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Cinema’s First Nasty Women blu-ray collection blows the lid off conventional silent film female stereotypes

 Audrey Kupferberg examines a film roll in her office
Audrey Kupferberg
Audrey Kupferberg examines a film roll in her office

We think of female leads in silent films, and what do we imagine? Too often it’s the virginal beauty, the delicate little angel, who is easily victimized and often must find the love of a man to fulfill her aim in life. Young, or even older women, who cannot make moves without the consent of parents or the man in their lives…. D.W. Griffith set this precedent in motion with childlike and demure female leads. But he wasn’t the only culprit to refuse to see women as full-spirited human beings.

For those who think there only are those submissive silent film heroines, the new four-disc Blu-ray collection from Kino Lorber called Cinema’s First Nasty Women will open their eyes. The spectrum of female behavior in early cinema is broad. The title chosen by curators Maggie Hennefeld, Laura Horak, and Elif Rongen-Kaynakci is clever, a wry reference to a low point in the Trump/Clinton Presidential campaign. These curators and others have also put together a 116-page illustrated booklet of essays and information on the project.

The collection includes 99 films from Europe and the U.S. The productions range from 1898-1926. Many are brief films from the first fifteen or twenty years of cinema. Those were years in which female actors, writers, and directors had freedoms which were squelched when studios grew in power and financial worth. When the film industry became big money, the moguls decided to hand over the creative and administrative powers to men.

So we have in this wonderful collection 875 minutes of entertainment. In these films, mostly comedies, women behave outside what was considered “the norm.” They are mischievous. They are rebels, imps. In the case of one 1910 Pathe Freres short featuring a popular comedy character called Leontine, this maniacal sprite goes around shocking everyone she encounters with an electric battery!

In addition to the naughty females, there are films featuring cross-dressers and hints of homosexuality. Because the curators and their many co-creators and contributors are humanists and modernists, they are quick to point out racism against blacks and indigenous peoples. They do not want to hide our often-racist film history, but they do want to note details of what-was that are against current values.

In addition to all the short films, there are two feature-length films, The Snowbird, a Rolfe/Metro Production from 1916, and Phil for Short from 1919, a World Picture. One was preserved by the Library of Congress and one by George Eastman House. The Snowbird features a young woman who travels to Hudson Bay to infiltrate the north woods abode of a man who has a paper that will clear her father of a crime. She poses as a boy. In a scene where the man begins to whip her viciously, her long hair flows from her cap, and he recognizes her to be a young woman. There is a sexual undercurrent to the sequence, a gender-bending moment that isn’t often witnessed in films of the silent or even much of the sound era.

In Phil for Short, the leading character is a pretty woman whose father, a Greek professor, has encouraged to live freely and happily. She is named after a poem by Sappho and frequently dresses like a boy. Yes, that’s the same Sappho who lived on the isle of Lesbos and from which the term lesbian comes.

Cinema’s First Nasty Women has several purposes. As an entertainment, it’s a hoot. So much fun! As a look back at the film industry before women creators were reined in, it’s an historical resource. For anyone who is interested in early cinema, this disc set is a real treat!

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and retired appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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