Mar 23, 2013

Visiting Africa

With all of the teenage African and American boys pairing off, in A Visit to a Chief's Son (1974), African Journey (1989), and The Great Elephant Escape (1995), you'd think that sub-Saharan Africa would easily make my list of "good places," like India or the Pacific, but it didn't.  When I was a kid in the 1960s and 1970s, I heard about Africa mostly from Tarzan movies: steaming jungles occupied by hoards of gibbering natives who were semi-nude but not very muscular, and spent all of their time trying to kill white people.  Here they plan to burn Tarzan's Boy (Johnny Sheffield) at the stake.  He was also almost drowned, forced to drink poison, attacked by a giant spider, and tied up for no particular reason.
School wasn't much better.  Our few lessons about Africa mentioned the steaming jungles and naked natives living in grass huts, fighting crocodiles and waiting for Stanley and Livingston to discover them.  Although occasionally the pictures showed some muscles (and some of the nudity), and suggested the potential for homoromantic liaisons.

Jungle comic books occasionally showed natives who were "civilized," though still in loincloths, but they were always in the background.  The focus was on the white European or American leads.  Here the white Dan-El is in the foreground, and the black Natongo in the background.

There were also two tv series about Americans in a more modern Africa: Daktari (1966-69), starring Yale Summers (left) and Hari Rhodes (right), and Cowboy in Africa (1967-68), starring Chuck Connors.  I never saw them.

I heard about the real Africa some time later, but it didn't help much.  Sub-Saharan Africa today has some of the most repressively homophobic regimes on the planet.

Mar 22, 2013

Gay Friendship in "From Here to Eternity"

The 1953 movie "From Here to Eternity" is famous for the hetero-erotic scene of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr smooching in the tide, but there's a lot more to it.  A lot of gay content censored from the original James Jones novel (1952), but a lot left in.

The plot strands contain a heavy dose of melodrama:  In Hawaii just before Pearl Harbor, Private Prewitt (Montgomery Clift, left) refuses to participate in his company's boxing tournament, so his commanding officer, Captain Dana Holmes (Philip Ober), lays on the harassment and extra assignments to break him.  Meanwhile Prewitt falls in love with a thinly-disguised prostitute named Lorena (Donna Reed), but she won't marry him because she's saving up for a "respectable" marriage.

Meanwhile, Sergeant Warden (Burt Lancaster) begins an affair with Dana's wife, Karen (Deborah Kerr), but she won't get a divorce and marry him because she's "spoiled" (which means, apparently, unable to have children).

What's gay in all that?

1. Dana's lack of interest in his wife; he has "affairs," and Karen states that they're with women, but we never see any.  Plus his intense interest in boxing in general, and Prewitt in particular. When his superiors discover that he is abusing Prewitt, he is fired, and sadly takes the photos of hunky boxers down from his office wall.

2. Though Prewitt and Warden are both involved with women, they have time for some rather physical buddy-bonding, with arms on shoulders and pressed against knees.  (By the way, they both have shirtless scenes, and Warden spends a lot of time in a swimsuit).

3. Maggio (Frank Sinatra) was gay in the original novel, and in the movie, he seems not particularly interested in women.  In fact, the only time he expresses interest, he's trying to horn in on Prewitt's evening with Lorena.

But he's very interested in Prewitt.  He goes AWOL in order to keep a date with Prewitt, punches a MP, and is sentenced to six months in the stockade.  There he antagonizes the guard Judson (Ernest Borgnine), who doesn't like gays. . .um, I mean Italians. . .and is severely beaten.  He escapes, seeks out Prewitt, and dies in his arms.

Prewitt is so distraught over Maggio's death that he kills Judson and then goes AWOL himself, only springing back into action when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor.

4. The homoromantic bond between Prewitt and Maggio is intensified by Montgomery Clift's personal  conflict over being gay.  One biography of Clift suggests that he was cast precisely to add some "ambiguity" to the character.  Burt Lancaster was also rumored to be gay at the time.

Danny Bonaduce

Keith (David Cassidy) was the fave rave of The Partridge Family (1970-74), the Boomer sitcom about a family of pop stars driving around on a psychedelic bus.  But Danny (right) had a following among the younger gay kids.  Played by the carrot-top, freckle-faced Danny Bonaduce, he was a fast-talking operator who kept trying to get the family into bigger and better gigs.

