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Home Classic Movies Movies with Gay Characters: TCM from Queen Christina to The Boys in the Band

Movies with Gay Characters: TCM from Queen Christina to The Boys in the Band

16 minutes read

Movies with gay characters Charles Laughton The Sign of the Cross
Movies with gay characters: A fey Charles Laughton as Nero, plus Claudette Colbert and Fredric March in The Sign of the Cross.
Ramon Novarro Beyond Paradise

Inspired by Richard Barrios’ book Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is presenting a 44-film festival that provides a glimpse into the way non-100-per-cent-heterosexuals have been portrayed on screen up to the time of the Stonewall riots of 1969. TCM host Robert Osborne will be discussing the films with author Barrios before and after each showing.

Like every other series that attempts to cover a broad spectrum of films from various eras, “Screened Out” is both alluring and disappointing. At least ten times as many films would be needed to offer a real good look at the way gays, lesbians, perceived gays and/or lesbians, bisexuals, trisexuals, multisexuals, etc. have been depicted on screen, whereas the focus on Hollywood productions is, paradoxically, a tad limiting.

In a 2003 review of Barrios’ book, Simon Callow wrote in The Guardian:

“His subject is the American cinema, and it has to be stated that the inability of that industry to deal with the realities of life as it is lived – not simply gay life, but the whole spectrum of human desires and aspirations – is a dispiriting phenomenon. … Again and again it is foreign movies or foreign artists making American movies that have pushed forward the possibilities.”

Indeed, if only for comparison’s sake, a couple of gay-themed films from non-English-speaking countries would have been a welcome addition to the TCM list. Jacques Deval’s Club de femmes (1936) has a lesbian character at a time when lesbianism was an unmentionable taboo in American productions. Nearly thirty years later, Jean Delannoy dealt with two young boys who develop an intimate relationship at a reactionary Catholic boarding school in the beautiful Les Amitiés particulières / This Special Friendship (right, 1964). That’s the sort of subject matter that American movies – including independent ones – would have trouble approaching even today.

I also wish that TCM had dug up several rarities featuring sexually subversive characters, including the Douglas Fairbanks’ vehicle Reaching for the Moon (1930), with Edward Everett Horton at his most obvious, and Rowland Brown’s Blood Money (1933), which in addition to a cool butch lesbian, offers Frances Dee, ever the sweet young thing, at her nymphomaniac-masochistic best.

On the other hand, TCM surely deserves praise for coming up with such a vast array of features, several of which are TCM premieres. And in all fairness, the series does include a couple of groundbreaking British films from the 1960s.

Among the TCM premieres are three heavy melodramas: Otto Preminger’s still remarkably – or rather, appallingly – relevant Advise & Consent (1962), a first-rate all-star vehicle set in the heart of the American political system, with Don Murray as the Man with a Past; Robert Aldrich’s much-panned British-made The Killing of Sister George (1968), starring Beryl Reid as a fading soap opera star at odds with both life and her lover, Susannah York; and The Boys in the Band (1970), William Friedkin’s now quite dated film adaptation of Mart Crowley’s then revolutionary stage play.

Tonight, TCM will show six features, including Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina (1933), in my view the best Greta Garbo vehicle, in which the mannish Queen of Sweden falls for a Spanish envoy played by John Gilbert in his last important film role; The Sign of the Cross (1932), another Cecil B. DeMille religious vulgarity, with Charles Laughton as an outrageously fey Nero and Claudette Colbert as a man-eating seductress; and the infrequently seen The Sport Parade (1932), starring Joel McCrea and William Gargan, who later referred to the film’s plot as “boy meets boy; boy loses boy; boy gets boy.”

A few other must-see films in the series are:

John Cromwell’s Caged (1950), starring Eleanor Parker as a girl who learns that innocence doesn’t pay in the real world after spending time in prison with the likes of a lesbian inmate and the sadistic, butch warden Hope Emerson, who makes Nurse Ratched of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest look like Florence Nightingale. Both Parker and Emerson deservedly received Oscar nominations.

Lewis Seiler’s Women’s Prison (1955), which I haven’t seen – but since it offers tough gals Ida Lupino and Jan Sterling behind bars, then it must be included in any must-see list.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film version of Tennessee Williams’ tale of madness, homosexuality, cannibalism, pimping, and mother love, Suddenly Last Summer (1959) is as over-the-top as it sounds. Elizabeth Taylor is a little too hysterical to be fully convincing, but Katharine Hepburn is phenomenal as the creepy matriarch who had a quite unusual relationship with her now dead son.

Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited (1944), an entertaining and more than a little spooky haunted house tale, stars Ray Milland, Gail Russell, Ruth Hussey, and a lesbian ghost (!). I guess I need to see this movie again as I can’t recall thinking that the ghost had had an affair with, of all people, Cornelia Otis Skinner.

Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) is one of the two best haunted-house movies ever made. Julie Harris is superb as a sexually repressed neurotic spinster, and Claire Bloom is also excellent as the woman who (somewhat inexplicably) has the hots for Harris. By the way, the other great haunted-house movie is Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), which also involves lots of (both repressed and not-all-that-repressed) sexuality, but of the incestuous and pedophilic kind.

William Wyler’s adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour (1961), a box office and critical failure upon its release, is actually much better than its reputation allows. In fact, I prefer this version to the better-liked – and considerably watered-down – These Three (1936), which Wyler had also directed. Solid performances abound in the 1961 remake, including those of Shirley MacLaine as the teacher who loves co-worker Audrey Hepburn, Oscar-nominated Fay Bainter as a personification of the saying that hell is full of people with good intentions, and Miriam Hopkins, who’d played the MacLaine role in the original.

LeRoy Prinz’s B-movie All-American Co-Ed (1941) may or may not be interesting, but since it stars Johnny Downs, in my view the most likable – by far – of all the male collegiate types Hollywood movies have ever produced, I have to add it to the list. (Just think that while Downs was ready, willing, and available, Mickey Rooney was the top box office attraction in the U.S. There is no justice.) In All-American Co-Ed, a college boy disguises himself as a girl in order to infiltrate a girls’ school. Some might consider it a plus that silent film comedian Harry Langdon has a supporting role.

In Edward Dmytryk’s Walk on the Wild Side (1962), Barbara Stanwyck plays a lesbian madam. As always, Stanwyck is reason enough to recommend a film – any film. Others in the cast of this unabashed melodrama are Laurence Harvey, Capucine, Anne Baxter, Jane Fonda, and Juanita Moore.

Stanwyck is also the chief reason to recommend Howard Bretherton and William Keighley’s Ladies They Talk About (1933), another socially conscious prison drama featuring tough dames, a few of whom like other tough dames.

And finally, Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961) was the first English-language film to deal directly with the plight of gay/bisexual men living in a bigoted society. Dirk Bogarde, quite possibly Britain’s top star at the time, plays an attorney – another one of those married guys with a Past – who becomes the victim of a blackmailer. Sylvia Syms, most recently seen as the Queen Mother in The Queen, is outstanding as his wife.

Curiously, Bogarde, who always made a point of denying that he was attracted to men despite a well-known (though discreet) long-term gay relationship, had no qualms about playing characters with a homosexual inclination on screen. In addition to Victim, Bogarde played (or yearned to play) on both sides of the fence in at least three other movies: Cast a Dark Shadow (1955), The Servant (1963), and Morte a Venezia / Death in Venice (1971).

For those who don’t know, the Stonewall riots began on June 27, 1969. When New York City cops raided the Greenwich Village gay club Stonewall one time too many, the harassed patrons decided to fight back. They attacked the police, initially by throwing coins at them. (Police chiefs and officers were frequently bribed to allow gay clubs to operate.) As the conflict escalated, the angry patrons started pelting the cops with bottles and rocks. That was followed by several days of rioting that marked the beginning of the gay movement for social equality in the United States.

Those films made long ago offer an important, if more than a little disheartening, message, for although much has changed in the way mainstream American society views homosexuality, both in life and at the movies – Vermont and Brokeback Mountain notwithstanding – much, much, much remains the same.

The “Screened Out” series began this past Monday, and will continue every Monday and Wednesday evening until the end of June.

More information/trailers at QueerSighted.

