The Classical Hollywood Baseline

Classical (and pre-classical) Hollywood films (those produced between the 1910s and the 1950s) had little interest in dramatizing homosexual lives or homosexual issues. The very structure of Hollywood narrative form was and is heterosexist: it almost always contains a male-female romance, regardless of story line or genre. If and when homosexual characters appeared in Hollywood films prior to the sexual revolution, they were almost always relegated to walk-on parts or small supporting roles. One notable early exception was A Florida Enchantment (1914), a comedy wherein female characters eat magical sex-changing seeds that turn them into women-chasing lotharios. Much more common was the stereotype of the "pansy," an effeminate male supporting character—often a butler, designer, or choreographer. When the Hollywood Production Code (which specifically forbade the depiction of what it called "sex perversion'') was put into effect in 1934, these characterizations were forced further into the realm of connotation. Hollywood cinema under the Code continued to suggest queerness via the presence of effeminate men and mannish women, but these characters were never explicitly acknowledged as homosexual. Actors such as Edward Everett Horton (1886-1970), Eric Blore (1887-1959), and Franklin Pangborn (1888-1958) made careers for themselves by playing such roles.

Female characters in pre-Code cinema were stronger and more sexually forthright than in post-Code cinema, and occasionally they too gave off a queer aura. For example, Greta Garbo's (1905-1990) Queen Christina (1933) wears pants, runs a country, and kisses her chambermaid rather passionately on the lips—before she falls in love with a man. Similarly, in Morocco (1930), Marlene Dietrich's (1901-1992) character wears a tuxedo and vamps both men and women. Both actresses— Garbo and Dietrich—had large queer fan bases and many rumors surrounded their "real life'' sexualities. Obviously, many queer actors and actresses worked (and continue to work) in Hollywood. Leading silent film stars Ramon Novarro (1899-1968) and Billy Haines (1900-1973) were gay, but as the Production Code was enforced and Hollywood grew more homophobic, their careers faded. Haines was fired from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer because he refused to go along with studio publicity designed to hide his homosexuality. Such arranged publicity stunts included dates and even weddings—the so-called "marriage of convenience.'' For example, Rock Hudson (1925-1985) was briefly married in the 1950s to persuade his fans that he was indeed heterosexual.

Queer people also worked behind the camera in Hollywood, many in costume design (Orry-Kelly [1897-1964], Adrian [1903-1959]), set decoration (Jack Moore [1906-1998], Henry Grace [1907-1983]), and choreography (Charles Walters [1903-1982], Jack Cole [1911-1974]). There were also successful producers and directors who led quiet homosexual lives, including David Lewis (1903-1987), Ross Hunter (1920-1996), Mitchell Leisen (1898-1972), Edmund Goulding (1891-1959), Irving Rapper (1898-1999), Arthur Lubin (1898-1995), James Whale (1889-1957), George Cukor (1899-1983), and Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979). The last three of these are the best known, perhaps because their film work does show more obvious touches of a homosexual sensibility. Whale directed four of Universal's classic horror films (Frankenstein, 1931; The Old Dark House, 1932; The Invisible Man, 1933; and Bride of Frankenstein, 1935) with gay wit and innuendo. Arzner, one of the few women to direct in Hollywood during the classical era, made films such as Christopher Strong (1933) and Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) that showcased strong women and celebrated the bonds between them. Cukor, one of the classical era's most prolific directors, became known chiefly for his women's films and musicals, including Camille (1936), A Star Is Born (1954), and My Fair Lady (1964). Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett (1935) managed to skirt the Code's injunctions against "sex perversion'' even as it featured a cross-dressing heroine (Katherine Hepburn as a young woman impersonating a boy) and all sorts of same-sex infatuations.

Queer filmmakers and fans were often drawn to the musical and the horror film, two genres that often acknowledged queer characters and seem to be steeped in queer sensibilities. The musical, although almost always containing a (highly contrived) heterosexual romance, creates a bright carnivalesque world in which fantasy and reality shift and blur. Real-life hatreds and biases are banished, and people are free to be expressively emotional and physical in nonviolent ways. The Wizard of Oz (1939), starring gay favorite Judy Garland (19221969) and a cast of misfit effeminate men, has become an iconic film in gay culture. The horror film often uses queer traits to characterize its monsters and mad scientists. For example, in Mad Love (1935) Peter Lorre's effeminate madman quotes Oscar Wilde, and vampires (like Dracula's Daughter, 1936) are almost always queerly sexual, seducing both men and women with their unnatural kisses. In fact, the lesbian vampire was the most common image of lesbians on American film screens before the 1980s. The need for queer spectators to rewrite such distorted images and reappropriate others

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