Lesbian Cinema Before Stonewall

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What was queer cinema like before the ‘70s hit? Does it have claims on the very beginnings of moving pictures? Is this part of our history only a tale of censorship and subtext? An Early Clue to the New Direction: Queer Cinema Before Stonewall, a series from the Film Society of Lincoln Center, is tackling this all head on.

We spoke with Thomas Beard, festival programmer at large, ahead of the series, which takes place from April 22 to May 1 in New York City. We talked lesbian classics at the festival, the amazingness of lesbian filmmaker Dorothy Arzner, Hollywood censorship, and more. 

 

AfterEllen.com: When it comes to lesbian themed movies, what are some of the feature films women can look forward to watching during this series?

Thomas Beard: The opening film is Leontine Sagan’s Mädchen in Uniform, which is an enduring classic of lesbian cinema. It will also be introduced by Su Friedrich, who’s a crucial figure of post-Stonewall lesbian cinema. The film was made in the early 1930s. It takes place in an all-girls boarding school. It’s, on the one hand, a stirring parable of authoritarianism, but it’s also in a way the first great film about lesbian love–a film about a sensitive new arrival to the school who falls hopelessly in love with her charismatic teacher, thus eliciting the wrath of the school’s pitiless headmistress.

Mädchen in UniformMADCHEN IN UNIFORM (1931)Photo by DEUTSCHE FILM / THE KOBAL COLLECTION / LIMOT 

 

AE: Censorship was an issue with this film, wasn’t it? 

TB: Censorship definitely plays a significant role in many of these films. Jacqueline Audry‘s Olivia for instance, which, as it happens, is also set in an all-girls’ school, was definitely subject to a number of censorship reviews. Or rather, it was very pointedly censored.

 

AE: Another notable name playing during this series is The Wild Party. Talk to us about this film. 

TB: Dorothy Arzner is a central figure for the series. Although she was officially closeted, she definitely endures as a kind of butch icon. There are many incredible photographs of her in very handsome suits and so forth. Her films themselves are extraordinary, and I think they’re some of the most keenly observed portraits of female friendship that we find in classic Hollywood cinema. She was also very successful commercially as a filmmaker and had a reputation as something of a star maker.

The Wild Party is of particular interest because it was the first sound film for Paramount starring the original it girl, Clara Bow. I believe Arzner was tasked with directing this version of The Wild Party because she had actually edited the silent version. The Wild Party is actually set at a women’s college.

The Wild PartyWild Party, The (1929)Photo by Paramount / The Kobal Collection

 

AE: There’s a theme here. Is there something that stands out for you about The Wild Party in terms of timing? It might surprise some people to know that this American film actually came out before Mädchen in Uniform.

TB: I think what maybe makes Mädchen in Uniform stand out is that the lesbian desire is far, far less coded or subtextual. It’s sort of proclaimed outright in a way that it isn’t in The Wild Party. Of course, a filmmaker like Arzner, a butch lesbian director in the ‘20s, was not able to make overtly lesbian films. Nevertheless, I think that there’s definitely Sapphic implication to be found in them.

 

AE: In America, what did the Hays Code mean in terms of the suppression of gay and lesbian cinema, particularly from the mid-’30s to the mid-’50s? 

TB: I think the story isn’t one of censorship alone. It’s not a story of defeat at all. Say Hitchcock’s Rope, which is not an explicitly gay film. You see how screenwriters and actors and so forth can sort of quite gamely maneuver through being on this impasse that is set up by censorship. And also, if you look at, say, Mona’s Candle Light, which is a recently discovered home movie shot at a popular San Francisco lesbian bar in the early ‘50s, here we have films of the everyday nightlife of lesbians in this moment being made outside of Hollywood and the censors altogether.

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