Nasty Women – 3
Your favorite feminist chimney exploders have survived their endless quarantine and are now nastier than ever! After months of lockdown, who wouldn’t like to break all the dishes and erupt through the rooftop? To refresh your memory, this program burst onto the scene of the Giornate del Cinema Muto in October 2017 with five screenings, including “Catastrophe in the Kitchen,” “Catastrophe Beyond the Kitchen,” and selections from Pathé Comica’s Rosalie and Léontine series, featuring Sarah Duhamel and a still-unidentified comedienne.
What is a “nasty woman”? Wrested from the hateful utterance of a certain former U.S. president, the term has been reclaimed as a global feminist rallying cry. It celebrates the messiness of gender and sexual difference, bodily excess, social heterogeneity, and the refusal of women to be polite or subservient. At the 2019 Giornate, a new cohort of combustive celluloid miscreants made a comeback as part of the European Slapstick Comedy program curated with Steve Massa and Ulrich Ruedel.
We are thrilled to raise their unholy specters yet again in 2021 in anticipation of Cinema’s First Nasty Women, a 4-disc DVD/Blu-ray set that we are co-curating with Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi in partnership with the Giornate del Cinema Muto, the Women Film Pioneers Project, Carleton University, and the Festival Internacional de Cine Silente México. The collection will be released by Kino Lorber in May 2022, featuring 99 silent films about feminist protest, anarchic slapstick destruction, queer longings, and suggestive gender play. This year, we present two screenings – in the flesh – on the themes “Contagious Revenge” and “Genders of Farce.” When Nasty Women are on the move, no one is safe! – Maggie Hennefeld, Laura Horak
Prog. 1: Contagious Revenge
THE FINISH OF MR. FRESH (US 1899)
regia/dir: ?. Based on the farce by Thomas H. Davis & Scott Marble (Butler’s Grand Opera House, Washington, D.C., 25.10.1898). photog: Frederick S. Armitage. prod: American Mutoscope & Biograph Company. riprese/filmed: 24.07.1899 (studio). copia/copy: DCP, 1’45” (orig. 157 ft.); did./titles: ENG. fonte/source: Eye Filmmuseum, Amsterdam.
THE DAIRY MAID’S REVENGE (US 1899)
regia/dir: ?. photog: Frederick S. Armitage. prod: American Mutoscope & Biograph Company. riprese/filmed: 24.07.1899 (studio). copia/copy: DCP, 1’41” (orig. 157 ft.); did./titles: ENG. fonte/source: Eye Filmmuseum, Amsterdam.
LA GRÈVE DES NOURRICES (FR 1907)
regia/dir: André Heuzé. prod: Pathé Frères. copia/copy: DCP, 11’59” (orig. 190 m.); did./titles: FRA. fonte/source: Gaumont-Pathé Archives, Saint-Ouen, Paris.
LAUGHING GAS (US 1907)
regia/dir: Edwin S. Porter, J. Searle Dawley. cast: Bertha Regustus (Mandy Brown), Edward Boulden, Mr. Sullivan, Mr. La Montte. prod: Edison Manufacturing Company. riprese/filmed: 13-19.11. 1907. copia/copy: DCP, 6’40” (orig. 575 ft.); did./titles: ENG. fonte/source: Harvard Film Archive, Cambridge, MA (controtipo da una copia del MoMA/Duped from MoMA print).
A BAD (K)NIGHT (US 1899)
regia/dir: ?. photog: Frederick S. Armitage. prod: American Mutoscope & Biograph Company. riprese/filmed: 09.06.1899 (studio). copia/copy: DCP, 2′ (orig. 215 ft.); did./titles: ENG. fonte/source: Eye Filmmuseum, Amsterdam.
LITTLE MORITZ ENLÈVE ROSALIE (FR 1911)
regia/dir: Henry Gambart. cast: Sarah Duhamel (Rosalie), Maurice Schwartz (Little Moritz). prod: Pathé Frères. uscita/rel: 22-28.11.1911 (Théâtre Omnia, Rouen). copia/copy: DCP, 7’55” (orig. 180 m.); senza didascalie/no titles. fonte/source: Gaumont-Pathé Archives, Saint-Ouen, Paris.
