Queer Films Blogathon: GLBT Characters in Early Hollywood, Part 2

This part two of my entry for the Queer Films Blogathon held by Garbo Laughs. Part one is here if you didn’t catch it yesterday. Check out all the entries, as they are listed beginning about 10 AM Eastern time this morning.


1931 maltese falcon lobby card - queer films blogathon

Earlier I listed a few examples of pre-code gay characters, ending with two horror villains who weren’t just evil, they were gay! (“My goodness, Agnes, can it get any worse than that?!”) However, pre-Code horror films weren’t the only ones that used homosexuality to add more sinister layers to the bad guys, to make silly characters more ridiculous. While some pre-Code films might be so blatant in their portrayals they could be called queer films, after the Code, everything was hidden under a few layers of audience-protecting subtext.

The first of the three versions of The Maltese Falcon (1931) used the same technique, this time borrowed from the source material. In this 1931 version of the classic crime film, Ricardo Cortez plays detective Sam Spade as a woman-hungry cad who leers when he’s horny and grins when he’s threatening, with hardly any difference between his two expressions.  As the film opens, Spade has just finished boffing one woman in his office. When he sees her off, he turns to kiss his secretary Effie, then walks back into his office to look at the “artistic” female nudes that adorn the walls as another lover, Iva, phones him. His apartment is nearly wallpapered with pictures of women in various states of undress. Spade’s heterosexuality is a, if not the, main characteristic that defines him.

When the police arrive to question Spade about his partner’s death, Spade is expecting a woman, so answers the knock at the door as, “Come on in, precious!” An officer swipes back, sarcastically asking, “Who were you expecting, darling?” Baring his teeth and seething in response, Spade snarls, “You, sweetheart!” This banter sets up the theme that even the most unlikely hint of sexual attraction between men implies a threat, something off kilter, with a clear aggressor and an obvious recipient.

With this foundation, the character of Dr. Cairo is introduced. Secretary Effie announces him to Spade without gender pronouns, noting that the person coming to see Sam is “gorgeous” and “a knockout.” It’s a joke on both Cairo and Spade, one that Effie relishes as she walks out to leave Spade with his new client just as she leaves him with his female clients.

1931 maltese falcon - queer films blogathon
This is mostly the extent of gay subtext in terms of Cairo, at least in this version of Falcon. He is European, well dressed and well spoken, but hardly effete and no further mention or coded hint is made of his possible sexuality. With the introduction Effie gave him, one would almost expect Ernest from Our Betters to glide into the room, but there was really no need: At this point, the film has firmly established gay as bad.

Thus enters Gutman, a sweaty, spluttering, unkempt, displeasing and slightly buffoonish man. His sidekick is the famous Wilmer, here played by an intense and highly effective Dwight Frye, frequent supporting player in James Whale films. Like Cairo, Gutman has no overt gay coding in his characterization at first, but soon Spade directly calls Wilmer his “boyfriend.”

dwight frye in 1931's maltese falcon - queer films blogathon
It can be taken as a threatening put down, much like the “sweetheart” exchange with the police earlier on, but it’s leveled so flatly at Gutman that it’s difficult to see it as anything but a simple statement of fact. Gutman’s repeated bleats that Wilmer is like a son to him become more and more pathetic, even feminine, which is a negative trait for a man given this film’s gender and sexuality roles.

Interestingly, in Satan Met a Lady, the 1936 attempted satire of the Falcon story, the Gutman character is changed to a female named Madame Kitty Barabbas. Her sidekick is Kenneth, not a gunsel in the least but strictly a mama’s boy. Almost all sexual content of any type was removed from this version of the film; even the detective and his less-than-honest female client barely show attraction to each other.

Arguably, it’s the third and most famous version of The Maltese Falcon (1941) that does the most with the sexual relationships between the characters. When Cairo arrives, he is not simply a well-dressed European but a permed, precious little man with gardenia-scented calling cards…

peter lorre in 1941's maltese falcon - queer films blogathon

…who really likes his cane.

