THE LAND OF MORAL AMBIGUITY: HOLLYWOOD & THE HAYS CODE
“Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex Relationships are the accepted or common thing…”
Prior to the Production Code, LGBT characters were somewhat prevalent, if heavily stereotyped and exploited, in a number of major films. The 1920s especially were a time of shifting societal norms and expanding artistic experimentation. As women rode the first wave of feminism and prohibition was increasingly challenged, filmmakers began to expand their boundaries and feature more controversial plotlines. – Sophie Cleghorn
Pre-Code was a brief period in the American film industry between the dawn of talking pictures in 1929 and the formal enforcement in 1934 of the Motion Picture Production Code (MPPC) familiarly known as the Hays Code. Pre-Code was a glorious time in the history of cinema. It was during the Depression Era, before the cultural politics of Clergy and reformer organizations came in and initiated the need for moral governance over the film industry. Their interference evolved into the Hays Code created to oversee silent and talking pictures.
In the late 1920s before the Hays Code, films began to speak becoming audible and more realistic as Hollywood recognized that many Americans knew all about sex. In the early era of talkies during the gutsy cinema of the Depression era, there was nothing stopping the studios from producing daring films. Hollywood movies weren’t afraid to show gay characters or reference their experiences. Ironically, queers were pretty visible onscreen at this time in American cinema. These characters left an impression on trade papers like Variety that called this phenomenon – “queer flashes.”
Also in the early twenties, there were notorious scandals on and off screen. Hollywood’s moral ambiguity was literally in the clutches of the Hays Code which the MPPDA used to wage a moral battle against Hollywood that they perceived would eventually lead to cultural ruination. The priggish William Hays was a deacon in the Presbyterian church, a former chair of the Republican party, and post master general before he was picked to lead the war on decadence in the movie industry. William Hays was appointed chairman of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) from the year it was established in 1922 to 1945, but the Hays Code was not overturned until 1968. Hays and his code regulated film content for nearly forty years. The little worm.
W.C.Fields and Franklin Pangborn- Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)
The Hays Code became a series of self-imposed, perceived-to-be-moral guidelines that told filmmakers and the major studios what was permissible to do in their movies. The Code was established in 1930, and the MPPC set forth censorship guidelines that weren’t yet strictly enforced. And states had their own censorship boards and so their individual standards varied. Hays tried to contain his guidelines without the intrusion of government censorship, so he created his own Production Code that was for all intents and purposes optional for studios.
They felt that the liberal themes of films in the 1920s were contributing to the supposed debauchery infiltrating society. They championed government censorship as the solution to return society to its traditional moral standards (Mondello).
In June 1927, Hays publicized a list of cautionary rules. A construct of ‘Don’ts and Be Carefuls’. The document and empowering legislation spelled out guidelines for propriety on screen in classic Hollywood that became known as the Production Code. It was co-authored in 1929 by Martin J. Quigley, prominent Catholic layman, editor of the journal Motion Picture Herald and Reverend Daniel A. Lord, a Jesuit Priest. Their collaboration reflected a ‘Victorianism’ that would tint the freedom of Hollywood’s creative license. “The Production Code was a template for a theological takeover of American cinema.” “No picture should lower the moral standards of those who see it.”
“Just Ten of the Thous Shalt Nots”
While the Code did not explicitly state that depictions of homosexuality were against the Code, the Code barred the depiction of any kind of sexual perversion or deviance, which homosexuality fell under at the time. -Wikipedia
“The courts of the land should not be presented as unjust…”
Prostitution and fallen women
“Brothels and houses of ill-fame are not proper locations for drama. They suggest to the average person at once sex sin, or they excite an unwholesome and morbid curiosity in the minds of youth…”
“Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing…”
“Dancing costumes cut to permit indecent actions or movements are wrong… Dances suggesting or representing sexual actions or indecent passion are forbidden…”
Adultery and the sanctity of marriage
“Adultery as a subject should be avoided… It is never a fit subject for comedy. Thru comedy of this sort, ridicule is thrown on the essential relationships of home and family and marriage, and illicit relationships are made to seem permissible, and either delightful or daring.”
NOT TO MENTION: GOD COMPLEXES-
Boris Karloff as Dr. Henry Frankenstein’s creation. Make-up by Jack Pierce.
By the time the sequel Bride of Frankenstein was released in 1935, enforcement of the code was in full effect and the Dr. Henry Frankenstein’s overt God complex was forbidden. In the first picture however, when the creature was born, his mad scientist creator was free to proclaim “Now I know what it feels like to be a God.”
‘Don’ts’ included “profanity,” “sex hygiene,” “miscegenation,” and “ridicule of the clergy.” There was a much longer list of ‘Be carefuls’ which indicated it was offensive to “show sympathy for criminals,” “arson,” “surgical operations,” and “excessive or lustful kissing” and of course “HOMOSEXUALITY.”
Hays appointed Colonel Jason S. Joy to be in charge of the supervisory agency, the Studio Relations Committee. Once the first talky The Jazz Singer (1927) starring Al Jolson was released a newly fired up rebel cry was heard from the hoity-toity do-gooders who raised objections against Hollywood’s immorality. What was once suggestive in silent pictures was now committed to sound, with all it’s risque humor and wicked context.
In 1934 censorship was tightening its strangle hold. Under pressure from the Catholic Church and other religious groups the Motion Picture Production Code made it so that any marginal gay characters became masked in innuendo, relying on queer symbolism instead. Several grassroots organizations were founded in order to pressure the film industry, the most influential of all was the Catholic Legion of Decency.
So, between the Code and state censorship boards, one might expect that films produced after 1930 would be exemplars of wholesomeness and purity. In practice, the men who enforced the Code on behalf of the MPPDA (Jason Joy and James Wingate) were wholly ineffectual, primarily due to the very small staffs they were allotted to keep up with the work of reviewing scripts, treatments and finished films while battling studios that weren’t especially thrilled by the bottleneck caused by the whole operation. The combination of bureaucratic sclerosis and the economic, political and cultural crisis brought about by the Great Depression ushered in a vibrant era of filmmaking and the introduction of many stars whose personas would forever be rooted in their pre-Code films.- Mike Mashon
The Code set in place since 1930 was a turning point in the history of self-regulation. With the strict enforcement of the Production Code, they attempted to influence the discourse in American film without coming out and definitively stating which contexts were strictly forbidden. Instead they issued phrases like “should be avoided” and “should not suggest.” Though a variety of controversial topics weren’t vigorously banned by the Production Code, gay characters WERE strictly prohibited.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) directed by Alfred Hitchcock- Peter Lorre
When the Hays Code was adopted in 1930, they articulated that, “though regarding motion pictures primarily as entertainment without any explicit purpose of teaching or propaganda, they know that the motion picture within its own field of entertainment may be directly responsible for spiritual or moral progress, for higher types of social life, and for much correct thinking.”
When the MPPDA formally ratified The Code, they demanded that it be followed to the letter but it “lacked an effective enforcement mechanism” – and the studio heads openly defied it’s frame of mind and it’s puritanical spirit.
The movie studios had other pressing issues of concern. It was the Great Depression, and studios were barely making it, on the brink of ruin due to low ticket sales. They were quite ready to fight with states over censorship because sex and violence sells. They wanted to draw in audiences that would be titillated by gangsters, vamps, and racy subject matter. Popular musicals could entertain with disparaging racial clichés and glamorous, intoxicating imagery, with hints of queerness. You could also watch languid prostitutes on screen — everyone seems to long for Shanghai Lil, in the film that has it all, Footlight Parade (1933)
Filmmakers tried to switch around controversial subject matter that would not only push the boundaries but would promote ticket sales, with films that would attract a more sophisticated audience. Breen perceived these films to be less ‘dangerous’ a word he often used. They focused on the ‘gangster’ film with it’s violent content, and when they put their foot on that genre’s neck, Hollywood rolled out the ‘fallen woman‘ films. They tried very hard to get around the scrutiny and so they delved into making horror pictures, and racy comedies. These fare better as they fell under the heading of being ‘unrealistic’ which rendered them as innocuous material to the censors.
During the Great Depression, movies were an escape for audiences in dire need of distraction. The morally-charged stranglehold that was beginning to challenge filmmakers forced them to experiment with movies that were audacious and candid in different ways. Pre-Code actually challenged audiences to watch real life issues on screen. Pre-Code cinema offered some titillating truths coming out of the dream factory. Depression-era cinema exhibited gay characters, but generally in small parts and often used for comic purposes that managed to cue audiences in, with roles that were codified and readable as queer. ‘Queerness’ was railed against because it subverted traditional masculinity which was under attack by the new socioeconomic crisis in the country. Yet somehow, Hollywood found it to be a viable trigger for ideological gossip.
