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    Lavender Legends of the Silent Screen

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky

    The movies’ first action hero. The personification of modern American youth, vigor, and attitude. The most prolific woman director in Hollywood history. The greatest star of stars. All were pioneers in the world’s most popular art form. Each set precedents, created role models and influenced popular culture. All were members of our LGBT communities. 

    In 1913, six months before Charlie Chaplin faced his first motion picture camera, J. Warren Kerrigan, in poll after poll, was the most popular movie star in the world, “the first male superstar of the cinema.” In hundreds of short films and at least a dozen features produced between 1910 and 1924, he was the dashing hero—usually a cowboy—admired for his courage, glorified for his wholesome values, and idealized for his noble qualities. If he did not always conquer the heart of the heroine, then at least he always defeated the villain. 

    Unknown to his admiring public, but an open secret in the film industry, this rider of the purple sage did not care to sweep any fair damsel off her feet, whether she was in distress or not. Off-screen, Kerrigan lived quietly with his mother and his lover of what would be more than 30 years, James Vincent. He cultivated his flower gardens, his favorite past time, and unlike his he-man persona, Kerrigan enjoyed the gentle and refined pleasures of life.

    Kerrigan’s popularity declined rapidly at the end of the Great War—he made no movies at all between 1919 and 1923—but he returned that year to star in The Covered Wagon, considered the first epic western. Setting the standard for years to come, it was an immense success and the silent era’s eighth highest grossing film. Kerrigan, however, made one more important film before slipping into obscurity.

    The Covered Wagon was edited by Dorothy Arzner. Born in San Francisco and raised in Los Angeles, Arzner began her film career by typing scripts in the story department at the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation in 1919. Within six months she was a cutter and editor at Realart Studio, a subsidiary, where she completed more than 50 movies. She returned to the parent company in 1922 to work on its prestigious “Paramount Pictures.” Her premier assignment: Blood and Sand, starring Rudolph Valentino.

    Arzner directed her first film, Fashions for Women, in 1927. Two years later, she directed The Wild Party starring Clara Bow, then a major star. To help the actress with her first speaking part, she attached the microphone to the end of a fishing pole, which she dangled above her. Now known as a boom microphone, her invention is widely used today in film and television production. At the time, and during her entire career—she retired in 1943—she was the only woman directing films for a major Hollywood studio. 

    Although Arzner kept her private life private, her sexuality was well known in Hollywood. She was linked romantically with several actresses, but for more than 50 years shared her life with choreographer Marion Morgan, whom she met in 1921. They bought a home in 1930 at 2249 Mountain Oak Drive in Los Angeles (now worth $4.3 million) that they christened “Armor,” joining letters of their surnames together and with a nod to silent star Mary Pickford’s famous namesake home “Pickfair.” The couple lived in the 3,600-square-foot Greek Revival in the Los Feliz’s Oaks neighborhood until they moved to Palm Springs in 1951. Theirs was one of the longest lasting marriages in Hollywood history.

    Equally as enduring was the relationship between William Haines and Jimmy Shields. Together for 47 years, their lifelong friend Joan Crawford described them as “the happiest married couple in Hollywood.” The two men met in 1926, the year of Haines’ breakthrough performances in Brown of Harvard and Tell It to the Marines, starring Lon Chaney, which made him MGM’s biggest box office star.

    On screen, Haines became the exemplar of the male youth of his day—confident, irreverent, openly flirtatious—and with his “modern attitude,” the prototype of a new type of male romantic star. He remained a top box office draw until 1931. The next year, MGM fired him, possibly for becoming “too openly homosexual,” probably because of changing tastes and declining popularity. After making two low budget films in 1934 for a poverty row studio, he never appeared onscreen again. 

    A second career followed, however. For the next forty years, he was Hollywood’s most in-demand interior designer. Using split level open floor plans, low profile furniture of his own design, hand-painted wallpaper, and elegant fabrics, he created the sophisticated simplicity—imitated for decades—that became known as the Hollywood Regency style. “I can only tell you this,” he said later. “I would rather have taste than either love or money.” Openly gay before, during, and after his film career, Haines had all three.  

    By the time Haines made his final film at MGM, the studio’s biggest star was Greta Garbo. She was, and is, legendary still, not only for her persona onscreen and off, but also for her intense relationships with both men and women. Despite the melodrama and dated sentiment of many of her films, the old-fashioned direction, costumes, hair styles, and all the rest—none of it matters the moment she appears on the screen. She may not have been the movie’s finest actor, but she arguably was, and will always be, the greatest movie star of them all. 

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.