There is something decidedly immature about the stereotypes laid at Cairo’s feet, but the sincerity with which Lorre plays the part coupled with the obvious intent to create a group of villains who are all eccentric in some way make it less sinister than it could have been. Still, playing gay as inherently funny and weak is sinister in its own right, and the 1941 Falcon embraces that stereotype as much as the 1930 Hammett book did.

We learn later that Cairo has used his wiles to get close to the falcon in the same way Brigid has; it’s possible that Cairo was not merely eccentric when he visited Sam in his office earlier, but attempting to persuade Sam in the same way that he persuaded that “boy” in Istanbul. It is when the boy in Istanbul is mentioned that any casual acceptance of Cairo is dashed. Spade flexes his hetero muscles, slaps Cairo and snaps: “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it!”

Sam visits Gutman at his hotel suite, and rather than the greasy, tacky man in the 1931 version, he is greeted by the larger-than-life Sydney Greenstreet. Affable, eccentric and dapper, he’s accompanied by his watery-eyed young gunman Wilmer. Sam’s fake freak-out to force Gutman’s hand includes the now-famous “gunsel” line, a line that is so easily dismissed as mere insult.

elisha cook jr in 1941's maltese falcon - queer films blogathon
But “gunsel” is not just name calling. There are several small bits of business that make the audience, consciously or not, realize Wilmer really is a gunsel in the original definition. Watch closely as Wilmer leaves the room to let Gutman and Spade talk things out: He goes into the bedroom. Gutman is very prone to putting his hand on Spade’s thigh as they are speaking. After Spade returns to Gutman’s suite a second time, Gutman takes Sam’s hat for him then hits Wilmer on his butt with it in a casual “move it along” gesture.

sydney greenstreet and humphrey bogart in 1941's maltese falcon - queer films blogathon

When Sam calls Wilmer a gunsel the second time as they’re setting up the fall guy scenario, we know unquestionably that Wilmer is indeed a kept boy. If you’re still unconvinced, when Wilmer is pegged as the fall guy near the end of the film, make special note of the attention Gutman pays to a prone, moaning Wilmer lying on the couch.

Less than two years after Cary went gay all of a sudden in Bringing Up Baby (1938), he went gay and cross-dressing in My Favorite Wife (1940). MFW is surprising in its overt references to the rumors that Grant and Randolph Scott, who shared the infamous “Bachelor Hall” residence off and on for years, were lovers. These rumors began in earnest in 1935 when the Bachelor Hall photos were published, and there are persistent claims to this day that the studio was so incensed by the implication that they forced Grant to marry in 1935. Yet in 1938 Grant is in a frilly bathrobe and shouting his gayness to the world, and in 1940 he’s shown gaping at a muscular, barely-clothed Scott:

randolph scott in my favorite wife - queer films blogathon
He’s so unnerved by Scott’s body that he starts to sweat.

cary grant in my favorite wife - queer films blogathon
Later, he daydreams about Randolph, whose character is briefly mentioned to “always live at the YMCA.”

randolph scott and cary grant in my favorite wife - queer films blogathon

There is something really interesting going on with clothes and gender roles throughout MFW. It begins early in the film when Irene Dunne’s character arrives back at her home. Her children, who were too young to remember what she looked like before she disappeared, do not recognize her. Part of their confusion is that she is in man’s clothes, apparently given to her by a sailor on the boat that rescued her. “Are you a lady or a man?” they ask, needing clarification. Later, Grant’s new wife has purchased unisex leopard print bathrobes for their honeymoon night, which leads to a joke that his bathrobe looks ridiculous because it is so feminine, with the animal print pattern and too-short sleeves.

