By Roshita Narasimhan
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 35th contest was LGBT History.
(CW: Use of outdated terms, in particular, transsexual (used instead of the correct term "transgender") and transvestite)
[Documentary interview, Viola Scarlet, recorded on tape]
DIRECTOR: Are we ready? Are you ready?
VIOLA SCARLET: Yes.
DIRECTOR: Alright, “Sexuality and Gender on Film” interview with transsexual actress and director Viola Scarlet. How are you?
SCARLET: Doing fine. [SIGH] California summer, you know.
DIRECTOR: Yeah, I know. I was raised here. Culver City.
DIRECTOR: No, my father was an areospace engineer for Hughes Air and Space Craft.
SCARLET: My father was an engineer, too.
D: That’s where I’d like to begin. Your childhood.
S: I was born in Nuremberg, the middle of 6 children, on February the 15th, 1921. My father was an engineer, and we moved around a lot depending on his job. He mostly specialized in toolmaking. My mother was a homemaker.
D: Did you have any inklings early on about your transsexualism?
S: Yes, but at the time, the signs weren’t that unusual. I would occasionally be forced to wear my sister’s hand-me-downs, and unlike my brother, I would not complain at all. I would also occasionally steal my sister’s books and make-up to practice on myself.
D: Were you aware of Dora Richter and her surgery at this time?
S: I was not aware until I read about second surgery, the vaginoplasty, around… 1933, I think, in the newspaper.
D: And you weren’t aware of the growing movement for homosexual and transsexual rights in Germany?
S: I was vaguely aware of the repeal of Paragraph 175 in 1929. My brother remembers it better. He told me it was actually very big news, and it got some of the rightists very angry. He recalled them protesting some gay cabaret club in Hamburg. I honestly don’t remember it while it was happening, but as I got more into the movement and met more people, I obviously saw its effect.
D: Let’s go further with that. When did you realize you were a transsexual and a lesbian?
S: There was no big epiphany moment, like you see in the movies nowadays. It was more gradual. I thought perhaps I was a transvestite. Then I read about Lili Elbe and Dora Richter, and especially when I saw Mädchen in Uniform.
D: That was the big homosexual film of the mid-Weimar period. That and Yours and Mine.
S: I was more into Mädchen in Uniform in all honesty, with its open lesbian relationship. At this point, I started to find that, in puberty, I had an odd relationship with women on screen. I loved them as women, but I also felt a ping of envy. I wanted to be a woman on screen, whether it was Fay Wray or especially Marlene Dietrich.
D: People have compared you to Dietrich.
S: What a compliment! (laughs) I always appreciate that, I modeled myself on her.
D: Interesting about Wray, since you’ve cited King Kong as an influence.
S: Mostly in its use of stop-motion and the prehistoric imagery it employed. The films of Aleksandr Ptushko were also coming to Germany from the Soviet Union around this time. I also had affinity for the films of Fritz Lang, especially the wonderful Woman in the Moon. That started my longtime fascination with science fiction.
D: When did you learn of Magnus Hirschfeld?
S: My family had settled into Berlin by the time I was 15, and I saw him speak at my high school. He discussed gender and sexuality in a way that finally clicked with me. I realized that I truly aligned myself more with women than I ever could with men. After a few weeks, I told my family.
D: What was their reaction?
S: Some concern and confusion, but overall support. My father took it upon himself to do research, and went to the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft. He met with Dr. Hirschfeld himself, and that’s how I was allowed to stay there at age 17.
D: You were one of the young transsexuals he studied at the Institute. That was when you finally started transitioning?
S: I started hormone therapy, and met many other transsexuals on the staff and those also receiving treatment. I was also given a transvestite pass. One of the last, in fact, before the laws against crossdressing were repealed. By the time I was 20 or 21, I was already living as a woman. I had my identity changed legally with Dr. Hirschfeld’s help. I went from “Will Rothenberg” to “Viola Scarlet”.
D: Any particular reason for the name?
S: Mostly from the Violet flowers, and the English word “scarlet”, which I personally liked the sound of
D: You also met some of Hirschfeld’s associates at the Institute
S: The ones that stood out to me were Willi Münzenberg, who introduced me to socialist writings, and Anita Berber, who introduced me to the local stage and theater scene.
D:You wanted to do movies?
S: For a while at that point. Once I could pass well, I started appearing as an extra in films. It was anonymous, and I don’t know how many I did that could still be found.
D: In one of these, you were eventually found by Richard Oswald.
S: I know that’s how the papers and the gossip columns eventually portrayed it years later, but truthfully, he had been an acquaintance of Dr. Hirschfeld for a while, since Different from Others, and we had seen each other at times. So, when he was casting for a new picture of his, he reached out to me, and arranged for my audition in “Our Loved Ones.”
D: This would be in 1940?
S: Yes, and I had a significant supporting role. Of course, they cast me as an unfortunate transsexual who would be abandoned, raped, and eventually, died, to provide motivation for our lead characters. A role I would perhaps not reprise today, but for the year 1940, a true revelation for those still uncomfortable with homosexuals and transsexuals.
