933), and an effeminate dance director in Hips Hips Hooray (1934).
The Roman Catholic Church raised a nationwide protest in
1934, establishing a nationwide Legion of Decency. To appease this movement,
studio executives selected Joseph Breen to enforce the production code. A devout Catholic, blatant anti-Semite and
homophobe, Breen set out to reform the content of Hollywood films with
unflinching zeal. By late 1934, all American studios conformed to the code.
Along with nudity, flimsy costumes and kisses lasting longer than six
seconds, the code prohibited any cinematic depiction of "sexual
perversion" a term which was used to drive clear depictions of homosexuality from the screen.
But homosexuals were an indispensable presence in Hollywood, and they were
not about to disappear entirely. As film historian Richard
The film industry was perhaps the
country's biggest secret haven for gay men and lesbians, who were under
contract to all studios as creative personnel, staff, and talent. Although an
official code of silence protected their personal lives from public scrutiny,
they were often able to impart glimmers of secret selves to the films they
helped to create . . . Gays onscreen in that era were exactly like gays in
real life: constantly present, fully integrated into the dominant hetero
world, yet knowable only to those who would know them.
- Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood From Edison to Stonewall
(New York: Routledge, 2003) p. 146.
On screen, homosexual characters were toned down you
might say "decaffeinated." Effeminate male and butch female
characters could still be used for comic effect,
but they were either sexually neutral or (following the example of Gilbert
& Sullivan's Bunthorne) displayed an incongruous but overt interest in the opposite sex. Often played by gay actors, these roles also went to
straight performers looking for guaranteed laughs. Some popular examples from the
Character actors Edward Everett Horton, Franklin Pangborn, Eric Blore
and Billy DeWolfe had extensive careers
playing effeminate roles in comedies and musicals depicting
floorwalkers, bureaucrats, valets, designers, etc. Although proof is primarily
circumstantial, many film historians suggest that that all four were
actually gay. If so, one hopes they found some satisfaction in tweaking society's nose.
Broadway's gay musical star
Clifton Webb stuck to
waspish non-singing roles in Hollywood, where there was never any scandal
connected with his homosexuality. Star of the popular Mr. Belvedere
film series, he also had memorable roles in such hits as Laura
(1944). His only musical screen appearance was as the non-singing march king
John Phillip Sousa in Stars and Stripes Forever
Because Danny Kaye portrayed the title role in The
Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) as a heterosexual, he got away
with performing "Anatol of Paris," depicting a
queeny hat designer who proclaims, "I hate women!"
Bert Lahr minces and camps as
The Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (MGM 1939),
protesting he should see the Wizard because he "got a permanent
just for the occasion." Since Lahr's limp-wristed character
showed no hint of attraction to other males, code administrators viewed his sexuality as a
non-issue. While we're on the subject of MGM and Oz . . .
"Over the Rainbow"
Producer Arthur Freed's unit at MGM was responsible for some of the finest musical
films of all time. A successful songwriter, Freed moved into
production and surrounded himself with the finest musical performers and
writers to be found at any studio. This stellar group included many homosexuals. Historian
William J. Mann notes that industry insiders often referred to the
"Freed unit" as "Freed's Fairies." The key factor was
Freed's gifted assistant, musician Roger Edens
Freed himself wasn't gay, but
neither was he the true creative heart of the unit. The real maestro was
Roger Edens arranger, songwriter, and eventually associate producer.
Edens was genial, cultured and brilliant and a gay man who brought in
other brilliant gay men as collaborators; hence, "Freed's
Fairies." Like (film director George) Cukor and (MGM prop master)
Edwin Willis, Edens wasn't assembling his team based on sexuality, but
it remains true that those he considered the best also often happened to
- Mann, Behind the Screen, pp. 270-271.
Why did MGM's The Wizard of Oz become a lasting focal point of gay culture?
Consider the core plot: a misunderstood child yearns to escape a boring middle-American
upbringing and learns that one must face life's challenges with brains, heart and courage a
blueprint that carries special resonance for many gays and lesbians. And
although L. Frank Baum's story had been in print since 1900, there is no
suggestion that homosexuals felt any special connection to it until the 1939
screen version came along. The endearing
euphemism for gay men, "friends of Dorothy," caught on as early as World War
II, when rumor has it that U.S. Army Intelligence had to be reassured that the phrase did not refer to
a German spy ring.
However, it was not until the 1950s, when television made
broadcasts of MGM's The Wizard of Oz an annual
event, that the film's iconography became a widespread part of the American gay
mindset. It provided a treasure trove of gay-friendly statements and images,
ranging from the sentimental to the campy
The Scarecrow's sly observation that "some people
do go both ways."
sparkling red pumps that could take you anywhere with a triple click
of the heels.
The musical invocation to come out, come out.
The "horse of a different color" that could
change appearance in a flash
Glinda's spirited "and Toto
The song Somewhere Over the Rainbow became
an unofficial gay anthem and later inspired the creation of the Rainbow Pride Flag.
In the 1970s, when Anita Bryant joined the long line
of hypocrites who have wrapped their personal bigotries in the
Christian cross, some critics noted her striking attitudinal
resemblance to the Wicked Witch of the West. (What
a pity orange juice didn't have the same effect as water.)
How did the many gays who worked in musical theatre and
film survive in the mid-20th Century? In the next section, we will consider three gay
songwriters who thrived during the 1930s. Their songs have long been popular, but the
more private details of their lives could only be discussed in print after
Of course, those details had been the subject of knowing whispers for
decades on end.
Next: Musical Closets Porter,
Coward & Hart