Reflections on writing and research: Fluffy Ruffles, women in silent cinema, and gaps in film history

Earlier this year, I posted about a film/media history article I’d published in the journal Feminist Media Histories, entitled “From the New York Herald to the Italian screen: Fluffy Ruffles, la donna americana”. The article traced the history of 1907-9 comic strip character Fluffy Ruffles, feminine type and pop culture phenomenon, and how she was the subject of two films in Italy in the 1910s. I also illustrated the article with hand-drawings and collages. It was a large piece of work, and an extremely rewarding project for me. Now that some time has passed, I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on the process of working on the article.

Genesis & development

I was invited to contribute to the Feminist Media Histories issue by my friend Maggie Hennefeld, a brilliant academic whose research focuses on early silent comediennes. She had seen a feminist silent film comic I’d made a couple of years beforehand, and she contacted me in late 2015 to see if I’d be interested in doing something similar for the issue on Gender and Comedy that she was co-editing. I loved the idea, although of course I was nervous about it: I’m not an academic, nor an especially talented illustrator. So, what would the comic/visual essay/drawing-based piece be about? We were both interested in me working on something Antipodes-related, but unfortunately I couldn’t find a suitable topic. Talking via email, the concept became focused around combining cartoon drawings with archival research with critical commentary: something to do with comedienne (archives) around the world. But I hadn’t found the right thread. Still, I’d been spending a lot of time browsing silent-era Italian film magazines, and a particular title had caught my eye. I started collecting adverts for this film—and when I googled the title, I found that in America a decade earlier, a cartoon character by the same name had lived a golden summer. Finally, I wrote back to Maggie, pitching the following:

“On the trail of Miss Fluffy Ruffles.” Fluffy Ruffles was a popular newspaper cartoon character of the late 1900s – the cartoon told the story of her assays into the workplace, always thwarted by the men around her. There was a big craze on her, although she’s all but forgotten now. In 1918, an Italian film story of the character (Miss Fluffy Ruffles) was released, starring Fernanda Negri-Pouget. I was browsing old film magazines and the title caught my eye – I developed a bit of a fascination, and have collected a whole bunch of adverts for this cinecommedia. The film was well publicised and it looks pretty fun – although we can’t see it today, as so far as I know, no copies are extant. The piece could be a ‘resurrection’ of this film incorporating this archival material.

Everyone was keen with this concept, and so it was agreed! I was really enjoying the idea of this visually-based ‘essay’: in my mind, it was going to be a zine-style kind of thing.

Research

I mapped out my areas of enquiry, as you can see below, and started researching. Quickly, I found out that Augusto Genina’s 1916 film La signorina Ciclone—a film I already knew about, even—also had a character named Fluffy Ruffles as protagonist. I looked at the Fluffy Ruffles comic and its coverage in international media. I investigated the career of Fernanda Negri Pouget, star of Miss Fluffy Ruffles, the film that was the genesis of the project.

I really enjoyed the research process: poring over newspapers and journals; interloaning books; note-taking, mind-mapping, and organising my research materials. With any kind of essay of this sort, you have to do a lot of research to say a little. In a blog post I can be more informal, but for a piece published in an scholarly journal, I wanted to make sure my statements were qualified and informed. So I researched a lot of different topics as background. For example, while early American newspaper comics aren’t totally unfamiliar to me—I’m a fan of artists like Windsor McCay (Little Nemo in Slumberland, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend) and George Herriman (Krazy Kat, one of the greatest American creative achievements?)—obviously I needed more context on the era.

And while I think I can say that I have a good general knowledge of Italian silent cinema, I needed to research La signorina Ciclone and Miss Fluffy Ruffles in detail: primary and secondary sources, material on the personnel involved, info on the studios. La signorina Ciclone survives in part, and is also quite well-documented, but Miss Fluffy Ruffles has disappeared into oblivion. No copy is known to survive, and while I collected a good number of adverts, there do not exist a huge amount of written sources relating to the film: I hunted down every mention that I could. Therefore, as something of a lacuna, Miss Fluffy Ruffles presented a challenge: how could I talk about it in a meaningful way? Textual research aside, it requires an act of imagination to breathe life into this kind of absence, and my approach to this was two-fold.

Fernanda Negri Pouget

Firstly, I considered Fernanda Negri Pouget’s other performances, particularly her other roles from the late teens. She’s an actress I find very interesting, not your typical kind of film star—I guess that’s partly why the adverts for Miss Fluffy Ruffles caught my eye in the first place. Her film Lucciola (Firefly) was crucial here: it’s a starring role from a period in her career of which hardly any films survive. Without dipping overly into the speculative, what could I read into Miss Fluffy Ruffles based on Negri Pouget’s work in Lucciola?

