Cinema’s First Nasty Women. Various actors and directors including Florence Turner, Faye Tincher Bertha Regustus and Alice Ardell.  (1907-1926) (92 minutes).

A selection of six short comedies from a collection of 99 silent films sourced from international archives and collected on a 4-disc Blu Ray set from Kino are featured at the Carolina Theatre of Durham on September 13, 2023.  Kino assembled four 90-minute programs of these films from 1896-1926, in which women rebel, subvert gender roles and engage in riotous slapstick.  I chose films from those four programs that I found most engaging and surprising.  Rather than highlighting more famous comic performers like Mabel Normand and Gloria Swanson, this collection spotlights the obscure and the unknown, whose work has remained mostly unseen for the last century.  Calling them #nasty women plays into the recent revival of feminist politics and the embrace of the women disobedient to rising authoritarianism. The curators of the collection had first chosen a more academic sounding title for the collection, but when #nasty women became a rallying cry, the change seemed preordained.

Laura Horvath, Maggie Hennefeld and Elif Rongen-Kaynekei conceived the project in 2017 and received a $200,000 Canadian government grant to pay archive fees and musician commissions.  There are a total of 45 composers providing scores for the 99 films.  The project started in earnest right at the start of the pandemic, in March, 2020.

I’ve skipped over most of the earliest films in the selection, which center more on riotous slapstick and contain subgenres like rebellious, dish-smashing kitchen maids.

The curators of this collection assembled an anti-racist panel to discuss approaches to the many racist and colonialist topics in these films.  They determined that the past lives on in the present, and erasing these films further does nothing to erase the violence of its legacies.  We must learn from the past rather than escape or avoid it.  The scores for these films are composed by a diverse group of women and people of color.  The curators ask, who will be the audience for silent films in the 21st century?  By collecting and displaying these unusual films outside the canon, they hope to reframe their relevance for feminist and anti-racist viewers. Both “Rowdy Ann” and “She’s a Prince” engage with racial and blackface stereotyping, but at the same time, the gags are undermined by the heroine’s disobedience to societal norms.

Rosalie and Her Phonograph (1911) (4-minute fragment) Stage and screen actress Sarah Duhamel plays Rosalie, one of the two destructive characters she played on screen (the other is named Petronille).  This film demonstrates the pleasure of that new-fangled gadget, the phonograph, which spreads its delight from one inanimate object to another “bringing joy and chaos in equal measure.”

Daisy Doodad’s Dial (1914) (8 min).  This film was written and directed, as well as starring Florence Turner.  She was stage actress who was known for her imitations of both male and female cinema stars.  I wasn’t sure that a face making contest is a real thing, but it is!  Dial is slang for “face” and making faces, or “gurning” was a real thing.  There were international competitions, apparently.  How do you judge them? It seems awfully subjective.  The close ups in the film were a conventional way to begin and end.  Her husband is played by Lawrence Trimball, her partner in Turner Films, and his dog, Jean, was the company’s logo.  She was one of the earliest actors identified, first, as The Vitagraph Girl and later by her name and was one of the first actors who inspired fandom in early film.   In cinema’s earliest days, it was thought audiences didn’t care to identify the performers on screen, but quickly learned otherwise.  By 1915, she was considered too old for the movies, although she did have a few character roles, like Buster Keaton’s mother in College.

Laughing Gas (1907) (7 min).  Black actress Bertha Regustus is one of the earliest African Americans to appear onscreen.  She was a slapstick comedienne who worked for the Edison company and only three of her films are known to exist.  She is the leading character, Mandy Brown, in “Laughing Gas.”  Her infectious laughter, after a dental treatment of nitrous oxide, allows her a transgressive journey, through black and white spaces, all the while bringing her powerful joy to subvert racial and patriarchal norms. Her behavior is liberating to both herself on screen and to the audience, both black and white.

Rowdy Ann (1919) (24 min). Fay Tincher is the title character in “Rowdy Ann.” Born in Topeka Kansas to a well-to-do family, she was interested in acting from an early age.  She worked in silent movies from 1912-1928 appearing in 160 films, few of which survive. Tincher had her own film production company between 1917-1918, where she wrote, directed and starred in her own movies.  She signed with Al Christie Comedies in 1918, where she was featured in a series of Western themed films, not only in Rowdy Ann (1919), but also Go West Young Woman (1919), Wild and Western (1919), and Dangerous Nan McGrew (1919).  Her career had three phases, in which she first played sassy Ethel the Stenographer in the “Bill the Office Boy” films, then a cowgirl, and then Min Gump, the wife of Andy Gump in a series of comedies based on a popular comic strip.

“As a sometimes cross-dresser, Tincher reveled in roles that asked her to perform athletically and to face down danger. On June 20, 1915, the Fargo Daily published a photograph of the comic dressed as a boy, with a hat and cane, its caption quoting Tincher: “It’s more fun being a boy in a movie comedy than chewing a whole package of gum” (wfpp) Anita Loos penned some of her scripts and wrote in one of her memoirs, “The heroines of many of my half-reel farces were played by Fay Tincher, who has now been long forgotten.  Ideal for those rowdy scripts, Fay required no acting ability.  Let’s say that she had the pert allure of a “Patsy” and could be a provocative target for slapstick. Fay was anything but a sex symbol, and—in those days before lesbians came out of the closet—her fans never dreamed that their rambunctious little idol harbored a preference for g-i-r-l-s” (Loos 31). She lived to the ripe old age of 99, but never made another film after 1928 and is buried in an unmarked grave on Staten Island.

She’s a Prince (1926) (27 min).  Directed by Marcel Perez and starring Alice Ardell, Billy Franey and Billy Engel.  Ardell was a Parisian comedienne who frequently cross dressed in male attire.  I can’t tell you much about this one.  Alice Ardell was born in France in 1902.  She starred in a series of short comedies, with the more experienced Billy Franey and Billy Engle.  Franey had been a star comedian until 1921, when he became a character comic in support of other stars.  Engle also had a starring career, before falling to supporting roles.  Director Marcel Perez was one of the first generation of film comics who starred in over 200 silent shorts between 1900 and 1928, few of which survive.  He was born in Spain and made films both in Europe and the US, helping to define the grammar of screen comedy.

What’s the World Coming To (1926) (22 min) Directed by Richard Wallace and co-written by Stan Laurel.  Clyde Cook, Katherine Grant, James Finlayson, Martha Sleeper. One hundred years in the future where men are more like women and women are more like men.  The clothing and hair styles in the film evoke 20s lesbian chic, a wink to those in the know. There are some familiar faces in this final film.  Clyde Cook was an Australian comic known for his elastic contortions.  He was a star comic on Broadway and moved to Hollywood, joining Hal Roach in 1925.  Never first rank, he nevertheless had a long career in silents and talkies.  Katherine Grant was Miss Los Angeles at the age of 18, and became a favorite leading lady at Hal Roach.  In 1926, the year of this film, she had a “nervous breakdown” thought to be caused by excessive dieting and was hospitalized.  This is one of her last films.  You probably recognize James Finlayson, the Scottish actor who was a foil in many Laurel and Hardy movies, most notably “Big Business.”  He joined Mack Sennett in 1920 and Hal Roach in 1923.  His long double take, squint-, and one-eyed stare was a staple of 1920s slapstick.  Martha Sleeper joined Hal Roach at 11 and is hilarious imitating a chicken in “Pass the Gravy” one of my all-time favorite silent comedies.  She left Roach in 1928 and freelanced in Hollywood until reinventing herself as a designer of eccentric costume jewelry.   A Cast of Thousands by Anita Loos, A-Z of Silent Film Comedy by Glenn Mitchell