One can’t accuse Bob Mizer of being gutless. 1947 was the year he had his first run-in with the law when he had sold the pictures he had made of almost naked bodybuilders to enthusiasts. They were found to be “obscene.” Bob’s barrister advised him to plead guilty in order to avoid a trial. The 25-year-old didn’t listen.
A confession would mean a betrayal of his moral and artistic principles. The prosecutor, the judge and the jury may have found his work indecent, but he certainly did not agree and was ready to go to jail with his head held high. He was convicted to six months in prison and served his time.
As a teenager, Mizer was already obsessed with photography. At the beach he would take pictures of gallivanting athletes, who were so keen to pose for him that it gave him the idea to turn his hobby into his profession. After the death of his father, he was able to support himself and his mother with his own studio, the Athletic Model Guild. The pictures of beach boys were popular country-wide, but when magazines refused to continue placing his advertisements for fear of prudish postal services, he decided to launch his own magazine, “Physique Pictorial.”
The first issue appeared in 1951, and the last in 1991, shortly before Bob’s death. A complete photographic reprint in three large volumes was published by Taschen Verlag in 1997. Some of the print quality was lost in the process, and the later color issues were also reproduced in black-and-white. However, the pleasure of viewing the material is still great, and the publication gives an impressive overview of Bob’s contribution to the unstoppable, but arduous process of gay emancipation in the second half of the twentieth century.
Mizer was a man with a mission, a freedom fighter. Initially, he expressed himself covertly out of sheer necessity. In the first years, his quarterly magazine insisted on the importance of a trained body for an equally trained mind. Apparently, psychiatrists and psychologists had pointed out to him that “Physique Pictorial” had beneficial effects on timid asthenics who would be stimulated by the “extrovert enthusiasm” of the depicted “healthy, happy athletes” to crawl out of their shell and cultivate their biceps. That those shy boys with slender bodies and the idolized powerhouses worshiped by them were frustrated faggots, was one thing that was certain for J. G. from Houston, Texas.
“All body-builders,” he wrote, “are either active or at least repressed homosexuals or else they wouldn’t be so interested in their own bodies. A real man is too busy chasing girls to bother building himself up. Girls want a guy with money and brains who is interested in them, not muscles.” Mizer published this letter and other similar letters to show how homophobic the climate was in the United States in the 1950s, when even buying a reproduction of Michelangelo’s frescos from the Sistine Chapel could get you into trouble! “You are wrong,” J. M. from Cleve in Ohio fulminated in another letter in response to Mizer’s careful plea for tolerance towards “minorities,” “You are wrong to teach tolerance of anything which is abhorrent in the sight of God!” A worried “Christian Counselor” pointed out a pamphlet titled “How to Get Out of Gay Life.” Mizer doubted whether the fans of “Physique Pictorial” would welcome such reading, and referred those who wanted to “get the MOST out of Gay Life” to expert organizations, such as the Mattachine Society.
However, the declarations of support Mizer received were much higher in number. A bed-ridden J. C. from Philadelphia let him know that he experienced each issue of “Physique Pictorial” as a visit by a dear friend.
Beside the pictures of athletes Bob and his colleagues, such as Bruce of Los Angeles, made, the magazine also published reproductions of drawings and paintings by artists such as George Quaintance - somewhat endearing pictures of cowboys and bullfighters, and “historic scenes,” such as the “Baths of Ancient Rome,” showing broad-shouldered bathers with haircuts that certainly were not trendy 2,000 years ago. It was clear that these machos don’t care for the company of women. It was art by gays for gays, art that was painting another picture of gays than was prevalent in the outside world.
“Physique Pictorial” put a stop to the image of softies and sissies, and presented a virile, self-confident alternative. The magazine earned an international reputation (in the Netherlands, the magazine was available at COC Amsterdam). From all over the USA, young men came to Bob’s studio to have themselves immortalized. The painter John Sonsini had always been intrigued by “this gaze” in the eyes of Bob’s models. During his first visit to Mizer, he discovered how this effect was achieved. A not very inspiring man who stood in front of the camera underwent a transformation: he was beaming! Only then, Sonsini saw that there was an enormous mirror hanging above the photographer. “[The model] was looking at himself. All those years, that gaze was them looking at themselves!”
