CODED CLASSIC HORROR THEORY “The Uncanny & The Other”
“Scenes of excessive brutality and gruesomeness must be cut to an absolute minimum…”
“As a cultural index, the pre-Code horror film gave a freer rein to psychic turmoil and social disorientation because it possessed a unique freedom from censorship… the Hays Office admits that under the Code it is powerless to take a stand on the subject of ‘gruesomeness.‘(Thomas Doherty)
Horror films in particular have made for a fascinating case study in the evolving perceptions of queer presence; queer-horror filmmakers and actors were often forced to lean into the trope of the “predatory queer” or the “monstrous queer” to claim some sense of power through visibility and blatant expressions of sexuality.- Essential Queer Horror Films by Jordan Crucciola-2018
Though Hollywood execs refused to show explicit queerness, they were willing to pay for scripts that dealt with characters that were social outcasts and sexually nonnormative. The horror genre is perhaps the most iconic coded queer playground, which seems to have an affinity with homosexuality because of it’s apparatus of ‘otherizing’ and the inherent representation of difference. The horror genre crosses over boundaries that include transgressions between heterosexuality and queerness. The villain, fiend or monster plays around with a variety of elements that while usually separate, might merge male and female gender traits.
The horror film in particular, found it’s place asserting a queer presence on screen. The narratives often embraced tropes of the ‘predatory queer’ or the ‘monstrous queer’ in order to declare themselves visible while cinematic queers were elbowed out of the way. Filmmakers had to maneuver their vision in imaginative ways to subvert the structure laid out for them by the Code.
As Harry M. Benshoff explains in his book Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality in the Horror Film, “Immediately before and during the years of World War II, Universal Studio’s horror films began to employ a more humanistic depiction of their monsters,” and the films of Val Lewton, like Cat People, reflected “a growing awareness of homosexuality, homosexual communities, and the dynamics of homosexual oppression as it was played out in society and the military.”So even though Hollywood execs refused to show explicit queerness, during the first true horror boom in American cinema, they were willing to pay for stories about social outcasts and sexually nonnormative figures. Horror fans thus found themselves awash in some of the genre’s most iconic queer-coded characters of all time.
On a Greek Island, Boris Karloff plays Gen. Nikolas Pherides in Val Lewton/Mark Robsin’s Isle of the Dead 1945. Driven insane by the belief that Thea (Ellen Drew) who suffers from catalepsy is the embodiment of an evil vampiric force, is a demon called a vorvolaka. Lewton drew on collective fears, and all his work had an undercurrent of queer panic and a decipherable sign of homophobia.
The Vorvolaka has beset the island with plague. Thea- “Laws can be wrong, and laws can be cruel, and the people who live only by the law are both wrong and cruel.”
The Pre-Code era was exploding with American horror films, that reflected the angst, social unrest and emotional distress that audiences were feeling. Personified in films that used graphic metaphors to act as catharsis, the images were often filled with rage, as Thomas Doherty calls it ‘the quality of gruesomeness, cruelty and vengefulness’. Think of the angry mobs with their flaming torches who hunt down the Frankenstein’s monster, eventually crucifying him like a sacrificial embodiment of their fury. James Whale’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 1931 was a smash hit for Universal. Other studios were trying to ride the wave of the awakening genre of the horror picture. Paramount released director Rouben Mamoulian’s adaption of the novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, published in 1886. The film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1931 stars Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins. During the period of Pre-Code, many horror films proposed grisly subject matter that would shock and mesmerize the audience. For example, actor/director Irving Pichel’s The Most Dangerous Game (1932) starring Joel McCrea, Leslie Banks and Fay Wray.
In 1932 Michael Curtiz directed Doctor Xstarring Lionel Atwill who would become one of the leading mad scientists of the genre.
Michael Curtiz’s macabre horror/fantasy experiment of homosocial ‘men doing science’, crossing over into profane territories and embracing dreadful taboos!
All scenes below from Dr. X (1932)
Fay Wray as Atwill’s daughter who is the only woman surrounded by a group of scientific non conformists.
The adaptation of Bram Stoker’s story of the Eastern European incubus was interpreted by Tod Browning in Dracula 1931, immortalized by Hungarian stage actor Bela Lugosi with his iconic cape and mesmerizing stare. While his nightly visitations were blood driven and cinematically sexual in nature, there is a very homoerotic element to his influence over Renfield (Dwight Frye) and his gaze of gorgeous David Manners as John Harker.
Robert Florey directed the macabre Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe. And a film which has no connection to Poe’s story but in name, is one of the most transgressive, disturbing horror films rampant with vile taboos, such as necrophelia, incest, sadism, satanism and flaying a man alive, is the unorthodox The Black Cat (1934). The film stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, one of four pictures they would do together. A pair of enemies who have a score to settle, ghosts of a past war, and stolen love all taking place with the backdrop of a stylish Bauhaus set design and high constrast lighting.
Paramount released Murders in the Zoo (1933)with Lionel Atwill a sadistic owner of a zoo, who uses wild animals to ravage and kill off any of his wife’s (Kathleen Burke) suitors. Kathleen Burke is well known as the panther girl in Erle C. Kenton’s horrifically disturbing Island of Lost Souls 1932, an adaptation of master fantasy writer H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. Incidentally, Welles, Laughton and wife Elsa Lanchester had been good friends earlier on, before the filming of Lost Souls. The film stars Charles Laughton as the unorthodox, depraved scientist who meddles with genetics and nature. He creates gruesome human/animals, torturing them with vivisection in his ‘house of pain.’ The film also stars Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams and Bela Lugosi as The Sayer of the Law.
And in 1933 King Kong shows a giant ape grasping the half naked object of his affection with unmentionable connotations of bestiality between the ape and Fay Wray. With scenes of Wray writhing in his gigantic paws, he lusts after her, until his desire kills him. It’s almost like fastasy noir, the object of your desire, will ultimately kill you!
The 1930s and 1940s — Fear the Queer Monsters
Re-assessing the Hitchcock Touch; by Wieland Schwanebeck -As Rhona Berenstein asserts, the horror genre “provides a primary arena for sexualities and practices that fall outside the purview of patriarchal culture, and the subgeneric tropes of the unseen, the host and the haunted house.”
By the same token, Kendra Bean concludes that Mrs. Danvers is portrayed as “a wraith; a sexual predator who is out to make Mrs. de Winter her next victim.”
Queer characters in horror films during the early period, reveals similarities between Mrs. Danvers and the staging of earlier sapphic characters, such as Gloria Holdens’s well-known portrayal of Countess Marya Zaleska in Dracula’s Daughter 1936. Yet, similiar to the self discipline of Mrs. Danvers, Dracula’s Daughter remains a figure of primacy and pity as Ellis Hanson argues Dracula’s Daughter presents “the possibilities of a queer Gothic” early on in Hollywood history, “rich in all the paradox and sexual indeterminacy the word queer and the word Gothic imply.
There was a revival of the horror craze during the period of WWII. The Hollywood studios, both major and ‘Poverty Row” like Monogram and Republic realized that horror movies were a lucrative business. The studios began to revisit the genre looking for, not only fresh formulas, but they resurrected, the classic monsters, dropping them into new plots. They also envisioned uniting the gangster film with horror films, and this homogenizing, led to a ‘queering’ of the two styles, that demonstrated phallocentric ( guns, scientific penetration) and homoerotic themes and images into a sub-genre.
Public awareness of homosexuality reached a new height during these years, primarily due to the new set of social conditions wrought by war. Slowly , the love that dare not speak its name was being spoken, albeit in ways almost always obscurantist, punitive and homophobic. The linkage of homosexuality with violence and disease remained strong. Monsters in the Closet -Harry Benshoff
Rhona Berenstein in her insightful book Attack of the Leading Ladies, points out that films featuring the mad scientist trope operates with the homosocial principle which speaks of the homo eroticism of males working together in consort subverting science together, as a group of men who hide behind their objectification -the female object of their gaze, are in fact, figures of objectification themselves. They are simultaneously homosocial, homoerotic and homophobic in aspect; … potentially possessing an extra-normative commitment between the two men.
Mad doctor movies are homosocial in nature. The mad doctor movie is a subgenre that below the surface glorifies intimate male camararderie-and male homosexuality, and by the close of the picture, society, the prevailing culture must in turn annihilate, that which is repressed. But it is not exclusively a vehicle to express the homosexuality through homosocial interactions. There is a component not only of male bonding, a world without women, the thrust is a synthesis of misogyny and patriarchal tyranny and oppression of women. Homosocial relationships between men in these science horrors show the man’s desire for connection to other men, even one created by his own hand.
According to (Twitchell) in his Dreadful Pleasures, and Attack of the Leading Ladies (Rona Berenstein) Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein in all three Universal pictures, was at least performing bisexuality. Whale’s 1933 Frankenstein might give way to the homosocial realm of the mad scientist trope, of ‘homoerotic indulgence’ as these men exclude women from the pursuit of their fulfillment. Twitchell views the scientist’s fluid sexuality in order to examine the concept of a man controlling women’s primacy of giving birth. This might explain Dr. Frankenstein’s venture into unnatural reproduction. A process he wants to divert to himself without women’s exclusive right to motherhood. In the scene where he is as close to giving birth to a full grown man, he seems to display a sexual arousal, when his creation comes to life. Henry Frankenstein provokes nature and defies his heterosexuality. As Whale was an openly gay director in Hollywood, it can be pondered whether he knew exactly what he was suggesting. Thesiger’s sexually ambiguous, or okay, not so ambiguous Dr. Pretorius, the mad scientist who pressures Henry Frankenstein to revitalize his experiments and create a mate for the monster. Pretorius is the scientist who insists Henry continue his creative efforts in Bride of Frankenstein. Vitto Russo called Thesiger, “man who played the effete sissy… with much verve and wit.”
