The silent Brazilian film Miss Right Now (1927), produced by and starring Eva Nil, who also worked as a camera and laboratory assistant on the film, stands out as a powerful and rare example of a woman's creative agency in early Brazilian cinema. The plight of this film also provides a means to consider the conditions of women's on- and offscreen work, dominant models for female screen protagonists in 1920s Brazil, and negotiations between modern and traditional values within an emergent Brazilian star system.
Miss Right Now (Senhorita Agora Mesmo, 1927) is a two-reel Brazilian silent film shot in the countryside of Minas Gerais by Atlas-Film. It screened commercially for just a week in one of the main movie theaters in Rio de Janeiro. Although a modest production with little influence, what makes the film unique and of particular interest is that it was produced by and starred Eva Nil, one of the principal personalities of the incipient Brazilian star system, whose character, Lili, clashed with the dominant ideals upheld by Brazilian cinema of the time. In this adventure story, Nil plays a determined and fearless lead—called “Miss Right Now” for her strong character—in a role that resembled American serial queens.
Besides its active leading lady, Miss Right Now is also noteworthy for having a woman working behind the camera. Not only did Nil produce the film, she also operated the camera in some scenes and was laboratory assistant to her father, Pedro Comello, the film's director and principal cinematographer. Nil's active character and her discreet offscreen work may seem of minor historical importance. However, given the paucity of working women as protagonists in Brazilian silent cinema and the staggering shortage of other examples of women with significant creative agency in national film production, both Nil's work and Miss Right Now gain special significance and deserve deeper consideration.
In this essay, I argue that Nil's experience in Miss Right Now stands not only as a powerful and rare example of a strong female presence in Brazilian cinema of the 1920s, but also as a useful case study for appreciating women's work in early national cinema, as well as the constraints on that labor's expression. Nil's career allows us a means of mapping the tensions between the dominant models of female protagonists and actresses' central position within the emergent Brazilian star system, the negotiations of the national cinema between “patriarchal respectability” and the “ideology of seduction,”1 as well as the social and moral limits imposed on women's work, especially within predominantly male technical and creative positions.
Miss Right Now's action heroine stands in stark contrast to the romantic ingenue type that characterized Nil's image in the press. An important determining context for Nil's celebrity was Cinearte magazine and its diligent efforts to promote her as a Brazilian film star within its broader engagement to promote a national cinema modeled on Hollywood. Nil's experience can be related to the careers and works performed during the silent period by actress and producer Carmen Santos and actress and director Cléo de Verberena. Yet, whether behind the camera or among female protagonists on-screen, very few examples of working women will be found in Brazilian cinema, a situation that can be better understood by taking into account the prejudice and moral restrictions surrounding female work in Brazil and in Brazilian cinema during the first decades of the twentieth century.
EVA NIL, A RISING MOVIE STAR
Eva Nil was born Eva Comello in Egypt, where her father, the Italian Pedro Comello, served in the military and married Ida Tonetti.2 The family moved to Brazil in 1914 and settled in Cataguases, a city in the interior of Minas Gerais. There, Comello set up a photography studio where Eva worked over the course of her life starting in adolescence.
In the second half of the 1920s, however, she was one of the most celebrated actresses in Brazil and has since become an iconic figure of national silent cinema. Nevertheless, she acted in no more than four films, and only one of them, the 1929 production Human Clay (Barro humano), was widely distributed. She received extensive coverage in Rio de Janeiro film magazines such as Cinearte and Selecta—publications that enjoyed nationwide circulation and thus not only carried news about her, but also disseminated her image. This celebrity promotion was part of a larger campaign to promote Brazilian film by the journalists Adhemar Gonzaga and Pedro Lima in their respective columns dedicated to Brazilian cinema, which they regularly contributed to the Rio magazines Para Todos …, Selecta, and, beginning in 1926, Cinearte. Modeling their aspirations on Hollywood, they defended Brazilian feature-length fiction films produced in a studio system that was driven by intensive publicity, especially by the star system. Nil's celebrity needs therefore to be understood as a term in a national discourse about the social value and purposes of the cinema.
