How can archive cinema seem new again? This article discusses film curation strategies for early, silent, and pre-Code cinema, with the aim of foregrounding women’s film history: attracting new audiences to works with unexpected historical contexts. It suggests that early film history can be reconceptualized as “young cinema,” an era of experimentation, innovation, and excitement in the potentiality of the medium, rather than ossified as “old cinema” with the attendant connotations of the canon, overfamiliarity, and perceived irrelevance.

The real history of the cinema is the invisible history—history of friends getting together doing the thing they love—for us the cinema is beginning with every new buzz of the projector. With every new buzz of our cameras our hearts jump forwards, my friends!

—Jonas Mekas1

We can and should be changing the film history that was handed down to us.

—Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi2

As a film journalist, especially someone who covers the long history of cinema, from its Victorian beginnings to the present day, I have the opportunity to tell stories about film. As a film curator, I must provide the evidence for those stories—to choose the films that will prove my thesis. A simple, if daunting, example came in 2022 when I curated a retrospective of the Danish film star Asta Nielsen at BFI Southbank in London (see fig. 1). The theory: Asta Nielsen was the greatest actress of the silent era. The practice: eighteen films, sourced from several international archives, and screened with English subtitles, live music (from Neil Brand, Meg Morley, John Sweeney, Stephen Horne, Costas Fotopoulos, and Cyrus Gabrysch), and introductions (from experts Julie K. Allen, Judith Buchanan, and Miranda Gower-Qian as well as myself) over two months at a central London venue, so that audiences could decide whether or not they agree with the above statement. We also staged an introductory event with a panel comprising curator Bryony Dixon, author So Mayer, German cinema scholar Erica Carter, and myself to present the terms of the experiment more clearly.

Figure 1.

Promotional artwork for the Asta Nielsen season at BFI Southbank, February and March 2022.

Figure 1.

Promotional artwork for the Asta Nielsen season at BFI Southbank, February and March 2022.

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There is an obstacle when it comes to convincing audiences of certain stories about films, of advancing what this journal calls “feminist media histories.” The weight of popular film history, with its emphasis on a pantheon of white male directors, with its sidebars on “women in film,” has taught us to consider female creatives as the exception to the rule, the crew but not the auteur. The world in which Nielsen was acclaimed, and idolized as “Die Asta,” seems as improbable to many people today as a world without smartphones. That is to say, the world in which women, particularly young women, were identified as the key cinema audience, now seems like a vanishing myth.

I work on the basis that putting film histories into practice, via film curation, brings with it an opportunity to revive that key cinema audience, and the moment of the film’s creation: to revisit and meet their enthusiasms, and to bring the aura of novelty back to films from the archive. Conceptually, this requires a shift in our approach to the texts themselves, an exercise in what an essay in a previous edition of this journal called “forgetting film history.”3 This shift can be phrased very simply, if provocatively, as an emphasis on young cinema. The curation of archive cinema should no longer be a practice of presenting old films, whose stories have too often been told with ahistorical hindsight, and instead an opportunity to savor the spectacle of a developing medium. As Nielsen wrote in her memoirs about the production of her debut film, Afgrunden (Urban Gad, 1910): “everything was so novel that we accepted it with excitement and the courage of youth.”4 Let us curate not old movies, but young cinema, those films that were made in a period of exploration when the medium was new and its possibilities had not been fully mapped out. In this conception, films released in the first quarter of the twentieth century are young, which conversely means that films released in the first quarter of the twenty-first century are old. Young films do not yet have histories, but they are bursting with possibilities—with faith in the future of the medium, its untapped treasures, and its unmapped landscape. This commitment to the concept of young cinema has a feminist intent, to return our understanding of cinema to the time when “Die Asta” was revered, when female creatives had control in the mainstream film industry, and studio films were made for a majority-female audience. To return women to the center of cinema, escaping the confines of the sidebar.

In order to best present films from 100 years ago, as the admirable Cento Anni Fa strand at Il Cinema Ritrovato does each year, we may temporarily ignore the intervening century of film history and film criticism. Let us take an example of a film dated from a century ago, which uses the analogy of gold prospecting to express writer-editor-producer-star Nell Shipman’s ambitions for the medium of cinema—in this tale a woman named Faith follows her impulse to seek untapped treasures in an unmapped landscape. Viewed from the perspective of 2023, what Shipman called “the wrong end of time’s telescope,” The Grub-Stake may be considered as an independent, low-budget film, an undistributed film, a commercial failure that led ultimately to the bankruptcy of Nell Shipman Productions, and the end of the producer’s career in feature filmmaking.5 However, The Grub-Stake can also be understood and enjoyed, not as a representative of work lost, undermined, or unseen, but as it was made in 1922: with optimism, ambition, and something “more than money; it was heart’s blood, the very inner core of our beings, the finest tissue of our brains, and work—stark, sweating, unmitigated labor.”6

Arguing for the study of unfinished films, Alix Beeston and Stefan Solomon invite us to turn “away from the melancholy associations of the missing or the lost, accounting for—and stimulating—the agency and activity of those whom film industries marginalize.”7 I have been more guilty than most of this weaponized poignancy in much of my writing on early and female-led cinema. This essay is, among other provocations, a marker of my intent to be increasingly joyous, and expansive, in the future. A more complete story of cinema emerges when we include the truncated careers, unrealized screenplays, and fragmentary texts—even the box-office flops—that complicate and enrich the dominant narrative, and not merely successful feature-length films made and distributed by large studios and directed by white men.

