a weekend of silent cinema

There’s a reason why the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is considered one of the premiere film festivals in the city (and the world, for that matter), what with its procurement of luminous 35mm prints from international archives, presentations of commissioned restorations, live musical accompaniment, handsomely produced festival booklets, etc, etc. But with individual ticket prices ranging from $15-$20 each, it is, sadly, no friend to a student budget, and I was only able to afford two tickets this year, alas.

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It was with the awareness that Allan Dwan is currently undergoing something of a critical renaissance (a large retrospective in NYC, a massive new 400-page biography by Frederic Lombardi, the release of an equally substantial free(!) e-book of collected essays and reviews, etc) that we bought tickets for The Half-Breed (1916), an early Douglas Fairbanks vehicle that is also one of the prolific director’s earliest feature films. Fairbanks plays the titular character, a man named Lo whose mixed heritage–his Native American mother was cruelly abandoned by his unknown father white–is not fully embraced by either community and so instead makes the wilderness his home. His personal charisma, athletic prowess, and intimate knowledge of nature, however, make him a magnet for the women of a small wilderness town, and the town’s “respectable” men employ racist social conventions as a cover of their utter loathing of his existence and justify their violent plans to excise him from

Expensively made and ambitious in scope, it was a box office flop, and according to the introductory lecture at the screening, Fairbanks in particular tracked all incoming receipts, and from that point forward always made sure to carefully cater his performances to public expectations. half breed doug fairbanksBecause this is not at all the Doug Fairbanks of the wide grin and broad gestures, but a characterization marked by cross-armed stoicism (Lombardi says its the actor “at his most dour,” which I think is a rather unfortunate and unfair choice of words). Either way, audiences in 1916 weren’t interested in this Fairbanks persona, but it makes for a very naturalistic and extremely dignified performance when viewed today, and all the more interesting because the impassiveness prevents the characterization from ever descending into gross stereotypes. Endlessly utilized by the film as a means through which to point out racial bigotry, religious hypocrisy, and individual and social prejudices of all kinds, Fairbank’s good humor and indignation toward a variety of injustices prevents this from being a one-dimensional portrait of the familiar “noble savage” figure, and instead creates a multi-faceted portrait of a misunderstood man. 

But even more than Fairbanks, The Half-Breed features two excellent female performances, by Jewel Carmen and, particularly, the tragic Alma Rubens, both who shine in contrasting roles that are atypically well-rounded for the era–perhaps the result of Anita Loos’s contribution as co-writer of the screenplay. Also worthy of note is Victor Fleming’s work as cinematographer, with the location shooting taking full advantage of the soaring vistas of the Sequoia National Forest. Despite all of these laudable elements, the financial failure of the film upon its initial led to it being frantically recut, and a number of shorter, re-edited versions ended up circulating for years; a reconstruction has been made drawing from all surviving material, and the restoration work on the image is uniformly gorgeous. It’s not exactly a find that’s going to rewrite cinema history or anything, but I hope it is made widely available, because it’s definitely an interesting film well worth seeing (35mm).

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Another powerful–but extremely different–rendering of complex human emotions and interactions playing against the vast backdrop of nature is Victor Sjöström’s The Outlaw and His Wife (1918). The plot is basic: a man who was compelled by circumstances to commit a criminal act is forced into a life of hiding in the bleak expanses of rural Iceland. Eventually he takes on a manual labor position at a farm of a rich and generous widow, and judging from the title alone, it’s not hard to figure out the trajectory of their relationship. Things get more interesting when the man’s past inevitably comes back to haunt him, forcing him to return to hiding, only this time around with his new wife in tow. Sjöström plays the role of the outlaw himself, and it is rather startling to see the man who is most familiar to American audiences as the frail elderly gentleman of Bergman’s Wild Strawberries here appear as a robust (and extremely handsome) young man who gets a job because he can effortlessly sling a large wooden chest over his shoulder and carry it up a ladder. It is also worth noting that the actress who plays the wife, Edith Erastoff, would in several years become Sjöström’s own.