LES FEMMES COCHERS (FR 1907)
regia/dir: ?. scen: André Heuzé. prod: Pathé Frères. copia/copy: DCP, 10’08” (orig. 185 m.); senza didascalie/no titles. fonte/source: Gaumont-Pathé Archives, Saint-Ouen, Paris.
GISÈLE A MANQUÉ LE TRAIN (FR 1912)
regia/dir: ?. cast: Little Chrysia (Gisèle’s chaperone). prod: Lux. copia/copy: DCP, 9’06” (orig. 185 m.); did./titles: FRA. fonte/source: Eye Filmmuseum, Amsterdam.
LE REMBRANDT DE LA RUE LEPIC (FR 1911)
regia/dir: Jean Durand. cast: Gaston Modot, Berthe Dagmar, Ernest Bourbon. prod: Gaumont. uscita/rel: 17.03.1911. copia/copy: DCP, 5’36” (orig. 114 m.); did./titles: ??. fonte/source: Gaumont-Pathé Archives, Saint-Ouen, Paris.
CUNÉGONDE AIME SON MAÎTRE (FR 1912)
regia/dir: ?. cast: Little Chrysia (Cunégonde). prod: Lux. copia/copy: DCP, 6’48” (orig. 136 m.); did./titles: NLD. fonte/source: Eye Filmmuseum, Amsterdam.
FATTY AND MINNIE-HE-HAW (US 1914)
(titolo di lavorazione/working title: The Squaw’s Man)
regia/dir: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (Fatty), Princess Minnie [Minnie Devereaux] (Minnie-He-Haw), Minta Durfee [the woman on horseback], Joseph Swickard, Harry McCoy (the barroom drunk), Frank Hayes, Slim Summerville (the railroad bull), Bill Hauber, Billy Gilbert, Joe Bordeaux. prod: Mack Sennette, per/for Keystone Film Company. dist: Mutual Film Corporation. uscita/rel: 21.12.1914. copia/copy: DCP, 21’08” (orig. 35mm, 2 rl., 2000 ft.); did./titles: ENG. fonte/source: Academy Film Archive, Beverly Hills, CA (Blackhawk Films/Film Preservation Associates Collection).
There’s nothing funny about bodily contagion – unless it’s a vehicle for collective uprising and furious social rebellion. In this program, domestic workers go on strike, heterosexual romance falls apart, and the whole world explodes. Two American Mutoscope & Biograph films, The Finish of Mr. Fresh (1899) and The Dairy Maid’s Revenge (1899) celebrate women’s sweet comeuppance against the male mashers who harass them (presented at various speeds to convey each original frame). Milk is further weaponized in La Grève des nourrices (Pathé, 1907), a gender-defiling burlesque on female reproductive labor: childcare, housework, cooking, cleaning, and breastfeeding. Nursemaids go on strike and terrorize the police force. Dairy cows are enlisted as scabs to replace lactating nursemaids. The film was meant to lampoon the excesses of working-class feminism but survives today as an empowering document of women’s systematically exploited and invisible labor. Then as now, women continue to do a disproportionate share of housework and deserve fair compensation.
The cops are also no match for Mandy (Bertha Regustus), an African-American woman whose contagious cachinnation helps desegregate the public sphere in Laughing Gas (Edison, 1907). Mandy is given nitrous oxide (i.e., laughing gas) by her dentist during a tooth extraction and transmits the euphoric effects to everyone in her path. The title of A Bad (K)night (AM&B, 1899) is a pun too calamitous to describe, as you will see. Sarah Duhamel, one of our favorite nasty comediennes, returns as Rosalie to consecrate her disastrous elopement with Little Moritz (Maurice Schwartz) in this memorable cross-over episode (one of several), Little Moritz enlève Rosalie (Pathé, 1911). Rosalie shoots up through the chimney, aerated by her ridiculous hoop skirt, and cruises through outer space, until gravity gets the better of her fantastic journey and she crashes through a rooftop. Back to the scene of apocalyptic labor, the angry wives of drunken coach drivers cause a series of traffic accidents in Les Femmes cochers (Pathé, 1907), and then unwind by smoking pipes together after an eventful workday.