It is the imaginative ability to suspend films in the moment of their own making that leads to such rewardingly diverse and refreshing curatorial projects as Cinema’s First Nasty Women, which finds the same disruptive feminine spirit condemned by a misogynistic political candidate in the first quarter of the twenty-first century honored—and preserved—on films produced at the opening of the twentieth. A century of revolt before the fact. Archival film preservation represents a victory over the deleterious passage of time, so why should a curator seek to reimpose a distance between the audience and the film? There are instances when even the seemingly innocent use of the adjective “silent” can create a chronological barrier where none is needed.

“Young cinema” too, is just another story to tell about film, a slender theory. So how does young cinema curation work in practice? Let us conjure another chronological barrier: pre-Code Hollywood cinema is a glitch in film history defined not by its own era, but by a set of rules laid down and largely ignored, and the forthcoming enforcement of the Production Code, not yet implemented, which would persist for three decades. In 2022, the film critic Christina Newland and I were invited by Park Circus and the Cinema Rediscovered festival based in Bristol, England, to curate a touring package of pre-Code Hollywood films, from a selection of recent restorations of films produced by Warner Bros. and MGM (see fig. 2). As a film academic friend lamented: “How can you have pre-Code cinema without Lubitsch?” In the absence of any films produced by Paramount, and several other canonical options, we had carte blanche to ignore such auteurist structures of film history. In response, we promoted our traveling show of five films much as a cinema marquee might have done in 1933. We selected our films on the basis of their stars: Norma Shearer and Clark Gable in A Free Soul (Clarence Brown, 1931); James Cagney and Joan Blondell in Blonde Crazy (Roy Del Ruth, 1931); Kay Francis and William Powell in Jewel Robbery (William Dieterle, 1932); Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman (Jack Conway, 1932); and Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933).

Figure 2.

Artwork by Beth Morris. Commissioned by Park Circus for Cinema Rediscovered’s Pre-Code: Rules are Made to Be Broken touring season, 2022.

Figure 2.

Artwork by Beth Morris. Commissioned by Park Circus for Cinema Rediscovered’s Pre-Code: Rules are Made to Be Broken touring season, 2022.

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Our intention was to draw attention away from what was about to be lost and toward the most explicit depictions of desire, criminality, and sexuality, portrayed by some of early 1930s Hollywood’s most alluring stars. Repertory cinemas aiming to appeal to young audiences were able to book individual titles from this package of youthful films, which defy the constraints of imminent decades of industrial puritanism and prejudice, and therefore at one level claim as much in common with contemporary independent cinema as the classics of the Golden Age. Titled “Pre-Code Hollywood: Rules Were Made to be Broken,” the package was booked in multiple venues across the United Kingdom and Ireland, from July 2022 to February 2023, and supported with screenings, Q&As, and discussions.

In our extra-film events, Newland and I were keen to focus on how these films provided more substantive roles for women, nonwhite, and LGBTQ+ actors, in particular by emphasizing the vital contribution of Theresa Harris to Baby Face, for example.8 The aim was to conjure an all-too-appealing speculative history of cinema, in which the Hays Code was kept at bay, and Hollywood cinema was a little more honest about the human impulses of its stars and audiences alike. The thesis: in its younger years, Hollywood could be candid if judgmental (more on that elsewhere) about sex and violence and frank in its social commentary. The practice: Baby Face, which we screened in the original, uncut version thereby sharing the compelling spectacle of an exploited young woman sleeping her way out of poverty and to the top of the corporate ladder, and still finding love and fulfilment in the final reel. As one reviewer wrote: “These are roles in which female protagonists continuously fuck around, doing whatever they so please.”9

Honesty too, was one of the hallmarks of the BFI Southbank Asta Nielsen retrospective. Nielsen claimed that her eye-catching “gaucho dance” in Afgrunden was so sensual only because she had no conception of cinema censorship. When it comes to candid portrayals of female desire on screen, ignorance may well be bliss, in more ways than one. Her unfiltered portrayal of sexual desire in 1910 became a talking point all over again for our audiences in 2022. Those same audiences at BFI Southbank will have been able to glean that Nielsen’s later films, such as The Decline (Ludwig Wolff, 1923) and Impossible Love (Erich Waschneck, 1932), also shown in the season, depict a mature female sexuality that is still rarely explored on screen. The moral of this story is this: dance like the censor isn’t watching, and watch like film history remains unwritten.


Cinema Is Not 100 Years Old (Jonas Mekas, 1996),


Kate Saccone, “Doing ‘Applied Film History’: An Interview with Silent Film Curator Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi,” Feminist Media Histories (Spring 2023): 101.


Kiki Loveday, “The Kiss: Forgetting Film History,” Feminist Media Histories (Summer 2022): 178–215.


Julie K. Allen, ed., The Silent Muse: The Memoirs of Asta Nielsen (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2022), 171.


Nell Shipman, The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart, Hemingway Western Studies (Boise, ID: Boise State University, 1987), 106.


Nell Shipman, ‘The Movie That Couldn’t Be Screened,” Atlantic Monthly (March 1925): 327.


Alix Beeston and Stefan Solomon, Incomplete: The Feminist Possibilities of the Unfinished Film (Oakland: University of California Press, 2023), 7.


Pamela Hutchinson, “Some Hate It Hot,” The Guardian, July 15, 2022, 6.


Fedor Tot, “Pre-Code Prime Cuts: Women-Led Films at Cinema Rediscovered,” Vague Visages,