There’s a growing consensus women are getting shortchanged (as usual) in the revival of silent movie comedy. While Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd are justly celebrated and lesser knowns like Charley Chase are getting their due, their female counterparts have been largely ignored.
But times are a-changing. Steve Massa’s encyclopedic “Slapstick Divas” (available from BearManor Media) pays tribute to hundreds of femme farceurs, while Lara Gabrielle’s superb new “Captain of Her Soul” (University of California Press) brings actress-comedienne Marion Davies vibrantly to life.
Now “Cinema’s First Nasty Women” (Kino Classics) has exhumed 99 rare films in an outstanding four-disc, 14-hour Blu-ray collection (also on DVD), featuring dozens of forgotten funny ladies and unusually adventurous gals. These seldom seen short films (and two features), produced in Europe and America between 1898 and 1926, offer up the offbeat, unexpected and downright bizarre at every turn.
Historians Maggie Hennefeld, Laura Horak, and Elif Rangen-Kaynakci have curated this set from 13 international archives. They’ve concentrated on largely unavailable and difficult to find films and highlighted obscure performers. There’s a decidedly feminist agenda here, with black, indigenous, and people of color prominently included in the mix; BIPOC are also represented on the soundtracks, which were commissioned from more than 40 composers, mostly women.
The maids and housewives in the first two discs of prehistoric slapstick comedies may look innocent but they pull pranks, smoke pipes, strike, riot, weaponize food, smash dishes over hubby’s head, electrocute police, and otherwise wreak havoc.
Cross-dressers and gender-benders inhabit the other two discs, with frequent surprises. That pioneer action hero of 1910 pulling “himself” across a gully on a rope to rescue a kidnapped baby is a Native gal (Lillian St. Cyr) in cowboy duds. And the rough and tumble cowgirl (lesbian actress Fay Tincher) sent to a woman’s college turns a dance class into a laugh riot when she accessorizes her skimpy frills with boots, gun and holster.
Rebellious French tomboy Leontine cavorts in more than a dozen shorts. Little Chrysia (Cunegonde), black comedienne Bertha Regustus, Native woman Minnie Devereaux (Minnie Ha Ha), and D.W. Griffith stalwart Edna “Billy” Foster are among those spotlighted in the collection.
Florence Turner (“The Vitagraph Girl”) and nightclub impresario Texas Guinan are also here; men onscreen include Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Clyde Cook, Mack Sennett (in his early acting days), and Sessue Hayakawa (who dons redface in an intertribal melodrama).
Instead of whitewashing history as earlier compilations have done, the curators have flagged potentially offensive content such as racially insensitive dialogue (in subtitles) and blackface gags. Video intros and commentary tracks provide extensive context; a handsome 112-page booklet accompanies the set.