These films illustrated narratives that were thought provoking, worldly, and subversive. Movies dealt frankly or were suggestive of sexual innuendo, sexual relationships between races, mild profanity, drug use, promiscuity, prostitution, infidelity, abortion, intense violence, and of course, homosexuality.
William Wellman’s Safe in Hell (1931) starring Dorothy Mackaill as a call girl in hiding. Prostitution is a no no!
Filmmakers took risks delivering a portrait of America with a punishing realism, and a creative freedom to portray taboo themes like crime (gangs and guns, violence), social dilemma’s (drug abuse, poverty and political unrest). And sexual relationships (adultery, promiscuity, deviance = homosexuality). In the 1930s filmmakers also sought to stir up controversy by screening queer characters, in order to shock audiences and drive up their ticket sales. The result, movies became more lewd, ruthless and vicious between 1930 and 1934. And Hollywood was it’s MOST queer from 1932-1934.
Yet during the silent era to the mid thirties, gay characters were illustrated as stereotypes showcasing the popular tropes established by conventional hetero-normative gender bias. These archetypes were styled to be gender non-conformists. Queer men were fussy, effeminate and flamboyant. With high-pitched voices, the air under their feet and waving hands. Essentially, ‘fairies’ who were deployed as comic relief on the periphery of the drama. Real-life queers of the Depression era and later periods were exposed to cinematic images, the vast majority being caricatures in which gays and lesbians were often presented as targets of ridicule and contempt for their divine decadence. ‘Entertainers play with gender ambiguity in Broadway thru a Keyhole (1933).‘ (Lugowski)
Lesbians were at the other end of the spectrum. They were ‘masculine,’ demonstrating deep voices, cross-dressing in male attire, and were installed in male-dominated professions. They were often invalidated by the straight male characters, and were either played for the uncomfortable humor or shown as baffling to men. The PCA in it’s Hollywood’s Movie Commandments specified that there could be no comic characters “introduced into a screen play pantomiming a pervert.” (Lugowski)
Gender Reversals, Queerness, and a Nation in Crisis.–
In Michael Curtiz’s The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932) Suddenly, queer imagery in film, typically in the form of comical representations of gay men, lesbians, and ambiguous sexuality, did not seem so funny any-more, least of all to those charged with applying Hollywood’s Production Code to film content. By “queer” imagery, I am focusing particularly on situations, lines of dialogue, and characters that represent behavior coded, according to widely accepted stereotypes, as cross-gendered in nature. As played by such prominent and well-established supporting comedy character actors as Franklin Pangborn, Edward Everett Horton, Grady Sutton, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore, and Ernest Truex, queer men tended to appear as one of two types.
The queer in his more subdued form appears as the dithering, asexual “sissy,” sometimes befuddled, incompetent,and, if married, very henpecked (Horton), and sometimes fussy and officious (Pangborn). Pangborn, however, was one of the actors who (along with the unsung likes of Tyrell Davis and Tyler Brooke) also played or suggested the other type, the more outrageous “pansy,” an extremely effeminate boulevardier-type sporting lip-stick, rouge, a trim mustache and hairstyle, and an equally trim suit, incomplete without a boutonniere. Although a number of actors played or were even typecast in such roles, one generally doesn’t find a circle of prominent supporting actresses whose personas seemed designed to connote lesbianism (the closest, perhaps, is Cecil Cunningham) lesbian representation occurs frequently as well, and in perhaps a greater range of gradations. At her most overt, the lesbian was clad in a mannishly tailored suit (often a tuxedo), her hair slicked back or cut in a short bob. She sometimes sported a monocle and cigarette holder (or cigar!) and invariably possessed a deep alto voice and a haughty, aggressive attitude toward men, work, or any business at hand. Objections arose because she seemed to usurp male privilege; perhaps the pansy seemed to give it up. -David M.Lugowski: Queering the (New) Deal-Lesbian and Gay Representation and the Depression-Era Cultural Politics of Hollywood’s Production Code
Filmmakers were encouraged not to promote lifestyles of a ‘morally questionable’ nature, so queers remained as humorous detours away from the central story. It was a subtle defiance that filmmakers were determined to feature queer characters in their films in spite of the ban. Because of the threat of boycotts, this created some maneuvering around the scrutiny. Queer identities were not portrayed with depth or realism, this marginalized group was relegated to one-dimensional stereotypes. They were never shown to be in romantic relationships and filmmakers relied on visual cues to signal the character’s identity.
Censors at the PCA, for example, were very worried about the three female characters in William Dieterle’s Dr. Monica (1934) starring Kay Francis. The film is the story of three women, an alcoholic, a nymphomaniac and a lesbian. In October 1935, Joseph Breen wrote a letter to RKO’s head B.B. Kahane concerned about Follow the Fleet (1936) starring Fred Astaire who gives a dance lesson to all male sailors. “We are assuming of course that you will exercise your usual good taste in this scene of the sailors learning to dance. There will be no attempt to inject any ‘pansy’ humor into the scene.”
Due to a new, stricter Motion Picture Production Code, gays were being swept under the rug in movies. In the late 1930s and 1940s the only way to circumvent the Code was by painting homosexuals as cold-hearted villains (The Celluloid Closet). Now it appeared that gays were committing terrible crimes because of their sexual orientation, implying that homosexuality leads to insanity. In a society where being homosexual was synonymous with being sinful, it is no surprise that Hollywood made the leap to correlating a homosexual orientation with malicious crimes and wicked urges (Weir).
Alfred Hitchcock is a visual magician who rolls out the answers gradually while deconstructing what is explicit to the narrative. He is one of the most measured auteurs, whose eye for detail links each scene together like a skillful puzzle. He has been studied, tributed, and –in my opinion–unsuccessfully imitated. Rigid to conform, he danced around the Hays Code like a cunning acrobat indulging his vision while deflecting the lax regulations. There are arguments that Hitchcock insinuated homophobic messages in some of his films. The queer characters were all deviants and psychopathic predators, who were the ones responsible for some of the most heinous murders on screen. For example, in his film Rope (1948) the two Nietzschian murderers are intellectual companions who get off on trying to perpetrate the perfect murder. They exhibit a romantic friendship with no sexual contact on screen. Yet there are cues that they are sexually aroused by each other’s mutual pleasure at killing a young boy. The Hays Code inhibited the depiction of a queer couple so Hitchcock had to subtly suggest their sexual relationship by dropping metaphors and visual clues. Though, it might be interpreted through a homophobic lens, and their homosexuality might be at the core of their cruel and immoral nature.
According to David Greven, Hitchcock’s homophelia ‘was through a larger conflict that Hitchcock’s cinema that filmmakers conducted their investigation of American masculinity, one that focused on fissures and failures. Homosexuality emerged as representative of these and also as potential new direction for American masculinity to take, not without serious risk but also treated with surprising, fascinated interest… Hitchcock’s radical de-centering of heterosexual male dominance, devising contemporary narratives of heterosexual male ambivalence that allowed for, at times depended on, an investment in same-sex desire as well as an awareness of its dangerous, pernicious seductions. Homophobia in both Hitchcock and the New Hollywood’s informed by an attendant fascination with the homoerotic that emerges from scenes of gender crisis and disorganization that are rife in both the Cold War and New Hollywood eras.
Any illicit sexual behavior on screen considered as perverse would be demonized and exploited as immoral. Queers were shown as villainous, dangerous deviants who were fated for ruination and/or death.
There were several broad categories the Code was not vague about. Any movies depicting criminality had to essentially illustrate that there would be consequences. The message was clear, any flagrant criminal behavior is abhorrent and audiences should NOT feel sympathy, primarily through the implicit edict of “compensating moral values.”
Authority figures had to be treated with respect, and the clergy could not be portrayed as comic characters or villains. Under some circumstances, politicians, police officers, and judges could be villains, as long as it was clear that those individuals portrayed as villains were the exceptions to the rule.
Clearly there were some productive strategies of circumventing the Motion Picture Production Code. They enabled characters that performed behind the veil, under the radar of social acceptability, while dancing a step closer to the fringe. It allowed for ‘queering the screen’. I find it feasible to consider how Alexander Doty points out that ‘queering’ something implies that you are taking a thing that is straight and doing something to it. Rather it should be considered that it’s less about co-opting or subverting films – making things queer, and more about how something might be understood as queer.
