By Alyssa Tremblay
A triumph of scholarship…scintillating footage…an ambitious compilation…
These are the words used by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Sight & Sound magazine to describe Cinema's First Nasty Women — a four-disc DVD box set featuring 99 lost and forgotten movies from the silent film era featuring audacious female protagonists.
Spanning 1898 to 1926, this collection of rare footage challenges the popular misconception that it wasn’t until Hollywood blockbusters like Alien (1979) and Terminator (1984) that women were cast as on-screen action stars.
"In the silent era, there were actually tons of women action heroes," explains Laura Horak, an Associate Professor of Film Studies at Carleton University.
Heroes like Lillian St. Cyr, a Ho-Chunk Indigenous actor who starred in 70 films and did all her own stunts.
"She was a star! She was an action hero in 1910! These things were happening 100 years ago, we've just forgotten."Prof. Laura Horak, School for Studies in Art and Culture
"She was a star! She was an action hero in 1910! These things were happening 100 years ago, we've just forgotten."
Horak co-curated the Cinema’s First Nasty Women collection alongside University of Minnesota professor Maggie Hennefeld and Amsterdam-based archivist Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi.
A selection of the collection's films will be screened in Ottawa on Saturday, March 18 at 7 p.m. at the historic Mayfair Theatre, as part of the International Film Festival of Ottawa.
Featuring live musical accompaniment by pianist Dana Reason and percussionist Peter Valsalmis and an introduction from Horak herself, the screening includes five short films from the DVD set: "The Red Girl and the Child" (1910) starring Lilian St. Cyr, "The Girl Spy Before Vicksburg" (1910) starring writer-director-producer Gene Gaunthier, "A Range Romance" (1911), "The Night Rider" (1920) starring Texas Guinan, and "What's the World Coming To?" (1926) starring Katherine Grant.
For Horak, the screening is the culmination of years of research, going back to her time spent combing through film libraries as part of her doctoral thesis — now a published book — on cross-dressed women, lesbians and American cinema from 1908-1934.
"Ever since I started doing archival research in trans history, I've been amazed by what I found in terms of the diversity," says Horak, who recalls being "blown away" at her discoveries while watching movies on a spring break visit to the Library of Congress as an undergraduate at Yale.
Still, she was frustrated by the inaccessibility of these extraordinary films, stored away in archives and only viewable upon request. Her feelings were shared by her co-curator Hennefeld, a friend from grad school who had the same experience while conducting her own research.
"We were finding all these amazing films in grad school that no one else could see." Prof. Laura Horak, School for Studies in Art and Culture
"We were finding all these amazing films in grad school that no one else could see."
Inspired by the Women Film Pioneers boxset, Horak and Hennefeld applied for a SSHRC Partnership Grant, brought on Rongen-Kaynakçi — a silent film curator at EYE Filmmuseum Netherlands — and began the process of putting together their own DVD collection of silent films featuring women in leading roles.
"We just felt that people need to see these films, or else no one will believe that this is what early cinema was actually like," Horak says. "I was never taught about all the crossdressing, rampant sexuality, and Black and Indigenous comedians in early cinema in my film classes."
Sharing these lost stories is crucial for many reasons. According to Horak, an estimated 90% of all silent films are lost due to lack of conservation.
"Back then, these films weren't believed to be that valuable, so people didn't put in the effort to preserve them," she explains.
Early film was shot on nitrate celluloid, a finicky material that would degrade or even self-combust if not kept in a cool and dry location.
In the right conditions, nitrate celluloid can last more than 100 years. However, many studios would simply destroy or even pre-emptively burn film reels when they started to deteriorate. As a result, most of the history of early cinema went up in flames — which is why it's so important to not let the films that survived sit unknown and unwatched in storage.
These poor archival practices at the dawn of cinematic history presented logistical challenges to Horak and her colleagues when it came to locating the titles of films they were looking for and determining the names of the actors featured in them — including those in starring roles.
The other big hurdle was acquisition. Even with institutional support from Carleton and grant funding, it was at times prohibitively expensive to access specific archives and digitize particularly damaged films. When seeking permission to screen, distribute and stream a single two-minute silent movie, multiple stakeholders were often involved and, in some cases, rights holders would demand thousands of dollars, even if the archive that housed the film itself was more than happy to share it.
"Because of this, there were plenty of lost silent films we would have loved to include, but couldn't," says Horak, "which speaks to the scale of how many of these movies are still out there, both archived and yet still unfound. With more funds and more time, we could have easily filled a six-disc set."