George Zucco like Lionel Atwill often portrayed the unorthodox scientist who flirted with taboos. He plays mad scientist Dr. Alfred Morris in The Mad Ghoul (1943) As a university chemistry professor, he exploits medical student Ted Allison (David Bruce) with his experimental gas that transforms Ted into a malleable, yielding macabre ghoul, whom Morris directs to kill and remove the victims hearts using the serum to temporarily bring Ted back from his trance like death state. David Bruce’s character is represented as a ‘queer’ sort of young man. Not quite masculine and unable to get his girlfriend Evelyn Ankers to fall in love with him. As the Mad Ghoul he becomes a monstrous queer.
In 1932, director Tod Browning’s Dracula based on Bram Stoker’s story of a fiendish vampire who in a sexually implicit way, violates his victims by penetrating them with his fangs. The story pushed the boundaries of story telling, and there was an inherent subtext of ‘queer’ ravishment when he sucks the blood of Dwight Frye to make him his loyal servant.
In Jonathan Harker’s Journal, the protagonist recounts his impressions of his interaction with the vampire, Dracula “As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me I could not repress a shudder. It may have been that his breath was rank, but a horrible feeling of nausea came over me, which do what I would, I could not conceal.”For (Noël Carroll) the entry in his diary conveys revulsion by the Count’s closeness and offensive presence, that causes him to become sickened.
But it also could be read that Harker’s ‘shudder’ is not about his revulsion, rather, an uncontrolled sexual response to the vampire’s looming over him which could be interpreted not just as hunger for his ‘blood’ but an expression of repressed sexual desire and the fear it causes.
Horror movies have always pushed the boundaries of normalcy, by virtue of the fact that these films are inhabited by ‘monsters’, something ‘queerly’ different. And it is natural to observe two diverging responses to the impact of the horror genre and often, it’s persecution of what is ‘different’ and the source of what causes our anxiety.
Dracula may appear as the image of a man, but the count is far from human. While monsters in classical horror films are based on systems of maleness, they are split from being actual men. Although there are physical interactions and suggestive contact with the heroine, there isn’t the foundation of heterosexuality, but something quite deviant, with in their aggressively erotic encounters and/or assaults. The understanding of sexuality and the most narrow identifications that are assigned to varying orientation in a large sense is not translatable for the deeper layers of the monster and their relationship to their victims. In Hollywood, horror films can be seen as heterosexuality being invaded by an abhorrent outside force, inherent in the underlying message could be racism, classism, sexism and gay panic. Though it can be interpreted as a landscape of heterosexuality that is in full power of it’s universal presence, horror films are perfect platforms that can illustrate the collapse of heterosexuality, and the subversion of sexuality.
The horror genre is a breeding ground for portrayals of the shattering of heterosexual power. This can be seen in Lambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter (1936) starring Gloria Holden as the sapphic vampire who lives in a New Village type artist’s den, it signals her outsider status from dometicity and normalcy.
In White Zombie (1932) Bela Lugosi plays the eerily menacing Legendre. He turns men into lifeless workers who run the sugar mill. Legendre also begins to turn the plantation owner, Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) into one of his zombies. What his motivation for his control over people is ambiguous, though there seems to be a sexual reasoning for both the beautiful Madeline (Madge Bellamy) and Beaumont. The scene where Beaumont is nearly paralyzed, Legendre’s control over his male victim parallels the sexual entrapment of the movie’s heroine.
MAD LOVE (1935) I have conquered science! Why can’t I conquer love?
Karl Freund’s Grand Guignol Mad Love (1935) shifts from gazing at the female to gazing at the male. Here the focus is on a Peter Lorre in his American screen debut as Dr. Gogol, who has an obsession with Frances Drake as Yvonne Orlac an actress who works at Grand Guignol Theatre. To Gogol she is the typified defenseless heroine whom he tries to lure away from her husband Stephen (Colin Clive) using his knowledge of scientific alchemy.
Though Gogol tries to become Yvonne’s master, his Galatea, there are critics who read the struggle between the two men, not just as rivalry for Yvonne’s love, but Gogol’s desire for Stephen as well. Gogol is responsible for grafting new hands onto Stephen’s mangled body after a train crash. Mad Love could fit the criteria for the subgenre of the science/horror films where the male gaze is diverted from the female object toward other men, in this case what connected the two was the preservation of Stephen’s hands. Why then is it not possible that the focus could shift from Gogol’s attraction to Yvonne to the homosocial dynamics between Gogol as doctor and his subject Stephen.
Mad Lovepossesses some of the horror genre’s most tenacious performances of gender play. (Carol Clover) asks us to take a closer look at Freund’s film, it is less about the “suffering experienced by women, but at a deeper, more sustained level, it is dedicated to the unspeakable terrors endured by men.”
In similar fashion to Waldo Lydecker (Laura) and Hardy Cathcart’s (The Dark Corner) pathology of objectifying Laura and Mari, Gogol worships Yvonne – his Galatea, with a measure of scopophilia that lies within his gaze upon the perfection of female beauty. To control and possess it. The pleasure is aroused by the mere indulgence of looking at her.
Gogol pays 75 francs to purchase the wax statue of Galatea. The seller remarks “There’s queer people on the streets of Monmartre tonight.”
Gogol’s maid Francoise talking to the statue,“What ever made him bring you here. There’s never been any woman in this house except maybe me… “I prefer live ones to dead ones.”
A Time Magazine review of Mad Love in 1933 notes this queer appeal directly, even comparing Lorre’s acting skills to those of another homosexual coded actor: I find the comment about their faces rude and insulting to both Lorre and Laughton, both of whom I am a tremendous fan.
Mad Love’s insane doctor is feminized throughout the film… In fact, the same reporter who noted Gogol’s sadism argues for his feminine demeanor: “Lorre, perfectly cast, uses the technique popularized by Charles Laughton of suggesting the most unspeakable obsessions by the roll of a protuberant eyeball, an almost feminine mildness of tone, an occasional quiver of thick lips set flat in his cretinous ellipsoidal face. This reviewer came closer than any other to articulate the subtext of mad doctor movies. He seems on the verge of noting that Lorre, Like Laughton is an effeminate madman obsessed by unspeakable homosocial desire.– Attack of the Leading Ladies: Gender Sexuality and Spectatorship in Classic Horror Cinema by Rhona Berenstein
Frances Drake’s heroine masquerades as a wife who deludes herself into believing that her husband is more masculine than he really is. Gogol has a curious empathy with Stephen, whom he touches frequently and prolonged. Although Gogol pursues the heroine Yvonne, at the theater, forcing a kiss on her, his focus is primarily manipulating Stephen’s body, rejoining his hands and massaging them to stimulate life back into them. When he realizes that Stephens hands cannot be grafted back successfully to his wrists, he turns to another man, the hands of a knife thrower who was executed as a notorious murderer. Once Stephen recovers from the surgery, he can no longer continue as a concert pianist, but does develop the desire to throw sharp knives.
On the surface the plot of Mad Loveappears to be a heterosexual obsession, the most unspoken context is the connection between Gogol and Stephen. “As is true of Frankenstein’s labor of love in Whale’s first film, Gogol sews men’s body parts together and the result is a monster of sorts. (Berenstein)
In the film’s climax, Yvonne hides in Gogol’s bedroom, and pretends to be the wax statue of Galatea. When Gogol touches the statue, she lets out a scream. In a euphoric daze (as in the origianl story) he believes that he has the power to bring the statue of Galatea to life. Yvonne begs him to let her go as he tries to strangle her.
Stephen then rushes to his wife and holds her in his arms. With his eyes fixed on the offscreen space in which Gogol’s body lies, he croons: “My darling.” The homosocial desire is destroyed when Stephen murders Gogol who intones “each man kills the thing he loves”— echoing on the soundtrack.
In the film’s closing moments, the secret desire is finally spoken out loud…Has Stephen killed the man he loves. Given that the phrase that Gogol mutters was written originally by Oscar Wilde, whose homosexuality scandalized the British social and legal system in 1895, reading the homosocial desire intoMad Love’s within the very last moments we are left to decipher the suspended cues. We are left with Stephen’s gazing at Gogol’s face and his knifed body as he lay dying, he speaks the words, ‘My darling” what the camera frames the two men sharing that moment in the closing scene.
The mad doctor narrative is particularly predisposed to homosocial impulses. “intense male homosocial desire as at once the most compulsory and the most prohibited of social bonds” – Epistemology of the Closet (Sedgwick)
Sedgwick investigated early fantasy/horror novels, Shelley’s Frankenstein 1818, Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1886 and Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau 1895. In the beginning of the 1930s, these stories centered around mad doctors who delved into unorthodox, profane explorations, were all adapted to the screen. All of these nefarious or scientific, inquisitive men, cultivated secret experiments, challenging the laws of nature. What Sedgwick found was that the Gothic literary representations of men performing homosocial collaborations, were ‘not socially sanction and shunned.’
It was considered a necessary narrative element as well as a monstrous possibility that threatened to subvert the status quo. The combination of these two attitudes is expressed in homosocial narratives- male bonding is both horrifying and guaranteed, entailing the simultaneous introjection and expulsion of femininity. (Sedgwick)
James Whale was a gay auteur who often imbued his work intentionally or with the ‘intentional fallacy’ of a ‘queer’ sense of dark humor. This comical, campy absurdity, was always on the edge of his vision of horror and subtle profanity. In his picture The Invisible Man (1933)adapted from H.G. Wells story and starring Claude Rains, it was classified as a horror film by the Code.
Dr. Jack Griffin (Rains) the antihero, is a frenzied scientist, addicted to his formula as he seeks the ability to make himself invisible. His sanity begins to ‘vanish’ as his hunger for power, delusions of grandeur, and bursts of megalomania grow out of control. He plans on assassinating government officials, and he becomes more belligerent the longer he turns invisible. The idea that he displays radical ideas and runs around in the nude didn’t seem to arouse the censors, In 1933, a letter from James Wingate to Hays states, “highly fantastic and exotic [sic] vein, and presents no particular censorship difficulties.”
What’s interesting about the presentation of the story, is that the coded gay leitmotifs were paraded out, right under the Code’s noses, and didn’t stir any indignation for it’s ‘queer’ humor.
