Out on Screen -- Before Stonewall
Long ago and far away, these films were made by maverick, courageous filmmakers who would not be silenced. Some of them risked their careers, and their lives, in order to make their voices heard. Each baby step they took helped lead to the visibility we enjoy today.
Different From the Others (1919)
Before Hitler came to power, German LGBT people enjoyed unprecedented freedoms during the Weimar Era. In spite of Paragraph 175, the German law which criminalized homosexuality, 1920s Berlin was a gay and bohemian mecca. "Different From the Others" was co-written by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, who’s Institute For Sexual Science was a voice in the medical community, which called for sexual tolerance.
It’s an intense drama about a Paul Korner, a famous, classical violinist who falls in love with a young male pupil, and is promptly blackmailed by a sleazy extortionist.
Conrad Veidt, who that same year starred in "The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari," the first feature length horror film, gives a strong performance as Korner in this, cinema’s first sympathetic portrayal of a gay man. In later years Veidt worked in Hollywood, appearing in the classic "Casablanca" (1942).
"Different From the Others" is available on DVD via Kino Lorber Films.
Madchen in Uniform (1931)
The dark cloud of the Third Reich was looming on the horizon when "Madchen (Maidens) in Uniform" opened in German cinemas. This film version of a popular, if controversial, play featured the stage cast.
Set in a girl’s boarding school, "Madchen in Uniform" is about a young student who falls in love with a female teacher. Although the teacher doesn’t return the romantic feelings, she encourages the young lady to embrace who she is and defends her to the stern headmistress.
During the Nazi era, the film was ordered destroyed, but fortunately a few prints survived. It can now be viewed on You Tube in its entirety, in German with English subtitles.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
October is Halloween, and so we remember James Whale’s magnificent sequel to his 1931 classic. Whale, a gay man, used the man made monster (Boris Karloff) to express his own loneliness and frustration about living in a time when "people didn’t talk about such things."
While the first film was a deadly serious chiller, "Bride" is a camp masterpiece. Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive), is attempting to distance himself from the murderous creature he created. Dr. Praetorius, his old medical school professor, blackmails the doc into creating a woman. As played by Ernest Thesiger, Praetorious is a screaming, effeminate queen who gazes lovingly at his much younger pupil. He also looks at Baroness Frankenstein (Valerie Hobson) with the kind of comic revulsion that could only be a bitchy queen thinking about heterosexual sex.
When the lady monster, the Bride (Elsa Lanchester), is revealed, she’s dressed in a long, flowing gown, her Afro hairdo streaked white. Her gestures are dramatic. For all intents and purposes, she’s a drag queen. The entire film, which is filled with morbid, graveyard humor, is played at a hysterically over the top fever pitch.
Now viewed as Whale’s coming out film, "Bride of Frankenstein" is a grand entertainment.
It’s on DVD & Blu Ray.
Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
Gloria Holden is wonderful as the Count’s daughter, who’s repulsed by the blood she’s forced to drink in order to survive. She spends much of the film trying to escape her family curse.
1930s audiences must have had heart attacks when the Countess, pretending to be an artist, picks up a young girl. "I’m doing a study of a young girl’s head and shoulders," says Lady Dracula. She stares lustfully at her victim’s neck & bosom as the girl dutifully removes her top!
In other scenes, the Countess feasts upon men, making her the first bisexual character not only in horror films, but in Hollywood films in general.
The film can be found on the five film DVD box set "Dracula: The Legacy Collection."
Tea and Sympathy (1956)
Based on a 1953 play, "Tea and Sympathy" is about Tom, a slightly effeminate young man (John Kerr, repeating his Broadway role) who prefers classical music and the theater to all the "manly" things boys are "supposed" to enjoy.
Under pressure, he attempts to lose his virginity with a prostitute, but the encounter is a fiasco. Tom attempts suicide.
The play made Tom’s homosexuality clear, but the film de-gayed the story, even tacking on a new ending. The film features a famous line that many drag queens have borrowed: "Years from now, when you talk about this -- and you will -- be kind."
