Remembering Pioneering Film Scholar and LGBTQIA+ Rights Activist Albert LaValley

The professor emeritus of film and media studies died on April 11.

Albert ("Al") J. LaValley,  professor emeritus of film and media studies, died on April 11 in Noble, Okla., at the age of 87. 

"Al is remembered fondly as a beloved colleague, friend, and collaborator of students and faculty across the College," Dean Elizabeth F. Smith said in a message to the Arts and Sciences community. "Let us take this moment to remember a colleague known to many of us, who contributed much to our community both through his dedication to growing an emerging discipline at Dartmouth and his commitment to LGBTQIA+ rights."
LaValley was born on July 8, 1935, in Springfield, Mass. He attended college at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., receiving a BA in English in 1957. He then earned an MA and PhD in English from Yale University, where he also taught a variety of literature courses between 1961 and 1967. LaValley's literary background resulted in three books, Carlyle and the Idea of the Modern (1968), a critical edition of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1969), and The New Consciousness: An Anthology of the New Literature (1972). After his early teaching at Yale, LaValley moved to San Francisco State University (1967–69), where he held an appointment as associate professor of English and creative writing.
LaValley taught his first film class, Introduction to Film, at Rutgers University, where he taught between 1969 and 1971. It was also at Rutgers where he taught one of the first undergraduate classes in the country on gay literature. As a visiting professor of film studies at UC Santa Barbara between 1971 and 1975, and again between 1982 and 1984, LaValley developed many of the film courses that he continued to teach throughout his career on Weimar film, science fiction film, and on auteurs such as Hitchcock, Murnau, Lang, and Kubrick.
LaValley followed his initial teaching tenure at Santa Barbara by moving to San Francisco and founding and running the Limelight Bookstore (1975–81), of which he was always proud. The bookstore specialized in works about film and theater and became a center for gay and anti-war activism during the turbulent '70s. LaValley recalls being arrested a couple of times, once for a Vietnam protest when he was jailed with Joan Baez, and another time when students and faculty at San Francisco State went on strike against Governor Reagan. He remembered this time as "intellectually stimulating." An activist all his life, he was described by a colleague as "a staunch defender of freedom of speech, deeply immersed in both politics and art."
LaValley was one of the first American film scholars to edit a book about Alfred Hitchcock (Focus on Hitchcock, 1972), and he followed this with books on Mildred Pierce (1980), The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1989), and Eisenstein at 100 (with Barry Scherr, 2001). He also published many essays on such subjects as film noir, melodrama, horror, and the Russian avant-garde. LaValley is considered one of the key early writers in queer criticism, along with Robin Wood and Richard Dyer, and the article he wrote for American Film (April, 1985), "The Great Escape," later reprinted in Out in Culture (1995), remains an influential text in LGBT+ studies.
LaValley's activism is also reflected in the film he made with Mark Decker, A Time of Change: Confronting AIDS (1986). LaValley and Decker met at the first Los Angeles gay and lesbian film festival in 1982 and became lifelong friends. Their seminal documentary was only the second ever made about AIDS and featured interviews conducted with early AIDS patients at San Francisco General Hospital. For decades it was (and may still be) used in university classes on death and dying, the emergence of the concept of "family," and taking care of one's own in the gay community.  Decker has said that "Al was as proud of that film as any of his academic writings."
Following his second period at UC Santa Barbara, LaValley was hired as a professor of film studies at Dartmouth College where, as chair, he oversaw the separation of film studies from drama to become its own department. In his role as chair, LaValley was responsible for hiring some of the new department's early faculty, many of whom are still at the College. He taught all of the basic film courses and team-taught many others, including innovative courses in women's, gender, and sexuality studies and in comparative literature.
One colleague found LaValley "an endless source of fascinating and rare information about directors, actors, producers, and the mechanics of Hollywood," and another, who developed and team-taught a course on American independent cinema with him, said "the best part was watching how Al taught, and absorbing his depth and breadth of knowledge about independent film history. I'm sure I learned more than any of our students."
Students were similarly effusive in their praise. One student stated that "he has inspired me to write some of the best papers of my college career," while another observed that LaValley's course "was an extraordinary education in art and visual perception… [he] changed enormously the way I have watched films ever since." Likewise, one of his students recalled that "as a student with a history of motivational problems including absences and incomplete work, Professor LaValley encouraged me to push my limits not only in his courses but in all my work." Others reflected that his was "the most instructive and satisfying classroom experience I had in my four years in Hanover" and that "his course profoundly affected my intellectual development."
LaValley retired from Dartmouth in 1999, but he continued teaching and giving lectures as an emeritus faculty member in Hanover, Santa Barbara, and the University of Oklahoma. His encyclopedic mind was ever active, engaging in lively discussions about film with friends and colleagues, and, up until his death, writing an extensive study of filmmakers who worked in Mexico during the 1930s–1950s, including Sergei Eisenstein, Luis Buñuel, and Norman Foster.
Mark Decker says that the two words that come to mind when thinking about LaValley are simply "generosity and joy," a sentiment echoed by members of the film and media studies department. One friend commented, "He had a wonderful vitality of mind and spirit," taking "real pleasure in the adventure of life… He seemed both spontaneous and considered, both restless and rooted, both worldly and hopeful, unafraid of change."