Little Chrysia, nasty woman extraordinaire, moonlights as Gisèle’s chaperone in Gisèle a manqué le train (Lux, 1912), which takes a holiday from the exhausting schedule of locomotive modernity by allowing white upper-class people to play-act as Roma travelers. Should we read this as a gesture of social alliance or ploy of colonialist tourism? The film tries to defuse its ambiguity (we might say, to have its cake and “eat the other” too) with a raucous carnivalesque dance scene finale. Speaking of the Seven Arts, painting is at least as deceptive as gender in Le Rembrandt de la rue Lepic (Gaumont, 1911), a cross-dressing comedy featuring Gaston Modot in drag. S/he wreaks total mayhem when a supposed Rembrandt original accidentally affixes itself to her/his rear. Cunégonde (Little Chrysia) falls in love with her employer’s portrait in Cunégonde aime son maître (Lux, 1912), and an equally ill-fated romance ensues in Fatty and Minnie-He-Haw (Keystone, 1914). The title characters are played by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Minnie Devereaux (Cheyenne), an Indigenous comedienne who raised a ruckus in more than 15 films, including with Mabel Normand in Mickey (Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, 1918) and Suzanna (Mack Sennett Comedies, 1923). Though Fatty and Minnie bristles with offensive stereotypes, Devereaux’s role is “rare in the history of cinematic representations of Native American women,” according to Michelle H. Raheja (Seneca) in Reservation Reelism, because “she possesses a clear sense of sexual agency that is not predicated on the looking relations that dominate most gendered and raced viewing practices.” Her burning desire for uproarious revenge against white male colonizers is not only nasty: it is contagious. – Maggie Hennefeld, Laura Horak
Prog. 2: Genders of Farce
LE MÉNAGE DRANEM (FR 1912)
regia/dir: ?. cast: Dranem (il marito/the husband). prod: Pathé Frères. uscita/rel: 03-09.01.1913 (Omnia Pathé, Paris). copia/copy: DCP (orig. 215 m.), 11’31”; senza did./no titles. fonte/source: Gaumont-Pathé Archives, Saint-Ouen, Paris.
PHIL-FOR-SHORT (US 1919)
regia/dir: Oscar Apfel. scen: Clara Beranger, Forrest Halsey. photog: Max Schneider, asst. Nelson H. Minnerly. cast: Evelyn Greeley (Damophilia Illington), Charles Walcott (Professor Illington), James Furey (Pat Mehan), Jack Drumier (Donald MacWrath), Ann Egelston (Eliza MacWrath), Hugh Thompson (John Alden), Henrietta Simpson (Mrs. Alden), Charles Duncan (Mr. Alden), Ethel Grey Terry (Angelica Wentworth), Edward Arnold (Tom Wentworth). prod: Oscar Apfel, World Film Corporation. dist: World Film Corporation. uscita/rel: 02.06.1919. copia/copy: DCP (orig. 5742 ft.), 81’50”; did./titles: ENG. fonte/source: Library of Congress National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, Packard Campus, Culpeper, VA.
“All great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice,” declared Karl Marx, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” When power loses all semblance of legitimacy but remains as entrenched as ever, it cannot fail to become farcical. The historical rule of farcical repetition goes double for gender. Rigid norms and damaging stereotypes appear wildly ridiculous when they lose their unquestioned, hegemonic authority. Silent film comedies cashed in on the zany unraveling of traditional gender roles, with mixed results. Examples range from Alice Guy’s Les Résultats du féminisme (Gaumont, 1906) and The Suffragette’s Dream (Pathé, 1909) – in which men nurse babies and “crochet for dear life” – to Her First Flame (Bull’s Eye, 1920) and What’s the World Coming To? (Hal Roach Studios, 1926). In these films, gender anarchy is both outrageously extreme and inescapably temporary. Their conservative endings cannot contain their carnivalesque midsections.