Here's a "Where's Waldo" scene of Danny immersed in a sea of interracial hunks when he is drafted by mistake.

Boomers with fond memories of Danny Partridge are shocked by Danny Bonaduce today, craggy, gravelly-voiced, a shock jock, celebrity wrestler, and general rabble rouser with multiple arrests on his record (including an arrest for assaulting a transvestite prostitute)  Plus a shockingly muscular physique.

The shock may come from low exposure Danny had during his adolescence and young adulthood, so we seemed to jump directly from freckle-faced operator to craggy and gravelly.

But he wasn't entirely under the radar during the 1970s.  The teenager had guest spots on Shazam!, Fantasy Island, Chips, California Fever, and Eight is Enough, and performed in Murder on Flight 501 (1975), the buddy-bonding movie Corvette Summer (1978) with Mark Hamill, and the sexploitation H.O.T.S. (1979).  By 1980, however, Former Child Star Syndrome had taken its toll, leading Danny to drug addiction and a period of homelessness.

He began re-inventing himself in the early 2000s, with a radio career, a reality tv series, and lots of well-publicized celebrity stunts (in 2003, for instance, he boxed fellow teen idol Barry Williams)..  He's not exactly gay-friendly, but then he doesn't seem to be friendly to anyone in particular.

Mar 21, 2013

Michael Blodgett and the Homophobic 1960s

From the neck up, Michael Blodgett in the 1960s looked exactly like a girl, or what the kids in my junior high called a "fairy": long blond hair in a girlish pouf, thick eyeliner-enhanced eyebrows, heavy eyelids, pert nose, delicate cheekbones.  Put him in a dress, and he could sing "Life is a Cabaret" at a 1960s drag bar with no further enhancements.

His feminine features did not prevent him from getting cast in a wide variety of roles, including comedy, drama, and horror.  He specialized in nude and semi-nude scenes, perhaps so his muscles could assure the audience that he wasn't a drag king.  Of particular interest to gay fans:

1. Meet Me in St. Louis (1966), a remake of the Judy Garland classic, with Shelley Fabares playing turn-of-the century Esther and Michael playing her gay-vague crush, John Truitt.

2. Catalina Caper (1967), a beach movie with teens in swimsuits, including the recently outed Tommy Kirk. You can see it razzed on MST3K.

3. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970).  A homophobic sleaze-fest (written by film critic Roger Ebert) about three girls who come to Hollywood to make it big, only to be mired down in sleaze.  There are lesbian stereotype villains, and Michael Blodget in a leopard skin jockstrap.

4. There was a Crooked Man (1970).  Men in prison, Old West style.  There are gay men of a simpering, mincing homophobic stereotype sort. Michael's mascara runs, and he gets flogged, if you like that sort of thing.

5.The Ultimate Thrill (1974). The Most Dangerous Game on the ski slopes of Vail, with a homoerotic subtext (though Michael's not involved in it).

Michael retired from acting after Disco Fever (1978), which sounds horrible, and settled down to become a writer, with several screenplays, including Turner and Hooch, Run, Rent-a-Cop, as well as a number of adventure novels. He was married four times, most recently to lesbian actress Meredith Baxter.  He died in 2007.

Mar 20, 2013

Keith Andes without Marilyn

Keith Andes may be best known for drawing attention away from Marilyn Monroe by taking off his shirt in Clash by Night (1952), but the former model, singer, and Broadway star spent the next decade displaying a chiseled chest that would shame 1950s Tarzan Gordon Scott, and give the first generation of gay Boomer boys their first crush.

To ensure that he didn't scare audiences, he was often cast as meek, mild-mannered, gay-vague types whose muscles appear as a surprise revelation.  And directors mandated ample buddy bonding before he found his way into the arms of the girl.

In The Farmer's Daughter (1947), as one of the three Holstrom boys (the other two are Tarzan Lex Barker and James Arness) who watch their sister (Loretta Young) get involved in politics.

In Blackbeard the Pirate (1952), as a mild-mannered physician (with a spectacular physique) who goes undercover to spy on Blackbeard (Robert Newton).

