Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Her Reputation Precedes Her, or The Impossible Films of Vera, Countess of Cathcart
Mark Lynn Anderson

Last modified: 2010-05-12


In February of 1926, newspapers reported that the Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island was detaining Vera, Countess of Cathcart, because the Department of Labor sought to deny the English author legal entry into the United States on the grounds of being a known adulteress.   The Countess had sailed to New York to promote the US publication of her first novel, The Woman Tempted, as well as to co-produce and star in Ashes of Love, her stage play scheduled to open in March at the National Theater in Manhattan.  After her lawyer finally convinced federal prosecutors to grant Vera Cathcart a provisional ten-day leave to enter the country, prior to any official deportation proceedings, the Countess once again found herself on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers.  A day after leaving detention, she was named as one of the most prominent personages to be seen attending an after-hours party at a Broadway theater, where a young chorine disrobed and sat in a bathtub full of champagne from which partygoers drank.  Following this incident, the Motion Picture Theatre Owners of America denounced the Countess as “a publicity-made person” and, together with the American Motion Picture Advertisers, asked their members to fight any proposed screen appearances of Vera Cathcart.  Such publicly announced initiatives by exhibitors and advertisers may have been in response to reports that newsreel cameramen had filmed the notorious party as an event of topical interest.  However, there was also evidence that the Countess was visiting the US in order to solicit Hollywood interest in her work as a writer, in her life as an adventuress, in short, in her compelling, modern personality.

While a screen version of A Woman Tempted was finally produced in Great Britain in 1928, my presentation is more interested in those film appearances by the Countess that were being imagined within various sectors of American society in 1926.  By describing those films of the Countess of Cathcart that were not made — or, if made, not shown — I account for how the vagaries of media celebrity in the 1920s were making possible new and unique forms of women’s authorship in the cinema.  The vexed affairs of Vera Cathcart are indicative of the sorts of relations between notoriety, women’s authorship, and the cinema that posed significant challenges to corporately directed media in North America during the early and mid-1920s.  The Countess was only one of scores of women who were sincerely feared by the American film industry during this period, feared ostensibly because their fame and popular appeal rested principally upon their involvement in public scandals. In a real sense, shame and the publicity given to scandals during the 1920s provided some women a voice in the shaping of US public opinion, even as these same women were being banned from the nation’s movie screens.

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