from the golden age

How Hol­ly­wood clos­eted queer­ness for cap­i­tal

Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture - - NEWS - By sa­man­tha lad­wig

How Hol­ly­wood clos­eted queer­ness for cap­i­tal.

The early years of Hol­ly­wood were chock-full of risqué films. De­pic­tions of abor­tion, drug use, pros­ti­tu­tion, sex­ual de­sire, and other taboo top­ics were scat­tered through­out the si­lent era and early sound films.

Ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was also fre­quently pro­jected onto the big screen dur­ing those early years, from Mar­lene Di­et­rich’s tuxedo-wear­ing, girl-kiss­ing per­for­mance in Morocco (1930) and Joan Blon­dell help­ing Bar­bara Stan­wyck un­dress in Night Nurse (1931) to di­rec­tor Charles Bryant pay­ing homage to Os­car Wilde with an all-gay cast in Salomé (1923). At the time, film­mak­ers had the free­dom to de­pict cer­tain re­al­i­ties that the in­dus­try would even­tu­ally deem im­moral.

The same can be said of stars off­screen as well. There was a level of dis­cre­tion within the in­dus­try, not to men­tion a pub­lic­ity sys­tem con­trived by stu­dios that cov­ered up any mishaps by pay­ing off re­porters or of­fer­ing up a juicier scan­dal. These schemes al­lowed stars to live some­what au­then­tic lives with­out their ro­man­tic pur­suits, queer or other­wise, in­ter­fer­ing with their pro­fes­sional ones. Un­less their so-called im­moral in­ter­ests di­rectly threat­ened box-of­fice sales, the in­dus­try turned its head.

That is, un­til 1929, when Wil­liam H. Hays drafted what would be­come the Hays Code, or Mo­tion Pic­ture Pro­duc­tion Code, a set of moral guide­lines by which stu­dios were forced to abide. Con­tent that in­cluded, or al­luded to, pro­fan­ity, nu­dity, white slav­ery, use of the flag, a woman’s vir­gin­ity, crim­i­nal sym­pa­thy, kiss­ing, or ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was ei­ther off the ta­ble com­pletely or could only be de­picted with ex­treme cau­tion.

Hays wasn’t a new fix­ture in Hol­ly­wood. In Jan­uary of 1922, Hays, who at the time was chair of the Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee, was hired as pres­i­dent of the Mo­tion Pic­ture Pro­duc­ers and Dis­trib­u­tors of Amer­ica. Be­tween the rape and mur­der of ac­tor Vir­ginia Rappe, for which ac­tor Roscoe “Fatty” Ar­buckle was ac­quit­ted, and the on­go­ing up­roar from re­li­gious groups who be­lieved mo­tion pic­tures were the down­fall of Amer­i­can ideals, the in­dus­try was forced to ac­knowl­edge its faults and needed Hays to help re­pair them. Work­ing with stu­dios, Hays high­lighted prob­lem­atic scenes that the cen­sor­ship board would surely dis­ap­prove of and, as a re­sult, cost the film its dis­tri­bu­tion. Hays re­vamped Hol­ly­wood, but it was in 1929, when the stock mar­ket crashed— push­ing the roar­ing twen­ties into the Great De­pres­sion—that the in­dus­try ex­pe­ri­enced the full im­pact of Hays’s in­flu­ence.

The eco­nomic down­turn proved to be prof­itable for Hol­ly­wood. Movie the­aters filled with peo­ple seek­ing pleas­ant dis­trac­tions from their fi­nan­cial predica­ments. But the newly in­vented talkies brought with them yet an­other wave of moral cri­tique. Re­li­gious groups pointed to what they deemed sug­ges­tive, and there­fore in­ap­pro­pri­ate, di­a­logue in films such as Baby Face (1933) and Red-headed Woman (1932) to val­i­date their ar­gu­ments. With the pub­lic al­ready in dis­tress, these con­ser­va­tive ar­gu­ments had more im­pact. Once again, the need for whole­some con­tent be­came a top pri­or­ity. This time, Hol­ly­wood knew it was go­ing to need more than cen­sor­ship to hold the pub­lic’s interest.

