Julian Eltinge and the Early Days of Drag

We like to imagine ourselves on a straight line moving forever forward, embracing different identities as the years go by and society becomes incrementally more progressive. But we actually go around and around in circles, sometimes taking steps forward alongside giant leaps back. And while many conservatives would like to paint drag queens as a thoroughly modern phenomenon of a so-called degenerate society, the truth is that they’ve been a thriving part of the entertainment community from the very beginning. Julian Eltinge was one of the most famous female impersonators of the early 20th century, charming audiences both on the New York stage and on film screens across the country during the nascent silent era. His contributions helped define an art form that today allows for self-expression beyond the constraints of traditional gender norms.

Julian Eltinge’s career as a female impersonator began early: He participated in the Boston Cadets Revue dressed as a girl at the age of 10, and while living in Butte, Montana as a teenager, he performed in women’s clothing to entertain ranchers and cowboys. When his father learned of this, he was punished soundly and shipped back to Boston, where he lived with his aunt and continued to study dance. As a young man, he performed as part of the Boston Bank Officers’ Association, which occasionally put on drag shows as part of a fundraising drive. From there, his reputation began to grow. 

Throughout the first decade of the 1900s, Eltinge dipped his toe into vaudeville, performing simply as “Eltinge” and creating an illusion of femininity so convincing that he would end his shows by taking off his wig, shocking audiences who were apparently unaware that they were actually watching a man in drag. A 1904 review in the Boston Globe summarized his unique talents, writing, “Eltinge has the grace and self-poise which a well-bred young woman naturally possesses and he never makes any of those ridiculous mistakes which give the man in woman’s clothes almost invariably ‘away’.” In 1906, he even performed in front of King Edward VII at Windsor Castle, after which the impressed monarch allegedly gifted him with an English bulldog. He had a wildly successful career in New York City, where he appeared in a string of popular musical comedies on Broadway, all written expressly to showcase his talents. By the mid-1910s, Eltinge was one of the highest paid actors in New York. Then he set his eye – as so many do – on Hollywood.

Eltinge had a brief but significant career in the early days of film, ultimately appearing in 14 different movies. In 1914, he made a splash with The Crinoline Girl and Cousin Lucy, both of which were adaptations of productions he had done on Broadway, capitalizing on the fame that followed him to the big screen. Three years later, he starred opposite Florence Vidor in the unfortunately lost film The Countess Charming, in which he plays a man who, desperate to rejoin his social circle after insulting the wrong family, poses as a wealthy countess. Interestingly enough, although the film was subject to edits from local censorship boards, it seems that elements of the plot dealing with petty crime and thievery drew more ire than anything to do with crossdressing.

His most fascinating film performance came in 1920, when he starred in An Adventuress. Eltinge plays a man who, in trying to overthrow the despotic leader of an island community, dresses up as a female participant in the coup. Although he is the star of the show, and much of the plot is built around his famous drag performance, An Adventuress is far better known now because of its two supporting actors: Rudolph Valentino and Virginia Rappe. Within a few years of Valentino’s appearance in this film, he became one of the most popular on-screen lotharios in Hollywood, his dark good looks and exotic charms casting a spell over audiences until his untimely death from sepsis following an operation at the age of 31. Rappe’s future was even more tragic: just a year after An Adventuress was released, she died under mysterious circumstances after attending a party with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. He was charged with murder, and though he was ultimately acquitted of any crime, questions remain as to his actual involvement in Rappe’s death.

Throughout the 1920s, Eltinge continued to split his time between live theater and Hollywood, making a few more movies (most capitalizing on his stage persona – if he had reservations about being typecast, they didn’t surface until later in his career). But by the end of the decade, his star began to fall for a variety of reasons. Ironically, the fact that his career suffered as he aged is mostly due to ; as a younger man, he was able to captivate audiences by presenting them with a vision of a beautiful woman in the bloom of her youth. As he reached his 40s, however, he experienced the same painful transition that his female colleagues of the same age were going through, fostered by the belief that middle-aged women are less compelling to audiences. And because he was a little older and heavier, his physique was no longer a match for the female body type that was in vogue in the 1920s, the thin and boyish flapper.

Throughout his career, he had been an object of fascination for curious audiences, more akin (in their minds, at least) to a magician than anything sexual in nature. This was likely aided by the fact that he maintained a hypermasculine public persona in his everyday life, successfully decoupling his performances of femininity from what viewers might be inclined to view as perversion. Because of this, he maintained a popular stage and screen act for decades without causing too much of a fuss for audiences who might otherwise object on moral grounds. The Los Angeles Times summed it up neatly in 1912, writing, “The Eltinge performance is different from all others in that it cannot possibly arouse distaste.” 

But by the time the Great Depression and the austere 1930s rolled around, his style of crossdressing (and vaudeville in general) were on a rapid decline. Although homosexual activity was not nationally decriminalized in the United States until 2003, the country has gone through specific periods where the LGBTQ community was more strictly policed than at other times in history – and the 1930s definitely represented an uptick in persecution, perhaps as a reaction against the more sexually liberated 1920s. Female impersonation became more stigmatized, seen as a perversion rather than a performance.

His last on-screen drag performance was in a 1931 Poverty Row production  called Maid to Order, which didn’t make  much of a splash with audiences. From there, Julian Eltinge struggled to maintain a foothold in a Hollywood that clearly didn’t know what to do with him. He was known exclusively for drag, but drag didn’t sell anymore – to say nothing of the fact that Eltinge himself was vocal about wanting to try his hand at roles that didn’t hinge on female impersonation. He got his wish in 1940 with his final film appearance in If I Had My Way, an otherwise forgettable Bing Crosby musical comedy in which Eltinge plays himself without any elements of drag.

Although Julian Eltinge’s career tapered off as female impersonation became less popular, he has nonetheless cemented his legacy within the art form. At one point, he was one of the highest paid actors in the entire world. He went on global tours performing to mesmerized audiences. He even had a theater named after him in New York City, honoring his artistic achievements. But more than anything, he represents the vibrancy and long history of drag as a unique brand of performance art both on stage and in film – one that has never been given the respect it deserves.

Audrey Fox is a Boston-based film critic whose work has appeared at Nerdist, Awards Circuit, We Live Entertainment, and We Are the Mutants, amongst others. She is an assistant editor at Jumpcut Online, where she also serves as co-host of the Jumpcast podcast. Audrey has been blessed by our film tomato overlords with their official seal of approval.

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