Frederic Lord Leighton's Flaming June
June, in addition to being Vision Research Month, Fireworks Safety Months, Light the Night for Sight Months, National Candy Month, Adopt-a-Shelter-Cat Month, Cancer in the Sun Month, Dairy Month, National Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Month, National Iced Tea Month, National Pest Control Month, Safety Month, Scleroderma Awareness Month, and Zoo and Aquarium Month, is also Gay and Lesbian Pride Month, first established by Bill Clinton back in '00. Therefore, I may in the coming weeks blog about iced tea or become aware of Scleroderma, but for now I will focus on Gay Cinema.
One of the first things I noticed about gay people's feelings toward Gay Cinema is that they're almost all negative. Exceptions are usually foreign films, which are almost invariably downers. The first year Amoeba observed Gay and Lesbian Pride month in the movie department in the form of a display, we all had an uncomfortable chuckle about the unfailingly depressing storylines of the films we featured. Films based on the lives and deaths of famous gays like Joe Orton, Brandon Teena, Oscar Wilde and James Whale all ended tragically. And here I thought gay meant happy!
The history of Gay Cinema is quite unlike most minority driven alternatives to Hollywood. Unlike American Asians, blacks, Latinos and Natives -- whose identities have always been fairly obvious (except in cases of passing) -- gays have always had the option of remaining invisilble. Therefore, gays were never required to sit in the back of the bus, attend special schools or live in segregated neighborhoods. In the silent film industry, most gay actors understandably chose to hide their identitites. Though there are few overt representations of homosexuality in silent films -- mostly in European films -- most are merely hinted at. More importantly, however, the contributions of gays both in front of and behind the camera are many and noteworthy.
In 1895, Irish celebrity, genius, comic, dandy and second-most-read author in the English language, Oscar Wilde, was arrested on charges of "gross indecency." On the stand, he eloquently defended his position:
"The love that dares not speak its name" in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a
younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his
philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep
spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like
those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in
this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as "the love that
dares not speak its name," and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is
fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it
repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the
younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world
does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it."
The courts were unmoved and Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labor, which destroyed his fame and person. Given the climate of the time and the relative ease at concealing their sexual orientations, Gay Cinema was, in most cases, coded and subtextual for many years. In the US, depictions of homosexuality were forbidden in by the censors. Thus there would be no minority-serving alternatives along the lines of Asian-American Cinema or Black Cinema for decades to come. As a result, what is Gay Cinema is much more up for debate in a way that other minority cinemas are not and arguing about what/who is/isn't gay seems to be practically a pastime.
Then as now, Hollywood was full of gay and bisexual actors such as William Haines, Edmund Lowe, Lilyan Tashman, Alla Nazimova, Charles Bryant, Clifton Webb, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Louise Brooks. In order to keep up appearances, many paired up in front marriages, sometimes with straights and other times with gays of the opposite sex. For the most part, many were widely known to be gay or bisexual within Hollywood.
A few gay actor made no efforts to hide their preferences. Tallulah Bankhead, for example, was one of the few actresses to live her life completely out of the closet, bragging that she bedded Greta Garbo, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford. But most actors stayed in the closet for their own safety. When an actor's homosexuality was too well known, violence often resulted. When William Haines and his boyfriend Jimmy Shields were too obviously gay, they were attacked by an angry mob. Minority gays seemed to have it twice as bad. Luis Antonio Damaso de Alonso not only had to anglicize his name to Gilbert Roland to be accepted within Hollywood, he also married a woman in order to maintain his commercial appeal as a "Latin Lover." Another Latino actor, Ramon Novarro, ended up being beaten to death.
Gays behind the camera were uninteresting to celebrity worshippers and therefore mostly ignored by scandal rags. As a result, they often went to less trouble to hide their homosexuality than those in the public eye. Gay directors of the silent film era include Edmung Goulding, F.W. Murnau, James Whale ("The Queen of Hollywood"), Jean Cocteau, Mauritz Stiller and the completely uncloseted, butch Dorothy Arzner. That's not to say they didn't sometimes run afoul of scandal. Gay director George Cukor was arrested at least once on vice charges, although his connections got them dropped and the scandal rags said nothing of it. Few risked depicting homosexuality overtly, instead relying on subtle gay subtexts that went past the offendable. Nonetheless, there is evidence that some of their careers were impacted by knowledge within the industry of their homosexuality, with several finding difficulty sustaining careers despite their commercial viability.
Some argue that the first gay film is 1985's Dickson Experimental Sound Film, directed by William Dickson. It's also the first known sound film. The film depicts Dickson playing "Song of the Cabin Boy" whilst two men dance. Some have argued that there is no actual suggestion that the dance partners are meant to depict a couple but, "The film depicts Dickson playing 'Song of the Cabin Boy'," and it does, in its seventeen seconds, include more homoeroticism than the entire Philadelphia. In Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet, he asserts (without citation) that the film was known as The Gay Brothers although the term "gay" was rarely used to refer to homosexuals in the Gay '90s.
I don't think reading L'éclipse du soleil en pleine lune as gay actually requires much in the way of mental acrobatics. Not that it offers much in the way of overtly sympathetic portrayals of homosexuality, just a camp chuckle and some amazing pre-CGI special effects.
Some have suggested that Alice Guy-Blaché's Algie the Miner depicts the first obviously gay character. I would argue that he's merely a sissy, an archetype not always associated with homosexuality as it is now. In A Florida Enchantment, characters ingest magic seeds which turn them gay for comedic effect.
When Sweden's Mauritz Stiller (himself gay and best known for Sir Arne's Adventure) directed Vingarne, he depicted the first overt and non-comedic gay (and bisexual) characters. Commissioned by sexologist Magnus Hirschfield, Anders als die Andern followed a few years later as a protest against the infamous Paragraph 175. After stirring up controversy, it was subsequently restricted to audiences in the medical profession.
Algie the Miner (1912), A Florida Enchantment (1914), Vingarne (1916), Anders als die Andern (1919)
Germany ruled the gay roost in the 1920s, thanks in part to the atmosphere of the Weimar Republic. Mikaël was Carl Theodor Dreyer's adaptation of the same novel that had previously been turned into Vingarne. Alla Nazimova purportedly requested that Salomé's parts be entirely cast from gay performers. The resulting film, a highly stylized, decadent visual feast, was a financial flop.
Salomé (1923), Mikaël (1924), Jean Cocteau, fait du cinema (1925), Gesetze der liebe (1927), Geschlecht in fesseln - Die sexualnot der gefangenen (1928), Die büchse der Pandora (1929), Das tagebuch einer verlorenen (1929)
In conclusion, whilst gay actors and directors may've kept all things gay hidden (for the most part) in the silent era, it's hopfully obvious that they nonetheless played a considerable role in advancing all aspects of film as an important art, paving the way for everything from the cult, gay experimental films in the early sound era to the mostly not-worthy-of-a-raised-eyebrow gay films of the present.
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