As you may or may not know, women have always been obstreperous. In and around the early 20th century, women were making nuisances of themselves by demanding things such as basic human rights. All joking aside, the turn of the 20th century was a very exciting and progressive time. With the advances being made in science and technology, we were able to invent the art of film. Although film was still very much in its early stages, rudimentary equipment was able to capture important social events in a very different way to recording physical, historical events. Film is a process that can transform anything by human thought and direction. As a result, these early films provide us with insight, commentary, and discourse on the role of women, as opposed to documented historical events which may be infrequent and lacking the level of understanding we can extract from creative works.
A quick note on embedded videos: I tried to embed videos where I could for this article so they could be watched directly on this page rather than opening a new one. However, some of the films are sourced from the BFI Player which does not support embedding. I have included a link to watch the video through the BFI Player where necessary and they’re all completely free to watch.
Master, Mistress, Maid (1897) (UK)
Master, Mistress, Maid (1897), sometimes known as Hanging out the Clothes, was directed by one of early film’s pioneers, George Albert Smith. It stars Tom Green as a mischievous husband with Laura Bayley as the maid. Trying his luck with the maid, Green whisks her behind a drying sheet for what we can assume to be some canoodling. There’s a lot of leg action from Green, which I surmise informs us how much of a devilishly enjoyable time he is having. Soon after however, his wife appears and proceeds to bash him over the head. He tries to fight back, but he’s no match for her relentless fists!
Watch Master, Mistress, Maid on the BFI Player here.
Mary Jane’s Mishap (1903) (UK)
Mary Jane’s Mishap (1903) is another film from director George Albert Smith starring his wife Laura Bayley as Mary Jane. Unfortunately, Mary Jane is less of a domestic goddess than she is a health and safety nightmare. She picks up a bottle labelled paraffin and pours it into a stove whilst winking maniacally at us. After some jiggery pokery, she creates such a forceful explosion she manages to blow herself out of the chimney top! Various parts of Mary Jane’s body rain down from the sky, shortly after which we see a gravestone that reads: “Here lies / Mary Jane / who / lighted the fire / with paraffin / rest in pieces”.
Daisy Doodad’s Dial (1914) (US)
Daisy Doodad’s Dial stars Florence Turner as she enters a “face making competition” to be “held at the club rooms of the Amateur Actors Society.” Her husband (Tom Powers) enters the competition too, and wins first prize, whilst Daisy is at home nursing a very much inflamed toothache. Luckily, the club holds a second contest which Daisy is recovered and well for. On the way to the contest, Daisy practices her faces, all of which are excellent. Mr Doodad, a jealous brute, orchestrates Daisy’s arrest so she cannot exact her revenge by winning the face making contest. That night, Daisy is haunted by her own funny faces…
Milling the Militants (1913) (UK)
Milling the Militants is a comedy film by director Percy Stow. The film features Mr Brown, an angry and portly man, who is very unhappy his wife, a suffragette, is going on a march. The reason he is most upset is because he has to look after his own children – even though he does have a maid who seems to do the majority of responsibilities. Because looking after children for thirty-five seconds is so difficult, Mr Brown becomes very tired and falls asleep. In his dream, he becomes a tyrannical prime minister. A text card tells us in his dream, he “legislates for the suppression of the suffragettes.” His wife and fellow suffragettes are subjected to cruel and unusual punishments, including shovelling up horse whoopsies and mud, being placed in a pillory, forced to wear trousers, and even the use of ducking stools. Because Mr Brown wants to set Britain back by some 600 years, it’s a good job it was all a dream after all. It also turns out the only one getting splashed is Mr Brown, after Mrs Brown throws a bucket of water over his head for his incompetence.
Wife the Weaker Vessel (1915) (UK)
Wife the Weaker Vessel, directed by Frank Wilson, stars Chrissie White as Physical Culture Phyllis and Lionelle Howard as Mr Filson. Whilst at the club, Filson tells his homies he would never marry a woman unless she is “ever so gentle!”… After some meddling, Filson meets Phyllis, who appears to be every inch the demure and submissive woman he had hoped to marry. On their honeymoon, Mr Filson rows a boat like he has never seen a boat before in his life. He says to Phyllis, “I haven’t the strength lovey! You must do the work!”, which she ignores and remains laying down. A month later, Mr Filson is growing too big for his boots, out all hours of the night, he tells his friend he doesn’t need to worry about being out late because his wife is a lamb. Mr Filson soon finds out Phyllis is very much not a lamb, when he stumbles in and she proceeds to engage is some fisticuffs. Now Filson has been put in line, the ladies are free to go out and play golf for the day whilst their husbands look after the babies.
Watch Wife the Weaker Vessel on the BFI Player here.
Tilly and the Fire Engines (1911)
In this film, directed by Lewin Fitzhamon, mischievous sisters Tilly and Sally [played by Alma Taylor and Chrissie White] have stolen a horse drawn fire engine. With many angry townspeople chasing after them, the sisters devise a plan to connect the fire engine’s hose to a drain. The firemen are no match for the hose and begin to huddle together and fall over. The firemen run away and we see Tilly and Sally each donning a lovely fireman’s hat and badge. The Hepworth company made around twenty Tilly sisters comedies that you can find and watch online.
Watch Tilly and the Fire Engines on the BFI Player here.
Cunégonde Femme du Monde (1912) (France)
Cunégonde is a domestic servant whose mistress is going on a trip. Cunégonde takes this opportunity to try on her mistress’s clothes. All dressed up, she looks like a “lady of the world”, and as such, Cunégonde goes own a trip of her own. She attracts the attention of a gentleman who quickly becomes enamoured with her and takes her to his house. Because Cunégonde is a lowly servant, she is unable to enter or exit a taxi without falling over. When they arrive at the house, Cunégonde is very impressed with the speed at which the gentleman can make a cup of tea. Alas! The real homeowner appears and we learn the gentleman was a domestic servant dressed in his master’s clothes. Cunégonde finds this unacceptable, despite her also being a domestic servant dressed in her mistress’s clothes. The next day, Cunégonde is carrying out her usual duties when she bumps into the manservant. She tries to beat him up, which everybody finds very funny, until the po-po roll up and her take to the station. In the end, Cunégonde gives her fellow servant a hug and they exit the police station together having bonded over their shenanigans.
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