Women and Silent Screen V, Stockholm University June 2008

A belated and partial report from the always inspiring Women and Silent Screen conference. This biennial event, which began in Utrecht in 1999, is for me one of best academic conferences around on topic of cinema history. Not only is the conference small enough that it has almost a family get together sort of feeling, but the quality of the research is uniformly excellent and typically addresses uncharted territory in film history. In addition, the screenings at each of the conferences (I have been fortunate to attend four of the five held) are filled with rarely or unseen gems of the cinema (and usually with jaw dropping gorgeous prints). This year was no exception, and I want to start out by sending out a big thank you to Astrid Soderbergh Widding and Sofia Bull and their crew in Cinema Studies at Stockholm University for their all hard work, hospitality, and indefatigable good cheer. Other acknowledgements for conference organization efforts should be sent out to Jane Gaines, Annette Kuhn, and Tytti Soila. In addition, the collective efforts of Annette Forster, Elif Rongen-Kaynakci from the Netherlands Film Museum and Kajsa Hedstrom and John Wengstrom from the Swedish Film Institute on the conference screenings were simply amazing to say the least — beautiful, fascinating, rare, and pristine 35mm prints were shown each day of the event.

Astrid Soderbergh Widding and Laura Horak’s presentations separately examined the phenomena of cross-dressing in the silent era. Soderbergh Widding looked at the 1926 Swedish comedy by Karin Swanstrom, FLICKAN I FRACK/THE GIRL IN TAILS (a restored version was premiered at the conference), which uses the device as a narrative strategy to question gender roles, while Horak’s talk explored the “Biograph Boy,” Edna/Billy Foster, whose roles were not so much cross-dressing but rather working from the theatrical tradition of male impersonation. Again, we were fortunate enough to see an example of the “Biograph Boy” in a screening of the D.W. Griffith film, BILLY’S STRATAGEM (1912) although the radicality of the gender role twist is countered with Griffith’s usual dualistic vision of race/ethnicity, and indeed gender, since Billy’s role is in fact to save “his” sister from marauding Indians, a plot structure we know all too well from the director’s career.

Cross-dressing could be much more stylized or performative as Victoria Duckett’s paper on Sarah Bernhardt underlined the largely overlooked or unappreciated “theatrical film” in early cinema. Often seen as an anachronism, Duckett made a compelling case for thinking of Bernhardt’s films as falling outside of the silent film classifications of “attractions” or “classical narrative.”  Anne Morey examined similarly a cross-over from the theatrical tradition in her presentation on Geraldine Ferrar, a Metropolitan Opera star who strangely enough made only one film, CARMEN (Cecil B. DeMille, 1915) which was an adaptation from the opera stage.   As Morey notes, Ferrar’s casting was an effort by Hollywood to bring in mass audiences to the cinema with an appeal to “high class” performances, but here the sheer presence of Ferrar rather than the art form itself was the designator of the “class” act.

Some of the histories discussed at the conference were dependent upon many hours spent pouring over the rich resources of  the Margaret Herrick Library (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles), and one panel was particularly inspiring for helping us to think about the many different kinds of materials found there.    Barbara Hall, Richard Abel, Mark Garrett Cooper, and Jennifer Horne all gave us insights into opportunities for research at the Herrick.   Barbara Hall noted particularly the Pickford papers, the Mack Sennett collection, early sheet music and fan magazine collections on hand, while Richard Abel pointed out the Herrick’s often overlooked collection of Selig promotional material from cinema’s earliest days.     Jennifer Horne reminded us that the Herrick could also be a treasure trove of cultural history (beyond film production material) by discussing her work on the “better films movement” and the connections between women’s clubs, public libraries, and film exhibition. 
Lastly — and I am leaving out far too many amazing panels and films at this year’s conference  — I wanted to note a panel I was fortunate enough to chair and to learn much from,  on “Film Festivals,” featuring Kay Armatage, Ingrid Stiggsdotter, and Kelly Robinson.   This panel was especially interesting in that it focused on parallels in time between women’s participation and recognition in early and contemporary cinema as well as on writing and curatorial practices that would enable women’s film history to resonate with new audiences.     In the discussion that followed we all realized how fragile women’s place in film history still is today — not only for their labor in the silent era, but also from its not so distant past (1970s women’s filmmaking and film festivals are still in need of historians, theorists, and archival documentation).   It was simultaneously a sobering (i.e., how much is to be done) and exhilarating (how much there is to learn!) conversation.    As always, I came away from the Women and Silent Screen conference energized and most importantly, fortified with the knowledge that so many wonderful scholars are working on related terrain.

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