Gloria Stuart and Claude Rains in James Whale’s The Invisible Man 1933
The Invisible Man perpetrates campy assaults on all the ‘normal’ people in his way. With intervals of sardonic cackles and golden wit, and at the same time, a menacing reflection of light and shadow. Claude Rains is a concealed jester who makes folly of his victims.
“An invisible man can rule the world. Nobody will see him come, nobody will see him go. He can hear every secret. He can rob, and wreck, and kill.” –Dr. Jack Griffin (The Invisible Man)
Claude Rains plays Dr. Jack Griffin an outsider (a favorite of Jame’s Whale’s characters) who discovers the secret of invisibility which changes him from a mild yet arrogant scientist into a maniacal killer. The film bares much of Whale’s campy sense of humor, with Griffin’s comic shenanigans abound, until things turn dark and he becomes uncontrollably violent. “We’ll begin with a reign of terror, a few murders here and there, Murders of great men, Murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction. I might even wreck a train or two… just these fingers around a signalman’s throat, that’s all.”
According to Gary Morris (Bright Lights Film Journal) ‘The film demands crypto-faggot reading in poignant scenes such as the one where he reassures his ex-girlfriend, who begs him to hide from the authorities: “the whole worlds my hiding place. I can stand out there amongst them in the day or night and laugh at them.”
Though Griffin’s (Claude Rains) character is unseen at times, there are potent moments, when he is animated as he skips to the tune, “Here we go gathering nuts in May” flitting around like a fairy. It is suggested that The Invisible Man is a metaphor for the way homosexuals are seen/not seen by society – as “effeminate, dangerous when naked, seeking a male partner in “crime”, tending to idolize his fiance rather than love her, and becoming ‘visible’ only when shot by the police…monitored by doctors, and heard regretting his sin against God (i.e., made into a statistic by the three primary forces oppressing queers: the law, the medical establishment, and religious orthodoxy” (Sedgwick)
The Invisble Man [undressing] “They’ve asked for it, the country bumpkins. This will give them a bit of a shock, something to write home about. A nice bedtime story for the kids, too, if they want it”
The subtle gay gangster films of the early 1930s – Little Caesar 1931, The Public Enemy 1931 and Scarface 1932
“Criminals should not be made heroes… The flaunting of weapons by gangsters will not be allowed…”
“… the fashion for romanticizing gangsters” must be denounced.
The three films also evenhandedly parcel out social pathology and sexual aberration: homosexuality in Little Caesar. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy from the novel by W.R. Burnett Little Caesar was first out of the gate and an immediate sensation. A diminutive bandit whose single-minded ambition compensates less for his stature than his repressed homosexual desire, Caesar Enrico Bandello is compact, swarthy and tightly wound; his golden boy pal Joe played by the scion of Hollywood royalty Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is tall, patrician and easygoing.
When Joe finds a female dancer and show business success, the jilted Caesar unhinged by a jealousy that dare not speak its name even to himself, makes his first mistakes in judgement. The male triangle is completed by Caesar’s worshipful lapdog Otera (George E. Stone) who gazes up at Rico with a rapturous desire that, unlike Rico, he barely bothers to sublimate. Doubly deviant Rico dies for his social and sexual sins, asking in tight close-up and choked up tones, “mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?”The famous last words inspired an incisive remark from Robert Warshow on gangster psychology:” Even to himself he is a creature of the imagination” from FILMIC – From Sissies to Secrecy: The Evolution of the Hays Code Queer by Mikayla Mislak
“This is what I get for likin’ a guy too much,” Rico ‘Caesar’ tells himself after he realizes he’s lost Joe. Joe, who he has referred to as “soft” and a “sissy.” The very pretty Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) has decided to give up the racket, to be a professional night club dancer. Robinson wisecracks, “Dancin’ just ain’t my idea of a man’s game.”
Joe is romantically involved with Olga (Glenda Farrell). ‘Caesar’ is not only jealous of Joe’s relationship with Olga, he appears to have no use for women at all.
At the end there is a telling close up, a well of tears in his eyes, a subtle quiver in his face. Rico cannot shoot Joe, even though he needs to keep him from squealing. The image of Robinson coming head on with his feelings reveals his struggle with the repressed love for his dancing pal. The scene is very effective when the camera closes in on Robinson, capturing his dewy, wide eyed stare. Behind the scenes what helped the intensity of the look of longing turned out to be a serendipitous moment when Robinson had to fire a pistol while looking into the camera, and was unable to keep his eyes open, each time he pulled the trigger. Eventually they had Robinson’s eyes held open with cellophane tape. The effect worked perfectly.
Another interesting point in Little Caesar that hints at his latent homosexuality is a scene that highlights his clumsy fussiness. Rico is trying on a tuxedo and gazing at himself in the mirror. Posturing gleefully as he swishes at his own reflection. In this scene, Rico also becomes caught in his effete sidekick Otero’s (George E. Stone) gaze, who joyfully watches his boss flit for the mirror.
In The Public Enemy (1931) there is a noteworthy scene, when Tom (James Cagney) goes to his tailor to get fitted for a suit. It’s a hilariously fidgety few moments for Cagney while the flamboyant tailor fawns over his arm muscles. When the movie was re-released, the sequence wound up on the cutting room floor.
According to Mislak In Howard Hawk’s Scarface (1932) it could be seen as having a gay subtext, as Antonio ‘Tony’ Camonte (Paul Muni) shows a repressed homosexual desire for his best friend Guino Rinaldo played by George Raft. Hawk’s film doesn’t work on a blatant exhibition of violence, instead Scarface’s subtlety draws on the subliminal impression of his sexual impulses.
Through my readings, it has been noted that there is a coded gayness inferred from the character of Camonte in Scarface. Rather than the repressed sexual desire for his close friend Guino, I catch more a wind of an incestuous desire for his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak). Camonte hovers over her with an iron will, not allowing her to have any man touch her. She even alludes to his untoward attentions at one point telling him that he loves her more than just a brother. Camonte (Muni) does focus obsessively over his hair and his wardrobe, which Poppi (Kathy Morely) tells him is ‘sweet’. But there are a few references to Guino being queer. He wears a carnation which is a code for being a gay man in film. Camonte says he’d like a carnation too, takes it out of Guino’s lapel and tells him “Better no one sees you with this.” He also makes a comment about one of the North side gang members not to be taken seriously because he owns a flower shop! Guino doesn’t show any interest in women until nearly close to the end of the picture, when he submits to Camonte’s sister, Cesca.
“The placement of homosexuality or the real possibility of it in an antisocial context is quite natural. Homosexuality when it is invisible is antisocial. The only condition under which homosexuality has ever been socially acceptable has been on the occasion of its voluntary invisibility, when homosexuality were willing to pass for heterosexuals. Obvious homosexual behavior is reflected onscreen as in real life, only in the ‘twilight world’ of misfit conduct. During the brief period of explicit reference to homosexuals in pre-Code films of the early 1930s. Gay characters were psychologically ghettoized by their routine relegations to a fantasy world or an underworld life….
….in addition to strengthening the Code in 1934, Will Hays reacted to criticism by inserting morals clauses in the contracts of performers and compiling a “doom book’ of 117 names of those deemed “unsafe” because of their personal lives. Homosexuality was denied as assiduously off screen as it was on, a literally unspeakable part of the culture. By 1940 even harmless sex-roles farces such as Hal Roach’s Turnabout were considered perilous in some quarters. The film, about a married couple (Carol Landis and John Hubbard) who switch roles by wishing on an Oriental statue, was described by the Catholic Legion of Decency as dealing with ‘subject matter which may provide references dangerous to morality, wholesome concepts of human relationships and the dignity of man.’ ” –Vito Russo
HITCHCOCK SUBVERTS SUSPENSE!
Hitchcock sensed the ambiguous sexuality in Mrs. Danvers (nicknamed Danny) who embodies the forbidding identity of the coded lesbian in 1940s films. As she strides down the halls of Manderley, there is an element of the angry older woman trope, who is vacant of male companionship by choice, with an added streak of dissatisfied longing. She embodies the sterile matron, showing characteristics of an ‘old maid’ attributed to a repressed lesbian.” Rebecca serves as Fontaine’s idealized mother and that Hitchcock’s films present images of ambiguous sexuality that threaten to destabilize the gender identity of the protagonist.” -(Tania Modleski)
“In typical Hitchcock-ian fashion, the “Master of Suspense” often employed in his films subtle references to gay culture, defying conservative attitudes of the late ’50s.”-Scott Badman & Connie Russell Hosier | February 7, 2017- Editor’s note: The following article, like many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, includes references to sex and violence.
Did Martin Landau play a homosexual in North by Northwest? Did Alfred Hitchcock really show gay sex on-screen in Rope, albeit in an unusual way? Was the whole plot of Rebecca driven by the twisted jealousy of an evil lesbian? And, most surprisingly, did Hitchcock depict a gay marriage way back in 1938’s The Lady Vanishes?”
Alfred Hitchcock was a complicated man, who put a singular stamp on all his films, infusing them with his droll and macabre sense of humor and imbued his work from the point of view of satyr. Hitchcock projects his dark and twisted view of the world as at the end of his films there is sort of a perverted release that he leaves us to contemplate. It also appears that he was playful with the use of his gay coded characters in many of his films.
Nothing Hitchcock did was unintentional, thereby reinforcing proof that there is a gay subtext to many characters in various films. He was very measured in every detail even before the camera captured the scene. But within this method of implying a queer pathology and positing queer elements to the narrative. He was ingenious in the way he veiled his ciphers within the cloak of deniability, in order to slip it by the censors in his cheeky manor.
Though Hitchcock would often imbue his pictures with coded gay characters, among scholars it is still speculative as to which side his view fell on. Given that everything Hitchcock constructed was intentional, it’s easy to see why he would be viewed as homophobic, due to his use of stereotypes that eventually led to queerness possibly being as the source of the crimes. But you have to consider that during the time he reigned, it’s a tribute to Hitchcock that he even embraced the complex issue of homosexuality. It shows me that there was a conscious level of understanding.
