Starring – Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Lee Patrick, Sydney Greenstreet, Ward Bond, Elisha Cook Jr.
Directed by John Huston
“The stuff that dreams are made of.” -Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) talking about The Maltese Falcon and not about the wonders of using an umbrella handle to just randomly practice fellatio.
It’s time for that damn film censor board again. I keep giving this history lesson because it’s an important one. Mostly because I have been feeling lately like we do a lot more complaining about how far we still have to go and a lot of not appreciating of how good things are now. And the film censor board is a good way to remind everyone that things really, really used to suck for us, so we should at least look around and see how good things are for us now and how far we’ve come, instead of only always seeing how far we still have to go. Or at least I think so.
But anyway, why I keep pushing this history lesson here is because we did use to appear in films, despite a film censor board in Hollywood that lasted from the 1930s until 1968 that said we most definitely could NOT. But it was hard to spot us in these films because we weren’t allowed in them, officially. Yet still, art people are sneaky buggers when it comes to putting their vision in their own art, and so actors and writers and directors back then came up with sneaky, subtle ways to still have us homosexuals and bisexuals and other kinds of sexuals that weren’t heterosexual in films, despite a film censor board, by doing tricky shit to get us past that damn film censor board so a film could get the board’s stamp of approval so it could then go off to be screened in movie theaters all over America. And some of this tricky shit of getting us into movies when we were officially not allowed in them back then included things like a male character (Peter Lorre) in The Maltese Falcon giving an umbrella handle (that was shaped just like an erect penis) a quick blow job while discussing the whereabouts of The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart. So, in other words, movies certainly weren’t boring back then when it came to making sure we were in them too. 😉
So, before I digress any further into the weirdness of giving umbrella handles fellatio, let me first explain what The Maltese Falcon is about. Well, Humphrey Bogart does one of his best Humphrey Bogart imitations in this movie where he plays Sam Spade, a detective who finds himself in the middle of a big ole mess with these three gay guys who are all looking for this small statue called The Maltese Falcon, which is worth lots and lots of money. So Humphrey…I mean Sam Spade does a lot of smoking cigarettes and cigars and rolling of cigarettes (but not cigars, because back then people smoked a lot of cigarettes and most people rolled those cigarettes by hand, but I guess not cigars) and drinking lots of alcohol and going for lots of rides in taxis and punching gay guys and slapping women around and then kissing women (but no kissing of the gay guys, sadly) and taking guns from the gay guys and talking about how much money he can get if he finds this elusive statue, until he does find the elusive statue, but then (spoiler alert, although the movie came out in 1941, so how spoilery could this really be) it’s not the real statue after all and then he sends one of his girlfriends and the three gay guys all to jail, while Humphrey…I mean Sam ends up still poor and still alone, but he gets to take the fake statue with him because it’s the stuff dreams are made of. The End.
So, wanna get back to that fellatio of an umbrella part? Well, not me, but I was the one who brought it up, even though I’m a lesbian, and, big surprise, am no fan of blow jobs, I still wanna talk about this particular one that was put in this film so the 1941 audience would have a sneaky, subtle clue that Peter Lorre’s character was a big ole queer. Now, it may be weird to hear a lesbian talk about blow jobs, but it’s not like I didn’t walk around for a while in my youth trying really hard to be straight. So, I have a little bit of experience in this area and I think it’s okay for me to talk about it…I think…I’m getting a visual here and it’s reminding me that, oh yeah, I’m definitely a lesbian…
And yep, this is the infamous umbrella handle in the shape of an erect penis that Peter Lorre’s character is quite enjoying. Who knew that umbrella handles were just so damn sexy to gay men back in 1941??!
So anyway, in order for the audience to know right away that Peter Lorre’s character was a big ole queer, we, the audience, get sneaky, subtle clues like his business card smelling of gardenias and a very curly/effeminate hairdo and somewhat flamboyant suits and just casually, almost, but not quite sucking on an umbrella handle that looks just like an erect penis, hence, looking like he’s giving it a blow job because he’s a big ole queer and big ole queers just can’t control their love of blow jobs in 1941, apparently. (And boy, this movie was a big reminder that I’m no fan of erect penises! Yet another GIANT clue that I should have known I was gay way, way, way before I did.)
So while I was watching this umbrella fellatio scene again recently, I was trying to figure out why the director, John Huston (of the “large fucking hat” fame) put that in the film just to prove the character was homosexual. He had other clues, so why include that, I kept asking myself.
What was the purpose of this image?
Why put it there?
We got the big ole hint that he was a big ole queer with the business card smelling like a gardenia, so why the fellatio act as well?
It seemed so unnecessary to me.
And then it dawned on me that Mr. Huston was probably really trying to get the audience to hate this guy, because he was a bad guy after all, and so he knew what the audience would be thinking, because maybe his brain could think that way too. And so I made myself go into that mindset, because normally I’m never in the name-calling mindset, whether out loud or in my head, I just don’t like calling people names or making harsh/negative judgments about them. It makes me uncomfortable and quite frankly, a bit ill to go around in my head thinking bad of people. But being an eternal optimist about people is not always a good thing. So, I made myself go there, to that mindset of immediate negative judgement of someone’s character and this is what I figured the reaction Huston wanted and probably got from his audience and he included this fellatio image to really drive it home –
“Hey. That guy is kind of weird. He has a business card that smells like a gardenia?! And now he keeps playing with an umbrella handle that looks…well…kind of like an erect penis?! And now he’s kind of sucking on that umbrella handle?! Oh, gross! He must be a big ole queer!”
And there you go. This wasn’t about equal rights and having as many gay characters as straight characters to get that ever elusive diversity in a movie like we are all endlessly yammering on and on and on about today. This was about humiliating those gay characters.
