Before gay meant ‘gay’

Jun 10, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Blake Edwards’ “The Great Race” is among a group of the director’s comedies recently released on DVD for the first time by Warner Home Video. It’s not really a very hilarious comedy, but the production is so lush and gorgeous, and the print so pristine and glittering, that it’s terrifically enjoyable to watch.
DVDs almost always have extras. The extras on “The Great Race” include the film’s theatrical trailer. (We’re actually getting to the point now. Honest, it’s coming right up.) The trailer lauds the film as the “Greatest,” the “Wildest,” the “Funniest” comedy ever-and, oh yeah, the “Gayest” too.
Now this was 1965, mind you, and yet here’s the word “gay” still being used in its original or at least traditional way, connoting jolly and merry and festive. Whatever. Some people have lamented the loss of the word in that context because there isn’t another word exactly like it, but it’s a little late to try to reverse the march of common usage. “Gay” today doesn’t mean what it meant in the “Great Race” trailer of 1965.
New meaning
So I was wondering, because I tend to wonder idly about things (it’s one way of avoiding watching TV), just when it was that “gay” stopped meaning one thing and started meaning something else. When could you no longer use it in its original meaning and not get a chortle or perhaps a titter from whoever was listening?
Maybe the wondering isn’t as idle as it seems, not that I’d ever shrink from the charge of idleness, because another threshold in the history of homosexuality in America is about to be crossed. A race is on between two giant competing corporations (oh, the irony) to start a gay-themed cable network, something that’s already available in Canada. Whatever the new gay network is called, it probably won’t be called Gay TV, even though that’s catchy, because of the fear that the word would scare certain people off. It’s a wacky world.
“Gay TV” would only work if the word could somehow magically return to its previous meaning, and that isn’t about to happen. The new meaning is so universally entrenched that there’s probably no turning back, nor need there be. I am sort of fascinated, though, by the word’s transformation and by trying to pinpoint when it occurred-when it became, as it were, “official.”
You see “gay” all the time in trailers for old movies and in the movies themselves. One of the most famous uses of the word in a film-one that seems almost eerily to prefigure the future change in meaning-occurs in the classic Howard Hawks comedy “Bringing up Baby.” Katharine Hepburn has managed to divest Cary Grant of his clothes and has duded him up, so to speak, in a nightgown. And when her mother enters and sees Grant in the get-up and asks him why he’s dressed that way, Cary Grant says, “I just went gay all of a sudden.”
Library of `gay’ titles
So did “gay” sometimes mean homosexual way, way back then? Or is it just a coincidence? You know, the answer is probably available in some damn book or other, but I’m a TV critic. What know I from books? I hardly ever read, you know, an actual “book” (unless perhaps the book is all about “Saturday Night Live,” in which case it would be irresistible to me-and probably to hundreds, thousands, maybe millons of other people, too).

Turner Classic Movies, the most wondrous of all cable channels, has a lot of pictures with “gay” in the title within its definitively fabulous library. Actually, more than you might think. Of course, one of its RKO gems, “The Gay Divorcee,” with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, is a classic, and somehow the word “gay” doesn’t stick out there, maybe just because the three-word title is so familiar.
But it’s hard to keep a-ahem-straight face when you hear some of the other titles. Everything from “Gay Love” (1934) to “The Gay Diplomat” (1931) to “The Gay Ranchero” (1948) to “The Gay Intruders” (1944 and 1948 versions) to “Gay Lady” (1949) and even “Let Us Be Gay” (1930). What was that last one-a recruiting film?
These are in addition to “The Gay Falcon,” “The Gay Sisters,” “The Gay Bride,” “The Gay Desperado” and even a rarely seen 1903 silent film called, honest, “The Gay Shoe Clerk.” (Thanks to TCM for unearthing those and other titles).
In “The Band Wagon,” one of the best of the MGM musicals, Fred Astaire sings and dances to “A Shine on my Shoes” in an arcade setting that is supposed to be located on 42nd Street in Manhattan. Above and behind him in red neon is a sign proclaiming this to be “New York’s gayest music box,” or something like that.
“One Touch of Venus,” another musical, less celebrated and not yet available on DVD, was released on laser disc a few years ago. The trailer for that film typographically asks a series of questions about the movie and then answers them-like, say, “Fun? You bet!” Or “Entertaining? Certainly!” But the one I remember best made me burst out laughing the first time I saw it: “Gay? Oh, brother!”
A poster for another MGM musical, the much-loved “On the Town” with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly as sailors, meanwhile beckons the audience to come and see what happens when “Three Gay Gobs Go on a 24-Hour Shore Leave!” Gee, the mind kinda boggles.
`Gay’-less remakes
You could do a “gay” film festival and never show a film with any gay people in it. It would be idiotic, but you could do it. But then in 1969 comes “The Gay Deceivers,” which also happens to be in the Turner library, and this was a film about gay men in the modern sense. So in 1965 Warner Bros. could call “The Great Race” the “gayest” comedy in years-but maybe by 1969 they couldn’t. Maybe by 1969 audiences would have tittered and giggled.
Perhaps now that we’re living in such an allegedly liberated age, producers-who are always looking for movies to remake-can go back and do all those gay titles over again, this time with the “new” meaning and, naturally, new plots. “The Gay Shoe Clerk” just has to be first on the list.
Anyway, as Uncle Amos, that gay old dog, used to say, times change. Remember when there was always a lot of worried whispering when an actor dared to play a gay man in a movie, and how people said it might put a dark cloud over his career or banish him to has-been status? Now it’s getting hard to find actors who haven’t played gay parts. When Michael Douglas crossed over and played a gay cop on “Will & Grace,” it seemed like a signal that the “stigma” was being buried for good.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.