Chapter 1: Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:

“I wish to join the Legion of Decency, which condemns vile and unwholesome moving pictures. I unite with all who protest against them as a grave menace to youth, to home life, to country and to religion. I condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land… Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.”

—Catholic Legion of Decency pledge

And now here at The Last Drive In, the subject of “The Third Sex in the Shadows of Cinema.”

Clifton Webb as Hardy Cathcart in The Dark Corner 1946 directed by Henry Hathaway. Waldo Lydecker: “I’m not kind, I’m vicious. It’s the secret of my charm.”

“Oh, it’s sad, believe me, Missy, when you’re born to be a sissy without the vim and voive…” -Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Growing up as a gay woman, though gender and sexuality are fluid, there was not a well spring of characters in film or television that I could grab onto as a buoy for my burgeoning self-awareness – I was ‘different than the others.’ Though there are the obvious icons who became heroes and heroines to many of us because of their peerless image. And while films could not overtly represent ‘queerness’ directly, they could posit mixed messages and a whole generation of us could understand the subtext, unsheltered from an array of homophobic language.

We still had Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo, who gave us immortal androgyny– there was no one who could shatter the silence, and ceremoniously ring the bells out in the open. There were no ‘obvious’ gay role models. We had to create that worship ourselves through iconography and a variety of sublime, convention-smashing signals. For those of us who knew how to look in the dark corners, right under your nose, corners, or should I say coded corners.

There’s one thing I want to be very clear about. I am not asserting that the actors themselves were gay in their personal lives, but that what was coded was merely the particular characters they played in the film. Or that the narrative might seemingly be ‘queer’. Which I will go on to explain. Particular actors or directors’ private lives are not up for conversation unless they were clearly open about themselves and their influences on their artistic work.

For instance, I am not saying that I suspect Doris Day is a lesbian, just that the character of Calamity Jane is throwing out messages for those of us ‘in the life,’ to feel a special affinity. Using comforting symbology gives us a place in the universe, especially when the story is presented by the stars we most admire. Not all coded gay characters are portrayed by gay actors, and not all coded comedy, jokes, or situations denotes that the character themselves are gay, just that the humor is cannily made to be queer at the moment. It can be an off-the-center remark that speeds by almost unnoticed except for the sake of the hurried laugh or two. Sometimes it’s all subjective and at times it’s pretty obvious which way the deliberate wind blows.

(Stacey) categorizes her range of material into several kinds of identification broadly dividing them into two categories. “Cinematic identifcatory fantasies” —devotion, worship transcendence, inspiration are proper to the act of spectatorship and appear to be based primarily on difference from the star ideal and “extra-cinematic identifactory practices” —imitation and consumption —attempt to close the gap between subject and star even as they take place outside cinema.

The worship of Doris Day is not surprising, she was one of the top box office draws of the 1950s. Day performs a cross-dressing role in the biopic of a legendary lesbian. Indeed, Day and Calamity Jane in particular in which the star sings both “Secret Love” and a duet with another, feminine character called “ a woman’s touch” are regularly cited by lesbians as crucial cinematic texts. (Jackie Stacey’s Star Gazing)

There was a period when Peter Lorre, George Sanders (and his equally effete brother Tom Conway), Anne Revere, Judith Anderson, and Agnes Moorehead played movie villains, fanatics, or oddballs. Each of these actors suggested queerness in their androgynous personas. Each became an iconic character actor of classic cinema.

Characters like Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius, Clifton Webb’s Waldo Lydecker in Laura (1944), Judith Anderson in Rebecca (1940), or Gloria Holden as Countess Zaleska in Dracula’s Daughter (1936), stood out to us, though they were despicable and unwelcoming characters. Although I see Gloria Holden’s character as strangely sympathetic. Usually, queerness that was veiled behind a coded role, exhibited a disturbed or desperate personality. They might be a person who is ambiguous in their maleness or femininity. And at times, they were full-on, deadly.

However, there was so little for those of us who are part of the ‘hidden audience’, we needed to catch sight of something familiar. That meant grabbing onto whatever little crumbs were thrown to us. So whether those characters were inherently insensate evil had nothing to do with our empathy or revulsion. The real power lay in the ability to identify with the essence of ‘otherness’ and more to do with familiarity and belonging. I longed to find that ‘something‘ that signified a relative identification of their sexuality. To see that subtle finger motioning, come closer, you’re in the right place kiddo, you’re one of us. Andrea Weiss writes: “[In the 1930s] for a people who were striving toward self-knowledge, Hollywood stars became important models in the foundation of gay identity.”

The films I have uncovered throughout my endeavor to write this immense blog post, either commonly fall within the queer canon or can be liberally dissected and/or challenged. We can read into any film if we so choose. I am merely putting it out to you that these films do seem to meet the criteria for coded queer paradigms. I also began this piece thinking that in order to understand the evolution of coded characters, you first have to look at the origin of the queer presence in silent and Pre-Code films, and how the Code influenced and constructed the way being queer had to be hidden in plain sight.

I echo Susie Bright, in her feelings that we (the queer community) would hang on to anything close to a hint of gayness, and it would change the whole world of the motion picture, just to see that famously analyzed moment when Marlene Dietrich plants that sensuous kiss on a woman’s lips in Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco 1930. Or the first cinematic lesbian romance when vamp Louise Brooks slinks on the dance floor with her androgynous female admirer Alice Roberts as Countess Anna Geschwitz in director GW Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929).

The boldly androgynous Marlene showcased another masculine appearance when she ascends the throne at the end of The Scarlet Empress (1934).

Greta Garbo portrays the Swedish monarch who declares herself not an “old maid” but “a bachelor” in Queen Christina (1933)

Because of the social relationship between non-normative gender and sexuality and the symbology of fashion and the role of work, women only had to dress like their male counterparts and be employed in a man’s job to seem queer. In the movie directed by George Cukor, What Price Hollywood? (1932), the very drunk filmmaker notices a woman having lunch at a fashionable Hollywood restaurant. The drunks inquiry goes like this, “I beg your pardon, old man… who’s your tailor?

In Victor Fleming’s Red Dust (1932), Jean Harlow is adorable as Vantine as she handles the heat and hands out the jibes.

Other members of the lesbian parade inhabit spaces that, as with the men, connote queerness. Consider the lesbian couples in the Greenwich Village dive in Call Her Savage (1932), seated alongside male same-sex couples while pansy entertainers, dressed as maids, perform for their amusement. Mannishly garbed women barflies, sometimes wielding cigars, often pal around with men, or sometimes confuse and emasculate them, in Lawyer Man (1932), Grand Slam (1933), and Blood Money (1933). (Lugowski)

Blood Money (1933) Rowland Brown’s atmospheric jaunt that embraces the gritty underworld, includes racy subjects like sadomasochism, empowered women, and fluid sexuality. Kathlyn Williams credited as the “Nightclub Woman Wearing Monocle”, is a beautiful androgynous off-cut in the film. In one notable scene George Bancroft as Bill Bailey enters Ruby Darling’s (Judith Anderson) nightclub and comes across a young woman at the bar, dressed in a man’s tuxedo and sporting a monocle. Baily offers her a cigar. She smells it and nonchalantly mocks the husky guy, “Why, you big sissy!” and hands it back to him. The nature of this adventurous passage into a subversive world generated a lot of sexual tension. With Blood Money, the subject of homosexuality is a non-issue, belonging to a subculture that invites those who are outsiders.

In Blood Money and Call Her Savage, 
homosexuality is just another pocket of an underworld that exists outside the law. When George Bancroft warns a timid taxi driver not to betray his destination to the police, he threatens, “Lissen fag” -and is rebuked by Judith Anderson for “scaring the little fellow half to death.”

Keeping along the lines of the connection between women working at men’s jobs, within a wide range of social status, you can see this example in Heat Lightning (1934) starring interestingly handsome actress Aline MacMahon when she, covered in grease, working on cars in her desert garage/gas station wearing a filthy jumpsuit and hair wrapped in a bandana. She sheds her desire to be desired by men, and exudes a solitary quality, as if she has given up on, performing femininity for men. She seems independent and strong and in her ‘male’ attire, you can see her projecting a queer attitude, though the film deposits a past love interest with bad boy Preston Foster as a distraction. The attraction is doomed from the start.

Olga (MacMahon) balances the duality of loving Preston Foster, donning her ‘womanly’ dress when she decides to submit to a heterosexual liaison which goes wrong. Then she shuns the idea of her femininity, re-asserting her hyper-masculine posture in greasy mechanics overalls and once again hiding her ravenous hair under her bandana, to protect herself from performing as a straight woman again.

To be clear it is not my belief that she’s not “all woman,” even using these props to represent masculinity. She is not truly changing her gender but for the purposes of the narrative, in the movie’s time period, it suggests a superficial interpretation of gender for our spectatorship.

In Jame’s Whales’ The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933) there is a sophisticated female lawyer Hilda Frey (Jean Dixon) who is stern and stiff-backed, and is dressed in severe clothing, a “new kind of woman” which allows for an undercurrent of lesbianism.

In The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933), Nancy Carroll as Maria Held is a career-oriented lawyer, who wears men’s suits and considers herself a “new woman.” There are tinges of heterosexuality, which serve to shield her character from scrutiny. But, she does appraise heterosexuality in vaguely cynical terms. She talks to another woman about a case where the husband has murdered his wife, “At least no one will ever murder me.” She also responds to, “What are you? A lawyer, or a new kind of woman?” by saying, “By day, I’m a lawyer. At night, well, you might be surprised.” Either it went undetected by the SRC (Studio Relations Committee) or they felt that the connotations of her lesbianism were ambiguous enough to slip by an unsophisticated audience.