D: “Our Loved Ones” became The Berlin Group and it became a great success.
S: Yes, I started getting more work because of that feature, and unfortunately in the same sorts of the roles. Always the transsexual, always a tragedy, always a supporting actor.
D: Even arguably your second most famous German role as “Ilsa” in My Girl.
S: Part of why I always resented that role. It was my biggest role at that point, and I still die at the very end. I’m still the tragic figure who only exists to motivate the male lead. I always hated that sort of role. I saw a film just a few weeks ago, Cowboy Joe, and the trope was still there! 30 years since, and they’re still getting these sorts of roles.
D: Cowboy Joe won the Academy Award.
S: Of course. They’re awful on this and many other issues.
D: I suppose.
S: Especially in casting a non-transsexual man in the role of the woman.
D: Anyway, you got to work with your favorite childhood director, Fritz Lang.
S: He saw My Girl, and was convinced that I was perfect for a new role he had planned. It was a follow-up to Metropolis, which would be partially a repudiation.
D: This was because his ex-wife, the original writer, was caught up in the scandal involving far-rightists in the film industry.
S: Partially. I think she fled to India by that time. I think he wanted to do something that wasn’t as “silly”.
D: Do you view Metropolis as silly?
S: No, and I never understood that perspective. (laughs). Anyway, with the backlash against rightists, he wanted to counter it with a film with a slightly left-leaning perspective.
D: And that’s how Iron Heights came into being?
S: Yes. It’s probably my favorite role from this period. It was a great role. The leader of a planetary resistance to a regime modeled on Italian fascism and Fordism, who recruits the lead and in the end, wins the war. I was sold upon reading the script. And the fact I was a transsexual was never brought up once.
D: A bit of a digression, but you received your surgery at that time.
S: It was one of the final times I visited the Institute. I tried to keep it discreet at that point, but I know it circulated in the tabloid press by that point.
D: But by then, it had become more commonplace, and not as scandalous.
S: Not by much. We were still stigmatized slightly. I know I was attacked a few times when I went out in public. Mostly by Nazis, who always hung around the studio and attacked those they saw as too liberal. I started going blonde at that point to avoid attacks from them.
D: You were blonde in Iron Heights, because of that?
D: Because of the success of that film, you got the attention of Daryl Zanuck?
S: He was one of the producers who was trying to get German talent to come to California. When Upton Sinclair was elected the Governor of California, and some companies moved to Florida, with their talent, the remaining companies wanted to show their progressive bona fides. They wanted to show that they were real progressive leftists and not like their conservative counterparts on the East Coast.
D: So, he saw you, and realized that you could be a big star within the Warner Bros. studio.
S: He didn’t realize that I was a transsexual, I think, and by the time I was brought to America, I had already signed a contract and been cast before he realized it.
D: Was it a big issue?
S: To him? I don’t think so, or he didn’t make it out to be. I know there were rumors on the lot at the time, and America was a lot more backwards on this issue at that time.
D: This was before the opening of Alfred Kinsey’s Institute of Sexual Studies in 1947.
S: A bit before. He had been publishing for a while, and the US was somewhat receptive to the idea. At least here in California, under Sinclair, there were significant reforms thanks to the example of Germany, and while he had to deal with the Silver Legion, it was more accepting of homosexuals than the rest of the country was at the time.
D: And that allowed you to go stealth?
S: I didn’t necessarily have to go “stealth”. It just didn’t come up much in those early years, at least not as much as in Germany. I’m sure some tabloid brought it up by then, but I wasn’t harassed as much as I was in Germany.
D: Zanuck cast you in The Right Ones, which was a big melodrama, and you were a cissexual woman in that picture.
S: It was an interesting experience. Starring with Judy Garland and Joan Crawford, and being directed by William Wyler. I felt the American production style was less… personable, than the German style. A lot less interconnection, a lot more procedure.
D: What do you mean “procedure”?
S: More people involved, more constant rewrites, more censorship. I wouldn’t necessarily call it worse or better than the German filmmaking but that was my observation.
D: You were somewhat critical of the American film system and of American culture at the time. Why did you decide to stay?
S: A few factors: I liked the sunshine and climate of California as opposed to very temperate and cold climate of Germany, and despite the more mechanical nature, I did like the larger scale and budgets that Hollywood films tended to have. I was also concerned about events back in Germany. The Roterraum riots, for one, between police and rioting gay nightclub patrons. The rise in Nazi terrorist acts, especially those around the film industry. I’m a Jewish transsexual, so I would be an easy target for the Hitlerites.
D: Were you concerned about the Silver Legion here in California?
S: No. I remember there being a big scare around them, but compared to the Nazis, they were never omnipresent. I could go across the Warner Bros. lot and never see a Legionaire. Meanwhile, Nazis would come to the studios all the time to attack any Jews or communists they came across. I never had that experience. Hell, you had studio chiefs here come under pressure for supporting right wingers
D: You’re referring to the HUAC hearings against those like Harry Cohn and Walt Disney.
D: You became something of a minor player in Hollywood for the next few years. It corresponded with the Paramount anti-trust decision and the collapse of the studio system.
S: I’ve heard film scholars today call The Right Ones the last breath for “classic” Hollywood. I don’t know if that is the case, but that was the only real film of the “studio system” kind I made. I know that Florida continued making them even after the Paramount decision, but California films largely began to reform. I had done some of those “acting” schools to learn decent English and refine my acting for an American audience. However, by the time I had debuted, contracts were weakened and I could go to other studios if I choose and do films there.
D: Yet, you stuck with Zanuck?
S: On some level, I think he had the feeling that despite my being a transsexual, that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in the next few years, with Dr. Hirschfeld’s work being translated and brought over. I also wasn’t a big star at the time, so I could star without major scrutiny. I was in several acclaimed dramas that were very political for their time. Attacked racial segregation, anti-semitism, even the censorship of the Motion Picture Code, which was beginning to weaken at that time.
D: When Kinsey’s own Institute opened and Florence Yonkers became the first major American transsexual, both in 1947, did you feel like it would be a good time to come out?
S: I definitely did, and wanted to do it as soon as I read the newspaper article about it. Zanuck, however, wanted to wait a bit. Eventually, he got the film rights to Yonkers’ life story, and decided to cast me as a big promotional item.
D: That was “Transition”?
S: When I got the script, it was “Man to Woman”. I told them to change it.
D: You were the first transsexual to headline a film. What was that experience like?
S: Harrowing. Now that I had a starring role, and my transsexuality was apparent, I got both invasive questions from all sources (most vicious of all was Hedda Hopper), but also threats from various right-wing forces.
D: But you kept going.
S: I really wanted this feature to be made. To show young children who had the feeling of being in the wrong body that it was okay and that it was possible to transition and become your true self. For every negative letter, I also got letters from thousands saying I was a big inspiration for them to come out and that was the best part. It was the highlight of my career to have inspired so many to be themselves.
D: Transition was released alongside Crossfire, which dealt with homophobia. It fit with the climate around increasing liberalization during the Wallace and Taylor administration. Especially the establishment of the National Health Service (which Kinsey’s Institute was a part of). Did you consider the impact of your film in that climate?
S: Well, I had known about the NHS since I was getting my hormones from the Kinsey Institute. I also know that my film, Crossfire, and a few others led to the dismantling of the Motion Picture Code, with the Supreme Court ruling its bans on films as unconstitutional.
D: Let’s shift forward a few years. After Transition, you were given roles, but still typecast as a transsexual.
S: Not as degrading as the German ones prior to Iron Heights, which is also another reason I stayed. The 50’s cultural revolution saw more innovative social ideas being pushed, so I was even the love interest in some of them. Survived too in a lot of them.
D: Why did you decide to direct the 1961 remake of Women in the Moon yourself?
S: I had become friends with a few Los Angeles based science fiction fans. Particular to this film were the socialists Robert Heinlein and Jack Parsons. I had told them about the original Fritz Lang film, and they did approach Lang himself to direct a possible remake with better effects. He declined, but considered producing if I were to direct.
D: Why you especially, aside from your previous experiences working together?
S: Mostly that he had known my admiration for the original. So, I managed to scrounge up enough money (thanks to a transvestite named Ed Wood), and got to make the film, with Heinlein writing and Parson providing technical support. It was something of a dream project.
D: And a film that made science fiction into a more “serious” and “respectable” genre.
S: Probably. I was proud of the final result, even if the critical reception was mixed. Still, I was allowed to direct another feature, which I had trouble with. Lovers on the Lam.
D: From 1965.
S: It was an exploitation gay B-picture when I initially got it. I toned down the clear exploitative scenes of sex and violence (, and tried to make it both a romantic picture and a crime thriller. I wanted to make it about a lesbian romance and not a lesbian pornographic film for straight consumption. And I think it went well.
D: That was your last picture. Working on anything now?
S: I’ve been mostly teaching at USC, though I am working on a script of my own life story that I hope to direct myself.
D: Based on this interview, that should be interesting.
S: I hope audiences feel the same.
D: To close out this interivew, do you feel that films dealing with homosexuality and transsexuality have improved over your career?
S: Certainly! You have a lot more roles, a lot more stories than just tragic or sexually amusing, and a lot more out actors who can influence the material. However, there’s still work to be done in giving full representation. I read in the trades that apparently out of the films released last year, only 5% had gay or lesbian characters and of those, 50% were specifically focused on that. We need to normalize these sorts of relationships. And it goes beyond movies. While we have a very liberated culture, there are still parts of the world where we’re persecuted and our rights infringed. Even in parts of this country and Western Europe, you can’t get married or transition. We mustn’t get complacent. We must continue the fight, and continue to assert our personhood!
D: Thank you very much for speaking with me.
S: My pleasure.
 Real film, though obviously changed for TTL