What did LGBTQ movies look like before Stonewall?

Bundfald, 1957
Photo: Danish Film Institute

“Well, nobody’s perfect!”
Some Like It Hot, 1959

Queer themes wrote themselves into the history of film early on—a statistical inevitability, because even in those periods when explicitly LGBTQ characters and plots were kept out of the mainstream, there were bound to be a few gay or bisexual men behind the camera. Among these were some of the canonical greats of the first half-century of movies: F.W. Murnau, Jean Cocteau, George Cukor, James Whale, et al. Of course, they were all male. When it comes to American sound film before the 1950s, notable examples of bona fide sapphic ogling are pretty much limited to the giggly, touchy, silk-nightie-hung gal pals of The Wild Party (1929), directed by Dorothy Arzner, who was about as out as a woman could be at the time while pursuing a high-profile career. As for any expression of self that might be prefixed trans-, forget about it.

Yet classic cinema is steeped in male-on-male homoeroticism, especially the B genre movies, and the silent era is full of cross-dressing plots, drag roles, and assorted other varieties of gender-bending. Is it because taboos of queerness always exist in proportion to other, tacit varieties of feeling, being, or acting queer and to accepted levels of homoeroticism in same-sex friendships? That’s not to say that straight men are on perpetual alert five to fuck each other, but that the very human tendency to eroticize and fetishize all sorts of things that aren’t strictly sexual has made us into creatures of strange wiring. Our reality is queer. So are movies. We’ve just made a social art out of pretending otherwise.

The Stonewall Inn riots, which broke out on this day 48 years ago [June 28, 1969 —ed.], have become the go-to historical marker for the point when the movement for LGBTQ rights in the United States stopped asking politely. It’s true that it resulted in a bump in LGBTQ representation (mostly gay men) in Hollywood films, with the best-known example being William Friedkin’s strained adaptation of the catty Off-Broadway hit The Boys In The Band (1970), with the ensemble cast drenched in buckets of fake sweat in an effort to simulate personal turmoil. (Friedkin, of course, would also be responsible for the most controversial case of gay representation in Hollywood film: the incoherent 1980 thriller Cruising, starring Al Pacino as a straight cop who goes undercover in New York’s leather bar scene.) And it’s also true that the 1960s and ’70s brought a number of blatantly queer filmmakers to prominence as leading voices in their respective national cinemas: Rainer Werner Fassbinder in West Germany, Lino Brocka in the Philippines, Pier Paolo Pasolini in Italy, and Derek Jarman in the U.K. All of them had remarkable, prolific, but very short careers, dying tragically. It’s not as though queer or even gay characters just popped onto screens out of nowhere sometime in the 1960s. But it was an important and awkward decade.

John Phillip Law and Rod Steiger in a publicity still for The Sergeant, 1968.
John Phillip Law and Rod Steiger in a publicity still for The Sergeant, 1968.
Photo: Getty Images

For instance, the critics-turned-filmmakers of French New Wave, despite the aura of libertine and radical chic that their movies carried, were about as heteronormative as can be—with the exception of Jacques Rivette, who wouldn’t come into his creative own until the movement was over. François Truffaut, seen as the group’s most accessible and humanist figure, has been characterized as a homophobe in the early part of his life, despite his admiration and support of queer artists like Cocteau; still, he seemed to have undergone a change of heart over the course of his career, as evidenced by the sympathetic gay characters in his films Stolen Kisses (1968) and especially The Last Metro (1980). Meanwhile, the only LGBTQ filmmaker associated with the French New Wave movement, the bisexual Jacques Demy, remained in the closet his whole life. As for the rest of the storied European art cinema of the time, there was the only the openly gay Luchino Visconti, who shifted attention to queer characters toward the end of his career, in films like Death In Venice (1971) and Ludwig (1973). But those all come after the moment of Stonewall—the cut-off point for our purposes—and the ambiguously stylized lesbian relationships in Ingmar Bergman movies like Thirst (1949) and Persona (1966) barely count.