Voodoo Island (1958)
One more for Halloween. Horror icon Boris Karloff leads a motley crew of folks to a deserted tropical island in order to investigate its voodoo legends. Jean Engstrom, a forgotten actress of the ’50s & ’60s who worked primarily in TV guest shots, plays Claire, an architect who works for a developer that wants to build a hotel on the island.
Claire makes no attempt at hiding her disdain for men. She speaks about belonging to a club that’s "private and very exclusive." She flirts openly with the other woman in the party.
Not a great film, "Voodoo Island" is a fun little drive-in flick. For having the courage to play a lesbian so brazenly during the conservative 1950s, Jean Engstrom, who died in 1997, deserves to be remembered.
The film is on DVD together with "The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake," another chiller of the period.
Inspired by "Different From the Others," this dark, disturbing British drama is about a closeted, married lawyer (Dirk Bogarde), who decides to track down and stop a blackmailer who’s been targeting gay men all over London. The film, made at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offense in England, dares to question straight society’s "morals" and effectively conveys the brutality of a system that crushed so many lives. It’s on DVD.
The Children’s Hour (1962)
Superstars Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn play lifelong best friends running a girl’s school in a small conservative town. A lie from a vicious student accusing them of being lesbians spirals out of control and brings their little schoolhouse crashing down.
None of it’s true, is it?
"What if it is true?" MacLaine says in tears. For her it is, in this searing drama about how much harm hate and prejudice can do. Based on a 1930s play by Lillian Hellman, "The Children’s Hour" is a magnificently acted, thought provoking story. Tragic and unforgettable, it’s on DVD.
The Night of the Iguana (1964)
The great Richard Burton stars as a defrocked, alcoholic priest working as a tour guide in Mexico. When 16-year-old tourist Charlotte (Sue Lyon) falls in love with the Father, she’s chastised by her "guardian," the repressed, 40ish Miss Fellows (Grayson Hall). It soon becomes clear that the insanely jealous Fellows is deeply and hopelessly in love with her young charge. Hall chews the scenery as an embittered, frustrated woman who can’t be honest about who she is. She scored the first Oscar nomination in history for an actor in a gay role -- she didn’t win.
The film is on DVD.
The Fox (1967)
Based on a novel by D.H. Laurence, who wrote sexually charged stories in the 1920s ("Women in Love," "Lady Chatterly’s Lover"), "The Fox" stars Anne Heywood and Sandy Dennis as a lesbian couple living on the isolated farm they run. Along comes a merchant seaman (Keir Dullea) looking for his grandfather, the farm’s previous owner. He soon comes between the women, making love to one and urging her to leave with him.
How the triangle is resolved makes for riveting viewing with a cast that gives strong performances.
Not on DVD.
The Killing of Sister George (1968)
British character actress Beryl Reid is wonderful as a popular but aging soap opera star who’s being killed off her show. Closeted, boozy and foul-mouthed, she takes her anger out on her much younger girlfriend (Suzanna York). When Mrs. Croft (Coral Browne) a TV network executive, takes a sudden interest in the GF, things get kinky!
Though not a porn film, the seduction scene between Brown and York is surprisingly graphic. The film was released with an X rating, and moviegoers at the time reportedly watched this sequence in stunned silence.
Director Robert Aldrich had previously called the shots on the chillers "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" (1962) and "Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte" (1965). He infuses "Sister George" with the same dark, satirical edge he brought to those earlier films.
Almost a comical horror film, the female/female seduction scene was meant to be as shocking as possible. The film also features a lengthy scene set in a London lesbian bar.
It’s on DVD.
We end our gay cinema history lesson with "Staircase." The film was shot right before the Stonewall Riots and released right after. It’s based on a 1966 two character play about a troubled, aging gay couple. The film adds additional characters and takes part of the story out of their apartment.
Richard Burton and Rex Harrison play the couple. Both were huge stars at the time and were known for bedding many women: Casting them as a gay couple must have been a publicist’s dream! The deadly serious play was "camped up" for the screen, and the film bombed.
Not on DVD, "Staircase" sometimes airs on TCM for Pride Month. It’s now considered a "lost treasure, a rare Hollywood movie to depict the gay experience with wisdom, humor, and warmth," according to film critic Armond White, who’s been published in the New York Times and Film Comment Magazine.