Shadows on the screen

There’s a fascinating film festival on Turner Classic Movies this month: “Screened Out: Gay Images in Film,” featuring several films every Monday and Wednesday night. They’ve put together a very nice website that discusses the history, the themes, and the movies involved, and they’ve grouped the films for each evening thematically.

The series is based on Richard Barrios’ book Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall, which picks up where The Celluloid Closet left off. Barrios is a guest on TCM for the festival, and the interviews with him between the movies are almost as interesting as the movies themselves.

I watched last night, which featured early representations in films dating back as far as 1912. What’s striking in these films (and I’m assuming the same will be true until the films in the last evening or two) is that while gay and lesbian characters are obviously present, they are never named as such. Much like real life in those times, I guess. The characters are presented in ways that are alternately humorous, offensive, stereotypical, and threatening. But they are there. That’s the most significant thing to me.

They’re there, but often in coded ways. One of the themes running through the festival is “the Code,” which primarily means the Hays Code, but could also be a way of describing the coded ways sexuality is present in popular culture, even to this day. For example, in the first film, a silent short called Algie, the Miner, the main character is gratuitously married off in the end. Barrios explained that this was commonly done with the “pansy” character in early films, giving him a wife or girlfriend to reassure people that they didn’t really see what they thought they were seeing, but still having them see it in the first place.

Another way of coding queerness is in the films like Sylvia Scarlett and Queen Christina, in which girls dress as boys and fall in love with men. This coded homosexuality dates back thousands of years, and was a favorite plot of Shakespeare’s. The couple is in fact heterosexual, but throughout much of the movie or play, what the audience sees is two men. It’s another safe way to play around with notions of sexuality, while still leaving the audience comfortable knowing that eventually the girl will return to her dress.

Sometimes, of course, the code works the other direction:


Update: Screened Out, Pt. 1 



  1. Jenn said,

    June 5, 2007 at 9:30 pm

    Did you watch Stage Mother? I’m looking forward to Children’s Hour. I’ve read it but have never seen it.

  2. July 2, 2007 at 7:45 pm

    […] Pop Culture, Movies) I watched several of the movies featured on Turner Classic Movies in their Screened Out film festival in June. I also skipped several because, as interesting as the history is, there is […]

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