Code, Read: Hollywood’s Hays Code and the Queer Stereotypes of the Silver Screen
Thursday, February 5, 2015 to Friday, March 13, 2015
N/A [Screening schedule below]
From the first appearance of subversive same-sex interaction on film, in William K.L. Dickson’s motion picture The Dickson Experimental Sound Film/The Gay Brothers (1895), the representation of LGBTQ characters and themes in popular cinema has been largely stereotypical.
The flamboyant, effeminate, and often comedic caricature of the “sissy” became prominent in early silent cinema, wherein theatricality was necessary to convey a film’s plot. The sissy transitioned easily from silent cinema into talkies, where his unconventional voice and mannerisms secured his role as a comedic staple.
As films of the 1920s and 30s grew more sophisticated, and as Depression-era audiences dwindled, there was increasing demand for more controversial characters. The hitherto harmless sissy was offset both by more complex queer figures and by more scandalous stereotypes. Debates subsequently arose about the negative effect that Hollywood cinema, and its questionable morals, might have upon society as a whole.
In response, the Motion Picture Production Code, or “Hays Code”, put in place a series of censorship guidelines by which the production of indecent or immoral filmic content would be restricted. The institution of the Hayes Code heralded the end of the sissy –and his more complex counterparts– in popular cinema, and the beginning of more reserved queer characters whose true nature was necessarily buried by subtext and innuendo. Between 1930 and 1968, a span that encompassed Hollywood’s Golden Age of film production, queer characters were either obscured through ambiguity or else written out entirely from Hollywood films. Alternatively, since the Hays Code was willing to allow “sexual perversion” if depicted in a negative light, queer characters who remained in the picture were presented as a series of unflattering stereotypes: murderous villains, suicidal misfits, farcical fairies, or sexual rebels in need of reform.
120 years after The Gay Brothers, it is debatable whether the depiction of queer characters in popular cinema is any more nuanced than it once was. What is clear is the effect that artistic censorship had, and continues to have, on depictions of LGBTQ culture in North American film. Code, Read invites the viewer to revisit a selection of lesser-seen pre-Code pictures and Golden Age cinematic classics, decoding their dialogue, plot development, characters and themes from a queer perspective. In the process, it asks viewers to consider how films both reflect and shape social attitudes towards non-normative gender roles and sexualities.
Sunday, February 8, 2015. Begins 7:00 PM *FREE*
Salomé (1923) Dir. Charles Bryant, 74 min. silent
The Biblical King Herod executes John the Baptist at the request of his stepdaughter, Salomé (Alla Nazimova), whom he lusts after. A film adaptation of the selfsame titled Oscar Wilde play.
There is a longstanding rumor, which seems to have started while the film was still in production and has been asserted by chronicler of Hollywood decadence Kenneth Anger, that the film's cast is composed entirely of gay or bisexual actors in an homage to Oscar Wilde, as per star and producer Nazimova's demand.
Tea and Sympathy (1956) Dir. Vincente Minnelli, 122 min.
Tom Lee (John Kerr) is more interested in the arts than in sports, something that sits uneasily with both his father and his classmates. Tom's school house master Bill Reynolds (Leif Erickson) even gives him a hard time for his "effeminate" interests. When Tom visits the town tramp, to sleep with her and thereby prove he is a '"real man,"' she winds up falsely accusing him of rape. The wife of the headmaster (Deborah Kerr) sympathizes with Tom and tries to help him with her own overtures.
In 1956 Bob Thomas of the Associated Press wrote that "many said [the play] could never be made into a movie", since homosexuality could not be mentioned. Deborah Kerr, the lead actress, argued that the screenplay "contains all the best elements of the play. After all, the play was about the persecution of a minority, wasn't it? That still remains the theme of the film."
