Challenges Of Researching Worldwide Distribution

On Frieda Klug, Pearl White and Other Traveling Women Film Pioneers

Monica Dall’Asta

When I was invited to reflect on the significance of the now emerging category of “transnationalism”1 for the practice of women’s film historiography, I found myself wondering: are the processes of transnational mobility and transcultural relations somehow specific to the experience of early women filmmakers? Is there any particular reason why feminist film history should pay a special attention to those aspects and be actively involved in the process of a transnational reconfiguration of film studies?
There is an ambivalence in this question that I find extremely stimulating. Obviously one cannot state that women working in the silent film industries were more mobile and prone to traveling than their male collegues. This would be clearly a false claim, since we all know to what extent international mobility was a major aspect of professional experience within silent cinema, and beyond, causing sheer waves of migration from country to country all over Europe, and from Europe to the US (and sometimes backward). Yet at the same time we all seem to sense, as it were, that the adoption of a transnational perspective is as urgent, and even as inescapable for women’s film history as it could ever be. So how should we explain this somewhat paradoxical understanding?
A couple methodological aspects that are most characteristic of feminist film history may be usefully raised here. Firstly, I would like to mention the deliberate biographical attitude the Women Film Pioneers Project has chosen to adopt since its inception.2 Of course, the international imbrication of industrial and economic practises is an obvious aspect of film history as a whole, one that could be analysed even in a totally non-gendered context of research, as indeed it has repeatedly been done in the past. And yet, to introduce women’s biographies in the frame does not mean to simply add any number of more or less significant details to an already established and validated picture. Rather, it has the power to dramatically change the coordinates themselves, and produce a discursive move from a merely “objective” level of economic or industrial history to a social history in which subjective experiences can be made sense of, can be researched and understood just to the extent that they are not exclusively subjective, that they are co-formed – to use Laura Doyle’s suggestion – within a wider context of social, as well as cultural and economic interactions.3 Secondly, a further quite crucial characteristic of our feminist film historiography is the way in which it has deliberately chosen to focus not on “authors,” the great masters of the cinematographic art and their masterpieces, but instead on more or less ordinary professional figures.4 Again, this is not a mere adjustment, but a real paradigmatic change, resulting in a new attention to those which were so far considered to be as many negligible, unimportant and marginal roles and practises – in fact, just try to answer: what room is allowed in traditional film histories to the achievements of screenwriters, producers, film critics, distributors and so on? And yet it is not hard to acknowledge the major role such figures have played in processes of both cultural and industrial transnationalisation. So it appears that (once more) feminist studies (here declined as feminist film historical studies) find themselves positioned at a particularly advanced point in methodological terms, showing the advantages that even a non-exclusively-women-oriented cinema history could grasp by including such apparently unheroic professional figures in its narrative horizon.
Let’s take for instance the case of distribution. Though the international success attained by the Italian epic genre during the 1910s is a familiar topic in national film histories, until recently very few documents had been made available that could give insights into this (trans)cultural, as well as industrial and commercial phenomenon. We now know that what was destined to become one of the luckiest seasons ever for Italian cinema abroad could come into being also thanks to the activism of a quite exceptional woman of Hungarian origins, Frieda Klug, whose work in the promotional and marketing field still remains largely uncredited.5 After starting her professional career as an employee at the Schulze distribution company in Turin, she appears to have established her own independent firm as early as 1910, at the age of just twenty-two, to immediately become one of the country’s leading agents. Her mastery of languages – from English to German, Russian, French, Hungarian and of course Italian – allowed her to initiate commercial relationships with several partners in Europe (at least France and Great Britain) and the US (where she is known to have made business journeys in 1910 and 1915).
