Talking about gay people in films is tricky. The reason for that is because for much of film history it was impossible to categorically say who was gay and who wasn’t. While it’s generally accepted that the sissy characters that were a quintessential part of 30s and 40s musical comedies, such as Edward Everett Horton in Top Hat (1935), were gay, it’s never explicitly mentioned. There was of course a good reason for that – homosexual acts were illegal and, indeed, it was one of the first things explicitly banned under Hollywood’s Production Code (AKA the Hays Code) in the early 1930s (it was classed as a sex perversion).
Sometimes it’s not even as easy being able to say that the character was gay but they couldn’t mention it. Take the 1895 movie that is now known as The Gay Brothers. It was made by Thomas Edison’s company as an experiment into sound filmmaking and features two men dancing. This is often taken as cinema’s earliest depiction of homosexual behaviour, but many have remarked that in the 1890s two men dancing wouldn’t have been particularly remarkable (it wasn’t until later that men felt unable to get within three feet of one another for fear of being labelled gay) and that the film was an experiment, so they could have just got two blokes who worked at Edison’s factory to dance in order to prove the sound was synchronised.
Things don’t get much easier after the end of the Hays Code era either. While characters could be openly gay, there’s been endless debate over whether many of the gay characters in movies have helped or hindered how society sees gay people. For example, was Nathan Lane’s cross-dressing Albert in 1996’s The Birdcage portraying a positive role model who was openly defying society’s conventions of what it meant to be a man, or was it just asking people to laugh at a camp person and turning gay people into a stereotypical laughing stock? Likewise, did Tom Hanks in Philadelphia help bring gay characters into the filmic mainstream, or did he just perpetuate the age-old idea of the tragic gay character whose main job is to die by the end of the film?
The result is that there is virtually no way to portray a gay character that will keep everyone happy – and that’s just among the people who think there should be gay characters in films in the first place (for example the United States Conference Of Catholic Bishops still rates nearly all films with significant gay content as ‘Morally Offensive’). Likewise, what was seen as enlightened in one era seems detrimental and homophobic in another. As a result the gay character has become one of the most complex in film history, being both visible and invisible, sexualised and impotent, lauded and derided, and both mainstreamed and marginalised.
Gay characters have been around almost as long as cinema itself. While there may be debate over whether The Gay Brothers really were gay, by the 1910s no silent comedian’s canon was complete without at least one film where they appeared in drag – as Chaplin did in A Woman – or where there was the hint of a same sex dalliance (although it would normally turn out that the object of affection was actually a girl pretending to be a boy). Silent film is rife with films and characters that play with sexuality and gender. Indeed stars like Rudolph Valentino and Roman Navarro became popular for their mix of the masculine and feminine. Some films were even bold enough to pretty much say if a character was gay, although not necessarily in a positive way, such as in Algie, The Miner (1912), where one of the characters is captioned as ‘One of nature’s mistakes’.
It’s also surprising that the first major male-male kiss came in the silent era. It wasn’t a minor film either. 1927’s Wings, which won the very first Best Picture Oscar, is also noted for the moment when Charles Rogers kisses Richard Arlen (in a platonic way), when the latter is dying.
It was partly because of the sexually androgynous and decadent characters that Hollywood had become fond of, that moral pressure was put on the studios to clean up their act. While both men and women swooned at the sight of Marlene Dietrich in 1932’s Morocco (1930), dressed in a tux and vamping it up on the stage for the delectation of both sexes, or Greta Garbo lustily kissing a chambermaid in 1933’s Queen Christina, the likes of the Catholic Legion of Decency were less impressed. As a result of the introduction of the Motion Picture Production Code (aka the Hay’s Code) in the mid-30s, overt depiction of homosexual behaviour disappeared from the screen.
One of the first casualties was Lillian Hellman’s play ‘The Children’s Hour’, about two schoolmistresses dealing with a student’s allegation that they are lesbians. Samuel Goldwyn bought the film rights to the play and was promptly told by the Hays Office that by all means he could make a film of it, as long as there was absolutely no mention of lesbianism in it at all. The result was These Three (1936), which dealt with allegations of a very heterosexual love triangle and had a happy ending, rather than the play’s tragic one.
This happened to numerous books and play adaptations from the mid 40s through to the early 60s. Tennessee Williams’ plays generally had all overt mentions of homosexuality removed for the screen, from Blanche’s dead husband probably being gay in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) to the possibility of Brick and his dead friend Skipper having once been lovers in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958). However while anything explicit was removed, filmmakers weren’t afraid to push things as far as the Production Code would allow them.
While various characters asking about or inferring that Brick is a ‘queer’ were taken out of the adaptation of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, there are still hints about what was really going on for the members of the audience who were attuned to it. Likewise when Blanche talks about how soft and delicate her husband was, most in audience would have known what she was on about. (continued on next page)