Homosexuals have always played a creative role in Hollywood. But gay stories almost never made it to celluloid.
Or did they?
Tonight, Turner Classic Movies cable channel begins Screened Out, an ambitious series on how American movies from 1912 to 1970 dealt with homosexuality. Forty-four films, ranging from rarely seen silent features to mainstream hits, will be shown starting at 8 Monday and Wednesday nights throughout June.
"What people don't realize is that 77 years ago homosexual themes were considered viable enough to be part of mainstream entertainment," said Richard Barrios, whose 2005 book Screened Out is the basis for the series. "I think it's going to open a lot of eyes."
But all that stopped in 1934 with the adoption of the Motion Picture Production Code, which set standards so strict that for 20 years thereafter, movie married couples had to sleep in twin beds. Any open mention of homosexuality was forbidden.
Screened Out looks at films made before and after the code. They cover lots of territory, from early sound comedies featuring "sissy boys" (Our Betters) to decadent, gender-bending costume melodramas dripping with lurid sex and violence (Cecil B. DeMille's The Sign of the Cross).
From the '50s there are social dramas like Tea and Sympathy that take a veiled approach to homosexuality (effeminate young men aren't gay, they're "sensitive"). The thaw that began in the late '60s is represented by movies like The Fox and The Boys in the Band that capitalized on new artistic freedom to unambiguously depict homosexuality.
Barrios not only chose the films for the series but also did on-camera commentaries with TCM host Robert Osborne for more than 30.
It's easy to see the potential for gay content in a movie like 1955's Women's Prison. But Garbo's Queen Christina? Or Gilda and The Maltese Falcon?
"Yeah, I've had people come up to me and say, 'What was gay about that movie?'" Barrios said in a phone conversation from his farm home outside Philadelphia. "And other people get it instantly. They're like, 'Ohhh, yeah.'"
That's because for much of Hollywood's so-called Golden Age, gay themes and attitudes could be expressed only between the lines.
Making Screened Out special is the breadth of its material. Not content to recycle films in the Turner library, Barrios went looking for movies that are hardly seen today.
"We're leading off with this silent movie from 1912, Algie, the Miner, that we had to go to the Library of Congress to get."
Algie is a comedy about an effeminate tenderfoot who goes out West to make his fortune and win his girl. A running gag has him kissing crusty frontiersmen who help him.
"The girl is the escape clause, something mainstream audiences could pick up on and so ignore the fact that Algie is very, very gay," Barrios said.
Until the adoption of the Production Code, American movies were getting racier and racier. Released just before the code went into effect, The Sign of the Cross was about the persecution of the early Christians. It was sold as pious and uplifting but contained a screamingly gay Nero (Charles Laughton), a nude Claudette Colbert bathing in milk and a lesbian dance that Barrios calls "jaw dropping."
But with the code, gay messages had to be camouflaged.
"In Sylvia Scarlett you have Katharine Hepburn posing as a boy, and Brian Aherne is being drawn to this boy and not really understanding why," Barrios said. "Straight audiences might read that one way; gay audiences saw it in an entirely different light."
Some of the films present negative images of gays. Many current films aren't much better, Barrios said.
"Even today you get something like Wild Hogs with lots of stupid gay jokes and stereotypes."
So, what's the current state of gays in film?
Filmmakers today are free to depict homosexual characters as they choose. But they rarely take advantage of that freedom to make artistic statements, according to Jamie Rich, executive director of the Kansas City Gay and Lesbian Film and Video Festival. " You can have gay characters finally be real," Rich said. "No longer does a gay character have to be panicked about being gay. No longer must he be portrayed as a weird outsider."
Screened Out begins tonight on Turner Classic Movies.
8 p.m.: Algie, the Miner (1912)
8:30 p.m.: The Monster (1925)
10:15 p.m. : Exit Smiling (1926)
11:45 p.m.: The Broadway Melody (1929)
1:45 a.m.: Way Out West (1930)
3 a.m.: The Office Wife (1930)
4:15 a.m.: Stage Mother (1933)