Some years ago, I was having breakfast with two older gay men at an artist’s residency when the conversation turned to the subject of hot men on film. Needless to say, I jumped right in. As a silent film nerd, it’s rare that I get to share my extremely niche expertise on this very important subject. But this conversation, about the sexiest men of the silent era, was right up my alley. I was in my element, dishing on the hottest silent stars (who happened, like Ramon Novarro and William Haines, to also be the queer ones) and having a grand old time.
Soon enough, the conversation turned toward Charles Farrell, the 1920s star of some of my favorite silent films, including the lush Frank Borzage dyad of Seventh Heaven (1927) and Street Angel (1928.) Farrell usually played a variety of working-class, hard up figures with ripped bodies who often fell in love with Janet Gaynor, Farrell’s frequent co-star. But there’s something a bit more mesmerizing about him than the usual silent screen hottie. Under Borzage’s direction, Farrell’s eyes shine for the camera: it absolutely loves every inch of his body. And so do we.
And no wonder why: the man is beautiful. I mean, really beautiful. So beautiful that during our conversation, my friend at breakfast let out a sigh and said, “Charles Farrell. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.”
To which my other friend replied: “sure they do!”
Now whether they do or don’t make ’em like Charles Farrell is beside the point: the fact is that this man seemed to make a real effort to appear before the camera shirtless, eyes flashing, to the gay appreciation of viewers in 1927 and beyond.
Which brings us to The River, Borzage’s mostly-lost 1928 masterpiece. The story centers on a sex worker (Rosalee) and an idealistic young country boy (Allen John) who meet after the construction of a dam holds both of them up on their separate journeys. She’s running from the law—she just killed an ex who was violently pursuing her—and he’s traveling to start a new life somewhere far from where he grew up. When the two end up trapped in a small bunker with the rest of society blissfully far away, things start to get hot and heavy quite quickly. In fact, the first time our hero and heroine meet, he’s nude and she’s trying to sneak a peek at his junk. I kid you not. This scene was the reason for The River‘s reputation as an unbearably earthy, sexy film. Farrell is swimming nude, and—in one of the first male nude scenes even filmed in Hollywood—he almost shows us everything before realizing he’s being perved on by a hot lady.
Like D’Angelo’s “How Does It Feel” video would do decades later, Farrell’s nearly-nude appearance in The River shocked and delighted both male and female audiences, to say the least. And while Farrell doesn’t get completely unclothed for the rest of the film, Borzage takes advantage of the claustrophobic setting of the drama to amp up the sexual tension between his leads. Because this is a 1920s film, and sex isn’t supposed to be a thing that people do in romantic dramas, the film becomes a study in edging. These two trapped souls constantly find excuses to touch each other, knowing that they can’t hold off the inevitable for too long.
But what makes it sexy isn’t the framing or the gleaming beauty of the film itself: it’s Farrell. He comes off as vulnerable, childish, strong, and sexy all at the same time. His performance is complex, modern, and deeply felt. Most of all, it’s erotic.
Farrell was a different type of star. He wasn’t macho, he wasn’t brutal, he didn’t take women nonconsensually in his arms (as so many silent film actors do) and kiss them with violent passion. His passion was internal. And you can feel it in his performances, and in that burning-eyed stare, even now, almost 100 years later.
So give The River a shot if you’re horny, or even if you’re not horny: it’s worth the watch.