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

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“Drawn Across the Sea”: Asta Nielsen in America, 1912-1914
Jennifer M. Bean

Last modified: 2010-05-12


This talk traces the trans-atlantic ruses, strategies, and varying distribution practices that promoted Europe's firstfilm star, Asta Nielsen, in the U.S. in the years prior to WWI.  By tracing "two waves" of Nielsen's movement "across the sea", this talk explores how and why Nielsen failed to develop as a star "proper" in the U.S, a failure which elucidates the importance of particular female typologies in the American star system developing at this time -- among them serial stunt queens like Pearl White and Helen Holmes, whose antics were counter-pointed by a "nervy" German female performer who replaced Nielsen's presence in the US in 1914 -- just as the war began and trans-atlantic exchange interrupted.

Contemporaneous critics greeted Nielsen’s films with loud reverence and rhetorically intricate modes of applause.   Even so, the recurrent critical and promotional attempts to “draw” Nielsen’s fame “across the sea" -- a pressure that peaked in two “waves”, in 1912 and 1914 -- met with varying degrees of success, none capable of sustaining the extraordinary heights of stardom she readily enjoyed elsewhere.  The historically imperative question is why?  It would be easy to oversimplify an answer, to schematically conceive Nielsen as a flamboyant figure of European “difference” inassimilable to the norms then constructing constraining a particular version of mass-mediated America.   Admittedly, this schema may evince a touch of truth.  Nevertheless, answering this question offers a far more profound consideration of cross-Atlantic potentialities, ruses, and tensions -- a map driven by the rapidly transforming and often competing systems of distribution, an arena Ivo Blom aptly identifies as the “missing link” in film historical discourse. By tracing this missing link another is revealed, and at the conjunction of the two a tense irony prevails:  the success of European imports flourished through distribution strategies at odds with the strategies heralding an emergent American star system.

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