Homosexuals have always played a creative role in Hollywood. But gay stories almost never made it to celluloid.
Or did they?
On Monday, Turner Classic Movies cable channel begins “Screened Out,” an ambitious series on how American movies from 1912 to 1970 dealt with homosexuality. Forty-four films, ranging from rarely seen silent features to mainstream hits, will be shown starting at 8 Monday and Wednesday nights throughout June.
“What people don’t realize is that 77 years ago homosexual themes were considered viable enough to be part of mainstream entertainment,” said Richard Barrios, whose 2005 book “Screened Out” is the basis for the series. “I think it’s going to open a lot of eyes.”
But all that stopped in 1934 with the adoption of the Motion Picture Production Code, which set standards so strict that for 20 years thereafter movie married couples had to sleep in twin beds. Any open mention of homosexuality was forbidden.
“Screened Out” looks at films made before and after the code. They cover lots of territory, from early sound comedies featuring “sissy boys” (“Our Betters”) to decadent, gender-bending costume melodramas dripping with lurid sex and violence (Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Sign of the Cross”).
From the `50s there are social dramas like “Tea and Sympathy” that take a veiled approach to homosexuality (effeminate young men aren’t gay, they’re “sensitive”). The thaw that began in the late `60s is represented by movies like “The Fox” and “The Boys in the Band” that capitalized on new artistic freedom to unambiguously depict homosexuality.
Barrios not only chose the films for the series but also did on-camera commentaries with TCM host Robert Osborne for more than 30 of them.
It’s easy to see the potential for gay content in a movie like 1955’s “Women’s Prison.” But Garbo’s “Queen Christina”? Or “Gilda” and “The Maltese Falcon”?
“Yeah, I’ve had people come up to me and say, `What was gay about that movie?’” Barrios said in a phone conversation from his farm home outside Philadelphia. “And other people get it instantly. They’re like, `Ohhh, yeah.’””
That’s because for much of Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age, gay themes and attitudes could be expressed only between the lines.
“Filmmakers couldn’t be literal in dealing with certain subjects, so they had to create a text more open to interpretation,” said Thom Poe, film historian and chairman of the University of Missouri-Kansas City communications department. “As a result, the vast majority of people were able to watch these movies and not recognize what they were really about.”
The irony, Poe said, was that Hollywood was always taking material from Broadway and then bowdlerizing it until it lost much of its meaning.
“Take a movie like `The Children’s Hour,’” Poe said. “Watching the play, it was obviously about a lesbian relationship. But you can watch the movie and never figure out what’s going on. Or `Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.’ In the play, Brick is dealing with his homosexual feelings. But the movie had to sidestep that.”
Making “Screened Out” special is the breadth of its material. Not content to recycle films in the Turner library, Barrios went looking for movies that are hardly seen today.
“We’re leading off with this silent movie from 1912, `Algie, the Miner,’ that we had to go to the Library of Congress to get.”
“Algie” is a comedy about an effeminate tenderfoot who goes out West to make his fortune and win his girl. A running gag has him kissing crusty frontiersmen who help him.
“The girl is the escape clause, something mainstream audiences could pick up on and so ignore the fact that Algie is very, very gay,” Barrios said.
Until the adoption of the Production Code, American movies were getting racier and racier. Released just before the code went into effect, “The Sign of the Cross” was about the persecution of the early Christians. It was sold as pious and uplifting but contained a screamingly gay Nero (Charles Laughton), a nude Claudette Colbert bathing in asses’ milk and a lesbian dance that Barrios calls “jaw dropping.”
Another pre-code title, 1929’s “The Broadway Melody,” was a backstage romance that featured a clearly gay costume designer.
But with the code, gay messages had to be camouflaged.
“In `Sylvia Scarlett’ you have Katharine Hepburn posing as a boy, and Brian Aherne is being drawn to this boy and not really understanding why,” Barrios said. “Straight audiences might read that one way; gay audiences saw it in an entirely different light.”
The 1944 Ray Milland ghost story “The Uninvited” gained notoriety for a character played by Cornelia Otis Skinner, who is obsessed with a dead woman.
“After the movie had been running for several weeks, there was a peculiar phenomenon in several large cities,” Barrios said. “Large groups of what were described as `odd people’ would go to the movie at off hours and speak the dialogue.
“I don’t know if the filmmakers intended it, but this went like a laser to people who wanted to or needed to pick up on these hidden meanings. `The Uninvited’ became one of the first lesbian cult movies.”
Some movies got away. Barrios couldn’t strike a deal to show Hitchcock’s “Rope” (with two college students, obviously gay lovers, killing a friend) and “Strangers on a Train” (two men discuss a deal in which each would kill the other’s wife). He was unable to find a print of the 1930 Western comedy “The Dude Wrangler.”
“You’ve got this sissy cowboy and the poster announces, `Oh, my Dear!’ which became a gay catchphrase.”
One of the last films in the series is 1970’s “The Boys in the Band,” a study of a group of gay men. It was a big-studio film that exploited the new post-code openness.