We learn to watch out for signs that there are ‘others’ out there on the screen – those we can relate to. A young person exposed to old films, as I grew older and dove head first into classic film with a critical eye, I could read those sign posts and cues that led me to become consciously aware of the invisible affinity laid out in plain site for me, and those of us who knew the secret whispers behind the storyline.

Women wearing men’s apparel, like Dietrich’s wonderful drag performance, kissing a woman in Morocco in 1930. Or Clifton Webb’s often effete superiority as with his character, Waldo Lydecker in Otto Preminger’s Laura 1944, or his role as Hardy Cathcart’s with a pathological objectification of his wife Mari’s aesthetic beauty in Henry Hathaway’s The Dark Corner. Greta Garbo in Queen Christina 1933 “I shall die a bachelor!” Gloria Holden’s vampiric desire to embrace the necks of beautiful young female models in Dracula’s Daughter 1936.

Nan Gray and Gloria Holden in Lambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

The Production Code Administration (PCA) saw the obvious connection between vampirism and lesbian sexual desire in Dracula’s Daughter (1936) They only gave two warnings concerning the ‘queerness’ of Countess Zaleska and her thirst for young female victims. Universal, even hyped the idea that women were not safe from unnatural desire using this publicity catchphrase, “Save the women of London from Dracula’s Daughter!”

Throughout these films coded lesbian characters, scattered their rose petals of longing for their dead lost loves or the nymphs just out of their reach. There was tragedy within the tragedy of the horror story! As long as these queer women monsters also became victims, the PCA could negotiate its release, being comfortable with the narrative in that form.

The most overt representation of lesbians was her stylized look, a severely tailored suit, monocle, slicked back or bobbed short hair, or staunch, with a strait backed, severely repressive temperament. The coded dyke is typically less seen on screen than the pansy who enjoyed more of a character actor’s trademark in popular films. However, it could be said that covert lesbians are more subtle in their presence than their queer male counterparts – the sissy.

Major female stars could be seen as having indirect lesbian undertones, though their ambiguous sexuality might be camouflaged by their independent streak, their strong spirit or shaded by their exotic, mysterious nature. Thus we find some of our lesbian icons like Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Clara Bow, Greta Garbo, and Barbara Stanwyck. Lesbian vibes can often be signaled by a playful tomboyishness. And what we have is a diametrically opposed result, the pansy is perceived as failed manhood, but conversely the lesbian performing manhood is perceived as a threat.

And if they weren’t tomboys they could be man-less shrews, castrating viragos, or in need of a man, who can make her come to her senses, and give up her career and her disruptive way of life. The threat of strong women is still equal to the threat. The gay man elicits a laugh.

Thus, discourses about queer sexuality in this period are never purely homophobic against men. To a sizable extent, they have their basis in sexism against women, for it is the power of femininity, the “feminization” of 1930s culture mentioned, and the threat of working women “wearing the pants” that are being policed.

The metaphorical nature of the pants-wearing, money-earning woman attaining independence from men connoted lesbianism as a complete break from the interwoven financial and sexual economies of patriarchy. Thus, if “clothes make the man,” the wearing of pants in and of itself suggested a link to lesbianism that films of the time simultaneously offered as spectacle and punishment. (Lugowski)

In particular classical horror and science fiction films spoke to the sense of “otherness” installed in my psyche. That does not mean that I viewed things through a dark lens, but classical horror and science fiction are effusive metaphors and inherently philosophical. When some of us, like Frankenstein’s monster were figuratively chased with flaming torches, horror, and sci-fi movies afforded us shelter from the angry mob. Their use of mythic undertones and symbolic context provided for so many of us, psychic release and catharsis.

It’s also why I love and identify with the monster in classical horror films. The iconic or tragically fated monster has always been portrayed as the ‘other’. Gay people understand what it means to be an outsider. And filmmakers encoded that sui generis into our beloved classical horror genre. It worked like waving that meaningful finger at the audience, saying, you found us, we’re here.


CODED–verb [with object] 1 convert (the words of a message) into a particular code in order to convey a secret meaning: express the meaning of (a statement or communication) in an indirect or euphemistic way: (as adjective coded)

films allude to homosexual meanings in more of less coded ways. From today’s perspective, one can view these films as excellent examples of the very discourse of the closet-they employ connotative and symbolic meanings to signify homosexuality for those ‘in the know’ while ostensibly being about something else. Such connotative meanings were the way homosexuality could be signified under the dictates of the Hollywood Production Code.

Although it was continually challenged throughout the 1950s (by films such as The Moon is Blue 1953 and Baby Doll 1956) The Production Code still exerted a profound effect on the content on Hollywood film, especially in relations to homosexual themes. The Production Code Administration (PCA) edited queer backstories and subtexts of the film adaptations of Tennessee William’s plays A Street Car Named Desire (1951) , Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Vincente Minnelli’s film of the Broadway hit Tea and Sympathy… (Jeffrey Sconce)


The Hays Code’s aim was to restrict social change and one of its main targets was the ‘New Woman’, in particular the sexually uninhibited new woman. Along with this mission to subdue women’s freedom on screen, the mid-1930s also set out to ban any suggestion of sexuality and in particular sexual diversity. Heteronormativity and conformity was the main objective of the Production Code. This created a mask that would make gay people invisible on screen for decades. “The heterosexual dictatorship played out a sexual genocide against homosexual people on the screen. By making us invisible, they could pretend we didn’t exist. By making us unmentionable, they made us appear more contemptible… the love that dared not speak its name also didn’t dare show its face.” (Christopher Isherwood)

The beginning decades of American film didn’t shy away from subjects dealing with sex. Theda Bara led the way with visions of erotic subtlety, and Mae West became the icon for bawdy sexuality. Queerness at first boldly captured the imagination albeit with gendered tropes, campy humor, and shameful gay stereotyping. It wasn’t until the threat of the downfall of American morality, that openly gay characters were cut out of pictures and became veiled in innuendo and corresponding cues.

In the early years of film, scenes of homo-eroticism took place mostly in college and war films released in the 1920s and early 1930s through the onscreen representation of romantic friendships and male bonding in the trenches during WW1, or homosocial institutional behavior. This manifested as passionate mutual attachments, as in Wings (1927) with gorgeous Richard Arlen and Charles “Buddy” Rogers developing a closeness that culminates in a homoerotic kiss at the end of the picture. Some scholars say there is a homosexual subtext while others view their relationship as an intense friendship that often developed during the first world war. In the re-issue of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) the scene with naked men frolicking in the lake together had been cut after the Production Code got cold feet about the implications.

Because of the Hays Code, it was virtually impossible to explore homosexuality on film. But filmmakers found a way around its strict enforcement by hinting at the subject. In terms of gay characterizations, filmmakers had to rely on cinematic evasion where the audience was left to read between the lines. Out of this need for veiled characters was born the emblematic figure — the ‘coded’ gay character. One whose mannerisms are heightened by their splendid elocution and emphasis on aesthetic detail. Often shown as outsiders with an air of superior pedigree. They were set against the leading males to show a distinction and contrast between masculinity and overrefined weakness. The sissy was embraced in the early film until the Hays Code was enforced, and now the demonstrative ‘sissy’ had to become a less conspicuous figure on the screen.

Sissies were still used to suggest homosexuality and to serve as yardsticks for the masculinity of the men around them. Sissies who appeared in the films of the Forties were often victims, at times sophisticated by vaguely sinister outsiders Clifton Webb and George Sanders took up a little of the slack from Pangborn and Horton, yet the entire concept of sissy had become distanced from the humorous and had become just a little deadly. The fey harmless image dropped away.-(Barrios)

In contrast to the sissy in early films two actors Ramon Navarro and William Haines, homosexuality was an open secret among the film community. Navarro never played effete characters, rather he possessed a sensual bravado and became a leading man in Hollywood in the early 1920s and 30s. Ironically he also became one of Hollywood’s first gay icons. In Way Out West 1930 Haines drops a hint to bring the audience in on the secret.

Eddie Cantor’s — Palmy Days, became a more definable character in the 1930s “Make it a Pansy.”

In early films, the term ‘sissy’ was used to identify a wide range of vague male characters. A coy smile and affected voice could pinpoint the implied homosexuality. Franklin Pangborn and Edward Everett Horton (who were friends off-screen) are two of the well-noted ‘fussy type’ of actors. Pangborn with his fastidiousness and effete annoyances and Horton with his well-mannered gentle voice that he modulated so at times he could manifest indignation and a wicked double take. Through the 1930s Pangborn played a variation on the sissy archetype.

“An inventive satirist with expert timing. Pangborn seized on his brief screen moments and made them shine… Pangborn’s character offered one of the first blueprints for a malleable sissy image. Hired to teach Lupe Velez how to behave like a lady in polite society, he is officially homosexual yet abdicates his masculinity through his clear identification with female manners. He is in fact a teacher of feminine behavior.” – Vitto Russo

Russo is referring to the film, Lady of the Pavements (1929).

By the 1930s Franklin Pangborn had appeared in the brilliant comedies of Frank Capra and Gregory La Cava. He played the un-credited role of Guthrie in My Man Godfrey 1936. He is known to audiences and fans of Hollywood’s golden age as the prissy, persnickety, little fussbudget, seen as the service industry snob, elegantly tailored with a perfectly trimmed pencil-thin mustache. He dispatched irksome self-importance and effete manner while carrying out his work within the world of his inconsequential authority.

There are two kinds of “sissies” portrayed during this time in Hollywood. The blustering fluttering, middle-aged fuss pot, and the second type were called ‘fops’, who were mostly upper class, well dressed, witty characters who weren’t performing gender deviation, it showed more emphasis on their sexuality.

