In the era of the Motion Picture Production Code, depictions of homosexuality were verboten, classified under the Code’s rather vague catch-all category of “sex perversion.” While those making films prior to 1934 enjoyed more freedom in their ability to depict some obvious—and even blatant—homosexual characters, the establishment of the Production Code Administration (PCA) put an end to such overt thematic elements in subsequent movies. Savvy filmmakers, however, were largely undeterred by PCA restrictions, and continued to place coded gay characters and relationships in their movies. Though the depictions of these characters ranged from subtle to overtly brazen, they were still generally mild enough to slip past Joseph Breen, the rigid head of the PCA.
Over the years, directors and screenwriters working in the screwball genre of comedy seemed to take particular pleasure in thumbing their collective noses at Breen and his censorship cronies. Because the very notion of “screwball” was not to be taken seriously, the genre was able to depict people and themes that would have been heavily edited in (or completely excised from) more serious-minded movies. Therefore, screwball films, practically anarchic in their general reveling in utter chaos and confusion, were able to play with the conventions of male-female relationships, often inviting questions of gender reversal through cross-dressing motifs and, by extension, eliciting impressions of homosexual attraction—all in the interest of a few laughs.
Thus the idea of purported “gayness” became a comedic device for these types of films. The supposedly gay characters were not really gay—wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Rather, through a series of misunderstandings, these generally male characters were given some of the distinguishing “fey” hallmarks of the stereotypical homosexual person in an attempt to both undermine and ridicule the character because, as we all know, masculinity and gayness cannot coexist (this sadly speaks volumes toward the prevailing public impression of homosexuality at the time, as something to be mocked and denigrated rather than respected).
Some actors were more willing to throw themselves into such roles than others. The one that immediately comes to my mind is the always-accommodating Cary Grant. The actor was generally typecast as the debonair, suave, handsome, smooth-talking ladies’ man. But in several films, he eschews masculine dignity in the interest of soliciting laughs from his audience. And this only served to add fuel to the rumors that Grant was a closeted homosexual or, at the very least, bisexual.
The book The Celluloid Closet (1981) claims that the line was ad-libbed by Grant and was not present in the original script by writers Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde. But there remains some debate about whether Grant actually meant “gay” in the homosexual sense, or whether he simply intended to imply the traditional, “happy” meaning of the word. According to Gay Histories and Cultures: An Encyclopedia (1999), throughout the early twentieth century, the term “gay” served as a kind of code word by which homosexuals secretly identified themselves to one another while hiding their true sexual nature from others. The original meaning of the word was still the predominant one—witness the 1934 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film The Gay Divorcee. However, it seems naive to assume that, because the alternate meaning of the word “gay” was not in widely popular use at the time, modern audiences are simply misunderstanding Grant’s intent. Regardless, the character isn’t really gay, but this brief outburst is the final blow that knocks David off his dignified pedestal and down to Susan’s own screwy level of behavior.
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In 1940’s My Favorite Wife, Grant discovers that his long-lost wife, played by Irene Dunne, is still alive after having been shipwrecked on an island for seven years, accompanied only by handsome, well-cut hunk Randolph Scott. Upon first seeing the muscular Scott poolside, Grant’s eyes narrow in speculation; when Scott stands up and reveals his height and muscularity, Grant’s eyes widen and his body suddenly becomes ramrod-straight; when Scott sheds his robe, remaining in nothing more than a tiny pair of swim trunks, his toned physique causes Grant to appear overcome as he pulls out a handkerchief and nervously wipes his face. And as Scott swings on a set of rings, doing a series of back flips before diving gracefully into the water below, Grant watches with a mixture of appraisal and reluctant admiration–and seemingly can’t get the image out of his mind, as it comes back to haunt him in his office later.
Is it simple jealousy, or something more? In the context of the film, of course, we are not meant to read Grant’s character as gay; he is simply scoping out the competition to see what kind of man with whom his wife had spent seven years of solitude, and comes off seeming completely inadequate in comparison. But this vignette is particularly interesting in the context of Grant and Scott’s off-screen relationship. The pair were fast friends, having lived together, on and off, for more than a decade in a Malibu beach house popularly known in the press as “Bachelor Hall.” In fact, they were still living together at the time they made My Favorite Wife. But biographers and film historians dispute whether the relationship between the men was platonic or passionate, with some claiming the men were merely the best of friends, while others proclaim that Grant and Scott indulged in a years-long love affair. Neither man ever openly admitted to a relationship, so there’s really no telling whether or not there is any truth to the rumors. Perhaps Grant’s wide-ranging reactions to the overwhelming virility of Scott’s character may be an attempt to play with gossip-mongers everywhere—who knows?
Grant makes for a seriously unattractive woman, and as you might imagine, the masquerade only works for about half a minute. The film is a series of emasculating events for Grant’s character, for Sheridan is, quite literally, in the driver’s seat throughout most of the film (seriously—he is not allowed to drive, so he must sit in the sidecar of Sheridan’s motorcycle). Grant is not coded as gay so much as he is ridiculed for stepping outside the bounds of traditional masculinity, even for such a brief moment. Originally, Grant intended to play the drag scene as overtly feminine before being convinced by director Howard Hawks to simply “act like a man in woman’s clothes.” And while Grant does indeed play it straight (so to speak), the entire scene seems to imply that the act of drag itself is somehow indicative of the Grant character’s “different” sexuality.
These are only three, Grant-specific examples of the screwball tendency to use stereotypical “gay” characteristics for the purposes of comedy. When Grant puts on his filmy negligee or his horse-hair wig, or when he evaluates Randolph Scott as though he were a choice side of beef, we are meant to laugh at the incongruity and Grant’s subsequent lack of dignity. After all, it’s not “real” gayness. It’s a put-on, an assumption based on popular beliefs about homosexual behavior that delve into generalization and misinterpretation.