In the censorship days, Bob’s boys were wearing so-called posing straps that were made by Mrs. Mizer, and could be ordered by readers of the magazine. They came in various colors, including turquoise, lavender, pink, “sea-foam green” and “flesh.” They were one dollar, except the “special deluxe Tarzan strap with leopard design,” which cost two dollars. This textile that left the genitals out of the picture, but did expose the buttocks but for an “ass string,” was increasingly irritating readers such as R. K. from New York. He cancelled his subscription as he was fed up with this “prudishness.” Bob completely understood.
He explained that he would love to publish photos that would reveal the full beauty of the male body, and regretted that some were of the opinion that some parts of the male body were “shameful and disgusting.” This was, he argued (and who can argue with that) an insult to God who had created mankind in His own image. But he had to take into account the police and stores that had threatened to discontinue “Physique Pictorial” if the gentlemen in the magazine would show “frontal nudity.”
It would not be until 1969 that the continuing liberalization would allow Bob to give enthusiasts an unobstructed view of the intimate charms of his models. Following the western European countries, Denmark and Sweden in particular, the USA also matured in that respect. From that time Mizer also admitted to what his loyal customers already knew: that he made nude pictures of athletes and that he sold those pictures.
Twelve years earlier, Mizer had made an interesting announcement in his magazine:
AMG IS GOING INTO THE MOVIE BUSINESS!
It became clear to Bob that his clientele was interested in buying or renting movies in which his athletes were showing off their muscles, and he was eager to supply these. He became extremely active in film, and it is estimated that he made movies with a combined length of 8,000 hours. To watch all the footage, one would have to have a projector run continuously for an entire year. The sheer quantity of Bob’s productions - and he was not the only one releasing these beefcake movies - is clear proof of how big the need for such amusement was amongst gay men. In the confines of their own homes, alone or with like-minded, they could unconcernedly enjoy the beauty their hearts was going out to.
The films were available in 16mm or in the cheaper 8mm format, usually did not last longer than fifteen minutes, and could be divided into two categories. The posing films showed one or more models who were doing exercises in front of a static camera. The second category consisted of film with a storyline. Mizer asked his readers for script ideas and promised a free copy of the film if their idea was chosen. The titles speak for themselves: “The Bungling Burglar,” “Initiation Brawl,” “Strip Poker,” “Revenge of the Statues,” “Slave Ship,” “Mudfight,” “Devil and the Country Boy,” “Private Masseur,” “Tommy’s Christmas Present,” “Cell Buddies,” and “Mummy and the Grave Robbers.” I am using the word “endearing” again, as Bob’s actors in general displayed an apparent lack of talent, which became even more evident when AMG switched to movies with sound, and the boys had to speak with one another. Obviously, Gore Vidal was not serious when he wrote to the studio that he only ordered the films because he thought the dialogues were outstanding.
Zest for Life
Mizer was very realistic about the artistic value of his work. “‘Jewel Thief,’” he confessed, “is one of AMG’s worst pictures to date. Very choppy editing, many of the actors constantly missing their cues, and general confusion prevails.” “The Virtuous Athlete” was a promising project, “and yet it turned out to be so poor for several reasons. One cannot escape the fact that ‘muscle boys’ just aren’t easy to work with. For the most part they are so ego-centric that they often find it difficult to cooperate with others as fully as is necessary for a smooth operating project.”
Sometimes Mizer’s problems only started after the shooting. He traveled to Mexico in the summer of 1959 where “Geni in the Bottle” was to be shot, a fairytale movie in which - a rarity for AMG - one of the main characters was a young woman in a bathing suit. The film was sent to an Eastman Kodak branch in Los Angeles for development, but Bob received a letter from the company informing him that the film was “obscene” and should be destroyed. Apparently, the (heterosexual) kissing scene went too far for some technicians. Mizer’s requests to return the film were ignored, and a solicitor was needed to force the company to send it back. Mizer found out that the film was damaged and demanded compensation. Kodak then claimed that Mizer himself was responsible for the damage, and that was the end of it.
