SHORT SHARP SHOCKS
Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1895)
The Eclipse (1907)
Algie the Miner (1912)
The Danger Girl (1916)
Lot in Sodom (1933)
USA, 1895. Dir. William K.L. Dickson. B&W. 22 sec. loop.
In 1895, William Dickson made an experiment to add sound to filmed images: he recorded a tune and filmed a scene, separately, and then he put the two of them together. He chose a ‘barcarolle’ song from the light opera of 1878 Les Cloches de Normandie, a song about the loneliness of sailors at sea, who have only men for company when they may be yearning for female companionship... To illustrate the song, he had two men dancing together. Apparently, Dickson’s experimental sound film used to be known as “The Gay Brothers”. It is certainly a strong contender for ‘earliest gay scene ever filmed’.
THE ECLIPSE: THE COURTSHIP OF THE SUN AND THE MOON
France, 1907. Dir. Georges Méliès. Silent. B&W. 9 min.
Somehow, the genial Georges Méliès was forgotten for decades. His dazzling experiments with fantasy and science fiction were in fact a continuation of a tradition of ‘shadow plays’ and other forms of entertainment in popular theatre. But he invented a few tricks for the cinema, such as substituting objects in the middle of an action through editing. He also produced hand-painted colour films which are a camp delight. He was quite egalitarian with his female characters too – in 2010 no woman has set foot on the moon, but Méliès sent a gender-balanced team in a rocket-locomotive across the universe in 1904. The Eclipse seems a very straight-forward sketch... until you realise that the sun and the moon involved in the ‘courtship’ are obviously played by two men, and your eyes pop out in disbelief at the shenanigans! Watch out for the ‘explosion’ of double-stars, which are made of two girl-stars or two boy-stars floating about in contented bliss. Méliès’ The Eclipse has always been given a general release, but it is the closest we have seen to silent gay male porn.
ALGIE THE MINER
USA, 1912. Dir. Alice Guy. Silent. B&W. 15 min.
The mid-1910s has been described as “a golden age” for woman directors. Some of them made cutting-age social-commentary films, or fostered experimental camera work, framing, and montage, as well as other technical innovations such as double-exposure. There were plenty of women script-writers, producers, editors, and set designers too, many of whom carried on working in films after the transition to sound. For some reason, however, the progressive professionalisation and specialisation in the movies, with the rise of the ‘producer’ as a central figure in the late 1910s, resulted in most women directors disappearing from the industry. Among this first wave, there is one key figure, Alice Guy-Blaché, a French film maker who changed her name from Alice Blaché to Alice Guy after moving to the USA, where she opened her own studio. She has been erased from official film history, but she was in fact the first person to make narrative films, and one of the key pioneers in the development of cinematic language, in a career that span twenty-five years and seven hundred movies.
Algie the Miner is one of Guy’s short films, a send-up of western cowboy mythology (another woman, Ruth Baldwin, would direct the first western spoof feature film in 1917). The protagonist, Algie, is an effeminate man who is sent to the far west to learn how to be ‘macho’ before he is allowed to marry his sweetheart. On first consideration, Algie appears to be the archetypal sissy character. As the great Vitto Russo has pointed out, “Early sissies were yardsticks for measuring the virility of the men around them”, so that “the sissy remained asexual while serving as a substitute for homosexuality”, and it is obvious that “the thing all males secretly dread[ed]” in these films was actually “male intimacy”. However, Algie the Miner is slightly different, because Algie is the hero from start to finish, and because he changes the tough cowboys as much as they change him.
THE DANGER GIRL
USA, 1916. Dr. Clarence G. Badger. Silent. B&W. 24 min.
Gloria Swanson, an actor associated with Romantic comedies, was one of the most famous super-stars of the silent era. An admired beauty and a fashion icon, she was witty and engaging in interviews, but she was also a tough negotiator and a politically committed actor and producer. When the Hays Code was created by Hollywood to self-censor their own films, Swanson was one of the most vocal opponents to the code, and responded to it by producing challenging films which were instantly banned. Director Cecil B. de Mille, who turned her into a star, used to call her “young fellow” (in the camp-feast film Sunset Boulevard, where de Mille plays himself, he greets a character played by Swanson in precisely that way). Puzzling, perhaps, since Swanson was noted for her feminine charms and her heterosexual conquests... but we think we have solved the mystery: The Danger Girl.
In this forgotten screw-ball comedy, Gloria Swanson plays a danger-loving modern woman, who learns that her best friend’s boyfriend is flirting with a ‘tart’, and comes up with the perfect plan: dress up as a man, and seduce the rival away. According to the gay film bible, The Celluloid Closet, effeminate men in films “always signalled a rank betrayal of the myth of male superiority”, whereas tomboy women “seemed to reinforce that myth”. In movies, women in drag always look powerful and sexy -Swanson is no exception- and we rarely pause to wonder why. The Danger Girl is so fast that you wont have time to think about anything, but we can confirm that in this film, women (in or out of drag) are the ones in control.
LOT IN SODOM
USA, 1933. Dirs. James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber. Silent. B&W. 28 min.
Lot in Sodom is considered by many to the first pro-gay film ever made. It is also one of the earliest and most successful experimental films we have seen. Even after sound cinema had become the norm, some film makers believed that silent cinema was an art form on its own right, and that the visual possibilities of cinema were somewhat sabotaged by the introduction of dialogue and on-site sound. James Sibley Watson (Jr), was a wealthy man who channeled much of his money into promoting the arts or financing his own –often quite radical- artistic projects (such as The Dial, a journal which he used to support friends like the lesbian poet Marianne Moore). Watson and Melville Webber had directed a fascinating movie in 1928, The Fall of the House of Usher, a film which seemed to be choreographed rather than directed, with a frantic montage and a set design which adopted the distortions of German expressionist films (where furniture, houses, or landscapes twist as if they were drug-induced visions). Webber and Melville used the same techniques in Lot in Sodom, enhancing the experimental feel of the film by commissioning a matching music score.
House of Usher was about a cursed family, and Lot in Sodom is about a cursed community. Clearly, hiding a radical story into a cutting-age modernist look, was a safe strategy. But Lot in Sodom does not seek to confuse, it relies on an audience which knows the story, so that the film is an ‘illustration’ or interpretation of the curse of the sodomites, rather than a chapter-by-chapter unfolding of the biblical story. In a nutshell: Lot and his family are the only god-fearing people in the city of Sodom, so God decides to kill everyone else and sends a couple of angels to warn Lot; the angels are spotted, and the Sodomites demand that the gorgeous strangers be handed over to partake in some carnal pleasures; this goes against the rules of hospitality and is the last straw; Lot and his family leave Sodom, and God destroys the city; the end. Some religious nuts have used this tale to promote homophobia (the word “sodomy” originated here), but the very same tale has inspired others to come up with imaginative, exciting readings, such as this one. The casting director is on record as saying that he hand picked “the most effeminate students” in the local school to play the Sodomites, and that these actors soon realised that “their unconventional personalities were being mocked”. Despite these comments, Lot in Sodom can be seen as a celebration of the ‘unconventional’, and the film’s own mannerisms (its overfussy, elaborate style) can be seen as queer in themselves. Apparently, the amateur painter Webber attempted to replicate Giotto in the movements of the actors. Watch out for Webber’s first wife, who plays the doubt-ridden, Sodom-loving wife of Lot. Is this film celebration, condemnation, exploitation, provocation, or elegy? You decide.
© Dublin Film Qlub 2010
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