“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.
WHAT IS A CODED GAY CHARACTER?
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)