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Sapphic Cinemania! Female Authorship, Queer Desires and the Birth of Cinema

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“Sapphic Cinemania! Female Authorship, Queer Desires and the Birth of Cinema” considers the twenty-plus cinematic Sappho/Sapho films produced between 1896 and 1931, analyzing them in relation to the ancient lyric poet Sappho (630-570 BCE), after whom they are titled, and from whom we inherit the contemporary terms for female homosexuality. It argues that these critically neglected films activated the late Victorian era’s dual associations with Sappho—of both “deviant” sexuality and authorial genius—and that they upend long standing assumptions about sexuality and authorship in the silent era. “Sapphic Cinemania!” uses original archival sources, including trade and fan magazines, studio catalogues, scrapbooks and other ephemera such as tobacco trade cards, paper dolls, and erotic “French” postcards, to contextualize key Sappho films in relation to landmarks of screen history (such as Thomas Edison’s iconic film The Kiss and Alice Guy Blaché’s La fée aux Choux), the legacy of cutting-edge nineteenth and early twentieth century artists (such as Rosa Bonheur, Charlotte Cushman and Olga Nethersole), and the history of sexuality (as indexed through the trials of Olga Nethersole, 1900, and Maud Allan, 1917). It finds that the abrupt disappearance of the title Sappho from the American screen after 1917 foreshadows the “disappearance” of female film directors from the early American film industry, revealing the emergent figure of the motion picture director as a gendered, racialized, and sexualized construct that developed in response to the social changes wrought during the early twentieth century. It concludes that the Sappho films of silent cinema were foundational to the early US film industry and that they demonstrate the centrality of queer and lesbian public voice, artistic vision, and sexual agency in shaping mainstream American values and culture.

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This item is under embargo until July 22, 2024.