It might be easy to read Zasu Pitt’s and Thelma Todd’s relationship, the brilliantly paired comedy twosome, as lovers. While they perform humorous heterosexual man hunting, they sure seem to be mostly interested in each other and sure look adorable in their pajamas! I wonder, as Big Daddy says, if there’s ‘something missing here’. Below, they are in the film short directed by Hal Roach – On The Loose 1931, with bobbed hair, leaning into each other in bed together, looking awfully intimate.
To be ‘queer’ is also to deconstruct existing norms and ‘destabilize’ them, making it harder to define, so that it is a clear picture of non-normative straight masculinity/femininity.
What was perceptible to those ‘in the life’ were expressions, gestures, of the term often used by the Hays Code, ‘deviancy.’ One of the things that the Code banned was in Clause 6 Section 2 on “Sex” was that “sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden.”
Not that films during the reign of the Code were ripe with queer love stories, of course. There were none to be found beyond the foreign offerings of Oswald’s Different From the Others and Mädchen in Uniform. The most prevalent allusion to being gay was the flamboyant man who was the ambiguous bachelor or fussy asexual husband. If there was anything close to a butch woman, she could be an earthy farmer’s wife, a Marjorie Main or Patsy Kelly type (Both lesbians in real life). A tough as nails prison matron, a tyrannical madame or a risque night club owner. Perhaps shes an embittered heavy drinker or just one of the guys who is a faithful friend to the female lead. Maybe she never gets the guy or hasn’t met the right man. Perhaps she was married to a no good bum and is off men for good!.. And just sometimes, sometimes it’s because… well some of us would know why!
Thelma Todd joined up with Patsy Kelly in comedy series. Here’s a lobby card for their Babes in the Goods. The two became very good friends during their collaboration.
Patsy Kelly had started in Vaudeville and appeared in Wonder Bar 1931 centered around a Parisian club. Kelly played Elektra Pivonaka and sang two lively songs.
She is known for her ballsy, straight-forward, no nonsense persona, be it her tough as nails nurse Mac in Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (1964) or as Laura-Louise, attending to Rosemary (Mia Farrow) in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Kelly played very non-feminine roles, injecting a bit of her ‘in the life’ energy into the characters in every one of her roles. More often that not she had an unglamorous reputation as a funny spunky, brassy, wise cracking gal who played a lot of maids. She was outspoken about being an uncloseted lesbian, which hurt her movie career in the 1940s. But she had been a very successful actress on Broadway, returning to the stage in 1971 winning a Tony Award for No, No Nanette and Irene.
In director/screenwriter Sam Fuller’s sensationalist The Naked Kiss (1964), Patsy Kelly plays Mac the nurse, a hard-edged pussy cat. A no nonsense nurse who lives for helping children with disabilities, but there is no visible sign that she has the slightest interest in men, aside from a smart alecky comment about Grant bringing her back a man from Europe. Kelly might have wanted her role as an independent woman with a more offbeat way of stating that she is a tough dyke and expected Fuller to write her into the script that way. Knowing Kelly that’s a good assumption. The film is audacious in it’s scope for dealing with more than one theme, as taboo as prostitution, abortion and pedophilia.
The Catholic Legion of Decency used their influence to label gays as ‘sexual deviants’, not be depicted on screen. ‘Deviancy’ was used to refer to any behavior deviating from what was perceived to be normal in terms of romance, sex, and gender. Hays even ordered all ‘nance’ characters to be removed from screenplays.
The Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Hays Code tried to make symbolic gestures to maintain decency in films. The Legion of Decency were getting pressure from the Catholic Church. So in 1934 came up with A-acceptable B-Morally Objectionable and C-Condemned. Hollywood promised to observe the rules. Of the various subject matter that was restricted on screen-open mouth kissing, lustful embraces, sex-perversion, seduction, rape, abortion, prostitution, white slavery, nudity, obscenity, profanity.
But all this unsolicited attention caused the studios to be watchful of their off-screen personnel, and they also had to be certain that the Los Angeles Police Department received payoffs to keep their mouths shut. Though lurid and shocking subject matter was no longer tolerated on screen, the studios tried to continue to release their films without the intrusion of the Hays Office, even though from a commercial standpoint, sex sells.
Warner Bros.’ lack of cooperation with the Code until the bitter end and how Paramount, which was cooperative under B. P. Schulberg, decided to be “as daring as possible” under Emmanuel Cohen in 1932 and 1933. At MGM, Irving Thalberg’s resistance only really ended with his heart attack and journey abroad to recover in 1933. As James Wingate, Breen’s SRC predecessor, put things that same year: (Lugowski)
In 1934 Jack Warner ignored Breen’s letter and phone calls about a scene in Wonder Bar (1934) that explicitly demonstrates homoerotic desire. In it, one man cuts in to dance with another man, interrupting a woman who is dancing with her male partner. “May I cut in?” she responds, “Why certainly,” as the man suitor grabs her chaperone to dance instead. The films stars Al Jolson who exclaims, “Boys will be boys!” Breen would later write, “It is quite evident that the gentleman [Warner] is giving me the runaround. He evidently thinks that this is the smart thing to do.” Wonder Bar may have added a flash of queer diversion as part of the entertainment, but it is an incredibly offensive and racist film using a cast who are in Black face.
During the ongoing Depression era, sissy and lesbian characters of the period continued to be screened as effeminate and mannish with one change. They became progressively sexualized between 1933-34. As the Depression moved forward, the Code needed to establish a “suitable” masculinity in film that would satisfy the morality police. They wanted this accepted masculinity to mirror the public art imagery that was now being federally funded by the New Deal in the mid-and late 1930s.
Before 1934 the studios were able to ignore the Code’s denouncement and endeavor to censor the movie industry but Hollywood filmmakers could no longer disregard the regulations issued by the Hays Code. The Legion of Decency forced the MPPDA to assert itself with the Production Code and formed a new agency , the Production Code Administration (PCA). The Hays Code was formed in 1930 but it only began to have a profound impact on Hollywood when the Production Code Administration (PCA) began strictly enforcing it in 1934. The crusade to save America’s purity and squash the filth mongers began a cultural war.
It was a system of moral oversight, conservatives lobbied to enforce, using the PCA to compel the industry to drastically adhere to it. PCA is strongest in explaining how the Code tried to at once repress and enable discourse to appeal to the broadest possible spectrum of viewers and to offend the fewest. (Lugowski)
And in 1937, the Production Code Administration (PCA), handed down Hollywood’s Movie Commandments that decried “No hint of sex perversion may be introduced into a screen story. The characterization of a man as effeminate, or a woman as grossly masculine would be absolutely forbidden for screen portrayal.”
The Code was detailed in two parts that reflected the foundation of Catholic principles. The moral vision and “particular applications a precise listing of forbidden material.”
The code was divided into two parts. The first was a set of “general principles” which prohibited a picture from “lowering the moral standards of those who see it”, so as not to wrongly influence a specific audience of views including, women, children, lower-class, and those of “susceptible” minds, called for depictions of the “correct standards of life”, and lastly forbade a picture to show any sort of ridicule towards a law or “creating sympathy for its violation.
The second part of the Code was a set of “particular applications”, which was an exacting list of items that could not be depicted. Some restrictions, such as the ban on homosexuality or on the use of specific curse words, were never directly mentioned, but were assumed to be understood without clear demarcation. Homosexuals were de facto included under the proscription of sex perversion.” — Wikipedia
The second part of the Code was a ban on homosexuality. Though it was not specifically spelled out, queers were the subject under review of ‘sex perversion.’ Though the Hays office would not stand for “more than a dash of lavender” as long as the representation (especially a non desirable depiction of homosexuality) was fleeting and incidental. Thus, “Pansy comedy” was tolerable in Pre-Code Hollywood. “Despite the watchful eyes of the Hays Office, the trade paper Variety remarked that Hollywood continued what were called “queer flashes” and “mauve characters” who sashayed through Cavalcade 1933, Our Betters 1932 and Sailor’s Luck 1932.
The industry moguls and business offices finally had to follow the rules, clean up the ‘sinful’ screen and adopt a symbol of moral righteousness, that came along with a seal. The Code would be certified by a Code Seal printed on the lobby cards of each Hollywood film. And the seal would be an emblem that would appear on the motion pictures themselves. Any film without a Code Seal would be fined $25,000.
After some revisions, they agreed to the stipulations of the Code. … negotiated cuts from films and there were definite—albeit loose—constraints, a significant … against homosexuals, all in clear violation of the Hollywood Production Code.
Any sexual act considered perverted, including any suggestion of same sex relationships, sex, or romance, was ruled out.