A typical film from Mizer’s early period is “Booking a Hood” (1963), released on DVD by Taschen Verlag in 2009. A young criminal is incarcerated by two police officers without the proper observance of the uniform protocol, as one of the handsome guards is only wearing a hat and a posing strap. The prisoner is then stripped for a cavity search for drugs and weapons, which indeed he does carry. Only dressed in a G-string, he is forced to have his picture taken; he lolls to the camera, and when his fingers are dipped in ink for fingerprints, he draws black lines on the cheek of a naked police officer.
He then sprinkles the other police officer with benzine, a grateful excuse to get undressed as well. This man also wears a posing strap, showing the viewer three beautiful butts in the wrestling match that follows. The criminal then seizes a police gun and uses handcuffs to chain his opponents to the bars of the cell. He then triumphantly leaves the station while the smiling officers yell at him, something only lip readers could understand as it is a silent movie.
The plot is wafer-thin, and from a technical point of view, “Booking a Hood” is definitely mediocre. But that is not what is important here. What is important is that we see a homoerotic film with a zest for life. The actors are enjoying the mischief they are up to. They are adults, but play like children. Only a very naive person can miss that this wrestling - recurrent in his films - is a “sublimated” enactment of a ménage à trois. This in sharp contrast with the confused and suicidal people the general public was presented with in the cinema when focusing on homosexuals.
The films by AMG had very little to do with reality, but the Indians, cowboys, sailors and bikers, with or without tattoos, who performed in them (buck naked when this became possible), undoubtedly made a positive contribution in the change for the better in a homophobic climate. Emancipation of a discriminated minority can only be successful if those who belong to that minority show a fighting spirit. Because only if the self-hatred people grew up with is replaced by self-respect, and if their eyes are no longer lowered, but raised with self-awareness to that bully who wants to destroy their happiness.
“Physique Pictorial” and the films Bob produced showed gay men that they were not alone, and that millions of men all over the world felt what they felt, and shared the same desires. “You should be very proud of your fine photography and art work,” a reader wrote in 1962. “Be more positive - no reason to be ashamed. You aren’t going to change the dirty minds anyway.”
Seven years later, gay men and women in New York stopped avoiding the confrontation with their bullies. Police officers who raided the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street for the umpteenth time on June 28, 1969, discovered to their surprise that these “faggots” present at the establishment refused to be meekly taken to the station. Telling blows were dealt to such extent that even the most peace-loving activist had to admit that they were worth more than their message of love. The unrest that lasted for several days in the neighborhood brought momentum to the Gay Liberation movement in the United States.
Shortly before this historic riot, the first public screening of one of Mizer’s film had taken place at a gay festival in the Park Theatre in Los Angeles. “Boy in a Gilded Cage” was dismissed by a reporter of “The Advocate” as “the longest ten minutes in town.” Bob was furious. “The self-styled critic,” he wrote in “Physique Pictorial,” “proved to be more flippant than perceptive (a typical bitch trait). While praise was heaped on the films with a basically raunchy theme, those which emphasized beautiful male bodies aesthetically presented, earned only the reviewer’s scorn. Such a reaction may well have been based on jealousy or sour grapes.
Too, the film has several strata of sub-plots and themes of challenging psychological significance not apparent to a juvenile mind.” Whether “Boy in a Gilded Cage” was really intellectually challenging is questionable. It is more likely that Bob’s contribution to the program seemed outdated. It was the age of a new generation of cinematographers who had more technical skills and for whom all taboos had already been settled. But the freedoms they could afford were conquered with the help of Mizer.
He received some responses to his comments on the article in “The Advocate.” T. W. from Gabriel, California, praised “Boy in a Gilded Cage” as “utterly charming.” D. A. from Los Angeles wrote that he thought the film was “lousy.” Bob published both letters in “Physique Pictorial.” That speaks for him. He died in 1992 and left an enormous archive that is still being inventoried and digitalized by a foundation named after him (gifts are welcome). Mizer’s place in the history of gay photography and film was underlined by the bio pic, “Beefcake” (1998), which was dedicated to him and directed by Thom Fitzgerald. An attractive and humoristic tribute to this eccentric man, even though his friends objected to the impression of an inhibited mummy’s boy the film made, flinching from putting his sexual orientation into practice. His diaries tell a completely different story. He sure as hell was not scared.