Pordenone Silent Film Festival 2013 and Women’s Film History

Karin Swanström’s Flickan I Frack (1926) and Wfhi
at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, plus news about
Women’s Film History events, research and other initiatives

by Christine Gledhill


Karin Swanström and The Girl in Tails
Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 14-17 October, in Pordenone, Italy, is not noted for a focus on Women’s Film History, but for early comers a feminist gem featured as opener for this year’s Swedish strand: Karin Swanström’s Flickan I Frack, made in 1926, which she not only directed but enlivened with her performance in the comic role of small-town matriarch, Hyltenious, widow of the county priest who confronts the ‘Flickan I Frack’–the Girl in Tails.

Magda Holm and Einar Axelsson in Flickan I Frack (1926)The girl in question is intelligent but not yet glamorous Katja (Magda Holm), who offers to coach Ludwig von Battwhyl, the sporting numbskull of her graduating class, through the exams. This produces a pretty romance, but is overshadowed by the saga of Katja’s family life, in which she functions loyally as surrogate wife to her widowed father, who nevertheless favours her brother when it comes to education and a clothes allowance. A comment from Ludwig suggesting her dowdy clothes make her unattractive leads to an angry outburst from Katja in which she drags him to her brother’s room and throws open his drawers and cupboards to display lines of suits and shirts. Not to be outdone at the graduation ball, she waltzes round town visiting dressmakers and accessory shops. When authorisation is sought from her father for the bills, he puts his foot down and cancels the orders. However, the girl is not to be sidelined. The ball is in full swing when she arrives dressed in . . . her brother’s new suit, complete with topper and tails. Nerving herself for the scandal, she takes to brandy and cigars!

Karin SwanströmKarin Swanström, the director of this fandango, plays the unflattering role of an aging and overweight matriarchal widow, sporting double chin, flaring nostrils and piercing stare, who wakes from her somnolence at the ball to find chaperoning mothers, aunts and other town respectables in a state of outrage at Katja’s breaking gender taboos. In consequence of the scandal, Katya’s father throws her out. She finds shelter, however, with a feminist aunt living in a collective of cigar-smoking, philosophising, independent-minded women, who greet the young rebel with amused good humour and lots of advice about the world of men.

Swanström appeared in two more 1927 films at the festival – Förseglade läppar (Sealed Lips) and Hans Engelska Fru/Matrimony – in equally indomitable character studies, suggesting she was a formidable presence on the studio floor. YouTube runs a brief clip from Swedenhielms/Swedenhielm Family, a 1935 film in which Swanström plays the more motherly role of Marta ‘Mutti’ Boman, housekeeper to Ingrid Bergman’s lovelorn Astrid.

Swedenhielms (1935)

She directed three earlier films – Boman på utställningen 1923, Kalle Utter and Flygnde holländaren, both in 1925, and by the 1930s, had, according to the Festival’s catalogue, become ‘the most influential figure in Swedish cinema in her capacity as artistic head of production at the country’s major studio, AB Svensk Filmindustri,’ from 1931-1941.

Women & Film History International (Wfhi) Meeting
One thing the Festival does do for women’s film history is to provide a programme slot and room for the annual gathering of Women & Film History International. This is an umbrella organisation that acts as a clearing house for the biennial Women and the Silent Screen Conference and the Women Film Pioneers Project, as well as for the SCMS caucus (Society for Cinema and Media Studies) and WFTHN (Women’s Film and TV History Network-UK/Ireland).

Our meeting this year was small–about 20 people–since a number of regulars had used their travel finance go to the very recent Women and the Silent Screen VII in Melbourne. We had no information from the Wfhi meeting at that Conference, where, when necessary, voting takes place to elect new officers (due this year) and decisions are made as to any changes in the organisation’s constitution, such as membership dues. So with no immediate business to discuss, the meeting functioned largely to exchange information. Elaine Burrows and Christine Gledhill attended from WFTHN and reported on activities since the last Pordenone Silent Film Festival, giving out contact details for our listserve, blog and Doing Women’s Film and TV History conference (DWFTH 2 10-12 April 2014). The following lists the items of news shared from elsewhere.


