The Girl Spy Before Vicksburg. 1910. USA. Directed by Sidney Olcott. Screenplay by Gene Gauntier. With Gauntier, Jack J. Clark, Robert Vignola. DCP courtesy Eye Filmmuseum. Dutch intertitles; English subtitles. 14 min.
Gene Gauntier, who reportedly gave a young actor named D. W. Griffith his first directing assignment at Biograph, was a prolific actress and important early screenwriter. (Her script for the 1907 Ben Hur eventually led to a suit against the Kalem studio from the book authors’ estate, establishing the precedent for securing film rights to material under copyright). In The Girl Spy Before Vicksburg, part of Kalem’s Girl Spy series, Gauntier plays a young woman named Nan who, dressed as a boy, performs numerous risky stunts in order to complete her mission for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Her character is both a thrilling forerunner to the intrepid serial queens of the later 1910s and, like Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) in The General, a complex figure in US cinema’s history, one that reminds us of the long-standing currency of white supremacy in this country. After her tenure at Kalem, during which her unit made films in Ireland, Egypt, and Palestine, Gauntier formed the Gene Gauntier Feature Players Company in 1912, returning to Ireland to make several more films. When her company disbanded in 1915, following changing distribution practices, she signed a contract with Universal and moved to Hollywood but could not carve out a career in the standardizing industry. She moved to Sweden permanently in 1922. Gauntier’s memoir, Blazing the Trail —an unpublished manuscript of which is held in MoMA’s collection—not only recounts her work as an actress, screenwriter, and producer, but also serves as key documentation of the early US film industry.
Kajastus (The Dawning). 1930. Finland. Directed by Carl von Haartman. Screenplay by Gerda Hintz. With Aarne Leppänen, Elsa Segerberg, Helge Ranin, Gunnar Wallin, Anielka Elter. DCP courtesy Kansallinen Audiovisuaalinen Instituutti. 83 min.
The last completely silent feature film made in Finland, Kajastus mixes recent political history with romance. The drama opens in 1899, when Nicholas II of Russia signed the February Manifesto coercively taking control of Finland, and ends in 1905, when the manifesto was repealed. In between, it follows Oscar and Louise Cederström (Gunnar Wallin and Elsa Segerberg), siblings embedded in the Finnish Nationalist movement (along with their neighbor, played by Aarne Leppänen), and their cousin Gustaf (Helge Ranin), a member of the Russian military whose visit, and love for Louise, complicates everything. Also present is their vengeful maid (Vivan Cravelin) who, spurned by Oscar, reports the siblings’ resistance activities to Russian officials and a visiting countess (Czech actress Anielka Elter) who’s in love with Gustaf. While some contemporary critics felt the film was more detached than fervently patriotic, there is no denying how its explicit calls for freedom from Russian oppression unfortunately still have parallels today. With its large crowd sequences, striking cinematography by Frans Ekebom and Eino Kari, and costumes by fashion designer Jenny Kuosmanen of Salon de Mode, Kajastus is also an engaging and stylish drama. It is the first and only film produced from a screenplay by the little-known Gerda Hintze, a pharmacist in Helsinki who would later occasionally write for magazines. (A second, unproduced screenplay written by her remains, tantalizingly, in the Finnish archive.)