In fact the Production Code had an oddly contradictory effect. Because nobody could explicitly say a character was gay or do anything unambiguously homosexual, there was a rise in characters acting very gay, so that audiences would understand without having to be told. For example in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Joel Cairo arrives at Sam Spade’s office and we’re told his card smells of gardenia. The well-dressed character then minces into the office, and proceeds to talk while rolling his rather phallic walking stick around his mouth. Dashiell Hammett’s novel was far less ambiguous about Cairo’s sexuality, but because the movie couldn’t say it, the depiction ends up, in some ways, even more extreme, to ensure the audience knows what’s going on.
Cairo was also an early example of what became a staple of 40s and 50s cinema, particularly in film-noir – the evil homosexual. It was an era, particularly after the war, when men’s roles in society were changing and their position as lord of all they surveyed was under threat – hence the femme fatales of film noir, whose power and forthrightness threatens to emasculate the men and lead them down the wrong path. Alongside the femme fatales were the evil gay characters, who often slunk around the edges of the action like jackals, waiting to pick off the weak. The likes of Joel Cairo used their brains and wiles to get in the ‘real men’s’ way. Elsewhere Hitchcock offered Rope (1948), in which two young, gay lovers (although of course this fact isn’t explicitly mentioned), kill someone because they want to prove their superiority by getting away with the perfect crime. Luckily man’s man James Stewart is around to stop these effete young things.
Even the sissies had turned bad, with Clifton Webb’s (who was gay in real life) effeminate characters possibly murdering people in Laura (1944) and The Dark Corner (1946). Gay characters became a handy metaphor for anything outside the norm that society at the time disliked, with their sexuality being an easily identifiable signifier for a whole range of moral deviancy – if they were gay, who knew what other terrible things they might get up to? Many would argue that this is a stereotype that still lingers in Hollywood film, with protests having been sparked by bisexual femme fatale Catherine Trammell in Basic Instinct (1992) and many seeing serial murderer Buffalo Bill as an affront to transgendered people in Silence Of The Lambs (1991).
However not all gay characters were evil, as many were too busy being fragile and suicidal. While Plato (Sal Mineo) could be said to be looking at Jim Stark (James Dean) and Judy (Natalie Wood) as substitute parents in Rebel Without A Cause (1955), it’s also easy to argue that he’s basically in love with Jim and that when that doesn’t go too well, he kills himself. Likewise in Tea And Sympathy, even the accusation that Tom Lee is a big sissy is enough to destroy him. The tragic gay is another stereotype that many would argue is still around today, but disguised as Tom Hanks bravely dying of AIDS in Philadelphia (1993) or Jake Gyllenhaal getting the tire iron in Brokeback Mountain.
In fact gay people dying is a bit of a motif that Hollywood seems to love – normally because the characters are either too evil or too soft to live. Vito Russo’s book about the history of homosexuality in cinema, ‘The Celluloid Closet’, even ends with a necrology of gay characters in film, noting the numerous suicides and murders that have happened to homosexuals in the movies. It’s certainly impressive that for a group who didn’t even officially exist in films, gay people certainly died a lot in Hollywood movies.
The almost complete proscription on any overt mention or depiction of homosexuality in film lasted right up until the dying days of the Hollywood Production Code in the 1960s. Spartacus (1960) is famous for having a scene removed where Laurence Olivier’s Crassus propositions slave Antoninus (which has since been reinserted, with Anthony Hopkins providing Olivier’s lost dialogue). The scene never explicitly mentions sex, with Crassus merely saying that some like snails, others like oysters but he likes both. Unless you were tipped off as to what he meant, it’s unlikely 90% of the audience would have had a clue what he was on about (even if you do know, it still seems a little random), but even in 1960 this was seen a far too risqué and so got the chop.
While gay people didn’t officially exist in mainstream movies before the mid-60s, that doesn’t mean films weren’t being made by, for and about gays before then. While because of the Hays Code and the fact homosexuality was illegal these were understandably short, underground efforts, often made for little or no money, they’re now fascinating looks at a time before there was any real acceptance of homosexuals, often made by angry, avant garde people who wanted to see some sort of depiction of their lives on the screen, even if they knew few would ever get to see the resulting movies. For example, Jean Genet’s Un Chant D’Amour (1950) is a surprisingly explicit look into the homoerotic fantasies of a bunch of prisoners (the whole thing is a metaphor for gay life at the time), and is now deservedly seen as a classic of gay cinema.
In America a young Kenneth Anger (author of the classic exposé Hollywood Babylon) channelled his experience of being gay into the avant-garde likes of Fireworks (1950) and Scorpio Rising (1964). Andy Warhol also did his bit, supporting movies like Paul Morrissey’s Flesh (1968), Trash (1970) and Heat (1972), all starring Joe Dallesandro. Because of the potential penalties, both in terms of someone’s career and possible jail time, there’s only a relatively small canon of early gay movies, but much of what exists is surprisingly interesting. (continued on next page)