Thus, during the Golden Age of Hollywood, the PCA scrutinized and censored, everything coming out of Hollywood and put it’s seal on each movie released. The Hollywood executives preferred to call it “self-regulation” and feared that censorship by the PCA would be even worse if they tampered with the creative ‘source’ of their product. Because of the studios’ defiance, Roman Catholics formed the National Legion of Decency, which became an influential group who would put Hollywood’s transgressions through the ordeal, of boycotts, picketing theaters, urging Catholics not to patronize these immoral movies or fall “under the pain of sin”, being met by hoards of angry protestors at the gates of the studio. Now religious groups and other moral traditionalists began a warlike campaign for the government to regulate what was shown on the screen.
Mae West: She Done Him Wrong 1933
Also government officials were bent on making gay people invisible from cinematic narratives and the United States Supreme Court handed down the ruling that filmmakers were not protected by the First Amendment in the matter of free speech. They considered Hollywood to be a powerful mechanism that to exploit ‘sinful’ behavior on the screen and influence American audiences. This laid the ground work for local governments that could weigh in and ban films from their theaters, if they considered them immoral. Hollywood could not afford to lose money at the box office from governmental authorities, by negative publicity, or from the threatening boycotts by rabid church groups.
Motion pictures could be regulated and run out of town by cities, states, and by ominous extension, the federal government.
“After all, censorship had been a fact of creative and commercial life for motion picture producers from the very birth of the medium, when even the modest osculations of the middle-aged lovebirds in Thomas Edison’s The Kiss (1896) scandalized cadres of (literally) Victorian ministers, matrons, and other variants of a sour-faced species known as the “bluenose.” By common consent, the artistically vital and culturally disruptive spectacle of the motion picture – an entertainment accessible to all levels of society and degrees of moral temperament, including unassimilated immigrants,impressionable juveniles, and other menacing types – required editorial supervision from more mature, pious, and usually Protestant sensibilities” -from Archives Unbound
Hollywood was in the grip of the Code that saw the ‘dream factory’ movie machine as a Hollywood Babylon. While the powers that be were busy policing the murmuration of taboos, Pre-Code was a brief moment in history, a fruitful period between 1929 to 1934. Hays then appointed someone who could intercede between studio moguls and anti-Hollywood groups, Joseph I. Breen. “The vulgar, the cheap, and the tawdry is out!”
The PCA had been known as the Hays Office but to those in Hollywood, once the oversight became an operation with teeth, it became known as the Breen Office. Breen came in to take over the weak Studio Relations Committee (SRC). The Code had consisted of thirty-six rules that informed Hollywood filmmakers to limit representation of, or normalization of subject matter considered by religious groups to be “unsavory or morally corrupt.” The SRC and the PCA were the inner mechanism within the film industry, shaping the content of the film and heading off any ethical problems the film might encounter before they reached the local censors.
Dorothy Mackaill Safe in Hell (1931)
Many scenarios disappeared from the movies by mid 1934: for example, audiences would no longer see women’s navels, couples laying in bed together, murderers going unpunished, any illustration of a bedroom that isn’t merely recognized as a bed chamber. The normalization of drug use, the glamourization of criminal behavior, or not following the law, and of course any overtly revealed gay or lesbian character. After 1934, women would not be sporting short haircuts and tailored suits, confidently smoking cigars. Men toned down the gushy gestures that would be interpreted as flamboyant. Gay men and women were transformed into dowdy spinsters and high-strung bachelors.
What we started to see was an ambiguity, a narrative uncertainty that took the burden of responsibility off of the filmmakers and dropped the perception of the content into the laps of the audience. Since the Code asserted that no picture should lower the moral standards of those who saw it, it was a law that bound Hollywood’s accountability for their plots. Ruth Vasey calls the antithesis of this “the principle of deniability” which refers to the ambiguity of the textual vaguery that shifted the message to the individual spectator. Lugowski cites Lea Jacobs, “under the Code ‘offensive ideas could survive at the price of an instability of meaning… There was constant negotiation about how explicit films could be and by what means (through the image, sound, language) offensive ideas could find representation.” The studios would have to come up with a structure of ‘representational conventions’, that could be understood by a more sophisticated audience yet would fly over the heads of more inexperienced spectatorship. Though producers felt the sharp sting of the Code as a mechanism of restraint, in terms of ‘queerness’ on screen, film studios could use the leverage of deniability to argue about the interpretation of certain scenes.
Once the limits of explicit “sophistication” had been established, the production industry had to find ways of appealing to both “innocent” and “sophisticated” sensibilities in the same object without transgressing the boundaries of public acceptability. This involved devising systems and codes of representation in which “innocence” was inscribed into the text while “sophisticated” viewers were able to “read into” movies whatever meanings they were pleased to find, so long as producers could use the Production Code to deny that they had put them there. Much of the work of self-regulation lay in the maintenance of this system of conventions, and as such, it operated, however perversely, as an enabling mechanism at the same time that it was a repressive one.-(Documents from the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc., 1922 – 1939)
… by assuming that the social crisis over cinematic representation in the early 1930s was caused by the content of motion pictures. The institution of censorship in Hollywood was not primarily about controlling the content of movies at the level of forbidden words or actions or inhibiting the freedom of expression of individual producers. Rather, it was about the cultural function of entertainment and the possession of cultural power. (Tino Balio: Grand Design Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise 1930-1939)
Geoff Shurlock was appointed as acting director of the Production Code in the 1940s and as permanent director in 1954. Over the years, Shurlock would straddle the conflict, appeasing both movie producers, and morality mongers trying to persuade the Association Board that introducing more liberal thinking could protect the PCA from fading away. There were attempts to ease up on the Code, in 1954 he introduced an amendment that would eliminate various taboos, for instance, miscegenation, liquor, and some profane words, but producers felt that there weren’t enough considerations to the amendment and the Catholic Legion of Decency felt that even that much went too far. Shurlock had a tough time making everyone happy.
The 1950s witnessed a weakening of the Production Code to restrict specific representations such as adultery, prostitution, and miscegenation. By the beginning of the 1960s, the only specific restriction left was homosexuality = “sex perversion.”
In the 1960s, filmmakers pressured the Production Code Administration. In the fall of 1961, two films went into production that would deal with homosexual subject matter. William Wyler, who had initially directed Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon in These Three (1936), revealed that he was working on a more faithful treatment of Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour; that dealt overtly with the love that dare not speak it’s name. Around the same time director Otto Preminger began to adapt Allen Drury’s political novel Advise and Consent 1962, which delves into the lives of Senatorial candidates that uncovers controversial secret, including Don Murray’s homosexual encounter.
Throughout Preminger’s career he challenged the restrictions of the Code, and eventually influenced their decision to allow homosexuality to be shown on screen. Also fighting to change the stifling rules was Arthur Krim, president of United Artists, who threatened to ignore the Code and release the film without the mandatory “seal of approval” forcing them to amended its ideological strangle hold.
On October 3, 1961, the Production Code Administration backed off: “In keeping with the culture, the mores and values of our time, homosexuality and other sexual aberrations may now be treated with care, discretion and restraint.”
In order to maintain control of the Administration’s power at least in terms of how homosexual’s were portrayed on film, they insisted that the subject be infused with medical overtones, to show it as an ‘illness’. Sympathy or illness in psychological terms, were two key factors. The Code’s changed the use of the word “sex perversion” and replaced it with “homosexuality.”
Don Murray –gay bar scene in Advise and Consent 1962
Another interesting shift was that they owned up to the fact that “mores and values of our time” were changing whether they liked it or not, people were become more in touch with the freedom to express their sexuality, society was becoming more permissive, the love generation was upon them and sexual representation was a fearless exploration reflected by a new generation of film goers.
Otto Preminger was the only major producer able to successfully release films without the Production Code’s Seal of Approval. He defied the Code (Hadleigh) with movies like Advise and Consent (1961) The Man with Golden Arm (1955) Anatomy of a Murder (1959) Wendell Mayes said “Look at the record–you’ll discover that many of the changes in the Code were a result of Otto Preminger breaking the rules”
Though the Code had been revised in 1961 to open up the door for portrayals of gays on screen, the sissy effete and predatory dyke took on a more sinister role. Because they had been hidden in plain sight using symbology that hinted at either failed masculinity or women performing masculinity. When the MPPA ratings system was established in 1968 gays on screen were starting to kick the doors open but what was awaiting them was an even crueler denouement than during the reign of the Code. Queers were now portrayed as suicidal, predatory or homicidal maniacs. And much like the coded gay characters under the Production Code, things moved very slowly in terms of progress for positive representations of being ‘queer.’