But if I’ve focused almost solely on the acting and storyline, the most impressive and memorable element of the film is the landscape itself, which constantly dwarfs the human figures both in its scale and its unrelenting harshness, imagesand the interplay between humans and the natural world creates its own sub-narrative to the overall plot. Also crucial to the experience was the musical accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble of the original score composed for the film, and I particularly liked how it emphasized the ethereal qualities of Sjöström’s image’s, and stretches of the film subsequently began to play like a dream. The opening presenter went out of his way to note that it’s a superior score to the one included on the widely available Kino DVD, and I absolutely believe it. Overall I never found the film to quite reach the heights Sjöström achieved several years later with The Phantom Carriage (1921), but it’s an excellent film nonetheless (35mm).

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detour into terror


detour poster

This was my second viewing of Detour (1945, USA, Ulmer), yet I was still taken by surprise when confronted once again with how truly vicious the film is. It takes a bit too long to get going, and everything feels like endless exposition as if waiting for the moment petulant, ever-scowling Ann Savage saunters into the film, causing what had been Tom Neal’s innocent-man-on-the-lam story to make a final–and fatal–narrative detour. Savage’s exercise in bitter, sadistic emotional manipulation (“Shutup! I don’t like you! I’m not getting sore… but just remember who’s boss around here”) is a performance that still feels unlike anything else that came out of 1940’s cinema, and, for me, the way she goes from peacefully sleeping in the seat of the car to a saucer-eyed, shrieking Gorgon in the span of several seconds is one of the greatest and most terrifying moments in all of noir (and it’s all the more potent when encountered on the big screen).

Ulmer’s tight, endlessly creative direction creates an ever-tightening noose around the viewer’s emotions in the same way that the film’s plot slowly entwines itself around the neck of hapless, lugheaded Neal as he pines for perky (and meagerly talented) Claudia Drake detourinstead of confronting the destructive force of nature he has inadvertently crossed paths with. The overt stylistic flourishes derived wholesale from German Expressionism should come off as familiar and tired clichés, but somehow Ulmer always manages to make it seem like nothing less than an exercise in inspired aesthetic improvisation. In his hands the threadbare aspects of the story, sets, and performances are transformed into assets, and the hackneyed gradually takes on the quality of a surrealistic nightmare state. The film absolutely deserves its reputation as the crown jewel of the Poverty Row B-film cycle, and it is without a doubt one of the great noirs (Digital Project of a 35mm print, which unfortunately had a lot of technical glitches).

rite(s) of passage

U.S. Go Home (France, 1993), an hour long contribution to the fabled French television series Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge, was one of the great coups of the Pacific Film Archive’s Claire Denis retrospective, as it has become practically impossible to see (legally), particularly on this side of the Atlantic.  And it really is a shame that it is so completely unavailable–there’s a sweetness and charm to it that doesn’t really appear elsewhere in her work (the possible exception being Vendredi Soir, though that’s of a much more of an adult fantasy).  A wisp of a narrative co-written by Denis and Anne Wiazemsky and featuring Alice Houri and Grégoire Colin as siblings several years before they would do the same in Nénette et Boni, one the surface the film is a rather overfamiliar sexual coming-of-age story set in the 1960’s, but it is elevated by the tenderness of its observation.  There’s a wonderful, extended sequence early on involving Colin, where, alone his bedroom, a despondent feeling of restlessness slowly gives way to a spontaneous, ebullient catharsis as he tentatively begins to dance to a record of The Animals’s rollicking “Hey Gyp.”  Mumbling along with a few English phrases, epileptically keeping time to the beat, it’s the type of private moment usually experienced alone behind locked doors, which makes it all the more remarkable to witness on a screen (also, one can’t help but feel the enigmatic conclusion to Beau Travail starting to germinate here).

The bulk of the film, however, takes place during a boozy, dimly lit house party and the drama takes place in fleeting facial expressions and awkward gestures on an impromptu dance floor in a darkened living room which begins to take on larger mental and emotional dimensions as it becomes a site of initiation into adulthood for Houri in particular.  And while I’m not exactly sure what the exact circumstances are that have has made this film so completely unavailable, it wouldn’t surprise me if the soundtrack, which is chock full of English language music from the period (not just The Animals, but Nico, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, Prince Buster, among others), poses substantial rights issues.  Which is unfortunate, because it really is itself an important rite of passage exercise in Denis’s overall filmmaking trajectory; admirable on its own, but even more impressive when considered within the context of her ever-expanding body of work.

pretending on a precipice

[This film played in the Roxie Theater‘s film noir festival “I Wake Up Dreaming: The French Have a Name for It.”  It played in a triple bill with Detour and Une si jolie petite plage.]

