Aug 14, 2016

Laurel and Hardy: 1930s Gay Couple

One Christmastime in junior high, around 1973 or 1974, I happen to be walking through the room while Grandma Davis and her friend are watching an old black and white movie on tv.  Two guys, one fat and one skinny, are getting into a slapstick scrape.

"They don't make movies like that nowadays," Grandma Davis exclaims.

"Nowadays all you see is sex, sex, sex," her friend complains. "Thankfully the boys weren't interested in women."

My ears perk up.  Not interested in women?  Maybe they were interested in each other?

I sit down, but the movie is nearly over.  "Who were they?"  I ask.

"Why, what do they teach in those hippie schools of yours?"  Grandma Davis  asked.  "It was Laurel and Hardy, the greatest comedy team in history!"

Later, in the Washington Junior High library, I read about the bumbling man-child Stan Laurel and the fat blustering Oliver Hardy (reminiscent of Gilligan and the Skipper on Gilligan's Island), who starred together in over 70 shorts and 23 feature films from the 1920s to the 1950s.  But many of their films involved wives, and both were married to women in real life.

Grandma's friend was wrong.

Years later, in Bloomington, around 1983 or 1984, I turn on the tv one dull Saturday afternoon, hoping for an old beefcake movie.  Instead, I see two women wearing men's suits.  One is talking on the telephone to Oliver Hardy.  "I'd love for you to meet my husband," she says, glancing at her partner, who smiles.


Did I just see a lesbian couple in a 1930s movie?

 Apparently not.  The movie was Sons of the Desert (1933), with Laurel and Hardy as a couple of henpecked husbands who sneak away to go to a lodge convention in Chicago.  Their wives have become wise to the deception, and are planning a comeuppance.  Not lesbians.

But the gay subtexts come fast and furious in the Laurel and Hardy world.

The two often have wives, but only as obstacles to be overcome in their quest to be together.

They often flirt -- literally flirt -- with police officers, boxers, and sundry macho figures.

They often don drag, or act the 1930s "pansy."  And they are devoted to each other, with an obviously physical relationship.

In The Celluloid Closet (1978), Vito Russo discusses the 1932 short Their First Mistake.  As usual, the wives are jealous.  In this case, it's just Ollie's wife, who forbids him from seeing Stan.  So Ollie gives her a baby (somehow) to distract her.  But the plan backfires, and she files for divorce, naming Stan as the "other woman."  The movie ends with Stan and Ollie as a domestic couple raising the child themselves.

Can you get more overt than that?

1 comment:

  1. I'm pretty sure Laurel at least was completely aware of the homo overtones. Before he paired with Hardy, he played a series of comedic 'sissies' in silent shorts, one of which had a swishy cowboy as a running gag.

    Also, before Laurel and Hardy officially teamed, they appeared together in an army-themed short, 'With Love and Hisses.' The short even includes a (discrete) scene where Laurel, Hardy, and some other soldiers go skinny-dipping, lose their clothes, and have to make their way back to camp behind a billboard they've inexplicably found. By some accounts, these scenes really were filmed in the nude, though not much is visible.


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