Queer feminism in early cinema at mayfair theatre for IFFO

“We can be surprised by the space there was more than a hundred years ago in some cases, for these women who break social norms”

Lauren Roulston • Mar. 15, 2024

The Mayfair Theatre’s marquee, 2013 (Richard Acker/Flickr).


Cinema’s First Nasty Women: Queens of Destruction is a compilation of rarely seen European and North American silent films. On Friday, Mar. 22, The Mayfair is presenting the screening, curated by Carleton University professor Laura Horak, Maggie Hennefeld and Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi.

Fay Tincher, (Picryl)

According to The Mayfair, this program will include performances from a forgotten French comedienne Léontine, Black actress Bertha Regustus and lesbian performer Fay Tincher, all with live music accompaniment.

Laura Horak is an associate professor of film studies and author of the book Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women and Lesbians in American Cinema. Ahead of the screening, she answered some questions in an interview with CHUO. We spoke about her work and research and what we can learn about these early forms of feminist and queer representation.

Here’s that conversation, lightly edited for clarity and quality.



Q: I want to talk about Cinema’s First Nasty Women, this screening that’s coming up on Mar. 22, before we get into the content of the screening I really want to focus on the word nasty there, cause it feels intentional, right? Can you tell me about the choice to use the word nasty?


A: My colleagues Maggie Hennefeld, who’s a professor in Minnesota, and Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi who’s an archivist in the Netherlands got together to make a DVD set that we called Cinema’s First Nasty Women cause we’re all feminist film historians in different ways and we look at all of the women and gender non-conforming people who were in early cinema, like cinema when it was first invented, who have been forgotten and written out of film history. That includes comedians, that includes cross-dressing women, there’s maids, there’s athletes, there’s heroes, there’s also Indigenous and Black performers.

The reason we called it Cinema’s First Nasty Women is, first off, because a lot of the women, especially in the comedies, they really are nasty. They’re throwing plates, they’re flooding the kitchen, they’re burning down the house, they’re just causing chaos wherever they go, just completely disrupting the social order.

We also wanted to make the connection between feminism and women’s representation and gender crossing in the beginning of the 20th century and the kind of feminist, queer and trans politics of the 21st century. Of course, nasty women became kind of a rallying cry when it was reclaimed after Trump called Hillary Clinton a nasty woman. So we wanted that kind of exuberant, F-U, in-your-face feminist energy that we have today, we saw happening already in the early 20th century.


Q: Today we’re pretty lucky to live in a time where hate isn’t as socially acceptable as it has been in the past, but taking it back to the time when these silent films were made, homophobia, misogyny, racism, transphobia, that was the norm then. So in that sense, can you tell me how these films represent a form of protest?


A: Yeah, and I would argue that both in good and bad ways there’s not as many differences between now and then as we might think. It’s true, women were different legally. Like at the beginning of the silent era women in the US and Canada couldn’t vote and they weren’t allowed into many jobs and they were supposed to be wearing dresses and corsets that were really physically constraining.

But it was also the time of a big labour movement that women were very involved in. Women were locking themselves to public buildings and very in-your-face activism for getting women the vote. And there was a presence of people who had genders that they weren’t assigned at birth.

There were people who were in cities living with partners who were the same sex and even though it wasn’t named in the same way and it wouldn’t have been spoken about publicly as often. When you see people like that in the movies, audiences would recognize them. So it’s true that there’s a lot of really blatant racism, including what you’ll see in these films. These are by no means perfect, we didn’t want to whitewash this history.

But you’ll also see in these films that are showing at The Mayfair there’s a Black woman who is given laughing gas at the dentist, and then her laughter completely disrupts public space, including the police and the justice system. You can see her force like, overturning these forces of oppression in society.

One of these films is called Rowdy Ann (1919) stars a comedian Fay Tincher who was living out unashamedly with her female partner her whole life, and she plays this rambunctious cowgirl, who like, everyone loves even though she’s this great shot, she’s boxing, she’s riding horses, she wasn’t seen as perverse she was seen as this heroine.

So we can be surprised by the space there was more than a hundred years ago in some cases, for these women who break social norms.


