All the Good Boys

Elizabeth Purchell explores the real roots of queer cinema, all-male movie pioneers, and the evolution of gay masculinity on screen.

Elizabeth Purchell is a queer film historian, archivist, filmmaker (‘Ask Any Buddy’), and a member of the curatorial panel overseeing the recent addition of adult titles to Letterboxd, which you can read more about here. Follow her list of ‘100 Essential All-Male Films’.

Full stop: You can’t talk about the history of queer cinema without also talking about the history of ‘all-male’ cinema. In an era where the best representation Hollywood could muster often amounted to little more than “nelly queen”, “closet case” or “self-hating murderer”, it was up to gay filmmakers to make gay movies for gay audiences. And that they did—in my estimation, roughly 1,000 gay adult feature films were made and released theatrically in the eighteen-year span from 1968 to 1986.

These are films that use just about every conceivable genre—documentary, comedy, drama, romance, western, sci-fi, horror and so on—to explore themes and issues that we’re still dealing with today. Coming out. Gay marriage. The struggle between monogamy and promiscuity. Gender performance. Gay capitalism. Nothing is new, even if the budgets have since gotten much bigger.

Yet, despite a huge amount of material, common knowledge of this important cinematic history often doesn’t really extend much further than early landmarks like Wakefield Poole’s Boys in the Sand or Fred Halsted’s LA Plays Itself.

But before them was Pat Rocco, who began making gay-themed soft-core films for Los Angeles’ Park Theater in 1968. This was both an era of firsts—first male-male kiss, first gay love story, first gay film shot at Disneyland—and of transition, as hardcore quickly swept in at the beginning of the decade. Rocco, who’d built his brand on making wholesome beefcake movies, would begrudgingly follow suit, making a series of films for the West Coast’s biggest gay film studio, Jaguar Productions. Ironically, these films that he never publicly admitted to making, like his absurd, Disneyfied rape-revenge film A Deep Compassion, are the ones that are most readily available now.

A poster from a 1968 program at the now-closed Park Theater (formerly the Alvarado Theater, Westlake, Los Angeles), which screened gay porn from the mid-1960s.
A poster from a 1968 program at the now-closed Park Theater (formerly the Alvarado Theater, Westlake, Los Angeles), which screened gay porn from the mid-1960s.

Founded by former Park Theater partner Monroe Beehler, Jaguar attempted to bring respectability to the burgeoning genre by openly emulating old Hollywood filmmaking—right down to assembling a core group of filmmakers like Rocco, Dick Martin, Gorton Hall and Barry Knight. Their output was diverse—from coming out stories like The Experiment to dramas like Brothers and The Roundabouts, comedies like A Ghost of a Chance (a gay-bent remake of David Lean and Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit), buddy movies like The Grease Monkeys and insane vanity projects like The Light from the Second Story Window. A 1974 raid by the LAPD would effectively force the studio to close its doors, but for several years Jaguar represented the promise that high-class gay filmmaking could be a thing.

At the same time as Jaguar was just beginning to hit its stride, another major studio popped up on the opposite end of the country: Hand in Hand Films. Formed at the urging of Sal Mineo by film editor Robert Alvarez, industrial designer Jack Deveau, and architect (and war hero!) Jaap Penraat, Hand in Hand was sort of like the New Hollywood to Jaguar’s Old Hollywood. Its films were often grittier and, owing to Alvarez’s roots in New York’s underground film scene, much more experimental.

With films like Left-handed, Ballet Down the Highway, Wanted: Billy the Kid and my personal favorite, Drive, Deveau and writers Tray Christopher, Moose 100, and P.P. Mans took cynical looks at gay relationships and promiscuity that I think easily go toe-to-toe with “legitimate” films from the era, like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends and Christopher Larkin’s A Very Natural Thing. While Deveau’s later films, like A Night at the Adonis, Rough Trades, Fire Island Fever and Times Square Strip were more crowd-pleasing comedies, they still never shied away from tackling the same difficult themes. They’re simply some of the greatest gay films of the decade.

But Hand in Hand wasn’t just Jack Deveau. Shortly after the smash success of Left-handed, they quickly expanded, bringing in filmmakers such as Arch Brown, Peter de Rome and Tom DeSimone.

Brown was no stranger to New York screens—through his association with the underground film club Cinema 16, he was likely the very first person shooting gay hardcore in New York. These early works (some of which you can see in his later collection Five Hard Pieces) are crude and simple, but with their frequent shots of men picking each other up in public spaces like Central Park and walking home arm-in-arm, they perfectly reflect the open feelings of gay liberation that were in the air at the time. Brown’s best film was also the only one he made for Hand in Hand: a deconstructed version of that aforementioned formula called The Night Before. I don’t want to give anything away, so I will say no more.

Much like Brown, Peter de Rome began his filmmaking career as an amateur; someone who created little short films for his and his friends’ amusement. When Alvarez and Deveau saw some of them at a party, they decided to blow them up from Super-8 to 16mm and release a theatrical package called, what else, The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome. And with that, a new major filmmaker had been discovered, and with him, a new level of sophistication and class.

Marcus Giovanni and Michael Hardwick in Peter de Rome’s Adam & Yves (1974).
Marcus Giovanni and Michael Hardwick in Peter de Rome’s Adam & Yves (1974).

De Rome would go on to make two features, which couldn’t be more different from each other. On the one hand, there’s the brainy and romantic Adam & Yves, which themes each of its sex scenes around a reference to a different film or filmmaker, while on the other, there’s the legitimately unsettling Edgar Allan Poe adaption The Destroying Angel. Both come recommended.

