William Wellman’s epos “Wings” (1927) is remarkable in more than one way. It was the first picture to receive an Oscar in the category Best Motion Picture; one of the first pictures with nudity (medically examined recruits were naked with their backs to the camera); it was also one of the first in which a man passionately kisses another man.
Jack and Dave serve as pilots in the US Army during World War I. Dave crashes behind enemy lines and takes possession of a German plane to return to base. His buddy doesn’t suspect who controls the plane and shoots it to the ground, lethally injuring Dave. Their parting is dramatic and comes with hugs, caresses and tears.
“You - you know there is nothing in the world that means so much to me as your friendship?” Jack asks. And Dave replies: “I knew it - all the time.” He is then wildly kissed by Jack and dies. Dave is then carried off by Jack in an intensely moving scene that recalls the most beautiful Pietàs from the Renaissance.
“Wings” was not about gay men - the heroes are straight men who are after the same girl -, but this scene, wonderfully acted by handsome actors, must have made a deep impression on gay men (and veterans who experienced first-hand how close the bond between soldiers could be) at the time. The extras in the film and the general public did not find the kiss goodbye ridiculous or offensive, for it was not about “unnatural” passion. It would take a long time before two amorous men would kiss each other on the big screen without creating negative reactions of other characters and men and women in the audience.
‘Perversion is Rampant’
In 1915, the US Supreme Court had ruled that film producers were solely motivated by profit. The freedom of speech that was anchored in the constitution, was not something they could appeal to, unlike, for example, newspaper publishers. This ruling paved the way for the introduction of censorship committees in some states. Hollywood was very concerned about this and chose to self-regulate, also because the free and easy personal lives of some movie stars interested the tabloids tremendously. The Hollywood bosses communicated that some things could not be shown by the Dream Factory, or only with the utmost discretion.
Drug trafficking, intimate relationships between white and colored people, “suggestive” (i.e. titillating) nudity, any reference to “sexual perversion,” the disrespectful use of God’s name, and expletives like “Hell!” and “Damn!” were strictly taboo. For the Catholic editor of “The Motion Picture Herald,” this still was not enough. Together with a Jesuit father, he wrote a document that served as the basis for the Motion Picture Production Code that came into effect in 1930. The code imposed clear restriction, including restrictions on the portrayal of homosexuality. The film industry was to uphold traditional family values; authorities and members of the clergy were not to be mocked, and a kiss could not last longer than three seconds.
It was another Catholic, Joseph Ignatius Breen, who took the helm at the newly established Production Code Administration in 1934. “Our American people,” he declared, “are a pretty homely and wholesome crowd. Cock-eyed philosophies of life, ugly sex situations, cheap jokes and dirty dialogue are not wanted. Decent people don’t like this sort of stuff and it is our job to see to it that they get none of it.”
For two decades, Breen would chase directors, producers and screenwriters, forcing them to make far-reaching changes to scripts and cuts that did not improve the movies. What this grand inquisitor wrote in a letter to a priest is revealing: Hollywood, he wrote, was “a rotten bunch of vile people with no respect for anything beyond the making of money. Drunkenness and debauchery are commonplace. Sexual perversion is rampant. Any number of our directors and stars are perverts. Ninety-five percent of these folks are Jews of an Eastern European lineage. They are, probably, the scum of the earth.”
Between the Lines
Besides Breen’s interventions, a Catholic National League of Decency emerged from the episcopate and was led by a Jesuit. Gore Vidal later on remembered him as “a shark. I must have had five meetings with him [during the making of “Suddenly, Last Summer” in 1959]. ‘You can’t say this, you can’t say that...’ By the time we started to cut it was making no sense at all. It was like working under the Kremlin, you know, like writing for Pravda.”
Hollywood had to put up with this interference, as the Church threatened with a boycott if it did not cooperate. If the flock from the pulpit was forbidden to see movies, they would miss out on a lot of ticket sales. It was a power struggle that in the end would be settled in the wake of the sexual revolution, finally beating the league.
From the outset, the movie studios tried to free themselves from the shackles of stifling regulations. As Vidal remarked: “You did learn how to write between the lines.” “Suddenly, Last Summer” was about homosexuality. The word isn’t mentioned during the movie, but for those who are not totally deaf or blind, it is perfectly clear that Sebastian preferred men.