Yet unfortunately her brilliant beginnings were soon slowed down due to both severe health problems (she died from leucemia in 1926, at the age just of thirty-eight) and a harsh publicity campaign that was started against her by her principal competitor, Neapolitan distributor Gustavo Lombardo. The controversy originated by the almost contemporary making and release of two different film adaptations of Dante’s Inferno. While the most ambitious and costly of these versions (just about to be released by Lombardo) was still in production at Milano Films company, Frieda Klug was already exploiting the not less spectacular, but low-budget version produced by Helios all over the world, often receiving enthusiastic reviews.6 Lombardo’s harsh attack – consisting in a series of press releases aimed to warn the international audience to “beware of fraud,”7 that is, “to be on guard for a shoddy imitation”8 of Milano Films’ masterpiece – may have been critical in determining Klug’s downfall and the definitive closure of her business at the beginning of 1913.9
Without going into the details of this quite complicated story, let me just point out that Klug’s involvement in the activity of Helios and then Psyche Films companies was not simply restricted to commercial matters. Interestingly, after producing Inferno in 1910, Helios went on making Purgatory in 1911, which was followed one year later by Psyche’s Paradise. In 1912 all three films were distributed by Frieda Klug as a single Dantean feature package in several foreign countries, including the US. According to Vittoria Colonnese Benni, “the entire project clearly seems to have been coordinated, not from the start perhaps, but certainly not long after. It would also seem reasonable to suppose that the dynamic Frieda Klug may have influenced this coordination. From her Turin office, at the prestigious address ‘Door D, Mezanine, National Gallery,’ she appears in those days to have been one of the most formidable rivals of Lombardo, given her exceptional relation skills and wide web of contacts internationally on the distribution front. In an article dated December 1910 (La Vita Cinematografica, 11), that is, during the gestation period of Visioni dantesche dell’Inferno, Klug figures already as ‘world agent for the well-known Helios film studio’ (as well as for Unitas, Lux … and Pharo Films).”10
The stunning impression made on her contemporaries by this dynamic young woman is well documented by a long series of enthusiastic notes published in the corporate press, where she is described as “one of the most active, sturdiest value of today’s world cinematography,” as “a restive, feline body; a lively spirit and a prolific mind,” “a tireless” woman, whose “marvelous activity … has conquered the sympathies of many a cinematographer.”11 But despite her strong character and numerous talents, Frieda’s fortune in the context of national and international film distribution was just ephemeral. What we face here is yet another case of a woman who manages to break through a certain kind of industrial mechanism quite in advance on her time, but only to meet failure, unfortunately, very soon. There are numerous similar cases in the history of early women filmmakers, and a transnational approach is needed also to reveal and make sense of such recurrent, as well as paradoxical, combination of success and failure that characterizes the lives of so many of these pioneers.
Distribution may be a decisive research field to the aim of investigating women’s contribution to what, rephrasing Gramsci, I would like to indicate as the shaping of a “transnational-popular culture” at the beginning of the 20th century.12 No doubt transnationalism had many different faces in this early part of the century. To linger a bit more on the Italian case, one can think for instance of the global triumph of Francesca Bertini, everywhere welcomed as an exceedingly seducing ambassador of the latest trends in fashion – and yet, ironically enough, in French fashion!13 The global circulation of her star persona finds its objective witnesses in the large number of prints of her films that have been located in foreign archives, from the Netherlands to Russia to the Americas, and so on.14
Or one can think of another exceptional case in point like Elvira Notari’s Neapolitan productions, whose popularity among Italian immigrants in the US is already so well known – thanks to Giuliana Bruno’s pioneering book15 – that there is no need for me to linger upon it. But there is at least one thing that can be worth stressing here, which again is a quite material evidence of Notari’s cinema’s transnational existence, and at the same time a precious indication of how crucial international research can be to the effort of unearthing the scant surviving traces of women’s cinema of the silent era. My reference here is to the recent restoration of one – out of just two – of Notari’s surviving features, ‘A santanotte, which was made possible thanks to the retrieval of an American print of the film, found by Giuliana Muscio at the George Eastman House archive in Rochester, NY.16 In this case, in other words, the transnational existence of Notari’s cinema was made literally visible thanks to the international research of a women’s film history scholar.
