Inside the spring 2020 Stories to Tell exhibition, Ransom Center film curator Steve Wilson explores the archive related to the recently restored film, The Queen, which documents the 1967 “Miss All American Camp Beauty Pageant” held in Manhattan. The New York contest was a parody of the Miss America pageant and featured drag queens when laws against cross-dressing and widespread anti-gay attitudes put the participants at great personal risk. The Center worked in partnership with Kino-Lorber to restore the film, and in 2019, The Queen was re-released. Learn more through this Q&A with multi-platform drag historian and videographer Joe E. Jeffreys (read more).
What are your thoughts on why the film has had difficulty getting a wide public release?
For all the reasons you mention in the exhibition – anti-gay and drag discrimination, advertising censorship, the film’s just over one hour running time, the fact that the Cannes Film Festival ran off the tracks the year The Queen played it – are why the film fought to find an audience.
Other reasons include the fact that The Queen was the first film distributed by Evergreen Film, a division of Grove Press, who soon after acquired the U.S rights for the Swedish film I Am Curious Yellow. This film faced serious censorship and bans in the U.S. and must have directed Evergreen’s full attention away from The Queen. The film’s producers also moved on to other large projects leaving this one in their rearview mirrors for a spell. Si Litvinoff served as an executive producer for the film version of A Clockwork Orange while Lewis Allen went on to produce the original Broadway staging of the musical Annie.
Drag was not a hot commodity for several decades – even within the larger LGBTQ+ communities. A screening print was difficult to acquire and the film fell into obscurity. It did receive a 25th anniversary set of screenings around the US in 1993. In part this was spurred by the release of Paris Is Burning in 1990 that generated a renewed interest in drag and the cultures it lived in. The Queen was then released on VHS but, at that juncture, the format was on its way out and it became a samizdat.
Until the current glorious Kino Lorber 4k restoration, the film has not been officially available on DVD. The restoration was widely screened and The Queen is now available on streaming platforms including Netflix and Kanopy as well as DVD and Blu-ray editions complete with extras.
The world of drag competition depicted in The Queen shares some similarities and differences with contemporary competition shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race. How does this film help us understand the development of drag culture?
A few years ago when the reality TV competition RuPaul’s Drag Race broke into larger culture, a live show featuring some contestants from RPDR was produced at Town Hall in NYC where The Queen was shot in 1967. It was haunting to see RPDR cast members performing on the stage where Crystal and Harlow competed for a crown some 50 years ago.
Without The Queen and the roads it cleared to larger audiences for drag performance there would be much less of a chance for a show and phenomenon like RPDR. The Queen gave audiences who had never seen female impersonation portrayed as anything other than deviance or the butt of a joke a means to see it as a serious performance form. Stonewall, LGBTQ+ rights, marriage equality, all these things also help open up the world of drag performance to more receptive and diverse audiences.
How did Flawless Sabrina get into the drag beauty contest business? How did this competition begin? What was this culture like before The Queen? Were there similar competitions or events?
The story goes that Jack Doroshow (later also known as Flawless Sabrina), who grew up in Philadelphia, took a trip to New York City in the late 1950s and stayed at one of the YMCAs. There he met some gay guys who told him about some sort of drag happening that he then went to. I suspect it was something like one of Dayzee Dee’s or Phil Black’s drag balls.
Once there, he saw the large sparkling crowd, calculated the admission fee they paid and a bulb went off in his head. This drag thing could be a profitable racket. Once back in Philadelphia he began figuring out how he could produce a similar event for a profit.
Miss America was annually one of the most highly viewed TV shows in the U.S. during the late 1950s through the 1960s. Doroshow took this as a cue and decided to produce drag beauty pageants as opposed to drag balls. Balls and pageants are similar—contestants compete in categories for prizes—but pageants are more like rehearsed stage shows formalized in contestant vs. spectator relationships and structure. Drag balls could be found at all over the U.S. On the drag ball scene, in 1965 José Sarria founded the Imperial Court system in San Francisco that throws lavish charity drag balls internationally to this day. The House Ball events as seen in Paris Is Burning are still down the road but symbolically connected to Doroshow and The Queen.