The problem, Barrios said, is that the film is overflowing with gay self-loathing, with one character saying, “You show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse.”
“In places like New York and San Francisco gay consciousness had been raised so quickly (after Stonewall) that the movie was already seen as a throwback to the bad old days,” Barrios said. “Still, in places like Kansas City, people found a window on a new world.”
Some of the films, he admits, are artistically suspect.
“But you can learn as much from flops and stinkers as you do from `Brokeback Mountain.’”
Some of the films present negative images of gays. Many current films aren’t much better, Barrios said.
“Even today you get something like `Wild Hogs’ with lots of stupid gay jokes and stereotypes.”
So, what’s the current state of gays in film?
Filmmakers today are free to depict homosexual characters as they choose. But they rarely take advantage of that freedom to make artistic statements, according to Jamie Rich, executive director of the Kansas City Gay and Lesbian Film and Video Festival. ” You can have gay characters finally be real,” Rich said. “No longer does a gay character have to be panicked about being gay. No longer must he be portrayed as a weird outsider.”
On the other hand, Rich said, ” in this country we want to see the stock characters telling the same stories over and over again. Hollywood does it, and gay cinema is no different.”
Gay cinema is going through significant growing pains, according to Corey Scholibo, entertainment editor of The Advocate, the national gay and lesbian magazine.
“Gay cinema has evolved beyond gayness being the singular point,” Scholibo said. “The coming-out story is over.”
“I’m trying to expand the idea of what a gay sensibility is. `The Devil Wears Prada’ may be the gayest movie of last year. `Ugly Betty’ is the gayest TV show out there. But they’re not specifically about gay people.”
The next big trend in gay cinema could be films about transgendered people, Scholibo said. Films like “Boys Don’t Cry” (Hilary Swank won an Oscar for portraying a young woman who wanted to live life as a man) and the recent “Transamerica” have brought the issue into the mainstream.
Rich said that while he doesn’t miss censorship, he does miss the sort of secret bond between filmmaker and audience that existed at the time of the Production Code.
“What made gay audiences such avid movie watchers was they were constantly examining movies for things that meant something to them,” Rich said. “You’d watch Doris Day in her Calamity Jane outfit singing about her secret love ... gay people really identified with that.
“There was pleasure in being able to decipher the code.”
SCREENED OUT: GAY IMAGES IN FILM
“Screened Out” begins airing Monday on Turner Classic Movies. The schedule:
Monday: The Early Years
8 p.m. - “Algie, the Miner” (1912)
8:30 p.m. - “The Monster” (1925)
10:15 p.m. - “Exit Smiling” (1926)
11:45 p.m. - “The Broadway Melody” (1929)
1:45 a.m. - “Way Out West” (1930)
3 a.m. - “The Office Wife” (1930)
4:15 a.m. - “Stage Mother” (1933)
Wednesday: Gays Before the Code
8 p.m. - “The Sign of the Cross” (1932)
10:15 p.m. - “Our Betters” (1933)
11:45 p.m. - “Double Harness” (1933)
1 a.m. - “Queen Christina” (1933)
2:45 a.m. - “Wonder Bar” (1934)
4:15 a.m. - “The Sport Parade” (1932)
June 11: Men and Women Behind Bars
8 p.m. - “Hell’s Highway” (1932)
9:15 p.m. - “Ladies They Talk About” (1933)
10:30 p.m. - “Caged (1950)
12:15 a.m. - “So Young, So Bad” (1950)
2 a.m. - “The Strange One” (1957)
4 a.m. - “Women’s Prison” (1955)
June 13: The Dark Side: Film Noir and Crime
8 p.m. - “The Big Combo” (1955)
10 p.m. - “Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959)
12 a.m. - “Reflections in a Golden Eye” (1967)
2 a.m. - “Gilda” (1946)
4 a.m. - “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)
June 18: Horror
8 p.m. - “The Uninvited” (1944)
10 p.m. - “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945)
12 a.m. - “Voodoo Island” (1957)
1:30 a.m. - “The Haunting” (1963)
3:30 a.m. - “The Seventh Victim” (1943)
June 20: Comedy
8 p.m. - “Manhattan Parade” (1931)
9:30 p.m. - “Sylvia Scarlett” (1936)
11:15 p.m. - “Turnabout” (1940)
12:45 a.m. - “That Touch of Mink” (1962)
2:30 a.m. - “The Producers” (1968)
4:15 a.m. - “Designing Woman” (1957)
June 25: Code-Busters
8 p.m. - “Tea and Sympathy” (1956)
10:15 p.m. - “The Children’s Hour” (1961)
12:15 a.m. - “Staircase” (1969)
2:15 a.m. - “The Boys in the Band” (1970)
4:30 a.m. - “Victim” (1961)
June 27: Out and Open
8 p.m. - “Advise and Consent” (1962)
10:30 p.m. - “Walk on the Wild Side” (1962)
12:30 a.m. - “The Fox” (1967)
2:30 a.m. - “The Killing of Sister George” (1968)