More figures speak to us of the gendered vicissitudes of Transnational America.17 See for instance Rita Jolivet, a French-born woman who started her acting career on the London stages before moving to Italy and becoming one of the leading stars of the Ambrosio Films company.18 She then left Europe to go to Hollywood, where she interpreted a film under the direction of Cecil B. DeMille (The Unafraid, 1915). On her way back to Britain, where she was waited for a new theatrical tour, she was abord of the Lusitania steamer when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat in May 1915, but she was rescued and finally managed to reach dry land. After starring in a few more Italian films, she moved again to Hollywood where she pursued her acting career, while also trying her hand in production with Lest We Forget (1918), a reconstruction of her tragic experience on the Lusitania, fitting the requirements of American propaganda. She was again in Italy in 1922 to play the title role in the monumental epic, Teodora, from Victorien Sardou’s celebrated play. Still not tired to travel from country to country, she interpreted her last four films in France. She retreated from the screen after one last fortunate role in Phi-Phi (19269 – a quite odd, apparently very funny comedy set in ancient Greece – but certainly did not give up globetrotting, and even more so after her marriage with Scottish yachtsman James Bryce- Allan.
Rita Jolivet’s example shows clearly that besides a Transnational America we should look for a Transnational Europe too. Archival research can reserve some really unexpected findings in this regard. For instance, who could ever guess that a minor figure like Giulia Rizzotto, married Cassini, director of just a handful of films, could have one of her works reaching as far as Finland? Yet the only surviving print of Leonardo da Vinci (co-directed with Mario Corsi, 1919), now preserved at the Cineteca Nazionale in Rome, was to be found precisely in Helsinki, sitting there from the time of its distribution in the country, documented by the presence of Finnish intertitles throughout the whole film. Certainly many more names could be added to that of Giulia Rizzotto in this search for a Transnational Europe. Among the most interesting cases, one can think of Musidora, who moved from her acting career in France to directing films in Italy and Spain, and Anny Ondra, born in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire (in Tarnów, now Poland) and then moving to Czechoslovackia, and then Austria and Germany to play (and produce, with her first husband, director Karel Lamač) some of the most popular European films of the time, before becoming Alfred Hitchcock’s first unforgettable blonde in The Manxman (1929).
Following in the same line, we could go on looking for a Transnational Italy. This would certainly not be a hard task, I should say, for the presence of many foreign women is a well known aspect of the Italian film industry of the silent era. Besides Frieda Klug and Rita Jolivet, another figure that comes immediately to mind is that of Diana Karenne – an excentric diva, producer and director who did not hide her feminist ideas and who represented a major incarnation of a new woman type at quite a distance from the traditional patriarchal concept of femininity that still was hegemonic within Italian culture. Very talented as a graphic artist too, Karenne came to Italy from Poland, and after a very prolific activity in the country between 1914 and 1922, she went on working as an actress in several more French and German productions.19
Another actress who became a director in Italy was Fabienne Fabrèges. She had started her career in France at Gaumont, playing along with Suzanne Grandais in Léonce Perret’s extremely popular series of comedies. Once in Italy, she was hired at De Giglio Films company in Turin, not only as an actress, but also as a producer (S. A. l’amore and S. M. il denaro, both 1919), and a director (Il cuore di Musette and L’altalena della vita, again 1919). Unfortunately none of her work survives and it is then very difficult, if not impossible, to attempt a discourse on her professional experience. But she can no doubt be acknowledged as one of the numerous European traveling women who contributed to make silent cinema so distinctively transnational. Not by chance, in 1921 she traveled all the way up to Britain to play with Stewart Rome in The Pennyless Millionnaire, an action melodrama set in China, which was to be her last role.
Even more mysterious is the case of Berta Nelson. To date nothing is known of her biography (except for the titles of the not so numerous films in which she appeared between 1912 and 1923), so one cannot exclude that her exotic name was simply an artifice to exploit the audience’s fascination with, and curiosity for, anything hailing from abroad. However, her connection with Russian director Aleksandr Uralsky, who made one of the films she interpreted and produced between 1921 and 1923 (La dama errante, 1922), suggests she might have foreign origins too.
