The Celluloid Closet, and a few more movies

#205  [archive]

The Celluloid Closet (1995)
Streaming free 

This is a devastating documentary about the damage done to gay people by Hollywood's depictions of them.

Almost from the invention of movies, LGBTQ people were not allowed on screen except for laughs — look at the sissy man prancing, ha ha.

On rare occasions when a moviemaker tried to present LGBTQ folks a little more fairly or sympathetically, a censor named Joseph Breen (at what's now the Motion Picture Association) altered scripts, and changed words, personalities, and plots to make movies blander, including even the classics. 

"The Lost Weekend, a novel about a sexually confused alcoholic, became a movie about an alcoholic with writer's block. Crossfire, a novel about gay-bashing and murder, became a movie about antisemitism and murder."

Wow — those are two great movies, both of which I've seen numerous times, and I never knew the gay had been snuffed out of them.

As Harvey Fierstein explains, "There are lots of needs for art and the greatest one is the mirror, of our own lives, and our own existence. And that hunger that I felt as a kid, looking for gay images, was — to not be alone."

Imagine going to the movies with friends, family, and never seeing anyone like yourself on-screen. Or when there is someone in the movie you can identify with, it's a joke and you're the punchline. And if it's not a joke, being a-little-like-you inevitably leads to scandal, shame, or suicide in the film's storyline. Or that character turns out to be the film's crazed killer.

As time rolled on and restrictions began loosening, still, you couldn't actually say gay.

In The Children's Hour (1961) — a movie about the guilt and internal torture of being lesbian (!) — the L-word is never spoken. Even when what the film is about is revealed, it's a whisper the audience can't hear. Shirley MacLaine makes an apologetic appearance here, confessing that "None of us were really aware," and that she and co-star Audrey Hepburn never even talked about what the film is about.

With well-chosen interviews on camera and clips from more than a hundred movies, The Celluloid Closet is an education but never a lecture. Lily Tomlin narrates text written by Armistead Maupin, and it's been a long while since a movie affected me so.

Along the way, I kept pausing the video to add movies to my watchlist: Call Her Savage (1932), which had Hollywood's first peek at a gay bar; Victim (1961), with Dirk Bogarde as the screen's first gay protagonist; Advice and Consent (1962), where a Senator faces allegations of gayness; The Boys in the Band (1970), the first drama about gay people where none of them die; and the grand Caberet (1972), the first movie where LGBTness is simply accepted.

The Celluloid Closet is based on years of research and a 1981 book by Vito Russo, co-founder of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), who died of AIDS in 1990.

It was made in 1995, but even so close to our 'modern era', it must've been a difficult pitch — the credits say it's a presentation of HBO, but also list almost a hundred individual, small business, and foundation funders, and then thank "4,000 other donors who helped get this project off the ground."

Anyone lesbian gay bisexual transgender or questioning will be moved by The Celluloid Closet, but you do not have to be LGBTQ to watch it, cry, and understand.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

A Better Tomorrow (1996)
Streaming free 

Widely hailed as a classic of Hong Kong action flicks, until tonight I'd never seen this. Sorry, my taste generally runs toward kung fu more than John Woo's famous bullet ballets.

He's the cinematic son of Sam Peckinpah, making movies full of tough guys being tough, with shootouts and doublecrosses and then another, bigger shootout. If the bullets don't get you, the toxicity of the accumulated lead will.

This one guy is a high-ranking gangster and counterfeiter, but his younger brother is training to become a policeman. Their father wants the gangster to go legit, and he agrees to retire after one last score. But the last score goes all wrong, and then the gangsters send someone to kidnap the father, but that goes wrong too, and Dad dies saying, "Even as boys, you two played cops and robbers."

After that, of course, it's time for the guns — lots of guns, all of which shoot more bullets than a gun can hold. Lots of mega-masculine drama, too, with brother-on-brother arguments, a despicable bad guy, a big-eyed girlfriend who's not going to simply scream.

Chow Yuen-Fat plays the gangster guy's co-gangster and best buddy, and walks away with the film.

Pretending to be a nice guy, usually I don't want to see people being shot through the bloody guts, or being beaten brutally about the head so blood spurts like a slow-mo fountain from the mouth and out both nostrils, all filmed against a lovely midnight sky and under neon lights. When I am in the mood, though, nobody does such things better than writer-director John Woo.

A Better Tomorrow has been remade twice, but I can't fathom why. This one's the real deal.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

A Night in Casablanca (1946)
Streaming free

Years after their most famous films, the Marx Brothers messed with their format in this comeback flick. Gone are all the musical numbers, except for two brief, not unpleasant performances of "Who's Sorry Now?" The Marxes seem less anarchic, more in service of the plot.

