7 Rad Queer Women Characters of Black and White Cinema

If you’ve watched any classic film in which queer characters appear, it would likely have been the wicked Mrs. Danvers’s obsession with the late Mrs. DeWinter in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, the inaccurate biopic on Christina of Sweden starring the queer Greta Garbo; Queen Christina; or 1930’s Morocco, in which a tuxedo-clad Marlene Dietrich swoops in and hands a rose to a beautiful woman, inciting a jealous fit. Those characters are all still either heavily closeted or in different-sex relationships, though, which can lead them to being somewhat unsatisfactory for queer audiences. The biggest problem with Morocco is that the reason we all watch it happens in the first 15 minutes of the movie. You know not a single LGBT person in the whole universe gave half a damn about the movie-long romance with Gary Cooper after that famous drag scene, and the rest of the movie seems a little redundant. Also, while Queen Christina is worth watching, the queer “moment” of the film is a millisecond long kiss between her and her “handmaiden.” Not a lot going on, there. Or, in another extreme, we have 1961’s The Children’s Hour starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine, which, while classic and a must-watch in queer cinema, is definitely a little too overwrought and self-shaming to actively enjoy, and which is intrinsically more about the hazards of small town gossip than it is about two women living gay and proud.

Classic Hollywood 101 requires the background knowledge that film studios were policed by an apparently insane censorship board known as the Hayes Office. Quite a far cry from today’s Hollywood, when film studios are policed by an apparently insane censorship board called something else. Gay people were pretty much the definition of what unsettled Nuclear Family style America. Homosexuality was actually considered a treatable mental illness until 1974, as well as being exceptionally criminalized during the McCarthy era via a series of forever unsettling anti-gay propaganda. So, as you might imagine, there are not a whole lot of queer moments in cinema history.

THERE ARE A FEW, THOUGH. So, let’s talk about some of my lesser known favorites.


Anne Baxter and Barbara Bates in a scene from the movie 'All about Eve'

Anne Baxter and Barbara Bates in a scene from All about Eve

Eve Harrington, All About Eve – 1950

The Story: The main character of the film is actually not Eve at all, but rather Margot Channing, a popular actress turning 40 and fearing the end of her career, played flawlessly by Bette Davis. At the start, we are introduced to the characters, who are all at an awards cerimony, grumbling at the praise being heaped upon the villain of our story, Eve Harrington. I mean, Eeeeeeve HARRington, who, in the flashback that is the majority of the movie, shows a bizarre interest in Margot, and quickly becomes her assistant and confidante. By the time anyone realizes how weird Eve’s obsession with Margot is, it’s already too late.

This Character is Obviously Queer Because: There’s so much going on here that the queerness of Eve Harrington is nearly buried in the countless details that make this a universally beloved film. While she has an apparent “boyfriend” for a small portion of the story, she is obviously his beard, and that is a lavender couple if I’ve ever seen one (he refers to his attraction to Eve as “the height of improbability.”) An often forgotten element of the ending involves Eve inviting a woman to stay the night with her. They can’t come right out and call her queer, but lez be honest, the implication is there.

The Downside: There is no downside. This movie is widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest films ever made. Trying to wedge a criticism in is pretty much impossible, so I’ll take a pass. My only critique would be that I wish they had made a sequel in which we really do find out all about Eve, or that maybe this movie could have been 18 hours long instead of 2.


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Amy is soooooo gay.

Amy North, Young Man with a Horn – 1950

The Story: Handily the title, Young Man with a Horn, also doubles as the plot of this movie. Kirk Douglas plays Ricky Martin (WHAT), a romanticized version of jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke (oh.) He wanders around playing a horn for a while. It’s… pretty exciting, I’ll tell you that. Lauren Bacall comes in out of nowhere after the most boring 20 minutes in cinematic history, and she is fabulous enough that I forgive everything. She marries “Ricky Martin” because… I don’t know why? She’s drunk, or trying to prove a point, or something? There’s some problems with their relationship, though. The biggest problem is that she breaks up with him to move to Paris with her new girlfriend. NICE! I don’t even know why this guy is surprised, but he is. “Rick” becomes an alcoholic, “driven to it” by Amy (SIGH). Rick is drunk for a while, and then ends up dating Doris Day. That’s not a joke, actual Doris Day was just hanging out off to the side while all this was going on.