In analyzing how Nil was portrayed by Cinearte, film historian Paulo Emilio Salles Gomes notes that the Hollywood-inspired phenomenon, involving photographs, fans, and correspondence, “ends up taking on a meaning in itself without much relation to the films that were actually produced.”3 This led to an odd situation: Nil became a rising movie star and gained fans throughout Brazil and abroad despite audiences' limited or nonexistent access to her films. Such a unique situation led Gomes to call Nil “a creation by Cinearte.”4 This statement, however, is not intended to belittle the talent and charisma of the actress, since Gomes is convinced “that the interest she roused had a sound basis and her absence from the screen weakened the work of Humberto Mauro.”5
One of the most celebrated filmmakers of Brazilian cinema, Mauro directed Nil in the first two films of their careers: Valadião, the Crater (Valadião, o cratera, 1925), an amateur enterprise shot with a Pathé-Baby camera, and In the Spring of Life (Na primavera da vida, 1926). Both were photographed by Comello, Nil's father and Mauro's partner at the production company Phebo Sul América Film. A disagreement between Nil and Mauro led her to leave the production of his third film, Lost Treasure (Tesouro perdido, 1927). Her next film would be Miss Right Now, which was directed by her father in 1927. Her brief movie career ended with a supporting role in Human Clay, produced in Rio de Janeiro and directed by Adhemar Gonzaga, who was also the editor of Cinearte, the magazine that had the most prominent role in creating Nil's stardom.
Since the start of Cinearte in March 1926, Nil had received broad attention through the regular publication of photographs, interviews, and articles. As early as the third issue, she was featured in a spread of four images on the first of two pages dedicated to the column on Brazilian cinema. In three of these images, she is in character, wearing makeup and costumes that transform her into, respectively, a nun, an older woman, and a beggar. In the larger fourth picture at the center, Nil is framed in medium close-up, wearing a lace dress and a pearl necklace and holding a bouquet of flowers. Ambient lighting in the background creates a highlight on the right side, emphasizing her neck and the curly hair that frames her face, with its expressive eyes and small mouth. It is a carefully composed portrait that skillfully incorporates a series of elements—lace, pearls, flowers—characteristic of romantic and delicate femininity. Although the other three photographs draw attention to the actress's skill at performing different types, it is this central image of Nil as feminine, romantic, and delicate that would be repeatedly reinforced in Cinearte and other periodicals and recognized by readers and fans.
The photo's intent is to depict the young beginner as the ingenue, a popular type to which actresses such as Lillian Gish and Mary Philbin had dedicated themselves and to whom Nil would be frequently compared. Drawing on Richard Dyer's analysis of Gish, we can argue that Nil's portrait aims at “the confluence of the aesthetic-moral equation of light, virtue and femininity with Hollywood's development of glamour and spectacle,” of which Gish “could be considered the supreme instance.”6 The parallel with Gish also serves to reaffirm Nil's whiteness, an imperative attribute within the rising Brazilian star system. Nil and other young actresses were supposed to embody “a civilized womanliness,” as Gish did in her most celebrated screen roles, in the analysis of Kristen Hatch.7 Rejecting the country's economic backwardness and the vast mixed-race and black population, Cinearte would claim that Brazilian films and film stars should depict on-screen a civilized country of white people: “We need fiction films, films that portray a modern, strong, developed, beautiful, and civilized Brazil!”8
It is important to point out that Nil herself played a role in constructing her star persona. She had an expert knowledge of photography from her father and access to the laboratory, where, from an early age, she learned the craft and continued the family business; she thus had a direct hand in composing and sending out most of the images of herself that were published. Nil was particularly committed to promoting her professional image and her work, providing the media, namely Cinearte, with photographs and news items about her career. She also maintained an extensive correspondence with fans, readers, and journalists, sending them letters and photos. Some of these journalists would become devoted fans, as with Pedro Lima at Cinearte and João Raymundo Ribeiro, who appeared in the byline of Correio Paulistano's cinema column under the pseudonym Fiteiro. This self-fashioning perfectly catered to Cinearte's hopes and demands for promoting a Brazilian star system. It comes as no surprise that this would be one of the aspects the magazine valued most when it highlighted Nil's achievements: “Among all her artistic talents, one stands out: the attention that a true artist devotes to her publicity.”9
Therefore it is intriguing how, against the grain of the very ingenue type that both Cinearte and she herself created, Nil turned her back on this persona when developing her most personal project, Miss Right Now. In this film, her role is neither fragile nor delicate. Instead, she is an action heroine. Although apparently contradictory, this choice might be considered an aspect of Nil's desire to gain some agency over her career and screen roles. Having already distinguished herself as an actress engaged in promoting her own image, she had the chance in Miss Right Now to go further in her professional aspirations, playing an active protagonist and also working behind the camera.