There is the most famous scene in the film, of course, with Grant choosing clothes for his recently-returned wife while a psychiatrist looks on, knowingly nodding at the sight and diagnosing Grant’s character as “a frustrated individual.”

cary grant in my favorite wife

Now, while audiences would have understood these references quite clearly, it’s also important to note that a man in women’s clothing would likely not have been seen as anything but gay; the distinction between “transvestite” (in the old-fashioned sense; it is considered a slur nowadays) and gay was not particularly sophisticated at that time, either in psychological circles or in the popular culture.

Less obvious to audiences of any film at that time would have been the character of the no-nonsense unmarried woman. Women in men’s clothing didn’t always mean gay, thus the convention was much less codified than the reverse of men in women’s clothing. The implied lesbian who is shown as an unmarried professional woman in man’s clothing was a familiar sight at least by the early 1930s. Grace Hayle in Front Page Woman (1935) is a perfect example; she’s the one female reporter who can do her job as well as a man, and she is insulted every time she is mentioned, either because of her weight or implied lesbianism.

roscoe karns and grace hayle
Fun is had at her expense when Roscoe Karns tries to flirt with her, knowing she is uninterested. As I mentioned in my post on Front Page Woman last year, the coded professional woman in a man’s suit was used until at least 1963’s The Birds.

It’s true, though, that the implications of women who appear in male-coded clothes become less clear when the woman was intending to be glamorous; that is, sometimes Marlene in a tux was gay, sometimes she wasn’t. And when a woman in man’s clothing appeared in a Western, all bets were off. For instance, Joan Crawford may have worn the pants and run the business in Johnny Guitar (1954), but she wasn’t interested in the unusually obsessed Mercedes McCambridge, at least not interested in the way McCambridge’s character wanted her to be.

Joan wasn’t always pursued by the implied lesbians, they were often her sidekicks, such as her roommate Mary in Daisy Kenyon (1947) and everyone’s favorite pal, Ida in Mildred Pierce (1945). Ida is no nonsense, competent, driven, sarcastic and perceptive. She has everyone pegged from the start and says so, which is why when she declares her disdain for men out loud, saying they’ve all pegged her as not the marrying kind, not in the usual way but because they can talk to her “man to man,” you know she means it. Wally seems to agree, stating to Ida that he hates all women, but “thank goodness you’re not one.”

It is generally accepted that homosexuality became a more open topic in U.S. films, especially by the 1950s, but it could be argued that 1946’s Gilda was the start of this trend. Gilda begins when Ballin Mundson picks Johnny Farrell up at the docks, showing off his hidden knife and inviting him to his casino.

Johnny immediately talks his way into Mundson’s business, telling him, “You have no idea how faithful and obedient I can be… for a nice salary.” He narrates for us that he thought their life was so perfect, the three of them: Mundson, Johnny, and that knife.

The meaning is clear, which is why it’s somewhat surprising that Mundson arrives from a trip abroad with a wife who becomes the new third in their little triangle. It’s revealed quickly that Johnny and Gilda had a thing in the past, which means Johnny is likely bisexual; this is bolstered by his confession to the audience that he wanted to watch Mundson and Gilda together without them knowing he was there. He later states that the knife which used to be their third was a woman, at least to him, though Mundson apparently didn’t see it that way.

The gay-as-sinister dynamic explored for so long in Hollywood films is used in Gilda, of course, but in a unique way for the time: Mundson is fully homosexual, therefore evil, just like all the gay Nazis who would follow him in films for decades. Johnny is bisexual so he can be reformed, and when he finally admits he loves a woman, he is free and clear. Unlike Edward Everett Horton in Roar of the Dragon, Johnny doesn’t have to die for his previous sins.

The change in openness, if not acceptance, of gays in films is fully visible by the late 1940s, specifically in Hitch’s Rope (1948), which was featured in a really terrific article by Caroline on Garbo Laughs. Brandon and Phillip are unquestionably lovers, although it’s never explicitly stated — but Hitch liked it that way. He played with non-hetero, non-vanilla subtext frequently and mixed it with his deliciously skewed wit, which is why the moment when Phillip recounts a traumatic story about being caught choking a chicken (!) is both horrifying and hilarious.

