Mark Rappaport's The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender is a quirky investigation of the subtle and not-so subtle revelations of homosexuality in movies of the past. Each genre had its closeted messages, from the prissy aunties played by treasurable character actors like Franklin Pangborn, Edward Everett Horton, Rex O'Malley and 'King of the Queens' Clifton Webb, to all those westerns that featured 'The Walter Brennan Syndrome,' i.e., that crusty, asexual geezer who always made the coffee and never seemed to have a life of his own, save as eternal sidekick to the younger, hotter hero. Rappaport finds shady secrets in a '40s potboiler like Desert Fury, which has ineffably butch Lizabeth Scott bewildered by the lack of attention she receives from either John Hodiak or Wendell Corey. The reasons are made hilariously clear in a scene in which Hodiak dreamily describes meeting Corey: 'It was in the automat off Times Square at two in the morning. I was broke. He had a couple of dollars. We got to talking. He ended up paying for my ham and eggs. I went home with him that night. We were together from then on.' (Rappaport's description of the ubiquitously 'unpreposessing, uncharismatic' Corey, a real blight on women's films of the '40s and '50s, is, incidentally, right on.)

Another Scott, Aryan-blonde Randolph, pops up as half of Hollywood's most glamorous gay couple. He and the lusher, darker Cary Grant were longtime roomies, featured in homey fanzine layouts as carefree bachelors, becoming in the process near-mythic gods of gay iconography, even outshining other formidable star relationships, like Tyrone Power and Cesar Romero, or Anthony Perkins and Tab Hunter. One of the most deliciously audacious scenes in cinema is in My Favorite Wife, in which Grant, having just met Scott (as his romantic 'rival' for the affections of Irene Dunne), returns to his office but just can't seem to get the beefcake-y memory of Scott, in swim trunks, out of his mind.

Other, more traditional comic types like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in their 'Road' series, Red Skelton and, of course, the irrepressibly fruity, bottle-blonde Danny Kaye are cited for their utilization of overt camp humor, role-reversal and drag. Kaye was particularly outrageous, especially in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. He played a manic milliner in one number, finally confiding at its climax: 'Confidentially, I hate women!' While frequently amusing, none of this stuff is particularly new; as far back as 30 years ago, critic Pauline Kael noticed in gay director Luchino Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers how Alain Delon was eroticized, 'lit like the young Hedy Lamarr.'

'Frasier' co-star Dan Butler narrates with game good humor, but is made to appear in a series of film genre-relevant costumes, like cowboy duds or a hideously ill-fitting tux, that make him look rather a fool. The Silver Screen is diverting and often informative, with a super-personal take which makes it a piquant alternative to that other, rather mildly generic survey of gays in films, The Celluloid Closet. Too often, however, Rappaport belabors his points; the 'Walter Brennan Syndrome,' in particular, is given an inordinate amount of attention, with a surfeit of clips. This slows up his film's attempted snappy rhythm and gives it a redundant, even pedantic, feel. With all the interjected comments and jokey asides, it's like watching an extended, gay version of those nattering robots on 'Mystery Science Theatre 2000.' The overall presumptive smugness gets laid on a little too thickly, as well. Condescending to earlier, more innocent periods of history can be sophomorically amusing, but only for a while. Not all of the old movies were so bad or vindictive or agenda-ridden. (Gay director George Cukor made sure that Rex O'Malley, at least once, could play a deeply sympathetic gay character in his masterpiece, Camille, but Rappaport only shows the actor dishing the girls in the clips he's chosen.) At times, Rappaport gets a bit carried away in the interests of procuring a laugh: Jerry Lewis wiggling his tongue at a bratty kid is imbued with an unseemly suggestiveness that was clearly never intended. At others, the director overstates his semiotician's case: 'What was invisible at the time now looks like expressions of the subconscious begging to be unleashed.' Such moments are inadvertently funnier than anything in the clips he shows.

--David Noh