It’s both funny and sad to think of a time when merely taking off your shirt was enough to excite and stir the masses of closeted gay men, but such was the nature of repression of male/male desire through the course of history. As an example, consider the October 17, 1949 issue of a small magazine called Quick and its cover story “The Birth of Beefcake,” which details the new Hollywood trend of shirtless supermen for its readers. The cover features a smiling photo of the heartthrob Alan Ladd. Inside, the cover story “Hollywood Uncovers Male Appeal” explains the concept of “beefcake”:
Beefcake is the new Hollywood name for the male equivalent of female cheesecake. Though exposure traditionally is more common with actresses, the males are allowed by censors to reveal much more—all the way down to the waist…Lately, they have been doing so en masse.
The male chest, of course, has been exposed before in films and film advertising. Frances X. Bushman showed his 25 years ago in Ben Hur, with wonderful box-office results. Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Rudolph Valentino had women swooning at the sight of their heaving torsos…..
The Great Gatsby, Easy Living and Thieves’ Highway are currently and simultaneously filling theaters by displaying the chesty virtues of Alan Ladd, Victor Mature and Richard Conte on billboards and lobby posters. Though these starts actually appear only briefly in the films the way they do on the posters, the results have been the same: they’ve sold tickets. As a consequence, Hollywood now has plans for a rash of motion pictures giving lots of footage to exposed males.
The rest of the magazine features catty, semi-snarky news items, many of which have queerer than queer subject matter: a page showing Eleanor Roosevelt’s different hairstyles from 1937-1949 is the most unintentionally hilarious of the bunch—mainly because the hairstyles don’t change over the years. Fans of The Celluloid Closet will also recognize coverboy Alan Ladd as the actor whose picture hangs in Sal Mineo’s locker in Rebel Without A Cause, subtly coding Mineo’s character as gay. Though the magazine was published by a company located in Des Moines, Iowa, the editorial offices are listed as 511 Fifth Avenue (on 43rd Street), which today houses a IDB Bank on its ground floor. When I walk by, I like to imagine a brave man or group of men working behind the scenes to create a coded publication, and the other men who had their sexuality stimulated by flipping through these pages or becoming avid patrons of movies with chesty virtues of the “beefcake” pictured above.