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.


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.


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.”

Screen Shot 2018-03-01 at 2.13.41 AM

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.


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.



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.


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
with Louise Fazenda
Music by Jeff Rapsis on piano
with Alice Howell
Music by 
Bill Beningfield, organ
with Gale Henry
Music by 
Marvin Faulwell, organ, and Bob Keckeisen, percussion

Feature introduced by Denise Morrison, Film Historian

with Colleen Moore
Music score byThe Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

Saturday, 2/24:

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

with Dorothy Gish
Music by 
Jeff Rapsis
with Arline Pretty
Music by Marvin Faulwell, organ, and Bob Keckeisen, percussion
69 min.
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 

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

 and Opening Titles by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

Welcome and Intros by Denise MorrisonFilm Historian

with Mary Pickford, written by Frances Marion
Music by 
The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
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.


*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




My TCM Discovery, Colleen Moore in WHY BE GOOD?

Turner Classic Movies channel has acquired a cult-like following of devoted fans who enjoy sharing their retro film nerdiness together via social media and activities like the TCM Film Festival. The network is elevating this social-meets-movie-watching experience for their fandom with the #LetsMovie campaign, as part of their overall strategy to include a broader audience.


To reflect a slew of social sharing activities this month, such as launching new #LetsMovie emojis, @NitrateDiva joins in on the fun by hosting the TCM DISCOVERIES BLOGATHON on Saturday, 9/19. Today we classic film obsessives weigh in on our shared joy of cinema with family and friends via the blogosphere. So what films and friendships have you discovered through TCM? For me, it’s almost too many to list. But for the sake of simplicity, I’ll give a singular and recent example of William A. Seiter’s WHY BE GOOD? (1929)


I knew of Colleen Moore, but not that well. She fashioned that same adorable, dark bob like a less sophisticated and less serious version of Louise Brooks. I was fortunate to see her on a big screen with live musical accompaniment in Alfred E. Green’s ELLA CINDERS (1926) at the 2014 Kansas Silent Film Festival. With a hilarious Cinderella aims for Hollywood twist on the ole fairy tale, I was immediately smitten with this plucky, funny lady. My chance to see her again on the big screen came along at the 2015 TCM Film Festival with the screening of WHY BE GOOD?


[I love the catchy phrase from the poster, “she won him with her pep, but almost lost him with her rep.”]

Introduced by famed author and film historian Cari Beauchamp, I was excited to see this lovingly restored flick featuring Colleen Moore as flapper Pert Kelly. She’s a department store clerk by day and a flirty, energetic party girl by night. Also stars Neil Hamilton as the heir apparent and boss’s son. If you don’t already know Hamilton by his other PreCode roles, perhaps you recognize him as Commissioner Gordon from 1966 TV series Batman. One surprise that Cari provided us was to look out for a cameo of a young Jean Harlow in the background of a scene. Sure enough, there she was; on a bench with a man’s head in her lap.

ColleenMoore and NeilHamilton

The story is straight forward – a working class party girl meets wealthy playboy, they fall for each other but she must prove to his father that she’s good enough for him. But there is SO much more here than what the formula suggests. It’s stylistically a rich, sweet treat to savor with all the costumes and music reflecting the jazz age, with strong nods into scintillating PreCode. What was most surprising about this film was the feminist messages and tones it reveals. Even by today’s standards, the entire audience was clapping and loudly cheering by the empowered messaging expressed by her character.

There’s a tremendous plethora to be enchanted by this film and Colleen Moore’s charming persona. But what takes it to the next level was screening this joyful event as a shared experience, with people just like me. Sitting in that darkened theater that morning in Hollywood on March 28th, 2015, it was a marvelous way to greet the day. Laughing, smiling, cheering… all together. Sure, we may come from different walks of life, work different jobs, live in different parts of the world. But in those shared cinematic moments, we are family.

So go enjoy your #LetsMovie moments. Be moved, laugh, cry, cheer, or even applaud if you feel it. We’re all one in the ‘TCM Tribe’.

Colleen More_WhyBeGood

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