For the movies that made the boxset, Horak and her co-curators commissioned a fleet of musicians to score each film. They also brought together an anti-racist advisory board, working with Black and Indigenous scholars and filmmakers to create an accompanying booklet and video introductions addressing the discriminatory elements present in many of these early films.
"It was important to us to not whitewash our vision of the past, to acknowledge the racism that existed then and contextualize it as well, putting these films into conversations with BIPOC scholars and creators." Prof. Laura Horak, School for Studies in Art and Culture
"It was important to us to not whitewash our vision of the past, to acknowledge the racism that existed then and contextualize it as well, putting these films into conversations with BIPOC scholars and creators."
Among the boxset’s 99 films, Horak’s favourite actor is Edna "Billy" Foster. Assigned female at their birth in 1900, Foster nonetheless played almost exclusively male roles in cinema, with critics at the time referring to them as a boy.
"I've been fascinated with them since grad school," Horak says. "We don't know how they identified, but it's so interesting that more than 100 years ago, a 'girl' could have a career as a boy in cinema!"
Foster, like many of the actors featured in the boxset, is a clear example of how our current moment isn't unique in terms of the range of gender expression and identities in circulation.
"These are not new concepts, nor fringe ones," says Horak. "Foster was a mainstream performer."
Beyond this project, in her role as director of the Transgender Media Lab and Transgender Media Portal at Carleton University, Horak investigates the history of transgender and queer film and media in the United States, Canada and Sweden.
She sees her work on trans cinema and the silent era as related, because in both cases "no one knows these films exist and there are these small, passionate communities of people dedicated to preserving and collecting them."
"In the last 30 years, trans filmmakers have made thousands of films — they’re just hard to find because they don't receive the same amount of marketing and distribution. They play in trans and queer film circles for a few years, and everyone loves them, but then they disappear. This is what the Transgender Media Portal is trying to preserve. We think people should be able to see these films." Prof. Laura Horak, School for Studies in Art and Culture
"In the last 30 years, trans filmmakers have made thousands of films — they’re just hard to find because they don't receive the same amount of marketing and distribution. They play in trans and queer film circles for a few years, and everyone loves them, but then they disappear. This is what the Transgender Media Portal is trying to preserve. We think people should be able to see these films."
Once launched, the Transgender Media Portal will serve as a vital database where people can search for films by themes, genres, actors, directors and locations, as well as find information about where and how to view them.
Similar to the Cinema’s First Nasty Women boxset, the lack of access and centralized documentation around these materials demonstrates how films from the last 30 years can face the same accessibility problems as films from 100 years ago — with the goal in both cases being to shine a light on these fantastic, underappreciated bodies of creative work.
Horak is adamant that trans people especially should have better access to this existing, if obscured, history of artistic thought and activism around gender identity and sexuality.
"My students often argue that all media is sexist, racist and poorly represents trans people. While that's true of mainstream film and television, there are so many other lesser-known works out there, a secret canon spanning literal decades, that's already telling the stories they wish they were seeing. The only difference is visibility. That’s why it's important to support artists who are creating this tradition but can't afford to advertise their art."
With both projects, the hope is to expand public awareness around what gets celebrated and considered part of the so-called canon when it comes to the history of cinema — something that the irreverent title Cinema’s First Nasty Women pokes at directly.
Originating as an insult hurled at Hilary Clinton by Donald Trump during a debate in the 2016 United States presidential elections, the phrase "nasty woman" was swiftly reclaimed and mobilized into a feminist rallying cry around the idea that women shouldn't need to play nice and demure to be treated with respect.
In the case of the boxset, the phrase is strategically employed to wryly counter the sexist idea that women actors can't be brash, daring, physically impressive and side-splittingly funny — when in fact, as the films themselves demonstrate, they have been since the very dawn of Western cinema itself.
Horak points to Léontine, an internationally popular French comedienne character featured in over 21 silent films from 1910-1912, whose identity remains unknown to this day.
"She's a brilliant comedian who we know nothing about except for her films, which we keep finding. She's so funny, so bad, always causing chaos — she wants a place to float her boat, so she floods the kitchen!"
"It's such a stupid question: 'Are women funny?'," Horak says. "Yes, and they always have been! It's just that the people who took the time and effort to collect, show and write about the films that became considered cinematic ‘canon’ were white and affluent men who didn't care about people like this."
Tickets are available now to attend the screening of "Cinema's First Nasty Women: Gender Adventures" on March 18 at 7 p.m. at the Mayfair Theatre as part of the 2023 International Film Festival of Ottawa.
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