Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: sexuality

I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918)

This gender-bending sex comedy from German director Ernst Lubitsch demonstrates the sophistication and defiance of taboo for which he would become famous, already in place just slightly after the end of the First World War. While it might seem tame to some audiences today, it still has the power to shock or at least surprise, when seen in context of the work Hollywood was producing at the time.

Unacceptable Behavior

Ossi Oswalda stars as “Ossi,” a spoiled rich tomboy who likes to play cards, smoke, and drink liquor, but is told these are not “ladylike” by her uncle (Victor Janson) and governess (Margarete Kupfer). The uncle receives orders to travel abroad for his job, which each believes will liberate them from the constant clashes. The uncle discovers that he hasn’t the stomach for sea travel, while Ossi learns the he and the governess have hired Dr, Kersten (Curt Götz) as a new tutor  for her, to instruct her in discipline and proper etiquette. He is very strict, but Ossi is very responsive to him – instead of rebelling, she obeys his commands, possibly because she is attracted to him.

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The Bell Boy (1918)

This short comedy from Comique stars Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton at the height of their collaboration, giving them a new occupation to demolish – hotel management. The use of large indoor sets and outdoor locations gives them some good opportunities for creative chaos.

Arbuckle and Keaton are uniformed bell boys at the Elk’s Head Hotel, which is managed by Al St. John. We first see Arbuckle emerging from an elevator and looking around carefully, before he protrudes a cigarette from inside of his mouth and smokes it. Keaton is lazing on an easy chair when Al rings the bell and both men hasten to the front. They zip up the stairs to the two visible doors and come out carrying bags. They take them out, leading the two guests to a horse-drawn streetcar, but when Arbuckle tries to throw one of his suitcases on top of the vehicle, it misses and hits Buster, causing the first of many pratfalls. They load up the carriage, the guests get on board, and Al gets into the driver’s seat, driving the contraption down the street and past the “Last National Bank” (remember that one).


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Photographing a Country Couple (1901)

This is another short comedy from Edison that uses still photography as the set up for a simple joke. In doing so, it seems to comment on the nature of “looking” and voyeurism.

photographing-a-country-coupleWe see an outdoor location, apparently in a park. There is a bench to the right side of the screen. A man carrying a camera and wearing a straw hat walks toward the camera, and the “couple” enters from the left. They are an unkempt man in overalls and a young girl in a summer dress.  The cameraman convinces them to pose for a photograph, and they arrange themselves on the bench while he sets up his tripod to the left. While he is preparing, the man gets up and peers into the lens of the camera. The photographer tells him to sit down, he’s ready now, but the man insists on looking through the viewfinder himself. The cameraman goes to the bench, and sits next to the girl while he looks. A boy runs up and ties the man’s legs to the tripod legs, and while he is doing this, the cameraman becomes increasingly affectionate with the girl, who protests at first, but then seems to acquiesce to his attentions. Now, the man tries to approach the bench, but the camera “walks” with him, and the scene ends after a few steps.

Judging from imdb’s report of the original Edison catalog entry for this movie, the punchline is missing from the surviving print. According to it, the man behind the camera “makes a wild dash for the photographer, but falls to the ground on top of the camera, smashing it to pieces. The scene ends with the lovers and Reuben all mixed up in a confused mess upon the ground.” Reuben, incidentally, is the generic name for the “rube” character in many early Edison comedies, despite the fact that he was played by different actors in each one. Quite honestly, until I read that description, I wasn’t sure what was supposed to be going on with the kid and “Reuben” walking toward the bench with the tripod. Possibly seeing the ending would have helped. The way I read it, however, was also interesting. It seemed to me as if “Reuben” became so fascinated with looking at the scene through the camera that he lost interest in participating in the dalliance with the girl, and that his approach was meant to signal his desire for a better view as the cameraman kissed his girl. There is still an element of this, since the film audience is also invited in to voyeuristically enjoy the cuckolding of our rube character before his eyes, and to enjoy the transgressive sexuality of the cameraman, without experiencing the consequences of that act. This may not have been the intention, but it is an interesting effect of the film today.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music).

The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903)

This is a classic example of voyeurism in early film, but note that the term “gay” had no connection to same-sex eroticism at the time. It fits in with the general run of work that Edwin S. Porter was doing for the Edison Company at the time, but note that it is no “Great Train Robbery.”

Gay Shoe Clerk

Guess the genders and win a cocktail!

The original Edison catalog entry described the action thus: “Scene shows interior of shoe-store. Young lady and chaperone enter. While a fresh young clerk is trying a pair of high-heeled slippers on the young lady, the chaperone seats herself and gets interested in a paper. The scene changes to a very close view, showing only the lady’s foot and the clerk’s hands tying the slipper. As her dress is slightly raised, showing a shapely ankle, the clerk’s hands become very nervous, making it difficult for him to tie the slipper. The picture changes back to former scene. The clerk makes rapid progress with his fair customer, and while he is in the act of kissing her the chaperone looks up from her paper, and proceeds to beat the clerk with an umbrella. He falls backward off the stool. Then she takes the young lady by the arm, and leads her from the store.”

Gay Shoe Clerk1The key to this movie is the cut to the close-up, which allows the audience to see a “forbidden” part of a woman’s anatomy, emphasizing once again the effect which this produces on the male character, as in “What Demoralized the Barber Shop.” He is punished for his transgression, but the audience is encouraged to take pleasure from watching without consequences. The “shoe shop” set is interesting as well – it essentially consists of row after row of identical shoe boxes on the back wall, with no attempt at showing displays or other merchandizing. I believe this to be a somewhat accurate portrayal of stores at the time, based on other images I’ve seen, but it could also reflect the stingingess of Porter’s budget at Edison. Although there probably was no deliberate homoerotic intent behind the movie, I understand that the “girl” in the film is actually played by a man (it’s difficult to tell because of the hat “she” wears and the distance from the camera if this is really true), which makes the title seem all the more subversive to a modern audience.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Edward Boulden

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Sandow (1894)


This early Edison kinetoscope was part of the first commercial exhibition of motion pictures, and represents the efforts of the studio to appeal to audiences, along with Annie Oakley, through the use of celebrities or interesting individuals. Eugen Sandow was a bodybuilder who was promoted by the famous Florenz Ziegfeld, who had him display feats of strength before large audiences in many different countries. Apparently, Ziegfeld found that people were more fascinated by Sandow’s perfectly muscled body than with the amount of weight he lifted, so this film is a kind of ritual dance in which Sandow flexes different muscle groups for the camera. It also shows more flesh (albeit male flesh) than any other movie of the nineteenth century that I can think of. Sandow’s “package” is plainly obvious in his meager shorts, and I have to suspect that audiences of that notoriously repressed era were titillated by this display. Apart from the sexual appeal, which most viewers (especially the men!) would never have admitted to, the film makes no effort to add narrative or elements such as comedy or suspense that might have kept audience interest: the fact that the subject moves is enough in itself.

Director: W.K.L. Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 45 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.