Researcher Tracks Down 1930s Erotic Film Director. “It Was Like A Spark Across The Decades.”

by Thomas Waugh

My name is Tom Waugh. I’m from southern Ontario, but I’ve lived here in Montreal for the last 41 years. During that time, I’ve taught film studies and sexuality and queer studies at Concordia University. I got tenure a few years after I started. Until that time, my research had not really been about my gay identity or about research into gay topics, but after I got tenure I was looking for a research project that would embody this kind of passion that came out of my belonging to the gay community.

So I started thinking about the history of porn. This was 1981, where it was a very current topic, given the importance of porn in gay culture. So I got a grant to go to the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Indiana, which is a kind of archive of a century or even more of sexual artifacts, sexual testimonies, sexual imagery and films.

I was looking at films in an archive and a graduate student was projecting them for me. There were so many amazing discoveries, I couldn’t believe it. One of the films was a home movie filmed on a beach in California the 1930s. It seemed like a picnic. Four or five gay men just frolicking around on the beach. They immediately took off all their clothes, started sunbathing or posing in the sun, just playing games, burying each other in the sand. Just the things that gay men do on the beach. It was so much fun.

One of the men was a little bit more effeminate than these other bodybuilder types, with eyeglasses. And I sort of put two-and-two together and decided that he was the filmmaker. So this was in the 80s, it would have been fifty years after he made the film, forty-five years after he made the film. I felt I needed a kind of personal context for the films.

I initially knew only his initials. Maybe I tricked one of the archivers into telling his name. I found his phone number and I phoned him out of the blue. He was so perturbed by this that he hung up on me.

I thought, “Oh, no. After all of this, I’ve blown this. I’ve really messed it up.” I kept trying for the next forty-eight hours and I finally got him again two days later. He was a little – he’d calmed down a little bit and he invited me over and I went over and saw his bungalow in Silverlake. It was so exciting. Lovely old guy.

Once I started talking with him about his stories and his memories of who was that subject in that photo, and the stories started just flowing, I knew that he understood the importance of this kind of stories or folklore or heritage. He told me all of his adventures. He used to keep these films under the floorboards of his house in case of a raid, because they were living in fear. He would’ve gone to jail if he’d been caught with images of nudes, let alone fucking. One of the films showed two guys fucking in the sand through a belt of, through a layer of sand. It was so funny. And then one of them left to his feet and brushed all the sand off with a big erection. It was a wonderful film. So yeah, he was terrified and he kept these enters floorboard. And he told me all of these stories. So it was very exciting.

This with a couple books before – a couple years before my book came out. And I kept in touch with him. He died just before my book came out. He was like 86 or 7. I have a photo I took of him in front of his house, which is on the jacket of my book. I’ve never forgotten this guy. His name was Otis. It’s in my book, so I can reveal his name. It was so exciting for me to rediscover, not only a kind of pioneer, but also a pioneer of desire who had been this sexy creature living in the 1930s, who has bestowed to us this record of, not only his everyday life, but his desire, his lust, his pleasure, his joy, his community of friends.

After doing this research and meeting Otis and seeing his films and his photographs, I think I changed in my understanding of this kind of heritage, of erotic imagery and erotic feelings and sexual relations and communities. I also understood more about how historical research involves a certain kind of pleasure. Probably also voyeurism on my part. And how a lot of queer history has a kind of component of desire. It’s not just this dry academic activity. There’s this compulsion that is very erotic in many ways. There was kind of this spark across the decades. So I understood that a little bit more instinctively.

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