The First On-Screen Kiss Was Between Two Women

The entire history of people kissing on-screen stems from two women locking lips.

In 1882, director Eadweard Muybridge brought physical intimacy to this nascent artform with his short, The Kiss. A pair of naked women reach out to shake hands and then (GASP!) they kiss. At the time, this short was just another example of Muybridge utilizing then-groundbreak photography/cinematic technology in the service of capturing rudimentary human behavior. Just look at fellow Muybridge directorial efforts like Sallie Gardner at a Gallop (depicting a man riding atop a horse) or Woman Jumping From Rock to Rock (which does exactly what it says on the tin). However, The Kiss’s focus on two ladies pecking gave it extra historical significance as the first-ever cinematic depiction of kissing.

Every single movie kiss since then has strolled in the footsteps of The Kiss. The beachside moments in From Here to Eternity and Moonlight? Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor making out as Zendaya watches in Challengers? That rainy kiss in The Notebook? They all owe everything to a couple of lesbos in the 1880s. (Or, at least, very good friends.) And The Kiss was only the beginning. Other vintage cinema examples of women kissing continued on for decades.

The modern-day right-wing talking point of queerness/transness being “a new fad” is, of course, nonsense. There are countless historical examples one can point to proving that queer sexuality and gender nonconformity have existed forever. Just look at cinema before the restrictive Hays Code was enforced. As early as 1918, comedy cinema legend Ernst Lubitsch helmed gender-bending comedies like I Don’t Want to Be a Man. Such titles were subverting standards for “proper” roles for ladies and gents and carried unmistakable queer overtones in their challenging of gender norms and portrayal of queer attraction.

Silent cinema queen Greta Garbo kissed multiple women in the early years of her career. The most famous of these came in the 1933 film Queen Christina when Garbo’s Queen of Sweden planted a kiss on the lips of Countess Ebba Sparre (Elizabeth Young). A year later she kissed Cecilia Parker in the less well known film The Painted Veil. Imagine how many more women Garbo might’ve kissed without the Production Code!

And it wasn’t just Garbo. Of course, most of these early cinema portrayals of women kissing weren’t explicitly lesbian. However, the act of women kissing could at least be rendered on-screen. Just look at Olga Baclanova kissing a lady in the 1928 feature The Docks of New York. Then there’s a pivotal emotional moment between characters played by Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins in The Smiling Lieutenant. Their big farewell moment is punctuated with the duo kissing each other on the lips. This act is somewhat obscured by a very precise tilt of Colbert’s head. But one would have to be a fool not to know what’s going on, especially with their very intimate body language.

The 1925 feature Lady of the Night also featured a chaste example of women kissing on the lips. This particular act of physicality reflected why these moments could slip into pre-Code films. Women were often stereotypically thought of as being “more intimate” with each other. Two women kissing didn’t necessarily indicate a romantic context for more conservative viewers. Acts that today read as explicitly queer, could take on an “innocent” vibe that made it to the big screen.

However, not all of these instances of women kissing went by without controversy, even in the pre-Code era. The most famous kiss between women in classic pre-Code cinema emerged in the Marlene Dietrich motion picture Morocco. This Josef von Sternberg production featured Dietrich as Mademoiselle Amy Jolly performing for a crowd in traditionally male attire. While waltzing around in this get-up, Jolly plants a kiss on a lady audience member.

Two women explicitly kissing on the lips as part of a seduction in a 1930 movie is so striking that any heterosexual connotations in the movie’s main plot melt away. Dietrich, being queer in real-life, lends a rebelliousness to this display of physical intimacy. Here, Dietrich is engaging in the sort of intimacy that most Western societies prohibited at the dawn of the 1930s. Couching queer behavior in heterosexual narrative purposes was the only way for moviegoers to see a key slice of the “real” Dietrich. Like the greatest queer artists, Dietrich took the artistic standards of the day, crumpled them up, and tossed them in the trash. No wonder that Morocco sequence is still sizzling nearly a century later.

This scene from Morocco and Dietrich’s fashion inspired a fervor of controversy. Outcries over Hollywood promoting “immortality” and lewdness prompted the creation of the Production Code and the already scarce depictions of queerness in American cinema became even rarer. Occasionally a movie like Sylvia Scarlett could sneak in a kiss between two gals. However, it would have to be immediately followed up by one of the women participants recoiling in horror and going, “What’d ya go and do that for?!?” That same film featured Katharine Hepburn as a girl breaking gender boundaries to pose as a dude for monetary purposes. Sylvia Scarlett’s more risqué moments were a last gasp of queerness from a soon-to-be bygone era.

Depictions of queer women largely vanished from American and even most world cinema after the mid-1930s. (Sweden provides a notable exception with films like Thirst and Girl with Hyacinths.) Occasional allegorically lesbian characters — defined by broad stereotypes existing to inspire mocking laughter from audiences — crept into the margins of certain motion pictures. Much like similar caricatured gay male characters, queerness existed in subtext and with scorn.It wasn’t until 1961’s The Children’s Hour, that lesbianism would explicitly return to American cinema. And, even then, a tragic end was required.

That makes it all the more glorious to appreciate the early rebellious forms of women kissing in vintage cinema. These depictions of queer gal joy (even if by accident) offer a glimpse at an alternate version of Hollywood. Imagine if American cinema in the 20th century had built on the visual language of these women, instead of ignoring this act for decades. These instances of physical connection between women on-screen are also extra enjoyable since they’re a rare way alleged — and not-so-alleged — queer folks like Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and others could put parts of themselves on-screen. These movies now function as time capsules of their identity society tried to erase.

Pride Month is as much about appreciating queer history as it is about advocating for queer liberation in the here-and-now. Appreciate these first lesbian kisses in cinema and join me in wishing a happy Pride to the two women in 1882 who changed film history forever.

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Lisa Laman

Lisa Laman is a life-long movie fan, writer, and Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic located both on the autism spectrum and in Texas. Given that her first word was "Disney", Lisa Laman was "doomed" from the start to be a film geek! In addition to writing feature columns and reviews for Collider, her byline has been seen in outlets like Polygon, The Mary Sue, Fangoria, The Spool, and ScarleTeen. She has also presented original essays related to the world of cinema at multiple academic conferences, been a featured guest on a BBC podcast, and interviewed artists ranging from Anna Kerrigan to Mark Wahlberg. When she isn’t writing, Lisa loves karaoke, chips & queso, and rambling about Carly Rae Jepsen with friends.

Lisa has written 9 articles for us.

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