A History of the Gay and Lesbian Film (Part 1)

11.12.2009 | By: Antonio B

Gay and lesbian films have always made a great stir. What is this genre about and how did it all begin?


In the past, gays served as a comic element in films.

In the past, gays served as a comic element in films.


Gay and lesbian film, popularly known also as the »queer cinema«, has always been a thorn in the flesh of moralists and conservatives. Ever since 1919, when the first movie with gay themes was made, until today when the genre has its festival, the public has shown a great interest in gay and lesbian film, even though some of the audience still seem to be scandalized by it.

What's the definition of gay and lesbian film?


In its essence, gay and lesbian film is a film concerned with the theme of homosexuality, made by gay or lesbian directors and screenwriters, and primarily intended for homosexual viewers, who seldom come into their own. In comparison with other films, in which gays and lesbians usually appear only as a comic addition to the main story line and which usually don't tackle any serious themes or problems that homosexuals face in real life. There are of course also exceptions, where heterosexual film-makers deal with gay and lesbian themes and the film is more easily brought in contact with the wider audience. An interesting phenomenon are also gay and lesbian icons, various Hollywood stars who aren't necessarily homosexual themselves, but who have been turned into idols by the gay and lesbian community. In the past, some such legends used to be Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, James Dean, Montgomey Clift, Rudolph Valentino and Joan Crawford, the big names of the big screen who haven't played in a single homosexual role, but who were greatly loved by gays and lesbians, especially due to their allegedly showing a certain gay sensibility.


It's also worth noting that sometimes gays and lesbians "attach" themselves to a film which has nothing to do with homosexual themes, because they recognize under the surface of its story and its characters some gay undertones. An example of this is Mildred Pierce, a drama-thriller made in 1945, where the above-mentioned Joan Crawford appears in the role of a woman who has been left by a cheating husband. This film used to be part and parcel of gay and lesbian festivals. It would be certainly interesting to find out why does the homosexual community sometimes feel more attracted to heterosexual themes than to typically gay and lesbian films.


Greta Garbo is one of the gay icons.

Greta Garbo is one of the gay icons.

The first gay film


An intriguing documentary film The Celluloid Closet, which focuses on the »queer film«, mentions the fact that the first gay movie, titled Anders als die Anderen, was broadcast as soon as 1919, in Berlin. The Germans were very progressive in the field of gay and lesbian film, as they brought on the screen the first film with a lesbian theme already in the beginning of 1930s. The film was titled Mädchen in Uniform and presented a story of a school girl who falls in love with her teacher. The Germany before Hitler's bloody regime offered a perfect cultural climate for such movies, as the society seemed to be very tolerant of same-sex relationships.

In the US, the situation was a little different, as gays were included in »normal« films only as a comic element. The exception was Salome (1923), where the protagonist was portrayed by Alla Nazimova, who was very favoured by director Natasha Rambova. The latter liked dedicating roles to gays and lesbians. It's no coincidence that both ladies used to be the wives of Rudolph Valentino. Salome stood out as the only »queer« film of that time, as censorship was then imposed on gay themes on the screen.

For the next thirty years, there were consequently no actual same-sex movies, and censors remained strict in the 1940s and 50s. In spite of this, two film-makers of this period succeeded in making two breakthrough movies that attacked the taboos and avoided the censure by being part of the independent production. The first was Fireworks from 1947, which was recorded by the pioneer of independent film, Kenneth Anger, a teenager who was bored to death and whose film team gathered in the garage of his parents. The film was a great success and stirred the audience, while the young Anger had to defend himself in the court. In the same year, the playwright Jean Genet presented his only film Un Chant d'Amour, where he exposed the homosexuality among the prisoners and thereby greatly agitated the conservative audience.

Salome was the first film made in the US that tackled the lesbian theme.

Salome was the first film made in the US that tackled the lesbian theme.





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