Queer film history: Diana McLellan’s “The Girls: Sappho goes to Hollywood”


Photoshop by Edith Prestegaard; found on YouTube.

At this point in time, it’s by no means a revelation that a number of Hollywood actresses in the 1920s and 1930s loved women, including major stars like Alla Nazimova, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich. The private lives of these women take centre stage in Diana McLellan’s book The Girls: Sappho goes to Hollywood, in which the author promises “a rich stew of film, politics, sexuality, psychology, and stardom”.

A heady mix indeed. First things first: this book is tremendously entertaining. I’ve read it a couple of times before, and it’s fun and breezy, with McLellan generally doing a good job of weaving different characters in and out of her narrative, and animating various figures in an engaging manner. The major caveat is that The Girls is, at best, highly speculative. McLellan was a gossip columnist for many years, and it certainly shows in the resulting work. The reader is apprised of this from the very start, when in the foreword, McLellan states a principle that guided both her former work in newspapers and her research for The Girls: “One big, proven lie reveals far more than dozens or widely reported ‘truths’—once you understand why it was told”. Well, then. QED?
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London Symphony approaches

Almost three years ago, I posted about London Symphony, a contemporary silent film production by British filmmaker Alex Barrett. For this project, Barrett has revived the silent-era genre of the city symphony—a cinematic portrait of a city, more poetic evocation than documentary—to celebrate the spirit of London.

I had the pleasure of viewing the rough cut last year, and it’s a wonderful film. Stylistically it’s impressive, with beautiful cinematography and an excellent score; a great synthesis between image and sound. London Symphony is stylish, evocative of the original city symphonies without feeling in any way like a pastiche. But what makes it such a truly ambitious film, I think, is the scope that it covers: London Symphony was shot all over the English capital, with space given to people from all different walks of life, different cultural groups, and of course a huge number of locations. I may not know London well, having visited only briefly, but I experienced it as a nuanced view of the city.

And yes, I am quoted in the trailer. :)

The world premiere of London Symphony took place in May at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, but another big date is coming up: the film’s limited UK release in September. The tour kicks off with a live orchestra screening at the Barbican on September 3rd, followed by a collection of other venues across England. (Screening info here).

It will be a great one to see on the big screen, if you can get there! For the rest of us, stay tuned: London Symphony has been picked up by Flicker Alley for international distribution, and it will be released on MOD Blu-Ray and VOD later this year.



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Announcing a publication!

Not long ago, a major project of mine came to fruition. A chance infatuation with the adverts for a particular film grew into a fruitful research project which involved early newspaper comic strips, international media coverage, and two Italian silent films. Now, my article on this particular collison of comic strip history, pop culture, and silent cinema has been published in the journal Feminist Media Histories.

The article is called From the New York Herald to the Italian screen: Fluffy Ruffles, la donna americana, and you can find it here.

It’s a research article, but also has a visual component: I produced hand-drawn illustrations to accompany the text. They’re mostly in pen, with some ink, and some use of collage. The illustrations are all based on archival materials, primarily adverts, that I unearthed in the course of my research. (Originally the concept was to produce something more zine-like in nature, but for several reasons it worked out differently).

Here’s the abstract:

The popular 1907–9 American newspaper comic strip character Fluffy Ruffles was an iconic embodiment of contemporary American femininity between the eras of the Gibson Girl and the later flapper and “it” girl. This article discusses Fluffy Ruffles as a popular phenomenon and incarnation of anxieties about women in the workplace, and how she underwent a metamorphosis in the European press, as preexisting ideas of American youth, wealth, and liberty were grafted onto her character. A decade after her debut in the newspapers, two films—Augusto Genina’s partially extant Miss Cyclone (La signorina Ciclone, 1916), and Alfredo Robert’s lost Miss Fluffy Ruffles (1918)—brought her to the Italian screen. This article looks at how the character was interpreted by Suzanne Armelle and Fernanda Negri Pouget, respectively, drawing on advertisements and the other performances of Negri Pouget to reconstruct the latter. The article is illustrated with drawings and collages based on the author’s research.