The Pretender (USA, 1947), directed by W. Lee Wilder–Billy’s older brother–is a rather nasty piece of work, as thematically uncomfortable as it is visually ravishing. The film involves a slimy financier (Albert Dekker) who embezzles money from a beautiful heiress (Catherine Craig) who trusts him unquestioningly; as personal financial losses quickly pile up for Dekker’s character he scrambles to cover his tracks with a desperation that becomes closer and closer to outright hysteria.  Along the way he implicates himself in a series of shady underworld dealings and, most insidiously, attempts to marry the unsuspecting Craig for her money.

When a mafia deal goes awry, Dekker finds himself inadvertently caught up in a potentially deadly trap of his own devising, and the film embarks on a perilous balancing act,
negotiating the audience’s desire to have him get his comeuppance for his generally villainous actions with the impulse of wanting him to escape punishment for a crime he didn’t actually commit.  Once again, what distinguishes this Republic production is the gorgeous and complex lighting schemes and visual effects provided by John Alton; the score also heavily features the theramin–apparently among the first to do so–which is used to creepy, nightmarish effect.  Another nifty demonstration of what can be accomplished on a tight budget and a bit (a lot?) of creativity.

shadowy terrors on a budget

[Shadow of Terror played in the Roxie Theater‘s film noir festival “I Wake Up Dreaming: The French Have a Name for It.”  It played in a double bill with Storm Over Lisbon (1944).]

Affable enough and at a briskly-paced 60 minutes not long enough to ever outstay its welcome, Shadow of Terror (Lew Landers, USA, 1945) is an ultra-cheapie PRC production clearly made on a non-existent budget, and features a convoluted mess of a plot that involves amnesia (that old chestnut), government secrets, a tortured romance, and mistaken identities.  Once again, this isn’t really noir per se, but rather a gritty little black and white production that fits unobtrusively into a larger overview of the historical and stylistic movement.  However, rather contrary to traditional noir associations it prominently features Emmett Lynn as a folksy, knee-slapping prospector type (he plays a rancher here), and, more memorably, the action largely takes place in expansive rural spaces, and a sweltering, desolate desert is effectively used as a tool for physical and emotional torture by the main villain and his sadistic henchmen.

But the film primarily remains notable today for one reason: because of its quick filming schedule–a mere seven days or so–it was able to insert at the very last minute government footage of atomic test blasts in New Mexico was spliced into the ending, and get the film into theaters just days after the bombing of Japan which brought World War II to a swift close.  It must have seemed ultra prescient at the time of its release with its “ripped from the headlines!”quality, but today this otherwise generic little espionage flick boasts of a climax that brings to mind both the harrowing implications of the last moments of Kiss Me Deadly and–because it is so abruptly and strangely integrated into the overall film–the darkly surrealistic humor of Dr. Strangelove.

tempest in a portuguese teacup

[Storm Over Lisbon played in the Roxie Theater‘s film noir festival “I Wake Up Dreaming: The French Have a Name for It.”  It played in a double bill with Shadow of Terror (1945).]

Storm Over Lisbon (1944, USA, George Sherman) is often billed as Poverty Row’s remake of Casablanca, and it’s an apt characterization.  This time around the wide array of desperate individuals attempting to procure papers to escape World War are stranded in neutral Portugal, but if the iconic Curtiz film was indeed the original point of reference, its tendency is towards the film’s melodramatic impulses rather than the Epstein Brothers’s elegant wit.  Eric von Stroheim imperiously presides over a labyrinthine Art Deco-ish hotel/nightclub that also covertly functions as a broker house for international war secrets and negotiations, setting the stage the criss-crossing fates of such “colorful” eccentrics such as Richard Arlen, Robert Livingston, Otto Kruger, and, most memorably,
the film’s spectacularly awkward leading lady, former champion ice skater Vera Hruba Ralston.  Her ice queen character is supposed to be one of the best dancers in Europe,  which is supposed to justify a lengthy nightclub dance sequence where she performs a routine featuring bizarrely spastic Orientalism-meets-Martha-Graham choreography, and as it goes on and on and on–it must have been some ten minutes or so–it starts to become rather entrancing in its surrealistic awfulness (when the routine threatens to occur yet again at the end of the film the entire theater simultaneously erupted in laughter, the most inadvertently memorable moment of the screening).