The movie is a spoof of war melodramas like Casablanca, and everyone whose last name isn't Marx takes the proceedings very seriously. Nazis are afoot, with stolen treasure hidden somewhere in the hotel.

Chico plays Corbaccio, proprietor of the Yellow Camel Company. Harpo plays Randy, an incompetent valet at the Hotel Casablanca, and Groucho is the hotel's new manager — but the last two managers have been murdered.

Chico and Harpo are a bit wrinkled, and Groucho is seriously balding, but the brothers are still funny, plus there's mystery and intrigue. Staged to look and feel like Algiers or Casablanca, it almost works as one of that genre, but the Marxes won't stand for it.

I'd been led to expect lesser Marx here, but this is quite good. Chico is still the only guy who can play a piano both funny and beautiful. Harpo with the harp, ditto. And Groucho makes any joke better with his delivery. The brothers have been funnier, but the non-Marx parts are better than in most of their movies. Fewer laughs, but far fewer yawns.

Written by Joseph Fields (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and Roland Kibbee (who wrote two good episodes of Columbo).

Directed by Archie Mayo (Moontide, The Petrified Forest).

Produced by David Loew, whose dad orchestrated the three-way merger of the Metro, Goldwyn, and Meyer film companies, and founded the long-running Loew's chain of cinemas.

Verdict: YES.


• • • Coming attractions • • •

The Gorilla (1939)
The Green Girl (2014)
Hiroshima (1953)
Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966)
Popeye (1980)
Reflections of Evil (2002)
Truck Turner (1974)

... plus occasional schlock and surprises 

    • • • And then • • •

A Gnome Named Gnorm (1990)
Alexander Nevsky (1938)
The Bat People (1974)
The Beatles: Get Back (2021)
Berkeley in the Sixties (1990)
Brainwaves (1983)
The Card Counter (2021)
Cellular (2004) 
The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1985)
Dark Star (1974)
The Day My Parents Became Cool (2009)
The Decline of Western Civilization (1980)
Downsizing (2017)
Frankenhooker (1990)
The General (1926)
Get Shorty (1995)
Hugo (2011)
The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)
The Internet's Own Boy (2014)
Kids in the Hall (debut episode; 1988) 
Kids in the Hall (reunion debut episode; 2022)
The Killing of America (1981)
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) 
Line of Duty (debut episode; 2012)
Love Happy (1950)
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
The Man Who Thought Life (1969)
The Man with Nine Lives (1940)
The Manhattan Project (1996)
Not Wanted (1949)
Nothing But a Man (1964)
Phone Booth (2002)
PickAxe (1999)
Poison (1990)
Revelations (1993)
Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)
Romper Stomper (1992)
Room Service (1938)
Same Kind of Different as Me (2017)
Saved! (2004)
Scared to Death (1947)
Secret Weapons (1985)
The Shooting (1966)
The Soloist (2009)
Sons of the Desert (1933)
Street of Crocodiles (1986)
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
Taken for a Ride (1996)
The Train (1964)
Welcome to New Orleans (2006)
Who Farted? (2019)
Who's That Girl? (1987)
Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006)

There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

AlterCineverseCriterionCultCinema ClassicsDocsVilleDustFandorFilms for ActionHooplaIHaveNoTVIndieFlixInternet ArchiveKanopyKinoCultKino LorberKorean Classic FilmChristopher R MihmMosfilmMubiNational Film Board of CanadaNew Yorker Screening RoomDamon PackardMark PirroPizzaFlixPopcornFlixPublic Domain MoviesRareFilmmScarecrow VideoShudderThoughtMaybeTimeless Classic MoviesVoleFlixWatchDocumentaries • or your local library

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —

Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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  1. I'm not sure I've ever seen this film. I love the Marxes so much and I knew they had to make a couple of films at the end of their movie careers for money (mostly to pay off Chico's gambling debts, but also to replenish the funds they lost in depression-era investments). I'd heard that these were lesser movies in many ways, and I didn't want to see the boys (now middle-aged men and more) just work for dough. But now I'm going to watch this and it sounds like you've given me the gift of seeing the Marx Brothers in a "new" film that isn't interrupted by musical number but is filled with the brothers' brand of comedy. I'll not expect too much and enjoy the laughs that are there. Thanks for the thoughtful review.


    1. Other than women showing me their nakedness and inviting me inside, nothing thrills me more than having someone follow my breadcrumbs to a good movie. Here's hoping you enjoy.

      Your money back if not satisfied.