Pangborn worked with Hal Roach playing a flustered photographer in the short comedy Wild Poses trying to snap a picture of Spanky McFarland of Our Gang. He spent his early career working in comedic shorts and became part of the Preston Sturgess stock company doing six films with the director. In a serious melodrama, Pangborn plays the frazzled cruise director in Now, Voyager 1942 where he gets to panicking when Betty Davis is late for the activities aboard the ship.

The mode of expression of the coded character is also embroidered with hyperbole that is particularly unique to them. A vocabulary and dialogue that conveys acute wit and animated speech.

From The Bank Dick 1940. Egbert Sousé: (W.C.Fields) “Ah the Black Pussy Cafe and Snackbar… How would you like to go in and have a little spot?” J. Pinkerton Snoopington (Pangborn): “No, I never drink during business hours, thank you.” Egbert Sousé: “Just a little spot and we’ll find out how Gumlegs came out at Del Mar today.” J. Pinkerton Snoopington: “This-a, this place isn’t crowded, is it?” Egbert Sousé: “No, if it wasn’t for me the place would stave to death”. J. Pinkerton Snoopington: “Well, I’ll dawdle for about ten minutes.” Egbert Sousé: “Okay, we’ll dawdle together.”

Another W.C. Field collaboration, (Fields loved working with Pangborn), was Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. Pangborn plays the producer. “Marvelous!, Wonderful! Amazing! The girl has been living on a mountaintop since she was three months old and, for no reason at all, suddenly blossoms out with jumpin’ jive. Do you actually think I’m a dope? Now, don’t answer that!”

From Harold Diddlebock — Formfit Franklin: “Very clever! I guess I have to get up pretty early in the morning to catch you in bed.” Manicurist: “It’s been tried.” Formfit Franklin: “Oh!”

Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living released Dec. 1933 was seen as an open transgression against the Hays Code.

Pangborn as Mr. Douglas’s theatrical producer in Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933) ” My dear lady, what precisely do you want?”

Franklin Pangborn was sort of the epitome of ‘queer’ who popularly was known for pithy but distinctive roles in films like Design for Living 1933, Easy Living 1937, the Conquering Hero 1944, The Palm Beach Story, Now, Voyager 1942. He was typecast in roles as clerks, hotel manager, cruise ship director, floorwalker, fashion designer, photographer, and assorted arty snobs or fussy toilers. Always portraying the strict and conceited, put-upon character who is acutely efficient yet irritated. A self-assured, nervous nelly.

During Pre-Code you could find on screen effeminate — hairdressers, tailors, and costumers of the period, including Manhattan Parade (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), The Big Noise (1936), and Hollywood Hotel (1937).

In The Public Enemy (1931), two tailors rather flagrantly admire James Cagney’s ass while taking his measurements. Male characters working in the theater and dance were automatically perceived as queer.

An openly-yet-discreet gay director, George Cukor is known for his empathy toward women in his pictures adapts Our Betters (1933) from the novel by W. Somerset Maugham. There was a commotion over censorship of the flaming character, Ernest (Tyrell Davis), who ascends at the end of the picture with the tango lessons and his gossipy bitchy banter, lipstick, and eyeliner. While Ernest epitomizes the ‘queen’ stereotype, he is not a sidelined joke, rather he brings in the finale with Pre-Code flair. As Benshoff notes, Cukor might have utilized a more stereotyped representation of the ‘pansy’, but his goal might have been to use the imagery to stir up the censors by setting a wild hornet on them.

George Cukor was the women’s directed ‘labeled a woman’s director’ who collaborated with some of the most popular leading women stars in Hollywood. Cukor resented the label because of its negative homosexual connotations.

From Benshoff (Griffin’s Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America)- Cukor’s notorious comedy Our Betters (1933) queerly tweaks the morality of the British upper class, particularly the competitiveness between two society women. Throughout the film, the characters anticipate the arrival or Mr. Ernest , a dance instructor who is adored as a paragon of culture and taste. Played by Tyrell Davis, Mr. Ernset finally appears in the film’s last moments, and he is one of the most over-the -top pansies ever presented in a Hollywood film. Made up with eyeliner and lipstick, wearing a waistecoat and tails with a carnation, he flounces in with a limp wrist and his nose in the air, lisping the lines, “You must excuse me for coming in my town clothes, but your chauffeur said there wasn’t a moment to lost, so I came just as I am!” As the film ends, the two central women reach a tentative detente and kiss each other on the lips. Mr. Ernest all atwitter exclaims “What an exquisite spectacle! Two ladies of title kissing one another!” While Mr. Ernest might be viewed as a negative stereotype by some, Cukor’s involvement (including other queers including Somerset Maugham) complicates that assessment. It is possible that Cukor and company pushed the stereotype to such an extreme in order to make fun not of gay men but of the stereotype itself. What ever the intention, Our Betters drove the era’s moralists wild.”

The film ends with a lesbian suggestive dialogue by Ernest, “Ah! What an exquisite spectacle! Two ladies of title kissing one another!” During the Depression, such intimate affections by women were not indicative of lesbianism but of edgy genteel old ladies.

Other types of careers that are suggestive of gay desire, could be any man’s man positions such as butlers and servants. In First Love (1939) One of the characters portrayed by Charles Coleman announces that “gay butlers are very rare!” Coleman also plays a servant in One Hour with You (1932) where he shows an enthusiasm to see his master in tights. One also finds “pansies,” “sissies,” and “fops” in such unsurprising settings as a bathhouse flirting with sailors and at court in (Marie Antoinette, 1938), and as a desk clerk in (Vivacious Lady 1938).

You can also find “pansies,” “nancies,” and “sissies” amidst the surroundings of the prison, where the homophobic humor and jokes about “sissies” runs rampant. There, men are thrown together without the company of women, as in the comedy Up the River (1930), and the social-protest drama Hell’s Highway (1932)… Eddie Hart as Turkey Neck Burgess the cook, mentions how much he loves the flower arrangement with the large ‘pansies.’

In the Mae West riot She Done Him Wrong (1930) starring Cary Grant, the two prisoners who share a cell, go arm in arm together and West gives them the appellation The Cherry Sisters! Mae West was one of the icons of Pre-Code who challenged the image of the femme.

Director Michael Curtiz’s 1932 film The Strange Love of Molly Louvain starring Ann Dvorak released through Warner Bros. is a melodrama about a small-town confidence man. In one scene he and his cronies sit inside the hotel lobby staring out the window wagering on whether the people passing by will be either a man or a woman. When a man passing by tips his cigarette in fluttery manner, the gang is thrown off wondering who won the bet that time. One of them says “It’s a man!” They get back to betting again and this time it’s a woman who passes by, but the boss isn’t happy with his prior miss. “No! Women in pants don’t count!” As Lugowski says in Queering the New Deal “As cinema learned to talk so did it also ‘speak’ about gender roles crucial to Hollywood. Much of the Depression can be seen as having effected the ‘feminization’ of American society. The self-centered male ethic of the 1920s was discredited.”

There were hints of lesbianism in Queen Christina (1933). She was a known lesbian historically and there are distinct lesbian overtones in Dracula’s Daughter (1936) but they were minimized and they were scrutinized and condemned in the press. In the New York World-Telegram, it was pointed out that Dracula’s Daughter (Gloria Holden) went around “giving the eye to sweet young girls” A distinctive testimonial to that queer sexual transgression, purposefully edited from films more explicit. Jacques Duval’s Club des Femmes (1936) which had a lesbian subtext was only released in the States once the Hays Office had a going over with it. They ordered the removal of the specific dialogue that pointed to female-to-female attraction between Josette Day and Else Argal “You’re so pretty… if I were a man, I’d really love you.”

Here’s a bit of dialogue – George Cukor’s The Women (1939) from the play by Clair Boothe Luce, a screenplay by Anita Loos. Marjorie Main always had that undertone of butchly woman in her.

  • Peggy Day (Joan Fontaine): “ He beats you. Lucy, how terrible.”

    Lucy (Marjorie Main):Ain’t it. When you think of a lot of women on this ranch who need a beatin’ more than I do.”

  • Lucy [singing] “ If the ocean was whiskey, and I was a duck, I’d dive to the bottom, and never come up. Oh baby, oh baby, I’ve told you before, the more I drink whiskey, I love you the more! Oh baby, oh baby…”

Dracula’s Daughter’s ‘expressionist lair’ is revealed as a Bohemian artist’s studio in London’s Chelsea district. Together with her queer (in both senses of the word) sexuality, it sets the mood for an unconventional lifestyle. To a spectator on the outside who’s in the know, it suggests a relationship with New York City’s Greenwich Village and its burgeoning homosexual community. Both venues connect to ‘deviant’ behavior.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) according to Salman Rushdie’s description of the Emerald City is worth repeating as it suggests something of the queerness of the place: “Members of the citizenry are dressed like Grand Hotel bellhops and glitzy nuns, and they say or rather sing, things, like “jolly good fun!” It is also worth remembering that Emerald City is where Dorothy and her male companions receiver their beauty makeover which leave the Cowardly Lion looking like Dorothy with a curly coiffure and a bow in his hair. And while we’re pointing out the signs that mark Emerald City as queer, let’s not forget “green” as in “green carnation” a favorite gay-coded accessory or urban dandies from the end of the nineteenth century into the early decades of the twentieth.(Alexander Doty)

In Fast and Furious (1939) the beauty pageant choreographer instructs contestants in the technique of correct walking. In The Tenderfoot (1932), the New York chap wearing cowboys turns around to reveal that they are actually chorus boys wearing lipstick and rouge, who flirt with Joe E. Brown inviting him with a “Whoo!” And again in Stage Mother (1933) the ballet instructor tells his young girls to be ethereal “We are fairies, we are elves.”

