Maggie Hennefeld encountered them alone, in the archives, in the dark. Silent film stars who were daring and funny and original — but forgotten because they were women.
A teenage tomboy who floods her home. A maid who explodes through the chimney. A wife who dominates her husband with a lasso.
Hennefeld is spotlighting them, at last.
"When most people think of silent, slapstick comedy, they think of Charlie Chaplin, maybe Harold Lloyd — who are brilliant," said Hennefeld, an associate professor of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. "But there were so many women who were doing messy, violent, rough-and-tumble slapstick as well.
"They've just been written out of the history."
Hennefeld and two co-curators have unearthed 99 silent films produced from 1898 to 1926 for a new collection, enlisting composers to pair them with new, original scores. On Aug. 25, the Trylon Cinema will screen 11 short films from "Cinema's First Nasty Women," a four-disc DVD/Blu-ray set that will be released late this month.
Hennefeld is among a passionate cadre of researchers enlisting such erased films to rewrite the canon.
"She's brilliant about moving between the specific films and the broader theories they bring up," said Laura Horak, an associate professor of film studies at Carleton University in Ottawa and Hennefeld's co-curator, along with Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi.
"One way these types of films have been dismissed in the past is that they're fluff, they're not serious," she said. "Maggie's able to say, they don't have to be any of those things to still be really important ... They can tell us about these broader structures of society and cinema as a medium."
Horak's films in the collection feature cross-dressing and gender-bending characters. Hennefeld's specialty is slapstick and the stars who used it to smash, shatter and destroy our ideas about domestic life and gender norms.
For years, she's trailed one teenage prankster in particular — known as Léontine or Titine — through the archives.
"She is an anarchic force of nature..." Hennefeld writes in a 2019 essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books. "But the screen actress who played her remains unknown, unidentified, a ghost of film history."
And, after three more years of watching films, scanning magazines and combing distributor catalogs? "We still don't know," she said during a recent interview.
Here, Hennefeld discusses the archives she frequents, the films she loves and who gets remembered and why. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: How did you come to focus on slapstick silent films that center on women?
A: I've always been into comedy. Growing up, I loved watching funny women on "Saturday Night Live." And I've always been a cinephile. I became increasingly interested in silent cinema. There's all this evangelism for rediscovering and restoring lost films — especially ones that have been unjustly written out of the canon, which is very male-dominated.
In 2010, I went to a conference called Women and the Silent Screen in Bologna. It's all about rediscovering and historicizing lost feminist works, mostly films by women directors. There, all my disparate research interests came together.
I was traveling to archives in London and Amsterdam and Paris and Washington, D.C., to watch these films that weren't really available or, at best, were available only as a low-res copy, circulating on and off of YouTube without music or just some Scott Joplin rag music thrown in as an afterthought.
So being able to make these films accessible, to screen them in theaters, to work with musicians and composers to set them to music — that's pretty cool.
Q: What was it about Léontine, specifically, that captured your imagination?
A: She's an impossible child. She's a tomboy. She has this devilish impulse she can't resist. One thing will lead to another and then, by the end of the episode, the house will be flooded or incinerated — or both.
These films were made on the brink of the outbreak of World War I in Europe, so you're tapping into something very dark and violent in European politics, these antagonisms exploding in ways that feel familiar today.
As we anticipate the increasingly apocalyptic impulses in our own society, there's something deeply cathartic about watching her films. There's this midcentury critical theory about how, if mass audiences watch violent cartoons or slapstick comedies, they'll provide a kind of inoculation against this collective psychosis.
Léontine was too late to save Europe, but maybe we can spread the gospel today.
Q: It's wild to think about just how many films she was in and how good she was in them. What's it like for you to see that these stars have been forgotten?
A: That's really the mission of the project. Given how many silent films have been lost forever, it's kind of a miracle that so many Léontine films have survived. So many of the films survive, but they were just lying around collecting dust. They were just preserved — it wasn't like anyone was doing anything with them.
I've seen glimmers of Léontine in compilation films in the '80s and '90s made by male film historians who had the wrong year, the wrong country of origin. While they're writing micro-histories of whether this Charlie Chaplin character debuted in this month or that month — these minute debates — they're often careless about anything related to women.
Q: What was happening that created the space for these films, which are quite subversive, to exist?
A: It was a moment. By the time you get to 1907, 1908, they become comedies of manners: Hubby doesn't want wife to be a suffragette. But before that it was the Wild West. It was such a popular mass medium. Cinema was for everyone. Manufacturers couldn't make films quickly enough, so demand well outpaced supply. People loved these slapstick comedies, and women wanted to participate.
As it became a larger, more lucrative, more centralized industry, women could no longer play quite as active a role. There were prolific women filmmakers until the end of the 19-teens and then they started to be squeezed out.
Queens of Destruction
What: Films from 'Cinema's First Nasty Women'
When: 7 p.m. Aug. 25
Where: Trylon Cinema, 2820 E. 33rd St., Mpls.