Q: I want to pull on a little bit about what you said about how it’s more similar today and back then than we might expect, what do you mean by that?


A: I mean one thing that’s interesting is that there were actually, in the early part of cinema, more women directors, writers, producers than there are now, actually. So we’ve actually moved backwards.

We obviously need more women and women comedians. You know, we need more women in these positions now, but we think ‘oh we’re the best it’s ever been,’ but actually we’re like, maybe the second best it’s ever been, after these first decades of cinema.

And I think the questions that the labour movement was raising at the time about sexual harassment, about safe working conditions, about the differences between the lower-classes and the upper-classes, like none of these are things that we’ve resolved. So I think a lot of the things that they were fighting for then are also things we’re fighting for now.


Q: Thinking back on these films as forms of protest, the messages that get delivered through media, we hear queer voices, racialized voices, Black voices and non-traditional feminine voices. I assume it took a lot of time and research putting together these films, so what have you found about how common this form of resistance is, was it hard to find?

A: You know, that’s a good question, it’s both hard and not hard to find. It was very common, cross-dressing women in early silent cinema. I did this research originally for my PhD dissertation and I found more than 500 examples in American silent cinema alone.

So again, very common, popular, not necessarily seen as something even worth remarking. But most of those films in general in the silent era, at least 80 per cent if not 90 per cent have been lost. So the majority of films in general are not available today and of that 10 per cent that survives, the ones that we’re talking about have not been available on DVD or streaming, they’ve just been in archives where archivists have preserved them, luckily.

That’s why Maggie, Elif and I decided to make a DVD project in the first place. Because we had flown all over the world to archives to see these in person. But we knew most people couldn’t do that, sadly, so we worked with Kino Lorber, a film distributor, to make really good new digitizations of them and to work with contemporary musicians to make really good new scores and release them on DVD and also to show them in theatres like we’re doing at The Mayfair.

The whole DVD set has 99 films. It could have been probably 400 films if we had all the time and money in the world, so there really are a lot. Even in that small number that survived, there’s still a lot. We take a selection of those and show them live in theatre with live music, like we’re doing at The Mayfair, and we’ve also been showing this in Turkey and Italy, Finland and the UK and throughout the United States and Mexico. So the Nasty Women have been having a world tour since we were able to bring them out of the archives and out to the people.


Q: It’s a big piece of European and American cinema history, is what I’m hearing. It sounds like a big part of this mission was preserving history, because like you said, a lot of it has been lost already. I’m going to ask kind of a technical question, but what does it mean when films are lost?


A: So films, they were made on cellulose nitrate and they would make a bunch of copies, they would circulate, then when they were done with them usually they would just throw them away, essentially, or recycle the materials.

Also, those materials could be used for ammunition, and things, so certainly during war time it was particularly valuable material. And lots and lots and lots of films were being made all the time, so there weren’t that many people who were like, ‘oh, we should hang on to these for the future, these will have some kind of value.’ There were some, there were a few, and museums at the time, like art museums, didn’t necessarily see film as an artwork that was worthy of preservation.

And the thing about cellulose nitrate is that it could spontaneously combust. You’ve probably heard about that, there used to be a lot of fires. It’s difficult to preserve, you have to keep it cold, you have to keep it dry, you ideally want to keep it separate from everything else just in case it does catch on fire.

So what that means is that the majority of films made during this period, either through neglect or by mistake it’s a really sad story. The Swedish Film Institute saved all of their silent films but then in 1941 there was an archive fire and it burned up most of them and so very few films from that period survive until 2024.

And in fact American and French films, which is where a lot of our films are from, survive better than many other places. I mean, Japanese films are almost all gone from this early period. I mean, the good news is that we do find new silent films every year, like people will find them at flea markets or they might be in someone’s basement, maybe an old cinema shut down and in a closet they had something or an archive had a reel of something and they didn’t know what it was, and then we identify it.

So some of the things that are lost will still be found, but most of them probably won’t be.


Q: I have like a thousand questions I could ask you about that hunt of going around the world, going to those archives, seeing hundreds of movies, I guess to boil it down: what was that experience like for you?