TCM “Screened Out” Schedule (EST):

Monday June 4

8:00 PM Algie the Miner (1912)
Cast: Billy Quirk. Director: Alice Guy (a.k.a. Alice Guy Blaché).
8:30 PM The Monster (1925)
A mad scientist engineers car wrecks so he can experiment on the survivors. Cast: Lon Chaney, Gertrude Olmstead, Johnny Arthur, Hallam Cooley. Director: Roland West. Black and white. 87 min.
10:15 PM Exit Smiling (1926)
In this silent film, the worst actress in a theatrical company turns out to be their only hope of survival. Cast: Beatrice Lillie, Jack Pickford, Harry Myers. Director: Sam Taylor. Black and white. 71 min.
11:45 PM The Broadway Melody (1929)
Love and success break up a vaudeville sister act. Cast: Charles King, Anita Page, Bessie Love. Director: Harry Beaumont. Black and white. 110 min.
1:45 AM Way Out West (1930)
When a carnival barker gets caught conning the local cowboys, he’s forced to work off his sentence on the open range. Cast: William Haines, Leila Hyams, Francis X. Bushman Jr. Cliff Edwards, Polly Moran. Director: Fred Niblo. Black and white. 71 min.
3:00 AM The Office Wife (1930)
A gold-digging secretary sets out to lure her boss from his straying wife. Cast: Lewis Stone, Dorothy Mackaill, Hobart Bosworth. Director: Lloyd Bacon. Black and white. 59 min.
4:15 AM Stage Mother (1933)
A young actress’ mother will sacrifice anything, even her daughter, for money. Cast: Alice Brady, Maureen O’Sullivan, Franchot Tone. Director: Charles Brabin. Black and white. 85 mi.

Wednesday June 6

8:00 PM Sign of the Cross, The (1932)
After Nero burns the city, a Roman official falls for a Christian accused of setting the fire. Cast: Fredric March, Claudette Colbert, Elissa Landi. Charles Laughton. Director: Cecil B. DeMille. Black and white. 115 min.
10:15 PM Our Betters (1933)
An American heiress marries into the British nobility. Cast: Constance Bennett, Gilbert Roland, Anita Louise. Director: George Cukor. Black and white. 83 min.
11:45 PM Double Harness (1933)
After tricking a playboy into marriage, a woman sets out to win his love honestly. Cast: Ann Harding, William Powell, Henry Stephenson. Director: John Cromwell. Black and white. 69 min.
1:00 AM Queen Christina (1933)
Romantic tale of the 17th-century Swedish queen and her romance with a Spanish diplomat. Cast: Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Lewis Stone. Director: Rouben Mamoulian. Black and white. 97 min.
2:45 AM Wonder Bar (1934)
The denizens of a Parisian night club deal with murder and romance. Cast: Al Jolson, Kay Francis, Dick Powell. Dolores del Rio. Ricardo Cortez. Director: Lloyd Bacon. Black and white. 84 min.
4:15 AM Sport Parade, The (1932)
College team mates follow different paths after they graduate. Cast: Joel McCrea, William Gargan, Marian Marsh. Director: Dudley Murphy. Black and white. 63 min.

Monday June 11

8:00 PM Hell’s Highway (1932)
A prison-camp convict learns that his younger brother will soon be joining him behind bars. Cast: Richard Dix, Tom Brown, Louise Carter. Director: Rowland Brown. Black and white. 62 min.
9:15 PM Ladies They Talk About (1933)
A lady bank robber becomes the cell block boss after she’s sent to prison. Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Lyle Talbot, Preston Foster. Director: Howard Bretherton, William Keighley. Black and white. 69 min.
10:30 PM Caged (1950)
A young innocent fights to survive the harsh life in a women’s prison. Cast: Eleanor Parker, Agnes Moorehead, Hope Emerson. Director: John Cromwell. Black and white. 96 min.
12:15 AM So Young, So Bad (1950)
A crusading psychiatrist tries to help troubled reform school girls. Cast: Paul Henreid, Anne Francis, Rita Moreno. Director: Bernard Vorhaus. Black and white. 91 min.
2:00 AM The Strange One (1957)
A military school student develops a destructive power over his fellow cadets. Cast: Ben Gazzara, George Peppard, Pat Hingle. Director: Jack Garfein. Black and white. 100 min.
4:00 AM Women’s Prison (1955)
A crusading psychiatrist battles a sadistic female warden to improve conditions at a women’s prison. Cast: Ida Lupino, Jan Sterling, Howard Duff. Director: Lewis Seiler. Color. 79 min, TV-PG, Letterbox Format