This Character is Obviously Queer Because: Announcing to move to Paris with a babely lady artist is not even subtle 50’s code for lesbianism, that’s being like, “Bro, I’m a straight up a lez.” Furthermore, I love how condescending Amy is to every other person in this movie. For instance, she refers to Day’s character with an amused side glance as, “so terribly normal.” Lauren Bacall is over-the-top incredible in this role, and while the crew was clearly trying to make Amy the villain by criminalizing her queer traits and chalking up her interest in women to penis envy… oh, I’m sorry, I mean, “horn” envy… she is a character ahead of her time, and inhabits a place in cinema far above the general quality of this film.

The Downside: My love for Amy North exists in direct opposition for my disdain for pretty much every other character in this movie, and none is worse than our hero, Ricky Martin. If you’ve ever been wondering what the patriarchy looks like, you have but to gaze into the eyes of this Amy-shaming fool. I advise you to fast forward through his parts, because it is mostly him blaming Amy for every single thing that happens. Who needs that, am I right? Definitely not Amy, who bounced like 30 minutes ago. Finally, I imagine it’s not super surprising for anyone to read that this movie about jazz that focuses primarily on white people is problematic in the way it portrays people of color, but, needlessly to say, there are issues. Seriously, only watch the Amy parts.


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Nope. No kissing happening here.

Countess Marya Zaleska, Dracula’s Daughter – 1936

The Story: First off, the Countess is the first vampire in film to seek a cure for her vampirism. Previous vampires of film were pretty okay with being vampires, but not the Countess. She tries not to be a vampire for a good 4 and 1/2 minutes, here. She… doesn’t really try that hard. BUT, STILL. Secondly, Countess Marya Zaleska is also the first lesbian vampire in film, to be followed by HUNDREDS more in the following years. Isn’t that exciting that the first lesbian vampire is also the first neurotic vampire? The origin of lesbian vampires in popular fiction is in the novella Carmilla, penned by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu in 1871. Here’s the plot: a blonde girl is seduced by a brunette, everyone finds out the brunette is a vampire, some bros show up out of nowhere to murder her with a phallic object. You might remember this plot from every lesbian vampire movie ever made, ever. Since 1871, the whole world has failed to come up with a story other than “seduces blonde, is killed” for lesbian vampires.

This Character is Obviously Queer Because: Hilariously, the censors felt that all hints of lesbianism had actually been removed from this film, which is part of why it’s so delightful to watch the Countess gay it up all across the screen. What I like about Countess Marya Zaleska is her hopefulness, and her desire to break an unhealthy cycle, while all the men in her life are busy telling her that she’s cursed. It might not work out, but she tries. I also appreciate her weird, dry jokes. Overall, this movie is a campy horror film from the black and white era, and worth watching for its place in both horror and LGBT history.

The Downside: Lesbian vampire movies and some other vampire-themed medias tend to echo the belief that homosexuality is an illness by directly drawing comparisons between vampirism and homosexuality. Do these people know that lesbians and vampires are not the same thing? Because it comes off like they catch the persecution theme common to both gays and vampires, but like they maybe miss the part where gay people aren’t undead killers that actually deserve to be persecuted. Scientific studies show that very few gay people feed on blood to survive. Be that as it gay, what I’m getting at here is that being a vampire is a legitimately criminal activity and very scary, and therefore showing one of the first on-screen lesbians in American film as a killer with serious consent issues didn’t do the queer community any favors. The scenes of implied lesbianism are both violent, one with the Countess advancing on a victim as she begs her not to, and second, an interesting scene where she actively DOESN’T kiss a woman, rather hovering over her with their lips nearly touching for several seconds. Well, no means no, Countess, and you’ve got to be stopped, but in a gentler world, maybe you could have just asked those girls out instead of, you know, killing them. And that’s the difference between gay people and vampires.


