LGBT representation in 1930s movies was not on the strong side – but as Sarah discusses, there are some films to watch out for.
Getting into the world of pre-Code films – the cinema of primarily the 1930s – is an emotional journey. Like with anything, there are always the first loves that propel you deep into this other era of film. Then there’s compulsive watching – the viewing of all the films that you can get your hands on. You read about it, you write about it, and you talk about it non-stop until your friends and family are tired of your chattering
But, again, like with anything, pre-Code movies are not without their flaws and faults. No matter how progressive they are for their perceived time, they’re still dated with representation, including some very overt racist stereotypes (something I’m going to be covering in the future here). Furthermore, there’s the subject of homosexuality and how that’s portrayed in early cinema, and that’s what I’m taking about here.
There’s always going to be contention when it comes to LGBT representation on the big screen. Even today it’s still lacking, stuck in misinformation, gimmicky characters, or causing audience outrage. Though talented voices are driving independent cinema with new voices and queer stories, there’s so much work left to do.
However, when we look back 90 years, it wasn’t as pearl-clutching as you might think – although it certainly wasn’t as explicit or as welcomed as you’d like.
Homosexuality portrayal in the pre-Code era was categorically a mess. After all, these were still times where LGBT people of the era were considered ‘perverse’ or ‘wrong’, conducting their lives under an array of guises. Heck, homosexuality in America wasn’t made legal nationwide until 2003.
As such in the 1930s, homosexual characters were confined to effeminate men or butch women: that was how gay or lesbian characters were showcased. Movies which are heralded now as showcasing LGBT people can equally be criticised. In musicals such as Footlight Parade (1933) and 42nd Street (1933) for example, both have costume designers with camp voices and demeanours which are constantly ridiculed by other characters. Sailor’s Luck (1933) had a much more developed gay man who looked after the swimming pool in the initial script and yet he become a stereotype bit role by the time it came to shooting. In 42nd Street (again) and Ladies They Talk About (1933), lesbian women were burly and big, with characters winking at the screen as they whisper “she likes to wrestle.”
It is no wonder that nowadays, audiences turning to these pre-Code films must dig into the subtext of films to get their LGBT representation. I certainly bristled with joy at the tender moments between Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant (1931). The two supposed rivals for Maurice Chevalier’s affection, Colbert takes Hopkins to one side to give the young blonde girl advice – hence the song ‘Jazz Up Your Lingerie’.
As Colbert jingles on the piano with the catchy tune, Hopkins learns about silk slips and kinky knickers and magically transforms into them. The pair grow a fondness for one another and as they part ways, they linger and loop hands and kiss intensely, prompting much excitement in whomever is watching (me especially.) Why? Because the pair have fair too much chemistry together to waste it on Chevalier’s crooning.
This scene continued to prompt rumours on Colbert’s sexuality but more on that later…
Similarly to how we view say two detectives on, Line Of Duty, or superhero characters brushing hands, when you watch pre-Code movies, you have to read between the lines to get some sweet ass LGBT content. For example, in Mille (1931), Joan Blondell and Lilyan Tashman have often been presumed lesbians in their supporting best friend roles to Helen Twelvetree’s titular role. They share a bed, they do everything together, and have a natural ease with one another. However, plenty of women of the time – thanks to the depression – shared flats and mattresses to have somewhere comfy and warm to sleep. But who are we to say that they didn’t fool around or do anything whilst sharing that bed?
This isn’t to say that pre-Code is completely devoid of explicitly saying ‘here are some lesbians’. And occasionally, you get a treat. As we spoke about before in this column, Claudette Colbert swims naked in a bath of ass-milk seductively calling her naked friend in to join in the Cecil B. DeMille’s racy The Sign Of The Cross (1931). Later, the film would have a woman doing an intensely saucy number to entice a Christian lady into joining the rampant Romans in their orgy. There is only text here.
Greta Garbo took the lead in Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina, a biographical film about the Queen of Sweden. If you’re familiar with your history, you’ll know that Queen Christina was known for dressing as a man and sending love letters to many women. Mamoulian here does well to acknowledge that she decreed herself a bachelor, kisses her friend Ebba many times, and also flirts knowingly with women. However, the film detours into a love affair that we know Christina didn’t have. Though the ending leaves her single once more, wouldn’t it have been more satisfying if she ran into the arms of her friend Ebba?
So that’s it for queer representation in Hollywood pre-Code movies, I mean who else do we have to talk about? No one whatsoever. Oh, I’m totally kidding. We haven’t even touched on the glorious Marlene Dietrich Join us for future articles where we look at Dietrich’s contribution to LGBT history as well as a look at the tender 1931 German film, Madchen In Uniform…
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