The film’s chief attribute, as the Roxie’s series proved again and again, is John Alton’s characteristically lovely and expressive black and white photography, and it is Alton’s noir credentials that merited its inclusion in this festival at all–otherwise there’s hardly a noir-ish thing about it.  Also of note is the striking set, which is very shrewdly utilized–the chaotic plots entanglements involving an overwhelmingly dense array of minor characters creates a series of complex spacial arrangements that brought to mind the (vastly superior, of course) La Règle de jeu, with its constantly shifting planes of physical and social interaction in cavernous hallways and on staircases; Storm also includes a hidden elevator, which is strikingly utilized at several key moments of the film. But in the end it unfortunately doesn’t amount to a whole lot–the actors playing the “good guys” aren’t nearly good enough to compensate for thinly written characters, and it’s impossible not to react to the big reveal and send-off at the end with more than an indifferent shrug.  “Merely a tempest in a teacup” the The New York Times‘s anonymous reviewer claimed at the time of its release, and that about sums everything up, even if it quite fails to convey the minor pleasures the film offers along the way.

visions of a city: the maltese falcon

The great irony, of course, is that even though The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, USA, 1941) remains one of the most iconic depictions of San Francisco in all of cinema, none of it was actually shot in the city.  Rather, the depiction of the city was constructed through stock footage and sophisticated studio shooting in and around Los Angeles (it has been widely noted, for example, that in the scene of the pier “LAFD” can be clearly seen on the firemen’s helmets).

But what Huston’s film lacks in authenticity is compensated through what Nathaniel Rich characterizes as an “extraordinary, even obsessive, attention to the city’s geography,” and indeed, the film goes to great lengths to always remind the viewer of the narrative’s intimate involvement within the labyrinthine streets, alleyways, and shadowy corners of the city.

introducing visions of a city

Fandor‘s selection of Larry Jordan’s luminous Visions of a City (USA, 1978) as one of its “Featured Films of the Week” reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to start on this blog for a while now: a semi-regular series of posts showcasing cinematic San Francisco.  And what better name could there possibly be for such a series than the title of Jordan’s own film?

As the emphasis is on visual representation, I don’t usually intend these posts to contain reviews, but a few contextual notes seemed called for in this particular case.  Visions of a City is comprised of footage shot in 1957 but not edited until 1978, for in Jordan’s own words: “I found that it was one of those rare films that I have always deplored the scarcity of: documents of how it really looked in a certain place in a certain year.”  It is also serves as what he calls a “filmic portait” of the poet Michael McClure as a young man.

By focusing his camera on reflective surfaces such as windows, mirrors, and even bottles and car bumpers, Jordan captures glimpses of a vibrant cityscape that become layered in complex and strikingly beautiful ways that resemble dissolves.  San Francisco, then, is at once represented as simultaneously a tangible location and a fleeting, dreamlike mirage.  And the screen captures presented below hardly do justice to the film, as it is often in the intricate camera movement that the true wonder of Jordan’s images are revealed, so check out the entire film–it’s a painless and rewarding 6 minutes–either on Fandor or Ubu Web.

dodging definitions

Though overall I didn’t respond to By Hook or By Crook (Harry Dodge and Silas Howard, USA, 2001) nearly as much as I was hoping or expecting to, it’s indeed an important film in its own way and just about the only film I can think of that allows the main characters not only occupy an ambiguous space in regards to both gender and sexuality, but also has a narrative that shows no interest in forcing or demanding distinctions be made.  Which on paper it may not sound particularly notable, but experiencing it through the film often feels nothing less than radical.  One need only think of the other films dealing with transgender characters, such as Boys Don’t Cry, whose “big reveal” to substantiate biological gender for other characters and the audience serve as climactic moments.  By Hook or By Crook interests lie decidedly elsewhere, and the film is all the more interesting because of it.