DIrk Bogarde and Dennis Price in Basil Dearden’s brave film Victim (1961)
Between January and June 1962, five films were released that dealt with homosexuality, almost as many as in the previous three decades. One did not receive a seal of approval from the Production Code Administration, but was released nonetheless. Even without the seal of approval, British director, Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961) was reviewed in all the publications being considered. The liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal even disagreed with the Production Code Administration’s claim that the film made pleas ‘for social acceptance of the homosexual.’ “63 Still, the consensus among reviewers was that of the Production Code Administration and society at large: films should not and, for the most part, did not condone homosexuality. (Noriega)
This ban applied to all characters attracted to the same gender or characters who differed in their gender presentation or identity. While nudity and violence were quickly reintegrated into film canon following the abandonment of the Production Code, LGBT characters remained taboo. For decades after LGBT characters were allowed to appear in films, their sexuality and gender was shrouded in thinly-veiled innuendos and visual cues. If a character was to be openly same-gender attracted or transgender, they would be gruesomely killed or presented as morally corrupted. (Cleghorn)
Like the Code’s authors, film critics tend to examine the film itself, and not the discursive acts that surround a film and play a sometimes central role shaping its meaning(s). Contemporary gay and lesbian film criticism of Production Code era films operates on the same principle, with the added limitations that historical evidence and homosexual “images” censored. Thus, in order to ensure “the survival of subcultural identity within an oppressive society,” gay and lesbian film critics have employed a wide range of interpretive strategies to recuperate a history of homosexual images from the censored screen. The emphasis, therefore, has been on “subtexting” censored films from a singular presentist perspective. (Sophie Cleghorn)
*Mike Mashon & James Bell for Pre-Code Hollywood Before the Censors-BFI Sight & Sound Magazine (April 2019)
*Archives Unbound (1http://gdc.gale.com/archivesunbound/)
*Sophie Cleghorn: The Hollywood Production Code of 1930 and LGBT Characters.
*David Lugowski-Queering the (New) Deal)
During the period of Pre-Code, queer humor appeared in films such as Just Imagine (1930) and the The Warrior’s Husband (1933). The male characters were feminized because of their affinity for writing poetry. This asserted that they must be queer.
The Warrior’s Husband directed by Walter Lang, is a film primarily cast with women. Yet the air of queerness permeates throughout because the women, featuring a butch Queen, are Amazons. Gender is inverted and several other female rulers cross-dress and exude a lesbian vibe. It is inhabited by independent women and swishy men who camped it up as ‘queens’ amusing themselves by flirting with all the good-looking men.
The Warrior’s Husband image courtesy Peplums Blogspot.com
Like so much self deemed culturally aberrant, the homosexual appears with greater frequency and readier acceptance in Pre-Code Hollywood cinema “The thirties was surprisingly full of fruity character comedians and gravel-voice bulldyke character comediennes” film critic Andrew Sarris observed in his touchstone study The American Cinema “but it was always played so straight that when ((character actors) Franklin Pangborn or Cecil Cunningham went into their routines, it was possible to laugh without being too sophisticated.” Maybe in the later thirties the homosexual was played straight but in the Pre-Code era, he and she was playing queer. No sophistication was needed to read the same sex orientations as gender disorientations.- Pre-Code Hollywood; Sex, Immorality and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934 by Thomas Doherty.
Miriam Hopkins got the part of free-spirited Gilda in Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living 1933. This original Noël Coward play actually featured a Ménage à Trois between the three Bohemian lovebirds in Paris of the decadent thirties. The film also starred Gary Cooper as artist George Cooper, and Fredric March as playwright Tom Chambers. The liberated Gilda becomes the girl both men fall in love with. They three make a pact to keep their mutual attractions platonic, but that doesn’t last too long, and they each begin a sexual relationship. When George comes back from a trip to Nice, he finds that Tom has taken up with Gilda. “I can’t believe I loved you both.”
Ben Hecht’s screenplay didn’t have a trace of any Coward’s romantic relationship between George and Tom. Ernst Lubitsch, known for his sophisticated style, directed memorable witty interactions between all four players. Edward Everett Horton as Max Plunkett plays Miriam’s bland suitor. Horton is, as usual, a whimsical idiosyncratic delight to watch. And Franklin Pangborn Mr. Douglas, Theatrical Producer is a perfect theatrical queen who is thoroughly annoyed when Gilda approaches him in the restaurant about Tom’s (Fredric March) play “Good Night Bassington”, as she leaves him with this thought, “There, read it, I’m sure you’ll adore it, it’s a woman’s play…”
Al Jolson “Boys will be boys” Wonder Bar (1934)
Any portrayal of on-screen “sex perversion” or homosexuality, even those connected with various tropes of ‘deviant’ sexual behavior were restricted after the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934.
Lending the Code moral authority even within the limits of pure love, asserted the Code delicately certain facts have been universally regarded by lawmakers as outside the limits of safe presentation Father Lord and Mr. Quigley saw no need to defile the document by typesetting long lists of “pointed profanity” or “vulgar expressions” Likewise, the prohibition against homosexuality dared not speak the name, but it didn’t need to spell it out. “Impure Love” the love which society has always regarded as wrong and which has been named by divine law… must not be presented as attractive or beautiful.”-Pre-Code Hollywood; Sex, Immorality and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934 by Thomas Doherty.
Different From the Others (1919) Conrad Veidt and Fritz Schulz two musicians in love — during the period of Pre-Code.
But, outside of the United States, films were a little more adventurous. Austrian director Richard Oswald’s film bravely shows two men in love. The “third sex” was eventually mocked. One of the earliest films to feature two men in love was the 1919 silent film from Germany, Different From the Others. Director Richard Oswald’s story of two male musicians in love had a typical unhappy ending, but it depicted gay people in a positive light. The film condemned the German law known as Paragraph 175, which outlawed gay behavior. Different Than the Others was censored soon after it was released. Starring Conrad Veidt it is considered the first pro-gay film.
Joseph Breen viewed any meaningful treatment of queer cinema as perverted. Conrad Veidt also gave an emotionally evocative role in The Man Who Laughs 1928, playing a violinist who falls for his student and is then blackmailed for it. The risking Nazi party in Germany attempted to erase these films from the screen, and this made Oswald to flee to the America.
But, the Hays Code made certain that no films of this type would be seen in the United States. Even books and plays with gay, lesbian or bisexual narratives were reworked and any content related to the subject was erased in order to meet the social code of the time.
Other non-American films included Dreyer’s Michael (1924) and Mädchen in Uniform (1931) directed by Leontine Sagan and again in (1958) with Lilli Palmer as Fräulein Elisabeth von Bernburg and Romy Schneider as Manuela von Meinhardis. And Viktor Und Viktoria (1933) directed by Reinhold Schünzel.
Mädchen in Uniform (1931) was directed by Leotine Sagan, and starred Dorothea Wieck and Hertha Thiele.
William Dieterle’s Pre-Code German film Sex in Chains (1928) stars the director as Franz Sommer a man sent to prison for manslaughter who, though longing for his wife, develops a close relationship with his cell mate. A fellow inmate informs Franz that he’s “lived to see someone unman himself, just so he could finally sleep.”
In 1927, during the Pre-Code period, director William Wellman’s Wings won an Academy Award for Best Picture, and it also depicted the first gay kiss between two men in American cinema.
Wings follows two Air Force pilots in World War I, Jack (Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers and Dave (Richard Arlen) who at first rivals for the affections of the beautiful Mary (Clara Bow) before they discover the underlying love they begin to feel for each other. During a boxing match at training camp gets to rough and Jack knocks Dave bloody and silly. Dave gazes up at Jack with an epiphany and the two walk off arm and arm as close ‘buddies’. The relationship is referred to as friendship, but the film paints a picture of two men falling in love.
Dave is mortally wounded in combat at the end of the picture, Jack embraces his dying ‘friend’ with a tender yet impassioned kiss while Mary looks on, framed with her on the outside looking in. Wellman humanizes the men’s close relationship in this scene when Jack leans into Dave to embrace him as he dies. He lets him know that nothing has meant more to him than their relationship. The moment feels sympathetic instead of exploitative, yet as he mourns Dave’s death. And though it is tinged with homoerotic elements, the case can always be made that it is a story about war, which brought two men closer together.
The Knocking Knees dance. Horton’s homosexuality – comedic, subtle and acceptable in The Gay Divorcee (1934)
In The Gay Divorcee (1934) crossing the threshold is the archetypal ‘Sissy’, Edward Everett Horton. Marginalized audiences were looking to the movies for any indication of the familiar, any little crumbs left as a trail to be picked up. For instance there is a moment in Johnny Guitar, the fiercely burning with sensual brawn, Joan Crawford. Bigger than life up on that screen, androgynous in her black cowboy shirt, strides down the stairs, gun in her holster waiting to confront coded dyke, Mercedes McCambridge. Many women’s chests, mine included, heaved a little with delight. That flutter of excitement hit us again when Doris Day sings the sentimental “Secret Love” in Calamity Jane (1953).
