The history of the movies is the history of America, our social fabric reflected through the flickering light of the camera. And the further back you look, the more the distance magnifies the differences — and the similarities.
No matter how unfortunate.
A fine opportunity for film fans to learn about a forgotten film star, as well as the shameful reason why he’s so forgotten (all while watching a classic film), is the continuing silent film series at Ogunquit’s Leavitt Fine Arts Theatre (leavittheatre.com). At 8 p.m. Thursday, the series will feature the 1928 comedy “Show People” for $10 per ticket.
Directed by King Vidor and featuring cameos from silent-era legends Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert, it’s a screwball romance about a small-town girl trying to break into the movies, and the fellow comic she left behind. It stars Marion Davies, who went on to a successful career that was derailed by domineering lover William Randolph Hearst; and William Haines, whose career essentially ended a few years later.
Because he was openly gay.
When Haines’ long-term relationship with partner Jimmie Shields (which Haines never hid) became newsworthy, MGM head Louis B. Mayer (perpetuating the stereotype of the evil, manipulative movie mogul) offered the sort of dispiritingly common deal gay actors and actresses got in those days — accept a sham so-called “lavender marriage” with a woman to protect the studio’s reputation/investment. Or, be fired from his contract and be, for all intents and purposes, blackballed from the movie business.
Haines chose Shields.
So was Haines a great actor? It’s hard to say. While in film clips online he is certainly handsome and engaging enough, his movies remain hard to see (even more reason to thank the Leavitt). He doesn’t even rate a mention in Vito Russo’s influential book on “queer cinema,” “The Celluloid Closet.”
However, he was undeniably a movie star, with a 1930 pre-banishment poll ranking him as the No. 1 male box-office draw in America. He also successfully made the transition to sound pictures, which many silent stars did not.
His story turned out happier than one might have thought, despite being forced out of his chosen profession. He parlayed his Hollywood connections into a lucrative interior design career (he did the pads of Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard and, oddly enough, noted homophobe Ronald Reagan) before dying at 73. He and Shields were together for almost 50 years.
So head on down the coast to see a good old movie (as ever, with orchestral accompaniment from musician Jeff Rapsis) — and wonder what might have been.
Dennis Perkins is a Portland freelance writer.