Performance and Emotions, 29 Sept-2 Oct 2013, University of Melbourne
No-one who had been at the Conference was able to attend the Wfhi meeting, but the feedback from abroad was that it had gone well, with some good papers (see the blog from Jill Matthews, who was there, circulated on this site, 6 October). In particular the Australian and New Zealand Archives had contributed and expressed interest in developing work within their own collections on women’s film history.

We were glad to hear that the proceedings of Women and Silent Screen VI, held in 2010 at the University of Bologna, have now been published on-line: Researching Women and Silent Cinema: New Findings and Perspectives, edited by Monica Dall’Asta, Victoria Duckett and Lucia Tralli, who were congratulated on a huge undertaking successfully achieved. This very attractive online publication can be accessed here.

There is a question mark as to where WSS VIII (2015) will take place, with provisional plans for the USA.

The long awaited Women Film Pioneers database was showcased at WSS and, as Leslie Midkiff Debauche reported, was about to go live, which in fact it did during the Pordenone Festival. It is a mammoth project, taking many years to develop and complete, but the wait has been worth it. The database is easy to use and is organised in 3 main sections: Overviews, Pioneers and Resources; there is an explanatory section under ‘About’. The Pioneers can be accessed alphabetically, by nationality, or by occupation. The home page provides News and a Featured Video, Featured Pioneer and a search facility. This stimulating website is both informative and question-raising, inviting our exploration and engagement. Moreover, its homepage quotes praise from the American press.

However, the British section is a little thin, so those of us who have delayed completing our promised entries while the teething problems of the database were being sorted need now to look to finalise copy for 2014! New guidelines, reflecting the database’s final mode of operation, will be sent out, with reminders, shortly. Anyone interested in undertaking an entry of any British women filmmakers in the silent period not yet being researched should check the listing on WFTHN website.


  • Women’s Media and Film Festival, Department of Modern Culture and Media, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, USA: 14-16 March 2014, featuring themes on Spectacle; Archives; Borders. A website will be forthcoming.
  • SCMS (Society for Cinema and Media Studies). A SIG (special interest group) on ‘Silent Cinema Cultures’ is being set up, which should be of interest to women’s film historians.
  • Bologna Ritrovato 2014. Marianne Lewinski is planning another series of women’s silent films for screening at the festival.
  • Domitor’s next conference is to be held in Chicago in the Summer of 2014. It has been proposed that either an extension of Domitor or a partner organisation is needed to foster archival research beyond Domitor’s 1915 cut-off point, which again would be important for historians of women film pioneers.



  • Museum of Modern Art’s ‘Save and Project‘ initiative has agreed to restore Grace Cunard’s Purple Mask (1916) and a Pearl White episode.
  • A Nordic Women and Film initiative is underway, spearheaded by the Norwegian Film Archive, with plans for a launch in 2014.
  • Arsenal Cinema, Berlin is to hold a series of events commemorating the 1st International Women’s Film Conference, held in 1973.
  • Wfhi Website – A suggestion was made that the wfhi website could be developed as a forum for exchanges between different national histories and priorities–engaging in dialogue with women film historians in Asia, Latin America and Africa. For example the listserve could be developed so that it scans other websites for related items, drawing scattered information together. It was also noted that regular postings and facebook connections would increase use and so usefulness of the website. The website needs a system by which to send out notification of posts to the listserve to draw users back to the site.
  • Pordenone Silent Film Festival – Heide Schlüpmann and Gertrude Koch remarked that this year’s programme had given us a fill of ‘suffering men.’  Could we not persuade the festival to accept a programme developed by Wfhi to restore the gender balance, both by filmmaker and content?  Everyone recognised the budgetary constraints on the festival, and Heide suggested an inroad might be made via the Festival’s Collegium.

Christine Gledhill is the Founder of the Women’s Film and Television History
Network-UK/Ireland. She has written extensively on feminist film criticism, on
melodrama and cinema and on British cinema, publishing in 2003 Reframing
British Cinema, 1918-1928: Between Restraint and Passion. More recently
she has worked on early stardom and the actress. As well as co-ordinating
the establishment of the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded
WFTHN, she also co-organised the first of the Doing Women’s Film History
conferences, held at University of Sunderland in April 2011. Her new anthology,
Gender meets Genre in Contemporary Cinemas, was published by University
of Illinois Press in 2012 and she is co-editor of the University of Illinois Press
series Women and Film History International.

This is the last of the WFTHN blogs for 2013. Our next blog will be published in mid-January 2014.

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