In Myrt and Marge (1934) Ray Hedges plays the flaming stage hand Clarence Tiffingtuffer he’s told “Here put this in the trunk and don’t wear it” speaking about one of the show girls costumes. In his boldly effete manner “If we got the runs on the show, the way the girls got in their stockings, I could put the 2nd down payment on my Kimono.”
Clara Bow, Willard Robertson and Estelle Taylor in Call Her Savage (1932)
From Call Her Savage 1932 purportedly the first on screen gay bar.
In director William Wyler’s These Three (1936) the relationship between Miriam Hopkin’s Martha and Merle Oberon’s Karen was delicately subtle and though to mainstream audiences might be seemingly obvious to interpret as two women attracted to the male lead, Joel McCrea. It revised Hellman’s play that centered around Martha’s love that dare not speak it’s name, for Karen. Sam Goldwyn bought the rights to Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour, a story depicting the supposed ‘carryings-on’ of two female teachers at a private school for girls. Though, These Three on it’s face is the story of a love triangle between two women and a man, it could read as Martha being more uncomfortable with the presence of Dr. Cardin (McCrea) because he is intruding on her closed relationship with Karen. The later screenplay adapted to film, The Children’s Hour (1961) directed by William Wyler, was boldly more explicit and revealed the true nature of Martha’s predicament and her struggling with her love for Karen.
These Three (1936) Merle Oberon and Miriam Hopkins
The Children’s Hour (1961) Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn
Coded characters in film were on the screen relaying messages and signaling to those of us who understand and who are “in the life: that movies can reflect the existence of a queer reality. These representations were not necessarily a positive, but films showed evidence that we exist. You would see it in a revealing gesture, or an air of difference about them, though it would be inconspicuous to audiences that were unaware of the cues.
THE HAWKSIAN HOMOSOCIAL CLUB!
Sergeant York (1941) Gary Cooper
For over 4 decades Howard Hawks had been one the most important of the classical Hollywood directors. Film theorists like Molly Haskell have given the auteur more relevance for his feminist viewpoint. Other scholars note his work within queer theory. He was studied by European film critics in the 1950s as an early example of an American auteur. And his work has often been associated with the homosocial.
While Hawks’ work ranges across decades (1920s-70s), studios, and genres (comedy, western, war, musical, epic, adventure), his work is recognizable both stylistically and narratively. His collaborations with writers and performers, the impact of his minimalist style, and issues of heterosexual romance and homosocial groups will be emphasized. -Michael Koresky
Was he a feminist director? Molly Haskell cited her theory in The Hawksian Woman and Hawk’s Feminist Reception–
[There is] interest in reading the director’s work against American history and culture (Sklar) the work of a social film historian) increased, against more interdisciplinary perspectives (Cavell), cited under Single Author Volumes against psychoanalytic and queer theory (Robin Wood) cited under Hawks and Homosociality, Homosexuality and Psychoanalysis.
New film scholarship sees the director in a Neo-Formalist light with a visual aesthetic that disavows any lack of realism, though within his work there is a queer subtextual fidelity. Hawk furnishes his films with a verisimilitude toward the relationships between men. One of the foundations of Hawk’s male centered work is based on a homosocial order. The Dawn Patrol 1930, The The Criminal Code 1930, Scarface 1932, The crowd roars 1932, The Road to Glory 1936, Only Angels have wings 1939, Sergeant York 1941, To Have and Have not 1944, Red river 1948, The thing from another world 1951, El Dorado 1967, Rio Lobo 1970.
The Criminal Code (1931)
The Criminal Code (1931)
The Dawn Patrol (1930)
The Road to Glory (1936)
Red River (1949)
The Thing from Another World (1951)
Yet Hawks was anything but a staunch literalist; his film-making was marked by a deep and rich thematic ambivalence toward gender and social constructs. -Michael J Anderson
In Only Angels Have Wings, directed by Howard Hawks stars Cary Grant as Geoff Carter and Richard Barthelmess as Bat McPherson, all the men in Grant’s employ find satisfaction in each other’s company despite the intrusive presence of Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth. This type of male bonding is based on a strong intimate friendship seen in many all-male narratives. Either women are an intrusion or not present at all. Robin Wood famously noted about Hawk’s films a “continually present, half-suppressed, sexual ambiguity in both male and female roles.”
“The tendencies in Hawks’ films for men and women to embody one another’s characteristics, and also for men and women to, respectively, prefer one another’s company, creates a homosocial order that occasionally takes on sexual overtones. Wood claims this finds its natural end in a latent thematic bisexuality, almost legible in such films as Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, Red River, Monkey Business, and Rio Bravo.”
Hawk’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) Jane Russell sings ‘Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?’
The group of mostly naked hunks homo-erotically working out with their skimpy shorts and their oiled bodies lifting and pumping away, paying the not the slightest interest in buxom Jane Russell who is throwing herself at them. She is seemingly invisible.
“The central Hawksian ironies of 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the most colorful musical spectacle of his career, stem from the filmmaker’s nonchalant approach to social role-playing.
While Hollywood films of the 1950s tended to place their heavily coded inquiries into sexuality within domestic spaces (Rebel Without a Cause, Tea and Sympathy, Written on the Wind), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes continues Hawks’s interrogation of sex and power within professional spheres.”- Robin Wood
PEKINPAH’S WILD BUNCH (1969) — HOMOEROTIC SUBTEXT IN THE WILD WEST
There are several interpretive coded queer characters in Peckinpah’s bloody masterpiece that brings together a galvanizing fieriness between men. The Wild Bunch it could be said is one of the most orgiastic homosocial ceremonies.
IMDb trivia -According to L.Q. Jones, he and Strother Martin approached director Sam Peckinpah with an idea to add more depth to their characters T.C. and Coffer. The idea was to add a hint of homosexual relationship between their characters. Peckinpah liked the idea and the footage made it into the final release. This was added back in the directors cut.
Robert Ryan on the set of The Wild Bunch 1969
Sam Peckinpah’s gritty, ultra violent reverie is about a gang of aging outlaws lead by Pike Bishop (William Holden). The “wild bunch” are running from bounty hunter Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan). Pike’s gang are living along the Mexican -Texas border looking to pull off one last major robbery before they quit and go their separate ways.
The two men have a strangely intangible connection to each other. Though one is pursuing the other, the confluence of events suggests a fatalistic destination that reunites two lovers. At the climax of Peckinpah’s meditation on violence and homosocial imbalance, Pike and Deke share a simultaneously suggestive dream, the last night they are together alive. When the two lay down their guns and find a common purpose, they share an intimate sojourn at a whore house.
This equalizing hyper-masculine rite takes place on the eve before they seek revenge for those who brutally murdered one of their friends. Ernest Borgnine plays Dutch, a gruff character who doesn’t seem to have any interest other than his devotion to Pike. The night two men go to the bordello, he doesn’t enter the house. Pike and Dutch’s relationship plays out like a married an old married couple, contented and familiar with each other. When Dutch dies, he calls out Pike’s name the last words on his lips.
In the immediate pre-war 1940s there were coded, at times closeted, characters could occasionally be seen in film noir. Film noir broke with the traditional family, with the American dream or proper English life. Noir exposed a dark underbelly, featuring more unsavory characters, lifestyles, antiheroes, bad girls (femme fatales) and deviant behavior. Of course film noir would be a presumably perfect environment to let loose upon the screen, those who live on the periphery of conventionality.
The darkened alley ways and all-embracing shadows could be equated with the more sinister implications of unabashed and uncommon sexuality, usually designated to the hidden and more unfavorable individuals– those who exhibit traces of a deviant bent. While gay characters feigned to be invisible, they were selective euphemisms rightfully placed in the narrative as unstated taboos, and unorthodox enticements that drew your eye away from the main – ‘straight’ characters, if you knew what you were looking at, that is.
There are instances in film adaptations, as with Hellman’s play transformed into a heterosexual love triangle (These Three), where the original novels were altered for the screen. They would be put through the rinse cycle, with the homosexual context being replaced by other causes at the root of the emotional turmoil or the violence that ensued. For instance Charles Jackson’s novel that eventually wound up on screen as The Lost Weekend (1945) directed by Billy Wilder, saw Ray Milland’s ‘affliction’ as his alcoholism stemming from writers block. The film strayed from Jackson’s textual theme which was Don Birman’s latent homosexuality.