Postcard for Lucciola

Secondly, the visuals became really important here. I used original adverts, redrawing and recombining them in order to suggest something about the film’s character or style. One creative action cannot recuperate another, but hopefully something can still be regained. In a way, it was also an act of devotion. So many films are lost to time.

I think a great deal about historiography, especially from a feminist point of view. What stories are told, how, and why? It’s a truism to say that feminine forces are too often neglected in mainstream narratives: an obvious example is Lois Weber, powerhouse in early Hollywood, who has been downplayed in film history to the point of erasure until recently. As I write this, I’m a bit too tired to eloquently address ideas around feminist historiography; suffice it to say that I kept these ideas close when I was working on the article, even if they are not too explicitly discussed therein.

As far as I can tell, no one had ever made a connection between the Italian films starring Fluffy Ruffles and the comic strip character. Given the different languages, countries, and scopes of research at play here, that’s not surprising, but even Fluffy Ruffles herself has not been the direct subject of scholarship. Yes, she’s an obscure part of pop culture, but I was surprised—and pleased—to discover that I had found uncharted waters here.

I also need to state that I benefited hugely from the input of my editors. The first draft was well-received, but even better, Maggie posed some excellent questions that forced me to think through and flesh out various aspects of the piece. My original word count of ~2000 grew to over 3000 within a few weeks, finally increasing to around 3600 words.

Lacunae

My research was as comprehensive as I could make it, but there are pieces of the puzzle that are, essentially, unrecoverable. The Fluffy phenomenon was reported on in Italy: one journalist took her up as something of a cause célèbre, writing a series of articles about her and lecturing on her in several cities in Italy, from which also resulted a book. Yet there is a gap of eight years between this Fluffy media presence and the film La signorina Ciclone. Why was the character revived these years later—what was Lucio D’Ambra’s source of inspiration? Did D’Ambra think back to the Fluffy of 1908 in the Italian media, thinking that this audacious American woman could be a great subject for a film? Or did the concept come first, and the idea to connect it to the Fluffy Ruffles of previous media fame arrive later? Lucio D’Ambra and Augusto Genina each wrote memories of their cinema lives, both informative, but neither providing the kind of smoking-gun connection that would be ideal here. Another mystery is that Miss Fluffy Ruffles was consistently advertised as being an adaptation of “the novel by W. [William] Hamilton”. I could find no trace of such a book—did something of the kind exist, or was it purely a publicity invention?

There were lucky breaks, too. It’s very fortuitous that the key behind-the-camera creators of La signorina Ciclone left autobiographical writings, even more so because they both worked with Negri Pouget and indeed admired her. Another example: I managed to get hold of a copy of the Italian Fluffy Ruffles book mentioned previously: Fluffy Ruffles, la fanciulla americana. The book states a print run of fifty: isn’t it bizarre to think that almost 110 years after its publication, one of these copies found a home in Aotearoa New Zealand?

Visual production

I mentioned earlier that all but one of the illustrations were created by me especially for the article. Even late into the process, I’d been thinking of the text as a kind of script for the visual side of the piece. However, with a pretty solid word count of ~3600, it eventually became clear that it couldn’t be as visually focused as I had originally envisioned. Another wrinkle was that the journal had certain restrictions as to layout. The upshot of all this was that I ended up making a series of illustrations to accompany the article, rather than a full-on zine/visual approach.

While the text was done on time, I only had a very short space of time to work on the illustrations. This ended up being, essentially, the week between Christmas 2017 and New Year 2017.

It wasn’t that I left it until the last minute out of lack of care. The reasons are a bit convoluted, but suffice it to say that the compressed timeframe was due to necessity. I knew that the end of December would be when I was working on my visual side of the article in an extremely concentrated burst: I’d planned for it and had all my visual research done, as well as having a few ideas and rough sketches/mockups in hand.

I ended up going to my parents’ house, in a different city than where I live, to work on the drawings. This was partly because Christmas plans took me in that vague direction, but mostly because I would have ready access to a pretty decent quality scanner. So, I drove a few hours north from the Christmas whānau gathering, and started drawing. I had the house to myself, but my brother was around since he was working in between Christmas and New Years—in the evenings, he’d turn up with dinner and we’d kick back and watch a movie. I’m not sure why it worked out this way, but we watched a programme of Nicolas Cage films: Vampire’s Kiss, Con Air, Face/Off, The Rock. I worked and drew all day, and then gave my hands a rest during the night-time Cage film festival.