Wednesday June 13

8:00 PM The Big Combo (1955)
A police detective tries to convict a mob boss by going to the man’s girlfriend. Cast: Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Jean Wallace. Director: Joseph H. Lewis. Black and white. 89 min, TV-PG
10:00 PM Suddenly Last Summer (1959)
A dowager tries to buy a lobotomy to silence the woman who witnessed her son’s murder. Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift. Mercedes McCambridge. Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Black and white. 114 min, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format
12:00 AM Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)
A military officer becomes obsessed with an enlisted man. Cast: Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Brian Keith. Julie Harris. Director: John Huston. Color. 108 min, TV-14, CC, Letterbox Format
2:00 AM Gilda (1946)
A gambler discovers an old flame in South America, but she’s married to his new boss. Cast: Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, George Macready. Director: Charles Vidor. Black and white. 110 min, TV-PG
4:00 AM The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Hard-boiled detective Sam Spade gets caught up in the murderous search for a priceless statue. Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet. Peter Lorre. Gladys George. Director: John Huston. Black and white. 101 min, TV-PG, CC, DVS

Monday June 18

8:00 PM The Uninvited (1944)
A brother and sister buy a house with a ghostly secret. Cast: Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Gail Russell. Donald Crisp. Director: Lewis Allen. Black and white. 100 min, TV-PG, CC
10:00 PM The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)
A man remains young and handsome while his portrait shows the ravages of age and sin. Cast: Hurd Hatfield, Angela Lansbury, Donna Reed. George Sanders. Director: Albert Lewin. Black and white. 110 min, TV-G, CC
12:00 AM Voodoo Island (1957)
A tycoon hires an investigator to prove that voodoo doesn’t exist. Cast: Boris Karloff, Beverly Tyler, Elisha Cook, Jr. Director: Reginald Le Borg. Black and white. 76 min, TV-PG
1:30 AM The Haunting (1963)
A team of psychic investigators moves into a haunted house that destroys all who live there. Cast: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn. Richard Johnson. Director: Robert Wise. Black and white. 112 min, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format
3:30 AM The Seventh Victim (1943)
A girl’s search for her missing sister puts her in conflict with a band of satanists. Cast: Kim Hunter, Tom Conway, Jean Brooks. Director: Mark Robson. Black and white. 71 min, TV-G
4:45 AM The Leopard Man (1943)
When a leopard escapes during a publicity stunt, it triggers a series of murders. Cast: Dennis O’Keefe, Margo, Jean Brooks. Director: Jacques Tourneur. Black and white. 66 min, TV-PG, CC

Wednesday June 20

8:00 PM Manhattan Parade (1931)
A deserted wife tries to keep her husband’s costuming company afloat. Cast: Charles Butterworth, Winnie Lightner, Walter Miller. Director: Lloyd Bacon. Black and white. 75 min, TV-G
9:30 PM Sylvia Scarlett (1936)
A female con artist masquerades as a boy to escape the police. Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Edmund Gwenn. Brian Aherne. Director: George Cukor. Black and white. 95 min, TV-PG, CC
11:15 PM Turnabout (1940)
Battling spouses accidentally switch bodies. Cast: Adolphe Menjou, Carole Landis, John Hubbard. Director: Hal Roach. Black and white. 83 min, TV-G
12:45 AM That Touch of Mink (1962)
Attraction develops between a suave businessman and a young woman determined to protect her innocence. Cast: Cary Grant, Doris Day, Gig Young. Director: Delbert Mann. Color. 99 min, TV-G, CC, Letterbox Format
2:30 AM The Producers (1968)
A Broadway producer decides to get rich by creating the biggest flop of his career. Cast: Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Kenneth Mars. Director: Mel Brooks. Color. 88 min, TV-14, CC, Letterbox Format
4:00 AM Designing Woman (1957)
A sportswriter and a fashion designer have a lot of adjusting to do when they marry in haste. Cast: Gregory Peck, Lauren Bacall, Dolores Gray. Director: Vincente Minnelli. Color. 118 min, TV-G, CC, Letterbox Format, DVS