The Esquire review in 1945 said that it was superior to it’s source novel since it left out the implications of its protagonists homosexuality arguing that “the souse and the pansy are two different people… In their saga of a souse, Brackett and Wilder abandon the note of lavender. Their drunken hero does not start bending his elbow to keep from putting his hand on his hip. He doesn’t hiccup to keep from ‘yoo-hooing’ This was undoubtedly comforting news to Esquire’s readers, many of whom were probably fairly heavy drinkers, if the abundance of liquor ads in the magazine were any indication of their readers’ habits (Jack Moffit, “Movie of the Month, Esquire November 1945)
Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend The hero’s homosexuality that was in Charles R. Jackson’s book was removed. Except for a scene when a bitchy male nurse in the sanatorium a superb cameo by Frank Faylen leers over the writer’s bed hissing “I know you” the implication was there for those in the know and lends probity to a character both weak and fatally lacking in self confidence, all achingly implied by Milland’s performance.
During Hollywood in the 1940s, effete men were heavily portrayed as wicked and/or perverse. Homosexuality was still taboo under the Production Code, but the hint of queerness found its way into films particularly amidst the years beset by the anxieties brought about by WWII. On-Screen ‘monstrous queers’, were not only evil Nazi’s, the effeminate German spy like Norman Lloyd’s nefarious Frank Fry in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942), connotations of queer subtexts also hearkened back to the 1930s with the conflation of homosexuality and European decadence.
Norman Lloyd and Robert Cummings in Hitchcock’s Saboteur 1942
In Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947) (adapted from the novel by Richard Brooks, The Brick Foxhole 1946) centered around the hyper-masculinity of the military. Unlike the film, in the book the victim is that of a homosexual decorator whom Keeley brings home to his apartment for a drink. Crossfire edited out the gay content and converted homophobia into anti-semitism.
The thrust of this deeply dark film was not a violent crime stemming from of anti-semitism, but of Keely’s crazed homophobia at the root of his murderous rage. Keeley’s fury is like Caliban who sees his own reflection in the mirror. Robert Young plays Detective Finlay, who investigates what looks like a motiveless crime during a barroom brawl. “The murderer’s hate is like a gun. The motive had to be someone who could hate Samuels without knowing him; it had to be inside the killer.” Robert Ryan, one of the most powerful actors who could convey both intensity and conflict, is way more layered than a man who summons up blind hatred due to his own self-hatred (Ryan’s Slater in Odds Against Tomorrow 1959). Ryan has an uncanny grasp of nuance in every one of his characters.
And how interesting that in Hollywood of the 1940s the censors would find it more palatable for audiences to deal with “jew haters” on screen rather than assaults on ‘faggots.’
War brought together a buddy system. The all male environment of the armed services, forced to the surface confusion. The fear that chaste male bonding might be misunderstood or labeled odd or queer. There might have been even less suspicion of homosexuality had the level of paranoia surrounding its mention not been so very high.–The Dark Side of the Screen by Foster Hirsch
Breen could erase the gay content from the screen and then either make them invisible or cunningly define them as corrupt, undesirables, villains or deviants. It merely suppressed the homosexuality enough that it was an implied whisper, cheekily intimated, coded underneath the dialogue, fleetingly, seemingly unconnected to, or inconsequential to, the plot.
Films in the post WWII era were still at the mercy of Hollywood’s repressive attitude and its ‘don’t tell’ policy.
Ben Hur ( 1959) Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd as Messala.
Though the era of the MPPC, queers were poorly represented stereotypes as victims and/or villains, so that looking in between the lines for coded characters was the only choice we were left with. One of the screenwriters who utilized their gift of creative subterfuge in plain site was Gore Vidal, who contributed his flair for writing with Ben-Hur (1959) directed by William Wyler. In an interview for 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, Vidal lets on that rivals Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and Messala (Stephen Boyd) had once been lovers. In one notorious scene Boyd was told to play the scene as Ben-Hur’s former lover and not just his friend, and Heston was to play it ‘straight’. If you read the nervous anticipation in Messala’s body language with a queer gaze, it gives away the implication of the scene, that Messala wants to rekindle their sexual relationship once again. Vidal reveals that the first director was against framing the scene/story this way. Vidal told him that “I’ll never use the word. There will be nothing overt but it will be perfectly clear that Messala is in love with Ben-Hur.”
Ben-Hur, went on to win 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture. In the 1950s the homosexual subtext slipped by the PCA, because mainstream America would never suspect there was a romantic relationship between the two hunky male film characters. The subject of homosexuality was finally something a little more tangible in 1950s cinema but the notion of being queer was still sterilized. By condemning with psychiatric overtones, Tennessee William’s play adapted to the screen by Gore Vidal and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), turned Mrs. Venable’s son (who is only seen in a blurring silhouette or brief flashback, is transformed into a predatory pervert who is a product of an Oedipal relationship with his castrating mother. The implications of his underlying deviant behavior (homosexuality) was permitted as long as he met a hellacious reckoning. In a streak of homophobia, wealthy matriarch Mrs. Venable’s (Katherine Hepburn) son, had to be eaten by the young village boys. Once again, cannibalism is an easier pill to swallow than a gay man who is alluded to with perversion and pedophilia.
In Tennessee William’s 1955 play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Big Daddy confronts his son Brick, who is not only a brooding alcoholic, and won’t satisfy his sexually frustrated wife, Margaret ‘Maggie the cat’ Pollitt, a name given to her because of her prowling sexuality. Brick has become impotent over the torment he feels about the death of his best friend Skipper, who has committed suicide.
Big Daddy suggests to him that there “was something not exactly right” between Brick and his friendship with Skipper, his football buddy, another man who drank himself into the grave.
Big Daddy-“What’s that smell in this room? Didn’t you notice it, Brick? Didn’t you notice a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room?”
In Richard Brook’s film version, Brick’s (Paul Newman) problem is a lot more vague, but the tinge of queerness comes forth when Big Daddy’s (Burl Ives) voice booms, “Something’s missing here!” The film washes out, or runs from the question of sexuality and safely reveals itself to be a case of hero worship, Brick is able to give Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) what she wants under the sheets.
All the allusions to Paul Newman’s character Brick was transferred to a story about suicide and hero worship not a sexual relationship between the lead character and his college pal.
The New York Times film reviewer Bosley Crowther found Big Daddy line- “Something’s missing here!” -emblematic of what the Production Co Administration or Hays Office had done in prohibiting the suggestion of homosexuality in the film: left the filmgoer “baffled” at the lack of “logical character motivation. While Crowther used the film’s pivotal scene to warn readers, some reviewers even argued that the homosexual motivation wasn’t missing after all, but merely muted or left to the imagination.
MGM at that time could not address the fact that Brick’s homosexuality which is explored in depth in the play so they gave him a pair of crutches to explain his disability, though the question of Skipper is referred to as an irritant. Williams hated what had been done to his play. “This film has set the industry back 50 years.” – From Noriega’s Something’s Missing Here
In the retelling of Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour (1961) directed by William Wyler, stays faithful to the original story. Martha’s (Shirley MacLaine) sexuality was dealt with in the open at the climax of the film. Here, Martha has to commit suicide, leaving Karen to find her body after she hangs herself. Martha cannot live with her self-loathing and the revelation that rumors of an unnatural sexual desire for Karen (Audrey Hepburn) is in fact, true. It only reinforced that homosexual, lesbian and bisexual people were painted as misfits who either would ultimately kill themselves, or die a sad or violent death.
Above: One of the only other images of Sebastian, shown in flashback as a narcissist preoccupied with his wardrobe.
In William’s Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) many aspects of the film (performance, directing and cinematography) were well executed with that Mankiewicz touch. The gist of the screenplay collaborated between Williams himself and Gore Vidal can be seen as wholly revolting and grotesque. The production was also troubled from the very beginning. Tennessee Williams’ strange story dealt with a number of taboo subjects, not just Sebastian’s homosexuality, but also the implication of incest.
“The script is rich in symbolic detail open to many interpretations. All we can know of Sebastian must be gleaned from the conflicting accounts given by two characters of questionable sanity, leaving him “a figure of unresolvable contradiction” Gross, Robert F. (May 1995). “Consuming Hart: Sublimity and Gay Poetics in Suddenly Last Summer” (Theater Journal)
With it’s creepily implied thesis on homosexuality and the queer perpetrator’s horrible fate (falling prey to cannibalistic gang of young boys) Suddenly, Last Summer is a grave example of the Production Code’s inability to erase queer subject matter from Hollywood cinema of the 1950s, and lens it through a jaundiced eye and revulsion.
