The cross-dressed actress captivated audiences throughout the first decades of the twentieth century. D. W. Griffith cast the adolescent Edna Foster as the recurring character "Little Billy" in a series of short films. Critics—charmed but fooled—praised the "naturalness" of the "boy actor." Stars like Mary Pickford and Katharine Hepburn built personas that incorporated a Fairbanksian athleticism, and continental imports Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich cultivated an androgynous sexuality.
Female entertainers had adopted masculine identities before. Actresses had worn the breeches on the "legitimate" stage for more than a century, and male impersonators had been vaudeville staples since the 1860s. However, questions of gender difference intensified at the turn of the century as industrialization, urbanization, and World War I provided women new opportunities for economic independence. Feminists campaigned for dress reform, suffrage, and birth control. Meanwhile, scientists in Europe collected case histories of a new type of "Third Sex,""invert," or "homosexual," found in Parisian literary salons, Harlem house parties, and Berlin cabarets. Consequently, the women in pants who leapt about the silver screen during this period inspired a combination of fascination, ridicule, and anxiety—and, most of all, good box office.
In the mid-1930s, Hollywood adopted the Hays Production Code, which prohibited the portrayal of "sex perversion or any inference of it." The Code pushed underground the rampant gender and sexual play of the movies' first few decades. Featuring a wealth of archival prints, this series is the first to trace the history of cinema's girls who would be boys.