It is therefore incorrect that gay characters were not present in American movies. They were always present, be it that in the beginning they were a fringe group, as a comical note, following the clichés (that were only reinforced) of being superficial, feeble and fashion-crazy. And ever since the introduction of sound in 1927, their voices usually had a ridiculously high pitch. They were freaks one did not take seriously, usually making a living as an interior designer or couturier. These perfumed impersonations were the pink contrast that made the “normal” masculine man look exemplary and reassuring. Young gays in the closet, sitting next to their laughing fathers and brothers in the cinema, would not have been encouraged to discuss their homosexuality at home.
The references to homosexuality in movies as “Red River,” a western from 1948, were more humoristic because it was done with more subtlety. Two cowboys, played by John Ireland and Montgomery Clift, at some point come down from their horse.
“That’s a good-looking gun you’re about to use back there,” Ireland says, looking at Clift’s holster. “Can I see it?”
The (bisexual) Clift Ireland looks at him in a naughty and tempting way, rubbing his thumb over his right nostril before pulling out his gun and silently handing it to his friend. His toy clearly impresses him.
“Would you like to see mine?” he asks, while Clift grabs it with a big smile.
“You know,” Ireland continues, “there are only two things more beautiful than a good gun: a Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. You ever had a... good Swiss watch?”
“Go ahead, try it,” Clift says, and the cowboys then shoot at an empty beer can.
“Hey, that’s very good!”
“Hey, hey, that’s good too. Come on, keep it going.”
The ambiguity of this scene escaped the censors entirely.
Less hilarious was the fate of the aforementioned Sebastian in “Suddenly, Last Summer.” He was torn to pieces by Spanish village boys, the kind of ending for gay characters that was the rule rather than the exception in American movies. Their existence could not be ignored - the Kinsey report of 1948 had shown that sex between men occurred more frequently than people thought - and it no longer had to be ignored since the 1961 revision of the Motion Picture Production Code, which had stricken homosexuality off the list of forbidden subjects. But on the silver screen, gay men and lesbian women were not living happily ever after.
Vito Russo, author of “The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies” (1981), surveyed in his book what they had to endure: bullets, knives, poison and the hangman’s rope. Suicide was the logical conclusion for these poor souls, branded from the day they were born. Like Martha (played by Shirley MacLaine) puts it in “The Children’s Hour” (1961): “I am guilty! Don’t you see? I can’t stand to have you touch me! I can’t stand to have you look at me! Oh, it’s all my fault! I have ruined your life and I have ruined my own! I swear I didn’t know it! I didn’t mean it! Oh, I feel so damned sick and dirty, I can’t stand it anymore!” And so she hangs herself.
Those who wanted to make a movie in which homosexuals were not depicted as freaks for a change and was critical of the inequality they had to endure, could count on incomprehension and resistance. Dirk Bogarde, who played a homosexual lawyer in “Victim” (1961) who is confronted by blackmail, recalls that during the contract procedures, a lawyer wanted to wash his hands after reading the script, and that the actors were treated with hostility by technical staff while shooting the movie.
A critic wrote that this British film implied the “approval of homosexuality as a practice.” He found this “offensive.” Nowhere, he lamented, the message was communicated that “homosexuality is a serious but curable neurosis that attacks the biological basis of life itself.” Viewers were also still struggling to change their views. In “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” (1971) the main character Peter Finch gives a young man a deep kiss. The audience watched breathlessly, and some theaters refused to show the movie. Singer Shirley Bassey, a friend of Finch, made it clear that the scene had made her sick, forcing her to leave the theater.
Another trend was to stage gay men as sadists, psychopathic rapists and murderers, who would be brutally butchered at the end of the story. The absolute low point was the distasteful film “Cruising” (1980), which led to massive protests from the now emerging gay movement, which stated, in Ronald Gold’s words, that it completely had it with that “bunch of bigots who want their constitutional right to express their hatred of us.”
Summarizing, one could say that in general and up to the 1980s, homosexuals were depicted as laughable, pitiable and/or off-putting. Men who liked men could not expect much from conservative Hollywood, but this didn’t mean they were deprived of gorgeous moving pictures of male beauty, on the condition that they owned a projection screen and a cheap projector to create their own home cinema. In these bizarre times, things would become livelier from a former mortuary in Los Angeles, the headquarters of an indefatigable provider of nudity. His name was Bob Mizer.