A: Well it was really fun, for sure, because taking film studies as an undergraduate I just thought well, film history is set, like we know what it is it already happened, people have had a lot of time to think about it, too.

So when I discovered that there were so many films that to my eyes, looked so queer and so trans and so feminist and so modern, I was shocked that there was this whole part of film history that I had no idea about, even though I was a big film fan and knew quite a bit.

So then, you have to start working with archivists, because they have this encyclopaedic knowledge of their own archives. There are some great resources, there’s an online subscription database that the International Federation of Film Archives has put together for silent film, so you can look up titles and names of directors and actors and see which archives in different parts of the world have copies of those.

If you’re looking for something like cross-dressing, or women comedians, or maids who light things on fire, that might not just be a title you can look up, you might have to ask people who know about the themes of the films and so, me and Maggie have been going to silent film festivals, like there’s a big one in Italy called Pordenone Silent Film Festival in October and meeting with other archivists, meeting with other researchers and just asking around, we’ll just hear from people, ‘hey, have you seen this?’ or ‘oh, I just came across that!’ or ‘we just got this donation, you might be interested in.’

So there’s doing the research, also I looked at a lot of film reviews first in collections that had been made in New York Times and Variety film reviews, but then once they digitized so many film periodicals and newspapers I could look up things like ‘in her brother’s clothing…’ or like these common plot tropes of cross-dressing so I could find a bunch more titles and again, many of those will be lost, but then I could look up those titles in the database and find more.

When I was doing this research, I flew to LA, to DC, to Paris, to Berlin, also in Ottawa, Library and Archives Canada has some films that are unique in the world of cross-dressed women films, so we’re lucky in that way to be close to a National Archive, but it is truly like a detective hunt and you do, sort of, follow clues and follow trails, and I’m sure there’s still more out there I haven’t found yet.


Q: There must be this kind of ‘eureka’ moment when you do find a good one, what were some of the shocking moments that came to you when you were researching this project?


A: Some of the films that were most exciting to me were films that Minnie Devereaux who also performed under the name Minnie He-Haw she’s Cheyenne and Arapaho and I had seen her in a bit part in a Mabel Normand feature comedy and she was very good. But I knew from the title that she was in a film with Fatty Arbuckle and she co-starred with him in a short comedy. But there was no way to preview it and the descriptions we had were very vague.

But we were like, if she’s the co-star this has got to be a good film! Let’s pay to get this digitized, like I think we can include it. And so it was digitized and it’s amazing, she’s so good. She’s hilarious, we actually showed this last year at The Mayfair and it’s also on the DVD set.

So she’s a comedian in her own right who can certainly hold her own against Fatty Arbuckle, one of the great silent film comedians. All we knew was the name, all we knew was the title, so we were really lucky that it ended up being as great as it was.

I was really happy when I found Rowdy Anne, when I saw that for the first time, and that’s a film showing at The Mayfair this year, it shows this really, kind of masculine girl, but she’s just beloved. There’s no problem with her.

She does have to have her kind of rough edges sanded off, her father sends her to a boarding school to learn to be a lady but in the end she saves the day by retaining her kind of western physical prowess by using her roping skills in the city to kind of save the day and so a lot of times these films will really reform the masculine woman and have her marry a man and become very feminine but that’s not the ending of this film at all.

It’s fun to find these things that defy your expectations about what was possible so many years ago.


Q: So Rowdy Anne is kind of celebrated for her rowdiness. Today there are a lot of people who point back to this, ‘the way things were,’ they romanticize this idea of before queerness and before gender non-conformity but with that in mind and after all this research you’ve done, what does this add to that conversation?


A: Well clearly there was no before queerness or before gender non-conformity or gender creativity and this period of 110, 120 years ago was actually a time of very active women, women breaking out of boundaries, people breaking out of gender norms. There’s one actor who was assigned female at birth but only performed in male roles and was celebrated for those and went by a male name.

So none of these things are new, we didn’t invent them 10 years or 20 years ago or anything, in some ways there was more room for female masculinities 100 years ago than there is now. Almost every actress at the time would have a cross-dressing role or two or three or four or five.