One might point to two 1961 releases as watershed moments for British film: Basil Dearden’s thriller Victim, starring eventual gay icon Dirk Bogarde as a married lawyer who is being blackmailed over his sexuality, and Tony Richardson’s adaptation of the Shelagh Delaney play A Taste Of Honey, the ultimate in gratuitous British kitchen-sink drama, with Murray Melvin as the pregnant teenage protagonist’s gay best friend. But though A Taste Of Honey has acquired a certain cachet in indie music (a favorite of Morrissey, referenced in a Television Personalities song, etc.), neither of these movies seem to have had as much of an influence on queer filmmakers who wanted to tell stories about queer characters. Neither did the stodgy lesbian-themed dramas directed by France’s Jacqueline Audry in the 1950s, nor Nordic curiosities like the Danish Bundfald (1957; also known as Sin Alley) and the Swedish Girl With Hyacinths (1950), nor the depictions of gay men attempted by Hollywood pre-Stonewall in films like Vincente Minnelli’s Tea And Sympathy (1956) and John Huston’s pretentious, sepia-toned Carson McCullers adaptation Reflections In A Golden Eye (1967). The latter’s depiction of a career Army officer violently struggling with his repressed sexuality pales in comparison to The Sergeant, the 1968 debut of John Flynn, director of the cult classic Rolling Thunder. But this film, like so many, is barely remembered.

Mädchen In Uniform, 1931
Mädchen In Uniform, 1931
Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center

Instead, consider the profound influence that the 1950s women’s pictures of Douglas Sirk exerted on gay writer-directors like Fassbinder, Pedro Almodóvar, and Todd Haynes, especially in the way they came to frame their characters—or the way the Wachowskis have drawn on the post-human imagery of anime for their films, which all like allegories of trans self-discovery in retrospect. What did they learn from these movies that they couldn’t find in pre-Stonewall depictions of LGBTQ characters, most of which amount to little more that film history footnotes? Did it have something to do with expressing emotions? This isn’t to say that there aren’t great LGBTQ characters hidden throughout earlier eras of film; take, for instance, Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman), the hitman couple in Joseph H. Lewis’ noir masterpiece The Big Combo (1955), gay villains depicted without a trace of homophobia. (Like Lewis’ psychosexual Gun Crazy, a major influence on the aforementioned French New Wave, The Big Combo proves just how much low-budget genre films could get away with in the days of the puritanical Motion Picture Production Code, which ruled Hollywood from the mid-1930s to the early 1960s.)

But with movies, any history of representation ends up running into some thorny questions about the central paradox of conventional, live-action narrative film: its ambiguous, suggestive, and metaphorical potential operates in a direct relationship to its powers as a very realistic form of mass figurative art. If we accept as dogma that only the most literal type of representation matters, then we deny everything that makes movies matter. In the bluntest terms, it comes down to our ability to feel and deduce stuff. But go back even further, to Germany in the days of the Weimar Republic, and you’ll find a golden age of films with queer subjects, bookended by Richard Oswald’s Different From The Others (1919) and Leontine Sagan’s Mädchen In Uniform (1931). The former, in which an openly gay violinist (Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari‘s Conrad Veidt) is strong-armed by a blackmailer who threatens to expose his closeted boyfriend, was one of several collaborations between Oswald and the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, the most important LGBTQ rights activist in early 20th-century Europe. The latter, about a 14-year-old student at an all-girls boarding school who falls in love with one of her teachers, is a toned-down adaptation of a popular play by Christa Winsloe, a sculptor and author who met a dark end.