In Away All Boats (1956), as a mild-mannered physician (aboard a World War II navy boat) who is embroiled in the personal problems of nearly every 1950s hunk in the business, including Lex Barker, Western star Jeff Chandler, Richard Boone, and George Nader.

In The Girl Most Likely (1958), as a mild-mannered boat mechanic, one of three men who all get engaged to the same girl (the other two are Tommy Noonan and Cliff Robertson).  

As pianist Franz Liszt, whose beloved piano is kidnapped on Have Gun -- Will Travel (1961).

During the 1960s and 1970s, Andes made the usual round of tv series: Western, spy, swinging detective, sitcom. He voiced the superhero Birdman on Saturday morning tv.   But the muscles occasionally popped out, as in the Star Trek episode "The Apple" (1967): Keith played a member of an alien species that Kirk and company interfere with (1970s teen idol David Soul played another).

He retired from acting in 1980, and died in 2005. No evidence that he was gay in real life, but no evidence of the homophobia of many men of his generation, either.

Mar 19, 2013

Visit to a Chief's Son: American-African Romance

When I was a kid, Western-Indian homoromantic pairs were everywhere, from Jonny and Hadji on Jonny Quest to Terry and Raji on Maya.  But there were very few Western-African pairs.  The only one I can think of is Kevin and Codonyo in Visit to a Chief's Son (1974).

American anthropologist Robert (Richard Mulligan, who would go on to star in Soap with Jimmy Baio) travels to Kenya, ostensibly to photograph the 1973 solar eclipse, but really intending to photograph a secret Masai ritual.  He arrives full of colonial ideas about white civilization and African savagery.   Chief Lomoiru is not impressed.

But the real story is about the romance between Robert's son Kevin (John Phillip Hogdon), who was 14, my age, and the chief's son, Codonyo (Jesse Kinaru).  They walk through the savannah and see herds of animals; they go skinny-dipping; they hug; all to a lushly romantic score by Francis Lai.

Their interaction is aggressively physical; they can't keep their hands off each other. They even sleep together.

Soon we realize that the real "savage" is Kevin: he is a nature boy, untouched by civilization.  He gets the most frontal and rear nude scenes, including a close up of his bare butt.

Codonyo, who is usually fully clothed, is the civilized one, teaching Kevin the traditions and history of the Masai. In the end he "goes native," to the consternation of his father.

John Phillip Hogdon and Jesse Kinaru have no other film credits.  Robert Halmi, who wrote the original 1963 novel, was a nature photographer who found a new career in producing movies, mostly takes on classics like Gulliver's Travels (1996), Moby Dick (1998), and The Arabian Nights (2000).  Director Lamont Johnson selected mostly high-concept problem movies, like That Certain Summer (1972), about a teenager (Scott Jacoby) who discovers that his dad is gay.

Mar 18, 2013

African Journey: Jason Blicker's Boyfriend

The six-episode Canadian miniseries African Journey (1989, broadcast in the U.S. on Wonderworks in 1990) stars Jason Blicker as 16-year old hockey star Luke Novak, who travels to Zimbabwe with his engineer father.

He bonds with the teenage Themba (Pedzisai Sithole), who is shy, passive, and rather feminine in mannerisms.  They handle some catastrophes, like a broken village pump (a big problem when there is no water for miles around), a mine collapse, and poachers (resulting in a kidnapping and rescue.  One expects them to collapse teary-eyed into each  other's arms.

But it's all a tease: in the second part of the miniseries (released as African Journey 2), Themba is all but absent, and his sister takes over, getting seriously ill so Jason can ride his dirtbike to the nearest hospital to get medicine, and fall in love with her.

Still, the first three episodes provided a rare Westerner-African homoromantic bond, as well as the remarkable sight of Jason Blicker's muscular torso as he rides his dirtbike with his shirt off (the VHS quality was too poor to transfer, but it's striking).

It's never been released on DVD, but yoou can get used VHS tapes on Amazon.

Jason Blicker, who was nowhere near age 16, starred in the gay-themed movie As Is in 1986 and in a gay-themed episode of the Canadian teen series Hangin' In (1986).  Since 1990 he's had supporting roles in many movies and tv programs, both in Canada and the U.S., but he is a private person, almost anonymous, giving few interviews and revealing little information about his life.

