Story: Cinema’s First Nasty Women is a masterful collection, an incredible curation of nearly one hundred films made between 1898 and 1926. As the title of the set playfully suggests, these films feature a wide scope of women on both sides of the camera and the content within those films is a little riskier than most. The selections deal with subject matter such as women’s rights, workers’ rights, gender norms, sexuality, police corruption, romance, and more, all presented in these lovingly chosen and restored pictures. So you not only get to explore such a rich archive of historic cinema, but they’ve been restored to ensure the best looking, most complete versions available. You’re also shown some information on some of the movies, to learn about the history and context of the content. This is due in part to draw attention to some of the less progressive moments, but also to enrich your viewing with valuable context. This release includes a wonderful booklet filled with fantastic information as well, which you can also print out as a .PDF if you’d like a physical version. In short, this is a masterwork of home video and a must have for even casual cinephiles, kudos to everyone involved.
Entertainment Value: The films have been curated into four sections, which allows each section to be featured on a dedicated disc for ease of access. The first disc is titled Disastrous Domestics & Anarchic Tomboys, which starts off with a series of films from the Leontine series. The oldest surviving entry is Leontine Becomes an Errand Girl, which was made in 1910 and this set brings together over a dozen of the Leontine volumes. I found these to be very enjoyable, easy to watch comedies and very much appreciated the rebellious spirit of Leontine herself. Our titular character tends to cause chaos everywhere and despite run times of ten minutes or less, a lot of humor and charm are packed into these. Next up are three films with actress Lea Guinchi, which also run under ten minutes each. These were brisk comedies that let Guinchi shine and again, the filmmakers manage to stretch those few minutes into coherent, enjoyable pictures. Catastrophe in the Kitchen is up next and features a dozen more films, this time with a theme of domestic service. This includes some interesting one minute shorts that center around wood stove mishaps, very memorable films! The movies range from one minute to twelve minutes in length, with a number of union and worker’s rights storylines explored throughout. I especially appreciated Miss Plumcake’s Ruse, which has the tried & true premise of two characters trading lifestyles. The final segment is Catastrophe Beyond the Kitchen, nearly a dozen more films that explore women’s rights, domestic service, and social norms, with movies that each run under twelve minutes in length. There are some eye openers here and thankfully, context and insight are provided and the booklet included covers the approach the curators took when it came to offensive material in the films. Mixed Babies is a mind melter, but I also found The Mannequin to be very curious, even if only available as fragments.
The second disc is Queens of Destruction and it kicks off with almost a dozen installments from the career of actress Little Chrysia, with a focus on the Cunegonde series. The character of Cunegonde changes over the course of these films, but the themes run similar, with comedy and some social commentary. The films where she feuds with her husband are memorable, but I think Cunegonde the Nasty Woman is the jewel in this section. She is able to gain almost superhuman powers to chase down her husband, all the while hilarious stunts and set pieces unfold. The longest of these films runs nine minutes, so there’s a lot of laughs with minimal time investment required. Next is seven films in the Rosalie series, which star Sarah Duhamel, who is an absolute comedic powerhouse. These all run under ten minutes and are wall to wall entertainment, as Duhamel simply shines and the chaos that unfolds around her is a pleasure to behold. I could watch these over and over, such great screen presence and comic skills on showcase. Duhamel returns for more in the Petronille section and I couldn’t have been more pleased, as these five films let her show off more of her magic. I loved Gavroche a Luna-Park, which sees Duhamel at an amusement park and she makes use of the entire park, it seems like. These run eight minutes or less and are more comedic gold, still hilarious and magical even after over one hundred years. The disc closes out with Tyranny at Home, a collection of ten wild, sometimes jaw dropping films that sport talent such as D.W. Griffith, Minnie Devereaux, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Florence Turner, and more. These deal with some very sensitive topics and include scenes of blackface at times, as well as other racial stereotypes. Again, the booklet is invaluable to provide context and the curators’ perspective. This set was designed with an anti racist approach in mind, which helps to better frame this offensive art instead of burying it.
Disc three is Gender Rebels and as you’d expect, this is where gender roles and norms are explored and even subverted, in some bold ways at times. We start with a trio of films in The Girl Spy series, which run from twelve to fourteen minutes, offering a little more cinematic real estate to work with. These are serious films with elements of action and suspense, starring Gene Gauntier as Nan, a spy for the Confederate forces during the Civil War. These are well produced, well performed films that do a lot with the time and craft some solid, short action adventures. A series of films from director D.W. Griffith and star Edna “Billy” Foster continue the disc’s content and all four clock in around fifteen minutes each or so. These are serious dramas that have some excellent performances and production values, again making masterful use of the limited runtimes. The final segment on this disc is Gender Frontiers, nine films that deal with gender roles and norms, including perhaps my favorite film from this entire set, A Range Romance. The film follows a ranch foreman who falls for one of his workers, unaware that his crush is a woman. I found this to be such a remarkable collection of films, showing that these gender issues have always been part of social discourse and even one hundred years ago, were explored in cinema. These movies run from seven minutes to half an hour in length, so there’s a stark uptick in duration from the films on earlier discs. Also explored are women’s rights and racial issues, so these films don’t pull back from important, controversial issues at all.
The fourth and final disc is Female Tricksters, which begins with five films listed under the banner of Don’t Believe Your Eyes. I enjoyed these films and with run times of five to sixteen minutes, they’re all brisk watches. A theme here is women dressed as men and most are comedies, save The Boy Detective. This eight minute drama was meant to launch a franchise, but never made it past this first installment. The pair of D.W. Griffith films in this section are highlights and Taming a Husband was especially memorable for me. Romance in Disguise is up next and delivers just two films, but both are feature length and run over eighty minutes. I was floored by both of these films, as both are well written, performed, and produced and to me, both stand as excellent, memorable pictures. The Snowbird finds a society girl on the hunt for her late father’s will, which requires her to be disguised as a man and of course, unexpected romance occurs. In Phil for Short, we have a comedic take on gender roles and romance, an absolute delight to experience. I was very thrilled to see some feature length films included and these two alone are worth the cost of this collection. The final section is Topsy-Turvy Gender Madness, a pair of memorable films that once again tackle gender roles and sexuality in creative ways. She’s a Prince runs twenty-seven minutes and is full of interesting moments and creative choices, while the twenty-two minute What’s the World Coming To? is easily one of the set’s highlights. I loved this film and found it to be so creative, a terrific finale for this epic presentation.
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