Kansas Silent Film Fest Celebrates Women Pioneers

“Half of all the films copyrighted between 1911 and 1925 were written by women.” Noted author Cari Beauchamp’s words to a sold-out ballroom on the Washburn University campus at the 22nd annual Kansas Silent Film Festival stuck with me long after the fest’s last screening. As keynote speaker at the fest’s Cinema Dinner, Beauchamp went on to explain more shocking reveals that painted a very different Hollywood landscape for women of the silent era than of today. Women were even more plentiful behind the scenes in a myriad of roles than in front of the camera, then the entire system changed with the advent of sound. But not in a positive way for women.

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Before the transition to talkies, small teams produced hundreds of films. Today, a single film takes dozens of writers, producers, and techs to create an overly inflated budget buster but the women are scant. What happened? Beauchamp illustrated the evolution of women filmmakers from the glorious silent hey days to their decline via talkies (with a studio system and investors dominated by men) through the examples of Frances Marion and other female film pioneers. After her presentation was complete, my husband noted, “this was the best speaker we’ve seen at these Cinema Dinners.” I was too busy gushing praise via standing ovations to disagree.

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This was a highlight of so many fabulous moments and screenings at this year’s installment of the Kansas Silent Film Festival. Every February, silent film fans travel near and far to experience this FREE two day film festival of speakers and screenings in the nation’s heartland of Topeka, Kansas. The only exception for any expense is the Cinema Dinner. For $40 you get a delicious meal and an outstanding guest speaker. Our only minor complaint for these dinners is the Kansas tradition of Prohibition rearing its ugly head, but I think we can manage an otherwise perfect evening without a glass of Chardonnay. I’ve attended this fest for many years but I was especially excited for this year’s theme, “Women In Silent Film.”

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Every screening was introduced with fascinating trivia tidbits by film historian, Denise Morrison. For example, in her intro to Gale Henry’s 1919 short, THE DETECTRESS, she shared that Henry made 238 films between 1915 and 1933, and had her own production unit after only three years in the business. But the most interesting trivia nugget about Henry was in her secondary career as a dog trainer to Hollywood. Her most famous kennel alum? None other than “Skippy” himself- aka “Mr. Smith of THE AWFUL TRUTH and “Asta” of THE THIN MAN series. Other than the uncomfortably racially-insensitive depiction of Chinatown, THE DETECTRESS was a fun platform for Henry’s physical comic skills.

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Another unique asset to this fest is the live musical accompaniment for all of their screenings. We enjoyed music by organists Marvin Faulwell and Bill Beningfield, percussionist Bob Keckeisen, pianist Jeff Rapsis, and the famed Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. I have been fortunate enough to see a screening of Colleen Moore in WHY BE GOOD? (1929), introduced by Cari Beauchamp at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. It was equally delightful to see it this time with Beauchamp’s insightful intro, now further enhanced with Mont Alto’s talents.

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Two of my favorite screenings included a hilariously low-budget special effects 1915 feature, FILIBUS starring Christine Ruspoli, and a manless future of flappers in THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1924). The joys of FILIBUS went beyond an airbus armed with a 6,000 foot rope to commit crime hijinks, as it also featured a cross-dressing female lead who was as smart as she was crafty. THE LAST MAN ON EARTH is loosely based on a 1826 Mary Shelly novel and its entirety from concept to costumes was solid, man-starved entertainment. The film was a rare print on loan from the MOMA. Apparently the future U.S. government, with “flip-flapper” Senators that fashion steam-punk lingerie, will be man-free but the President (named Pratt!) houses dozens of cats roaming the White House. If you haven’t seen these films yet, you will thank me later when you do.

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From the talented lineup of works from female film legends like Mary Pickford, Alice Guy-Blache, and Frances Marion, tearful dramas like Nazimova in CAMILLE (1921), laugh-out-loud comedies like a fox-trotting Mr. and Mrs. Drew, and the always captivating author Cari Beauchamp*, plus so much more, the 2018 KSFF was a classic film lover’s heaven. It’s no wonder that each year I see more friends from out-of-state return, and get to meet new ones, too.

KSFF 2018 Program:

Friday, 2/23, 2018:

Overture and Opening Titles, music by Marvin Faulwell
Welcome and Intros by Denise Morrison, Film Historian
(1919)
with Louise Fazenda
Music by Jeff Rapsis on piano
(1920)
with Alice Howell
Music by 
Bill Beningfield, organ
(1919)
with Gale Henry
Music by 
Marvin Faulwell, organ, and Bob Keckeisen, percussion

Feature introduced by Denise Morrison, Film Historian

(1929)
with Colleen Moore
Music score byThe Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

Saturday, 2/24:

Film Documentary
60 min.
A special presentation by KSFF
(1913)
directed & produced by Alice Guy-Blaché
Music by Marvin Faulwell, organ, and Bob Keckeisen, percussion
Suspense
10 min.
(1913)
with Lois Weber
Music by 
Bill Beningfield, organ 
(1919)
with Nell Shipman
Music by Marvin Faulwell, organ, and Bob Keckeisen, percussion

Overature & Short Opening Titles by Jeff Rapsis
Welcome and Intros by Denise MorrisonFilm Historian

(1913)
with Dorothy Gish
Music by 
Jeff Rapsis
(1920)
with Arline Pretty
Music by Marvin Faulwell, organ, and Bob Keckeisen, percussion
Filibus
69 min.
(1915)
with Christine Ruspoli
Music by 
The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
Book signing in the lobby by Cari Beauchamp


Short Overature by Rodney Sauer
Intros by Denise MorrisonFilm Historian 

(1912)
with Mabel Normand
Music by Rodney Sauer, piano
(1915)
with Mr. Sidney Drew & Mrs. Lucile McVey Drew
Music by Jeff Rapsis, piano
Camille
70 min.
(1921)
with Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino
Music byJeff Rapsis, piano


Overture
 and Opening Titles by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

Welcome and Intros by Denise MorrisonFilm Historian

(1918)
with Mary Pickford, written by Frances Marion
Music by 
The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
(1924)
with Earle Foxe, loosely based on Mary Shelley‘s 1826 novel The Last Man
Film Print from the Museum of Modern Art 
—Music by Marvin Faulwell, organ, and Bob Keckeisen, percussion

For more information on the Kansas Silent Film Festival, you can follow them on social media: Facebook, Twitter @kssilentfilm, Instagram, YouTube, and their KSFF site at www.kssilentfilmfest.org.

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*Cari Beauchamp is an award-winning, American author, historian, journalist, and documentary filmmaker. She authored the biography Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Power of Women in Hollywood which was later made into a documentary film. She also serves as resident scholar of the Mary Pickford Foundation. Twitter: @caribeauchamp and site: CariBeauchamp.com

 

 

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Comments

  1. You detail a fascinating and important festival. I’ll raise a toast to the experience and your sharing of it. It makes me wonder how next year’s installment will top it.

    Like

  2. As I live in nextdoor MO, do you happen to know the dates for next year’s festival?

    Like

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