In shorts from the early 20th century, the stars defy gender stereotypes that would later be standard in Hollywood, as a museum series and box set make clear.
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Much has been made of cinema’s recent vanguard of female superheroes, the crusading women who give as good as they take. But long before Wonder Woman and her Amazonian sisters charged the big screen, long before feminist scholars began calling out the film industry’s inequities and long before talking movies became the norm, women ran wild in movies. And I mean, really wild. They riotously schemed, fought and defied convention, racing and laughing their way to liberation — or something like it.
This weekend, you can get a peek at just how free women in cinema were in a program of shorts called “Queens of Destruction: A Selection of Films From Cinema’s First Nasty Women.” Screening Saturday and Sunday at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, this program of 11 titles is a tasty sampler of “Cinema’s First Nasty Women,” a four-disc Kino Lorber box set that will be available Sept. 27. A mind-expanding endeavor, the set features 99 mostly comic rarities produced from 1898 to 1926, gleaned from archives and libraries across the globe. It is a triumph of scholarship.
It’s also the latest chapter in a larger, continuing initiative to rethink and rewrite the mainstream history of cinema, one that for too long mispresented the foundational contributions of women and people of color. This history hasn’t simply marginalized those contributions, but has persistently ignored and even expunged them. It is an infuriating erasure, one that has shaped both our sense of the past and our understanding of the present. The women and people of color engaged in this endeavor aren’t concocting a wishful counterhistory; they’re putting themselves back into a history they helped create.
The title of this specific initiative was inspired by Donald Trump’s calling Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” in the final 2016 presidential debate, an epithet that rapidly became a meme and a feminist rallying cry. In a booklet for the box set, the collection’s curators — the scholars Maggie Hennefeld, Laura Horak and Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi — write that the “Nasty Women” label went viral because it resonated “with the furious ethos of 21st-century feminist movements.” That’s fair, even if yoking this project to an intended slur feels limiting. And while some women in the program get dirty, none seem especially nasty, at least in the usual sense.
Still, they may have registered as offensive and indecent back in the day, and some of the characters’ cross-dressing and gender play would clearly offend some modern-day viewers. Certainly contemporary American reviewers weren’t thrilled with the French comic character Léontine, the titular attraction in a series of films produced between 1910 and 1912. As in many of these shorts, the stories are elemental: Léontine, who’s dressed as a child but played by a grinning adult woman (the actress’s identity remains unknown), behaves very badly, sometimes violently, and gets into heaps of trouble.
The titles are spoilers: In “Léontine Gets Carried Away,” she is carried aloft by balloons; in “Léontine’s Boat,” our girl floods her house in order to play with a toy boat. She inundates her home again in the more engaging and provocative “Léontine Keeps House,” in which the stakes are higher because she’s been left home alone to care for her much-younger sibling and a dog. Choreographed chaos ensues, some playful — she washes dishes only to toss them behind her back — and some less so, as her antics burgeon exponentially, leaving her with a houseful of (real) screaming babies and bewildered dogs.
The disruption of the domestic sphere is a leitmotif that runs through these films, which is expected given the shocks of the 19th-century suffragist movement and the emergence of the cultural figure of the New (emancipated, modern) Woman. Again and again, women test boundaries and overturn stereotypes, including those later reproduced by commercial cinema. One of the delights of this collection is how insistently these films deviate from the familiar Hollywood images of women in the early 20th century. These are not the polite, weak sisters of cinema — there’s a lot of muscle and mischief to go with those long skirts!
The complexities of representation are evident in one of the stranger themes: The self-destructive maid who, in lighting a fire, destroys herself. In the British film “Mary Jane’s Mishap,” a grinning maid merrily bustles about in a kitchen, gets some boot polish on her face (creating a smudgy mustache) and uses too much fuel on the fire, self-immolating and whooshing up the chimney. The maid in the wonderful “Rosalie and Her Phonograph” has a far better time: She dances with the title character, her mistress, whose new machine somehow manages to scramble the contents of a room, creating glorious disorder. It’s a funny, lovely way to subvert gender norms, and it’s no wonder Rosalie laughs as she spins.
Laughter can be subversive, of course, and one of the great satisfactions of these films is watching so many women laugh — often guffawing, not tittering — through one predicament after another. In the revelatory “Laughing Gas,” an African American woman (Bertha Regustus) visits the dentist for a toothache and receives some nitrous oxide. She starts laughing heartily, and her mirth becomes infectious, causing everyone she meets to giggle and chortle, too, including the white passengers on a train, her white employers and the Black congregants at her church. Her laughter is liberating, and it is joyous.
Although “Laughing Gas” is free of the crude racial caricature that was common at the time, not all the movies here are. As the unending (not new!) debates about representation underscore, old movies can be tricky. Given their historical moments, of course, they can be disappointingly racist and sexist, and tough to watch, which is the case with “Rowdy Ann.” Its title character, a gun-toting rancher’s daughter, is amusing and untypical, but when she thinks that a Black train porter is coming on to her — and she gives chase to him, gun drawn — the film’s comedy and feminist promise turn into a ghastly vision of white terrorism.
In the booklet, the curators smartly address these kinds of difficulties head-on, inviting viewers to do the same. We can close our eyes to the past, rejecting what makes us uncomfortable, or we can navigate through the thickets of representation, taking pleasure where and when we want while also forcefully confronting hateful ideas and images. The booklet includes a conversation with women and scholars of color about the challenges of reclaiming the past. “I believe we must stare at what has gone wrong in the past (instead of simply ‘canceling’ it),” the film scholar Yiman Wang says, “in order to figure out how to redress and repair, and to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.” Yes!
Queens of Destruction
Saturday and Sunday at the Museum of the Moving Image. Go to movingimage.us for more information.