In his life, Hitchcock surrounded himself with gay culture be it in England or Hollywood, and he worked with many gay writers and actors. Ivor Novello who starred in two of Hitchcock’s silent pictures was good friends with he and Alma. Hitchcock was also friends with Rope stars John Dall and bisexual Farley Granger who played coded gay characters in the film. Granger also had the lead in Strangers on a Train, co-starring Rober Walker who plays another of Hitchcock’s coded gay characters, Bruno. Anthony Perkins who struggled with his sexuality in real life, plays the ambiguous, stammering, Norman Bates in Psycho. According to Jay Poole, Robert Bloch was interested in ‘abnormal psychology’ and was familiar with Freudian theories on sexual identity. His novel was more suggestive of the taboos, in terms of the incestuous relationship with Norman’s mother and his confused sexual identity.
The assessment of ‘camp’ and queerness can be seen as negative. More contemporary audiences might perceive Psycho as more campy than lurid or scary. Norman’s appearance in the fruit cellar might register with audiences as if he’s a big ugly ridiculous drag queen with a knife. The rest of the film is darkly humorous. (Doty cites Danny Peary)
In contrasting these male characters, one representative of sexually suspect psychosis, the other of gendered and sexual normalcy, Hitchcock blurs the lines between them, creating effects that will inform future depictions of American masculinity… While Lila Crane has been read positively as a lesbian character, and also as Carol Clover’s prototype for the ‘final girl” I demonstrate here that Lila is a more ambiguous figure, tied to social repression and the law. […] (Norman’s voyeurism and Lila’s examination of Norman’s room as pornographic) Infusing these pornographic motifs with addition levels of intensity and dread was the increasingly public threat of homosexuality within the Cold War context in which Hitchcock’s related themes gained a new, ominous visibility. What emerges in Psycho is a tripartite monster-voyeurism-homosexuality-pornography.” — (Scott Badman & Connie Russell Hosier)
Saboteur (1942) producer/writer Joan Harrison wrote the screenplay and collaborated with Hitchcock on many projects for both film and television. In the period of the 1940s to the 1950s, movies often conflated homosexuality with unsavory characters like Nazis, communists, and terrorists.
Saboteur stars Robert Cummings as plane mechanic Barry Kane who is framed for the terrorist bombing of a military instillation’s aircraft hanger where they manufacture planes. After he sees his friend die in the explosion, police assume that it was Kane who filled the fire extinguisher with gasoline. Kane goes on the run, to try and find the man he suspects is the saboteur, Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd) who is the real murderer who committed the heinous crime.
Kane stumbles onto a secret group of ‘the firm’, 5th columnists who are plotting to sabotage key targets, military planes, ships and dams. Kane is dropped into the middle of a cabal of dangerous Americans who have infiltrated positions of power in order to carry out their nefarious plan to disrupt the democratic system and cause chaos. Socialite dowager Mrs Henrietta Sutton (Alma Kruger) is a New York philanthropist who provides cover for the ‘firm’ run by Otto Kruger as the coldly, sinister Tobin. Kane pretends to go along with the group, and in one scene in a taxi with Alan Baxter who plays Mr. Freeman, there is a queer exchange between the two. Freeman tells Kane about his two little children, one of them is a boy, whom he wishes was a girl. He’s letting his son’s hair grow long, and hesitates cutting it. Then he shares his reminiscence about his boyhood when he had glorious long blonde curls. Kane tells him to cut his son’s hair and “save yourself some grief.”
Purely by Hitchcockian fate, Kane is thrown together with Pat (Priscilla Lane) who comes to his aid and at one point tries to distract Fry at the top of the Statue of Liberty. The beautiful Pat, flirts with Fry in order to stall him until the police get there, but he isn’t the slightest bit interested in her at all. In fact he seems annoyed by her presence. He’s a slim effete figure, a swishy loner with a serpent like grin. Theodore Price, in his book ‘Hitchcock and Homosexuality’ (1992), has no doubt Fry was gay. (Ken Mogg 2008)
Saboteur climax prefigures that of North by Northwest between Thornhill (Cary Grant) and the sinister Leonard (Martin Landau) who is also a gay Hitchcockian figure.
We first hear a remark spoken by socialite Mrs Sutton (Alma Kruger) when Barry (Kane) is taken to the saboteurs’ New York lair, as Barry enters the upstairs room. Mrs Sutton is addressing a couple of her male colleagues, whom she reprimands: ‘I have to hover over you like an old hen.’
This is precisely the line Hitchcock uses in Rebecca to characterize the somewhat de-natured estate-manager Frank Crawley (Reginald Denny) – nearly all the men in the film are so afflicted – and will be uses again in The Paradine Case to characterize the gay Latour (Louis Jourdan).
Frank Crawley is ‘as fussy as an old mother hen’; Latour, we’re told, had been ‘like an old mother hen’ to his beloved master, the blind Colonel Paradine.- Ken Mogg (2008)
In North by Northwest (1959) Martin Landau’s character Leonard, displays an undercurrent of homosexuality, that is subtly implied. He’s a devoted bodyguard whose gaze of his boss, Phillip Vandamm, seems to be bubbling with a refined sensibility, romantically fixated Vandamm (James Mason), a communist spy being hunted by the CIA. For a 1950s film, Leonard’s immaculate fashion sense and his fastidious swagger is a cue of his being queer. Nearing the climax of North by Northwest, the telling scene set in a mid-century modern house reveals Leonard’s love for Vandamm. Hitchcock even sets up the motive for Leonard shooting the object of his affection, jealousy and rejection. A notable line toward the end of the movie, Leonard remarks, “Call it my woman’s intuition” affirming the effete stereotype of a feminine gay man. Vandamm is genuinely flattered (contrary to homosexual panic) by Leonard’s feelings, which hints at his motivation for killing the thing he loves. Vandamm (Mason) tells him in that coldly sober tone of his, “I think you’re jealous. I mean it, and I’m very touched. Very.” As Scott Badman & Connie Russell Hosier point out, Hitchcock direction shows a “progressive perspective for its time but so brief that it doesn’t fully register with most viewers. Much later, Laundau acknowledged that he played Leonard as a homosexual, albeit subtly.”
From the opening of Strangers on a Train (1951), Hitchcock frames the entrance way to the story with a close shot on the main character’s shoes walking to catch the train. Bruno wears elaborate wing tips with high heels and Guy wears a more toned down fashionable pair of shoes, which are in opposition to each other and illustrate the contrast between the two main characters.
Robert Walker’s Bruno, is a menacing, creepy guy with flashy ties, who positions himself after a chance meeting on a commuter train, to assert his influence over famous tennis player, Guy Haines (Farley Granger). Bruno begins to flatter Guy, and insinuate himself by sharing his knowledge of Guy’s personal life. He is very proud of his tie that his mother gave him. It is a garish accoutrement dappled with lobsters. Like his silken smoking robe and another tie with the name Bruno embroidered on it. Bruno also spouts a lot of ‘ideas’ he has in that ever prompted mind of his, when talking about Guy’s upcoming divorce and bigamy scandal, “I’ve got a wonderful theory about that.”
Bruno insists on Guy having lunch with him, “sent to my compartment… You see you’ll have to lunch with me.” It is obvious, though Hitchcock is very subtle about broadcasting the cues, that Bruno is wooing Guy. Bruno is very effeminate in his demeanor, you could say that he has a ‘flaming’ air about him, always dropping hints about his sexuality. “My father hates me”, insinuating that he is not the kind of man he expects of him. “I’ve got a theory that you should do everything before you die.” He tells Guy amorously, “I like you, I’d do anything for you.”
Bruno Anthony’s plan is for both men to exchange each other’s murders. There are several scenes that scream Hitchcock’s gay coding. Initially, when the two men meet each other on the train, Bruno is flirtatious, dressed in ‘flamboyant clothes’, which to gay audiences, is seemingly clear to be a gay pick up. Bruno’s not only attracted to the handsome Guy, but he is in fact stalking him as an ‘object’ to fulfill his needs and be his ‘partner’ in his deranged homoerotic plot.
His mother, Mrs. Anthony (the wonderful character actor Marion Lorne) does Bruno’s nails and dotes over her son. As Bruno tells his mother, he wants his nails to look right.
The homosexuality is not explicitly stated, but there is too strong an import for critics and audiences in the know, to ignore. And, considering Hitchcock’s fascination with homosexual subtexts, it’s not a stretch to read into various scenes this way.
There is also the insinuation that Bruno has some serious mother issues, which is one of Hitchcock’s point of reference for his gay coding, such as his use of it with Norman Bates in his film Psycho. Bruno amuses himself by antagonizing his mother (Marion Lorne) who is completely in the dark about the twisted pathology of her homicidal son.
Bruno has set-up a visit from Guy who finds himself talking to the sociopath, who’s been waiting for Guy, while lying in bed in his silky pajamas. Is this actually arranged as a bedroom seduction?
Another brief sequence takes place at the end which centers around a carousel, a possible symbol of fluid sexuality, and sexual foreplay. The scene shows Bruno and Guy wrestling with each other, the movements could be read as Bruno really achieving what he wanted, to have sex with Guy. Hitchcock even cut different versions of the movie for Britain and the U.S., toning down the implied homosexuality in the American version — proof positive that he was fully aware of the gay implications in his movies. –(Badman and Hosier)
Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) is based on the play by Patrick Hamilton’s Rope’s End is perhaps one of the more obvious coded gay films with homosexual subtexts in his canon. Arthur Laurents, who eventually came out of the closet and wrote the screenplay, said during a commentary “What was curious to me was that Rope was obviously about homosexuals. The word was never mentioned. Not by Hitch, not by anyone at Warners. It was referred to as ‘it’. They were going to do a picture about ‘it’, and the actors were ‘it’.”The original British stage play was loosely based on the sensational true crime committed by Chicago students Leopold and Loeb in 1924, who killed a fellow student, just to see if they could get away with a motiveless crime. The script was penned by Arthur Laurents in collaboration with Hume Cronyn and Ben Hecht.
Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger) are entitled, affluent snobs, who are self-aggrandizing psychopaths with a Nietzschean superiority. Hitchcock arranges a taut stage play, around a case of Folie à deux. Brandon and Philip are implied coded lovers, who used the crime of murder to stimulate each other as if it were a sex act. The intellectual discourse they have in the beginning of the picture is overshadowed by the sexual banter that precedes what ultimately will become the act of committing a murder. Rope from the beginning of the picture inaugurates a very feverish sexual undercurrent.
In real life, John Dall was gay but died in 1971 without talking openly about his homosexuality. Farley Granger was bisexual when making the movie and then was in a lifelong gay relationship starting in 1963. Alfred Hitchcock was well aware of the sexual orientations of both actors and was reportedly pleased with what is now called the on-screen “chemistry” between the two.
He coded Brandon and Philip as gay by their “sex scene.” It occurs at the very beginning of the movie, which is also the murder scene. Hitchcock is strongly equating murder with sex. The murder-sex occurs behind curtained windows. The death scream corresponds to the orgasm. Now visible, the murderers Brandon and Philip quickly put the body in a cabinet and go into a postcoital exhaustion. Philip doesn’t even want the light turned on. In an inspired touch, Hitchcock has Brandon light a cigarette, a standard Hollywood indicator for “we just had sex.” – (Badman and Hosier)
The unorthodox murderers throw a dinner party with the victim stuffed inside an antique trunk. The film was initially banned in Chicago and other cities, because of its implied homosexual relationship between the two killers. In 1959, the story was revised as Compulsiondirected by Richard Fleischer scripted by Richard Murphy and based on the novel by Meyer Levin. Compulsion remains closer to the actual true life crime, and the implicit queer undertones are brought more to the surface, with less of Hitchcock’s cheeky innuendo.
Hitchcock employs many homoerotic symbology and allusions, as the couple reenact the murder, with the director conflating violence and sex. For instance, Brandon gets a bottle of champagne still invigorated by the murder, while Philip the weaker of the murderous pair, is nervous. Brandon fondles the bottle of champagne as the two stand close together very intimately. He grasps the champagne bottle as phallus and flirts with the top of the bottle, yet not releasing the cork. All this is stages as foreplay. Philip finally takes the bottle from Brandon and liberates the cork. They then toast to their victim. Film Critic Robin Wood asserts, in The Murderous Gays: Hitchcock’s Homophobia, that these films could be made as more positive or sensitive to homosexuality rather than “traffic in homophobia” and that it perpetuates the notion that homosexuality leads to violence.
Psycho works as a warped adult fairytale about getting lost and paying for one’s transgressions. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is a Phoenix secretary who embezzles forty thousand dollars from her employer’s client, and goes on the run. Marion is also shown to be a fallen woman, a sexual deviant herself with no morals, not only is she a thief but she is also having an affair with a married man Sam Loomis, (John Gavin). Driving in torrential rain, she pulls into the Bates Motel, an eerie, remote motel off the beaten path. The motel is run by a ‘queer’ sort of young man, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who lives up in the brooding house on the hill, under the dominant authority of his cruel and elusive mother. As Poole puts it, Norman “remains locked in a disturbed world, and, as the film progresses, becomes murderously mad.”
Norman Bates: “A boy’s best friend is his mother.”
Norman is not a masculine figure, he is a mama’s boy who does his mother’s bidding. He is continually identified with his mother and, according to Freud and his psychological tunnel vision, would probably have evolved into a homosexual because of his Oedipal desires. Hitchcock perverts Freud’s narrow theory, by making sure the narrative shows Norman to be attracted to women, not men. It is when Norman’s arousal of the female body, that he dresses in frumpy dresses to represent his mother, who then takes over and annihilates the object of Norman’s desire. Many viewers assume that Norman is a repressed homosexual because he dressed in women’s clothing when manifesting his mother’s personality. Cross-dressing was stereotypically associated with homosexuality, however, Hitchcock’s film tries to make it clear that Norman is attracted to women from the very beginning with the seductive Marion. The concept of fluid sexuality was not understood in 1960, so conflating cross-dressing with homosexuality was a commonly misleading view.
Another interesting point that Jay Poole (Queering Hitchcock’s Classic) brings out is how the décor of the house is itself, queer. Referring to what he cites Foucault’s theory of ‘We Other Victorians’ which essentially invokes ‘the image of the imperial prude.’ Therefor the Bates house itself with it’s provincial Victorian style from a queer perspective represents the constraints of Victorian sexual expectations, which is — we do not speak of sex, and any relations are to remain between a heterosexual married couple in the privacy of their own bedroom. Norman is surrounded by this oppressive atmosphere, tries to fight his impulses, and his carnal desires. He does this by dwelling in his mother’s house, hoping that she will control the voyeuristic, dirty lustful desire he is having about Marion.
Norman Bates: “People never really run away from anything. The rain didn’t last long, did it? You know what I think? I think that we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.”
Marion Crane: “Sometimes we deliberately step into those traps.”
Norman Bates: “I was born in mine. I don’t mind it anymore.”
Psycho, is the first of Hitchcock’s films to break tradition from his usual cultured mystery/suspense tropes. He decided to present this narrative using a pallet of B&W to set up a different tonality. Without the use of his vivid colors that he often used with cinematographer Robert Burks. Psycho deals with a more graphic, monochromatic, psycho-sexual sickness. A sickness that erupts in unprecedented perversity and violence for the director. Hitchcock also kills off his heroine in the first 20 minutes of the film. Psycho, will forever be known for ‘the shower scene.’
It also brings to the screen one of THE most hauntingly intense scenes that will remain in the collective consciousness, for what it lacks in vivid bloodshed, it possesses an uncomfortable voyeuristic gaze that brings us into Norman’s mind with the twists and turns, it assaults us, because of its deeper brutality, a more queasy feeling of psychic angst and inverts our gaze, as Marion stares back at us with her lifeless eyes.
“It’s not like my mother is a maniac or a raving thing. She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?”
In 1950s into 1960 was a time when Americans were seeking out the American ideal, and cultural conformity. It was also a time when many audiences did not explore alternative sexualities and would have conflated homosexuality with a deviant and dangerous personality. Poole suggests “Hitchcock queers the image of sexual purity but reinforces naturalized heterosexuality as the film progresses… Hitchcock utilizes the Freudian explanation of homosexual development in his explanation of Norman’s development as a psychopathic killer despite Norman’s apparent heterosexual orientation.”
Hitchcock believed he made the perfect choice in casting Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, the homicidal misfit who put on a dress and wig to embody his cruel mother. Norman became a serial killer with a fixation on his castrating mother, because she dominated his life and turned him into a monster. Perkin’s himself soft-spoken, androgynous, even perhaps a slightly effete actor. Alfred Hitchcock envisioned another gay character whose inherent corrupted humanity stems from their conflict of being queer. By queer it can refer to the process of shattering normalcy, and the vision from the perspective of a heternormative lens. Psychotakes the audience into a place of dis-ease, where seemingly ordinary people are capable of monstrous acts. If Hitchcock’s film is subverting the value of 1950s America, and the transgressive content of Psycho breaks from societal norms, then it can be read as a ‘queer’ film.
[voiceover in police custody, as Norman is thinking]” It’s sad, when a mother has to speak the words that condemn her own son. But I couldn’t allow them to believe that I would commit murder. They’ll put him away now, as I should have years ago. He was always bad, and in the end he intended to tell them I killed those girls and that man… as if I could do anything but just sit and stare, like one of his stuffed birds. They know I can’t move a finger, and I won’t. I’ll just sit here and be quiet, just in case they do… suspect me. They’re probably watching me. Well, let them. Let them see what kind of a person I am. I’m not even going to swat that fly. I hope they are watching… they’ll see. They’ll see and they’ll know, and they’ll say, “Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly…”
As ‘Judith Butler’ Gender scholar, and ‘Hall’ speak of gender as performance, Hitchcock was clear in the way he developed Stephano and Bloch’s central characters in Psycho. In the final scene the murderer is revealed and his inner monologues keep hidden, the source of a disturbed, untroubled ‘victim’ of faulty psychological development.’ The opening montage sets the scene for the dark thing that takes place inside ordinary towns and inside the minds of ordinary people. (source: Poole)
Psycho was a vehicle that queered what the public had come to expect from Hitchcock films, and,much like its real-life inspiration (Ed Gein), it queered the notion that America was a place where ‘normal,’ was defined as a quiet, safe, small town life, free from the darkness that lurds in modest roadside motels… With Psycho, Hitchcock abetted by Stefano’s script, would shock audiences with sexual innuendo, apparent nudity coupled with a sadistic stabbing scene. Perhaps most shocking of all, he would leave audiences wondering what might lie below the surface of family, friends neighbors and themselves.” (Jay Poole)
Rebecca (1940), was not one of Hitchcock’s favorite films at all. Adapted from the Gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier, the sick soul here is a menacing lesbian. The formidable Mrs. Danver’s ( played by the equally formidable Judith Anderson) is the head Matron of Manderley, living in the shadows of the former Mrs. de Winter. She is a love sick sapphic with an unnourished desire for her dead mistress, Rebecca. Manderley itself is like a hollow mistress that consumes those inside it’s ominous hallways. ‘Danny’ resents the new Mrs. de Winter and in one revelatory scene taunts her (Joan Fontaine) trying to drive her to suicide through her cruel torments. She parades Rebecca’s lingerie with a lustful smirk on her diabolical face, running her hands under the sheer, delicate fabric, as if she were fondling Rebecca herself.
Mrs. Danvers’ jealousy of Maxime de Winters’ new bride is driven by obsession, a lesbian coded manifestation, one of jealousy and sexual desire. For Joan Fontaine’s character Danvers reenacts through story telling, all the attentions she used to lavish on her beloved mistress, running her bath, brushing her hair, admiring the finery of her monogrammed pillow cases. Though Rebecca is only seen as the painting of an alluring woman her ghost haunts Manderley and the new Mrs. de Winter.
In Hollywood movies of the 1940s, coded lesbian characters were far less common than coded gay men. Portrayals of lesbians might define them as dangerous and threatening, as is the case with Mrs. Danvers. Mrs. Danvers implies that she had been married. This allowed Hitchcock’s deniability against Judith Anderson’s lesbianism But Mrs. Danver’s eventual demise is brought about by her inability to accept Rebecca’s death or allow anyone to replace her love. And so her desire consumes her literally, in fire.