A few more names of foreign women appear in the filmography of Italian silent cinema, but information about them is often so thin that it is virtually impossible to utter anything about them.20 In addition to recall a few cases of women traveling from Europe to America, I would like to conclude by briefly addressing a reverse example. Very popular worldwide in the second half of the 1910s and early 1920s, Pearl White is perhaps the most typical instance of a global modern icon ever emerged at the outset of the 20th century. Produced by the American branch of Pathé just after The Perils of Pauline (1914), her serial star vehicles The Exploits of Elaine, The Romance of Elaine and The New Romance of Elaine (1914-15) inaugurated Pearl’s transnational dissemination and global fortune starting from France, where they were released in the winter 1915-16 in a new edition specifically prepared for the foreign market, under the suggestive title of Les Mystères de New York. Given the resonance of this title with Eugène Sue’s 19th century mythical roman-feuilleton Les Mystères de Paris (1842-43), the intention to achieve an appropration, transcodification or reterritorialization of a national cultural product is very clear, as is further demonstrated by an original tie-in French novelisation to the film episodes published in conjunction with the screen releases and penned by an extremely popular serial writer like Pierre Decourcelle.21
Pearl White’s undivided triumph worldwide was of course the result of Pathé’s powerful multinational distributing network, but nowhere as in France was she adopted as if she were a truly French character and personality. No surprise, then, that when the serial craze began to fade away in the US, Pearl White decided to move to Paris, where she could count on the affection of hundred thousand fans. That she went on interpreting a feature in her typical action genre – Terreur, released in 1924 – is no mystery, yet this last title in her filmography is usually treated as just an unimportant, marginal episode in her career. But what if we were instead to consider her French work to be fully part of her career, striving to overcome the linguistic obstacles that hinder our apprehension of women film pioneers’ transnational life? We might end up discovering that Pearl White’s French movie was a production of her own, a fruit of her own personal initiative, such as, in my knowledge, one cannot find in the whole of her American filmography. See for example the article she signed in the Mon Ciné issue of March 1924, entitled “How I shot Terreur.” In reporting the circumstances in which the project was brought to light, she wrote:

After several months of inactivity, I began considering the possibility to start up producing in France. I looked for a script that would fit my genre. Mr Gérard Bourgeois … came and gave me one of his stories to read, which I instantly liked.A few months later, some French friends of mine offered the capitals I needed for my production. I went on looking for a studio, but it was too “bright” and I managed to persuade its owner that it had to be darkened. He agreed and I went on working to ensure the light, all the light that was necessary for the film to have a perfect photography.
Then I had to choose the cast and the technicians … Being aware that always in film production the major cause of expense is: loosing time, I put all of my effort into applying the American method, which does not allow anybody to rest until the work is done. In this way I was able to make a very good French film, with French artists and with French capitals, in a thoroughly American style.

22 (Italics in the original.)

Perhaps as an homage to the profoundly transnational nature of its heroine, the film was aptly released in the US under the title: The Perils of Paris.

1 On the fortune of this category (first introduced by Randolph Bourne, “Trans-National America,” Atlantic Monthly, no. 118, July 1916, 86-97) in the field of American Studies, particularly after the 2006 ASA annual meeting, see Bryce Traister, “The Object of Study; or, Are We Being Transnational Yet?,” Journal of Transnational American Studies 2, no. 1 (2010), 1-29. Retrieved from:
2 Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds., Women Film Pioneers Project (New York: Columbia University Libraries, Center for Digital Research and Scholarship, 2010)
3 Laura Doyle, “Toward a Philosophy of Transnationalism,” Journal of Transnational American Studies 1, no. 1 (2009), 1-30. Retrieved from:
4 For an in-depth presentation of this stance, see Jane Gaines, “Of Cabbages and Authors,” in A Feminist Reader in Silent Cinema, edited by Jennifer M. Bean and Diane Negra (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002, 88-118.
