As we come to the end of Pride month, we’re celebrating by going back to the silent era of cinema to look at some of the earliest queer films.
Happy Pride Everyone!
There’s nothing quite like queer cinema. From the Academy Award-winning Moonlight to the cult classic movies such as Eating Out, there’s a whole plethora of the good, the bad, and the ugly of LGBTQA+ cinema. And then again, not enough, my friends. Not enough.
Previously in this column I’ve spoken about the brilliant Lesbian and Queer films of the pre-code 1930s era (as sparse as they are), but I’d like to take a journey back even earlier to queer silent films.
So, to celebrate Pride Month, and Pride in London this weekend, here’s a journey into some of the earliest queer films.
Arguably, one of the first things ever caught on camera is (at the very least) queer-coded and certainly eyebrow raising considering the release date. In 1894, as moving pictures were taking off, one of countless inventors, Thomas Edison, tried desperately to get the imagery set to sound. Or well, the actual guy who was doing the work for Edison – William Dickson. In this very short, short, The Dickson Experimental Sound Film sees two men dance to a violin. In 1894, no less!
Yes, this is a bit of a stretch. But, for this column, I’m flexible.
Often regarded as one of the first films to portray lesbian, gay, and transgender characters is Sidney Drew’s A Florida Enchantment (1914). The fantasy film sees a young wealthy woman named Lilian Travers who, thanks to the help of an old curiosity shop, changes into different characters. However, as great as it is to see a film with gender fluidity, it’s marred by its inclusion of racist black face and relying on harmful LGBT stereotypes.
One film movement that’s considered one of the most astonishing for its time is German silent film. Made in protest to Germany’s Paragraph 175 which made homosexuality a criminal offense, director Richard Oswald’s Different From The Others (1919) is considered one of the first pro-gay films. It stars silent film legend Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari).
Veidt plays a musician who falls in love with one of his students only to be sadly blackmailed. Though the story is tragic, it’s an earnest tale about the plight of so many men hiding because of an unjust law. It’s a remarkable early film that showcases that love has no boundaries. In one astonishing scene, which should be shown to many people living today, a kindly sexologist says to him “love for one’s own sex can be just as pure and noble as that for the opposite sex.”
Herman Bang’s 1902 novel Michael was adapted twice in the silent movie era. The story follows gay sculptor Claude, who falls in love with his bisexual model – the titular Michael. Its first adaptation is Swedish film The Wings (1916). Though the majority of the film is lost, half-an-hour of the original version has remained and has been restored using photo and title cards. It’s also one of the first films that plays with non-linear narrative, framing the story in flashbacks.
Acclaimed Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, who gave us the epic The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928) and Vampry (1932) also tackled Michael in 1924 with a silent film of the same name. The silent movie is often celebrated as a meditative and tranquil look at the homosexual storyline, with many often interpreting the film as Deryer’s ode to his affairs and sexuality.
Director William Dieterle (who gifted us the incredible film Jewel Robbery in 1932) also helmed a sensitive and compassionate film – Sex In Chains (1928). The film tells the story of a man convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to prison. There he meets and falls in love with another prisoner. Though the murky nature of our leads’ sexuality is barely explored in this film, what is striking is the depiction of tenderness and love between the two men who cling to one another due to circumstance. It’s a brilliant, if albeit tragic tale.
G. W. Pabst’s German silent film Pandora’s Box (1929) was derided upon first release. Its scandalous nature sees countess Lulu as a woman who’s so beautiful that few can resist her charms. However, that siren-like nature leads to tragedy as all involved head into a downward spiral. The film is remarkable as Lulu plays with the affections of many different people. Lead actress Louisa Brooks, herself bisexual, is exceptional as Lulu and though the lesbian subplot was initially removed and censored, it has been lovingly restored for audiences of today.
Cross dressing and playing with gender has been a part of art as long as there has been art, so this is also prevalent. Highlights of this include Gloria Swanson in The Danger Girl (1916), Ernst Lubitsch’s silent film I Don’t Want To Be A Man (1918), and Roscoe Arbuckle in Good Night, Nurse! (1918).
Another notable film to mention is Salome (1922). Inspired by queer artist Aubrey Beardsley’s stunning illustrations and written by Oscar Wilde, Salome is teeming with desire and murder. Based on the story of King Herod and his wicked titular stepdaughter, Salome is considered one of the first ever artistic films. Whilst the story itself doesn’t tackle LGBT themes, it’s also rumoured that the cast were mostly – if not all – gay. Though this is most definitely the case for lead actress Alla Nazimove, who was openly bisexual, it cannot be said for certain that everyone else was. However, the film is an extremely influential and must-see silent movie.
So there is a lot of representation in classic cinema. Even in mainstream and wildly celebrated movie Wings (1927) there’s a lesbian kiss in the iconic and famed tracking shot. This week, to celebrate Pride, why not indulge in these movies that are over hundred years old?
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