Pandora’s Box, 1929
Pandora’s Box, 1929
Photo: SUNY Buffalo

Somewhere in there too is G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), produced by Nero-Film AG, the most artistically ambitious German production outfit of the time, co-founded by Oswald. It features an explicitly lesbian character, Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), and a heroine, Lulu (Louise Brooks, in her most famous role), whose sexuality could be read as queer in context. But what about non-literal representation? Because for decades, the only consistent place where one could find openly queer self-expression was in the world of experimental and underground film; queerness is inseparable from the formation of the movie avant-garde, from Kenneth Anger’s seminal (in more ways than one) Fireworks (1947) to the 1960s movies of Andy Warhol. But as far as the mainstream is concerned, the real pre-Stonewall history of LGBTQ cinema is in the crypto-queer movies: the appreciation for knowing camp that James Whale brought to films like Bride Of Frankenstein (1935) and The Old Dark House (1932); the destructive, seemingly impossible, and sometimes tragic attractions of Murnau’s Noseferatu (1922), Sunrise (1927), and City Girl (1930); and the fascination with performance shared by so many of the important gay artists of film, that vision of life as theater that seems inevitable when you spend much of the time pretending to be someone you’re not.

One possible reason for the emotional vacuum in most on-screen portrayals of LGBTQ characters from the first half-century of movies is that the actual queer filmmakers of these never addressed their own sexualities directly. (Even Pasolini, who came much later and was openly gay, refracted his queerness.) These movies address the tangles of sexual identity and attraction emotionally, but indirectly. Besides being a hoot, Whale’s The Great Garrick (1937)—in which the famed 18th-century English theater star arrives at an inn full of disguised French thespians—is about as queer as a movie can be without having as much as a hint of homoerotic or trans subtext. There’s also Cukor’s great Sylvia Scarlett (1935), the first film to pair Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, with the latter playing a con artist who disguises herself as a teenage boy, and Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina (1933), starring Greta Garbo as a 17th-century Swedish royal who falls in love with a Spaniard while disguised as a man.

Hamlet, 1921
Hamlet, 1921
Photo: Deutsche Kinemathek

A homoerotic charge courses through a few oddities of the period, including William Wyler’s Tom Brown Of Culver (1932) and Lambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter (1936). The early film industry also showed a fondness for drag. Listing and explaining the relevant examples would take up several more paragraphs; suffice it to say that the presence of drag in the mainstream, often associated with comedy and slapstick, made it possible for movies to use a more socially acceptable queerness to address one that was taboo. For example, Heinz Schall and Svend Gade’s unusual adaptation of Hamlet (1921), starring the Danish actress Asta Nielsen in the title role, gets away with a homoerotic reading of Shakespeare’s tragedy by presenting the moping prince as a princess in male drag, secretly in love with her best friend, Horatio. In Ernst Lubitsch’s medium-length I Don’t Want To Be A Man (1918), another export of Weimar-era Germany, a free-spirited young woman (Ossi Oswald) masquerades as a man, engendering (worldplay intentional) all sorts of confused feelings from the men she meets. These are movies that use one, more socially acceptable kind of queerness to explore another, both queer and crypto-queer—a ploy repeated to brilliant and fluid effect some decades later in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959).

As we dig further and further into history and begin to get to the roots of narrative film, questions of theory begin to pop up, exposing the fact that queerness—that broadly understood category of sexual identities and desires that lie outside an era’s strictest norms—is not a niche subject in cinema, but is deeply entangled in it. Motion pictures are an extremely representational medium, which is why representation and visibility always have and always will matter. They are permanent issues, as from the moment we began to frame shots, we also began framing certain things and certain people out. But at the same time, what could be a more perfect subject for such a potently visual medium than the invisible? This isn’t just a question of putting the hitherto unseen in front of the camera, but also of invoking the unspoken and the unacknowledged. Feelings, too, are invisible, and they can be more complex than what is directly shown, and perhaps the most cathartic feat that the fake world of movies can accomplish is evoke those things that real world beyond the theater keeps repressed. The through-line isn’t in characters or stories, which now seem mostly like reductive caricatures, but in emotions. It was possible to tell queer narratives and suggest queer feelings before it was possible to show queerness.