5 For the most extensive account to date of Klug’s biography, see Alberto Friedemann, “Imprenditoria femminile nel cinema torinese,” in Non solo dive. Pioniere del cinema italiano, edited by Monica Dall’Asta (Bologna: Cineteca di Bologna, 209-212.
6 For more information on the international distribution of the Helios Inferno, see Vittoria Colonnese Benni, “The Helios-Psyche Dante Trilogy,” in Amilcare A. Iannucci, Dante, Cinema, and Television (Toronto, Buffalo, London: Toronto University Press, 2004), 51-72.
7 As in the advertisement for Milano Films’ Inferno in The New York Dramatic Mirror (1911) reproduced in Colonnese Benni, 63.
8 Colonnese Benni, 62.
9 In his accurately documented article, Friedemann (211) advances the hypothesis that Klug’s failure may have been precipitated by the particulary weak financial status of her company, founded in 1910 with a social capital of only 17 liras. After her bankrupt, Klug kept working in the Turin film industry, in the Ambrosio Films company, for a couple of years more. She accompanied Arturo Ambrosio in the US during a business journey to study the market in 1915. See Friedemann, 212 and 227, endnotes 130 and 131.
10 Colonnese Benni, 67-68.
11 Published between 1910 and 1912 in La Vita cinematografica and La Cinematografia italiana ed estera, these and other commentaries of the same tone are quoted in Friedemann, 210.
12 The notion of “national-popular culture” is elaborated by Gramsci in his cultural wiritings; English edition by David Forgacs and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Selections From Cultural Writings, translated by William Boelhower (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985), 203-12. For an attempt to propose a notion of “international-popular culture” with reference to the global distribution of silent serials, see Monica Dall’Asta, "American Serials and the Identity of French Cinema, or How to Resist Colonization," Cinegrafie 9, no. 14 (2001), 161-74.
13 For an analysis of Francesca Bertini’s relationship to fashion, see Monica Dall’Asta, “Il singolare multiplo. Francesca Bertini attrice e regista,” in Non solo dive, 61-79.
14 See the filmography of extant titles (restricted to prints involved in restoration projects) compiled by Alessia Navantieri and Davide Pozzi in Francesca Bertini, edited by Gianfranco Mingozzi (Bologna: Cineteca di Bologna, 2003), 183-210.
15 Giuliana Bruno, Streetwalking on a Ruined Map: Cultural Theory and the City Films of Elvira Notari (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).
16 For a technical report of the restoration process, see Marianna De Santis, Céline Pozzi, “Il restauro di ‘A santanotte,” in Non solo dive, 149-157.
17 See Inderpal Grewal (ed.), Transnational America: Feminisms, Diasporas, Neoliberalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).
18 For more information on Jolivet’s career, see Vittorio Martinelli, “Joli… Jolivet,” Immagine, no. 35 (1996) 19-29.
19 For more information on Diana Karenne, see Cristina Jandelli, “La più intelligente di tutte: Diana Karenne,” in Non solo dive, 51-59.
20 Producers: Vivienne Heraut de la Réverie (France ?, Italy), Hélène Clermont (France ?, Italy); actresses: Helena Makowska (Ukraina, Italy, Germany, Poland), Ileana Leonidoff (Russia, Italy), Soava Winaver, married Gallone (Poland, Italy, France), Maria Corda (Hungary, Austria, Italy, Germany, US), Tatiana Pavlova (Russia, Italy); screenwriters: Renée de Liot (Italy, France), Nelly Carrère (France ?, Italy), Maria Bermudes, or Bermudez (Peru, Italy).
21 For more on this subject, see Rudmer Canjels, Beyond the Cliffhanger: Distributing Silent Serials. Local Practices, Changing Forms, Cultural Transformation, Ph.D. diss. (Universiteit Utrecht, 2006), and Dall’Asta, "American Serials and the Identity of French Cinema.” 22 Pearl White, “Comment j’ai tourné Terreur,” Mon Ciné, no. 110 (27 mars 1924), 17.

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