Issue 4

Queer Christina: The Representation of LGBT Characters in Pre-Code Era Films

Historically, the representation of queer characters in film and onscreen is very poor. They are often one-dimensional stereotypes portrayed through gender inversions — the gay “pansy” or the “butch” lesbian. Despite the presence of LGBT persons in front of and behind the camera, showing homosexual characters in the early years of Hollywood “in anything but a degrading comic light” was “extremely rare.”[1] Queer characteristics were also often applied to the villains or monsters of early and classical Hollywood cinema to represent evil.[2] These demeaning representations lessened as Hollywood entered the pre-Code era. Homosexual and queer filmmakers and stars, such as Marlene Dietrich and arguably Greta Garbo, rose to fame, and studios grew more daring in the face of censorship, testing how far they could push the Production Code Administration and Studio Relations Committee in regards to the screen-time of banned topics. Although the Code prohibited “sex perversion,” which mainly concerned homosexuality, queer characters still appeared in pre-Code era films with alarming explicitness, growing less one-dimensional and more prominent, as particularly demonstrated in Morocco (1930), Queen Christina (1933), and The Sign of the Cross (1932), though not without their own drawbacks. Tracing the timeline of early Hollywood cinema, this paper will analyze and discuss the shifts and changes in queer representation in film: how it started, where it peaked, and how it met its end.

In the early 1900s through to the implementation of the Production Code, the representation of gay characters was offensive and limited; the “pansy” was generally a supporting character that acted as nothing more than comic relief. The pansy image originated from the concept that homosexuality was simply gender inversion: pansies were exaggeratedly effeminate creatures, often characterized by high-pitched voices and feminine professions (e.g., fashion designers, hairdressers, etc.). The implication surrounding this stereotype, according to Benshoff and Griffin, is that “homosexual men were not considered ‘real men.’”[3] Although the Production Code expressly prohibited, as Variety put it, “more than a dash of lavender,” it tolerated this “pansy comedy,”[4] making it a common and easy target for humor. Furthermore, as the pansy was more likely to show “enthusiasm over a new silk kimono than another man,”[5] his certifiable homosexuality remained questionable. Thus, despite the impression of a presence of homosexuals in early cinema, Hollywood should not be lauded for this type of representation at all. Used for jokes or to symbolize the demonic, these minor, underdeveloped characters cannot be considered adequate examples of queer representation in Hollywood.

If the pansy was the connotative gay, the “mannish woman” became the connotative lesbian. Her gender inversion invoked “tailored tweed suits, . . . men’s hats and short slicked-back hair.”[6] These mannish (or, in modern terms, butch) women were typically shown in a much more serious light than their male counterparts. Most often, however, similar to the pansy, these characters showed little sign of explicit homosexuality, and are thus sometimes regarded as more representative of the “‘New Woman’” of the feminist movement.[7] Nevertheless, the fact remains that butch lesbians still existed in actual queer communities, and the mannish woman became a queer icon for many. The most famous example of this type from the 1930s would be Marlene Dietrich, who often dressed in men’s clothing, both onscreen and off. Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 hit Morocco, starring Dietrich, features her in a man’s tuxedo and top hat, smoking a cigarette, an image that would become an icon for feminist and queer groups the same. Additionally, in the sequence, she flirts with and kisses a female audience member, marking the start of “actual representations of same-sex desire and intimacy.”[8] Although a fleeting sequence, Diedrich’s explicit queerness, if not homosexuality, was an important transition in the film industry for queer representation, departing the dependence on gender inversion and connotation for a more explicit, denotative queerness.

The 1933 Rouben Mamoulian biopic Queen Christina portrays the titular seventeenth-century ruler of Sweden. Historically speaking, the monarch is often speculated to have been lesbian or bisexual, sources citing her relationship with her lady-in-waiting Ebba Sparre.[9] Quoted in The Celluloid Closet, Lewis Gannett of the New York Herald-Tribune wrote, after having read Elizabeth Goldsmith’s biography of the queen, and in anticipation of Mamoulian’s film, “‘The one persistent love of Christina’s life was for the Countess Ebba Sparre . . . the evidence is overwhelming, but will Miss Garbo play such a Christina?’”[10] Indeed, the film does include a passionate kiss on the lips between the two characters. Ebba complains that her queen is always “surrounded by musty old papers and musty old men,” preventing them from being together. To this, Christina promises that they will go away for two or three days to the countryside.[11] Russo describes this scene as “charged with sexuality and real affection . . . Garbo lifts the emotional barriers that characterize her encounters with male suitors.”[12] After this brief encounter, the majority of the film then focuses on Queen Christina’s heterosexual relationship with the Spanish ambassador, Antonio. Still, it is important to note and appreciate this depiction of a more complex, even bisexual, character as astounding and groundbreaking, especially considering the incredible lack of bisexual representation in even twenty-first-century films.

