Thursday, October 07, 2021

Phil-for-Short (GCM 2021, Nasty Women Prog. 2: Genders of Farce)

Oscar Apfel: Phil-for-Short (US 1919) with Evelyn Greeley (Damophilia Illington) and Charles Walcott (Professor Illington). Photo: Library of Congress / Kino Lorber.

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (GCM), Pordenone. Corona emergency security: half programming, half capacity, COVID certificate required, temperature measured, hand hygiene, face masks, distancing.
    John Sweeney at the grand piano, Teatro Verdi, e-subtitles in English and Italian, 7 Oct 2021.

Nasty Women: Prog. 2: Genders of Farce

regia/dir: ?. cast: Dranem (il marito/the husband). prod: Pathé Frères. uscita/rel: 3-9.1.1913 (Omnia Pathé, Paris). copia/copy: DCP (orig. 215 m), 11’31”; senza did./no titles. fonte/source: Gaumont-Pathé Archives, Saint-Ouen, Paris.

regia/dir: Oscar Apfel. scen: Clara Beranger, Forrest Halsey. photog: Max Schneider, asst. Nelson H. Minnerly. cast: Evelyn Greeley (Damophilia Illington), Charles Walcott (Professor Illington), James Furey (Pat Mehan), Jack Drumier (Donald MacWrath), Ann Egelston (Eliza MacWrath), Hugh Thompson (John Alden), Henrietta Simpson (Mrs. Alden), Charles Duncan (Mr. Alden), Ethel Grey Terry (Angelica Wentworth), Edward Arnold (Tom Wentworth). prod: Oscar Apfel, World Film Corporation. dist: World Film Corporation. uscita/rel: 2.6.1919. copia/copy: DCP (orig. 5742 ft), 81’50”; did./titles: ENG. fonte/source: Library of Congress National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, Packard Campus, Culpeper, VA.

“All great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice,” declared Karl Marx, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” When power loses all semblance of legitimacy but remains as entrenched as ever, it cannot fail to become farcical. The historical rule of farcical repetition goes double for gender. Rigid norms and damaging stereotypes appear wildly ridiculous when they lose their unquestioned, hegemonic authority. Silent film comedies cashed in on the zany unraveling of traditional gender roles, with mixed results. Examples range from Alice Guy’s Les Résultats du féminisme (Gaumont, 1906) and The Suffragette’s Dream (Pathé, 1909) – in which men nurse babies and “crochet for dear life” – to Her First Flame (Bull’s Eye, 1920) and What’s the World Coming To? (Hal Roach Studios, 1926). In these films, gender anarchy is both outrageously extreme and inescapably temporary. Their conservative endings cannot contain their carnivalesque midsections.“

““The second time as farce” could be the tagline for Le Ménage Dranem (Pathé, 1912), a comedy about the topsy-turvy consequences of feminism. On the one hand, the film reads as the pathetic revenge fantasy of a henpecked husband whose browbeating wife condemns him to the thankless labor of “dry nurse” (no match for the bovine nursemaids in La Grève des nourrices). Monsieur Dranem cooks, cleans, and sews “like an elephant threading a needle,” while his militant wife gambols around in pantaloons, smokes pipes, drinks pints, plays cards in the park, and assaults her cowed spouse. As summarized by Ciné-Journal, Madame “emprunte au sexe fort tous ses défauts, sans ses qualités” (“borrows from the stronger sex all its faults without any of its qualities”). On the other hand, once the genie is out of the bottle (so to speak), the binds of assigned gender roles will never look or feel the same again, which should be apparent by the absurd return to normalcy pictured at the end of the film.“

“Farce saturates every frame of Oscar Apfel’s Phil-for-Short (1919), a rollicking burlesque about improbable romance between a cross-dressing spitfire and an avowed “woman-hater,” who are both Greek professors at a co-ed college in New Jersey. Many American silent films envisioned queer romances between a woman-hater and a disguised girl or tomboy: The Snowbird (Metro, 1916), The Tomboy (Fox, 1921), The Wild Party (Paramount, 1929), and Apfel’s own follow-up, The Trail of the Law (Producers Security Corp., 1923), starring Norma Shearer. But Phil-for-Short was censored (of all things) for being “too nice”! Variety condemned it as a “a sissy play, too nice for our boys; we want them to be manly,” they quoted, after a local screening attended by a Boy Scout troop in Wilmette, Illinois. There are several effeminate male characters in the film, including notorious “woman-hater” John Alden (Hugh Thompson). But perhaps they should have been more worried about Damophilia (Evelyn Greeley), the title character, who is also a Sapphic dancer, temporary cross-dresser, ancient Greek polyglot, daytime farm laborer, and mischievous trickster. She goes by the nickname Phil (for short), because “Wouldn’t you rather be called phil than damn?” Her full name, Damophilia, comes from a poem by Sappho, ancient Greek lyrist from the Isle of Lesbos, whose homeland is, of course, also the etymology of “lesbian,” and who has symbolized female homoeroticism since the Hellenistic period.“

“References to Sap(p)ho were ubiquitous in silent cinema: there were no less than 20 film adaptations of Alphonse Daudet’s novel Sapho produced between 1896 and 1920, according to queer film historian Kiki Loveday. Film and dance scholar Mary Simonson argues that ancient Greece functioned as “an imagined space through which early twentieth-century Americans, especially white middle- and upper-class American women, could access particular experiences and claim particular rights – the right to education, to bodily liberation, to full political engagement.” These dual implications of Sapphism – same-sex eroticism and classist gatekeeping – encircle Phil-for-Short’s libidinal tensions. Exchange economies of the sexual and marital marketplace make room for play and delimit what’s socially possible within this wily narrative, where Sappho and misogyny freefall toward the altar together.“

“Co-written by the prolific silent film scriptwriter Clara Beranger (see also Miss Lulu Bett in the “American Women Screenwriters” series), Phil’s dialogue is frothy, cutting, and hilarious: “I knew I could make you love me if I could get you mad enough.” And: “Oh, my husband’s all right – but he’s not vital.” The film’s farcical plot revolves around cheeky innuendo and situational disguise, both of which frequently thematize sexual misunderstanding and gender misrecognition. For example, a motif of blurry point-of-view shots captures Alden’s confused perspective after Phil steals or hides his glasses. But even when he can see what’s right under his nose, he repeatedly fails to detect its meaning: from Phil’s gender identity to the shape-shifting exuberance of female desire. As supposedly translated from ancient Greek, “The man who takes an eel by the tail or a woman at her word soon finds that he holds nothing.” Or, more to the point, “every woman will make a fool of some man at least once.” We quite agree.
“ – Maggie Hennefeld, Laura Horak

AA: I did not visit this screening but I copy here Maggie Hennefeld and Laura Horak's program notes of Phil-for-Short, a film that I liked very much when it was previously shown at Le Giornate (in 2004 in Sacile). A comedy ahead of its time, anticipating Katharine Hepburn in her 1930s films with George Cukor, George Stevens and Howard Hawks, and going further than Bringing Up Baby or any other film of theirs.

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