AN ACTION HEROINE
Although there are no extant prints of Miss Right Now, understanding its plot and putting forward an analysis of the film is possible because of the detailed synopsis published in Cinearte, existing production stills, and documents and letters referring to Nil and Comello in the archives of the Cinemateca Brasileira in São Paulo and the Arquivo Geral da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro. Gomes's observations about Nil and Miss Right Now in his 1974 book Humberto Mauro, Cataguases, Cinearte are likewise valuable and useful in mounting a reconstruction of the film.
Miss Right Now was released on October 31, 1927, at Cinema Gloria, located in the recently inaugurated Cinelândia, the cinema quarter in downtown Rio de Janeiro. It played with and complemented the feature The Three Musketeers (1921) starring Douglas Fairbanks. The theater's program also included stage performances by the vaudeville company Pierrette Fiori. Miss Right Now was screened for one week, until November 6. In the same week, another Brazilian film, Straw Fire (Fogo de Palha, 1926), was screened at Cinema Imperio, also in Cinelândia. Two Brazilian films being released in Rio de Janeiro's first-run theaters was a rare achievement for the national cinema, always constrained by an exhibition market dominated by North American interests. The accomplishment, however, was not sufficient to boost Miss Right Now's commercial exhibition. In São Paulo, it only had a special screening for the press. Not even in the interior of Minas Gerais did Miss Right Now have a commercial run, despite being promoted through a special screening in Cataguases and another in the nearby city of Miraí that was attended by Nil herself. Given the scarcity of screenings, by the end of 1927 Comello would refer to the “failure of Miss Right Now” in a letter to the journalist Pedro Lima.10
In the story, Nil plays Lili, an “intelligent and lively” manager of a farm where she lives with her mother and has “an energetic temper, always ready and determined[;] she never leaves for tomorrow what can be done today. She received the nickname ‘Miss Right Now’ because of her strong character.”11 When the farm is invaded by thieves who steal the family's jewelry, Lili pursues them and “after many adventures, the brave woman ends up kidnapped and taken to the gang's hideout, where she is held in a terribly dangerous situation.” In the end, Mario, the young son of the neighboring farmer who Lili formerly despised for his seemingly weak personality, defeats the gang of thieves after a “bloody fight in which his own life was in danger” and manages to save her. After the adventure, Lili “begins to feel sincere affection for Mario.” An idyllic shot of the couple closes the film in a happy ending.
As Gomes notes, “Closely studying the plot and iconography of Miss Right Now reveals that Lili's active presence is made in such a way that makes her, throughout the entire film, the hero.”12 Lili takes over and advances most of the action scenes, leaving only the last fight and final rescue to the leading man. Such a physical fight, acted according to the “American fighting system”—a style of film performance popularized in Brazil after the American serial The Broken Coin (1915) featuring Eddie Polo—could not have been played by the female protagonist, yet could not be left out since it was an important and anticipated attraction in Brazilian films of the period, even in productions with more traditionally dramatic content.
Rather than taking on the role of the ingenue type, Nil invests here in a type of character closer to American serial queens from the 1910s. As Rielle Navitski remarks, “Although the film's iconography most closely recalls the genre of the western, Lili's fatherlessness, her resistance to romantic relationships, and her impulsive involvement in adventures, requiring her rescue by a male figure, all strongly evoke American serial conventions, a connection contemporary reviews made explicit.”13 Indeed, the leading role as played by Nil is fodder for comments and comparisons to stars of the genre. In an article published in 1930, journalist Alceu de Souza Novaes mentions a scene where the actress wields a gun “as would the famous Pearl White.”14 By that time, even though she had abandoned the genre in 1923, White's image remained quite vivid for Brazilian audiences as the audacious star of serials such as The Mysteries of New York (Os Mistérios de Nova York, 1915), a “combination” of the Elaine film serials that achieved unprecedented success in Rio de Janeiro, stimulating the release of other serials.15 Toward the end of the decade and into the 1920s, serials would continue to be very popular, albeit turned into second-run theater attractions.
Miss Right Now would also be compared to another popular genre. In a letter addressed to Nil, film critic Ribeiro wrote that the plot of Miss Right Now “resembles the films of Buck Jones and Helene Chadwick.”16 Buck Jones was a popular star in B Westerns; Helene Chadwick had starred in Hard Boiled (1926) beside Tom Mix. In stills from Miss Right Now, we see Nil in action scenes, fighting the bandits. Donning the masculine attire characteristic of Westerns, she wears pants and a long-sleeved shirt with a neckerchief. In one of the most emblematic production stills, she stops the bandits, tying them up with a rope that she holds in one hand while aiming a revolver with the other.