En­ter the golden age of Hol­ly­wood, an era that would pro­duce some of cin­ema’s big­gest clas­sics while si­mul­ta­ne­ously con­trol­ling the on­screen and off­screen lives of its stars.

It’s not that lgbtq ac­tors in Hol­ly­wood pre-1929 lived out and openly with wel­come arms from the pub­lic, but what was once a fairly easy­go­ing in­dus­try sud­denly turned into a strict moral front where the line be­tween per­sonal and pro­fes­sional blurred. Dur­ing the early decades of film, stars were con­tracted to stu­dios, and as a re­sult of the Hays Code, their moral­ity clauses in­ten­si­fied. lgbtq ac­tors were forced to make a choice: give up love or give up act­ing.

If they chose the lat­ter, these ac­tors were gen­er­ally pre­sented with a so­lu­tion to si­lence

any po­ten­tial ru­mors. It was pop­u­lar dur­ing these years for stu­dios to cre­ate ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships be­tween stars as a way to pro­mote up­com­ing re­leases. lgbtq ac­tors were of­fered “laven­der mar­riages,” a pair­ing of one or two ac­tors whose part­ner­ship would di­vert sen­sa­tion­al­ist gos­sip when one bad head­line could tar­nish an ac­tor’s ca­reer for­ever.

Janet Gaynor, the first per­son to win an Acad­emy Award for Best Ac­tress, en­tered into a laven­der mar­riage with renowned cos­tume de­signer Adrian Adolph Green­berg, cred­ited for his work solely as Adrian. Though Gaynor’s sex­u­al­ity has been spec­u­lated about, Adrian was openly gay. That is, un­til the Hays Code came into play. Adrian’s con­tri­bu­tions to cos­tume de­sign are some of the big­gest and best, in­clud­ing Dorothy’s red slip­pers in The Wiz­ard of Oz (1939) and the gowns of Joan Craw­ford, Joan Fon­taine, and Ros­alind Rus­sell in The Women (1939). Both movies were re­leased the same year he and Gaynor ex­changed vows.

Ac­tor and all-amer­i­can heart­throb Rock Hud­son en­tered a laven­der mar­riage in 1955, when Con­fi­den­tial gos­sip colum­nist Hedda Hop­per pre­sented Hud­son with an al­ready drafted ar­ti­cle out­ing him. While Hud­son’s pub­li­cist, Henry Will­son, de­flected Hop­per with a hand­ful of head­lines on other stars, Hud­son quickly tied the knot with Will­son’s sec­re­tary, Phyl­lis Gates. There has been spec­u­la­tion about whether or not Gates was aware of Hud­son’s sex­u­al­ity, but it was no se­cret in Hol­ly­wood.

Not ev­ery Hol­ly­wood star had to make the tough choice though. Nei­ther Mar­lene Di­et­rich nor Greta Garbo, women the stu­dios mar­keted as ex­otic Euro­pean babes, shied away from their bi­sex­u­al­ity. Di­rec­tor Ge­orge Cukor held weekly, men-only pool par­ties at his Los An­ge­les home. Ac­tor Patsy Kelly openly iden­ti­fied as a les­bian and linked her­self to ac­tor Tal­lu­lah Bankhead. Di­rec­tor Dorothy Arzner lived with her part­ner, chore­og­ra­pher Mar­ion Mor­gan, for more than 40 years. De­spite their frank open­ness, these stars con­tin­ued to have lively, award-filled ca­reers. But not ev­ery­one who chose to re­main open was gifted the same treat­ment.

