by CHARLIE PURCELL
In 1894, Thomas Edison’s New Jersey film studio made a sixteen-second movie showing a man playing the violin while two others danced in front of him. Edison and his partner, William Dickson, made the movie as a way to test the Kinetophone, a system that recorded picture and sound together! In 1894! Once again, Edison and his buddies were geniuses. The sound part of this footage was supposedly lost until 1998, when archivists matched the film strip with a differently named wax cylinder that had music recorded on it.
Clearly, this is a major stepping stone for cinema, and a fascinating look at one of the most important research facilities of all time. Our question, though: Does this count as the first gay film?
I mean, two men are dancing. For anyone who has seen the amazing documentary The Celluloid Closet, this footage should be familiar. (The doc, which talks about queer characters in American cinema, is bookended by this footage.) It would be awesome to think that the very first sound film was about gay men having a wholesome, good time. Kick-ass, right?
Unfortunately, this interpretation is more wishful thinking than anything else. All the men featured in the film (the dancers, the violinist, and a fourth guy who just walks on screen) were most likely workers at the all-male company. At one point, one of the men smiles, but for the most part, everyone’s expressions are basically blank. This looks like a bunch of guys doing their tech jobs. If there had been a woman there, she would’ve most likely been one of the two dancers. But there wasn’t. So two guys danced instead.
Moreover, there was less of a stigma about men dancing back then. In the late 1800s, “gay” didn’t have the same meaning, and the word “homosexual” wasn’t even invented yet. There were plenty of euphemisms, but Americans in general spent very little time pondering same-sex romantic attraction. Even the U.S. Army had all-male Stag Dances back then. It wasn’t romantic. People didn’t read into it the way that modern viewers would.
Despite the filmmakers’ intentions, though, the image is still important. Two men are dancing with each other in flickering black and white. Our generation may look at it in the “wrong” way in the modern world, but so what? Gay audiences have claimed plenty of movies that were not specifically made for them. Did the makers of The Wizard of Oz seek out to make something that queer audiences would rally behind? Nope.
So who’s to stop us from reaching way, way back and saying that, yeah, the first sound film is gay? It’s ours. We claim it.
Charlie Purcell is an American living and working on beautiful Zanzibar Island off the coast of Tanzania. When he’s not swimming or eating too much of the local food, he teaches English and drama at an international school. He’s a movie reviewer for Slickster Magazine, as well as the writer of several young adult adventure stories. For updates on his novels and short stories, visit ThisIsCharliePurcell.blogspot.com.