While Tom DeSimone got his start making soft-core features all the way back in 1970, I’d say it wasn’t until he began working with Hand in Hand that he really found his footing. His dozens of early films—the earliest of which were made on a weekly basis—run the gamut of genre filmmaking, from westerns like Dust Unto Dust to rock musicals like the Mama Cass Award-winning (and I swear I’m not making that up) Confessions of a Male Groupie.

Though he’s best remembered now for mainstream films like Hell Night and Reform School Girls, it’s the groundbreaking films DeSimone made about relationships (Catching Up, Skin Deep) and coming out (Station to Station, The Idol), beginning in the mid-1970s, that I think are his most enduring and important works. These types of stories may be played out now, but then? Groundbreaking.

Jack Deveau, one of the directors of Good Hot Stuff (1975), poses with a poster for the anthology film.
Jack Deveau, one of the directors of Good Hot Stuff (1975), poses with a poster for the anthology film.

But perhaps one of Hand in Hand’s biggest legacies is its role in the creation of the French adult film industry. In 1975, the studio released Good Hot Stuff, a behind-the-scenes anthology featuring segments from many of the films I’ve already listed (it’s a great introduction). This was right around the same time that the French government decided to loosen up its censorship regulations and legalize hardcore, which in turn led to a flood of foreign films being imported into the country—including Good Hot Stuff.

The film was such a smash success that the two men who imported it, producer Norbert Terry and director Jacques Scandelari, decided to start making gay films of their own, which in turn led to a full-blown industry. While many of them are currently hard to view, films like Scandelari’s New York City Inferno, Terry’s Young Prey, Francis Savel’s Equation to an Unknown, Psycho Cop director Wallace Potts’ Le beau mec and poster artist Jean-Étienne Siry’s “And… God Created Men” are all crucial and unique parts of French gay film history.

A scene from Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s Passing Strangers (1974).
A scene from Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s Passing Strangers (1974).

Back in the States, more major directors were springing up outside of the major studios. In San Francisco, a filmmaker named Arthur J. Bressan, Jr., would make a name for himself with two scrappy, but highly ambitious films: Passing Strangers and Forbidden Letters. They’re both love stories of a sort (Bressan was always the genre’s biggest romantic), but they’re also incredibly politically charged.

Though it became more common than you’d think, the way that Passing Strangers climaxes—not with sex, but with its two character marching in an early Pride parade—was and is an incredible statement and reflection of the new gay consciousness that was dawning at the time. These two films and his later Gay USA and Buddies (the first dramatic film about AIDS) are his most well-known, but Bressan’s later adult works—Pleasure Beach, Daddy Dearest and Juice—are every bit as essential.

In Los Angeles, a former actor and heterosexual sexploitation director named Joe Gage singlehandedly created an entire new image of gay masculinity with a trilogy of films: Kansas City Trucking Co., El Paso Wrecking Corp. and L.A. Tool and Die. The characters in these films, led by “original daddy” Richard Locke’s Hank, are rugged, manly and highly sexual—but they’re not macho. And there’s a big difference there. Gage’s films, including his later (and just as essential) Closed Set, HANDsome and Heatstroke, were all wildly popular popcorn entertainment, but they’re also powerful statements about fantasy, masculinity and male relationships. That’s something Quentin Tarantino has completely missed in his frequent name-drops of the filmmaker.

Posters for some Joe Gage films.
Posters for some Joe Gage films.

And then there’s Steve Scott, a producer and production designer who worked with everyone from Mae West and Curtis Harrington to Ann Sothern and Andy Sidaris. Having gotten his start in the early 1970s with a gay(er) remake of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, called The Young Intruder, Scott would go on to have one of the most distinctive filmographies of anyone working in the industry. Nobody was more of an auteur than Scott.

Whether he was making adaptations of The Front Runner (Track Meet) or exploring his own personal tearoom fetish (Dangerous), each of Scott’s films share many traits in common: an emphasis on public sex with an inherent risk of danger, a general lack of non-diegetic sound during sex scenes, and slight but strong narratives. And if you’re an Al Parker fan, then you have Steve Scott to thank—it was his gay-bent remake of An Unmarried Woman (Inches) that helped catapult Parker to fame, and his subsequent films Wanted (a remake of a remake of The Defiant Ones!) and the great Turned On! that cemented that status.

I could go on and on—William Higgins, who completely reshaped the industry with his groundbreaking Boys of Venice; or Roger Earl, whose Born to Raise Hell was so outrageous in its depiction of S/M that it was banned from ever playing Los Angeles; or Michael Zen and his two incredible Falconhead movies; and so on—but I think these are all good starting points.

What I love most about Letterboxd is the way that it fosters discovery, and I hope that the addition of all these films—and all of the hard work that has gone into presenting them properly—will inspire people to take a chance and look deeper into the real roots of queer cinema.

It’s something I’ve been working at for years with my various Ask Any Buddy projects: to get people to seriously look at these films and see how they reflected the fantasies and realities of an entire generation of gay men, helping many accept themselves and become more confident in their wants, desires and identities. It’s not all perfect, but compared to the alternative? I personally take a lot of strength and inspiration from these films and all the risks that these filmmakers and performers took to make them, and I hope you will, too.

Note: many of the filmmakers’ names in this piece are pseudonyms, while on Letterboxd they are largely listed under their real names. Elizabeth’s Ask Any Buddy projects—which include an Instagram feed, mashup film and podcast—explore the gay adult film industry’s role in both the development of queer cinema and the spread of gay culture at large. Header image from ‘Passing Strangers’ (1974) directed by Arthur J. Bressan, Jr.

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