Note though that while the gay subtext is hardly very sub in Rope, their sexual relationship is shown as being just as dangerous and secret as their crime of murder was. Yet the film was more blatant about the sexuality of the main characters than films had been since the early 1930s, and this trend would continue on for the next several decades.

That’s really what it’s all about, when the dust settles: Change. But I often ask myself if there has been change in acceptance of non-hetero sexuality at all or if the context and culture have simply changed. Is the portrayal of a transperson as psychotic killer okay if there’s a single throwaway line that says he’s not really a “transvestite,” he merely “thinks he is”?

When I grew up, personalities like Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Rip Taylor were popular but often because they were presented as funny gays the heteros could laugh at. Has that really changed? Don’t we still laugh at them, or is it with them?

Obsession is a common theme in films, but why do the GLBT characters who are obsessed always seem to have a sharper edge to them than similar hetero characters do?

I can’t answer any of this. I’d like to say that there is at least some positive change, albeit slow and frustrating, but I cannot personally convince myself of it. LGBT characters in film nowadays are openly so, yet they’re often still villains, someone to laugh at, people with strange problems. Acceptance seems to be slow going, and I often wonder if modern films are really moving forward in this arena, or whether society has moved on while films lag behind.


Please, don’t forget to check out all the entries in the Queer Films Blogathon by going to Garbo Laughs. Also be sure to check out Carolyn’s month of great posts dedicated queer cinema.


  1. Great and thorough conclusion and analysis of the changes queer depictions have gone through in Hollywood. Rope and My Favorite Wife are two of my favorites; the subtext in MFW is way too delicious to pass up.

  2. This was a great, in-depth post. I’m familiar with some of these films and some of them not at all, so it was fascinating to see them in a continuum. I agree that Lorre (and Greenstreet as well) give class to Hammett’s stereotypes.

    Hitchcock’s exploration of the sinister gay or lesbian character, from Mrs. Danvers to Leonard in North by Northwest is pretty extensive. The ne plus ultra, for my money, would have to be Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train, although by then, you’re no longer in early Hollywood.

  3. What a great contribution to the Blogathon.

    I love the dichotomy between Grant and Scott (on film and especially in the so-called real life – as real as Hollywood Studio Stars could have). The blatant denial by pretty much everyone involved against the equally blatant fact of what their “infamous” photo spread said of them and their relationship (one of these photos stands as my current laptop wallpaper).

    Again, great post – but when are one of your posts not.

  4. God, I loved Paul Lynde. I remember the day he died, and my mother sitting me down to break the news to me after school. I hope people were laughing with him, cause I sure was, and I was in elementary school.

    More on topic of the main part of the post, I really need to watch The Maltese Falcon again. I’ve always found it to be a confusing film for some reason, and I want to apply what I’ve learned here. Great post.

  5. Caroline — Thanks! I have always loved MFW, mainly for the subtext, but the plot is simply delicious. That same year there was a Jean Arthur film called Too Many Husbands which uses the exact same plot but with genders reversed, and Jean spends the whole film wishing she could have both husbands with her at once. You cannot go wrong with this plot… although the 1960s James Garner version is pretty bland.

    Thanks Rachel! Hitch does have a thing about the sinister sexuality, although I would say his movies include not only sinister GLBT characters but incest (even using his own daughter as the look-alike for the “bimbo” ex-wife killed in Strangers), sadism, and masturbation. I’ve never decided whether Hitch was a little immature in that area or if he was taunting his presumed mostly-hetero audience.

    Thanks again, Kevyn! That photo shoot can really be taken only one way. There is plausible deniability until you see the silhouette shot of them, at which point you can’t dodge the implications any longer. You’re right that the denial on both sides of the issue is fascinating.

