Saturday, June 23, 2012

Pandora's Box and the Celluloid Closet

This weekend, as San Francisco celebrates gay pride, it's worth looking at one interesting LGBT connection with silent film.

On Saturday, July 14th the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is set to screen Pandora's Box, director G.W. Pabst's once controversial adaption of Frank Wedekind's Lulu plays. Pandora's Box (1929) is the Festival's centerpiece film, and the print which will be shown is a recently restored version screened only twice before.

Pandora's Box is notable as it contains what is "probably the first explicitly drawn lesbian character" in the history of the movies. That's according to Vito Russo's 1981 book, The Celluloid Closet.

In this groundbreaking work, Russo goes on to note, "The adaptation of Frank Wedekind's two-part drama about Lulu, a woman 'driven by insatiable lusts,' starred Louise Brooks as Lulu and Belgian actress Alice Roberts as her passionate lesbian admirer, the Countess Geschwitz. Pabst explores the personality of Geschwitz with great range, manipulating the performance of Alice Roberts to achieve a believable woman with a lesbian nature."

After further consideration of the character, Russo adds ". . . in the context of both the Wedekind drama and the film it [referring to Geschwitz's lesbianism] is a motivating force in the action and it makes the debut of Sapphic passion onscreen an exciting cinematic event."

However, not everyone was so accepting at the time of the film's release. In fact, nearly all aspects of sexuality (straight and gay) in Pandora's Box were cut or altered. The film was attacked in Germany, where it was made, as well as in France, where censors thought it indecent for a father and son to vie sexually for the same woman. And, according to Russo, "British censors deleted the character of Geschwitz from Pandora's Box, and she did not appear in the initial release version of the film in the United States."

Alice Roberts (left) as the Countess Geschwitz glares at the man who dares come
between her and Louise Brooks in a scene from G W. Pabst's Pandora's Box (1929).

In fact, by the time Pandora’s Box debuted in the United States in December of 1929, nearly a third of the film was missing. Photoplay, one of the leading American film magazines of the time, quipped “When the censors got through with this German-made picture featuring Louise Brooks, there was little left but a faint, musty odor.”

For whatever reason, society has long been more receptive to female homosexuality than male homosexuality. In the movies, however, gay male characters were depicted first, notably in earlier German films such as Different from the Others (1919) staring Conrad Veidt, Michael (1924) directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, and Sex in Chains (1928) directed by and staring William Dieterle. All three present a more sympathetic - if not wholly approving - look at homosexuality.

Was Geschwitz the first overtly lesbian character depicted in a film? The answer is likely yes. Check out Pandora's Box on July 14th in San Francisco to see for yourself. [History is always being written: if you know of an earlier (pre-1929) instance of a lesbian character in the movies, please post details in the comments field.]

***

Vito Russo (1946 – 1990) was an American LGBT activist, film historian and author who spent the last year of his life teaching at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He was 44 when he died, and it is claimed that some of his ashes rest inside the walls of the Castro Theater (the venue of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival). A documentary film on the life of Russo, Vito, premiered at the 2011 New York Film Festival and is set to air on HBO on July 23 of this year.

A German newspaper caricature from 1929.

1 comment:

  1. however, gay male characters were depicted first, notably in earlier German films such as Different from the Others (1919) staring Conrad Veidt, Michael (1924) directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer,
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