University of Minnesota Professor Uncovers Forgotten Feminist Silent Film Stars

Maggie Hennefeld met them alone, in the archives, in the dark. Daring, funny and original silent film stars, but forgotten because they were women.

A teenage tomboy flooding his house. A maid who explodes through the chimney. A woman dominating her husband with a lasso.

Hennefeld finally brings them to light.

“When most people think of silent and slapstick comedy, they think of Charlie Chaplin, maybe Harold Lloyd – who are brilliant,” said Hennefeld, associate professor of cultural studies and comparative literature at the University. of Minnesota. “But there were so many women who also did messy, violent, brutal slapstick.

“They have just been erased from history.”

Hennefeld and two co-curators unearthed 99 silent films produced from 1898 to 1926 for a new collection, calling on composers to pair them with new original scores. On August 25, te Trylon Cinema will screen 11 short films from “The first wicked women of cinema”, a set of four DVDs which will be released at the end of this month.

Hennefeld is one of a group of avid researchers who are using these erased films to rewrite the canon.

“She’s brilliant at moving between specific films and the larger theories they conjure up,” said Laura Horak, associate professor of film studies at Carleton University in Ottawa and co-curator of Hennefeld.

“One way these types of movies have been rejected in the past is that they’re fluffy, they’re not serious,” she said. “Maggie is able to tell that they don’t have to be any of those things to still be really important… They can tell us about those larger structures of society and film as a medium.”

Horak’s films in the collection feature cross-dressing and sexist characters. Hennefeld’s specialty is slapstick and the stars who have used it to smash, shatter and destroy our ideas about domestic life and gender norms.

For years, she’s followed one particular teenage prankster – known as Léontine or Titine – through the archives.

“It’s an anarchic force of nature…” Hennefeld writes in a 2019 essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books. “But the movie actress who played her remains unknown, unidentified, a ghost in movie history.”

And, after three more years of watching movies, browsing magazines, and combing distributor catalogs? “We still don’t know,” she said in a recent interview.

Here, Hennefeld discusses the archives she frequents, the films she loves, and who is remembered and why. Conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: How did you come to focus on female-centric slapstick silent films?

A: I’ve always been into comedy. Growing up, I loved watching funny women on “Saturday Night Live.” And I’ve always been a movie buff. I became more and more interested in silent cinema. There’s all this evangelism about rediscovering and restoring lost movies — especially ones that were unjustly written out of the canon, which is very male-dominated.

In 2010, I went to a conference called Women and the Silent Screen in Bologna. It is about rediscovering and historicizing lost feminist works, mainly films by female directors. There, all my disparate research interests came together.

I was traveling to archives in London and Amsterdam and Paris and Washington, D.C., to watch these movies that weren’t really available or at best were only available in low-res copy, circulating on and off YouTube without music nor just Scott Joplin rag music added as an afterthought.

So being able to make these movies accessible, show them in theaters, work with musicians and composers to put them to music, that’s pretty cool.

Q: What was it about Léontine, in particular, that captured your imagination?

A: She’s an impossible child. He’s a tomboy. She has this devilish urge she can’t resist. One thing will lead to another, and then, at the end of the episode, the house will be flooded or burned – or both.

These films were made on the brink of the outbreak of World War I in Europe, so you tap into something very dark and violent in European politics, these antagonisms exploding in a way that feels familiar to today.

As we anticipate the increasingly apocalyptic impulses of our own society, there is something deeply cathartic about watching his films. There’s this mid-century critical theory about how if a mass audience watches violent cartoons or slapstick comedies, they’ll provide a kind of inoculation against this collective psychosis.

Léontine came too late to save Europe, but maybe we can spread the gospel today.

Q: It’s crazy to think how many movies she’s been in and how good she was. How does it feel to see that these stars have been forgotten?

A: This is really the mission of the project. Considering the number of silent films lost forever, it’s a bit of a miracle that so many Léontine films have survived. So many movies survive, but they were just there. They were just preserved – it wasn’t like anyone was doing anything with them.

I’ve seen glimmers of Léontine in compilation films in the 80s and 90s made by male film historians who got the wrong year, country of origin. While they’re writing micro-stories about whether this Charlie Chaplin character debuted this month or that month — these minute debates — they’re so careless about anything that has to do with women.

Q: What happened that created the space for these films, which are quite subversive, to exist?

A: It was a moment. By the time you get to 1907, 1908, they become comedy of manners: My husband doesn’t want his wife to be a suffragist. But before that, it was the Wild West. It was such a popular mass medium. Cinema was for everyone. Manufacturers could not make films fast enough, so demand greatly exceeded supply. People loved these slapstick comedies and women wanted to participate in them.

As it became a larger, more lucrative, and more centralized industry, women could no longer play such an active role. There were prolific female directors until the late 19s, and then they started to be crowded out.

queens of destruction
What: Films from “The first wicked women of cinema”
When: 7 p.m. August 25
Where: Trylon Cinema, 2820 E. 33rd St., Mpls.
Cost: Free

About Herbert L. Leonard

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