In a March 2012 blog piece, I wrote about Frank Capra's wonderful embrace of racial diversity in It's A Wonderful Life. There were more black folks in Bedford Falls than we saw as regular TV cast members on Friends, Seinfeld or Sex and the City -- shows about life in modern-day Manhattan.
Frank Capra embraced sexual diversity in an earlier classic. Just like his It's A Wonderful Life, you have to be sharp enough to catch it within his literature of film. I fell in love with this under-appreciated 1937 Hollywood film during my college years. My film journalism professor made me see it in a whole new light when he showed me that literature. The film is Lost Horizon and stars Ronald Colman in one of his best performances of that decade. He's perfect for the part of Robert Conway, the British diplomat and heroic humanitarian. Conway adds light to the world. When we first see him, there is darkness and chaos. He's doing what he can to get people on a flight to safety out of a war-torn Asian location. He wants to help not only the visiting white people, but also the poor Asians who have to live in that strife. With all the turbulence there is in the world, Conway will find peace, order, love ... and he will be introduced to his destiny after his plane is hijacked to the mysterious and safe Shangri-La. Once there, Conway doesn't want to leave. It's an uncharted utopia, pristine and peaceful. When he's forced to leave, because of his unselfish commitment to family, he looks back on the place he loves. The place is also the home of the woman he loves. Colman gives us one of my favorite close-ups ever given in a classic Hollywood film. You can feel what's in his heart.
And here is where we get the tension that can come from a benevolent sense of family commitment -- like in It's a Wonderful Life when George Bailey wants to leave Bedford Falls instead of staying and helping folks like forgetful Uncle Billy who screws up with the bank money. Robert will accompany his irresponsible, narrow-minded, needy and culturally conservative brother on the expedition back to civilization. But the expedition rope in the snowy mountain terrain will be like an umbilical cord that Robert will need cut so he can be free to live his own authentic life.
OK. About the gay element. In the James Hilton novel, Lost Horizon, there's a rather bovine missionary woman out to bring Asians over to her way of Christian worship. In Capra's romantic adaptation, the missionary woman is gone. That character basically becomes Alexander P. Lovett. Edward Everett Horton plays the paleontologist. When you had Edward Everett Horton as the never-married, fluttery fussbudget in a 1930s movie...that was the gay male character. A visual clue in those Hollywood days was the bow tie. Horton didn't always play this kind of unmarried character, but he was a master at it. He had hit movies and a hit 1960s sitcom (F Troop) in his credits.
Look at that trio in Capra's Lost Horizon with that sort of Chosen Family attitude. It's quite fresh for a 1937 Hollywood film. It would still be fresh 50 years later, when you think about it. Straight male/gay male friendships are rarely explored in mainstream Hollywood films, yet they exist. Except for my late partner in the early 1990s, all of my previous roommates in my Milwaukee and New York years were the coolest straight male friends you could ever hope to have. The 1991 indie comedy, Queens Logic, has a most refreshing and believable look at straight male/gay male bonding. We meet a group of friends in New York. One is about to get married. One of the fellows, played by John Malkovich, is a working class, regular guy who just happens to be gay. He's not the kind of fashion-conscious/body-conscious, festive and fabulous, trendy gay man you saw on TV's Sex and the City or Will & Grace. He works in the fish market. His straight buddies love, support, protect and tease him. They want him to meet someone who's also just a sweet regular guy and can fit in with these working class friends. I could totally relate to Malkovich's character. (Queens Logic co-stars Kevin Bacon, Joe Mantegna, Jamie Lee Curtis, Linda Fiorentino and Megan Mullally right before she hit big on TV's Will & Grace).
Capra embraced racial diversity very cleverly in It's A Wonderful Life. He brought the social classes together with equal seating on a bus trip in It Happened One Night. I see a definite regard for sexual diversity in Lost Horizon.