Overt, covert, explicit or implied, lesbian and gay characters have weaved their presence throughout motion picture history in one way or another.
Were there really coded ways to read these characters or just wishful thinking from a population desperately seeking their own positive reflection on the silver screen? Were cinematic easter eggs hiding in plain sight, planted by knowing producers and directors with a wink and a nod to those in the audience? I believe privately, behind-the-Hollywood-scenes, every body knew what was what and who was who. As long as it wasn’t made obvious and didn’t hurt box office, all was well. This was an open secret in Tinsel Town, but not for the moviefans. Silent film star William Haines was a career casualty by the mid-30’s. But he had an enormously successful second career as an interior designer, and a long term relationship few could rival, on that speedway to Reno, with Jimmie Shields that lasted until Haines’ death in 1973.
Hollywood’s films were always a little behind the times where LGBT topics were concerned compared to progressive Europe. In 1931 Leontine Sagan directs “Mädchen in Uniform.” A German film, this tells the sensitive story of a student who falls in love with her teacher at an all girls school. America had, what would later be known as, pre-code films…but nothing like that. ( Well, maybe “Little Caesar” ).
Then there’s “Quai des Orfèvres” ( a 1947-directed film by Henri-Georges Clouzot of “Wages of Fear” and “Diabolique”–fame ) a crime mystery where a side issue is a photographer in love with her flighty flirty coquettish friend who is involved in murder. The film doesn’t make this attraction the focal point of the story, and doesn’t make it a big deal. And the movie doesn’t judge the photographer either ( played by the beautiful Simone Renant ). She just is. Move along now. Nothing to see here…other than that dead body over there.
But back to the state of the good ol’ U.S. of US.
There were all sorts of ways these characters were woven into classic films that allowed us a safe front-row seat into the LGBT experience; and a lot of times the depiction made the audience glad they weren’t in their shoes. Some characters portrayed funny types or were poked fun of. Some you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. When you saw men like Peter Lorre and Douglas Walton in “The Maltese Falcon” and “Murder, My Sweet” visit detectives Spade and Marlow, you knew a beat-down was expected…and “deserved” for their subtle flamboyancy. ( Those quotes are on purpose ). This is the way folks thought back then.
The message first and foremost was clearly, this “thing” was not something wanted by the characters. In “Dracula’s Daughter” the countess doesn’t want to be a vampire. She seeks a cure. But when the blood urge takes over, any jugular vein will do nicely.
Some characters are all over the map and this was just part of experimenting. No harm, no foul; a journey in self-discovery before they perhaps moved on to the next thing. At times characters were not even aware of the who(s), what(s) and why(s) of their feelings.
And other times, they were…
Housekeepers and best friends, gangsters and cowboys and travel companions had strong unspoken attractions. The characters might not know it, but sometimes we, the audience, had no choice but to acknowledge what we see. Nine times out of ten, if the character became self-aware, suicide was the only option.
Maybe this onion peeling and archaeological digging builds up character. Sometimes I feel very wise when I recognize these nuggets and dumb when the subtlety goes over my noggin’. I am irked when I see lovers ‘in name only.’ I’m left scratching my head saying “Why bother?”
What is this thing called “love”? Maybe it’s just a deep friendship. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Pay no attention to that beautiful girl there trying to get our hero’s
attention. Two of the most wonderfully marvelous films with a gay subtext has to be /\ “Desert Fury” ( 1947 ) and “Warlock” ( 1959 ). \/ Real or imagined, but most-likely real, ( yeah…let’s just say real ) in these two films it seems a woman comes between the deep
friendship of the two men. No, I don’t mean like Tyrone Power and Dana Andrews in “Crash Dive” ( 1943 ) mooning over Anne Baxter. Or Cary Grant trying not to lose Deborah Kerr to Robert Mitchum in 1960’s “The Grass Is Greener.” Or John Wayne and Ray Milland vying for the charms and affection of Paulette Goddard in “Reap the Wild Wind” from 1942. Those guys have a very different vibe. C’mon, you know what I’m talkin’ about. I mean there’s an unmistakable resentment from said wingman. Follow me now…in these two movies, the professions ( mobster and gun-slinger ) of the Alpha male and the Wing man are pretty dangerous, so you need a partner you can trust to watch your back in these life or death situations. This could be why a woman coming between them ruffles feathers. But to me, somehow, the girl feels like a convenient plot device when clearly the relationship is between the two men.
Also mucking things up is when the Wingman ( Wendell Corey and Anthony Quinn in “Desert Fury” and “Warlock” respectively ) feels he’s always been doing the heavy lifting in the relationship; HE’S the brains behind the legend. HE’S carrying the reputation: ( “I’m better than you Clay,” says Quinn to Fonda and challenges him to a gunfight ). They were pals until a woman came around and Fonda wants to go straight. ( Get it…straight? Okay okay ). Mad tension’s all around. Do you feel like I’m reaching? Should I pull back? See these two movies yourself, and tell me what YOU see. If it’s my imagination, I’ll eat your hat.
( I can’t be too off because this is touched upon in BNoirDetour’s blog post as well: Here. )
I know I know, classic movies are unfair. Or we look at them unfairly. But after all they ARE from another era. They turned the LGBT experience into closeted furtive situations with killers, murderers, insinuating masseuses and venomous reporters. No one is nice and happy. No one has a loving relationship. Very few are desirable.