LGBT Movies of the 1910s

Different from the Others premiered in 1919. It told the story of a gay man who is blackmailed and driven to suicide. Filmmaker Magnus Hirschfeld was an outspoken advocate for gay rights. He was forced to flee Germany during the second world war. Only fragments of his film survive. Different from the Others has been called the first pro-gay movie. Today I’m recapping three prior works that explored queerness. They include a mix of comedy and tragedy.

Algie, the Miner (1912, U.S.)

A macho miner teaches a wealthy fop how to act “manly.” His sissy manners contrast with the casual cruelty of the miners. Algie’s broad portrayal is less than flattering. But the film critiques multiple expressions of masculinity. It’s a curio for queer film historians.

MR. MONEYBAGS: You can’t marry my daughter till you learn to be a man!
ALGIE (A fancy lad): Yoo-hoo boys! Can one of you teach me manly activities? I’ll make it worth your while. (Kisses a miner on the cheek.)
MINERS: Look at the pansy!
BIG JIM (A butch miner): Back off! I’ll teach that twink to mine. First, you’ll need my gun.
ALGIE: Daddy it’s too big! Maybe just the tip.
BANDITS: This is OUR gold now! (They attack Big Jim.)
ALGIE: Back off you brutes. (Pulls the gun on them and scares them away.)
BIG JIM: (Drunk) It gits lonely out here. I need another drink.
ALGIE: You’ve had enough! I’m taking you home. (Drags Jim out of a bar.)
BIG JIM: Yes daddy.
MR. MONEYBAGS: I don’t care that you’re butch now. You’ll marry my daughter over my dead body!
ALGIE: That can be arranged. (Pulls a gun on him.)
DAUGHTER: Ooo Algie! Your gun is sooo big!

The Wings (1916, Sweden)

An elderly artist adopts a young man as his protégé. To the outside world they read as father and son. Their friends know better. When the man abandons him for a woman the painter is left heartbroken. The Wings is based on a 1902 novel by homosexual author Herman Bang. Sections of the film are missing but the narrative remains intact.

ARTIST: I’ll carve a statue of you. You’ll be my Icarus. The boy who flew too close to the sun.
MICHAEL (A handsome lad): Gee, I never modeled before. (Poses in a loin cloth.)
PRINCESS (A gold digger): Quite the statue. Michael, why don’t you come up and see me some time? And bring jewelry.
(The Princess kisses Michael. He hallucinates the Artist watching him. Later…)
MICHAEL: Daddy, I need some more money.
ARTIST: No. You spent everything I gave you on that woman.
MICHAEL: Then I’ll sell the Icarus statue.
ARTIST: How could you!? (Dies of a heart attack.)
MICHAEL: I’m sorry daddy! I was a fool.

A German remake was released in 1924 under the novel’s title, Michael. It brings a stronger erotic charge to the men’s relationship. There the artist says Michael has shown him the face of true love.

I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918, Germany)

A rowdy young woman dons drag to escape her stern guardians. Her bisexual adventures are treated as subversive fun. Director Ernst Lubitch was only 26 but already had a knack for comedy. He’d soon move to Hollywood for a lengthy career.

GOVERNESS: Stop playing cards! Stop smoking! Stop drinking! Behave like a lady!
OSSI (A wild teen heiress): Ah nuts! I aint no lady.  
DR. KERSTEN (A fancy lad): Your uncle’s hired me to teach you manners. I’ll tame you yet.
OSSI: Why wasn’t I born a boy? I’m getting outta here.
(Dresses in a suit and top hat. Gets shoved by rude men and sexually harassed by women.)
OSSI: Gosh. Maybe I don’t want to be a man. Oh look! Dr. Kersten’s on a date.
(Ossi flirts with Dr. Kersten’s date. The date leaves them both so they get drunk.)
DR. KERSTEN: You’re so handsome. (They make out. Dr. Kersten wakes up in Ossi’s house.)
OSSI: (Still in a suit.) Good morning.
DR. KERSTEN: Hey Mister? Don’t tell anyone about our adventure.
OSSI: (Lets her hair down.) It’s me, dummy. I’ll tame you yet.
DR. KERSTEN: Wow. There’s a lot to unpack here. (They kiss again.)

Silence is Golden

Heteronormativity is restored at the end of these tales. But each longing glance and ambiguous touch feels electric. They break taboos and several laws. It would be decades before two men could kiss on screen with the passion that Ossi and Kersten express in I Don’t Want to Be a Man. And even longer before a same-sex couple could remain happily together by the credits.  

For more on the subject check out my article on the 1915 film Filibus. This Italian comedy follows a sky pirate who dons male and female disguises to seduce their targets. You can find more of my reviews on The Avocado, Letterboxd and Serializd. My podcast, Rainbow Colored Glasses, can be found here.