Monday, August 7, 2017

Strong Women Outmaneuvering Pliable Men

The stereotype of predatory women whose success has been built on the backs of hard-working men ranges from vulgar social climbers (like the conniving females who populate The Real Housewives franchise) to power-hungry mothers like The Manchurian Candidate's cold-hearted Mrs. Iselin; from gold-digging showgirls to calculating black widows whose serial husbands manage to die under the most convenient circumstances. Consider Thornton Wilder's description of the young widow named Irene Molloy (as voiced by that famous matchmaker, Dolly Gallagher Levi):
"According to all known facts, her first husband passed on quite naturally. It's just that he went so sudden. A few spoonfuls of chowder that she made special for him, and pffft! It could happen to anyone. No, there's no truth in the rumors. Just one word of advice, Mr. Vandergelder: Eat out! Keep away from the chowder. Oh, by the way, she's ordered her wedding gown. Beautiful -- you should see it. Black! Well, as I said before, Mr. Vandergelder, congratulations on your forthcoming nuptials and may you rest in p... I mean, may guardian angels watch over you both -- particularly at dinner!"
A pair of vagina dentata vampire shoes

From 16th-century pirate queens like Grace O'Malley to those possessing the legendary vagina dentata, women have been portrayed as unscrupulous vixens who would dare to use a man's techniques of seduction, theft, and domination against him. The hard truth is that some women are simply more intelligent, more creative, and better equipped to analyze a situation than men. Others can afford to sit back and let gullible guys fall all over themselves in their desperation to impress a beautiful woman.

In Snakes In Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work, authors Paul Babiak (an industrial psychologist) and Robert Hare (a criminal psychologist) make an important distinction between psychopathy and anti-social personality disorder by stressing that a psychopath lacks empathy, suffers from grandiosity, and is an emotionally shallow person who may well enjoy humiliating his victim purely for the sake of entertainment. While that theory could easily be applied to the 45th President of the United States, it didn't seem applicable to the heroines of two farces screened during the 2017 San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

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Directed by Mario Roncoroni and filmed in Italy in 1915, Filibus stars Cristina Ruspoli as a master thief who keeps her headquarters far above the action, descending to earth from an itinerant zeppelin whose loyal crew can easily hoist her back up to the sky for a quick and untraceable getaway. If you thought the jewel heist in 1964's Topkapi was a stroke of genius, think again!

Poster art from 1915's Filibus

When on the ground, Filibus often dresses as her alter ego, the wealthy Baroness de Troixmonde who is perfectly at ease in social situations that involve the upper class. Her ability to mix well at parties and salons gives Filibus amazing access to those who enjoy her era's lifestyles of the rich and famous.

While indulging in idle chitchat, Filibus can surreptitiously take inventory of all the jewelry on display. Not only can the Baroness use her feminine wiles to stake out a future heist, she can even charm Detective Hardy into unwittingly helping her solve the case against the mysterious Filibus while she is secretly framing him. Her cat-and-mouse game becomes even more amusing when Detective Hardy invites Filibus (disguised as the Count de la Brive) to spend several weeks at his home, where Filibus/Count de la Brive has great fun flirting with the detective's unmarried sister, Leonora.

Cristina Ruspoli as a jewel thief in a scene from 1915's Filibus

Cristina Ruspoli as the Baroness in a scene from 1915's Filibus

Cristina Ruspoli aboard the airship in a scene from 1915's Filibus

To the delight of the audience at the Castro Theatre, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's screening of Filibus was spryly accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. In an era when cross-dressing and transgenderism are becoming more common, the gender fluidity that lies at the heart of Filibus demonstrates that, more than 100 years ago, women were taking advantage of conventional gender roles (even in crime capers). Indeed, the program book for the 2013 Dortmund Cologne International Women's Film Festival hailed Filibus as "probably one of the first lesbian characters in the history of film." As Monica Nolan explained in her program essay for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival:
“Filibus follows the exploits of a cross-dressing futuristic female supervillain who pounces on her prey from a zeppelin manned by a crew of loyal henchmen. In her various schemes Filibus employs not only her zeppelin but something called a heliograph, a tiny camera, a miniature gun, lots of soporific drugs, and a fake handprint, but commutes between zeppelin and terra firma in a kind of tin can (complete with phone) which Detective Hardy fails to notice, even when it’s hovering over his terrace. Filibus’s trim suit and newsboy cap give gender boundaries a fairly forceful push compared to the jupes-culottes (a pants-skirt hybrid); but still more radical is the way the film destabilizes appearances in general, constantly oscillating between reality and illusion -- whether it’s diamonds, kidnappings, or wardrobe -- until it seems that all of life is one big masquerade. Like any self-respecting supervillain, Filibus is a mistress of disguise, posing as the Baroness Troixmonde for a visit to the detective and later insinuating herself into his household camouflaged as the aristocratic dandy, Count de la Brive. This male impersonation was part of what film historian Angela Dalle Vacche described as a widespread questioning of gender identity that, at the time, ‘was at the very center of Italy’s modern daily life.’”
Poster art from 1915's Filibus

While it would be easy to assume that the inspiration for Filibus might have come from two of Jules Verne's novels (1863's Five Weeks in a Balloon, or, Journeys and Discoveries in Africa by Three Englishmen and 1873's Around the World in Eighty Days),  Nolan points to the possibility of a much different source.
“An investigation into scenario writer Giovanni Bertinetti yields intriguing fodder for speculation on Filibus’s origins. In addition to his film work, Bertinetti wrote children’s adventure stories featuring the gadgets and science-fiction fantasy elements that animate Filibus. The special effects are endearingly low-budget, but who cares, when the action is fast-paced and just plain fun? Although the final frames of Filibus hint at a sequel, it was not to be. A few months after the film was released, Italy declared war on Austro-Hungary and Italian film production dropped precipitously over the next few years (possibly explaining why Cristina Ruspoli’s credits seem to stop in 1916, why Corona Films went out of business, and why Mario Roncoroni moved to Spain). By rights, a film as minor as Filibus should have vanished from history as quickly as its creators. That it has survived for us to watch, analyze, and marvel at is a small miracle.”

