I have been a fan of classic movies ever since I began checking out VHS tapes from my local library (Santa Maria Public Library) in my tween years at the dawn of the 1990’s. Cable was a luxury my working-class family did not always have. Our town received two TV channels via antenna with media content I did not usually enjoy. The borrowed tapes kept me from the boredom of small town life and emerging teenage angst when friends or yard work were not at hand. Classic movies or—for the sake of this article—pre-1980s movies were what was left on the library shelves. New releases were not always available at my library and any that were, were checked out. I became familiar with the American black and white melodramas. I then explored Italian Neorealism, French New Wave and transitioned to New German Cinema in my late teens—I would like to take a brief moment to thank the librarian that made these obscure VHS purchases that got little circulation.
I was open to any and all genres of movies but I always felt as if I struck gold when I stumbled upon a film that had any hint of LGBT characters or content. I was living in the middle of the New Queer Cinema movement and LGBT media was becoming available to urban cinema goers but not to me in Santa Maria. Even 60-minute-away-drive Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo were both fiercely conservative. I relied on my discoveries of gay nuances in classic cinema to catch any glimpse of LGBT life.
Today, LGBT content in media is more available than ever before. I, of course, cannot keep up with all of the new releases, nor do I try. I still find the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle gay instances in pre-1980s films to be the most daring, heroic and exciting of LGBT cinema history.The changing era of LGBT cinema due to the 1980s AIDS crisis should be acknowledged. However, as daring as LGBT cinema was in the ‘80s, it had a life-or-death connotation and is at a different level than that which came before it. Remember the ‘80s slogan, “Silence = Death?” Well, ‘silence’ before the ‘80s did not equal death, only repressed, conforming drudgery.
I would like to acknowledge that the characters in some early LGBT movies are not always moral beings nor are they always mentally stable. I simply see this as a reflection of how LGBT individuals were perceived at the time or, as in 1970s cinema, presented as a big middle finger to cultural expectations. Regardless, these films have a legitimate place in cinema history.
With this post, I am sharing with you the pre-AIDS era LGBT films, that I have watched over the last 12 months and that are available to LAPL library card holders. Please note that some of these films have mature content.
Rope (1948) - DVD
Though director Alfred Hitchcock described his film Rope as “an experiment that didn’t work,” it is still impressive to see James Stewart in a story inspired by the Leopold-Loeb murder case. Two gay college students murder a classmate they view as intellectually inferior and believe their professor’s lectures on “innate superiority” justify their actions.
Red River (1948) - DVD
A very entertaining John Wayne picture that introduced the posthumously gay icon, Montgomery Clift. This is not a gay film but many film buffs are aware of the hilarious “gun scene” between John Ireland and Montgomery Clift. If you are not aware, please google it now.
Un Chant d'Amour (1950) - Kanopy
This is French playwright and novelist Jean Genet’s only film. Do not let the publication year of this silent 25-minute film fool you. This long-time banned film about two prisoners and a voyeuristic prison guard is very explicit and sexually charged.
Purple Noon / Plein Soleil (1960) - Kanopy
The Leather Boys (1964) - Kanopy
Surprisingly daring for 1964, The Leather Boys tells the story of a young biker’s evolving relationship with a gay biker after he separates from his wife.
The Group (1966) – DVD
A group of students from a women’s college keep in touch after their 1933 graduation and share the stories of their lives and adventures up until WWII. Candice Bergen plays a confident lesbian that comes out to her group of friends after she introduces her female partner to the group.
Multiple Maniacs (1970) – DVD
John Waters, Divine and the Dreamlanders crew exploit the sheltered view that homosexuals and other counterculture individuals are perverse, appalling monsters to be gawked at in a freak show. In the usual John Waters’ fashion, Multiple Maniacs is successful at offending its audience. The genius of John Waters is that he knows you will keep watching.
Fox and His Friends / Faustrecht der Freiheit (1975) – DVD
New German Cinema director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder tells the story of class conflicts within the gay community. Fassbinder also stars in this full-fledged gay themed picture.
A Special Day / Una Giornata Particolare (1977) – DVD
A powerhouse duo, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, star in this treasure of a film about an exhausted homemaker and a persecuted homosexual who befriend one another after their apartment building is deserted due to the events revolving around Hitler's visit to Rome in May 1938.
Jubilee (1978) – DVD
This is gay director, Derek Jarman’s punk rock, dystopian film with a variety of characters from the LGBT spectrum. A young Adam Ant has a significant role in this film.
Spetters (1980) – DVD
This is one of Paul Verhoeven’s (RoboCop, Basic Instinct) early films about a group of dirt bike racers trying to escape their mundane working-class lives.
Making Love (1982) – DVD
If anyone is disappointed in Michael Ontkean’s absence from the role of Sheriff Harry S. Truman in new Twin Peaks series, then catch him in Making Love. Though reports of a mysterious disease among gay men surfaced in 1981. AIDS was yet to be given a name when Making Love was released in theaters, which is why I think this film qualifies to be on this list. Making Love is the first mainstream Hollywood production to revolve around a gay theme.