Two other costumes that Nil wears are exotic Asian silk pajamas and, in the romantic idyll of the last scene, a delicate white dress and pearl necklace. The combination of male attire with exotic and romantic outfits may be related to Pearl White's dress style. According to Marina Dahlquist, White's heroines “put up two sides, the ‘masculine’ and adventurous self when they wore an austere outfit and a more ‘feminine’ one when they were rescued by male chivalry and when they sported luxury fashion to put feminine glamour on display.”17
Miss Right Now had a relatively poor critical reception. Dedicated as always to promoting Nil as a rising Brazilian star, Cinearte offered wide promotional coverage of the film, publishing several notes and pictures as well as a long and illustrated synopsis. And two weeks before the film was released in Rio de Janeiro, Nil's picture appeared on the cover. Nevertheless, the film did not receive any reviews in Cinearte, but only incidental remarks scattered throughout some issues. Selecta published a very harsh review attacking the script and poor cinematography and deeming the cast, including Nil, unphotogenic. The anonymous reviewer posed questions to point out the film's inconsistencies, some of them directly linked to foreign influences, for instance, “Who would advise that poor girl to wear those ridiculous pajamas and walk around with them in the fields like it was the latest trend?” or “Who would engender such a fight, in which a ‘Philistine’ was capable of knocking down a regiment?”18 Weeks later, Pedro Lima briefly mentioned Miss Right Now, seemingly rebutting Selecta's review. Suggesting directorial problems, he advised Comello to concentrate on his work as a camera operator. According to Lima, the film's only virtues are its cinematography, Ben Nil (Comello's son, who played a part), and Eva Nil, “perhaps the greatest of our artists.”19
Apart from the film's technical problems, choosing the adventure genre and depicting Nil as an action heroine did not prove to be the best marketing decision. Miss Right Now's close connection with sensational melodrama seems to have been an inappropriate choice to meet the expectations of fans and critics alike regarding Brazilian cinema, and the genre seemed incompatible with Nil's star persona. Even though serials were still very popular among Brazilian audiences and a strong point of reference for many active filmmakers and artists, alluding to them in the second half of the 1920s would have seemed out of place. By then, serials were considered a “demoralized” genre, as observed by a Cinearte writer in the introduction to a 1927 interview with Eddie Polo.20 As a genre, serials could not lend prestige to Brazilian productions. The late 1920s were a time for nurturing new expectations for how Brazilian films should incorporate elements of the Hollywood model. Human Clay, as we will see below, was the most accomplished example of what was then desired for Brazilian films, particularly its cosmopolitan plot and modern settings, which were distinct from those of popular genres.
In 1928, one year after Miss Right Now was released, Cinearte chose the best Brazilian film of 1927 by awarding the first Medalhão Cinearte. Lima analyzed the nominations and explained why the award went to Lost Treasure, directed by Humberto Mauro, instead of Straw Fire, considered the two best Brazilian films of 1927. Lima regarded Lost Treasure as superior because, despite the “ridiculous scenes, like the ‘hands up’ at the rural store” and the “uninteresting” story about the lost treasure, it “is rather characteristically Brazilian” with good “subject treatment”:
Straw Fire relates to the coffee plantation region only incidentally, whereas Lost Treasure shows the true countryside of our country. Though lacking Straw Fire's romantic elements, Lost Treasure is more interesting and its story unfolds inside the brain of each viewer, therefore, making them feel all the beauty and softness of the Brazilian environment.21
Two of Lost Treasure's weaknesses discussed by Lima relate to the sensational melodrama tradition: the assault on the store, when the owner, Chico Barriga, places his hands up under the threat from the bandits, and the story about a lost treasure. What Lima values is precisely the suitable treatment of the Brazilian environment and the rural landscape.
Toward the end of the decade, however, when the group from Cinearte got involved in the production of Human Clay, the appreciation for Brazilian and regional elements gave way to a preference for urban and cosmopolitan plots, as seen in many Hollywood films of the time. When writing to Mauro at the end of 1929, the same year that he released Human Clay, Adhemar Gonzaga, inspired by the Hollywood model, summarized (in English) what he considered the formula for success: “sex, charm, and gags.”22
A rural adventure modeled on serials starring a female action hero, Miss Right Now did not meet the emerging critical standards and expectations for Brazilian cinema at that time. Nil's adventure did not counterbalance Hollywood influences by offering some type of regional treatment or unique element of Brazilian life as recompense, as did Lost Treasure. Nor did it concern itself with a rising trend of mundane plots that absorbed traces of modernity with their characters in the midst of new habits and behaviors—a trend that would soon inspire titles like Human Clay and Lips without Kisses (Lábios sem beijos, 1930).
