Lebian & Gay In Hollywood

My presentation to the Rainbow History Group in DC

A Different Light: Gays and Lesbians in Hollywood Media

Those familiar with our history know that during the twentieth century the vast majority of gays and lesbians depicted in the mass media led desperate, unhappy lives. Whether you saw the documentary The Celluloid Closet or you read old books and newspapers, in the movies and in the novels, gays and lesbians were victims of murder or suicide, or depicted derisively. As scholars ranging from Richard Dyer to George Chauncey have noted all of these images in popular culture strengthened the dominant gender and sexual norms of US culture.

Not everywhere. Gossip columns, novels and movies set in the Hollywood movie colony during the 1920s and 1930s showed complex and generally positive depictions of gays and lesbians as well as adulterers. Similar to other Hollywood publicity and gossip items the stories and publicity items linked these gays and lesbians to specific locations in Hollywood. These Hollywood Bohemians titillated audiences and made Hollywood nightclubs and restaurants, public and private parties, star homes, and the studio lots appear very unique because they associated these locations with a taboo sexuality.

Readers of gossip columns learned that director Dorothy Arzner favored man-tailored suits when she dined out at restaurants in Hollywood. They learned that actress Marlene Dietrich created a mild sensation when she arrived at the El Mirador hotel…She wore masculine attire for all occasions….

Paramount’s publicity department framed the Dietrich image as the start of a fashion trend but others saw the image hinting at Dietrich’s lesbian interests. Director Josef Von Sternberg noted he used Dietrich’s tailored image to touch lightly on lesbianism and Rogers and Hart included the line “I go to the tailor that Marlene employs because no dresses from France are so modern as these. And under my Pants are B–V–D’s —… in their song, I’m One of the Boys.

One industry columnist stated, “The truth about that masculine attire which Marlene Dietrich affects these days is this. She liked wearing that sort of clothes–trousers. Paramount objected. Marlene insisted on trotting about in pants. Finally they gave up. ‘Oh well,’ sighed Paramount, ‘then we’ll make a cult of it exploit Marlene in men’s clothes.’”

The Dietrich campaign proved successful because audience members remembered it years later. When readers visited Hollywood a few years later they regularly asked whether Miss Dietrich really wore trousers. Guides told visitors that the Brown Derby would be a good place to see the star for their self. The guides’ advice confirmed the accuracy of the Dietrich publicity campaign. They also gave the visitors the chance to experience the Hollywood nightlife fantasy themselves.

3brettabrams1

One of the early scenes from R-K-O’s 1932 movie, What Price Hollywood? is set in the Brown Derby where movie types, such as the egotistical actor and the demanding studio head, dined. The waitress, who aspires to be a movie star, serves these customers. The movie switches outside to the entrance of a big-time movie director.

[show clip of Sherman entering Brown Derby from What Price Hollywood?] (9:33-12:50)

The image indicated the ubiquity of the mannishly-dressed lesbian in Hollywood nightlife. This Bohemian represented another Hollywood type at the restaurant, with the requisite wealth and stature to eat in the notable place. Yet the scene introduced the cross-dresser differently, exposing her in a surprise to heighten the exposure of a person who engages in taboo behavior.

This Hollywood Bohemian image became so widely known that a guide book told tourists where to go to find them. The book, How to Sin in Hollywood appeared in 1940 and provided descriptions about Hollywood restaurants, cafes, and nightclubs. The author divided the book into sections based on the type of nightlife experience the reader wanted. Each section contained a page of details including the nightclub’s location, entertainment, and food and drink offerings to help tourists find and experience Hollywood nightlife.

The book included a visual presentation of this Hollywood bohemian world. Opposite the descriptive information, a cartoonist drew two women in tuxedos above the caption, “the little girl customers.” One is smoking a cigar and the other wore prominent lipstick, images reminiscent of the women in men’s clothing discussed earlier.

Cafe International

“When Your Urge’s Mauve,” [go to] the Cafe International on Sunset Boulevard. The location offered supper, drinks, and the ability to watch boy-girls who necked and sulked and little girl customers who … look like boys.