This is where I should add a disclaimer: I’m really not any great shakes as a draughtswoman. My focus for the article was primarily to reinterpret existing graphical sources: pen and ink may have been the chosen medium, but I took a collage approach rather than a generative fine art approach. I am not the originator of the images I used, just their translator: as such, I considered myself more interpreter than artistic creator. The last thing I would want to do is claim artistry I do not possess. My hope was that by working with these original sources, I could weave them together in ways that would ultimately say something different than simply reproducing them would.

The extent to which I succeeded may be considered an open question. Some images I think are very successful, though: for example, I combined Charles Gibson’s famous image of the Gibson Girl with one of Fluffy Ruffles to create this ink drawing:

An ambitious illustration was the ‘newspaper spread’ I created from a range of Fluffy-related media. The idea here was to provide a visual shortcut to Fluffymania. I could have taken a full collage approach, but most of the images are in fact hand-drawn from the originals, with a couple of the images composited in. (I did composite in all of the text, since that’s virtually impossible to do by hand without looking shonky).

Certain other drawings didn’t work so well, and if I’d had more time, I would have liked to revisit them. I don’t think there were any true duds though.

Drawing so much in a short space of time was challenging, both creatively and physically. I built myself some room to move by planning a number of ‘definites’ and a number of ‘maybes’ depending on what worked visually and how things went under the time constraints.

Some decisions were a mixed bag. I drew in ink for some of the images, partly because I enjoy it, and partly because it’s more practical than pen for images with large black areas. But I didn’t count on the fact that the ink drawings didn’t scan perfectly, due to the shininess of the ink and the fact that I couldn’t totally flatten the paper. That was easy enough to fix digitally, though.

Ink shine, before correction

Reflections and lessons learned

It’s always hard to read one’s own work, and with an article like this I have the double-cringe of having both text and image to contend with. Aie! Still, I reread the article as I wrote this post, and I do feel like it’s pretty solid on the whole. I can be proud of my research, and all of the things I brought together.

Because of the way I approached it, the article isn’t really structured like a traditional scholarly paper. While I think the piece hangs together well, I touch on a lot of things that I could have explored in more detail. It’s almost wholly a research article: I don’t, for example, theorise the relationship between printed visual media (i.e., the Fluffy Ruffles comic strip) vis-à-vis film, or deeply delve into the state of contemporary Italian womanhood, or reflect on the Fluffy Ruffles films in relation to dominant genres like the diva-film. In retrospect, I think it could have been productive to explore these connections with more depth, but it’s not the way things evolved.

It’s also interesting to me that although I’d set out to create a visually-focused, non-traditional piece of work, the final product did end up in a pretty conventional format. Yet, I approached the image component of the piece as integral, a creative response to and embodiment of my research, so hopefully it still works on those grounds. My editors were very gracious about the final product, straying as far from the original plan as it did, although part of me wonders if it indeed was satisfying.

I do think that I could have pushed things a lot further on the visual side: conceptually and artistically, there’s a lot of scope for development there. I’d love to do a future project that’s closer to my original comic strip or zine idea, or creates a synthesis between image and research in some other way. A couple of ideas are percolating, but if and when things develop, I’m not sure what the venue would be. I could post things here on the blog, but for the amount of work involved, I’d like that kind of project to be ‘officially’ sanctioned somehow.

I’ve been thinking lately about how information propagates through scholarship, including, at times, errors. I read quite a lot about silent film history, and it’s surprisingly frequently that I come across inaccuracies or oversights, even by established researchers. It pains me to admit that I recently noted that there are, in fact, a couple of errors in my article, even if they are relatively minor. One is something that slipped by me in the review process: a newspaper source is slightly misnamed in a footnote: think Times instead of Herald. In another footnote, I refer to a film as surviving in only one of the four original parts. This isn’t entirely my fault, since other sources referred to it as such, and the FIAF database also only lists the fourth part of the film. But wouldn’t you know it—this year a restoration was made, and apparently the surviving footage amounts to close to three of the four parts. Of course, silver lining: it’s great that it’s a lot more complete than I originally thought!

In conclusion …

Over 2500 (!) words later … one might wonder, why blog about all of this? This entry is different in scope to what I usually post here: almost diaristic in tone, and probably not that interesting to people other than me. But all in all, I wanted to reflect on this project with a bit of temporal distance, and writing helps me sort through my thoughts. Another reason is that I’m intrigued by labour, both as a general concept in society and as it relates to historiography and research. (For example, some readers might remember these interviews having some detail on the subjects’ research process). Maybe I am also influenced by my day job as a software developer, where we habitually hold retrospectives to reflect on the last project or unit of time. Or maybe it’s just simply to put a full stop on a project that was so rewarding, time-consuming, and stimulating.

Vive Fluffy Ruffles!

Fluffy Ruffles, as drawn by Wallace Morgan.

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