Five gay films from an era when queer themes were invisible in Hollywood | Bleader

Friday, March 23, 2018

Five gay films from an era when queer themes were invisible in Hollywood

Posted By on 03.23.18 at 06:00 AM

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click to enlarge Farley Granger and John Dall in Rope
  • Farley Granger and John Dall in Rope
Before the 1970's, queer characters and themes were all but invisible in Hollywood films. Sometimes coded references clued people in; sometimes gay viewers would interpret a film differently than was intended to find points of identification ("reading across the grain," as theorists would say). Facets Cinémathèque's screening of Basil Dearden's 1961 British film Victim (with an accompanying lecture by Northwestern film professor Nick Davis) provides an opportunity to highlight five pre-Stonewall Hollywood films (one per decade, 1920s-'60s) that have become iconic (if not always queer-positive) works in gay cinema history.


The Wild Party
Clara Bow's movies have dated in the most charming manner imaginable: no other female star of the 20s tells us as much about flappers, and in their own idiom too. This 1929 feature (her first talkie) bears no relation to Joseph Moncure March's ribald 1928 poem: the plot, which has to do with Bow falling for her anthropology professor (Fredric March) at a women's college, benefits from the direction by Dorothy Arzner, a specialist in female camaraderie. Because she spoke with a working-class Brooklyn accent, Bow worried that the microphone would kill her career; although she made only eight more pictures after this one, she handles herself here with admirable aplomb—especially considering that Paramount gave her only two weeks to prepare. 77 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Sylvia Scarlett
For my money, this 1935 feature is the most interesting and audacious movie George Cukor ever made. Katharine Hepburn disguises herself as a boy to escape from France to England with her crooked father (Edmund Gwenn); they fall in with a group of traveling players, including Cary Grant (at his most cockney); the ambiguous sexual feelings that Hepburn as a boy stirs in both Grant and Brian Aherne (an aristocratic artist) are part of what makes this film so subversive. Genre shifts match gender shifts as the film disconcertingly changes tone every few minutes, from farce to tragedy to romance to crime thriller—rather like the French New Wave films that were to come a quarter century later—as Cukor's fascination with theater and the talents of his cast somehow hold it all together. The film flopped miserably when it came out, but it survives as one of the most poetic, magical, and inventive Hollywood films of its era. John Collier collaborated on the script, and Joseph August did the evocative cinematography. 95 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Rope
Alfred Hitchcock's legendary 1948 experiment with a continuous-take cinema. The entire 80-minute film consists of only 10 or 12 shots, with the shifting emphases of Hitchcock's gliding camera taking the place of traditional montage techniques. The style is extremely claustrophobic and controlling, which matches the theme of the Patrick Hamilton play on which the film is based: two epicene young men (Farley Granger and John Dall) arbitrarily murder a college classmate, place his body in a trunk in the middle of their apartment, and then invite the victim's friends and family for a cocktail party. Hitchcock liked to pretend that the film was an empty technical exercise, but it introduces the principal themes and motifs of the major period that would begin with Rear Window. With James Stewart, Joan Chandler, and Cedric Hardwicke. 80 min. —Dave Kehr

Tea and Sympathy
Dated and bowdlerized but nonetheless sincere, Vincente Minnelli's 1956 'Scope version of a Robert Anderson play—adapted by the author, with Hays Office censorship—is about a persecuted, effeminate schoolboy taken under the wing of an older woman, with John Kerr and Deborah Kerr (no relation) re-creating their stage roles. The result may be less memorable or celebrated than Minnelli's other 'Scope melodramas (e.g., The Cobweb, Home From the Hill, Some Came Running), but it's still probably better than most contemporary movies. With Leif Erickson, Edward Andrews, and Darryl Hickman. 122 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Reflections in a Golden Eye
John Huston directed this 1967 adaptation (by Chapman Mortimer and Gladys Hill) of Carson McCullers's tortured novel about an army major at a peacetime camp in Georgia who's a repressed homosexual (Marlon Brando), his adulterous wife (Elizabeth Taylor), and various other unhappy characters and gothic traumas. Originally shot (by Aldo Tonti) in gold-tinted hues that suggested caterpillar guts—a gimmicky effect that was widely applauded at the time for artistic originality, though its aesthetic function was dubious—the film now circulates in more conventional color. Either you like this movie a lot or you run screaming for the exit; I find it rough going. With Julie Harris and Brian Keith. 108 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

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