With the restrictions that the newly established Code had enforced on filmmakers and screenwriters, they had to be very cagey by using innuendo and subtle insinuation. But the period still showcases a wide array of gay male stereotypes. They used a ‘gesture’ or fashion statement to signify one’s gender and sexual identity. Within the story, there could be a carefully placed line within the dialogue. It usually was presented as a male who was fixated on how they groomed themselves and gravitated toward opulent or extravagant possessions. Even if they have a wife or decoy love interest they are merely distractions or diversions to throw us off the scent of queerness.

It might be clear to those of us who recognized the symbols that a character is effete and that a male/ female heterosexual relationship is a ruse to make them acceptable within the narrative. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), Mrs. Danvers, her hair severe, her manner and look contrary to femininity, and her attraction to the prior mistress of Mandalay is apparent through covert innuendo, by the way, she rhapsodizes and romanticizes her memories of Rebecca, serenading the devotion to her beauty, stroking her undergarments. Rebecca (1940) which is often interchangeable with mystery/thriller and film noir, implies Mrs. Danvers as a female queer who is “enraptured with scents and silks that she herself does not wear.” (Dyer)

Whale’s characters are brutally victimized by the everyday cruelty of dominant society. And while this theme may Whale’s films sound heavy going, what one tends to notice most about Whale’s auteur signature is its sly absurdist humor, threading its way through even the darkest subject matter. The sense of a more flamboyant style in James Whale’s films (more so than either Cukor’s or Arzner’s) might possibly be linked to his more open and overt queer sexual identity. He made it a habit to employ queer actors in his films, many of whom-including Charles Laughton, Colin Clive, and Ernest Thesiger- he had known through his stage work in London in the 1920s Almost everyone who has studied Whale’s work has found within it something that might be termed a “gay sensibility” a wry authorial stance that seems to comment upon heterosexual privilege. (Benshoff)

Maureen O’Hara, Charles Laughton, and Robert Newton in Jamaica Inn (1939)

Laughton as the churlish dandy in Joseph Pevney’s The Strange Door (1951) co-starring Boris Karloff

CTH26030 Allstar/Cinetext/MGM

James Whale’s British war film, Journey’s End (1930) starring Colin Clive and David Manners

Turning to a more sinister genre, in many science fiction and horror there are homo-social relationships between men who form a bond that sets women outside their work and fellowship. Whale would often employ gay actors, Colin Clive, Charles Laughton, and Ernest Thesiger. In the horror films of James Whale, some believe he infused his work with a gay sensibility. His Frankenstein 1931 featured Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) a man of science about to create a man — immersed in his experiments, he excludes Elizabeth (Mae Clarke). Whale who was openly gay himself, situated many in-jokes which gave his films a campy flare. The Pre-Code horror genre dealt with disturbing elements, vivisection, flaying, necrophilia, torture, bestiality, cannibalism, and experimentation with drugs. Charles Laughton’s character Dr. Moreau is fixated on Richard Arlen’s character Edward Parker in Erle C. Kenton’s adaption, Island of Lost Souls (1932) based on the novel by H.G. Wells.

Moreau’s interest in the exotic Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke) is strictly white men’s science. There is nothing of a romantic desire toward her other than the ego-maniacal will to create a woman. The foundation of his desire stems from his God complex, and it can be viewed that he is more amorous toward Edward. These are just a few examples of coded characters in the horror genre. In this feature, I will cover some of the most familiar films presenting queer ciphers, the nearly invisible ‘difference’ distracted by the outer layer of the ‘fright’ factor on screen.

In Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932), Bela Lugosi plays ‘Murder’ Legendre who turns men into the walking dead. White Zombie is a film suggestive of homosexual desire on the part of Bela’s wicked necromancer. And at one point he drugs Beaumont (Robert Frazer) in order to make him a pliable servant to him. At first, Beaumont asks Legendre to turn his love interest Madeline (Madge Bellamy), into a zombie so she will love him unquestionably. But when he sees the result he asks Legendre to turn her back into the girl she was, alive with emotions, instead of a mindless doll. (Bela) drugs Beaumont and as he watches the changes take place he tells him, “I’ve taken quite a liking to you.”

Irving Pichel and Ernest Schoesack’s The Most Dangerous Game (1932) based on a story by O. Henry, stars Joel McCrea as Bob and Leslie Banks as the evil Russian Count Zaroff who hunts ‘men’ for sport. The novel features no women at all and has an even more homoerotic narrative.

Bob, in the novel, arrives naked. In the film, Zaroff is not interested in hunting Eve (Fay Wray) he’s only interested in men and seems to take delight in seeing Bob’s clothes becoming more and more tattered, with his bare skin showing.

Just as sadistic the same year Boris Karloff wielded his formidable fiendishness in The Mask of Fu Manchu. He straps an almost naked prisoner to a table, hovers over him provocatively, and injects a serum that will make him do whatever he wants him to do. The sexual connotation, even for the Pre Code era pushes the boundaries. The film possesses stark sadism and sexuality conflated with violence. Even though he has a daughter Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy) which demonstrates to us that he has had a heterosexual relationship in the past, he is surrounded by half-naked young enslaved black men throughout the picture. His sexuality is ambiguous. But as Geoffrey Mank wrote in 1994 “Karloff’s Ann-Margret smile, false eyelashes, Adrian designed gowns, dragon lady fingernails, come-hither delivery, has created a wild, kinky archfiend of Fu Manchu…”

The Mask of Fu Manchu is one of the most queer horror films filled with the sadistic, voyeuristic perversion of this period. It blends a multitude of tropes used for shock value, including xenophobia, “Will we ever understand these Eastern races?” tastelessly, cruel subjugation of ‘black’ men in bondage, nymphomania, sadomasochism, homo-eroticism, and homophobia. The fluid racism of the film and offensive stereotypes, affected by the white cast portraying characters as vicious, sadistic foreigners is a horror in and of itself.

But what lies underneath the textual analysis of the plot is homophobia. Fu Manchu stars Boris Karloff, who actually wore a Chinese woman’s wedding dress as a costume, playing the lead character. He is surrounded by nearly naked boys under his control. A wicked tyrant who is aided by his equally sadistic daughter Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy) also with her eyes taped back. Apparently, Myrna Loy had called the script obscene and the character of Fah Lo See a sadistic nymphomaniac. This was the last in a long cycle of Asian roles for Myrna Loy. Remember her as the vengeful Ursula Georgi in Thirteen Women (1932).

According to the book “The Films of Myrna Loy” by Lawrence J. Quirk: “She recalls that she and Karloff decided between themselves that the only intelligent way that this movie could possibly be played was subtly tongue-in-cheek.”

Fu Manchu and Fah Lo See both exhibit observable pleasure when Terrence (Charles Starrett) has his clothes torn from his body and he is whipped violently. Starrett wears an “abbreviated loincloth”, retakes were frequently required because of Starrett’s showing too much “enthusiasm.” We know what that means. Whoa!

Fah Lo See- “The Whips!” (slaves start whipping Terrence, Fat Lo See becomes aroused)

faster, faster, faster, faster”faster, faster!!, with a sword symbolic as phallus.

In the scene where Fu Manchu waves the sword through an electrical cloud, Kenneth Strickfaden who created much of the set’s fantastical optical effects in the Frankenstein trilogy, takes the place of Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu.

Fah Lo See [referring to Terrence Granville] “He is not entirely unhandsome, is he, my father?” Fu Manchu “For a white man, no.”

[telling Terence Granville, who is strapped to an operating table, what Fu Manchu is about to inject him with] This serum, distilled from dragon’s blood, my own blood, the organs of different reptiles, and mixed with the magic brew of the sacred seven herbs, will temporarily change you into the living instrument of my will. You will do as I command!

White Zombie The Most Dangerous Game and The Mask of Fu Manchu all released in 1932 pushed the boundaries of correctness and sufferance for American moviegoers.

It is suggested by Mulvey and David Lugowski that gay characters can be recognized in Orson Welle’s Citizen Kane (1941). Specifically, the Thatcher librarian is described as “a woman without the slightest vestige of femininity, dressed in a severe suit and with an equally severe, repressive manner.” (Mulvey) And she “evokes the mythical mannish lesbian type.” (Lugowski)

She evokes the first figure of queerness (a dyke librarian) in the film and her “sissy” security guard. Present in the film is also flamboyant vocal coach Matiste (Fortunio Bonanova). Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris) plays a prissy bachelor who raised Kane, a man who has mommy issues (Revere plays a domineering mother archetype). Charles Foster Kane’s most enduring relationships are with men, he cannot attain a relationship with women. And ultimately Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten) has a hero worship of Kane. The most queer element is the relationship between Jed and Kane. His hero worship combined with his desire as he stands by his man. Jed Leland also has an artsy bent. Susan and Jed Leland are narratively positioned as rivals for Kane’s attention and affection. (Doty) cites Laura Mulvey’s description of Leland (Joseph Cotten) as “functioning more as a raconteur than as a straight witness.” to Kane’s life.

Some characters are frumpy spinsters and nervous bachelors. You might see the pathology of idolizing/objectifying males like Hardy Cathcart (The Dark Corner 1946), and Waldo Lydecker (Laura 1944) both ruthlessly effete, aggrandized characters free-flowing by actor Clifton Webb. And the obsessive/psychotic woman, the iconic representation of the sapphic brewing rage of Mrs.Danvers (Judith Anderson in Rebecca 1940) and Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner in The Uninvited 1944). This obscure little ghost story became a cult film for lesbians during WWII. Voodoo Island (1957) having been referred to as a ‘crummy horror movie’, as low budget and dreadful as it is, has a character who presents as a coded lesbian.