Some critics go on to argue that “one cannot really know for certain whether Christina is ‘actually’ lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual, or transgendered.”[13] That she is queer is undeniable; Benshoff and Griffin argue that her queerness simply cannot be defined in one individual label. A common analysis of both real-world Queen Christina and Garbo’s character in the film, besides lesbian, is that of a transgendered, intersex, or otherwise gender-ambiguous monarch. At the coronation when she is age six, she is crowned as “king” rather than queen, and her progression throughout the film reflects traits commonly assigned to a male, from her garb (trousers) to her position (ruler of a country). At one point in the film, her chancellor proclaims that she “cannot die an old maid,” to which she responds that she has no intent to do so whatsoever. Rather, she cries, “I shall die a bachelor.”[14] Although the kiss between Queen Christina and Ebba received no backlash in the PCA files, this line in particular was to be omitted.[15] Mamoulian, however, ignored Wingate, leaving it in the final cut. Benshoff and Griffin also cite the final extreme close-up shot of Christina’s face at the end of the film, in which she stands at the bow of a ship, displaying a blank face. Her lack of emotions, “yet another sign of traditional masculinity,” reflects too her ambiguous gender and sexuality.[16] This interpretation of the titular character pushes Christina beyond being representative of homosexuality — which has been showcased in previous films (such as Morocco) — and into the realm of queer representation as a whole, demonstrating the rate at which pre-Code era films increased the complexity and prominence of queer characters in the face of the Production Code.

Yet, despite all this, both Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo’s characters experience lesbian or bisexual erasure. The homosexual kisses are fleeting, and both films then go on to focus on the characters’ heterosexual romances, Dietrich’s character partnered with Gary Cooper and Garbo’s with Antonio. In fact, the Code itself is reluctant to refer to homosexuality at all, preferring to classify the sin as “sex perversion.” Throughout the PCA files, there is only one passing mention of the kiss between queen and lady-in-waiting: Wingate advises Mannix of M-G-M to “be careful to avoid anything . . . which might be construed as lesbianism.”[17] The rest of the censorship mainly just regards the bedroom scene between Christina and Antonio, which is highly suggestive. White hypothesizes that the PCA seemed to ignore these “lesbian ‘inferences’” due to the understanding that these inferences were “extremely profitable” for the studios, as they exploited this lesbian suggestiveness.[18] Still, the homosexual erasure of these characters cannot be ignored; although the small amount of representation they received was a step in the right direction, the script, in the case of Queen Christina, at least, “refashion[ed] the life of this historical lesbian into a tale of heterosexual romance,”[19] taking away the homosexual representation as quickly as it was given. Furthermore, while the argument of a queer Christina over a lesbian Christina seems more inclusive, it nevertheless tends to convert the queen into a man, again destroying the minor lesbian and bisexual representation in one fell swoop.

To sum, the problem with this type of representation is that Morocco and Queen Christina both feature mannish women that kiss other ladies in a short scene before moving on to engage in heterosexual romances. The lesbian representation is fleeting, and the characters can still easily be read as heterosexual, despite their preference to dress as men. This low-key representation and ensuing erasure is not featured in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1932 film, The Sign of the Cross, which sparked such outrage amongst Christian groups that it is often cited as one of the most pivotal causes for the creation of the Legion of Decency and thus the era of enforced censorship. Queer Images describes three separate instances of “surprisingly overt” homosexual representation: Nero’s character, which “fits easily into the pansy stereotype,” and whose heterosexuality is not defended in the least by his nearly-nude slave boy; Empress Poppaea, who invites a lady-in-waiting to join her in a milk bath; and, most notably, the erotic, seductive “Dance of the Naked Moon,” performed by the pagan Ancaria in order to break the good Christian Mercia.[20] Of the latter example, it’s important to note that neither Ancaria nor Mercia fit the mannish stereotype of lesbians that was the sole manner of depiction in other films (Morocco, Queen Christina).

