Before the end of the Hays Code, movies were stuck in the closet. Here are some of those noteworthy flicks.
Algie the Miner (1912): Cinema began with homosexuality. Well, almost. The earliest filmic appearance of same-sex affection was, as it happens, in the first attempt at synch sound filmmaking: Dickson Experimental Sound Film, made in 1894 or 1895, featured two men dancing. Of course, it would take decades to get any further than that. But by the 1914 short Algie the Miner you had your first coded “sissy.” Silent star Billy Quirk plays a cowboy who dresses flamboyantly and kisses men’s lips rather than slapping their backsides. Throughout the film’s 10 minutes we watch as he’s essentially deprogrammed, his change signified through his graduation from dainty, fashionable guns to bigger, manlier ones. Wink!
Our Betters (1933): By the time the talkies came around, the “sissy” type had become the first gay stock character. Used primarily as comic relief, their second use was to emphasize the masculinity on one side and the femininity on the other. Effeminate, prim, fastidious and quick with a double entendre, their dandiness had to be played down starting in 1930, when the newly enacted Hays Code legislated morals in movies. Franklin Pangborn—seen in Easy Living, Now, Voyager and several W.C. Fields films—is considered a king of the Coded Gay role. But the most extreme may be Tyrell Davis in this George Cukor comedy, whose mincing dance instructor is roughly for gays what Stepin Fetchit was for black people.
Rope (1948): Slipping suggestive material past the Code became an art form, and Alfred Hitchcock was one of its top practitioners. Rebecca featured Judith Anderson as the predatory lesbian maid, while Strangers on a Train had to be cut for American release to tone down the homoeroticism between Robert Walker and Farley Granger. Three years before Strangers, Granger starred alongside John Dall in the “single take” Rope as college friends who murder a classmate just to see if they can get away with it. Rope squeaked past Code officials, but it’s riddled with subtext. The film, which begins with an orgasmic strangulation, was based on gay murderers Leopold and Loeb, and it’s strongly suggested the two men share the one-bedroom apartment setting. And for the record, both Dall and screenwriter Arthur Laurents were gay, while Granger was bisexual.
The Big Combo (1955): There’s always a bit of homoeroticism between hitman partners, but this twisty noir from B-legend Joseph H. Lewis (of the great Gun Crazy) goes one better. Earl Holliman and Lee Van Cleef play assassins so obviously in love, their ending meets with tragedy.
Tea and Sympathy (1956): Racy plays were always popular go-tos for film adaptations. The problem? So many of them feature homosexuality. Thus, out came the scissors. Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which Brick (Paul Newman) broods over his dead lover Skipper, was gutted till the source of his pain was anyone’s guess. Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour was filmed in both 1936 (renamed These Three) and 1961, neither explicitly mentioning one character’s lesbianism. Robert Anderson’s play Tea and Sympathy, meanwhile, features the kind of winking tell signs you get in Algie the Miner. The character Tom (John Kerr) is ostracized at his prep school because he reads, prefers classical music, sews, goes to the theater, walks funny, etc. The word is never dropped and only lightly suggested.
Ben-Hur (1959): When Gore Vidal was hired to do some uncredited work on this epic, he was faced with a dilemma: The characters played by Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd hate each other, but why? Vidal suggested this: They had a tryst in their youth, and while Heston was over him, Boyd was not. This wouldn’t be stated, and only Boyd, who could shoot Heston longing, wounded stares, would know the true motivation. Heston, meanwhile, would remain comically oblivious to such suggestive moments as the two chucked spears and shared goblets. Come 1968, when the Code was dissolved and the MPAA rating system began, filmmakers needn’t be so coy.
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