The role of Waldo Lydecker in Otto Preminger’s film noir Laura (1944) was Clifton Webb’s ultimate ‘sissy’ image as he performs the catty gossip columnist who objectifies Laura (Gene Tierney) as his beautiful property, and his alone. In the original script for Laura, there were numerous indications of Waldo Lydecker’s homosexuality, which were inevitably cut before shooting began.

Waldo Lydecker is a collector of beautiful things. Laura is one of them. She is just as much an object that he has obtained. Their relationship is devoid of any heterosexual romance, merely a tinge of Pygmalion. He cultivates her like an orchid. Waldo Lydecker worships beauty, not women. He is an aesthete, an effete viper, who uses barbs like weapons, armed by his flamboyant arrogance. Hedda Hopper referred to his character as “acid etched.”

Clifton Webb’s role as Waldo Lydecker was the actor’s first big-screen appearance since he appeared in silent films in 1925. The 54-year-old actor was nominated for an Oscar for his standout performance, but lost to Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way. –Karen Burroughs Hansberry-shadowsandsatin blog

In an opening scene showing Lydecker’s apartment, the script says “The camera pans the room. It is exquisite. Too exquisite for a man.” Later, the narrating voice-over of Dana Andrews says, “You like your men less than one hundred percent. don’t you Mr. Lydecker?” It is widely known that director Otto Preminger had to fight to get Clifton Webb for the role because the studio had labeled the actor a homosexual, and was too ‘gay’ for the part. Originally they had wanted to cast Laird Cregar in the role of Waldo, but they needed an actor who could deliver dialogue with a pretentiously ruthless verve that rolled off their tongue swiftly. “I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.”

A key scene that exemplifies this is with Lydecker soaking in the tub plunking away at his typewriter when Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) walks into the bathroom. The setup is pure camp against the stark contrast, between Lydecker’s pretentious dandy and McPherson’s ‘everyman’ image.“Nice place you have here, Mr. Lydecker.” “It’s lavish, but I call it home.” Another trait that smacks of his elitism and biting humor with coded vocabulary is “This is about to assume fabulous aspects.” What absolutely straight man would use the word ‘fabulous’ in that haughty tone of voice? Another line that illustrates Lydecker’s smug manner is, “In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention.”

Webb’s characterization of Elliot Templeton as an aging male spinster in The Razor’s Edge (1946) is another of his classist portrait of a gay man. Yet in either film, there is only allusion that the characters are gay. Clifton Webb immortalized his characterizations as an effete cipher of the stereotypical ‘fairy’.

The Secret Witness 1931 is a murder mystery about a wealthy philandering husband who is found murdered. The plot does not concern the clandestine liaisons between gays and lesbians, nor is it concerned with coming to bear one’s self-awareness of their sexual identity. Or the “peculiar phenomenon of being visible while at the same time unseen” -(Richard Barrios: Screened Out). What is memorable about the film is one scene with ZaSu Pitts (known for her quivering faint-heartedness and forlorn voice) who plays the hotel’s switchboard operator shown connecting a call for one of the guests, at the same time engaged in a conversation with her boyfriend on another line, whom she tells about a book she is reading. “It’s something about a well… I don’t really understand it.” The camera cuts to the cover of the book- The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. The purpose of this incidental plot detail inserted into a standard low-budget mystery is devised to slip in a bit of shock and scandal – the apropos inside joke, that would only be obvious to lesbians who read typically tragic lesbian novels.

From Theda Bara onward the manifestation of sex on film has had an incalculable bearing upon sexuality as it translates into all our lives…The bluntness of sexuality in its most obvious cinematic forms usually gains most of the attention, yet it is cinema’s more allusive approaches to sex that carry some of its most potent weight. Here is where comes into play film’s uncanny ability to spur identification and senses of self while simultaneously reflecting them. It is here, projected from the movies to deep inside us, where some of us have found ourselves.

… But lesbians and gay men and the movies: there we have something unique, something with little or no comparison in any other aspects of our culture. For film has depicted homosexuality for a century in all manner of ways-implicit or blunt, tender or damning, with the greatest insight or with the crudest denigration. There has never been one clear course; for eight decades the images and portrayals have been consistently present and-regardless of what some historians or politicians or theologians say-they’ve run the almighty gamut. The love that dared not speak its name didn’t, as far as the movies were concerned, need to-it was up on the screen, larger and sometimes clearer than life. It was there conveying messages to any spectator able to understand or identify with what was being said. — Source: Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood–From Edison to Stonewall by Richard Barrios

Miriam Hopkins and Claudette Colbert in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

It is the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors who adopted the restrictions of the Hays Office in Hollywood spanning forty years. Within their stated regulations they reigned over the impressions of what was considered sexual deviance on screen. In the films, most expressions of queerness were indirect and became encrypted by phrases, gestures, and symbology. There were coded words as well. For instance, there was – dearie, fairy, whoops! and the pansy as a flower.

In George Cukor’s Our Betters 1933 actor Tyrell Davis is the pretentiously frisky Ernest always teasing with a vibrant current that is deliriously queer.

“The ending of Our Betters floats in from another universe, and it’s wonderful. After all of the tensions of who-is-sleeping-with-who come to a head, Pearl know she has to make things up to her guests. There’s a popular London house guest, Ernest (Tyrell Davis) that she entices to show up at the party, who we would know nowadays as a flamboyant gay stereotype. He wears lipstick and has a killer step, and he makes the most cunning remarks– and he’s a treat. Cukor was no doubt enjoying goosing conservative America with this, even giving Ernest the full wink of a closing line as Pearl and the Countess make-up”-Pre-Code.Com

“Ah! What an exquisite spectacle! Two ladies of title, kissing one another!”-Ernest

Another example of cinematic innuendo is Cecil B. DeMille’s decadent The Sign of the Cross (1932) where Charles Laughton portrays Nero, accompanied by his sexually suggestive enslaved boy. In Elsa Lanchester’s autobiography Herself, she writes that Laugthon was at wit’s end trying to figure out how to approach his character, Nero. De Mille wanted him to represent the historical man. Lanchester wondered, “A very noisy beast? An English feudal lord. Or a flaming fairy?… Finally, Charles came up with his divine ace card-the grape-sucking, wild Wilde Nero.”

And within the pagan chambers, lusty temptress Ancaria (Joyzelle) dances Sapphicly, seductively around the enslaved Mericia (Elissa Land). The film features a set piece, the “apocalyptic dance of lesbian seduction The Naked Moon”. DeMille’s sinfully explicit film intensified censorship in the mid-thirties. There’s also Charles Laughton as Nero with his flaming lucidity flanked by his well-oiled Adonis at his side.

The scene with Ancaria’s dance of lesbian seduction in The Sign of the Cross (1932) created a maelstrom of contention forcing the scene to be deleted until it was eventually reissued in later years. Cecil B. DeMille’s orgiastic vision still reigned through the height of the queer Pre-Code years between 1932 and 1933.

Charles Laughton as Emperor Nero in The Sign of the Cross (1932) Source: Alamy photos

In the prison film Ladies They Talk About 1933, Barbara Stanwyck is told by fellow inmate Lillian Roth to beware of a cigar-smoking character in the women’s lavatory- “Watch out for her… she likes to wrestle.

W.C. Fields plays Professor Henry Quail in International House (1933). There is a gag in the film where Quail mistakes Franklin Pangborn’s Hotel Manager’s “Woohoo!” as a flirtation.

A woman first coos at Professor Quail with a Woohoo! Quail-“Woohoo to you too sweetheart. Hey Charlie where am I?” Hotel Manager (Pangborn) “Woohoo!” Professor Quail removes the flower from his lapel. “Don’t let the posey fool you!” The sexual innuendo caused censor Carl Milliken to write Breen. “The dirty minded lout who put it in the picture knew perfectly well, however, what he was doing and undoubtedly felt he had gained something by getting away with it.”

Pandro Berman RKO’s producer at the time tried to retain control over a scene in Top Hat (1935) that Breen wanted taken out. In it, Erik Rhodes apologizes to Edward Everett Horton by kissing him on both cheeks, while Helen Broderick watches and cracks wise with, “Go right ahead, boys, don’t mind me.”

In Ernst Lubitsch’s 1937 romantic comedy, Angel, starring the sultry Marlene Dietrich, Horton plays Herbert Marshall’s valet, Graham, who is delicious as his conscientious, persnickety best, in particular when he tries to hum an aria from the Barber of Seville for Sir Frederick.

Victor Buono appears to be a troubled piano-playing “mama’s boy.” While it is not clearly spelled out for us in the story, the signals are there. He is infantilized and, more to my point, is painted as “unmanly” as Edwin Flagg in Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). For example, notice the undercurrent between Jane and Edwin. Jane-“Dehlia, Who’s Dehlia?” Edwin-“You might not think it to look at her, but, she’s my mother.” Jane-“Oh for a minute I thought you had a wife or a lady friend tucked away somewhere”. Edwin-“Oh no! No, Oh no! Nothing like that!”

“Bette Davis, sitting on a sofa under a poster of Baby Jane Hudson, talks with Victor Buono, the pianist Edwin Flagg, in the famous movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? USA, 1962. (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)”

Nuanced comments are dropped into the mix of the prevailing dialogue that manages to reveal the ‘in-joke.’ For instance, in The Gay Divorcee (1934) Rodolfo Tonetti (Erik Rhodes) remarks, “Your wife is safe with Tonetti, he prefers spaghetti.”

Again, in Mervyn Leroy’s Little Caesar (1931), Edward G. Robinson’s character Caesar “Rico” Bandello is not just an ambitious thug. Beyond his blustery Napoleonic dominance, veiled behind a criminal brotherhood – he is painfully in love with dancer Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). In a close-up Robinson’s eyes well up with tears when he tries but is unable to shoot Joe. “This is what I get for liking a guy too much.”