    2. OK, I'll do that. Now where is all this nakedness and inviting? And which one involves breadcrumbs? It's been like 50 years and I can barely remember yesterday.


    3. Is that you, John? Sometimes you have your name twice, other times not at all.

    4. As the boys at the Firesign Theater say, "How can you be in two places at once when you're really nowhere at all?"

      Obviously, both cases are errors. I generally rack up more errors than hits, but playing in the over-70 league, anything short of a heart attack is a good day. (I sign twice to make up for the times I don't sign at all).



    5. Kinda hard to believe that I was an IT guy for 35 years. I coded in a dozen languages and, if it survived Y2000, some of the code might still be running. But I can't sign my name.

      I should note that by the time the Web came along my guys wouldn't let me code a single line, so these globally networked PCs and phones might as well be documented in Russian. Right now I'm trying to buy a six pack of Diet Pepsi online from Fred Meyers, and I think I accidently picked up a dozen roses and and some feminine napkins. I'm not even acquainted with anyone young enough for either.


    6. Firesign Theater, man. Like most kids my age, I listened to the tapes. I wonder if they're still funny.

    7. You, noncoding for many years, could probably design a better shopping site than Freddy Meyer. Everything about it frustrates me, but it's better than being in the store.

      Search for cinnamon roll and the top result is cinnamon roll-flavored yogurt, the second result is Nature Valley Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate Chewy Protein Granola Bars, and the 9th result is ... cinnamon rolls.

    8. Two living, two dead. The dead move more slowly but the living ain't bragging.


    9. Oui.


  2. We're still being hurt by the Hayes code and censorshop of movies and the similar unofficial censorship of TV for so long. For generations America and especially white America grew up watching movies and TV with homosexuals all pitiable, Black people as maids and shoeshine boys, no promisculity, everyone christian, no swearing, everything quiet and white and that's why they believe everything in their culture has gone to hell now.

  3. Huh. Seems true, and unlike today TV and movies were the only entertainment for people too stupid to read. I shall add your argument to my rhetorical warfare of the future.

  4. There are a lot of ties in my life, and one of them is the tie between religion and capitalism for most dangerous and insidious of human beliefs. I noticed this last month when the Advent calendars for the Christmas season hit the racks. Companies have now gone beyond pieces of chocolate behind the windows leading to the birth of Christ, I suppose based on the belief that Jesus was a serious fan of chocolate and the Advent calendar folks needed to push the envelope. So now we have Advent calendars with cardboard windows that open daily to little dog treats or little cat treats. I don't think of household pets as having religious beliefs, although it's possible a couple of my cats are Jewish; certainly none is Baptist. But a cat advent calendar might convince any one of them of the divinity of Jesus of Naz. Cats like treats, and Christmas trees and, although we no longer invest in deforestation, I think some of the meowers remember when we did and when indoor climbing was a thing.

    What I'm saying is that were I a Christian, all these specialized Advent calendars would piss me off since, as I recall, the gospels neglect to sanctify pet treats. They also neglect to sanctify chocolate treats leading up to Jesus' birthday, since chocolate is a distinctly new world treat. But I am not a christian, so I am conflicted between companies making dough selling pet food advent calendars and churches making dough to fund lawsuits by celebrating the Sundays of advent. A small thought that took too many words to splain.


    1. A smile-worthy observation, grazu.

      The denomination I grew up in didn't do Advent, but I've eaten a few of the chocolates (stale but still good).

      Of course, the Advent calendar is manufactured for profit not faith, so the Fido variation only adds a new line. Crazy that people want salvation for their dogs, but jeez, what about religion isn't crazy? And profitable...

    2. The Methodists I hung with celebrated the four Sundays leading up to The Big Game and we lit candles at home, but we didn't believe in prayer so we blew them out prontodente. To clarify, my church believed in prayer but my parents didn't. They taught us that the planets orbited the Sun just fine without god shoving them around.

      Those opposing beliefs should have confused me, but they didn't. They taught me that the universe is way too complicated for god to understand and almost too complicated for Einstein and Feynman.

      I was part of a larger religion that managed to take a loss. Go figure.


    3. The question never came up, but I suppose they were agnostics. In the 50s it was believed, even by agnostics, that a little religions education could help a child make better decisions about what he/she would believe as an adult. I don't have an opinion about that, but I never saw my parents pressured into anything. They did what they did because they thought it was right. I caught a break in the parent department.


    4. Yessir, sounds like you did.

      Had I children, I would've raised them with no church, but also I would've shot myself through the temples.

    5. And the projectile might have taken one of those Kennedy mid-air right turns and wounded you in the subjunctive. Had you children, indeed.



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