Playing Gay In Hollywood illuminates queer film history

In one clip from the 1930s movie Crooner, a lesbian is depicted as having a deep voice, a short haircut, and most bizarrely, a monocle. In early motion pictures, a woman with a monocle was understood to be gay. While movies like Brokeback Mountain and The Kids Are All Right are recent, progressive examples of gay lifestyle in cinema, they owe a lot to the more subtle, if slightly wacky, depictions that came before. 

As part of its month-long series of events for Queer History Month, Emerson’s Alliance for Gays, Lesbians, and Everyone sponsored the most recent Bright Lights event, Screened Out: Playing Gay In Hollywood on Oct. 17 in the Bright Family Screening Room. 

“It’s so easy for people of our generation to forget queer history before now,” said junior Dana Justine Nurse, a writing, literature, and publishing major who serves as co-president of EAGLE. “We kind of forget that gay people always existed.” 

The event was inspired by a book of the same name, written by Richard Barrios in 2007. In the book, Barrios chronicles the depiction of gay characters and relationships in film from the pre-World War II era up until the Stonewall Riots, a series of protests by the gay community of New York City in 1969. 

For Barrios, it was the idea of a specific time period about a certain group of people that film historians had previously left unexplored that led him to write the book and compile the footage. 

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“The portrayals had to be very subtle and very coded,” said Barrios at the event. “Sometimes they were brave. Sometimes cowardly. Sometimes just strange.” 

The two-hour program, featuring a guest lecture by Barrios himself, showcased clips from 20 different movies, starting with the 1930 film Reaching For The Moon  and going up until 1970 with The Boys In The Band. The event complemented Barrios’ book. 

“I wanted to put together, on film, a medley of the many ways movies would show gay characters and relationships,” said Barrios

One movie showcased was the not entirely subtle 1950 film Caged, which features heavy gay undertones, as the film is set inside a women’s prison. In fact, the newly incarcerated main character has to fight against the romantic advances of a fellow inmate. Consider it a precursor to Orange Is The New Black.

All of the clips were presented on actual celluloid film, with the grain and scratches of the prints aesthetically appropriate for this film history lesson. Often, screenings in the Bright Family Screening Room are digitally formatted, according to program director Anna Feder. 

For senior interdisciplinary major Amber Bigwood, also on the EAGLE board, this event was just one of many meant to honor Queer History Month. According to Bigwood, it’s critical that EAGLE sponsors events like this. 

“It’s extra important that we do this stuff because no one else will,” said Bigwood. “Every group needs their voice.”

But as Barrios said during his lecture, that “gay voice” wasn’t always the most positive. One entry, 1969’s politically incorrect The Gay Deceivers, was particularly guilty of this.  The film was about two guys who pretended to be in a relationship to avoid being drafted into the army. Moments of campiness in the clip, which shows the two men moving into a gay-friendly condominium, had the audience both laughing and cringing. Of particular ire, the film’s trailer, which played before the clip, called it “the darndest, gayest fairytale of the big screen.”

“Obviously,” said Barrios, referencing that movie and many other politically incorrect clips, “in the 43 years since the last clip was made, we have come a long way.”

And it’s that progress that attracted EAGLE’s attention. For the organization, this event was the perfect chance to illuminate a rare glimpse into old Hollywood and how gay people were portrayed, two things of particular interest for a school with many members of both communities. 

Last Thursday night was just one reminder from EAGLE that queer history is worth remembering, according to Bigwood.

“It’s easy to overlook what has already happened,” she said after the event. “Tonight was an interesting moment to step back.”