UCLA Film & Television Archive Celebrates the ‘Evil Women’ of the 1900s Film Industry

The UCLA Film and Television Archive cranks up the volume on silent film’s early “wicked women.”

On Sunday, the UCLA Film and Television Archive will conclude “Cinema’s First Nasty Women,” a film series centered on rebellious and trailblazing female protagonists with screenings of the silent films “The Dranem Household” and “Phil-for-Short.” . Curated by Maggie Hennefeld, Laura Horak and Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi, the series features 27 of the 99 silent films from the co-curators’ collection of the same name ahead of its September 27 DVD release. Hennefeld, associate professor of cultural studies and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, said the project seeks to shine a light on the comedians and actresses at the center of these works and their influence on the definition of cinema as a form of art in the 1900s.

“Women played such a powerful creative role (in these films), and this story of reclaiming women in the early decades of silent film is so vast that we wanted to add to it,” Hennefeld said. “It’s not just about reclaiming filmmakers, producers, writers – that’s a big part of it – but also comedians and women who were expressing their sexuality in ways that really changed the culture of the time.”

There will be two screenings to complete the collection, including “Phil-for-Short” and “The Dranem Household”. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

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Referring to “The Dranem Household,” Rongen-Kaynakçi, a curator at the EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands, said the title might mislead audiences into expecting a male-centric plot featuring roles rigid and archaic conjugal relationships in its English translation as “The Dranem Household.” Instead, she said the comic plot depicts a less conventional 1900s household in which a wife frequently goes out with her friends to smoke and play pool while her husband stays home.

After “The Dranem Household,” the archive will feature “Phil-for-Short,” which Horak, director of the Transgender Media Lab and Transgender Media Portal and associate professor of film studies at Carleton University, says focuses on the independent protagonist Damophilia (Evelyn Greeley), nicknamed Phil, who adopts the appearance of a man and challenges her sexist counterparts in her role as a professor of Greek studies. Unlike the short and often “one-bit”, singular and gagged nature of the other films in the series, “Phil-for-Short” functions as a complete romantic comedy.

After the term “mean woman” popularized in 2016 – originally used by former President Donald Trump as a derogatory phrase, but later co-opted as an empowering term by feminist activists – Horak said the descriptor itself and its connections with feminist movements made it an appropriate collector’s title. With many of the films in the collection drawing influence from the rise of the suffragette movement, Hennefeld said the footage featured in the archival presentation include unstable protagonists, unruly feats of physical comedy, gender role reversals, and female action heroes.

(Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Using the term “mean women” as a way for the feminist movement to reclaim expression, the series focuses on lawless silent film stars who broke gender norms. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Although these are lesser-known films in the current era, progressive topics covered were not uncommon in the silent film era given the films’ positive reception and popularity with audiences at the time of their exit, Horak said. However, perceptions of silent films and the genre’s most prolific actors can often be inaccurate, Hennefeld said, because they are influenced by the historically selective and biased process by which silent films have been preserved and recovered.

For example, Hennefeld said the collection includes the works of women and BIPOC silent film stars such as Lilian St. Cyr, an Indigenous action star who regularly performs her own stunts, and the unidentified actress from ” Leontine”, who conservatives appeared in a large number of silent films, often portraying volatile and sometimes destructive comic roles. However, due to historical biases in the archive, these performances are not as well known as Charlie Chaplin’s despite their impact on audiences, Horak said.

“These films only became something that stood out because they were kind of forgotten and not valued, not preserved by the people who had the resources to hang on to the films and make sure they survived. “, said Horak. “The people who wrote the first movie stories and stuff didn’t really care, and so we don’t know about them unless you work.”

Despite the diversity of stories in the collection, Horak said examples of racism-fueled comedy are present in many films. Hennefeld said that while the curators aimed to select the most thought-provoking films, they also wanted to provide an accurate, undiluted representation of the genre. As such, she said the project included several panels and discussions on best practices for presenting these problematic representations in an ethical manner.

(Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Despite the racist undertones of the silent film era, the archive held panels and discussions to ethically present the films to audiences. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

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While many film directors remain unknown, Rongen-Kaynakçi said it can be speculated that in addition to acting, many of the actresses from previous films in the collection scripted their own bits and characters due to the indefinite and unestablished nature of cinema in the early years. silent cinema. Along with enjoying these feats of theater and jubilant comedy, Hennefeld said she hopes viewers will feel an empowering sense of modern relevance in the films’ ties to the women-led movements of the 1910s and 1920s.

“These films were made at the same time as the rise of the suffragette movement,” Hennefeld said. “There are a number of films in which kitchen maids go on strike and demonstrate in the streets, and gender roles are renegotiated in society. … They were a sign of the times just how up in the air it all was, but also how popular images of female empowerment and aesthetic creativity worked in the early 20th century (were).

Karl M. Bailey