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It would have been love, except Eleanor is a homophobe.

Theo, The Haunting – 1963

The Story: The film kicks off with your standard 60s horror film narration telling us about all of the horrible things that have gone down at Hill House, mostly that some dude’s wives all died there, died there, died there. Eleanor and a small group of psychically sensitive folks are paid by some whackadoo millionaire to stay in the house even though it’s a totally scary there. Mm-hm. Since we don’t really super care about any of that for the purpose of this article, though, let me describe Theo to you. First, the look. They gave actor Claire Bloom her own individual costume designer to ensure she would come across as the most hip and bohemian of the group. AND SHE DOES. Secondly, she puts the moves on the main character Eleanor, who is suffering a nervous breakdown brought on by the fact that she’s trapped in a ghosty murder house. Theo doesn’t even care, and is basically just like, “You scared, girl? You can come sleep in my bed.” She is that amazing. Also, she is the genius who is like, “You know, we should actually just leave this house, really, if you think about it,” when everyone else is like, “Oh, no, I think we should inexplicably stay, and die here, die here, die here.”

This Character is Obviously Queer Because: Look, they are not trying to hide it. Theo gets really sensual towards Eleanor more than once, and the insinuation is that she lives with her girlfriend, or did until recently. In an extremely bratty moment, Eleanor even calls Theo unnatural. Speaking of genius moments in this film, one that no one brings up is the talkative Theo’s lack of verbal response to Eleanor’s homophobic outburst. It’s a profound moment that perfectly conveys what homophobia feels like using only the anger in one person’s face and the total absence of hostility in the other. Then, ghost stuff happens, so it never gets super resolved, but I’m just saying, it’s out there.

The Downside: This is a solid 60s horror film, well-shot and well-played. It was re-made in 1999, where the introduction of Theo involved immediately announcing her as a flaky artist and bisexual in a relationship with both a woman and a man that “hate each other.” I question that there were no such changes made to the straight characters, and viewers certainly aren’t given an overview of their sexualities within the first 3 minutes of their time onscreen. Also, this change has no relevance to the plot, other than suddenly Theo’s character is written as the most annoying person on earth. The original Theo’s subtle-yet-obvious lesbianism played an important part in the film, while the 1999 re-envisioning of Theo comes across as a flippant, trend-hopping sexual tourist. I find the stereotypes of her character equally offensive to artists, bisexuals, pansexuals, lesbians, feminists, Catherine Zeta-Jones, the original Theo, the writers that created Theo, and to fans of storytelling, in general. I also criticize the remake for being politically and structurally regressive to a movie that was made 33 years prior. Basically, the worst thing about this movie is that the remake was terrible.


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Cutest maybe couple ever.

The Manager, Borderline – 1930

The Story: This movie is a real hidden gem. The cast is a hip collection of writers and activists, including Paul Robeson, Hilda Doolittle, and Bryher, and it deals with unfortunately still topical issues of race and relationships. The names of the characters in the film are vague, so the purpose of this article, we’re going to call Bryher the Manager. More or less, there’s a lot of drama going on about an interracial affair, which is a problem for some characters in this movie. It all goes down in more ways than one in a hotel run by the Manager, who is definitely the most delightful character. This is not to discredit the more morose story lines of Paul and Alda Robeson, whose real-life marriage had hit rocky times due to affairs prior to filming Borderline, leading to 2 roles played obviously close to home. Paul Robeson was also a theater star of this time, known for his acting as much for his stance against oppression, and who was blacklisted throughout the McCarthy era.

This Character is Obviously Queer Because: The Manager is a butch woman who is goodnatured and possibly even heroic in the context of the story. This character is unfortunately a rarity in film, where butch women are often invisible. There is no clear romantic interest for her, but it’s implied that she’s in an open relationship with the bartender, played by a charmingly rowdy Charlotte Arthur. This would be true to life for Bryher herself, who was in an open relationship with H.D. until her death in 1961.

