His Way: William Haines

The first openly gay actor to have worked in Hollywood was silent film superstar William Haines.  Haines’ staunch refusal to hide his homosexuality, or to deny his relationship with his life partner, set a true precedent still felt today and in conjunction with today’s Queer Film Blogathon hosted by Garbo Laughs, it felt right to take a look back at Haines’ historical importance.

William Haines: A Class Act

The handsome, witty Haines was one of MGM’s hottest properties of the 1920s and a consistent top box-office draw into the early 30s. But when Haines was arrested for picking up a sailor in downtown Los Angeles, Louis B Mayer was quick to squelch the scandal.  Mayer ordered Haines to choose: it was either MGM or his new lover, Jimmy Shields. Haines’ love and loyalty for Shields cost him his film career: he was promptly dropped from MGM and was Doom-Booked by the Hays office.

But Hollywood’s loss was, well, Hollywood’s gain. The indomitable Haines, who was already chummy with such influential designers as Orry-Kelly, became its resident celebrity interior designer du choix.

William Mann’s excellent biography on Haines, Wisecracker: The Life and Times of Hollywood’s First Openly Gay Star puts it this way:

The social constructs of homosexuality were not what they were today … it took courage to refuse to play the Hollywood game of arranged marriages and photo-op dates (Anita Page notwithstanding). There was no gay movement in 1930, no political imperative to identify in the public arena as homosexual. While Billy Haines might have refused to take seriously publicity linking him to Pola Negri, he also never introduced Jimmy Shileds to the pages of Photoplay. Such was simply not part of the social consciousness of the time. Yet he lived a completely authentic life. In the more permissive days of the 20s and early 30s, being homosexual was simply something that was— at least in Hollywood. There might have been no such animal as a “public identity” of a gay man in those days, but Billy Haines came close. He was a man perfectly suited for his times.

"I would rather have taste than love or money." - William Haines

I recently re-visited some of Haines’ most popular films (Show People, Spring Fever) hoping to settle on symbolic sub-text to really sink my teeth into.  (Haines’ looking up Crawford’s skirt in Spring Fever was a strong contender.) I decided, however, to simply share this great moment from the Hollywood Revue of 1929.

It is a choppy, short little sketch in a film entirely comprised of choppy, short little sketches, during which Haines quite literally rips Jack Benny’s shirt off. Hardly classic comedy, but a ripe example of the exuberance that made him so  popular among his friends and suggests the unapologetic sense of self-assurance that allowed him to live his life, as Mann put it, “by rules of his own design. And that, in Hollywood, is extraordinary enough.”


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Film writer and social media marketing professional. 2019 Social Ambassador for the 10th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival. Previously: social media associate at Warner Archive and script writer for Turner Classic Movies. Working on a Montgomery Clift biography due late 2020.

12 thoughts on “His Way: William Haines

  1. Marvelous profile of the legendary Billy Haines. And that’s my FAVORITE scene from Hollywood Revue; in fact usually I find the rest of the movie so dull I just fast-forward to Billy’s bit! Thanks for participating in the blogathon, Carly!

  2. MGM apparently thought highly enough of Haines as a star and box office draw to have him star in their first talkie, “Alias Jimmy Valentine,” in 1928. It was shot as a silent film, but with sound film creating a sensation with audiences (and box office receipts), it was re-shot with dialog. MGM didn’t put their top female stars, Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo and Marion Davies into talkies until a year later in 1929.

    Haines was also Joan Crawford’s best friend and a sort of mentor who helped her learn the ropes of Hollywood, MGM and “stardom.” Before that, Crawford was on target for self-destruction in the film industry with her less than conservative private lifestyle until Haines befriended her and gave her the benefit of his knowledge of the ups and downs of Hollywood so that she might avoid a career-ending mistake in her personal life. She never hesitated to give him credit for keeping her career on track and for his friendship when she was just a starlet from Texas.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Gene: insightful and spot-on-the-money as always! I too love Haines’ dear friendship with Crawford– as well as his nickname for her: “Cranberry.” 😉

  3. I need to make a point to see more of Haines’ work even though I have watched the two biggies on his resume, Tell it to the Marines and Show People. I have Spring Fever and The Smart Set recorded and in the super-humongous DVD-R stack here at Rancho Yesteryear…I will do what I can to facilitate bumping them upward in the rotation.

  4. This blogathon has really made me want to check out more of William Haines’ movies, I just haven’t seen very many of them.

    I’ve been reading “Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince” lately and Haines is discussed pretty often in it. It seems like even though Louis B. Mayer was awful to him, he and Thalberg had a good relationship. He’s quoted as saying that Irving was pretty accepting of him being gay and never berated for it him the way Mayer would. Because of that, Haines really didn’t harbor any hard feelings against Irving when he wasn’t getting good parts anymore or when he lost his leading man status. He sort of figured lousy parts from a tolerant producer were better than listening to Mayer’s lectures on morality. Even after he left MGM, Norma would still invite him to dinners and I believe he may have decorated for them.

    1. Oh, Haines absolutely DID decorate for them! And little do I blame her. You know that simply decadent “Hollywood Regency” style so popular today– heavily Haines influenced. Love his work– check out the website http://www.williamhaines.com for a Dee-Licious look at his work!

  5. Great post! William Haines was a really good actor. I’m glad he was true to himself. I know others had to hide it and it made them miserable.

    Even after his Hollywood career he did very well for himself. He became a really successful interior designer and the homes he decorated were beautiful. (http://www.williamhaines.com/interiors.php)

    I’m really glad he did well after his career. I just wish others who had their careers cut short for similar reasons could have done as well.

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