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
When I first saw Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naugthon Wayne) in The Lady Vanishes my radar went off like a firehouse siren during the scene where they are both sitting up together in a small bed, one wearing the pajama tops and the other wearing the bottoms, (giving the appearance of both being naked in bed. It was such a marvelous coded moment and I knew they were a loving married gay couple. I found it so refreshing to see the British comedy duo playing a cheeky proper English couple who are cricket fanatics trying to get back to London while the Hitchcockian espionage is happening under their noses.
I enjoyed their farcical vignette about a pair of golfers, the one comedic entry in an otherwise moody collection of ghost stories- Dead of Night (1945) which like The Lady Vanishes, also stars Michael Redgrave.
Hitchcock excelled at getting fine performances from his supporting cast members. They usually are finely honed characterizations portrayed by perfectly cast actors, fascinating and funny, imbued with his dry British humor. Charters and Caldicott are wonderful examples. Played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, two fine stage actors who reprised these characters in subsequent movies and BBC radio programs, Charters and Caldicott follow a long tradition of comedy duos of older men in British Music Hall, vaudeville and stage performances. Most audiences of the time, especially British audiences, would have interpreted their relationship simply as one between eccentric, middle-aged bachelors. (Badman and Hosier)
Though there are so many elements of the duo that is ambiguous, Hitchcock imbues Charters and Caldicott with an affection and closeness that reads like a positive coded gay pairing. The two aren’t played as stereotypically flamboyant or campy. Later in the movie, Charters and Caldicott are heroic in facing down danger, during an onslaught of gunfire by fascist spies.
Charters and Caldicott are stranded at the only hotel in a tiny alpine village. The desk clerk informs them that they must share the maid’s room. When they meet the voluptuous Germanic blonde, they glance at each other with an expression that appears to be saying we’re not interested. When they follow the maid to her cramped room, Charter’s cracks “It’s a pity they couldn’t have given us one each” which could be interpreted as each having their own woman, to have a bit of a romp with. But Charters clarifies himself by saying he meant two rooms. One for the maid and one for them. A mainstream audience could read their conduct as two heterosexual British gentlemen, but if you read between the lines, it is suggested that they have no interest in women. In another scene when the maid enters their shared room without knocking, both men act startled by the intrusion. Caldicott moves in a way that conjures up the role of protective mate. Once she leaves, Caldicott locks the door.
A master of queering the screen, Hitchcock plays with sexuality using his skillful methods of innuendo and artful suggestiveness — In an already masterful way of blurring the lines of reality and adeptly flirting with transgression, Hitchcock’s milieus are perfect playgrounds for coded gay characters.
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 Luck1932.
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)
*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 Wingswon 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 Savage1932 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.
“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 in 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 iconic character actors 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 what ever 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 anything close to a hint of gayness, and it would change the whole world of the motionpicture, 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 you tailor?
In Victor Fleming’s Red Dust (1932), Jean Harlow is adorable as Vantine as she 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, it 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 jump suit 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 sophisticated female lawyer Hilda Frey (Jean Dixon) who is stern and stiff-backed, 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 women in Morocco 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 catch phrase, “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 the tragedy within the tragedy of the horror story! As long as these queer women monsters also became victims, the PCA could negotiate it’s 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 stuanch, 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 actors trademark in popular films. However, it could be said that covert lesbians are more subtle in their presence than their queer male counterpart – the sissy.
Major female stars could be seen as having indirect lesbian undertones, though their ambiguous sexuality might be camouflaged by her independent streak, her strong spirit or shaded by her 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 veragos or in need of a man, who can make her come to her senses, 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)
It begins where DR. JEKYLL & MR HYDE left off! A weird, fantastic adventure with a mad doctor who discovers how to turn animals into humans-but not how to control them! On a lonely tropical island he practices his black art! Changes wild beasts into creatures whose strangely human appearance and action hide raging animal passions! Something brand new in picture plots, with a specially selected cast, that will bring thrills to audiences and joy to exhibitors. Showmanship Plus!
HE DEFIED NATURE … creating men and women from animals … only to find that he could not control them!
Adapted from H.G.Wells 1895 novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, Island of Lost Souls was directed by Erle C. Kenton (The Ghost of Frankenstein 1942, House of Dracula 1945, The Cat Creeps 1946) Wells was not content with the film version of his story, though it’s a stunning adaptation of his novel.Karl Struss’ (Murnau’s Sunrise 1921,Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1931, The Sign of the Cross 1932, The Great Dictator 1940, Journey into Fear 1943, Rocketship X-M 1950, Limelight 1952, Kronos 1957 and yeah no laughing please… The Alligator People 1959) extraordinary cinematography constructs a perfectly smothering atmosphere though the story’s milieu is the openness of a savage jungle. With fantastical make-up effects by Wally Westmore(Sunset Boulevard 1950, The War of the Worlds 1953, Rear Window 1954, Lady in a Cage 1964, Village of the Giants 1965)
The first adaption of Well’s novel was filmed in France in 1913 called L’Ile d’Epouvante, then it was revisited in 1959 as Terror Is a Man starring Francis Lederer, and finally remade once again in 1977 starring Burt Lancaster as Dr. Moreau in The Island of Dr. Moreau, also starring Barbara Carrera as Lota and Richard Basehart as the Sayer of the Law. The 1977 version lacks the stifling ambiance that Erle C. Kenton’s film possessed.
Charles Laughton with his devilishly cherubic smile is perhaps at his most deliciously wicked as an evil scientist with a god complex the cruel, fiendish and merciless Dr. Moreau, who brandishes his bullwhip like Ilsa the Wicked Warden or me– eating chocolates when I go on a classic horror movie bender!
Moreau performs profane experiments, learning how to accelerate evolution by experimenting on animals turning them into hairy men-beasts by surgically grafting the organs, flesh and genes together. In order to keep his creations under his thumb, he cracks his aforesaid whip while gathering them together like a bestial congregation where they all chant the ‘laws’ set down by the Mephistophelean Moreau.
Moreau has been banished to his faraway Island by the scientific community for his bizarre experimentation with plants. Island of Lost Souls is a Darwinian nightmarish journey -from The Monster Show by David J. Skal-“There is an evocative social metaphor here as well: the animals have been given the promise of progress and social elevation. They have dutifully played by their master’s incantatory ‘laws.’ And yet it has all been an ugly trick; their elevation is simultaneously a degradation, and a bloody revolt ensues.”
Also Skal’s book points out a really interesting fact about Laughton’s casting of Dr. Moreau-“already acclaimed for his 1928 stage portrayal of another mad vivisectionist in the Grand Guignolesque A Man with Red Hair at London’s Little Theatre. It was in that production that he learned to crack a bullwhip, a skill also required for Island of Lost Souls…)… Laughton hated the part, though it remains one of his most memorable, an epicene gentleman-monster in a white tropical suit.”
Laughton’s portrayal of Dr. Moreau as an effeminate mad scientist is also noted by David J. Hogan in his terrific book Dark Fromance-Sexuality in the Horror Film- “As filmed, the story is a particularly unpleasant Frankenstein variant, remarkable for it’s oppressive ambience and unrelieved sadism. Charles Laughton played Moreau, a plump, primly bearded genius whose fussy manner and ice cream suit suggest a eunuch, or a malevolent child.”
Bela Lugosi is wonderful as the ‘Sayer of the Law’ —“Are we not men?” through his hairy make-up he conveys a pathos and ambivalence that must be credited to his fine acting skills, beyond wearing a cape, hovering over nubile maidens and climbing cobwebbed stone steps.
Drop dead gorgeous Richard Arlen plays Edward Parker who one his way to meet up with his fiancé Ruth Thomas (Leila Hyams) becomes shipwrecked on a remote Island when he interferes with the ships brutal Captain Davies (Stanley Fields) abusing one of the crew who is a hybrid man-dog M’ling (Tetsu Komai). Davies throws Parker overboard and Parker becomes Moreau’s unwelcome guest. Also on the island is Moreau’s reluctant assistant Dr. Montgomery played by Arthur Hohl who drinks himself numb on the road to redemption. Parker is surrounded by Moreau’s strange ‘Manimals’ servants and laborers who resemble monkey’s, bears, pigs and dogs.
Paramount conducted a nationwide search for the beauty who would play Lota The Panther Woman, which garnered a lot of publicity for the prerelease of the film. They chose a winner from each state, the prize being crowned the Panther Woman of America and the extra benefit of Charles Laughton getting to turn her into a beast!
Island of Lost Souls possesses a perverse eroticism as Moreau’ cold scientific intellectualism seeing neither the animals nor men nor beast-men as anything more than ‘subjects’ of his experimentation into genetic freakery, in particular his most gratifying creation of The Panther Woman Lota, played by Kathleen Burke. Parker is drawn to Lota “You’re a strange child” but he is repulsed when he discovers her panther like claws.
Unfortunately not not only does Lota begin to revert back into her feral origins- Moreau exclaims- “It’s the stubborn beast flesh, creeping back! I may as well quit. Day by day it creeps back!” –But she is as smitten as a kitten with Edward Parker. And while Moreau’s curiosity pushes him to see what would happen if he mates the lusting Lota with pure speciman of an exquisite man, Edward, his jealousy can not be subverted by his systematic spirit of inquiry. Laughton conveys even through his enigmatic silences, this ambivalence as he sweats and broods about the compound watching like a voyeur their every move. Dr. Moreau: “Did you see that, Montgomery? She was tender like a woman. Oh, how that little scene spurs the scientific imagination onward.” and watching while Lota and Parker sit close together her raw sexuality spilling over into the shadows, Moreau whispers, ” I wonder how nearly perfect a woman Lota is. It is possible that I may find out with Parker.”
Ruth (Leila Hyams) and Captain Donahue (Paul Hurst) track Edward down on the island and also become prisoners of Dr. Moreau’s tropical nightmare. Eventually she is chased around the island by Ouran, the man-ape played by Hans Steinke.