In the years of the Great Depression, the nation was going through an identity crisis. The world was flipped upside down and even gender roles were reversed. Men lost their jobs and were no longer able to be “the man” taking care of their family.

The use of gender performance rather than any actual sexual conduct as the final arbiter of sexuality in the Depression years manifests itself regularly in the queer humor of 1930s cinema. Perhaps the most famous example is of Cary Grant, caught wearing a woman’s frilly negligee in Bringing up Baby (1938) and blurting out, “I just went gay all of a sudden!” As Chauncey notes, the queer connotations emerge ‘not because he had fallen in love with a man’, but because he was asked why he had put on a woman’s nightgown. The possibility of a more precisely sexual meaning would not have been lost on anyone familiar with fairy stereotypes.” (Lugowski)

Just to be clear (so that I don’t piss off my good friend Aurora from Once Upon a Screen), in Howard Hawk’s Bringing Up Baby, it isn’t that Cary Grant is a coded gay character. The character of David Huxley is not gay. Rather by using his tremendous vivacity for witty comebacks, he facilitates queer humor.

Lady In The Dark 1940 Mischa Auer plays the flamboyant fashion photographer Russell Paxton who shows off his exuberance over Jon Hall- “This is the end! The absolute end!”

We can see signs of the coded character when we look for the inferences strategically put in place. The suggestions of what is concealed in plain sight can be numerous if you begin to look closer. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) catch the recognizable in-joke delivered by the smokey, bitchy icon Tallulah Bankhead who utters, “Some of my best friends are women.”

And in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) Laurence Olivier’s Crassus romanticizes his discourse with male servant Tony Curtis when he conflates his decadent morals with delicacies. The scene is ripe with a homoerotic, sexually descriptive, and queer double entendre, in the censored scene that was fully restored in 1991.

Marcus Licinius Crassus (Olivier) Do you eat oysters? Antoninus (Curtis) –When I have them, master. Marcus Licinius Crassus Do you.. Marcus Licinius Crassus: Do you eat snails? Antoninus: No, master.
Marcus Licinius Crassus: Do you consider the eating of oysters to be moral and the eating of snails to be immoral?
Antoninus: No, master. Marcus Licinius Crassus: Of course not. It is all a matter of taste, isn’t it? Antoninus: Yes, master.
Marcus Licinius Crassus: And taste is not the same as appetite, and therefore not a question of morals.
Antoninus: It could be argued so, master.Marcus Licinius Crassus: My robe, Antoninus. My taste includes both snails and oysters.

Beloved character actor Franklin Pangborn.

The Vintage News article by Stefan Andrews referred to Marlene Dietrich as possessing a ‘seductive aura’. There is no doubt she is the iconic representation of brazen androgyny and fluid gender identity. She offers up sensuality in all its various forms. Dietrich worked on several collaborations with director Josef von Sternberg. She appeared in moody dramas as the goddess of pleasures intoning torch songs in smoky nightclubs. Marlene Dietrich wields with ease, her on and off-screen gender-bending aura. She performs in silken drag wearing a top hat and tux gliding onto the stage in a Paris nightclub in Morocco in 1920.

Morocco itself was a wartime romance involving a heterosexual couple. Aside from the fluid gender play when Dietrich in the men’s tuxedo plucks the flower from the female in the audience and leans in to kiss her, this is all done to arouse the men in the crowd. Dietrich was clearly not playing a lesbian but making use of the eroticized scandal and excitement she could cause by her role-playing. The film slipped under the radar without criticism because of this brief and supposedly inconsequential exploitation. Now the scene remains iconic for its lasting queer allegory.

Dietrich’s sensuality tortures Emil Jannings in The Blue Angel 1930. No one is as elegantly provocative as Shanghai Lili in Shanghai Express 1932 traveling with the androgynously alluring Anna May Wong.

Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall by Richard Barrios

Queer Flashes

Vito Russo wrote The Celluloid Closet, gayness in commercial American film was an ocean of adversity. The painfully slow advances being made in society were mocked in most movies. Gays and lesbians were demonized, vilified, ridiculed. Not that anyone noticed at the time, but the early thirties, with their sympathetic fairies and powerful dykes, had been far more positive. One had to turn to television and foreign films to get anything with a positive or realistic tone.

Occasionally there would be, onscreen as in reality, the coded term or the telltale gesture; and there would be the presence of someone like the divine Franklin Pangborn to clue in knowing viewers. Gayness onscreen was still present, then, if far less conspicuous. In these shadowy and guarded times, some gallant and intrepid men and women kept the gayness in the movies, often at great professional risk. If you knew what to look for, you saw it.

Franklin Pangborn perhaps one of the best-known character actors, who camped it up playing prissy fashion designers like Hector in A Blonde for a Night (1928) decorates Maria Provost in a fabulous gown and blonde wig.

During the prewar years the coded messages were consistent with the closeted temperament of Hollywood. In particular, throughout the 1940s film noir, the movies were shaded with a darkened view of the world. After World War II, Hollywood’s persistent ‘don’t tell’ policy remained in place reflecting the repression that was felt during the Eisenhower years through to the Truman Administration and the witch hunt of HUAC and McCarthyism.

Let’s face it, lesbians in post-WWII were dangerous… and not quite damsels in distress!

Hope Emerson and Betty Garde in John Cromwell’s Caged (1950).

Richard Conte and Hope Emerson as brutal Rose ‘snap your neck’ Given in Robert Siodmak’s Cry of the City (1948)

In the 1950s we saw films like John Cromwell’s Caged (1950) starring Eleanor Parker who is sent to prison and falls in with a rough crown including the sadistic predatory Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson) who performs heterosexuality with diverging window dressing — reading romance pulp novels and dressing up to go out on dates. But she betrays a darkly repressed lesbian desire that manifests itself as a brutal thirst to punish the female prisoners. Emerson’s hulking frame projects more of an ogress that is questionably female. Especially when you consider she is capable of snapping Richard Conte’s neck in Cry of the City (1948) Rose Given, in fact, does intimate to Martin, that she can snap a neck easily and with pleasure.

The Role of Lesbian Representation in a Masculinity Crisis – Lugowski

What lesbianism was “really all about” during the 1930s merits particular consideration. The lesbian of mainstream 1930s cinema was influenced by the discourse of the working “New Woman” and the “aristocratic dyke” culture that found its quintessential expression in Radclyffe Hall’s novel.

Any qualifications aside, lesbian representation did occur in Hollywood film of the period and had connections to Depression-era attitudes, ideologies, and culture. Often, lesbian imagery in a culture can suggest a transgression very different from gay maleness, insofar as lesbianism encompasses a range of sexualities not predicated on the literal presence of men and as such is underrepresented because it threatens the very bounds of the representable. During an era in which masculinity was in crisis, such an immanent critique of heteropatriarchy, signified by the positing of men as optional to sexuality itself, would be especially threatening. They were represented as women who were judged within the discourse of a film to need a man, give up a career, or stifle disruptive eccentricities.

In considering the warnings of the Code, male effeminacy must be avoided completely yet a slight mannishness will be acceptable in women as long as it’s not overly butch or masculine. During the Depression, it was permissible for women to exert their strength in order to meet the demands of the financial crisis people faced. In other words, women needed to be strong in order to take on a job. However, the Depression created a crisis of masculinity so it was vital that men not perform femininity or risk being equated with ‘perverts’.

Censor Olga Martin (Breen’s secretary) applauded the revision of Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour when it was screened in 1936 as These Three, directed by William Wyler with Hellman writing the screenplay. It starred Merle Oberon and Miriam Hopkins as Karen and Martha. Any representation of lesbianism was removed from the 1936 version.

Examples of non-repressed lesbianism are flaunted alongside the pansy humor in the gay bar sequence in Call Her Savage (1932). In The Warrior’s Husband (1933), a butch Amazon queen marries a pansy, and in The Sign of the Cross (1932), Joyzelle Joyner tries to seduce Elissa Landi. Kathlyn Williams lets it all hang out and proud as a contented dyke In Blood Money (1933) a butch woman in the nightclub who has an exchange with Bailey about a cigar and calls him a “big sissy.” Blood Money directed by Rowland Brown, stars Judith Anderson as Ruby Darling in the Underworld shields a slew of corrupt characters including gay ones. The cast includes George Bancroft, Frances Dee, Chick Chandler, Blossom Seeley, Etienne Giradot, Lucille Ball, Bessy Flowers, and Edward Van Sloane.

And there’s the gender-bending subtext of Sylvia Scarlett (1936) a farcical campy classic starring Katherine Hepburn who turns everyone on, with her androgyny, while dressed as a boy.

The film is directed by George Cukor who was out to his friends in Hollywood. The film opens in Paris, when Sylvia’s (Katharine Hepburn) father (Edmund Gwenn) flees from France to England aboard a ship after he is charged with embezzlement. Henry Scarlett is followed by his daughter Sylvia who seeks to protect him. In order to evade the authorities Sylvia masquerades as Henry’s son Sylvester. She dresses in men’s clothes with her short slicked hair, Hepburn is impressively queer, and through comical twists, potentially becomes the object of everyone’s desire.

They are accompanied by a charming con man, Jimmy Monkley (Cary Grant) traveling around like a band of gypsies as a little petty crime ring. They eventually meet up with Maudie Tilt (Bunny Beatty) a cockney maid who joins them. Their new enterprise, a traveling theatrical troupe called the Pink Pierrots with their caravan entertaining people at resorts. Sylvia/Sylvester meets artist Michael Fane (Brian Aherne) and is immediately attracted to him, which inspires her to drop her disguise so she can run off and be a girl again.