Miss Right Now also distanced itself from the image of Nil that both the media and the actress herself had already constructed, an image identified with the ingenue character and with a romantically feminine presentation. The construction of a fearless protagonist with masculine behaviors (managing a farm, wielding a gun) not only stopped exploiting the already-consolidated Nil type, but contradicted the era's dominant models of female characters. At that point, the serial queens who were so popular during the 1910s and early 1920s had been replaced by two other female types. In 1927, Cinearte posed the question “ingenues or vampires?” wondering what audience preference was. The article came to the conclusion that people liked both: “On the screen, the waves of sin are thick, voluminous, and the ones of virtue are fragile and tame, but both raise the same interest in the audience.”23 Action heroines were no longer considered relevant types.
As a fan herself, Nil was not attracted to ingenues. When asked by Cinearte who her favorite American actress was, she readily mentioned Barbara La Marr, whom the magazine described as a “beautiful vampire with intriguing eyes.”24 As an actress, though, Nil had been closely related to the ingenue type. The form and style of her studio pictures presented her as naive, romantic, fragile. Reading reviews of Miss Right Now, it is easy to identify the longing for the ingenue Nil as depicted in her studio pictures. In the Gazeta do Povo newspaper, her acting is highlighted as the best aspect of the movie, yet the reviewer advised: “From now on, she must choose roles that are better suited to her personality.”25
Despite such an admonishment, the choice of playing an action hero with an “energetic temper, always ready and strong-willed” was well suited to Nil's willful and strong nature.26 It is worth emphasizing this affinity, because not always did screen roles meet the expectations of young actresses. In a 1930 interview given by Mazyl Jurema, who starred in In the Scene of Life (No cenário da vida, 1930), the actress declared, “My role is everything I have always dreamed to be. I only wish my role wouldn't be so sad. I would prefer it to be more cheerful. More alive. More Joan Crawford.”27 While expressing her joy for working in the cinema, Jurema did not hide certain dissatisfaction with a character that did not echo her own youth and energy.
In Miss Right Now, a personal project on which Nil worked closely with her father, they were striving to create a strong character that could simultaneously relate to the actress's temperament and enable her to shift from the ingenues she played in Valadião, the Crater and In the Spring of Life to a heroic character like Pearl White's famous action heroines. Serials, therefore, although considered an outdated genre, provided an appropriate model to elaborate a film in which “female independence and mastery were placed at the center of the narrative.”28
Nil explicitly mentioned her desire to play more active characters in a letter to Pedro Lima. Even when declaring her satisfaction with the prospect of playing a role, albeit a supporting one, in Human Clay, she did not stop herself from making a request, “In this case, however, if possible, I would like an opportunity to play a role in which the work is not completely passive, but rather presents some challenges. (This was the reason I did not want to work on Lost Treasure).”29 Soon afterward, in another letter, this one to Gonzaga, she explained how she hoped “to receive the instructions soon … on how best to study for the part I want to make colossal.”30
Written for her, the role she played in Human Clay is barely active, as she wanted, but instead consistent with the image of the actress promoted by Cinearte. She is the romantic, adopted sister of the male protagonist, with whom she is in love. As Nil herself observed, it was a “purely sentimental role.”31 Despite the conventional characterization, she prepared herself for it, as she had promised Gonzaga she would. According to researcher Lécio Augusto Ramos, her strong personality “set her apart from other actresses of the time. In Human Clay, Eva was the only person to worry about the issue of the ‘composition’ of the character, repeatedly demanding access to the script, based on which she would create her ‘interpretation’ (as she called it).”32
Despite her commitment and professionalism in Human Clay, the modest production of Miss Right Now was what enabled Nil to play an appreciably less passive character. Additionally, her work on this film was not limited to her performance before the camera. Some sources consider her the producer of the film and credit her as a camera and laboratory assistant to her father. In Cinearte, writing about Miss Right Now, Lima claimed that Nil was “the only independent female producer in our country, in spite of being so young.”33 By “independent,” he probably meant to stress that Atlas-Film did not have any outside investors. He also revealed that Comello, as “the director, artist, and cameraman, [was] being substituted many times by the star of Cataguases [Nil], in absence of those who could replace him with the same efficiency.”34
A Portuguese magazine, Cine, went even further, reporting that in Miss Right Now the actress “held the megaphone and operated the camera's hand crank. She also helped her father in film developing, cutting, editing, and adapting the film according to her own artistic taste.”35 It is possible that this information came from the actress herself, since she exchanged letters with the journalist.