The Downside: This is honestly a really dark film, so don’t go watching it thinking it’s going to be smooth sailing just because it’s 1930. It’s more about race issues than it is about any of the individual characters, which is part of what makes it incredible, but of course, it could be difficult to emotionally process for someone seeking light entertainment. For me, all of that just makes a good thing even better, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.


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Manuela, Madchen in Uniform – 1931

The Story: 14 year old Manuela’s mother dies, and she is placed in a boarding school that is run by a severe headmistress with a seriously weird interest in being overly strict to teen girls. Manuela crushes out hard on her teacher, Miss Von Bernberg, who is sympathetic, flattered, and mostly troubled by Manuela’s interest in her. The untold back story in Miss Von Bernberg’s eyes could be a whole other movie, but she obviously recognizes the inappropriate nature of this schoolgirl crush, and attempts to combat it while still remaining the nicest person ever.

This Character is Obviously Queer Because: So, she plays Romeo in her school’s theater reproduction of “Romeo and Juliet,” and serenades her teacher in front of the entire school in a misguided attempt to win her love. Not a lot of subtlety going on there.

The Downside: The downside of this film, I would say, is the legacy of the “lesbian teacher sleeps with student” trope. Madchen in Uniform is adorable only because this teenager is so genuine in a crush that can never be realized, and which kind of sketches the teacher out. It’s about the way the world seeks to punish the misguided passion of youth much more than any relationship between the characters. In following years, films like Loving Annabelle, Bloomington, and Cracks have been made that detail teacher/student relationships that are at best emotionally abusive and at worst actually criminal. More or less, some filmmakers later ended up taking this story in the most wrong direction they could have. Madchen in Uniform, thankfully, is not about that.


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The Countess is pissed.

Countess Augusta Geschwitz, Pandora’s Box – 1929

The Story: Pandora’s Box is a classic for reasons that go well beyond this list, mostly because Louise Brooks was such a fascinating person, and so remains the perfect casting choice that made this somewhat absurd story not only believable but downright haunting. While the plot gets soap opera level convoluted as it goes along, it ultimately comes across as perfectly in compliance with the intensity of these characters. The general vibe is that Lulu is a young woman whose identity seems formed entirely around her own sexual power, which is used so haphazardly that it causes a domino effect, destroying the lives of the people close to her. The film has been re-cut a multitude of times, so the direction this all goes in is strongly related to who edited the film, so I couldn’t spoil this film if I tried, but the always impeccable Criterion Collection recently released a remastered edition that I highly recommend.

This Character is Obviously Queer Because: Several key moments in the plot are facilitated by Lulu’s interest in and manipulation of both men and women. For the purpose of this article in specific, the most important of these suitors would be Countess Augusta Geschwitz, who dances with Lulu lovingly, and then glares daggers at the man that cuts in a few moments later.

The Downside: The implications of a storyline in which a woman uses sex to get ahead and then is punished by a series of misfortunes is often quite legitimately a red flag for many feminists, and I agree that it should be. On the other hand, the character of Lulu is genuinely fascinating, and has caused audiences to marvel at her for now very close to 100 years, so it would be a mistake to think there’s nothing there.

Sara Century is a queer independent multimedia artist. Her work strongly informed by punk, comic books, pulp heroes, art house cinema, and the avant-garde, and you can follow her output at saracentury.wordpress.com, and/or watch her video podcast at youtube.com/andthatswhereyoulostme​.

Sara has written 2 articles for us.

27 Comments

  1. “Mädchen in Uniform” was a worldwide success at the time and coincidentally also a victim of the Nazi Book burnings in 1933 and is based on a true story and a book from 1910. The movie was believed to be lost for decades until a version resurfaced in Brazil in the early 2000’s.
    I know this, because I watched the very early restored version in an open air movie theater with my very first girlfriend in the summer of 2003 in a park in Berlin.
    Since rights to media in Germany diminish after 70 years, here’s the full version of the 1930’s movie complete with English subtitles on YT:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Bj1Z5Pd7vc
    and with Spanish subtitles:

    Also, there’s been a remake,which I love to pieces, stemming from the 1950’s featuring a dreamy Romy Schneider and Lilly Palmer. If you’ve seen the first movie, the headmistress might even look familiar.
    Here’s a clip:

    Try to get your hands on the entire film if you can!
    I must have seen this movie a dozen times already, and still, there’s a new nuance, something I haven’t seen before each and every time.
    It’s a masterclass in swooning!
    Actually, the entire girls boarding school’s got it bad for Fräulein von Bernburg (the teacher).Can’t blame them.