Monday June 25

8:00 PM Tea and Sympathy (1956)
A faculty wife risks her marriage to help a troubled teen tormented by his fellow students. Cast: Deborah Kerr, John Kerr, Leif Erickson. Director: Vincente Minnelli. Color. 122 min, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format
10:15 PM The Children’s Hour (1961)
A malicious student tries to destroy the teachers at a girls’ school. Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, James Garner, Miriam Hopkins. Fay Bainter. Director: William Wyler. Black and white. 107 min, TV-PG, Letterbox Format
12:15 AM Staircase (1969)
Homosexual lovers face age and society’s disapproval together. Cast: Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Cathleen Nesbitt. Director: Stanley Donen. Color. 101 min, TV-MA, Letterbox Format
2:15 AM The Boys in the Band (1970)
A gay birthday party turns into a night of soul-searching when the host’s straight college roommate turns up by mistake. Cast: Kenneth Nelson, Leonard Frey, Cliff Gorman. Director: William Friedkin. Color. 120 min.
4:30 AM Victim (1961)
A closeted lawyer risks his career to bring a blackmailer to justice. Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Sylvia Syms, Dennis Price. Director: Basil Dearden. Color. 100 min.

Wednesday June 27

8:00 PM Advise & Consent (1962)
A controversial presidential nomination threatens the careers of several prominent politicians. Cast: Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton, Don Murray. Walter Pidgeon. Lew Ayres. Gene Tierney. Director: Otto Preminger. Color. 142 min.
10:30 PM Walk on the Wild Side (1962)
A penniless farmer tracks the woman he loves to a New Orleans brothel. Cast: Jane Fonda, Capucine, Barbara Stanwyck. Laurence Harvey. Anne Baxter. Director: Edward Dmytryk. Black and white. 114 min.
12:30 AM The Fox (1967)
A sexy male drifter upsets the relationship between two female farmers. Cast: Sandy Dennis, Anne Heywood, Keir Dullea. Director: Mark Rydell. Color. 110 min.
2:30 AM The Killing of Sister George (1968)
A radio star’s outrageous behavior costs her her job and her lover. Cast: Beryl Reid, Susannah York, Coral Browne. Director: Robert Aldrich. Color. 138 min.
5:00 AM All-American Co-Ed (1941)
A college boy dresses as a girl to infiltrate a women’s college. Cast: Frances Langford, Johnny Downs, Harry Langdon. Director: LeRoy Prinz. Black and white. 53 min.

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Andre -


Point well taken, though I’d still say that non-Hollywood productions — especially non-English-language films — would have provided a welcome context to the series. And so would a couple of new American movies dealing with the subject, for that matter. We’d then be able to compare and see how much (or how little) has changed in the last 40 years.

True, TCM will be screening two or three British productions, and that’s good. A couple more from other cultures both more open and more honest in their depiction of homosexuality on screen would have served as solid contrast to the repressed attitudes toward homosex (and sex in general) in American motion pictures.

But as I say in the “Screened Out” article, Turner Classic Movies must be commended for showing such a wide variety of culturally and socially important films, even though I believe the series’ focus should have been expanded a little bit.

And yes, “A Florida Enchantment” would have been a cool and important addition to the series. It’s quite similar to “Turnabout.” In fact, I’d say that Hal Roach was thinking of “Florida” when he made his 1940 gender-bending comedy.

James -

Hmm.. I don’t totally agree here. I certainly think a festival spotlighting gays in early Hollywood films exclusively is a worthy examination on it’s own. I don’t find that limiting. Sure, there are other films from other countries that allowed more frank and open discussions of homosexuality. But, that’s sort of the point. While no country is totally devoid of homophobia, no matter how progressive, there are certainly other countries that have much more relaxed mores about such things than American culture, and have led the way and managed to get over their hangups and accept other people to a larger extent.

Conversely, as you point out, certain subjects like the one at hand here-homosexuality, have largely been taboo subjects in American films and were rarely discussed in an open and non-judgemental way. Certainly not within the films that cover the period of time the festival covers. So, I think it’s kind of interesting and valuable to see the inventive and subversive(And of course often unflattering) ways American filmmakers managed to covertly (or in some cases obviously)depict a group that was largely marginalized in American society. And how they managed to do it working within the restrictions that existed in Hollywood production of the Golden Age. And how the industry was able to evolve towards making more open, socially-conscious films. That’s a much different perspective than other countries that hold more progressive views.

So, all in all I think it’s a good effort and perhaps can spark interest in other festivals and examinations. Can’t understand why they aren’t including the 1914 film A Florida Enchantment which has some of the most striking gay subtext of any early film I’ve ever seen. Perhaps in the series….


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