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

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“A Most Charming Boy”: The Appeal of the Female Boy in US Silent Film
Laura Evelyn Horak

Last modified: 2010-05-28


Although today it is an unwritten rule of mainstream cinema that men play male parts and women play female parts, the medium's younger years allowed less rigid gender differentiation-men sometimes played women (often comedic old maids) and women, too, played men (usually young boys). In my talk, I examine the prevalence of young and adult women playing the parts of young boys, a phenomenon I call the "female boy." In my last talk for Women & the Silent Screen, I considered cases in which the audience did not know that a woman was playing the male part. However, it was more common for films to explicitly inform the audience that the male role was played by a woman-often a female star-and these are the cases that I consider here. In this talk, I will ask: Under what circumstances were women cast in boy parts in silent film? What was the appeal of the female boy to producers, actresses, and audiences? Why did the practice continue so long (until the mid-1920s), despite film's more general commitment to increasing realism and naturalistic acting styles? And, finally, why did the practice disappear?

I have found the female boy most prevalent in two closely related genres of narrative film: the fairy story and the children's adventure/educational tale. I will focus on key examples from these genres, including The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914), Vinnie Burns' Oliver Twist (1916), Mary Pickford's Little Lord Fauntleroy (1920), Shirley Mason's Treasure Island (1920), and concluding with Betty Bronson's Peter Pan (1924). I argue that the female boy appealed to filmmakers, actresses, and audiences in a number of sometimes contradictory ways: linking film to legitimate theater in order to attract middle-class families, offering a comforting Victorian-era vision of childhood as a state before gender differentiation, inviting audiences to participate in a fairy tale world in which borders between adult/child, male/female, human/animal, and animate/inanimate are easily crossed, as well as legitimizing a desiring pedophilic gaze toward the child. The prevalence and subsequent decline of the female boy in silent film illustrates how cultural shifts around gender and childhood were interwoven with the aesthetic and representational practices of the young film medium.

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