Not only is Island of Lost Soulsinflammatory with its deviance put forward by the idea of bestiality and the sexual attraction between Parker and Lota as The Panther Woman, one of the most provocative aspects of Island of Lost Soulsis it’s dealings with the vicious desecration of the body when Moreau explores his scientific delights in “The House of Pain” the operating theatre where he performs vivisectionist orgies on these poor beasts, their screams remain in my head as something I cannot un-hear or un-see. When the ‘natives’ realize that Moreau has himself broken these laws by killing Donahue (Paul Hurst) who tries to rescue Edward Parker–their prime rule not to kill or spill blood, in the epic fatalistic climax they drag him off to his own ‘House of Pain’.
from The Overlook Film Encyclopedia-Horror: edited by Phil Hardy-“Interestingly, though, Island of Lost Souls anticipates King Kong (1933) in its embodiment of the underground spirit of revolt, a spirit extremely timely in its appeal to victims of the Depression years, who not only resented their material deprivations but were all too willing to blame a system which appeared to thrive on an arbitrary suspension of the individuals’s inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. The delirious final revolt here, with the master dragged away to the ‘house of pain’ in which he created his subservient brutes, echoes the wilder excesses of the French Revolution…)…Presumably because of its vivisectionist aspects, the film was banned in Britain until 1958. Lost somewhere among the beast-men are Randolph Scott and Alan Ladd. Also appearing as one of the ensemble of beast-men-billed as a furry Manimal is Schlitze from Tod Browning’s Freaks 1932.
From David J. Hogan-“The atmosphere of the island is heavy and foreboding. Vegetation is obscene in its lushness and fertility. Humidity hangs like a curtain. It is in this unforgiving milieu that Moreau, the loveless father, passes his undesirable traits on to his children, and ultimately suffers for it. The manimals are merely extensions of Moreau’s own unchecked cruelty.”
Your EverLovin’ MonsterGirl saying “they’re restless tonight” and so am I-hope I won’t see any of ya in the house of pain- Yikes…!!! Are we not film lovers!
This event always promises to be an epic endeavor as there are so many interesting themes and subjects to cover. I am excited to be participating once again with these fabulous hosts who make it possible for all of us to contribute to a wealth of classic film history goodies to devour. Now listen folks, don’t get frightened off! You cast of exciting unknown readers… This has become a real project for me, a work in progress that will unfold over the next several weeks. For the purpose of The Classic Movie History Project Blogathon 2016, I offer an overview that will be a lead in for the entire decade of 1950s science fiction cinema conquering it year by year in separate articles. As I started delving into this project, it began to grow larger and larger as if Jack Arnold and Bert I. Gordon themselves compelled me to GO BIG!
In order to review an entire genre of such an influential decade and do the treatment it so rightly deserves, I realized that I needed to spread it out as a series. Re-visiting these beloved movies that inspired my childhood with wonder and sometimes tapped into my own authentic fears, I fell in love all over again. And though I tend to gravitate towards the classical Gothic horrors that are steeped in mythology, the supernatural and the uncanny, I can’t help but feel my mind expanding by the iconic themes that emerged from 1950s science fiction! So I’ll be publishing each year as individual posts or chapters from 1952 on… over the next several week or so instead of all at once. Talking about all the films I mentioned here and so many more films & things to come!
It’s a collection–a decade of the sci-fi genre, sub-genres and it’s hybrids– some eternally satisfying because of their remarkable ability to continuously shine a light on fascinating & mesmerizing fantasy stories. Well written and adapted as visual narratives and surreal stories by beloved visionaries who set out to reach inward and outward through all of us dreamers and thinkers.
There are also those lovable Sci-fi films that are charming and wonderfully kitsch. And some… are just downright so, so, soooo awful their… awesome!
That’s what makes so many of these diverging films cut through the cross-sections to become cinematic jewels & memorable cult favorites!
There are many films that I’ll cover more in depth, some are the more highly polished masterpieces that have lingered for decades with us as adult children who grew up watching them on a rainy afternoon on televisions with knobs that only had 9 channels and if you were lucky you didn’t snap the knob off every 6 months! Growing up in New York I had Chiller Theater, on local channel 11 or Creature Featureson Channel 5, or Fright Nighton Channel 9. That’s how I fell in love, and got my fill of the treasures of films & television anthology series that was lurking out there destined to leave long lasting impressions on so many of us!
Fright Night WOR
Or back in the day, you went to the Drive-In theater to explore in the back seat of your pop’s Chevy Impala any double feature, and it was an invigorating and entertaining experience and you didn’t even have to get out of your pajamas.
You could spend all day in a musty theater festooned with captivating promotional lobby cards and colorful posters. Too bad, I wasn’t of the age to witness William Castle’s ballyhoo he strategically placed at certain theaters for that interactive live experience , EMERGO, PERCEPTO! You could take in a bunch of the latest scary films, sometimes double & triple features, while sitting on sticky red velvet seats that smelled like hot buttered popcorn and week old spilled Pepsi. A box of Milk Duds in hand and the faint wiff of air conditioner freon at your back. You’d enter the movie theater in the bright light of a sunny Saturday afternoon only to exit into the dark of night, tired and filled with wonder, awe and okay maybe looking over your shoulder a few times. Some films were big budget productions, that contained serious acting by studio contract players, terrific writing that blended deep thoughts and simple escapism pulled from some of the best science fiction, fantasy & horror literature and adapted screenplays, scares and witty dialogue besides and cinematography that still captivates us to this day.
Well… sure some were B movies that have now sustained that Cult film charm and cheesiness, and some… are just downright pitiful, laughable guilty pleasures… and a bunch even came with really neat 3D glasses!
SOME ICONIC GEMS FOR THE AGES THAT I’LL BE COVERING!
THEM! (1954)*INVADERS FROM MARS (1953) *DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951)*FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) *THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951)*EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956) *THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957) *INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) *WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953) * CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON(1954) * IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953)* IT, THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958) *EARTH VS THE SPIDER (1958) *THE CRAWLING EYE (1958) *THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959) *IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955) *TARANTULA (1955) *FIEND WITHOUT A FACE (1958) *THE MONOLITH MONSTERS (1957)*THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN (1957) * THE ANGRY RED PLANET (1959)*KRONOS (1957)* THE CREEPING UNKNOWN (1956)*X-THE UNKNOWN (1956
I’LL ALSO BE TALKING ABOUT SOME GUILTY PLEASURES!
Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957)
Paul Birch is the alien vampire Paul Johnson in Roger Corman’s Not of This Earth 1957
It’s also important to mention some of the ubiquitous actors who graced both the great & guilty pleasure flicks, you’ll be seeing a lot of in the following chapters likeJohn Carradine * Ed Nelson *Allison Hayes *Paul Birch *John Agar *Hugh Marlowe*Peter Graves *Richard Denning *Richard Carlson *Faith Domergue *Mara Corday *Les Tremayne *Marie Windsor *Morris Ankrum * Arthur Franz *Kenneth Tobey* John Hoyt * Whit Bissell and of course Beverly (kicks-ass!) Garland!
One thing is for certain, each film is relevant and all have a place in the 50s decade of Sci-fi / Horror & Fantasy!
So come back and read a little at a time and get some thrills even while you’re sitting under the hair dryer… Do people still do that today? I need to get out more…
This 1955 hair dryer is just begging to be a space-age helmet!
As early as 1920 there was the German expressionist film dealing with the arrival of a menacing alien visitor from the planet Algol giveing actor Emil Jannings a machine that awards him unlimited powers. ALGOL aka POWER 1920 directed by Hans Werckmeister —
“That which you believe becomes your world.” –Richard Matheson from ‘What Dreams May Come’
Science Fiction emerged out of the “Age of Reason” literature reflected a merging of myth and historical fact. Stories filled with an imagination that had no boundaries. While Science Fiction is a literary movement that can be a separate study all it’s own, story tellers who grasped the concepts of science fiction who questioned the endless possibilities, the far reaching machinations of brilliant minds, this project if focused on the history of 1950s science fiction cinematic and all it reveals. Science Fiction cinema flirted blatantly with ideas and images of a world that reached beyond the known, and contemplated aloud, fantastic stories as early as the silent era. Consider Robert Louis Stevenson’sStrange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, re-envisioned time and time again.
John Barrymorelifts the dark conflicting tale of the inward monsters off the pages of Stevenson’s book. Barrymore so fluently moved through the silent stage, reveals that we all just might be harboring in our sub-conscious hidden dark and primal desires. Unleashed by a concoction, a seduction of science creates a fiend! Dr Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1920)
There were a few early visions of fantasy, magic & Science Fiction films from all around the world- At 3:25 akaThe Crazy Ray (1924) Directed by Rene Clair-a scientist invents a ray that makes people fall asleep where they stand! The German film Master of the World (1934) (Der Herr der Welt) where a German scientist wants to create an army of Robots to do the dangerous work of laborers so, when he is told it’s too risky he goes mad and it’s too late the machine has a mind of it’s own. It features really cool electronic chambers and more!
Metropolis 1927 the dystopian masterpiece by director Fritz Lang was the beginning of the fascination with exploring the fantastic and our unbounded imaginations on film, it’s remarkable set design, imagery and narrative sparked the Science Fiction genre in a big way— spanning decade upon decade, in particular revived in the 1950s!
The first influential science fiction film by Fritz Lang created a dystopian societ in Metropolis 1927. It’s influence has maintained it’s powerful thrust for decades. An inspiration for Ridley Scott’s neo-noir sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner (1982)
“Man is the unnatural animal, the rebel child of nature, and more and more does he turn himself against the harsh and fitful hand that reared him”-H.G.Wells
Charles Laughtonis superb as H.G. Wells‘ Dr. Moreau a sociopathic sadist/scientist with a god complex whose profane experiments on animals and humans tortures them in the ‘house of pain’ trying to create a hybrid race he can hold sway over on his private island hell! Science has never been more evil! Island of Lost Souls (1932)
The electrical secrets of heaven, the lighting, the elaborate sets designed by genius Kenneth Strickfaden with his lights throbbing gizmos flashing and zapping, the creepy atmosphere of murky tones. The consummate Universal monster movie with iconic scenes introducing a new face, Boris Karloff who would become the great father of terror stories …
What’s on that slab?, “It’s Alive, It’s Alive!…”those monumental words that remain ingrained in our consciousness. Colin Clivebecomes hysterical as he has creates life from death, but that life would become a whole new ethical, moral and imposing dilemma for Dr.Frankenstein. A horror film with strong science fiction/fantasy tropes. And the laboratory as gorgeous set pieces would become a staple of the science fiction realm.
