• Film

The Gay Directors Who Changed Old Hollywood

Before the word “gay” took roots in our daily life – and before we began to see movies featuring women, men and all variations of the word “gender” in all kinds of styles – the powerful engine of the industry of visual entertainment was often driven by filmmakers who, even at the dawn of Hollywood, were themselves gay. The word was mentioned rarely and only in private, but the entertainment machine was constantly affected by smart and daring gay filmmakers, creating hit pictures and beginning significant conversations between the story on the screen and the audience in the dark.

From the 1930s to the early years of the 60s, Hollywood had filmmakers capable of enthralling, entertaining and sometimes scaring the audience. Many of the top directors were LBGTQ+. Many actors and creative people behind the scenes were well known by the studios and its bosses to be gay – but as long as their private life was kept silent, their work was more than welcomed.

Among these filmmakers, many were European by birth, working in Hollywood and feeling themselves more at home there than in Europe.

Foremost among this group was James Whale. Born in Dudley, England, in 1889, Whale had been an officer during World War I. After being captured by the Germans, he developed his skills in the world of theater, as an actor, director and writer. The success of his play Journey’s End caught the attention of Paramount. From there he went through RKO, United Artists and Universal.

Most of his films have elements of horror, reflecting both the war and the lives of gay people who at the time were forced to live in the shadows.

Whale had an openly acknowledged partnership with the producer David Lewis – something rare in 1920s and 1930s.

Another Englishman, Anthony Asquith, was the son of H.H. Asquith, Prime Minister of England from 1908 to 1916, and great-uncle of the actress Helena Bonham Carter. Born in 1902, Asquith went straight to Los Angeles after graduating from Oxford; once there, he immediately became best buddies with Charlie Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch and Lillian Gish. He worked in the studios in many positions from stunt double to director, before going back to Gainsborough Pictures in England. His filmography covers the period from 1927 to 1965, from silent film to sound, including the films The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) and The Browning Version (1951).  Asquith had a complex personality, living as a repressed gay man, and using alcohol as a form of escape.

Although American-born, George Cukor was nevertheless a maverick in Hollywood circles. Born in 1899, he directed 50 films – most of them, from A Star is Born to My Fair Lady to Gaslight destined to become recognized as classics.

Born in New York, Cukor started in the theater as a stage manager. Paramount signed him in 1928, initially to train the studio’s actors to work on sound stages, the new invention of the time. In 1931 he delivered his first directorial effort, Tarnished Lady. By the ‘50s he had won a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture for the 1957 film Les Girls

Born in England and trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Charles Laughton was known in  both theater and film as a brilliant actor, his film roles ranging from Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty to Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame to Inspector Maigret in The Man on the Eiffel Tower.

Laughton only directed one film but it was a powerful one: The Night of the Hunter, in 1955. Starring Robert Mitchum as a serial killer, and employing a bold use of black and white, super-light and deep darkness, The Night of the Hunter was a box office disaster when it was first released – discouraging Laughton from ever trying his hand at directing again – but has subsequently been hailed as a classic of the noir thriller genre.

Although married to the actress Elsa Lanchester for most of his life, Laughton was well-known to be actively bisexual.

Kenneth Anger (born Kenneth Wilbur Anglemeyer) was an admirer of The Night of the Hunter, a perfect partner to his own series of occult, surreal and bizarre films that he produced from 1937 to 1980.  Born in Santa Monica, California, Anger grew up in a religious family, studied cinema at USC and focused on short films, all of them focused on sex, homoeroticism and surrealism. Anger produced and directed 37 films, many of which were banned by the authorities – films portraying homosexual sex were illegal in the United States before the tide began to turn around 1961.

Anger’s short films – especially Lucifer Rising, Hollywood Babylon, and Invocation to My Demon Brother – have influenced a generation of filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, David Lynch and John Waters.

Anger died on May 11 of this year, at the age of 96.

A partner and friend of Kenneth Anger, Curtis Harrington, also born in Los Angeles, began as a writer and film critic, switching to director in 1948. Openly gay, Harrington wrote an autobiography about his sexual awakening, and left behind 19 films – including two produced and distributed by Roger Corman, Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965) and Queen of Blood, (1966) – plus TV episodes and movies.

If all these gentlemen pushed the borders of the industry, one very special woman has also left her mark: Dorothy Arzner – the only female director to work in Hollywood, from 1927 to 1943. Starting as a script typist at a subsidiary studio to Paramount, she rose to be a film editor, and at last was able to direct her first film, Fashions for Women (1927). It was a major hit . With three successful silent films followed by a long list of sound movies, Arzner blazed a trail for women both on the screen and in the audience, always remembering, as she said, that “when a man believes he can own a woman and  women have  to compete for men, then romance, loyalty and friendship go out the window.”

A professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, Arzner counted Francis Ford Coppola among her pupils.

Arzner lived for 40 years with her partner, dancer and choreographer Marion Morgan; along the way she had romantic relationships with other women, although she tried to keep those as private as possible.

Judith Mayne’s book “Directed by Dorothy Arzner” makes the point of Arzner’s significance to all LGBTQ+ filmmakers: “Dorothy Arzner proved it was possible to build a successful film career without necessarily being part of the mainstream.”