Sylvia Scarlett triggered ‘gay panic’ for the Production Code who were uneasy about the script and Hepburn’s cross-dressing, which they felt could be read as Sylvia being a lesbian camouflaged as a heterosexual. A letter from the Production Code to RKO stated this, “it is the general flavor of the film which is open to suggestion.”

Presented as a daring exploit of alternative lifestyles, “To the adventurer, to all who stray from the beaten track, life is an extravaganza in which laughter and luck and love come in odd ways, unexpectedly – but they are none the less sweet for that.”

Initially, the film was to open with Hepburn already in disguise, but the frightening reviews forced Cukor to add a scene where Katherine Hepburn in a dress, cuts her long hair off and explains that she had to conceal herself in order to protect her father from creditors.

While Cukor gave a nod to the gay community with his off-beat film, it was in no way implying that the character of Sylvia was gay. Yet, the picture did incorporate male queerness, in the way men responded to her as Sylvester. Brian Aherne says to her, “I know what it is that gives me a queer feeling when I look at you.”

Hepburn was interviewed and said the majority of the theater patrons walked out long before the movie was over. In the end, both critics and audiences were quite turned off by the whimsical narrative. Sylvia Scarlett’s ambiguous gender identity and various queer situations left audiences bewildered, and Cukor abandoned the idea of making another film so blatantly gay.

The Production Code Administration Queen Christina (1933) was more concerned about the unwed Christina having sex with a male diplomat than the film causing ‘gay panic’ about her lesbian-coded relationship with her handmaiden. The PCA showed disquietude between the years 1933-1936.

Consider the sympathetic Kitty Stark portrayed by Betty Garde, which suggested she preferred women. Caged (1950) ushered in the 50s decade with a quasi-coded yet less invisible lesbian. A more deconstructed code…

The era ended with the much more revelatory, courageous though revolting conflation of homosexuality with pedophilia, cannibalism, and mental illness. Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz was adapted from Tennessee Williams. Confronting more boldly the subject of homosexuality, through a very rabid, jaundiced prism of depravity and decadence. While this film isn’t a positive salute to queerness, the movie created a discourse about homosexuality in cinema. It wasn’t until the coming the 1960s that the Production Code drew its last breath. Still, gays and lesbians were portrayed as damaged emotionally, sadists or sufferers, threatening, disparaged, victimized, and something to beware of. Which was an even more negative divergence from just something to be laughed at. In the early years of cinema fairies and dykes were shown to be more likable, though the early films did exploit the stereotypes.

Algie, the Miner  (1912), is an effeminate man, sent away by his girlfriend’s father who wanted him to prove he was a real man by the end of a year. The film portrays skewed gender traits and sexuality and the fact that Algie ends up getting married at the end of the film only leaves the impression murky. Following Algie, The Miner, there were many instances of sissies in film.

The earliest known example of homosexuality on screen is a short 17 seconds long film called The Gay Brothers (1894) which was filmed at Edison Studios. Directed and starring William Kennedy Dickson who was experimenting with sound and moving images. It features two men dancing close to one another. The film was controversial at the time as homosexuality was not legal, and the impression it left with audiences, was an apparent exhibition of “subversion of conventional male behavior.”

Vito Russo in his seminal text The Celluloid Closet referred to the film as the Gay Brothers but in reality it had no title. The reason the two men were dancing together was not because they were attracted to each other or intending to portray two men who were. But according to historian Anthony Slide there were simply no women working at the Edison Studios.-from A Queer Romance Gay Characters and Male Bonding in Early Film Silent and Pre-Code

Alice Guy-Blaché Les Résultats du féminisme (The Consequences of Feminism) is a 1906 French silent comedy film directed by Alice Guy. She was a French filmmaker, one of the first to make a narrative fiction film. The Consequences of Feminism illustrated what might happen to gender roles if feminism took over. Men would be doing women’s work and traditional gender roles were reversed in the film. The men had become sissies predating Algie by more than a decade, after Alice Guy.

There were two characters in comedy shorts that came out of the first decade of American Cinema. Algie, the Miner (1912) was directed by the first woman director Alice Guy-Blaché who gravitated toward provocative material. Algie (Billy Quirk) is a hetero male only by way of having a girlfriend. Otherwise, he is a ‘flaming fag’. All the cues are set forth, his mannerisms are pure caricatures of the dandy, his hands are a quiver, his lips are pursed and he fondles the barrel of his pistol as phallus. His queerness gets him into deep water when he asks men for directions and they pull out their guns. They decide not to shoot him and he throws them kisses. He eventually meets up with Big Jim, strikes it rich and returns home without his makeup, and gets the girl.

Pioneer Spirit- BIlly Quirk strikes an Attitude and vice versa in Algie, the Miner 1912 directed by Alice Guy-Blaché (July 1, 1873 – March 24, 1968)

Algie’s queerness stands out. Director Guy-Blache pulled back her characterization of the flaming Algie and allowed the audience to see him as a hetero claiming his bride at the end of the short. But he maintains the importance of being the cinema’s first queer tease.

Films relied partly on costumes and embellishments which became cues and the signature for similar characters in future pictures. Flowers in the lapel, the little chiseled mustache, and the flitting handkerchief were left there to be spotted on screen as a signal, or the coded appearance of queerness.

As far as lesbians, their charisma was wearing men’s jackets and ties, puffing on a cigar, slicking back their hair and decorating themselves with a sophisticated prop, wearing of a monocle, the victorious monocle dyke.

Early on in cinema, we began to see the reference of queer humor poking its head out on the screen. By 1918 Chaplin became a huge star, and actor Billy West did a series of shorts that would mimic Chaplin’s style. He wore the mustache, and the clothes and adopted virtually the same persona. In fact, he starred in a movie called His Day Out (1918) poaching Chaplin’s short, A Night Out (1915). Essentially it’s the story of a bumbling barber who messes up his customer’s hairdos. West’s short stars Leatrice Joy and Oliver Hardy as one of West’s unfortunate patrons.

Billy the barber is a foppish dandy with a with a prickly temper. The ‘gay panic’ humor is showcased when he ties up Ollie’s hair in ribbons and covers it up with a hat. When the hat is knocked off his head, he is laughed at by a crowd of people. In order to make things right Billy plants a kiss on him. Aside from the comedy focused on the ridiculous coif, it began the framework of the ‘pansy’ for people who got the in-joke. West’s gag is notable, but it was Chaplin (one of the earliest icons of cinema) to introduce the idea within the story, of believing someone to be gay when they are not. This introduced the scheme regarded as “queer-panic”.

In the short Behind the Screen (1916), Chaplin plays David a stagehand at a movie studio and Edna Purviance plays an aspiring actress who disguises herself as a boy. Chaplin knows that it’s a girl but when the two begin to tease each other romantically, the boss thinks that he’s surrounded by faeries. He begins to mock them, flitting about, presenting visible cues that informed those in the audience who understood the characteristic doings, as another man enters and is so taken with Purviance thinking she’s a boy, he proceeds to camp it up around her.

In Molly Haskell’s incredibly insightful take on the situation, she says “the big lie” is that women are inferior. The big lie about lesbians and gay men is that we do not exist. The story of the ways in which gayness has been defined in America. In Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Beverly Axelrod says. “Our tragedy does not derive from our fantasy of what homosexuals are but from our fantasy of what America is. We have made each other up.”

For sexual ambiguity, it was still a bit early for anything other than comic allusiveness or fantasy. Some historians have looked to King Vidor’s The Other Half (1919), a melodrama of male bonding and social reform, for intimations of secret things, but contrast this with what was going on in Germany at the same time: the breakthrough gay drama Anders an die Anderen (Different from the Others) for which, despite the growing American vogue for German cinema, a U.S. release would have been most unlikely. For Americans who could barely accept a fantasy-comedy about gender reversal, a serious look at contemporary gayness would have provided too many jolts.Richard Barrios

In 1913 the sissy virtually vanished from films because America had entered WW1. The image they needed was a more viral male figure to populate their films. But in 1923 with The Soilers starring Stan Laurel, the sissy reentered the screen with a flaming cowboy who flutters his eyelashes and brazenly flirts with Laurel.

The sissy still appeared in films of the Silent Era Irene 1926, and The Matinee Idol 1928. And in 1927 The Jazz Singer. But, The sissy was now called the Pansy, and with the advent of talking pictures, it gave them a voice, a high-pitched declaration, sometimes with a lisp. In The Broadway Melody 1929 the pansy is a costume designer who is on the receiving end of insults in three scenes.

The 1920s also heralded the age of the speakeasy with free-flowing booze, the emergence of Jazz, flappers, unleashed sex, infidelity, gangsters, prostitution, and an anything-goes attitude.

Salomé is a 1923 silent art film directed by Charles Bryant and starring Alla Nazimova, adapted from the play written by Oscar Wilde. It was rumored that the entire cast was either gay or bisexual, in particular the actress/producer Nazimova herself a known lesbian. The decadence of the plot showcased elaborate costumes, outre campy acting, and an esoteric ambiance that focused solely on the actors’ decadent impulses than on the story itself. The entire mood had presented itself as queer.

Then in the mid-1920s, Stan Laurel appeared in The Soilers 1923, a short comedy that parodied gayness, set in contrast to the virility of the setting. A strutting cowboy flirts with Laurel, referring to him as “my hero”, Laurel rejects him and is paid back with a flower pot smashed over his head.

In 1924 director Carl Theodor Dreyer released his film Michael starring Walter Slezak and Benjamin Christensen, about a painter and his muse, a male model.

In some respect, these films portrayed the notion of erotic male companionship. Perceived not necessarily about sexuality but the lack of masculinity.