Certainly some of the people interested in visiting were little more than what historians have labeled as “slummers,” people who went to see the taboo as an exotic other then resumed their everyday life. Others could use the book to find like minded souls. The Café International’s existence demonstrated that during a time when historians found state liquor authorities closing down gay and lesbian clubs, Hollywood had this viable location.

The public had less access to Hollywood private parties than restaurants and relied on Hollywood sources to know what happened at them. Gossip columns listed names of the attendees and often mentioned the exciting environs of the party. Hollywood novelists provided more details about the activities inside these affairs.

A popular author of the era, Nina Putnam included a few Hollywood private party scenes in her novel Laughter Limited. The scenes depicted the private parties as locations that offered attendees a place where they could express their most intense emotions. According to her book, movie stars and their guests used parties to seize the opportunity to pursue their romantic interests regardless of the marital status or biological sex of the person they pawed.

Other authors agreed. A movie critic and non-fiction writer Tamar Lane picked up on this in his novel, Hey Diddle Diddle. At a party readers learned that chatting together in a group were Raymond Cauldwell, William Pearson and Rudolph Norman. Although famous throughout the world as romantic heartbreakers, the fair sex seemed to hold no attraction for them off the screen- they appeared always far more interested in one another.

Lane used a tactic that enhanced the audience’s belief in the truth of his Hollywood private party image. Partygoers included the names of living stars as well as Lane’s fictional characters. This was the only scene in the book where Lane did this, marking his intention to illustrate the truth of the scene including its trio of homosexual actors.

Hollywood star homes publicity emphasized that the size, stature, and décor of the house had the best of civilization, similar to the depictions of other wealthy Americans’ houses in magazines and books since the late nineteenth century. The images also linked the star home to the personality of its owner more so than images of other houses. Hollywood Bohemian images added a good twist to that personality in their expensive home.

Two actors in the 1930s enjoyed a charmed life at the Malibu Beach house. The first publicity images containing information about Cary Grant and Randolph Scott began after they became friends while filming the movie, Hot Saturday in mid-1932. Press reports during the first two years described the actors’ shared celebrity homes and domestic life through phrases including, “Hollywood’s twosome” and “the happy couple.” The innuendos provided details about the two actors’ personal lives which thrilled fans, but also added the excitement of making the actors appear to be two men sharing more than lodgings.

The pair continued their domestic relationship even after Grant’s marriage to Virginia Cherrill in early 1934. Reporters noted, “The Grants and Randolph Scott have moved, all three, but not apart.” Indeed, this choice for living arrangements appeared preplanned. An item from two weeks prior to Grant’s marriage observed that Scott would not seek any permanent quarters until he heard from Grant. Innuendoes continued later that year. Shortly after Grant’s divorce from Cherrill, an article proclaimed that Randolph Scott had moved back in with Grant. This article’s title, “A Woman is Only a Woman,” suggested that the two men formed a home life with one another that they probably could not have with a woman.

Paramount publicity department shot over thirty photographs of Grant and Scott within different rooms of their Santa Monica beach house. The studio focused its interpretation of these pictures on the stars’ personalities, bachelorhood, and use of the house. The caption stamped on the back of each photograph highlighted that the actors were two of filmland’s most eligible bachelors who shared quarters but lived independent lives.

However, readers of Hollywood Babylon have seen the photograph of Scott and Grant sitting in their bathing suits on the end of the diving board with Scott’s hands hovering over Grant’s back. They took this provocative photograph as well.

grant_scott

Scott and Grant stood on their patio in the early evening. They appeared in silhouette, as Pacific Ocean waves crested behind them. Scott touched his lit cigarette against the cigarette dangling from Grant’s mouth. The image of a male and female couple lighting cigarettes within a beautiful night scene at home appeared most frequently in cigarette advertising since the mid-1920s. These images linked smoking cigarettes to romance.

Scott and Grant appeared within that similar type of romantic setting. One lit the other’s cigarette as the man lit a woman’s cigarette for her in the advertisements and popular culture of the era. Scott gingerly touched the cigarette as it dangled from Grant’s mouth, demonstrating a comfort with close physical proximity. This photograph hinted at a shared intimacy between the actors.