Friday, February 14 and Saturday, February 15, 2015 6:00 - 9:00 PM
The 36th Rhubarb Festival’s Transgressions in Performance at the CLGA
Sunday, February 22, 2015. Begins 7:00 PM *FREE*
[Bonus: Queer Academy Awards Trivia with prizes]
A Florida Enchantment (1914) Dir. Gladys Rankin, 63 min. silent
In a St. Augustine, Florida resort hotel, heiress Lillian Travers (Edith Storey) discovers her fiancé, Dr. Fred Cassadene (Sidney Drew), in the arms of another woman. Angry and jealous, Lillian swallows a seed found in an antique box from Africa that, an accompanying note claims, came from the Tree of Sexual Change and will end a woman's suffering.
In addition to its depiction of homosexuality, the film is also known for its use of blackface, which was far more common for the period. The intersection of race and sexuality was dissected in Siobhan Somerville's groundbreaking book "Queering the Color Line."
Some Like it Hot (1959) Dir. Billy Wilder, 132 min.
After witnessing a Mafia murder, slick saxophone player Joe (Tony Curtis) and his long-suffering buddy, Jerry (Jack Lemmon), improvise a quick plan to escape from Chicago with their lives. Disguising themselves as women, they join an all-female jazz band and hop a train bound for sunny Florida. While Joe pretends to be a millionaire to win the band's sexy singer, Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), Jerry finds himself pursued by a real millionaire (Joe E. Brown) as things heat up and the mobsters close in.
In 2000, the American Film institute named Some Like it Hot as the greatest American comedy film of all time. At the time of its release, however, it was one of the only American films to receive a "C" or Condemned rating by the Roman Catholic Church's Legion of Decency.
Sunday, March 1, 2015. Begins 7:00 PM *FREE*
Thrills and Chills
Dracula’s Daughter (1936) Dir. Lambert Hillyer, 71 min.
Although Count Dracula was destroyed by Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), who is now being tried for his murder, Dracula's daughter, the Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), is still alive -- and her father's death has brought her no closer to eradicating her vampiric thirst for blood. When attempts to free herself of the disease fail, she turns to psychiatrist Dr. Garth (Otto Kruger) for assistance, but soon finds herself struggling with the desire to make him one of the undead as well.
Universal Pictures highlighted the film’s villain, Countess Zaleska's, unmistakable attraction to women in some of its original advertising for the film, using the tagline "Save the women of London from Dracula's Daughter!"
Rope (1948) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 80 min.
Just before hosting a dinner party, Philip Morgan (Farley Granger) and Brandon Shaw (John Dall) strangle a mutual friend to death with a piece of rope, purely as a Nietzsche-inspired philosophical exercise. Hiding the body in a chest upon which they then arrange a buffet dinner, the pair welcomes their guests, including the victim's oblivious fiancée (Joan Chandler) and the college professor (James Stewart) whose lectures inadvertently inspired the killing.
As Alfred Hitchcock’s most direct treatment of homosexuality, Rope is based on a 1929 play that drew from the Leopold and Loeb murder case. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were University of Chicago students and gay lovers, who murdered a 14 year-old boy to demonstrate their superiority.
Sunday, March 8, 2015. Begins 7:00 PM *FREE*
So Bad it’s Good: B Movies and Queer Cult Classics
Sex In Chains (1928) Dir. William Dieterle, 107 min. silent
A young man (William Dieterle) is convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to a term in prison. There he forms a close relationship with his cellmate and upon his release his wife (Mary Johnson) is concerned as to how prison has changed the man she married.
Sex in Chains is one of the films Wilhelm Dieterle made in his native Germany before escaping the Nazis and becoming a Hollywood director known as William Dieterle.
Glen or Glenda (1953) Dir. Ed Wood, 65 min.
A troubled transvestite reveals his shameful secret to his unsuspecting fiancée.
Shot in four days, the film was loosely inspired by the sex reassignment surgery of Christine Jorgensen, which made national headlines in the U.S. in 1952. George Weiss, a Hollywood producer of low-budget films, commissioned a movie to exploit it. Originally Weiss made Jorgensen several offers to appear in the film, but these were turned down. Ed Wood convinced Weiss that his own transvestism made him the perfect director, despite his modest resume.