In 2023, the representation of women on film depends on the people behind the scenes. While the number of women working behind the scenes—as directors, screenwriters and producers, etc.—continues to increase, they still lag behind their male counterparts. This wasn’t always the case. With many men away fighting World War I and film not yet seen as a moneymaking pursuit; women held many positions of power. They were able to freely express themselves through silent film. Largely forgotten today, Kino’s new four-disc Blu-ray set, Cinema’s First Nasty Women, seeks to shine a light on those early women who challenged stereotypes and rebelled against a society that told them what to do and how to behave.
While names like Mary Astor, Lillian Gish and Gloria Swanson immediately come to mind when discussing silent film, Cinema’s First Nasty Women instead focuses on women such as Bertha Regustus, Minnie Deveraux, Lilian St. Cyr and others who history has largely forgotten, making this a must have set for film fans and students alike.
Running more than 14 hours, the set divides 99 films made between 1896 and 1926—mostly shorts—into four topics. On Disc 1, Disastrous Domestics and Anarchic Tomboys looks at the power of women to disrupt domestic life in an upper-class household. Things begin with France’s Léontine (last name unknown), who plays a ten-year-old child whose natural enthusiasm leads to several disasters. In another, Italy’s slapstick comedienne Lea Giunchi (best known for a series of films named after her, “Lea’s”) may be 16 and still under the thumb of her parents, but she’s clever enough to outwit them. In “Lea on Roller-Skates,” She’s is determined to find a way to marry her fiancée who is being pressured to marry someone else. Both Léontine and Lea star in shorts that occasionally make time for a traditional plot but are more often one joke stretched out to a few moments. Even so, their bubbly personalities are infectious and get the point across.
Disc 2, Queens of Destruction offers a series of French slapstick comedies that challenge gender roles. Featuring three popular French comedienne characters, Cunégonde (Little Chrysia), takes on her husband’s job when he is too ill to work. Her versatility is on display, as she goes from playing maids to wealthy housewives with ease. Rosalie and Petronille (both played by Sarah Duhamel) embrace the idea of social protest. Duhamel’s physicality (and to a slightly lesser degree, Little Chrysia) ease of movement is reminiscent of legends like Fatty Arbuckle and Charles Chaplin.
Moving away from slapstick comedy, Disc 3, Gender Rebels, shows us a series of action films where women disguise themselves as males to participate in professions reserved for men. Three surviving films from writer/director/actor Gene Gauntier’s girl spy series are presented here. Perhaps most interestingly is the work of Edna “Billy” Foster, a young girl who specialized in playing boys (and lived as a boy from a young age) and was prized by directors for her ability to realistically express emotion.
“Gender Frontiers” shows the flexibility of western costume between the genders. Its not only possible, but likely a girl grew up ridin’ and ropin,’ as shown in A Range Romance (1911). This allows for the suggestion of same-sex romance, as long as things ended as expected. As long as none of these cross-dressing characters are too convincing and the audience is never fooled, its acceptable.
Disc 4, Female Tricksters, explores cross-dressing and the various opportunities it creates for accidental same-sex attraction, women dressing as men to survive the city streets and a futuristic look at a time when men are like women, among others.
Whether its domestic rebellion, rebellion against society, or cross-gender drama in the old west, these films provide a real sense of the freedom given to women during the early silent era. Carefully curated, Cinema’s First Nasty Women is a wonderful document of a largely forgotten era that deserves to be remembered for generations to come.
Special features include: “What Is a Nasty Woman?” Video introduction to the collection, featuring series curators Laura Horak, Maggie Hennefeld, Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi, and music supervisor Dana Reason. Eleven short documentaries focused on specific films and performers, including interviews with Liza Black, TJ Cuthand, Maggie Hennefeld, Laura Horak, Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi, Dana Reason, Arigon Starr, Susan Stryker, and Kyla Wazana Tompkins. Audio commentaries for select films. 120-page booklet with essays, interviews, photos, and detailed film notes.