According to his Facebook page, he likes yoga, Russian martial arts, Stonefox Jewelry Originals, and Yoav Deckelbaum Desserts

The Suite Life of Zack and Cody

Disney channel teencoms (Even Stevens, Hannah Montana, The Wizards of Waverly Place) can be queered even more easily than Nickelodeon teencoms (Drake and Josh, ICarly).   Same-sex desire and romance always lie just beneath the surface, as if the producers are deliberately trying to come as close as possible to including gay people without actually Saying the Word.

The Suite Life of Zack and Cody (2004-2008) was about twin brothers, the teen operator Zack (Dylan Sprouse) and the bookish intellectual Cody (Cole Sprouse), who live in an upscale hotel (or later on an upscale cruise ship). It became one of the most popular teencoms of all time, lasting for an unprecedented 83 episodes before spinning off into The Suite Life on Deck (2008-2011). And it offers an unprecedented look at the strategies of Not Saying the Word.

1. All of the teen characters express heterosexual interest, but spoiled heiress London Tipton (Brenda Song) and working-class candy-counter girl Maddie (Ashley Tisdale) form a strong Betty-and-Veronica style bond. They become partners for a school parenting assignment; upon quarreling, London cries "I want a divorce!"  They dance together.  They break up and reconcile.

2. The hotel manager, Mr. Moseby (Phill Lewis) is uptight, supercilious, not interested in women, gay-vague.    The maitre d' of the hotel restaurant, Patrick, is also gay-vague (played by gay actor Patrick Bristow).

3. Everyone behaves as if same-sex dating and romance is an ordinary part of their world.  Mr. Moseby pretends to "date" Zack.  At a party, two boys are obviously dancing together.  Zack and Cody pair up for a dance contest.

When Zack asks Cody to come along on his date with a popular girl, Cody believes that he has an ulterior motive: “I’m not dating her creepy sister, or her brother. . ."  He pauses.  The laugh track is silent;  he is not joking.  He concludes: "Or her dog."  Now the laugh track goes into hysterics.  This is the punchline, the absurdity.  Gay dating is perfectly ordinary; Zack might indeed expect Cody to date a boy.

Mar 17, 2013

Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road

At our church's summer camp, only the devil’s music, rock and roll, was completely forbidden. But any music from the World might bring the danger of brainwashing, so there was a list of forbidden pop songs posted on the bulletin board.  No one explained the rationale, so at camp in the summer of 1976, my friends and I had fun tracking down bootleg copies and analyzing the lyrics.

John Lennon’s “Imagine” was easy: it denied the existence of heaven and hell.

But was Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” banned because it mentioned beer, because the word “lover” suggested that he had a boyfriend (like "Me and Julio"), or because of the rather blatant bulge on the album cover?

Cat Stevens’ “Oh Very Young,” because it mentioned dancing, or because the performer was black? (Everything by the Jackson Five was banned, but nothing by the Osmonds).

We concluded that Elton John’s “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” was banned because of the reference to “vodka and tonic.” But one day my friend Janice told me the real reason.

Every night after altar call, boys and girls were expected to pair up and "take a walk" through the woods.  After a few days of hand-on-shoulder sympathy and "You'll find someone!", I asked Janice to "take a walk."  As we passed the huddled bodies of boy and girls kissing, I heard the song coming from someone's transistor radio, and sang along. “You know you can’t hold me forever – I didn’t sign on with you. I’m not a present for your friends to open. . . .”

“Cool it!” Mary exclaimed. “You shouldn’t be singing about fairies here.”

“It’s not about fairies,” I protested. “It’s about Elton John being disillusioned with fame.”

“No, he’s disillusioned with being a fairy. Remember the next line – ‘back to the howling old owl in the woods, back to the horny back toad’? Owls and toads are demonic, right? He wants to go back to the time before he became a fairy. But it’s too late now, so he’s going to Hell."

"Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road" about being a fairy?  I didn't believe it.

But that fall -- a few days after I first heard the word "gay" on Alice  -- I saw the October 6th, 1976 issue of Rolling Stone, with Elton John stating that he was bisexual.  When I figured out what the word meant, I knew that Janice was right.

But he doesn't regret being gay.  He's tired of wearing the mask, pretending that he is heterosexual, always being anxious and insecure and sad -- "This boy's too young to be singing the blues."

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