  6. Oh Erin, I loved Paul Lynde too. As a kid, I knew he was gay and it didn’t seem like a big deal to me — in fact, there were a lot of assumed male gay celebs in the 1970s, and it never occurred to me until I was a pre-teen when my family moved to Kansas that gay would be considered bad by anyone. Kids like me were laughing WITH them, so in a lot of ways it doesn’t matter if the closed-minded or bigots were laughing AT them.

    Somewhat tangentially, I did realize when I was in junior high school that I was very naive, and because I didn’t know many people think non-hetero is bad, I wasn’t prepared to hide/closet myself when I fully realized I was bi. As I mentioned, I lived in a small Kansas town where non-hetero was looked down on (to put it very politely). That wasn’t the fault of any celebrity or personality though, but the fault of the kind of culture I ended up living in during that time.

  7. The pulps and their progeny in the detective novels that sprang from the same noir-ish trend had a much more mature aspect regarding sexuality to them than the movies, many often adapted from them, and it was an example of one mass-media subsuming the other – film scooped up a lot of the loose change that were spent on pulps; the comics scrambled for the rest under the davenport cushions and put the final juvenile nails in the pulp’s coffins.

    Chandler, Woolrich, and Hammett had quite a varied cast of ‘inverts’ and in “The Maltese Falcon”, Greenstreet is a singularly apt version of the character in the book – Hammett practically invents Sydney Greenstreet as a person, the descriptions and the kind of voice given to Gutman in the book is eerily like Greenstreet. The book’s gunsel is physically closer to Frye’s performance than Cooks, but by the 1941 version, Cook is playing a quieter psychopath. And these were just outward signs of popular lit as written being far in advance of acknowledging gays, good or bad, than the Studios could ever do for years and years. Great post!

  8. shouldn’t Rick Blaine and Captain Renault find a mention here? after all it is the two of them who finally walk into the sunset saying “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

  9. Oh, there are a LOT of characters I could have added, but I just didn’t have the time. The theories on Rick and Renault are legion!

  10. There’s a lovely moment in the Harrison Ford silent “Up In Mable’s Room”. Ford must retrieve an incriminating nightie from the above room. Having gotten it he stands in the hall,looks it over,smiles and holds it up in front of himself and dances a little…until he’s caught doing it.

  11. Oh, Kansas. I’m always shocked at how sheltered and/or narrow-minded people can be here. And I grew up in Oklahoma! It’s like it’s 1960 here. I actually had a stylist ask me if my husband was OK with me cutting my hair.

    Anyway, speaking of sheltered, I never even noticed any homosexual subtext in Gilda. Is Kansas rubbing off on me?

  12. Kansas is so frustrating because, at least in the town I live in, there is a mix of progressive people from all over the world, but the core of the town is still the old-fashioned white straight long-time male residents. Once when I worked at Head Start, a co-worker started a rumor saying I was lesbian because I told her I used men’s deodorant because it was the only unscented stuff I could find. It’s so backwards sometimes.

    Yet people online and over the phone are just as bad at not understanding that I didn’t take my husband’s last name as Kansans are. (I now hyphenate, which seems to drive some people into a rage.) And there’s a forum I used to go to that was mostly NYC and California posters, and these guys would say some of the most horrifying racist and sexist stuff you ever heard, constant insults against lesbians, etc.

    I get angry at Kansans but then I see someone who describes themselves as a liberal NYCer acting as bad as some racist white Kansas dude and I just don’t know what to think.

  13. I still use my maiden name. It does seem to really confuse people here. They usually end up asking all these questions about when we got married, how long we’ve been married, etc., just in case we’re just pretending and are really just shacking up. Never mind that we did just that for 3 1/2 years (horrors! get the smelling salts!).

    I know there are horrible, backward people everywhere, but there seems to be an acceptance of that kind of behavior here that still shocks me after three years. If wearing men’s deoderant makes one a lesbian, I guess my occasional use of men’s cologne means that I’m due to leave my husband for a woman any time now. Thanks for the heads-up. :-/

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