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Blu Ray Review: Cinema's First Nasty Women

In my career of published articles on cinema that dates back to the 1970s, there have been a few real standouts that are so historically significant, so aesthetically brilliant, and so remarkably created that one has trouble finding appropriate adjectives so as to offer necessary respect and not topple into blathering fandom. Kino Lorber’s new blu ray set Cinema’s First Nasty Women is just such a project.

Mining film archives throughout the world to find important and interesting subjects during cinema’s first 30 years, the producers of this set present 99 various films featuring what they call “rarely seen silent films about feminist protest, anarchic slapstick destruction, and suggestive gender play.” They further explain that the films come from the United States, France, Italy, Sweden, and Denmark, sourced from 13 international film archives and libraries.”

There are also problematic images within the context of the films – whites doing blackface, stereotypes, etc – that the curators explain as historically significant for us to better understand the culture, the era, the context, and, as historian Charlene Regester states in the set’s accompanying booklet: “The value of these silent pictures cannot be overstated – they capture society’s cultural history in all of its complexity and, more importantly, reveal how earlier generations responded to prescribed roles based on gender and race, and the challenge these representations."

The first disc is entitled Disastrous Domestics & Anarchic Tomboys, and opens with a series of French films featuring Léontine, and introduced by film and culture historian, Professor Maggie Hennefeld. These fascinating and funny short films present a rebellious woman who causes disruptions in a comic manner. History has not recorded the name of the actress who plays Léontine. These are followed by a few films from Italy featuring Lea Giunchi (Lea bambola from 1913 is especially clever). The first disc also includes short films directed by the likes of D.W. Griffith, Edwin S. Porter, and Frank S. Armitage. Florence Lawrence stars in Griffith’s Her First Biscuits (1909) in which a rebellious newlywed wife’s bakeries cause anyone who eats them to become violently ill. Black actress Bertha Regustus is the star of Porter’s Laughing Gas (1907) in which she gets a tooth pulled, and her reaction to the nitrous oxide causes her to laugh uncontrollably, which affects everyone she meets. Wallace McCutcheon directs the disturbing Mixed Babies (1908) which deals with an African American baby and a white baby becoming mixed up, and their respective mothers responding.

Disc two is entitled Queens of Destruction and begins with the Little Chrysia films introduced by Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi, the lead curator at EYE Filmmuseum. It is Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi whose research revealed this actress played Cunégonde in a series of films made from 1911-1913, several of which are on this disc. One of the better films is Cunégonde ramoneur, in which she gets into slapstick trouble while working as a kitchen maid. This disc also includes Sarah Duhamel’s Rosalie comedies, and her subsequent Pétronille comedies. The imposing Indigenous comedienne Minnie Devereaux works well with Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle in the Arbuckle-directed Mack Sennett-produced Keystone comedy Fatty and Minnie-He-Haw (1914). Sennett appears as an actor in D.W. Griffith’s Biograph film Lucky Jim (1909) starring Marion Leonard as a no-nonsense wife who does not respond well to criticism.

Disc three is Gender Rebels, opening with Kalem’s Girl Spy series, introduced by film historians and professors Laura Horak and Jane M. Gaines. Dr. Susan Stryker introduces some D.W. Griffith films starring Edna “Billy” Foster, a young girl who played boy parts in several Biograph films. These fascinating subjects (four are included on this disc), are given special insight in the set’s accompanying booklet where Professor Horak’s essay gives us background, including an interview from 1914. That year her older sister (also an actress) died at 16, and Edna made one last film before leaving movies. Films featuring gender bending in the context of the western and comedy genres are offered on this disc, presenting a fascinating look at some of the creatively courageous filmmakers who explored unconventional ideas. A Range Romance (1911), introduced by Professor Horak, is a particularly fascinating film.

The fourth and final disc is Female Tricksters which deals with mistaken identity and women playing men or playing female characters pretending to be men. D.W. Griffith’s Pranks (1909) has a couple getting out from swimming and putting on each other’s clothes. They chase the pranksters who switch the clothing, and are seen by what Professor Horak calls “perhaps the first surviving example of an explicity gay couple” played by comedian Billy Quirk and actor Henry B. Walthall (the colonel in Birth of a Nation). I especially liked What’s The World Coming To (1926), a wonderfully bizarre Hal Roach comedy co-written by Stan Laurel. The film is set 100 years in the future with men now the weaker sex and women the dominant ones in society. It is the perfect film to conclude the set.

The accompanying booklet is filled with enlightening background information on the women in this set, including, along with the aforementioned, Professor Liza Black's essay on Minnie Devereaux and Profressor Regester's essay on Black women of silent comedy.

Of course, the depth and scope of a four-disc set that includes 99 films and an accompanying booklet where experts offer great insight cannot be contained by a mere review. Suffice it to say that Cinema’s First Nasty Women is an absolutely essential addition to any library, research center, or private film collection that intends to be at all comprehensive. The set, and its films, are important for their historical significance, visual aesthetics, and entertainment value. It is, quite frankly, the greatest video release of 2022.

The set is available here: NASTY WOMEN

James L. Neibaur
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