Ac­tor Wil­liam Haines, who starred in movies such as Show Peo­ple (1928) and Tell It to the Marines (1926), among oth­ers, was the top box-of­fice star of 1929 and re­fused to en­ter into a laven­der mar­riage. Haines’s ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was widely known in Hol­ly­wood. From pro­mot­ing gay es­tab­lish­ments to openly liv­ing with part­ner Jim­mie Shields from 1926 on­ward, to be­ing picked up a re­ported three times by the vice squad, Haines over­whelm­ingly re­fused to live a clos­eted life. When Metro-gold­wyn-mayer Stu­dios ex­ec­u­tive

Louis B. Mayer gave Haines an ul­ti­ma­tum— marry bud­ding star­let Joan Craw­ford or for­get about mak­ing movies—haines walked away.

De­spite the sever­ity of this era, this wasn’t the first time the in­dus­try put its box-of­fice sales at the fore­front of its pri­or­i­ties, ma­nip­u­lat­ing the pub­lic to en­sure success. Film pro­ducer Carl Laemmle pi­o­neered this ap­proach when in 1910, he falsely in­formed the news­pa­per

St. Louis Post-dis­patch that ac­tress Florence Lawrence had been killed in a trol­ley ac­ci­dent. Im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing its re­lease, Laemmle re­vealed that Lawrence was very much alive and, in fact, star­ring in his up­com­ing film, The Bro­ken Oath (1910). No­body knew who Lawrence was at the time. But af­ter the story broke with Laemmle’s procla­ma­tion trail­ing be­hind, her pop­u­lar­ity soared, as­sur­ing the up­com­ing film’s fi­nan­cial success.

Fast-for­ward to to­day, and we still see in­stances of fi­nan­cial gain at the ex­pense of pub­lic ma­nip­u­la­tion. From Tay­lor Swift’s timely sex­ual as­sault trial to An­gelina Jolie fi­nally break­ing the si­lence about her di­vorce from Brad Pitt, it’s no co­in­ci­dence that these sto­ries hap­pen to grace the front pages right be­fore the re­lease of Swift’s al­bum and Jolie’s film.

The in­dus­try, from the be­gin­ning, has pri­or­i­tized it­self over the lives of its play­ers. Look­ing at the list of golden age lgbtq ac­tors, it’s clear that out­side of ticket sales, there wasn’t an es­tab­lished cri­te­ria for de­ter­min­ing who had to en­ter into a laven­der mar­riage and who didn’t. Garbo’s and Di­et­rich’s bi­sex­u­al­ity fed into the ex­otic fa­cade that Hol­ly­wood had cre­ated and wanted for them. Cukor’s and Arzner’s jobs were be­hind the cam­era, which sep­a­rated them from pub­lic scru­tiny that fo­cused en­tirely on its on­screen faces. Thus prov­ing that Hol­ly­wood didn’t con­cern it­self with per­sonal mat­ters un­less they in­flu­enced the in­dus­try.

Cen­sor­ship rules lifted as film en­tered the 1950s. Be­tween the birth of tele­vi­sion and the rise in pop­u­lar­ity of for­eign films, Hol­ly­wood found it­self on the los­ing side of its com­pe­ti­tion. Once again, stu­dios found them­selves at the draw­ing board, strate­giz­ing about how to get back on top. The pub­lic was no longer in­ter­ested in whole­some nar­ra­tives. They wanted the racy, ro­man­tic, and con­tro­ver­sial sto­ries that for­eign direc­tors such as Ing­mar Bergman and Fed­erico Fellini were of­fer­ing. And it wasn’t just the pub­lic who sought the non­tra­di­tional; Hol­ly­wood film­mak­ers such as Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger craved this tran­si­tion as well. With so many fi­nally on the side of open­mind­ed­ness, the Hays Code crum­bled.

It’s dif­fi­cult to pin­point just how many laven­der mar­riages oc­curred dur­ing the


golden age of Hol­ly­wood, partly be­cause of celebrity dis­cre­tion, and partly be­cause many lgbtq ac­tors iden­ti­fied as bi­sex­ual. What we do know is that the stu­dio’s level of in­ter­fer­ence jumped sig­nif­i­cantly as the in­dus­try was pushed into the more con­ser­va­tive 1930s, prov­ing yet again that Hol­ly­wood it­self was the top pri­or­ity.

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