Beach Film Club gives a voice to women of the silent film era

(Jared Shuff | Collegian Media Group)

Today’s film industry exists because of the silent films created a century ago, with actors like Charlie Chaplin and Lon Chaney still remembered as some of the greats. However, the contributions of women in silent film — both on and behind the screen — are often overlooked.

On Wednesday evening, the Beach Film Club — part of the Beach Museum of Art’s annual program series — dedicated its second virtual discussion to the creative contributions of women in silent film. From directors to actors to both at the same time, women in silent film offered more to the industry than they’re often recognized for.

Shannon Skelton, assistant professor in the School of Music, Theatre and Dance, led the discussion. He provided background on the history of silent film and biographical information of the discussed women directors.

“I think that it’s important to remember where our filmmakers tonight sit in this timeline,” Skelton said.

Some of the directors covered were Lois Weber, Marion Wong, Mabel Normand, Cleo Madison and Helen Holmes. Many of them acted in their films and were the only women with creative positions.

“You can imagine how male-heavy the film industry was at that time,” Skelton said, “and the challenges of a woman breaking in.”

The short films curated for the discussion ranged from comedy to suspense to action. Holmes directed and starred in “The Hazards of Helen,” an action series revolving around her outwitting dangerous characters and proving women can take care of themselves. She did all of her own stunts, like fighting men and jumping on and off moving trains.

The film “The Curse of Quon Gwon,” directed by Wong, was considered lost until two film reels were found in the basement of her family home and restored in 2005. Although parts of the film are presumed lost, the remains uniquely depict Chinese-American assimilation at odds with traditional Chinese culture.

“Plot-wise, it’s very difficult to determine kind of for sure … about 90 years before it was discovered it was only screened twice,” Skelton said. “So it’s a little bit difficult to kind of piece some of that together.”

The film predates other Asian-American films made by men, showing the creative talents of women and immigrants — even if they were often overlooked or forgotten.

Another example of a women director starring in her work is Normand’s “Mabel Strange Predicament,” a slap-stick comedy featuring Charlie Chaplin as a bumbling drunk. Normand finds herself running around in her pajamas, trying to get back in her locked room, with plenty of mishaps occurring along the way.

“It was interesting that she had as much physical comedy as it seemed [Chaplin] did,” Jennifer Harlan, office and events assistant for the Beach art museum, said. “Her role was as physical as his, which I think is interesting.”

Skelton ended the discussion by asking about the depiction of women in these films, how they compare with each other and modern films.

“I kind of felt like through this whole thing, and not just even about women that, you know, times are the same,” Robin Lonborg, assistant director of operations for the Beach art museum, said. “These women were dealing with a lot of similar things … a lot of familiar things going on.”

“I think some of these films are surprising in their depiction of women … not bowing to kind of the patriarchy and expectations of that time,” Skelton said, “but really kind of embracing, kind of action, right?”

While silent films are mainly a thing of the past, silent film festivals can still showcase this historical form of cinema with live accompaniment and all.

“If you haven’t experienced live accompaniment with a silent film, definitely check out the Kansas Silent Film Festival,” Nicole Derr, accountant for the KSU Foundation, said. “Definitely have to see a live performance if you ever get the chance.”

The next Beach Film Club is at 7 p.m. March 24, and will discuss the 2001 Indian drama film “Monsoon Wedding.” Registration and streaming options are available on the Beach art museum website under the event calendar.

My name is Jared Shuff, and I am a former editor-in-chief of the Collegian. Previously, I worked as the arts & culture editor and as a contributing writer for the news desk. I am a senior in secondary education with an emphasis in English/journalism. I grew up in Hutchinson, Kansas, and attended Hutchinson Community College before transferring to K-State in 2020.