Throughout The Maltese Falcon, we are told in many subtle and not so subtle ways that Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Elisha Cook Jr. are all gay in this film, and not just gay, but the bad guys too; hence gay guys are bad guys. Because a lot of times, if we ended up in a movie back then, we were the bad guy or the comic relief to laugh at, not with. And this movie is a prime example of that. We got a gay guy with a gardenia smelling business card, performing fellatio of an umbrella in public. Then we got the big fat guy (yes, I’m using “fat” on purpose because that is how we, the audience, are supposed to judge him – harshly) who is called Gutman as a kind of play on words because of his weight, because let’s not just make fun of his homosexuality, but also drive that humiliation home with his obese weight as well. And let’s give him a wimpy lover who carries a big gun, because I guess he isn’t a real man/has a little penis because of all that wimpy gayness and so needs a big gun to help hide this fact. This big gun/little penis guy is Gutman’s lover and Gutman keeps telling big gun/little penis guy that he loves him as a son, so we got incest going on as well. But Gutman keeps telling his lover that he can always replace a son, so we got some fucked-up parenting going on with the suggestion that gay people are incestuous too.
Sydney Greenstreet as Gutman, the second of the three gay guys in the film. Yep, his name is Gutman, so remember this when we are complaining about hurtful words and images of us today in our entertainment choices because words and images nowadays ain’t as hurtful or as hateful as they used to be because apparently back then gay guys didn’t just love sucking on umbrella handles, they were super obese too and needed hateful names like Gutman to prove the point of said weight issues.
And so I sat there watching this movie for the first time in quite a while and found myself seething for the first time at seeing these particular images of us.
Because back when I was a teenager in the 1980s and so confused about my feelings for women and so confused about why I was so drawn to gay characters or characters that seemed gay in movies, well,
THIS WAS ALL I HAD TO WATCH!
And I just accepted these images because, once again,
THIS WAS ALL I HAD TO WATCH!
These images of gays and lesbians on my TV as a teenager in the 1980s were of people who were weird and creepy and horribly lonely and always unhappy and criminals and usually dead or in jail or suddenly not homosexual anymore by the end of the movie. I was so desperate for images of me when I was a sad, lonely teenager who hid in my bedroom all the time watching these images, secretly searching, searching, searching for anything on my TV with people like me, even though I didn’t quite know who me was, I still was desperate for my people, so I took what I could get and this bullshit, quite frankly, was all that I could get.
So present day me found myself seething about the past. These were not good images for me to be watching as a teenager. They might have even delayed me realizing I was gay until I was 26 years old, because who wants to realize they are gay when gay looks like that? But there was no Internet back in the 1980s when I was a teenager first watching these old movies. There was no Queer As Folk or Looking or The Fosters or even that always frustrating The L Word for me to turn on and see me on my TV. This was pretty much it. Subtext with subtle hints that a character was gay and usually that gay character was a big ole mess that no one aspired to be. So when I was watching The Maltese Falcon again as an out 44 year old lesbian woman in 2017, instead of a repressed lesbian teenager, I couldn’t help but feel sad and angry that sad, lonely teenage lesbian me would watch these old films hoping to find clues about who I really was and these clues just kept me from being me. So I was just ready for the damn movie to be over, because although it was great that not one, not two, but three gay guys were major players in a highly-regarded, classic film from the 1940s, we were just fucked-up weirdos who had no manners, so we did things like give blow jobs in public.
Bogart keeping an eye on that big gun/little penis “gunsel.” Bogart kept calling this poor, confused character “gunsel” in the movie, so I looked it up and according to my research it was a derogatory term then for homosexuals, particularly young homosexuals. Lovely.
And so my eyes are now open to this fact for the first time – that these images helped to keep me in denial. These images in the dark kept me in the dark. I always thought movies saved me, but now I see that they, unfortunately sometimes, hurt me too. And this fact is a hard one for me to swallow. Although, at least I’m a lesbian, so I don’t have to worry about swallowing when it comes to whether or not one should or shouldn’t after a blow job (although, I think it’s kind of rude not to.)
Now I know why I liked the 1948 film Rope better than this film and why it didn’t bother me quite so much when I saw it again last year for the first time in years, because even though it had three gay guys in that film as well, two of whom were the bad guys, at least the bad guys were based on real people. The three gay guys in The Maltese Falcon seemed to just be based on derogatory stereotypes and not real, actual people.
So, we of the LGBT family still aren’t on the TV or smart phone or tablet or laptop or whatever else as much as we should be, but we aren’t three gay guys giving umbrellas fellatio and referring to our lovers as our kid and being portrayed as gluttonous criminals. We are everywhere now and we are diverse and we are fully-formed characters. We still have a long way to go, but we have come so, so, so far.
P.S.: Is blow job spelled – blowjob or blow job? I found it spelled both ways, so I just went with the latter. Another good reason I’m glad I’m a lesbian. I don’t normally have to figure out the correct spelling of blow job.
Fun Fact (because I really need to distract my lesbian brain from all of this blow job talk): Ward Bond appears in The Maltese Falcon and this is a fun fact because my dad once said when I was a kid that, “Ward Bond was in every God damned film from the 1930s to the 1950s.” And so over the years, his observation has been proven to be right again and again because pretty much whenever I sit down to watch a film from this time period, Ward Bond does seem to always show up in every film ever made during that time. From The Maltese Falcon to It’s A Wonderful Life to Gone With The Wind. No matter how big or small the part was, if you’re watching a film from that time period, you are probably seeing Ward Bond too. 🙂
And here he is, Ward Bond. A face you see in a lot of movies from the 1930s-1950s. Don’t you hate it when your dad is always right? Well, except about being married to your mom. So basically when he got it wrong, boy did he get it WRONG!