“The second time as farce” could be the tagline for Le Ménage Dranem (Pathé, 1912), a comedy about the topsy-turvy consequences of feminism. On the one hand, the film reads as the pathetic revenge fantasy of a henpecked husband whose browbeating wife condemns him to the thankless labor of “dry nurse” (no match for the bovine nursemaids in La Grève des nourrices). Monsieur Dranem cooks, cleans, and sews “like an elephant threading a needle,” while his militant wife gambols around in pantaloons, smokes pipes, drinks pints, plays cards in the park, and assaults her cowed spouse. As summarized by Ciné-Journal, Madame “emprunte au sexe fort tous ses défauts, sans ses qualités” (“borrows from the stronger sex all its faults without any of its qualities”). On the other hand, once the genie is out of the bottle (so to speak), the binds of assigned gender roles will never look or feel the same again, which should be apparent by the absurd return to normalcy pictured at the end of the film.
Farce saturates every frame of Oscar Apfel’s Phil-for-Short (1919), a rollicking burlesque about improbable romance between a cross-dressing spitfire and an avowed “woman-hater,” who are both Greek professors at a co-ed college in New Jersey. Many American silent films envisioned queer romances between a woman-hater and a disguised girl or tomboy: The Snowbird (Metro, 1916), The Tomboy (Fox, 1921), The Wild Party (Paramount, 1929), and Apfel’s own follow-up, The Trail of the Law (Producers Security Corp., 1923), starring Norma Shearer. But Phil-for-Short was censored (of all things) for being “too nice”! Variety condemned it as a “a sissy play, too nice for our boys; we want them to be manly,” they quoted, after a local screening attended by a Boy Scout troop in Wilmette, Illinois. There are several effeminate male characters in the film, including notorious “woman-hater” John Alden (Hugh Thompson). But perhaps they should have been more worried about Damophilia (Evelyn Greeley), the title character, who is also a Sapphic dancer, temporary cross-dresser, ancient Greek polyglot, daytime farm laborer, and mischievous trickster. She goes by the nickname Phil (for short), because “Wouldn’t you rather be called phil than damn?” Her full name, Damophilia, comes from a poem by Sappho, ancient Greek lyrist from the Isle of Lesbos, whose homeland is, of course, also the etymology of “lesbian,” and who has symbolized female homoeroticism since the Hellenistic period.
References to Sap(p)ho were ubiquitous in silent cinema: there were no less than 20 film adaptations of Alphonse Daudet’s novel Sapho produced between 1896 and 1920, according to queer film historian Kiki Loveday. Film and dance scholar Mary Simonson argues that ancient Greece functioned as “an imagined space through which early twentieth-century Americans, especially white middle- and upper-class American women, could access particular experiences and claim particular rights – the right to education, to bodily liberation, to full political engagement.” These dual implications of Sapphism – same-sex eroticism and classist gatekeeping – encircle Phil-for-Short’s libidinal tensions. Exchange economies of the sexual and marital marketplace make room for play and delimit what’s socially possible within this wily narrative, where Sappho and misogyny freefall toward the altar together.
Co-written by the prolific silent film scriptwriter Clara Beranger (see also Miss Lulu Bett in the “American Women Screenwriters” series), Phil’s dialogue is frothy, cutting, and hilarious: “I knew I could make you love me if I could get you mad enough.” And: “Oh, my husband’s all right – but he’s not vital.” The film’s farcical plot revolves around cheeky innuendo and situational disguise, both of which frequently thematize sexual misunderstanding and gender misrecognition. For example, a motif of blurry point-of-view shots captures Alden’s confused perspective after Phil steals or hides his glasses. But even when he can see what’s right under his nose, he repeatedly fails to detect its meaning: from Phil’s gender identity to the shape-shifting exuberance of female desire. As supposedly translated from ancient Greek, “The man who takes an eel by the tail or a woman at her word soon finds that he holds nothing.” Or, more to the point, “every woman will make a fool of some man at least once.” We quite agree. – Maggie Hennefeld, Laura Horak