            The film received polarized reviews for its explicitness, particularly in reference to the dance sequence. Many believed DeMille’s defense that the erotic scene was necessary to contrast the “sensuousness of the pagan” to the “purity of the Christians.”[21] A review in Harrison’s Reports argued that “the average adult will not understand that it is a Lesbian dance” at all, agreeing that the scene was an integral part of the film.[22] According to the PCA files, the SRC, interestingly enough, seemed happy to allow The Sign of the Cross to pass with no eliminations. Jason Joy himself stated in a letter to Harold Hurley of Paramount:

Ordinarily we would have been concerned about those portions of the dance sequence in which the Roman dancer executes the ‘kootch’ movement. But since the director obviously used dancing to show the conflict between paganism and Christianity, we are agreed that there is justification of its use under the Code.[23]

However, the script was then sent to Reverend Reisner for approval, who responded quite vehemently that it is “repellant and nauseating to every thinking Christian,” calling it a “cheap and disgusting attempt to present lewd performances under a sacred name and shielded by an ignorant notion of religion.”[24] His opinion was shared by many other Christian and Catholic groups and clergymen, such as the Reverend Joseph Schrembs, Bishop of Cleveland:

‘My! What a proud name! What a headline! Surely we might expect a beautiful and inspiring spectacle! But it was all damnable hypocrisy: For under that name, the “Sign of the Cross,” which was only a subterfuge in order to trap the unwary, there was spilled out upon us all of the nastiness, all of the filth, all of the dirt the human mind and heart conceive, and a specimen of wishy-washy Christianity.’[25]

Reverend Gerald B. Donnely also writes in America that “the dance is not only lascivious but also clearly suggestive of perversion,” and that the film should be reedited to remove the “Lesbian scenes.”[26] This was an obvious breach of the Code. Some writers attacked the Hays office, claiming its “moral code is not even a joke anymore; it’s just a memory.”[27] With the increased and incensed pressure from Christian groups like the Legion of Decency, Hays stepped down, allowing Breen to succeed him. Breen was much stronger and stricter than his forerunner, and immediately called for the total elimination of the pagan dance from the film.[28]

Thus started Breen’s reign over the PCA, and the start of real censorship in Hollywood. He reclassified pre-Code era films, such as Queen Christina, which, as a Class II film, was allowed to finish its exhibition contract but would never be rereleased.[29] The sudden burst of explicit homosexual and queer representation in Hollywood was stifled once more into subtle connotations, and would only rise again in the ’60s as the Gay Rights movement grew in strength and the Production Code Administration weakened. From the pansy and the mannish woman, to the ambiguously queer, to very explicit homoeroticism, the pre-Code era of Hollywood saw an unprecedented variety of clear queer representation, whether it was shunted aside for a greater heterosexual narrative or not, that would not be met until the peak of the Gay Rights movement in the mid-to-late-twentieth century.

[1] Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin, America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 313.

[2] Queer Cinema, The Film Reader, ed. Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin (New York: Routledge, 2004), 7.

[3] Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin, Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006), 25.

[4] “Banned from Bathroom by Hays Office, Pictures Hop Into Pansy Stuff,” Variety, February 1932, 6.

[5] Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin, Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006), 26.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 27.

[8] Ibid., 28.

[9] Waters, 43; Crompton, 357.

[10] Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc., 1981), 64.

[11] Queen Christina, directed by Rouben Mamoulian (1933; New York: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 2005), DVD.

[12] Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc., 1981), 64.

[13] Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin, America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 386.

[14] Queen Christina, directed by Rouben Mamoulian (1933; New York: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 2005), DVD.

[15] Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Primary Source Microfilm (Firm), “Queen Christina,” in History of cinema. selected files from the Motion Picture Association of America Production Code Administration collection. Series 1, reel 9 (Woodbridge, CT: Primary Source Microfilm, 2006).

[16] Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin, America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 387.

[17] Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Primary Source Microfilm (Firm), “Queen Christina,” in History of cinema. selected files from the Motion Picture Association of America Production Code Administration collection. Series 1, reel 9 (Woodbridge, CT: Primary Source Microfilm, 2006).

[18] Patricia White, unInvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999), 11.

[19] Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin, Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006), 27.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Primary Source Microfilm (Firm), “The Sign of the Cross,” in History of cinema. selected files from the Motion Picture Association of America Production Code Administration collection. Series 1, reel 5 (Woodbridge, CT: Primary Source Microfilm, 2006).

[22] “‘Sign of the Cross’ with Fredric March, Elissa Landi and Claudette Colbert,” Harrison’s Reports, December 1932, 203.

[23] Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Primary Source Microfilm (Firm), “The Sign of the Cross,” in History of cinema. selected files from the Motion Picture Association of America Production Code Administration collection. Series 1, reel 5 (Woodbridge, CT: Primary Source Microfilm, 2006).

[24] Ibid.

[25] Harrison’s Reports, February 1933, 28.

[26] Ibid.

[27] “Writers War on Filth,” The Hollywood Reporter, February 1933, 2.

[28] Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Primary Source Microfilm (Firm), “The Sign of the Cross,” in History of cinema. selected files from the Motion Picture Association of America Production Code Administration collection. Series 1, reel 5 (Woodbridge, CT: Primary Source Microfilm, 2006).

[29] Mark A. Vieira, Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999), 196.