The article is on freeview until the end of the week. (And if you come to this post later on and want to take a look, flick me an email!)

I’m thinking of following up with a ‘behind the scenes’ post about the project, if people are interested. Any takers?

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Now on the Media History Digital Library: several of my film magazines

Well, when I say ‘now’, I mean ‘several months ago’. Last year, I went on holiday to Europe (including taking in Il Cinema Ritrovato), and while in the Netherlands, I picked up several issues of the Dutch journal Cinema en Theater from the early 1920s. Back home, I made high-resolution scans, and submitted the issues to the Media History Digital Library. I imagine many readers are familiar with this brilliant resource, which provides access to digitized copies of books and magazines about films, broadcasting, and recorded sound.

You can find the Cinema en Theater issues linked here on the Global Cinema Collection page, but I thought I’d point out an interesting thing or two about each issue here on Silents, Please. As you’ll see, the visual design of the magazine is really lovely. Plus, there’s a blog-only exclusive that involves Pola Negri! Continue reading

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I act, therefore IAM: Italia Almirante Manzini in Notte di tempesta (1916)

Italia Almirante Manzini was a major diva of the Italian silents who has, so far, been mentioned on this blog only briefly. I like her a lot—she’s always fun and engaging to watch. Despite a stately appearance, I perceive a certain gentle wryness to her smile; it seems both that she is enjoying herself and that she is in on the joke.

A little background: Almirante Manzini began her acting career on the stage, and entered films in the early teens, but it was the mighty Cabiria (Itala-Film, 1914) that established her as a cinematic star. As is well known, Cabiria was groundbreaking both formally and narratively, and it’s still highly enjoyable; in my opinion, it’s one of those classics that wholeheartedly deserves its critical reputation. Almirante Manzini is resplendent as the Carthaginian noblewoman Sofonisba (a character based on the historical figure Sophonisba), living in luxury, complete with pet tiger.

As Sofonisba in Cabiria.

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Lina Cavalieri in Sposa nella morte! | The Shadow of Her Past (IT 1915)


Known as “the most beautiful woman in the world”, opera singer Lina Cavalieri starred opposite Caruso, was fêted by D’Annunzio, and was painted by Boldini. She began her career singing in the café-chantants of Rome, Naples, and Paris; rising to international stardom, she toured Europe, was beloved in Tsarist Russia, and performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Along the way, she launched her own perfume (‘Mona Lina’), and married and divorced several times. Indeed a great beauty, Cavalieri was extensively photographed, her face and fashionably corseted figure published on many postcards. The proliferation of her likeness certainly helped establish Cavalieri as a defining icon of the Belle Époque.

Cavalieri also appeared on the silver screen, though unfortunately almost all of her films are now lost. The sole exception is her second film, Sposa nella morte! (literally Wife in Death, released in the USA as The Shadow of Her Past), which she made at Tiber-Film in 1915.

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Diva ‘December’ returns – Fabienne Fabrèges in Signori giurati … (1916)

Welcome to (the now well-misnamed) Diva December! In this series, I look at examples of the Italian diva film, a genre that proliferated in 1910s Italy—for an overview, click here. This first instalment is devoted to a relatively obscure title, Signori giurati … | Gentlemen of the Jury …, starring French actress Fabienne Fabrèges, who also wrote the screenplay.

Advertisement in Film, no. 21 of 1916

Advertisement in Film, no. 21 of 1916

Signori giurati is a classic femme fatale story, in which Fabrèges plays Julienne Santiago, a woman with two noble goals: to open a fancy drug den, and to break as many hearts as possible. Well, we all have to make a living, no?

Fabrèges in her character introduction shot.

Fabrèges in her character introduction shot.

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