For those who think they know their gay history, then this enlightening testament to sexual discrimination may well take you by surprise.
For here writer, producer and director Michael Van Devere of Bachelors Cottage credit has cinematically dusted off the contents of a box file that lay unopened for eight-two years, to reveal a set of papers that documented how in 1920, an inquisition styled court was convened at Harvard University to examine the circumstances that lead to the death by asphyxiation of one Cyril Wilcox. Such however was nothing less than a homosexual witch-hunt, that of a means by which to interview, charge and thereby expel those that Wilcox had come in contact with, specifically those suspected of homosexualism. That the university, as with any prodigious house of learning, did so in private, not wishing to air their gay linen in public, resulted in a covert two week trial that was to see thirty-seven men of differing sexuality give testimony, eight of whom were thereafter forced to withdraw, only for undergraduate Eugene Cummings to have paid the ultimate price of being sent down with his life, less than a week later.
And that is what strikes you. For between lines of dialogue based on surviving paperwork, as enacted by an all-male cast of Harvard undergraduates who here portray their forebears, lies the stark reality of being gay in the 1920s, that of an era in which even the act of masturbation, was deemed as encouraging homosexuality. Yet just as various bars and cafés of the period played host to a select clientele, various private parties held behind college doors were known for what went on "through the Harvard ranks."
Only here Van Devere opts not to include any flashbacks to the sexual shenanigans that went on in room 28 of Perkins Hall, let alone depict the suicides of either Eugene Cummings or Cyril Wilcox, preferring instead to deliver a talking heads production, one that by placing the striking monochrome spotlight solely on the testimonies of the men accused and subsequently expelled, speaks volumes on sexual prejudice. That a few of those found guilty were later re-admitted, is no excuse for a kangaroo court that had but one purpose in mind, even if the trial was but a mirror of the prevailing times, just as the premiere of this work at Harvard University in 2008 is a reflection on the out and proud approach to sexual orientation of today.
Yet somehow this compelling feature, like the trial itself, remains relatively unknown, even if its emotional testimonies are silent no more, courtesy of their availability on
YouTube, words that include those of one Edward Say; a young man who tragically would come to die in a car accident ten years later, but who in 1920 openly acknowledged the torch he held for Harold Lloyd and the breathless beauty of Rudolph Valentino, an admission that and like the Very British Sex Scandal that was the 1954 trial of Peter Wildeblood, resulted in any chance of a not guilty verdict, having left the building. Only here and whilst Van Devere and all involved in the unearthing of this shameful episode of Harvard times past deserve praise for finally letting the truth out, you cannot help but wonder just how many élite educational institutions gave witness to similar events, but whose records remain gathering dust.