Also adding to the charm, for me, was its local production which showcases sides of the city that don’t often get glimpsed on film, particularly the Mission District (depicted as some kind of genderqueer oasis) and the Lex (that is, the Lexington Club, the city’s most famous lesbian bar) with nary a glimpse of the stereotypical SF–the Golden Gate Bridge, a streetcar, the Seven Sisters–to be found.  But not only is it an alternative view of the city but practically an alternative universe in and of itself—one of the most insightful observations of the film I’ve come across is how within the film it’s the non-queer world that is depicted as skewed and bizarrely unnatural.

The film is clearly a labor of love for Silas Howard and Harry Dodge, the non-filmmakers who wrote, directed, raised the funds for and then starred in the film, and represents a kind of post-New Queer Cinema return to no-budget independent filmmaking, and it’s ramshackle, “do it yourself” quality is certainly a massive part of its power and its charm.

boarding school erotics: “olivia” and “mädchen in uniform”

This post is a contribution to the Queer Film Blogathon, hosted by Garbo Laughs.

During the last few months I have had the opportunity to see two films rather striking in their many similarities.  Both Mädchen in Uniform (Leontine Sagan, Germany, 1931) and Olivia (The Pit of Loneliness) (Jacqueline Audry, France, 1951) are films set in the all-female world of exclusive boarding schools and feature emotionally charged teacher/student pairings with unmistakable erotic dimensions.  Also notable is that both are directed by female directors, a rarity in both Germany and France at the time.  And, unfortunately, they have also suffered similar fates: both have been difficult to find on home viewing formats in the United States, as those who have held the American rights to both films have resisted the lesbian element of the films and for many years refused to allow them to be shown in the context of female and/or queer film festivals. Aside from making what are interesting and important films difficult to see, the historical repression of both of these films have the lamentable effect of making the cinematic representation of lesbianism and lesbian desire in the past appear even more marginal than it already does.

 

Of the two films, Mädchen is the more recognizable, remaining a generally well-known film despite being relatively little-seen—no history of queer film is complete without establishing the influence of Sagan’s ground-breaking film.  Helping matters is that it is a cinematic masterpiece and has generally been considered from the very beginning (the film is included, for example, in Lotte Eisner’s seminal The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema).  As such, I will primarily focus the rest of this post on Audry’s Olivia, and use Mädchen as a more well-known point of reference and comparison (for those interested in reading more on the film, I recommend two other posts on the film that have been included in this Blogathon—see them here and here).

I got the opportunity to see Olivia, released in America under the inexplicable title The Pit of Loneliness recently as part of a series hosted by San Francisco’s Frameline Film Festival, the longest running and largest LGBT film festival in the world (it concluded its 35th festival yesterday).  Sponsored by the library system, it featured free screenings of several films from the organization’s archives.  It was, unfortunately, a less-than-ideal circumstance: though Frameline owns a supposedly gorgeous 35mm print of the film that was acquired when it was given a retrospective screening at the festival a number of years ago, what we saw was a DVD dupe made from a VHS dupe of the film, and it did the sumptuous black and white cinematography no favors.  And between the sparse white-on-white subtitles, less-than-ideal audio quality and my elementary grasp on conversational French I’m sure that I missed a number of nuances and subtleties (especially as it’s one of those French chamber pieces where everyone talks and talks and talks…).

That said, a rare screening of a rare film is always something to treasure, and I’ll just hope I get to see the film again someday under more ideal circumstances.  Because what I did see and was able to catch was fascinating, not only in its similarities to Mädchen, which it very much resembles in a very general sense, but in the many differences between the two films.  In some ways the two films could be considered the flipside of the same coin, each serving as a counterpoint of sorts for the other.  It is this dynamic I’d like to tease out in the rest of this post.