These films ushered in the art of ‘sissyism’ and actors like Edward Everett Horton who entered films in 1922 and Franklin Pangorn who subverted the norm, began in 1926, both of whose talent is undeniable started to engage in their coded schtick. At first, Horton’s persona played it straight-laced as Ruggles the lead character in the 1923 version of Ruggles of Red Gap.

Ruggles (Edward Everett Horton) kisses the hand of an overwhelmed Emily Judson (Fritzi Ridgeway) in a scene from the 1923 comedic western Ruggles of Red Gap. (Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Steamboat Billy (1928) Buster Keaton

“If you say what you’re thinking, I’ll strangle you!”

In Roy Del Ruth’s The Terror (1928) Horton’s skittish performance reminds one of Don Knotts in The Ghost & Mr. Chicken.

Edward Everett Horton has a notable profile as the straitlaced sidekick in popular films and television from the early 20s to the beginning of the 1970s. Horton was the facetious fast-tongued Nick Potter in Pre-Code’s romantic comedy Holiday (1930).

He played the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland (1933) with an organic expression that fits the character. Horton has a memorable intonation, a bewildered effete charm that is present in Lewis Milestone’s The Front Page (1931) as Roy B. Bensinger, Trouble in Paradise (1932), and an especially memorable role in another Ernst Lubitsch risqué comedy Design for Living 1933, Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living released Dec. 1933 was seen as an open transgression against the Hays Code.

Horton appeared in The Gay Divorcee 1934 as Egbert ‘Pinky’ Fitzgerald. And in another Astaire/Rogers musical Top Hat 1935. He co-starred with Marlene Dietrich in The Devil is a Woman 1935 and appeared in Holiday 1938. He gave a wonderful performance as Mr. Witherspoon in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). Not unfamiliar with quirky characters he was Chief Screaming Chicken on the 1960s Batman series and provided the perspicacious voice to The Bullwinkle Show as the narrator of Fractured Fairy Tales from 1959-1963. He co-starred in the over-the-top comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) as Mr. Dinkler. And a most memorable voice, his pastel modulation lifting his persona out of the portrait of masculinity and depositing him into a field of marigolds.

Vincent Price as Egghead and Edward Everett Horton as Screaming Chicken in the Batman television series.

He was punctiliously ideal in Design for Living (1933), Noel Coward and Ernst Lubitsch’s Pre-Code sexual romp between Miriam Hopkins, Gary Cooper, and Fredric March. The film is a progressive scenario about a Ménage à Trois. Edward Everett Horton plays advertising president Max Plunkett who has been attracted to Gilda for five years, yet she is more of a comfortable appendage, more a friend, and he, her protector. His enthusiasm for her has no smoke, nor fire, and certainly, there’s no ringing in the ears, the phrase being part of an impassioned diatribe coming out of Gilda’s adorable charisma.

The way Gilda describes the sensation of being aroused in a scintillating interpretation she shares with Plunkett. While Horton plays at being straight, he lacks the vigorous manly passion that George (Cooper) and Tom (March) shower on Gilda. If characters George and Tom are compared to hats by Gilda -ragged straw with soft lining and comfortable to wear, or perched over one eye to be watched on windy days, Horton’s hat would be a derby like an undertaker.

From Arsenic and Old Lace 1944 “Mr. Witherspoon: (Horton) {to himself} “Another Roosevelt? Oh, dear, dear!”

Here’s some dandy banter between Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore, yet another typecast ‘sissy’… From Top Hat 1935 -Horace Hardwick: (Horton) Mr. Travers is in trouble. He has practically put his foot right into a hornet’s nest.” Bates: (Eric Blore) “But hornet’s nests grow on trees, sir.” Horace Hardwick: “Never mind that. We have got to do something.” Bates: “What about rubbing it with butter, sir. “Horace Hardwick: “You blasted fool, you can’t rub a girl with butter!” Bates: “My sister got into a hornets’ nest and we rubber HER with butter, sir!” Horace Hardwick: “That’s the wrong treatment, you should’ve used mud. Never mind that!”

In It’s Love I’m After (1937) Eric Blore plays Leslie Howard’s valet Digges-Howard murmurs- “Down there in the streets a carnival of people, and up here one man alone.” “I’m here sir,” says Digges with his hands clasped expressively in front of him “Oh Digges, you’re always here… Why does no one love me?” “I love you sir” Blore whispers with longing puppy dog eyes, “Oh don’t confuse the issue” Howard’s character snaps, terribly annoyed.

Vitto Russo asserts that these comedies possessed good-natured and casual defenses of masculine values, while films of the 60s and 70s used sissy characters that showcased a more paranoid desperation in their manner.

The nickname of the First Professional Sissy in films belongs to Johnny Arthur who starred in The Monster with Lon Chaney Sr. Arthur debuted in The Unknown Purple (1923). Lavender is a color that symbolizes gayness.

In 1925, director Roland West released his comic horror film The Monster. Chaney stars as Dr. Ziska the menacing owner of a sketchy sanatorium and Arthur plays the timid store clerk who fancies himself a detective that uncovers the nefarious goings on.

Some cinematic sissies dither, others get all haughty, and still others suffer in affronted silence (as in some of Mr. Pangborn’s priceless facial expressions) Johnny Arthur existed on screen in a constant stage of anxiety balancing precariously at midpoint between dread and pleasure. His established image was not so much effeminate as it was more subversively , a drastic departure of any kind of conventional masculinity. Small of frame and beady of eye, Arthur often seemed less a person than a prissy rabbit nearing a breakdown. And his exhaustive repertoire of high-strung tics formed the basis of his career.
-Richard Barrios Screened Out

It seems as if Gertrude Olmstead as Johnny Arthur’s girlfriend gets a whiff of his differentness when she comes to the store and asks for a bag of pansy seeds. The presence of the code word ‘pansy’ sends a message to the audience.

Roland West’s The Monster doesn’t clearly assert the sexuality of Johnny Arthur’s character, yet it seems preposterous that he plays opposite a female love interest. It dangles out of place with his non-existent masculinity. But this is not uncommon to have a script, that compensates for vague sexuality in movie characters, subsequently saddling them with a relationship that appears absurdly heterosexual, for the purpose of rendering any trace of queerness non-threatening. “To some, this seems like desexualization, emasculation (or defeminization) of the characters”-(source Richard Barrios-Screened Out)

Films were exploring sexuality and experimenting with the idea of masculinity using humor as it’s inroad. As Vito Russo explains in his book “The idea of homosexuality first emerged onscreen, then, as an unseen danger, a reflection of our fears about the perils of tampering with male and female roles.”

The allusion to a gay man on screen in the early days of the film had them referred to by several different sobriquets. They were called the ‘nance’ which would evolve into later vernacular as ‘Nancy’. There were also the terms, ‘poof’ and ‘fairy.’ Many of the film characters were visible in backstage theatres, in the world of high fashion and upper-crust society, showing off elaborate clothing and accouterments. You could even get a whiff of their performance coming off the screen. The coded homosexual’s variety of employment included butler, waiter, interior designer, choreographer, and wealthy old gal’s companion.

Witty, gaunt Ernest Thesiger was by far the most eccentric gay actor around in the 1930s and 1940s, and he made two of his most explicitly gay appearances as Horace Femm in James Whale’s The Old Dark House 1932 and as the sinister Dr. Pretorius in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) also directed by James Whale who was himself ‘in the life’ some wagering he produced his classic films through a queer lens.

in 1961 Ernest Thesiger died at the age of eighty-one. This was his obituary in The Observer :

An eccentric blend of satanic impishness ad good breeding; he suggested the intellectual black sheep of a titled family (he was, in fact, the son of the Hon.Sir Edward Thesiger). He never moved without grace of spoke without elegance, but implicit in his performance there was a quizzical mockery of these qualities. It was a contradiction that gave his work its ironic edge.

Katherine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlet 1935-gender bending role.

Dorothy Mackaill decides to do some innocent gender-bending so her younger sister can marry the man she loves. Inventing a fictitious fiancée in Arabia who winds up really existing. She looks swell in a tie! Here she is with Leila Hyams in The Flirting Widow (1930).

Up next Chapter 2!

7 thoughts on “Chapter 1: Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:

  1. What an amazing, exciting read for an old Gay man like myself! Thank you, and I look forward to more chapters. Perhaps I’ll even read them from my bathtub for a nod to Lydecker.

    1. Sam! I laughed so hard I almost blew myself off the couch! If you’d like to read Chapter 2 in the tub, I should be publishing it in a day or so! So get the bubble bath and the loofah ready.. haha. So glad an old Gay man loved the piece from this Old gay gal…. Cheers, Joey

  2. Fascintating! I can tell this is a lobaor of love. You gave us a lot to think about. Thank you for the Cary clarification and yes, Hope Emerson is scary as all heck in the instances you mention.

    I look forward to part II and more Bugs in drag!


    1. I’m so happy that you enjoyed Chapter 1. It really has been a labor of love. Maybe that’s why I feel like I’ve given birth! I’m also glad you didn’t want to throw something at me for invoking Cary’s name. LOL. Hope Emerson, was probably a pussycat, but to see her performance in Caged and Cry of the City, I’d walk on the other side of the street if I saw her on a dark foggy night. Part 2 coming up, just have to find the perfect Bugs cartoon. Cheers, Joey

  3. This is really fascinating stuff, and I see you just posted Chapter 2. I had not ever thought about characters who were “coded” gay and now thinking about it there are so many films I want to go back and watch. This is so much to digest and now I have a list of films and I must go read Chapter 2!

    1. Hi Will, So glad you like the series. I’m about ready to publish Chapter 3! I think it’s a doozy, all about film noir and various side subjects. I also thought it would be a great way for people to go back and either re-watch films they’ve seen or get turned onto new ones. Enjoy further reading! Cheers, Joey

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