The 1950s Science Fiction genre took root with it’s profouns contribution to our collective consciousness AS a genre its vision & breadth possessed quintessential & ever-lasting sociological and psychological metaphors, iconic tropes and striking imagery.
The splitting of the atom, ushering in the atomic age and the collective anxiety most definitely was the catalyst for the many of the movie fantasy stories known as the 1950s Sci-Fi film.
“But no matter what else it might be, what makes a science fiction film science fiction is the fact that it is, in some sense, about science—and not only science but futuristic science. By that I mean that science fiction movies deal with scientific possibilities and technologies that do not exist yet but that might exist someday. Science fiction is the realm of the not-yet.”— “Cult Science Fiction Films” by Welch Everman
Ridley Scott – (Alien 1979, Blade Runner 1982) “When you come to the second World War You’ve got a very specific enemy. You know what that enemy is, It’s there for all the wrong reasons and it should be prevented…. Then you got the next phase which is The Cold War again which is to do with paranoia . But I think real, it’s real. Movies started to dip into that.”
“The Splitting of the atom…. forces that can only be explained to us by these guys in white coats… All of a sudden the guys in white coats became these simultaneously kind of rock stars and the most evil thing you could imagine.”
In a scene from The Atomic City 1952– The mother’s child sitting at the kitchen table with his breakfast “If I grow up do you know what I’m gonna do?” The mother turns to him, leaving her scrambled eggs on the stove and corrects him nervously, “It’s when you grow up, not if…”
The Atomic City 1952 trailer
Duck & Cover 1951 classic propaganda film
From the short instructional film Duck and Cover “But no matter where they go or what they do they always try to remember what to do if the atom bomb explodes right then!” (the kids suddenly fall into the brick wall. The narrator says ) It’s a bomb DUCK & COVER!
James Cameron – “All of our fate as human beings, our destiny seems bound up in our technology and our technology is frightening. It’s Terrifying!”
Steven Spielberg- “So there was a great deal of anxiety in the air. It was not just fear of being beaten up by the local bully. But the fear was being NUKED!… But we almost pushed a button on each other during The Cuban Missile Crisis…… I was absolutely prepared for Armageddon and these movies from the 1950s and early 60s played on those fears. And these movies were all metaphors for those fears. ”
George Lucas- “I would say that there was a certain amount of anxiety about that I mean I grew up right in the very heat of that. DUCK & COVER drills all the time… We were always hearing about the fall out shelter. About the end of the world, issues that were always going on about how many bombs were being built. The Cold War was always in the media.”
1950s Sci-Fi films represented a conservatism or ‘reactionary wing’ that seems consumed by a motive to emphasize the values of 1950s America post WWII, in the midst of a McCarthy era witch hunt that prevailed fueling our fears that seeped into many of the Sci-Fi narratives on screen and in literature. Reflecting the growing internal struggles within American society and the developing mistrust about Soviet aggression and anyone and anything perceived as subversive.
“Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?”
In 1947, in Roswell New Mexico the military reports that they have a UFO in their possession. The phenomena of sightings of UFOs would continue throughout the 1950s, though agencies were fully prepared to explain away the reports. Yet the public had a hunger to and fascination with the possibility of extra-terrestrials.
As Phil Hardy’s insightful take on the genre, all this manifested in a way that the Science Fiction films of the 1950s ‘supplanted horror as the genre that dealt with fear and paranoia.” The films expressed a very realistic look at science within the atomic age, and shed the shadows and expressionism of the earlier Gothic horrors and while not all scientific fact, tried to embrace a world of possibility.
The Flying Saucer 1950 begins the momentum for the decade of Science Fiction cinema’s love affair with unidentified objects and begins to round the edges of space crafts from other worlds that aren’t our American sharp and phallus shaped rockets!
DESTINATION MOON 1950 was featured in COLOR BY TECHNICOLOR. Being hailed the 2001, Space Odysseyof it’s time, it attempts to portray a realism trip to the moon. Phil Hardy calls Destination Moon 1950 ‘a sober celebration of man’s imminent conquest of space that dominated the decade.’
Destination Moon did attempt to accurately portray a trip to the moon given the technology and knowledge that was stuck in 1950.
Themes and metaphors that emerged from anxiety about the atom bomb, radiation fallout, the advent of modernity, the space race and the wanderlust to conquer outer space, interplanetary warfare, military vs. science hubris, science meddling with nature, fear of science and technology,invasion anxiety, continued fear of otherness, deviant (in terms of counter-culture not exclusively moral judgement) subversion and xenophobic nightmares.
Sometimes we were even married to a monster from outer space and didn’t even notice much of a difference except for the lack of small talk! Here’s Tom Tryon and Gloria Talbott in I Married a Monster from Outer Space 1958.
Director Howard Hawk and screenplay by Charles Lederer, created a striking science fiction masterpiece of film noir ambience with it’s chilling back lit set pieces-The Thing From Another World 1951, adapted from John W. Campbell’s story ‘Who Goes There?’, other films that followed the path of paranoia — Invaders from Mars 1953, War of the Worlds 1953, It Came from Outer Space 1953, It Conquered the World 1956 & Invasion of the body snatchers 1956.
There were also science fiction films that rang the warning bell about cosmic calamity and catastrophic world coming to an end, annihilation fantasies like When Worlds Collide 1951.
H.G. Well’s view of Martianinvaders created for the public consciousness the idea of destructive beings from another world. It was a great reflexive move for those science fiction films to portray aliens that were sympathetic, yet non-humanoid in appearance. Most Sci-Fi films show aliens as menacing, not only destructive but dangerous because they also wanted to keep us as captives, zap our resources and colonize our planet, sometimes even take our women, oh god no unhand Faith Domergueyou pants wearing Mutant!
“Is that a fireball or something?”
Hollywood saw a trend later on in the 50s with Destination Moon 1950 when they came upon a story written by Harry Bates called The Return of the Master this became Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still 1951which has remained one of the best regarded science fiction films of all time. This is one of the rare occasions when the alien Klaatu played beautifully like an intricate clock by the chiseled face, tranquil speaking Michael Rennie is benevolent, bringing with him a sincere and dire warning about earth people’s course and the future of their civilization if they don’t relent about the proliferation of atomic weapons. There were several well intended alien visitors who were met with hostilities as with, Klaatu (Michael Rennie ) in Day the Earth Stood Still 1951, and The Man From Planet X 1951.
Many films, even the low budget excursions dealt with our primal fears of alienation, estrangement & loss of identity i.e.,(communism at it’s core, the ramifications of otherness) nothing hits home more than Invaders from Mars 1953, and the quintessential loss of self and individualism in Don Siegels’Invasion of the Body Snatchers!
“They would change into people who hate you!”
Steven Spielberg talks about the impact of Invaders from Mars 1953, “It certainly touched a nerve among all the young kids like myself who saw that movie at a very young age. That you would come home and that you would not recognize your mom and dad they would have changed into people who hate you!”
I can attest to the persuasion these films could have over the burgeoning imagination of a child, especially one like me who felt very much like an outsider as a kid. One night, as sure as my name is MonsterGirl, I went home, looked at my parents, decided they had been switched by aliens and ran out of the house, walking around the block for at least an hour before I convinced myself that I was being ridiculous. Or was I? These themes did have a not so subtle impact on a young impressionable mind who could easily question the world around them. Who could you trust? Would would believe you anyway?
Giant insects, sea creatures and people who ran around half crazed and scantily dressed were a by-product of the atomic age!
George Lucas —“Out of that fear came I think a lot the monsters which you mess around with stuff and you’re gonna unleash this unknown monster!… it’s making tangible the unknown… A lot of that has to do with the mystery of this silent death that comes along with it that nobody knows exactly what it is or where it came from or can’t see it, can’t touch it. Well let’s make it easier to deal with by making it a giant monster.”
Some films show the ascension from violence & hyper-masculinity, Women as professionals & bold heroines who didn’t shrink as hysterical victims. Female dominated civilizations (Cat- Women of the Moon 1953, Queen of Outer Space 1958, Missile to the Moon 1958, Fire Maidens from Outer Space 1956, that threatened to maniacally seduce & subsume male voyagers, dressed by 5th avenue they are outré chic. Wanton warriors & nubile space maidens who often never saw the male species before or wanted to destroy them altogether!
A tagline reads “SEE-Astounding she-beasts of Venus!”
In Queen of Outer Space 1958 the masked disfigured Queen Yilana (Zsa Zsa Gabor) imprisons the men who crash land on her planet, intending to annihilate the earth with her beta disintegrator, though her beautiful subjects revolt in the name of love.
Mark Hamill –“We sometimes imagined other planets as paradises…. with girls!!! they looked more Hollywood starlets than space aliens, anyway they were eager to please. Their dancing their music their leotards were so Moderne! like Greenwich Village in outer space.” referring to Cat-Women of the Moon 1953.
“May we serve you earth men?”
“You’re the first man I’ve ever seen!” Carol Brewster as Alpha is mesmerized
There’s nothing worse than a space Queen–The Lido (K.T. Stevens ) and one of her maidens in distress…
Mark Hamill who narrates the wonderful documentary written and directed by Richard Schickel Watch the Skies! Sci-Fi , the 1950s and Us presented by Turner Classic Movies also reminds us that “50s science fiction may have shot at the stars but the dialogue often remained earth bound tied up with the battle of the sexes.” Many prevailing sub-texts were also love stories, soap operas involving relationships between men and women.They would create love stories in space!
Project Moonbase 1953 Donna Martell as Colonel Briteis (bright eyes?)