Drag pageants may likely have been happening at a very small localized level at this time but would have been harder to produce than a drag ball to some extent and I cannot point the finger at specific examples. Doroshow capitalizes on the popularity and familiarity of Miss America and the pageant form and pushes the drag pageant to the next level. Doroshow formed a production company first called S.E.I., Inc. and later the Nationals Academy, Inc. and staged his first drag pageant in Philadelphia.
From that, he branched out and began producing pageants, mainly in hotel ballrooms, all across the U.S. in at least forty-six cities. Doroshow created and led the first formalized ongoing national drag pageant production concern going from town to town giving guys from the area the chance to compete in drag.
The pageant documented in The Queen was the Nationals first venture into the New York City market place and their last big blow out. By the early 1970s, after Doroshow was out of the pageant game, the Miss Gay America national pageant circuit establishes itself and continues to this day.
The similarities to Jennie Livingston’s classic 1991 documentary Paris is Burning are striking. Was there an influence? Are there other films or pop culture phenomena that have been influenced by The Queen?
The two films are not that similar in terms of documentary approach, The Queen is much more verité, but a direct line can be drawn between them and it is important to understand how the history flows between the communities they depict.
At the end of The Queen Crystal makes it clear that she is not pleased with her low placement in the contestant rankings. Some house ball historians point to the moment she walks off Town Hall’s stage and her subsequent dressing room visit as the metaphorical moment the house ball scene was born. Crystal had been competing at a high level in the drag ball and pageant scene for years but felt she was not recognized for her talents and beauty. Some of Crystal’s dismissal from the scenes as they existed stemmed from racism.
With the help of Miss Lottie, Crystal sets about to establish her own supportive space. This becomes the house ball scene. While drag balls had existed and were popular across the country for many years, they were events were individuals competed against each other. Crystal’s innovation was to make them more like sports where teams or Houses competed against each other in categories. The group she founds, the House of LaBeija, is credited as the first house. Paris Is Burning captures the house ball scene that Crystal began when she stepped off the stage at Town Hall.
In terms of other pop culture that bears relation to The Queen, RuPaul’s Drag Race likely would not be a thing without the doors cracked open by the documentary, but many other pop culture artifacts are results of The Queen and several can be clearly traced to Crystal’s philippic. Frank Ocean samples it in his 2016 work Endless. RPDR All Stars contestant Aja deftly portrayed Crystal as his Snatch Game character. I’ve always found it funny and telling how far the film did penetrate that at the time of its initial release Flawless Sabrina is depicted as a judge in a Mad magazine cartoon strip lampooning the Miss America pageant.
Flawless Sabrina persuaded Andy Warhol to be a judge for the competition. Larry Rivers, Edie Sedgwick, Diane Arbus, Mary Ellen Mark, and other artists were also involved with the event. Warhol superstar Mario Montez makes an appearance as a chanteuse during the competition. How connected were drag competitions like this to the 1960’s underground art scene? Did they share audiences and artists? Are there other examples of such connections?
The drag and underground art scenes will start working together more closely together but when The Queen is shot they are just shaking hands.
Doroshow was hip and worked hard to bring in “the right” crowd to his first New York City pageant. Published reports in places like Women’s Wear Daily and The Village Voice talk about the Town Hall audience being very fashionable and trendy. However, I don’t think generally there was much crossover of the underground art and drag scenes except just flickering in the medium of film.
Warhol had featured Mario Montez in many of his films and just begun to showcase other drag and trans performers like Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling in his work. Holly Woodlawn would soon follow. Diane Arbus could not sell any of her drag images at this time. Avery Willard was making some interesting drag short films but very limited invited audiences saw them. The idea of a man in women’s clothes was simply too outré for most unless it was being used for outright comic effect.
Look at Mario Montez in The Queen. Mario, who it can be argued is the first underground drag film star with his appearance in Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, offers a completely different take on drag and performance than the other queens in the film. He is not pageant perfection. His wig is crooked. He enters the stage from a bathtub rolled down Town Hall’s center aisle like some poor man’s version of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra entrance. His singing is so off-key and its pace so unpredictable the live band drops out halfway through. Yet what he is presenting is not full out for laughs. John Waters and Divine’s work will spring in part from this aesthetic and in fact, a poster for The Queen can be spied in a background shot of Water’s Pink Flamingos.