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When Down to the Sea in Ships premiered at the Olympia Theatre in New Bedford, Massachusetts on September 25, 1922, it marked the film debut of 17-year-old Clara Bow, who went on to become a legend of the silent screen. Known far and wide as the "It" girl, Bow was featured in an astonishing number of silent films within a very short time. Not only did her career include 46 silent films (22 of which were made during 1925 and 1926), she was one of the few actresses who successfully made the transition to talkies. As film historian Jeanine Basinger notes:
“The public fell in love with her, and the film business was happy to exploit that love. She should have become one of Hollywood’s highest paid female stars, but she never earned that kind of money. She had no head for business, no education to speak of, and no parent or adult to guide her or look out for her. She did the work, and took up an offscreen hotcha pattern of behavior that embraced fun, fun, fun. Clara Bow liked men and they liked her. Her unrestrained sexuality translated on-screen into an exuberant joyousness, a free-spiritedness that made her popular with women as well as men. She was Betty Boop in the flesh, shaking and shimmying around the frame with her short hair, big eyes, voluptuous body, and boop-a-doop personality.”
Clara Bow in a scene from Get Your Man

Of the six films Bow made in 1927, she is most famous for the aforementioned It and Wings (in which she co-starred opposite Richard Arlen and Charles "Buddy" Rogers). Her final film for 1927 was Get Your Men, which once again cast her opposite Rogers (whose good looks earned him the nickname of "America's Boy Friend" during the silent era).

Directed by Dorothy Arzner, Get Your Man cast Bow and Rogers as two wealthy naifs who fall in love following a chance meeting in Paris. Cast as Nancy Worthingon, Bow appears as a pretty, but slightly bored young American traveling abroad on a shopping spree. Rogers is cast as Robert de Bellecontre, the handsome son of the Duc de Bellecontre (Josef Swickard) who, together with his close friend, the Marquis de Villeneuve (Harvey Clark), arranged for their children (Robert and Simone) to be married when they reach adulthood.

With Robert and Simone fully grown, the long-anticipated wedding is about to take place (even if the bride and groom show absolutely no romantic interest in one another). Sent to Paris to pick up a string of pearls for his bride, Robert keeps bumping into Nancy, who is spending the day free from the watchful eye of her family's chaperone.

Clara Bow and Buddy Rogers in a scene from Get Your Man

With an obvious chemistry onscreen, Robert and Nancy start to fall in love. By a curious set of circumstances, they end up spending the night trapped inside a wax museum. Determined to make the best of their new friendship, Nancy stages an auto accident at the Bellecontre chateau, where she has no trouble wrapping every man present around her adorable fingers. When Robert discovers her presence at his family's mansion, the comedy quickly accelerates.

Clara Bow and Buddy Rogers in a scene from Get Your Man

Although there is no doubt about Robert's attraction to Nancy, he's a bit of an airhead when it comes to handling complicated situations (rich and pretty, but perhaps not too bright). When Nancy learns that Simone has a secret lover and, like Robert, is being forced into an arranged marriage by her father, she wastes no time finding a way to break up the older men's plans for a pre-arranged marriage which would be of great convenience to them, but not to the disinterested bride and groom. In her program note, Basinger stresses that:
Get Your Man is dominated by Bow’s natural and unselfconscious pizzazz. Bow’s self-confident co-star, Charles Rogers, has a great deal of sex appeal of his own (at least in his day). He doesn’t seem particularly worried about his acting skills, no doubt having learned early in life that looking good, wearing clothes well, and smiling warmly was going to make his day turn out all right. Because Bow and Rogers both have a very American 1920s vibe and a natural ease, they pair up well. She bumps into Rogers, who inexplicably plays a French heir to a dukedom despite his very all-American clean-cut looks and his 'gee whiz' aura. When they’re accidentally locked into a museum for an overnight stay, Bow and Rogers fall in love. The complication? He’s noble, and thus forced to tell her the next morning that he’s already engaged to a girl his father betrothed him to when he was a tot. Does Bow slink away all heartbroken after hearing this? Well, why would she? She’s Clara Bow and her problem is only a bunch of men: the guy she just fell in love with, his daddy, and the doomed fiancĂ©e’s father. If there’s anything Clara Bow knows how to handle, it’s three rich guys.”
Clara Bow and Buddy Rogers in a scene from Get Your Man

Although several reels of Get Your Man had been missing for many years, the Library of Congress was able to reconstruct much of Arzner's film from recovered materials. By replacing lost footage with production photos and new intertitles, the restoration shown at the Castro Theatre did a fine job of preserving Bow’s performance for posterity. Blessed by Stephen Horne's delightful musical accompaniment, the screening also demonstrated why the baby-faced Buddy Rogers could have been a matinee idol for gay men (who wouldn't hesitate to serenade him with songs like Thunder Buddy, Let's Be Buddies, My Buddy Lies Over the Ocean, Bosom Buddies, and My Buddy). Despite the lack of a musical score, the following clip allows viewers to watch 60 minutes of Get Your Man while the intertitles propel the story along. The film is absolutely charming and well worth your time.

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