Monday, 29 May 2023

When you’re a boy… The Snowbird (1916), Cinema’s First Nasty Women Box Set

How do I know that you do not lie, all women lie!


A couple of years before Nell Shipman and her menagerie made their way to “God’s Country” another, altogether less robust woman was trekking across land and snow to look after the men in her life albeit in the hills of northern California. Mabel Taliaferro was tiny in comparison to sturdy Nell, and she probably also had warm hotel rooms built into her contract, but here she plays almost as feisty as the rich man’s daughter who finds something worth fighting for up in the snowy wastes of Canada.


Presented on Disc Four of the Mighty Cinema’s First Nasty Women set, The Snowbird provides something of a cross-dressing companion to Phil for Short the other gender bent feature included in this venture and it follows a similar path in that its heroine does not dress as a man for romantic reasons for the practical purpose of projecting a challenge to male dominance. The fact that she finds a woman-hating man who comes to appreciate her first as a boy is neither here nor there… There’s no Weimar sauciness in this confusion just that the man in question is won over by what she does as a man before realising that she has proved him wrong in his categorical feelings about the “lying, devious, faithless…” group of humanity known as Womankind.


It's only money matters my dear, you would not understand…

Mabel Taliaferro and Warren Cook

As in Phil, Lois Wheeler’s Mabel Taliaferro has a nice fool for a father, who needs protecting from himself. Daddy Wheeler (Warren Cook) is living in a big house with a portfolio of businesses but a liquidity issue based on cashflow complications that I wouldn’t want to worry your pretty little heads about let alone mine. Wheeler’s so close to broke that he asks his friend Bruce Mitchell (James Cruze), currently attempting to woo his daughter over a game of tennis, to loan him some money based on his share of some lumber land in Chalet, Quebec.


The land is worth twice what Mitchell signed up for and is co-owned with a French-Canadian (aye, aye…) Jean Corteau (Edwin Carewe, who also directs) who has inherited it from his father. It seems a safe bet but when Wheeler heads to see his attorney in Chalet, Magistrate Le Blanc (John Melody), he discovers that a fire has destroyed his copy; only Corteau has a copy and he is not inclined to find it, realising that he can take all of the site which, you’ll have to forgive me, seems very un-Canadian.


The plot gets much thicker as Mitchell, rebuffed by Mabel, who likes his tennis but not his amorous intention, declaring the match 40-Love in her favour, sees a way of forcing a tie-break and blackmailing the old man into selling his daughter’s hand in exchange for the debt he can no longer complete.

Edwin Carewe multi-tasks as director and women-hater

Like a wounded snowbird you have fallen from the sky to share my loneliness … here you can stay and be my boy.


When the going gets tough, the woman gets going though and Mabel is transformed when travelling up to plead with Corteau, disguising herself as a boy who the odd bachelor decides to take in as his ward, trusting the youth far more than the woman from Paris who, in his youth, had made a fool of him and spurned his advances in front of polite society leaving him to seek bitter isolation among the woods and ice.


Mabel aims to steal his copy of the contract but, you wonder, is there anything else she might steal… time will tell, especially as the mean old Mitchell also heads north to protect his ill-gotten gains.

This sparkling restoration comes with an all-new score from Diana Reason, who plays piano and keyboard, Sean Sonderegger on sax and woodwind, Peter Valsamis on drums and Jan Michael Looking Wolf on native American flute. It’s playful and energetic and adds greatly to the viewing experience of a film that balances humour and drama in skilfully interlaced measures.


Definitely a wrong-un'... James Cruze

Directed with wit and economy by Carewe, the story is based on a plot credited to Mary Ryder and June Mathis, two of the many women writers working in American film at this point, a situation that was to change dramatically over the next few decades as the studio system rigged opportunity and agenda in favour of men; the facts speaking for themselves in an industry still to reach the same levels of female involvement. Change is happening once again but progression is no longer guaranteed, is it?


I’d not seen Mabel Taliaferro before and her stage experience plus an awareness of the cinematic remit sees her put in a delightfully natural performance that makes her character’s transition all the more winning. Character will out indeed, and her Lois is resourceful and steadfast, identifiable and inspirational, just as Philomena was, a new kind of feminine hero just as the times they were indeed changing as the Great War brought women to the forefront of manufacture and other industries not just film where they already contributed in abundance!


Mabel Taliaferro 

The box set can be ordered direct from Kino Lorber or via all good retailers around the World, it's even available via UK Amazon now. Whilst I suspect you may already have it; I still wouldn’t want you to miss out on one of the key releases of this century.

Granda Pa Trump had a hotel near these frozen wastes in the 1900s and he would have been bowled over by Mabel Taliaferro and her cousins Leontine et al, if only they’d done more stage work in the far North West, perhaps his grandson might have been just a little less of the misogynistic misanthrope he has become with his original coining of the phrase Nasty Woman. Well Junior, these women are not nasty they’re just forceful, funny and smart and if that’s a problem for you… just blow it out your ear! 

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