You might have suspected Hollywood heartthrobs of same-sex interest, you expected this from the men who made the glamour happen. These make-up artists and dress designers worked on the studio lots in the inner sanctum, a factory workplace unlike any other. Gossip pieces described the lavish dressing rooms and hinted at outlandish behaviors of the stars. Time magazine provided this snippet about Adrian, one of the premiere dress designers.

Tall, twittering Gilbert Adrian…inhabits an oyster-white office, works furiously chewing gum, deep in an overstuffed chair which is disconcertingly set on a dais to keep him from dripping paint on the oyster-white carpet…At parties Adrian keeps a keen eye peeled for signs of dowdiness, can be convulsing about it afterwards. Of Tallulah Bankhead he once remarked: ‘She can wear one more silver fox than any other woman and still look underdressed.’.

The image of Adrian’s office contained the glamour and mystery that appeared in other publicity of behind the scenes on the movie lot. His flitting and emotive nature, along with his wise cracks over the lack of style of the stars, added a style and taboo behavior. Adrian, the other dress designers, and the top makeup artists, ran their own departments, earning high salaries, working with near autonomy, and forging names for their selves that enabled several to open up their own businesses.

A few movies during the mid-1930s depicted Hollywood and the activities on studio lots. These movies included gay males in positions as head of makeup and the chief dress designer. In these positions, these Bohemians’ skills and stature enabled them to insist upon their vision and autonomy in the workplace as can be seen in this clip from Warner Brother’s Hollywood Hotel.

[clip of star’s fitting from Hollywood Hotel] (14:44-17:55) Title 1, chapter 5

(19:42-20:00 ), title 1, chapter 6,

The carnation and cigarette holder, mannerisms and punch line signaled the dress designer’s gayness to the audiences. He showed a desire to play with the star’s look and promoted camp style through helping the actress portray her life as theater and herself as an exaggeration of femininity.

Even when Hollywood’s artifice drove the author of a Hollywood novel crazy, their critique demonstrated the successful lives of gays and others in the movie colony. In Liam O’Flaherty’s Hollywood Cemetery, producer Mortimer wants to keep a director happy so he agrees to make an art movie called The Emigrant so long as it stars a female siren he could turn into a box office star. Mortimer goes to Ireland, encounters a lass having sex in the woods, and brings her back with him to his hotel. The pair enter the room and find studio assistant Larry Dafoe draped in a white sheet preening in front of a full-length mirror. “I am Queen Victoria.” Mortimer laughs and entrusts Dafoe to train the newly christened Angela Devlin to become a woman and an actress.

Despite training she rates as neither an actress nor a sex object and Angela escapes with the screenwriter to marry in Mexico. Mortimer had no movie and no star and faced pressure from the studio executives to show them the product.

Dafoe proposed they hire his friend Jesse Starr, whose effeminate manners and features made him only able to be a chorus boy in the movies. With the help of Dr. Karl Zog they remade Starr physically, and Dafoe became the new Devlin’s agent. The studio execs were won over and the pair watched as the new Angela Devlin met the public. The crowd let out a thunderous cry and chanted, “She is. She is.”

The critique of Hollywood dealing in surfaces and false images is clear. However, the success of the movie and the creation of a new star ensured Dafoe and Starr/Devlin’s place in the industry. The book marked the first time a female impersonator and transsexual became anti-heros.

The gays and lesbians among the Hollywood Bohemians formed a unique group of images during their era and up through the beginnings of the Gay Rights Movement. They were stars living the high life in the most glamorous industry. They forged successful careers and good friendships. They presented examples of what could be to all readers of the movie industry’s publicity and other depictions of the Dream Factory.

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7 comments so far

  1. […] the rest at Bohemian Yankee Posted in Film, […]

  2. […] More here:  Lebian & Gay In Hollywood « Bohemian Yankee in the Capital […]

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  6. […] bla2222 put an intriguing blog post on Lebian & Gay In Hollywood « Bohemian Yankee in the CapitalHere’s a quick excerptPress reports during the first two years described the actors’ shared celebrity homes and domestic life through phrases including, “Hollywood’s twosome” and “the happy couple.” The innuendos provided details about the two actors’ … […]

  7. Anarchist Queer on

    Great post!


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