You know, people love to see women taking on different kinds of gendered roles, different kinds of sexual roles, there’s all kinds of same-sex flirtation in these films, too. They were not some kind of innocents who didn’t know what same-sex desire or what gender play was, it was very much a part of the culture.

And films were really responding to mass culture, pop culture, what the people in general, working-class people, knew about. So some forms of art can be really restricted to the more elite classes but films were being seen by everyone. So, it just shows how rich the gender and sexuality and politics were 100 years ago, 120 years ago.

Any kind of fake nostalgia for this time before things got complicated with like, ‘wokeism’ and gender ideology is just, it’s completely false. It’s totally a lie, that time didn’t exist.


Q: I’m interested in that comparison you made about feminine roles we’re seeing today, there might not be as much room to play within the masculine side. Can you tell me about how we see that unroll in media, films, TV today?


A: There’s certainly more room for actual characters who identify as trans and who are played by trans actors and that is great and important, and really hard-fought. But, within the roles that are given to your average actress, there’s a pretty narrow range of gender performance that’s allowed. They’re generally beautiful and if one in 20 is not beautiful it’s like, this shocking thing that should be talked about and analyzed, you know. And slender, you know, there’s these certain types.

You know, once in a while it’ll be like, ‘oh, someone’s wearing a suit’ or something but there used to be this huge range of kind of masculine styles that women used to wear in the movies, from working-class to Western to upper-class to things where they just are women but they like masculine styles or things where they disguise themselves as men and fool everyone. Or also, they were actresses who played male roles, that was totally common as well, especially in the 19-teens.

So, you just don’t see that. If there is any kind of, like, masculinity or masculine disguise to performance it’ll just be so uncommon that it’s very remarkable. Whereas there just used to be a lot wider of a range for the types of roles for women including different kinds of gender performances in the 19-teens and 1920s.


Q: So there’s a clear history there pointing to that these voices were still there, they were still making noise, they’re existing. Today like you’ve said, there’s still issues and a long way to go. What do you hope to see in the films of the future?


A: Well certainly I want the money to be given to all of the different women, BIPOC, trans, queer, immigrants, people who have interesting stories to tell, so it’s not just the same old, you know, Oppenheimer just won a million Oscars, it’s just the same old stories of like, men who are like vaguely confused about what to do and who have all this money and power and it’s like, so hard their lives, you know.

There are other people making movies, and really good ones, and who are coming up through film school and who are making movies on their own. They’re just not getting the same kind of funding, they’re not getting the same kind of grants.

So one of my other projects is the Transgender Media Portal, which is going to be like IMDb but for trans filmmakers and their works, we’re going to launch it this June so look out for that. But we show that there’s hundreds of trans filmmakers who have been making films for many decades and they’re actually really great. And you can watch many of them online, others you can rent through a distributor or you can buy through Amazon.

So it’s not like we need more trans people making movies – I mean, we do – but also there’s hundreds of trans people making movies they just need more money and they need more distribution budgets and publicity budgets for the movies they’re already making.

So I would love to see the money and the people who make the money decisions radically change from just the same-old, same-old that we tend to get.


Q: When you’re watching a movie you’re watching someone alive, being themselves, you feel a bit of a connection there. I want to know if you could go back in time and say something to these women and these performers who made the films, what would that message be?


A: Hmm… well I think that they probably had no idea the significance and importance of what they were doing. They were just working, they were making one movie a week, trying to pay the bills, trying to do what felt interesting and funny to them. But I’m sure they would be very surprised if they were told that 100, 120 years from now there would be people watching them and laughing and applauding and being inspired by them.

So I think just letting them know that this work that they did on the fly is still important and is still something for us to learn from 120 years later.


Q: Did you have anything else that you wanted to add?


A: I just want to emphasize that there’s nothing like seeing a movie with live music, and we have two great musicians James McGowan who’s a music professor at Carleton in my department and also Valeriy Nehovora who’s a percussionist. So there’s something really unique about being able to watch these in a big beautiful theatre like The Mayfair with excellent musicians playing along. So I encourage you to come out.


Listen to this conversation as heard on CHUO’s weekly show The Mosaic: