This blogpost is a version of the introduction I was honoured to give at the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival on Friday for the Nasty Women: Gender Rebels double-bill. The films were brilliantly accompanied by Meg Morley, and the festival continues all weekend.
Welcome to the world of Nasty Women. Cinema’s First Nasty Women is a curatorial project from two American academics, Maggie Hennefeld and Laura Horak. The name is taken from Donald Trump’s notorious remark about Hillary Clinton, and for the past five years, Hennefeld and Horak have been screening films that reveal women being transgressive, riotous and unbiddable on the silent screen at festivals around the world.
This May you will be able to take the nasty women home with you on a four-disc DVD and Blu-ray box set, containing 99 films, dating back to the very beginnings of cinema, sourced from a dozen international archives. It will be crammed with “feminist protest, anarchic, destructive slapstick, and suggestive gender play”.
These films contain a little from each of those three categories, but especially the latter. This is a double-bill set in the wild west, or the cinema’s imaginary wild west. The films showing today star two women who made their names with a cowgirl persona, but who had incredibly different careers. As we will see this morning, the western was not as masculine-dominated a genre at this time as it would later become – Annie Oakley had set a precedent. The women in these films are exceptionally good at what they do, but not necessarily exceptional.
Texas Guinan stars in our first film, 1920’s The Night Rider, about a rancher who marries in haste, and repents while trying to save her livestock from a dastardly team of rustlers. The star was born Mary Louise Cecelia Guinan in Waco, Texas in 1884, and changing her name was just the first of her reinventions. She adopted the name Texas as a chorus girl on Broadway in the early 1900s. Later, in order to claim authentic pioneer credentials she told newspapers that her father was the “first white child born in Texas”, and that she had rounded up cattle and ridden broncos in her youth – all far from the truth. Still, all this fabrication was in service of her fame – she became a big star in silent westerns, with a fairly unglamorous image as a tough gunslinger. She was marketed as nothing less than the “Female William S. Hart” – the distaff counterpart to the archetypal honourable cowboy. Never a secondary character, she was always a sharp-shooting, horse-riding heroine who carries the day. Exhibitor’s Herald wrote that she typified “the breathing, vital, dominant, feminine factor in the life of the West”.
That’s the character she plays here in The Night Rider, though I think that her leopard-print chaps offer a clue to her later change of direction. A couple of years after this film was made she would become “The Queen of the Nightclubs”, presiding over some legendary, and largely illegal, nights of debauchery in New York during Prohibition. She would greet customers at the door with her catchphrase “Hello, sucker!”
Guinan was known for her brains, her wisecracks and her boldness. She wasn’t just a star on screen, but a producer too. She was the head of the unit that produced this film and would shortly go on to form her own production company. She personally cast all her films and oversaw marketing and distribution. You’ll notice that in this film too she plays the boss, and she shoots like she means it. And perhaps her character has a similar approach to marriage as the actress did: “It’s having the same man around the house all the time that ruins matrimony,” she said. She was married more than once, but these ceremonies may have been as legal as the liquor in her nightclubs. And thanks to her creative approach to publicity, it is hard to be sure what is really true about her personal life. The details have been lost, like many of her films.
A word for the director of this film: character actor and director Jay Hunt. Although he would go on to appear in films until just before his death in the early 1930s, this was one of the very last of the almost 70 movies that he directed. Is that him playing Sleepy Jim? It looks a lot like him.
Texas Guinan died in 1933, the year her final film was released. By this time, the character she was playing was herself, the notorious nightclub hostess. But her fame lived on. Betty Hutton starred in a Texas Guinan musical biopic, Incendiary Blonde, in 1945. Madonna has expressed interest in a similar project. And in case you are a Trekker and find yourself wondering about this on the way home, yes Whoopi Goldberg’s character in Star Trek: The Next Generation is named after her.
By contrast, Fay Tincher, the star of our second film, 1919’s Rowdy Ann, is much less well remembered, and downright mysterious, although she was also very popular in her day. Rowdy Ann tells the story of a young cowgirl, who is so much of a tomboy that she is sent away to college to become more ladylike. This is a fairly familiar scenario in comedy shorts, and an excellent setup for playing games with gender roles. Somehow it seems that Rowdy Ann’s rebelliousness is more catching than convention, and she causes havoc every step of the journey, although she too is something of an honourable cowboy, like Texas Guinan. Photoplay called her character “a rough and western cowgirl, almost too skittish for the open range.” If Tincher doesn’t shoot as much as Guinan, she makes up for it with slapstick bravado and by demonstrating her talent with the lasso. The display of rancher skills was still very much an attraction in these more comic variations, as in traditional westerns.
Although she had wanted to become a dramatic actress, Tincher spent most of her film career as a comedian, mostly playing three distinct characters. First, she became famous as the eccentrically dressed Ethel the stenographer, with oversized spit curls and a striped “typewriter dress”. Then she made her cowgirl films, starting with Rowdy Ann, and third, in the 1920s she played Min Gump, the wife of the popular character Andy Gump in a series of Universal two-reel comedies, alongside former Keystone Cop Joe Murphy. In her cowgirl phase though, Tincher was at the height of her fame, and a name to be conjured with alongside Mabel Normand, Flora Finch and Marie Dressler.
At this point she briefly had her own production company too, and the marketing for that was very forthright: “Miss Tincher writes her own stories (in self defense, as she puts it), chooses her own casts, and directs her own pictures”. Also: “Fay Tincher is a merciless autocrat when she directs men’s activities.” However, this film was her second gig working for Canadian-born director Al Christie, with his impressive repertory of comic actors. Tincher was a big signing for him, but still the film was marketed to appeal to those who appreciated a more traditional role for the fairer sex: “Fay Tincher and a bevy of pretty girls in ‘Rowdy Ann’ a new two reel Christie special.” Those pretty girls are the Christie Beauties who decorated many of his films – you’ll see them in the dance class – one of the familiar characteristics of his hit situational comedies. As I said, Rowdy Ann was also Tincher’s first western role: according to the fan magazines Tincher learned to ride for this film and then went on to feature in films such as Dangerous Nan McGrew and Wild and Western.
It won’t surprise you once you have seen Rowdy Ann, with her gun and boots added to her dance costume, to learn that Tincher often wore male drag in her films. “It’s more fun being a boy in a movie comedy than chewing a whole package of gum,” she told one magazine. Indeed her gender-non-conforming behaviour in this film as the riotous tomboy who refuses to play by feminine rules stops short only of a moustache and beard. Just check out her gun holster, placed suggestively between her legs. And it’s not just Ann, the rules are meant to be broken by everyone in this comedy that scholar Andrew Grossman has described as “one of the first American films, comic or otherwise, to legitimately address the social psychology of gender construction.”
Tincher was never married, and indeed declared herself yet more averse to the idea than Texas Guinan did. Anita Loos, among others, has suggested that she was gay. Tincher lived to be 99, when she died of a heart attack in 1983. But little is known of her life after she made her final movie as Min Gump in 1928. She is buried in an unmarked grave and precious few of her films survive. What we do have, is worth cherishing: for its good humour, its charm and its sheer, for want of a better word, nastiness!
• For more on Cinema’s First Nasty Women, and the box set, click this way.
• An amazing resource – check out the programme notes for every screening in Hippfest history.
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