    Also a big old shout out to Mrs. Danvers.I wish I had a picture of my face when she went through Lady deWinter’s things.I know she’s a creep, but that scene is so unexpectedly sensual, kudos.

    Oh,and another thing:”A Nun’s Story” isn’t gay at all. However, it is based on a biography where the handsome doctor is notably absent. Actually, the author who wrote the book was the life partner of 40 years to said nun.
    Here’s the wikipedia entry to her: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Louise_Habetsn more now, even though it’s not officially gay.
    I always loved that movie, I do so eve

    Sorry for the epic post. I might have researched a lot of classic gay stuff when I first came out.And yet, I still missed “Young Man with a Horn”. Thank you for this article! Very greatly appreciated!

    • Lucky you! I didn’t even know there were open air movie theaters when I was in Berlin, though I did get to see a few LGBT-themed films at the Berlinale. Unfortunately they weren’t very memorable.

    • I remember checking out an old copy of Madchen in Uniform at my local Blockbuster in the late nineties. There may have been some scenes missing (that were recovered in the copy from Brazil), but it status as lost film probably ended a little earlier.

      Also Amidola, great story behind “A Nun’s Story,” but I’m afraid the link is spelled wrong. I had to take a quick look around Wikipedia to find “Mary Louise HABETS.”
      No big deal though, I make those mistakes all the time.

      BTW if you don’t mind me asking, where do you find that accent mark on a standard keyboard? The one above the A in Madchin. Of been wondering about this for years.

      Thanks for the great links.

  2. I adore both Mädchen in Uniform and Pandora’s Box. I actually came to know the latter through Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, but ended up liking German Expressionist cinema a lot more than twelve-tone music. Boy, I must have been one of the very few kids who discovered lesbianism via Berg in the 21st century.

  3. I love this list! I’ve only seen Madchen in Uniform so far, but happy to add these to my need to watch list. I’m an avid Katharine Hepburn fan, and I know that none of her characters are soo clearly lesbian, but many of them are soooo close if only they hadn’t unnecessarily added in a male “interest” that she is never really terribly interested in. Spitfire and Sylvia Scarlett in particular feel the queerest to me, Holiday a little bit. In most of Sylvia Scarlett Hepburn is cross dressing in order to pass as male, while the movie isn’t the most interesting plot wise, it is still fantastic in my opinion.

    • I’m so sad I missed the queerness of The Haunting when I saw with my mum. I think I was eleven or so, and I could have really used a bit more queerness in my cinematic world. Well, well, I’m making up for it now!

      As for movies not on this list: I don’t remember if The Children’s Hour was amazing or awful, but I do have a framed picture of Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine in my bookshelf… So I’m just going to pretend it was a great love story.

  4. I was pretty delighted at Noir City last year to see Quai des Orfèvres (also released as Jenny Lamour), which features a very sympathetic lesbian photographer played by the gorgeous Simone Renant. I think it’s out on Criterion.

    I adore Noir City, but you know how it goes. Noir doesn’t typically end well for anybody, let alone the queer characters. Even with the silently-in-love-with-the-straight-girl trope, this was a nice change, in no little part because it’s acknowledged onscreen by another character.

  5. 1. All About Eve is oft touted as the best screenplay ever written, so if you haven’t seen it, get to that right start now.
    2. Rebecca is my all time favorite movie. Fun fact, the studio wanted to censor it, only Hitchcock flat out ignored their requests to censor out the lesbian undertones (overtones?). It is censored in another way, however, but for the most part the film follows the (fantastic and chilling Gothic horror) novel almost word for word and shot for shot, except for the aforementioned censorship, and a couple of details. They also had some trouble casting the unnamed narrator, but ended up with Joan Fontaine in her breakout role. They even asked her sister, Olivia de Havilland, to audition, but she refused when she heard Joan had also been asked (they hated one another).