As previously mentioned, director Jacqueline Audry is probably the most well-known of the several female directors who made films in France after the heady avant-garde years of the 1920’s and Agnès Varda appeared on the film scene in the late 50’s.  She is most remembered for the three Colette adaptations she directed in the 1940’s and 50’s, particularly the non-musical first version of Gigi (1949).  Though it is commonly assumed that Olivia is also Colette adaptation, as pointed out by queer film historian and Frameline’s curator Jenni Olson, the film is actually an adaptation of a novel by Audry’s sister Colette Audry, a well-known writer in her own right, and the enterprising American distributor simply lopped off the author’s last name to try and capitalize on the director’s previous association with the eminent French Modernist writer (ingenious from a marketing standpoint, but confusing!).  The story, which is believed to have some autobiographical resonances, revolves around the titular character arriving at a French all-girls finishing school run by two elegant headmistresses, Mlle. Julie (played by celebrated French stage actress Edwige Feuillère) and Mlle. Clara (Simone Simon, famous for films made on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly Cat People).  As Olivia is almost immediately informed by one of her classmates, the student body is divided into two camps: those devoted to Mlle. Julie  and those to Mlle. Clara.

Olivia at first becomes enamored with the former after aiding in a number of nighttime rituals including combing her hair, fanning her tenderly, etc (“keep making a fuss of me, I love it!” she purrs to the clearly adoring young girls).

The seductive if playful undertone to Mlle. Clara’s voice is the first indication of what exactly the affection of the student body might entail.  But after being moved by one of the nightly recitations of a Racine play, Olivia catches her instructor’s eye and she quickly establishes herself as Mlle. Julie’s favorite pupil.  The admiration quickly begins to take on a more amorous dimension, which becomes obvious after Laura, Julie’s past favorite, reappears at the school.  Despite befriending Laura, Olivia can’t help but feel competitive for their teacher’s attention, and Olivia even attempts to ask Laura to help her define her feelings for Mlle. Julie.  “Do you love her?” she asks Laura, who doesn’t seem to catch the true nature of the question, and responds that she owes everything to the headmistress.  Olivia tries again: “doesn’t your heart beat when she’s with you, or stand still when she touches your hand?”  Laura, seeming now to comprehend, definitively says no, stating “I just love her.  There is nothing else,” and promptly leaves the room.

The plot thickens as it becomes clear that beneath the antagonism of the two headmistresses is a once-intimate relationship of an unspecified nature between the two that at some point soured.  It all comes to a head during the annual Christmas party—complete with Mädchen-style male drag by the students—that Mlle. Julie promises to stop by her room later that night(!).  At this point it is made explicit that this is not merely some one-sided schoolgirl infatuation of Olivia’s but that there are some kind of mutual feelings involved, which is emphasized by Mlle. Julie’s unexpected decision to leave the school, as it is the “best thing to do.”

This underscores one of the major differences between Olivia and Mädchen: though there are many parallels to draw between the relationship that springs up between student and teacher, there’s a very profound difference in the fact that it is not just one of the teachers, but the headmistress—that is, the person in charge—that is experiencing these feelings.  Instead of the antagonistic dynamic of Mädchen which creates a “they just don’t understand the nature of our love!,” us-versus-them storyline, Olivia becomes more about the walls of the boarding school potentially functioning as a haven-like space for lesbian feelings and desires apart from the world, something Mlle. Julie sternly warns Olivia of in the climatic sequence.  Mlle. Julie seems aware that there might be potential for sustaining a lesbian relationships in this cloistered, isolated setting—as it might have indeed done for Mlles. Julie and Clara at one point—but the reality is that the world outside brutally refuses such things (“and what if you are defeated, Olivia?” Mlle. Julie evocatively but elusively muses at the end of the film, not specifying as to what exactly she is speaking of).

The entire mise-en-scène of the film seems to underline this crucial different between Olivia and Mädchen—where the boarding school of the latter is composed of harsh, hard angles to visually emphasize the militaristic, almost tyrannical nature of the school, the boarding school of the former is soft, embracing and marked by graceful curves echoed by the languid camera pans.  This is seen most prominently in the staircases that feature prominently in both films: where Mädchen‘s central staircase is composed of sharp right angles and tightly tiered like the nightmarish staircase straight out of Vertigo, the central staircase in Olivia serves not only as a central meeting place for the school, but the showcase for its elegant headmistress, who is introduced in the film as ascending from upstairs into a twittering nest of fawning students.

Clearly, both Olivia and Mädchen in Uniform are incredibly important films that deserve to be more widely released and seen, and taken together, function as two complimentary but in many ways different takes on the possibility of love and desire between women in pre-Stonewall cinema.

This post is in contribution to the Queer Film Blogathon, June 2011.