Reviews of Suddenly, Last Summer “applauded the fact that the movie “expos[ed] clearly the foremost cause of homosexuality: This only perpetuated another nasty gay stereotype, not only that queer men were sissy “mama’s boys.” (Mikayla Mislak) they were also sick at the core. Reviewers for Suddenly, Last Summer thought that the violent murder of the unseen Sebastian Venable was “‘one of the horrible fates that can overtake a particular kind of sexual pervert.’” (Noriega 29)
“Don’t you understand, he used us for bait.” -Cathy (Elizabeth Taylor)
Williams’s penchant for Southern Gothic reached its Gothic heights — or depths, depending on who you ask — with Suddenly, Last Summer. The character Sebastian Venable is clearly a homosexual who dies at the hands of his “victims.” His death mirrors that of Frankenstein’s monster, but instead of torch-wielding villagers, Venable is killed by drum-playing rough trade. — Les Fabian Brathwaite
During the 1950s – 1960s American films began to relax the need for cryptic messages and change the complexion of their storylines. The characters and their circumstances could convey more overt sexuality, though it was restrained to play it safe, still using a more discernible method of innuendo. Films like Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955) starring Marilyn Monroe had three male tenants who are “interior decorators or something.” In another of Wilder’s films, Jack Lemmon was criticized by reviewers who said it appeared like he was having too much fun playing his part in drag as Daphne in Some Like it Hot 1959.
During the 1950s it was safe to show tolerance and understanding to a misinterpreted gay man as long as he is portrayed as being sensitive merely due to his inexperience with women. In Vincente Minelli’s Tea and Sympathy (1956) all John Kerr needed was to stop enjoying sitting with women in their sewing circle, to walk like his balls were too big, and be initiated into the world of sex, by his headmaster’s wife. Surrounded by hyper-males and a sexist father, Tom’s delicate persona causes everyone around him to question his sexuality. Laura Reynolds is an older compassionate woman played by Deborah Kerr, who takes him into her bed to make him a man.
Even in 1967 Mark Rydell’s The Fox, starring the sadly underrated Sandy Dennis who gives a remarkable performance as Jill Banford (openly gay and an avid cat lover!). Her attraction begins to blossom for her friend and part owner of a farm, Ellen March (Anne Hayward). In true queer fatalism, a tree falls on her, directly between her legs. An obvious symbolic retribution for her lesbianism, her ‘sex’ is annihilated.
In David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia 1962, it was heavily implied that the hero of the film played by Peter O’Toole’s was gay. That in fact, he was in a sexual relationship with Omar Sharif. Lean stated, “Throughout, Lawrence was very, if not entirely, homosexual. We thought we were being very daring at the time.” For an incredibly successful film there existed the strategic yet bold innuendo to disguise the connotations of the homosexual relationship between Lawrence and Omar. Robert Redford played actor Wade Lewis, a clearly bisexual character in Robert Mulligan’s Inside Daisy Clover (1965). He is pressured to marry Natalie Wood to protect his public image. This is a diversion from the usual characters who are so disturbed over their sexuality, Redford is content not to commit suicide. Though there are merely a few hints beneath the dialogue, Redford’s bisexuality was entrusted to innuendo.
Geoff Shurlock took over in the 40s and in the 1950s and 1960s became the permanent director of the Production Code Administration (PCA), succeeding Joseph Breen. While homosexuality was still a taboo subject in Hollywood, there were other provocative themes that pushed the boundaries during this time. Two controversial films of the 50s, challenged Shurlock who wouldn’t give Otto Preminger the Seal for his 1954 film The Man with the Golden Arm starring Frank Sinatra as Frankie Machine who plays a junkie addicted to heroin. The Legion of Decency granted the film a ‘B’ rating. Shurlock approved Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956) starring Karl Malden and Carroll Baker as Malden’s child bride. It’s a salacious tale of the South and two men who lust after a sensuous woman/child. The Legion of Decency stamped Baby Doll with a ‘C’. “Williams was a perfectionist who constantly revised his work. Some critics … In 1956 Roman Catholic Cardinal Spellman blacklisted him for writing the screenplay, Baby Doll.”
Lolita (1962) was adapted from the 1947 short novel by Vladmir Nabokov based on a lecherous man who prefers young girls. The film, while darkly humorous, doesn’t have “narrative complexity” (Appel) but is still worthy of director Stanley Kubrick who had optioned the novel in 1958. Lolita is the story of a landlady’s (Shelley Winters) daughter, a thirteen year old girl (Sue Lyon) who becomes the object of obsession by Humbert Humbert (James Mason). At this time in Hollywood cinema, the industry was going through a transition and subject matter far more transgressive would be tested on the screen.
Shurlock was able to get a certification for Lolita and Hollywood wanted to see an end to the “sex perversion” clause of the Production Code.
Cliff Robertson and Henry Fonda in The Best Man 1964
United Artists had three releases that fiddled with homosexuality —The Best Man, Advise and Consent, and The Children’s Hour. In 1961, UA president Arthur Krim appealed for a Code amendment that would finally allow a serious and thoughtful exploration into the subject. “We are most anxious to distribute these three pictures with a Code seal” Shurlock implied that he supported Krim, and the thought is that he used Kubrick’s Lolita as the leverage to urge the board members to revise the Code. By October 1961, the Code had broadened it’s guidelines, and producers could now do film treatments about sex aberration=homosexuality.
The Code was crumbling when Shurlock refused to certify Suddenly, Last Summer, the tale of doomed homosexual poet Sebastian Venable, producer Sam Spiegel appealed to the Motion Picture Association. He lost , but Lolita and the sheer number of pictures that touched on “the homosexual angle” or other”sex perversion” would soon make the rule almost impossible to enforce.” – from The Dame in the Kimono-Hollywood, Censorship, & the Production Code from the 1920s to the 1960s by Leonard J. Leff and Jerold L. Simmons: author of Hitchcock & Selznick
Tea and Sympathy (Vincente Minnelli 1957) and numerous adaptations of Tennesee Willaims especially Suddenly, Last Summer (Joseph L. Manakiewicz 1959) heralded the advent of a self-consciously queer cinema. Moreover, numerous films from the period functioned as queer allegories-Red River (Howard Hawks 1948) Fear Strikes Out (Robert Mulligan 1957) The Strange One (Jack Garfein) -while other films evoked homosexuality by drawing on real-life controveries involveng it, (Richard Fleischers’ ) 1959 film Compulsion, based on the Leopold and Loeb case, as was Hitchcock’s Rope before it and, after it, Todd Kaplin’s Swoon 1992. By the time we get to the 1960s, these suggestively queer films gave way to a veritable explosion of films with explicity gay content. Victim (Basil Dearden 1961, The Children’s Hour WIlliam Wiyler 1961, Advise & Consent (Otto Preminger) 1962 The Sergeant (John Flynn 1968, The Detective (Gordon Douglas 1968, The Boys in the Band (William Friedkin 1970. They formed a pattern that continued unabated throughout the seventies, in significant films such as Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet 1975 in which Al Pacino’s hapless bank robber tried to get the money for his boyfriend Leon’s sex change operation. (Greven)
Howard Hawk’s Red River (1948) starring Montgomery Clift and John Wayne could be seen as a gay parable cloaked in a homosocial world of dusty leather saddle bags and guns. John Wayne as Thomas Dunson leads a cattle drive from Texas to Missouri. But he’s a tyrant and he clashes with his foster son Matt Garth (Monty Clift) who has a father complex. The two carry on a love/hate relationship as Matt riles the men up against his maniacal father, paranoid and hostile. This ultimately leads to a showdown.
The film co-stars John Ireland as gunman Cherry Valance, who enlists to help Dunson with the cattle. Cherry and Matt’s friendship evolves into a relationship of fierce male bonding with a heavy dose of phallic innuendo. Hawks casts homo-erotic teases on the cinematic waters, with a verbal dance of ‘I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours.’ However you read Red River, it’s total Hawksian, a morality play shot by Russell Harlan’s (Witness for the Prosecution 1957, To Kill a Mockingbird 1962), whose cinematography captures the imagination far beyond the queer undertones, whether you see them or not.
Other suggestive dialogue includes Matt pointing a finger at his father for wanting to put his brand on “every rump in the state of Texas except mine.” Dunsen answers, “You don’t think I’d do it, do ya?”
In the 1960s, films that started dealing head on with the subject that were centered around being queer, are Victim 1961, The Killing of Sister George 1968, A Taste of Honey 1961, Sunday Bloody Sunday 1971, The Leather Boys 1964, and Villain 1971 where Richard Burton plays a brutal gay thug. All films that deal openly with queer storylines.
The vengeful boys of William’s Suddenly, Last Summer 1959