  6. I LOVE “The Haunting.” The camera angles alone make it well worth watching. I look for Theo.in every girl I crush on. Sigh.
    On another note, as someone who falls asleep to TCM almost nightly, I’m miffed at myself for not having seen more of these.

  7. This list is SO relevant to my interests right now. You know those 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die books? Well, my mom got me one of those for my birthday in March and because I’m ridiculous, I’ve decided to watch all of them in chronological order. And because I’m a total masochist, I’ve already added a bunch of extra movies to the list. And all of these (except Borderline) were on my list! But I’ll be adding Borderline as well so thanks for that! <3

  8. Oh Sara, congratulations on your witty first article and your wonderful choice of subject. As someone who got through high school seeking out classic movies I should have written to compliment you sooner, but I feared going over board on my favorite subject as usual. I’ve seen most of these and will just try to add a brief observation on each:

    All About Eve: Brillant dialogue and while the performances are a little old hollywood most of have the right amount of zest to make the material work. It’s odd to think the aside from than newcomer Marilyn Monroe not of these actors would got to make a movie quite so stellar.

    Young Man with a Horn: I admit that Lauren Bacall’s performance is probably the best thing about it. The plot is a pretty standard rise, full, and comeback of a trouble artist. However, I didn’t find the portrayal of black characters to be (as you say) problematic. There’s nothing really stereotypical about them, but they don’t really contribute much to the story either. The real problem is we don’t really she what Ricky learned from the black musicians he plays with. They’re just there.

    Dracula’s Daughter: Terrific moody, ahead-of-it’s time Universal horror. One of the few well done sequels in there horror canon. I found no other vampire picture with lesbian overtones till Blood and Roses in 1960.

    The Haunting: One of the finest examples of psychological horror that makes the supernatural seem subtly real. Still possible the real haunting comes from personal demons the characters bring to the house rather than the house itself. Something the remake, sadly ignored. Focus is on Eleanor yes, but I could see how the other characters bring there own mental baggages is well, so there inner tension feeds on each other. At that’s another way to look at it.

    Borderline: The only was I haven’t seen, though I was aware of it. Seems very abstract from the looks of it. Very bold for it’s time given the subject matter. Always amusing to find poets took a chance on experimental film even in the early days is cinema.

    Machian in Uniform: Much imitated story, yet still one a kind. Some of that has to do with the period of course, but I still wish some modern filmmaker could approach to troublesome subject matter with a similar delicacy.

    Pandora’s Box: Like much silent melodrama, the loose story is a tough sell. For all it’s elegance, probably wouldn’t work so well today if Louise Brooks didn’t seem to have some much fun with the willfully scandalous role. The other actors are fine, but she really makes the movie a classic.

  9. Haha, I totally pulled a Manuela (from Mädchen in Uniform) when I was a sophomore in high school and played the part of Romeo for a class project. It was awesome… right up until we presented the video and the chick who had played Juliet in my group laughed and put out a disclaimer that there was “No lesbian activity in the making of this film.” And my closeted little ass just stood there like, ‘ok’

  10. “First, the look. They gave actor Claire Bloom her own individual costume designer to ensure she would come across as the most hip and bohemian of the group.”

    Claire Bloom’s costumes were designed by Mary Quant! Of course, they were hip.

  11. Shout out to Barbara Stanwyck as lesbian brothel madam Jo in “Walk on the Wild Side!” Is it a problematic and negative portrayal? Oh fuck yes it is. Is Jo SO GAY IT HURTS? Also yes. And it’s beautiful.

  12. Katherine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett (1935). It’s a comedy and also suffers from the same plight that all movies from that era suffer from, which is that she fawns over a man. It’s worth it however for her acting and drag

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