The Nasty Women of Silent Cinema

Ever since Donald Trump interrupted Hillary Clinton during a 2016 Presidential Debate, “nasty woman” has become a global feminist rallying cry. Yet, there is a long and robust history of women celebrating their own nastiness to speak truth to patriarchal power.

Feminists today have a lot to learn from the nasty women of the early twentieth century, who have been written out of film history. In fact, there were more opportunities for women at every level of the filmmaking process during the silent era than there are even today. Women worked as directors, producers, writers, cinematographers, editors, exhibitors. Slapstick comedians from France, Italy, England and the United States were some of the era’s most popular and most powerful stars—although today their names are largely forgotten.

When cinema was the exciting new media, these nasty women flaunted their bodily excess on-screen to help viewers navigate the changing world and society in which their films were widely viewed. Nasty women joined the workforce, resisted sexual predation, ran for government office and attempted to claim their equal rights under the law. Meanwhile, silent films playfully represented these gendered changes ad absurdum.

That is what female nastiness is all about: the power to shape and transform reality by means of vivid imagination and outrageous representation. In silent films, nasty women defied their domestic constraints by exploding the kitchen, shattering the dinnerware, dismembering their limbs to revolutionize their labor, tormenting their employers with feminist practical jokes and gleefully transgressing sexual and racial taboos—sometimes even metamorphosing into other species.

This October, an exhibit at the annual Pordenone Silent Film Festival (Il Giornate del Cinema Muto) in Northern Italy celebrated silent cinema’s nasty women. Nearly 50 films—from 30-second-long shorts to feature films—were shown across five programs, and each screening had a different theme to highlight the major tropes of female nastiness circa the early twentieth-century.

In Catastrophe in the Kitchen, women burst out of the home in a variety of ways—sometimes even through the chimney. These early slapstick films depict jolting upheavals in female corporeality as a way of visualizing the broader social opportunities for women to break free of their traditional domestic roles. For example, in How Bridget Made the Fire (1900), Bridget (played by celebrated female impersonator Gilbert Saroney) pours too much kerosene onto the fire and then spontaneously combusts out of the chimney.

Catastrophe Beyond the Kitchen presented women joining the workforce, running government and causing mayhem in the public sphere. The hilarious Italian comedian Lea Giunchi fends off sexual predation at a bank (in Lea Finds a Job at a Bank [1911]), while the oh-so-innocent-looking Tilly and Sally go on a bicycle-mounted feminist rampage in Tilly’s Party (1911). She’s a Prince (1926) takes the viewer on a surreal initiation into a flapper sorority that veers from violent tableau vivant to a gender-bending mistaken identity plot, in which a European prince’s apparent penchant for corsets inspires local men to adopt the garment, as these men also try to cozy up to a man they believe to be a woman in disguise.

In the Identity Crisis program, women continue to trouble the boundaries between the genders, as well as between races and even between human and machine. In Lea the Doll, Lea Giunchi pretends to be a life-size automaton in order to get the best of her sweetheart’s controlling father. We showed some early Westerns that celebrate mannish cowgirls like Texas Guinan in leopard-skin chaps as well as Gladys Huelette as The Corporal’s Daughter (1915), a young white woman who disguises herself as Indigenous in order to save her father. However, the series also called attention to films that ridicule women of color for engaging in similar identity play. For example, when an Indigenous woman dons the latest new fashions in An Up-to-Date Squaw (1911), she gets laughed at—reminding viewers that silent films’ celebration of fluid identity is often sadly confined to white women.

The program on Betty/Léontine showcased the films of a truly hilarious French comedian who is still unidentified. She appeared in about 25 films from 1910-1912. Betty’s antics range from mild sight gags, such as depositing a red balloon inside a jar of Edam cheese, to anarchic acts of indiscriminate violence, involving the destruction of private property and extreme cruelty inflicted on all those who would attempt to tame or discipline her. In one film, she blows up the house with an electric battery; in another film, she floods the house trying to sail a toy boat indoors; in the last film of the series, Betty Guards the House (1912), she does both: incinerates and floods her parent’s house simultaneously!

The final program, The Deadlier Sex, presented a feature film about a female railroad tycoon played by Blanche Sweet who abandons a ruthless male business rival in the woods to teach him a lesson. A young Boris Karloff plays a predatory French-Canadian trapper.

While it’s easy to find silent films by male comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, it’s still very hard to see the many amazing films featuring the nasty women of silent cinema. (Few of the films from the exhibit are available outside of film archives in Europe and the United States.) But if you want to see some of the amazing women slapstick comedians of the silent era, there is one great DVD set you can buy: Cento Anni Fa: Comic Actresses and Suffragettes 1910-1914. If you want to learn more about women’s many roles in early film industries around the world, you can go to the free online Women Film Pioneers Project. To read all about women comedians in American slapstick, check out the forthcoming book Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes, available in March 2018 from Columbia University Press. And to learn about the many hundreds of women who cross-dressed in American films, including an appendix listing all the films and where to find them, check out Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women, Lesbians and American Cinema, 1908-1934 (Rutgers University Press, 2016).

The nasty women of silent cinema represent crucial traces of feminist media culture from the early twentieth century. They reveal the power of new media to make visible transformative notions of femininity and female identity that are always just on the cusp of social affirmation.

Maggie Hennefeld is an Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and author of Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes.

Laura Horak is an Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Carleton University and author of Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema, 1908-1934.

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