Sorry, boys, silent movie heroism is for girls!
Welcome back to my curated list of silent films selected with the newcomer in mind and designed to be viewed one weekend at a time. This time, we’re going to celebrate women who took center stage and turned gender tropes on their head.
(You can read my complete list of curated selections here. If you want a more general guide to silent film, read my Silent Movies 101 posts here.)
One of the things that I really love about the silent era is the high number of juicy roles for women. Women took center stage in every genre imaginable and played everything from action stars to Hamlet. That’s not to say the silent era was a feminist utopia. Rather, the ratio of damsels to heroines was about on par with modern films and the number of films featuring women as the sole focus was far higher.
If I may return to a sore subject, the “iconic” image of a silent movie damsel is not only inaccurate, it robs the female stars of the silent era of their onscreen heroism. This is unacceptable and it’s time to give these heroines their due.
We’re going to be enjoying two features with bold and interesting heroines who save the day. The first is pretty dark but the second should brighten things up again.
The best part: These films are genuine crowd-pleasers. They are mainstream silent films that reflect the tastes of their audiences.
Evening One: Reversing Bechdel
The Bechdel test is not meant to be a gauge of an individual film’s attitudes toward women. It’s actually supposed to show how women are underrepresented in the movie industry as a whole. In general, silent movies are far better at passing the test than sound films. Could this have something to do with the comparatively high number of female directors, producers and screenwriters? Nah…
(The Bechdel test is as follows: Does a work of fiction features at least two women with names who talk to each other about something other than a man?)
Stella Maris (1918)
If you’ve been watching my recommendations in order, you have already seen Mary Pickford in action. One of the most beloved film stars in history, Pickford longed to branch out into more intense dramatic roles but her studio did not want her to mess with her winning formula. Pickford’s solution was to take on a double part.
In this film, Pickford plays Stella, a beautiful invalid, and Unity, a homely orphan. Unity is adopted as a housemaid by a cruel woman who subjects both her husband (Conway Tearle) and the poor orphan to physical and emotional abuse. The cycle ends with Unity in the hospital and Tearle deciding to raise her in order to make amends for what his wife had done.
There are other problems because Tearle is in love with Stella but his wife refuses to divorce him. We’re in a pretty pickle, aren’t we? It is up to Unity to find a rather dark and grisly solution to the central conflict.
Why am I watching this? First, for Mary Pickford’s stellar double performance but also for the writing. Stella Maris is all about women. They not only make up the majority of the main cast but, more importantly, they drive the plot. Nearly every important plot element is caused by the direct actions of a woman. (The scenario was adapted by Frances Marion, a woman. Fancy that.) I cannot tell you how refreshing this is.
The film also sympathetically portrays the aftereffects of physical and emotional abuse with the survivors bonding over their shared ordeal. Frankly, there aren’t many movies today that tackle the topic of male victims of domestic violence.
Stella Maris is dark but it is also bold and it doesn’t shrink from its chosen topics.
Trivia: Stella Maris actually fails the Reverse Bechdel Test. It has more than one man with a name and they do talk to each other but they never talk about anything but the female characters. Score one for the ladies!
Read my full-length review here.
Availability: Stella Maris has been released on DVD by Milestone.
Evening Two: The Dude in Distress
The adventure-comedy has always been a beloved genre and the picture we are going to be seeing is a ton of fun. I should note that it contains a fair amount of Chinese stereotypes so you will want to adjust your expectations accordingly.
Eve’s Leaves (1926)
This movie is about a lonely little sailor who wants to get married. The twist is that the sailor is a she (Leatrice Joy, to be precise) and her entire knowledge of love and romance comes from cheesy magazines. However, she goes ashore in China and spots William Boyd at a noodle shop. Love at first sight! Problem: He isn’t interested. Solution: Shanghai him! A few days tied up below decks might change his mind.
This is, of course, a reversal of the then-popular cliche that abduction equals romance. Since it was usually the guys doing the abducting, Eve’s Leaves is a welcome switcharoo.
Why am I watching this? Eve’s Leaves is interesting because the romantic leads keep their reversed genders intact for the entire film. While the heroine is imperiled on occasion, she takes an active role in saving herself. In films of this kind, it is usual for the former tomboy heroine to revert to a damsel for the grand finale but Joy is allowed to be the rescuer while William Boyd is the dude in distress.
The film is helped considerably by its leads. Leatrice Joy and William Boyd have great chemistry and they play their roles with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek zaniness. It’s a shame they never became a permanent screen team.
Warning! Warning! As stated before, this film contains a fair amount of material that some viewers may find offensive. Most of the Chinese characters are played by white performers and there are some dialect title cards meant to mimic and mock the sort of generic Asian accent that was invented by Hollywood. I personally find that this film’s merits make up for its more problematic content but viewers will have to decide for themselves.
Read my full-length review here.
Availability: Eve’s Leaves has been released on DVD by Grapevine.
Extra Credit: Judex (1916-1917)
Watch episodes eight and nine of the French serial Judex, one on each evening. Our hero is starting to have a crisis of conscience and everything is coalescing for the grand finale.
Judex is available on DVD.
Next time, we will be branching out into comedy at last!
I have heard of Stella Maris but not the other and, of course, would love to see both….one day I will. Glad to see how strong the women are. I think, in many ways, we have taken a back seat…unless the woman is a vampire hunter or a b***h
Yes, the silent movie women were really something!
As you probably know, James Card argued that the dominant woman was the iconic figure of the 1920s. By comparison, he finds most of the male stars of the period to be bland and pretty. I think he’s taking it a bit far, but it’s certainly true that strong women and female stars with strong personalities are plentiful in the silent period – Pickford, Normand, Brooks, Bow, Garbo, Bara, etc, etc
I agree, the argument is taking it a bit far. I mean, one could argue that Lon Chaney was more of a character star but he did open movies all by his lonesome and bland he certainly was not. Is it possible that accusations of male blandness are just due to the fact that we are not used to seeing so many colorful women on the screen at once?
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