It is also worth noting that other judges for the pageant that night along with Warhol and Rivers included the writer Terry Southern, songwriter Jerry Leiber, and artist Jim Dine.
Why is this documentary, made in 1967, important today? What would be lost if it had not been restored using the Ransom Center materials?
The Queen is the first full-length documentary to look at the world of female impersonation. Frank Simon’s film is also an aesthetically beautiful and complex verité documentary, an approach just coming into its own at the time with other filmmakers like the Maysles brothers, D.A. Penebacker and Frederick Wiseman.
Documentary and narrative films that deal with female impersonation up to this point are very different from The Queen. The documentaries, like the contemporaneous documentary short Queens at Heart, are largely salacious and disparaging grindhouse films depicting “deviants” or “perverts” who should be pitied or worse. In narrative films, drag was a demeaning punch line where the character is forced to cross-dress due to some terrible situation they can get out of no other way. The Queen shows us people who want to and enjoy getting in drag and it does not judge them. While RuPaul’s Drag Race has normalized viewers watching contestants get intro drag and talk among themselves The Queen is one of the first in its extended and revealing use of these transformation moments.
The Ransom Center holds the best extant version of the film. The two 16 mm (A/B) negatives in the Ransom collection were scanned and the 4k face-lift now sees the old gal looking better than the day it first screened at Cannes. The outtakes in the Ransom collection also add greatly to a fuller understanding of the film and its production. I wrote a 5,000-plus word, illustrated booklet for The Queen’s Blu-ray package and the wealth of materials in the Lewis Allen files at the Ransom Center form the research cornerstone for that.
Did you discover anything surprising during your research at the Ransom Center?
Flawless told me for years that there were outtakes for the film somewhere, and I eventually tracked them to the Ransom Center in the Lewis Allen Collection. Allen was one of The Queen’s executive producers. There were indeed surprises in the outtakes, but the unexpectedly extensive paper trail on the film contains many jewels too.
Two highlights of the film’s outtakes I discovered at the Ransom Center are two short sequences of film clips capturing a star-studded, police raided after-party for the pageant, and another of a photoshoot with pageant winner Harlow. Both of these out take sequences can bee seen on Kino Lorber’s DVD and Blud-ray releases of their 4k film restoration. There is a hint in the film that there is to be an after-party. Flawless tells Crystal in the dressing room at the end that she should come to the after-party and speak her concerns with the judges. But we do not see any of the party in the documentary. I was floored when I first saw this footage. When the police raid the party and start talking to attendees and checking IDs – I couldn’t believe this documentation existed.
Here is late 1960s footage of a police-raided party held in a private home attended by many people in drag and quite a few celebrities like Larry Rivers and Terry Southern. By the time Warhol Superstar Edie Sedgwick shuts the door behind the police as they leave, I was totally stunned. The other standout outtake shows Harlow being photographed by noted filmmaker and fashion photographer Jerry Shatzberg and posing with 1960s top Mod model Peggy Moffitt. Back in New York, I showed many of these out take sequences to Flawless who helped contextualize them and identify people.
Along with the expected film review and feature article clippings, the Lewis Allen papers contain many telling letters among the film’s various producers, distributors, and exhibitors capturing the real struggles presenting and financing a high minded documentary on such a taboo subject at the time. The letters also offer some fascinating back-stories concerning securing film releases from costumer Madame Bertha to the musician’s union that plays on stage during the pageant. The collection also boasts a large set of photographs that Mary Ellen Mark shot for the film’s publicity along with memos and letters discussing how the producers lost track of her after the documentary wrapped shooting and had to place a “Desperately Seeking” ad on the back of The Village Voice to reconnect with her and use the images.
Without the extensive holdings at the Ransom Center, The Queen would have a far smaller realm to rule.
Joe E. Jeffreys (read more) is a multi-platform drag historian and videographer. He received funding from The Jerome Foundation to study the Ransom Center’s holdings related to The Queen.