In Miss Right Now, neither the genre nor the heroine met Brazilian cinema's perceived need for recognition and prestige, much less appeased the dominant (conservative) view of proper female characters.
WOMEN IN BRAZILIAN SILENT FILM
Whether on- or offscreen, in terms of either female characters' attributes or their craft practice, the work of women was a subject rarely contemplated or even recognized throughout the silent period. Based on current scholarship, there was only one woman director in Brazil until the beginning of the 1930s, Cléo de Verberena, who directed and starred in The Mystery of the Black Domino (O mistério do dominó preto), a silent film released in 1931. The major female personality of Brazilian silent film is without a doubt the actress and producer Carmen Santos, who would go on to direct only one film, Minas Gerais Conspiracy (Inconfidência mineira, 1948), made well into the sound era. After her debut as an actress in Urutau (1919), Santos began investing in production, taking over “the direction of her career…. She chooses the plots and the directors for her films, with a degree of feminine interference unusual in Brazil at that time,” states Ana Pessoa, her biographer.36 Determined to “be ahead of the projects, marking them with her ideas,” Santos created as early as the mid-1920s the production company FAB-Film Artístico Brasileiro, which lasted only briefly, and in the following decade she established the Brasil Vita Filmes company, for which she built modern studios.37
Santos stands out as the primary woman producer of Brazilian silent film, but Nil and de Verberena were also associated with the production side of the business, albeit in a more isolated fashion. With the release of Miss Right Now, journalist Lima identified Nil as an “independent producer” at Atlas-Film, the company founded by her father. Additionally, de Verberena, together with her husband César Melani (under the pseudonym Laes Reni), founded the Epica-Film production company, responsible for producing The Mystery of the Black Domino.38 Except for these three professionals, sparse mentions of women active in production or in any of the various technical-creative positions of studio filmmaking are to be found, barring those of actresses. Other jobs connected to a broader sphere of cinema have yet to be investigated in a more systematic fashion with the purpose of mapping, for example, the activities of women who wrote about film for newspapers and periodicals, or who worked as musicians in movie theaters, playing in lobbies or providing accompaniment during screenings.
It is quite possible that prejudice in relation to women's work has contributed to the paucity of movie credits acknowledging women's professional contributions. Evidence of this can be observed in a statement by Almery Steves, the actress who starred in four feature-length films produced in the second half of the 1920s in the city of Recife, in northeastern Brazil. In an interview for a local newspaper, she discussed the films on which she worked, highlighting Dance, Love and Luck (Dança, amor e ventura), which was directed by her husband, Ary Severo, in 1927: “It was the one that impressed me most, since I was the one to come up with the idea for it.”39 In spite of this statement, no source mentions Almery's contribution to the film's script or story line. Even the work of Nil in Miss Right Now, which, as I have shown, went far beyond acting, did not receive much coverage in the press, which generally discussed her only as its leading actress.
If there are few recognized and credited examples of the work done by women outside the sphere of acting in Brazilian silent film, the representation of female work in the movie plots is also rather limited, especially for film heroines. It is important to emphasize that these limitations observed in films and film practices mirrored what was happening in Brazilian society as a whole, in which many obstacles and moral judgments were imposed on women's work.
Although few fiction films from the silent period have been preserved, making a closer analysis difficult, the extant prints and a reading of synopses safely establishes that the majority of the women protagonists do not perform paid work outside of the home, and what few portrayals of non-domestic female labor do exist are often justified by the need to provide for a family's livelihood. In such cases, what can be noted is the care taken not to configure the situation as in direct competition with men's work, or as indicative of a woman's desire to be on a par with men. This sort of containment occurs in Tormented Hearts (Corações em suplício, 1925). There are no preserved copies of this film, which was produced in the small city of Guaranésia in the interior of Minas Gerais, yet the synopsis published in the press mentions how the protagonist's job as a secretary for an engineer allows her to make a home and raise her younger sister.40
In Swearing Revenge (Jurando vingar, 1925), the work of the protagonist requires an explanatory intertitle to be justified. In the film, Bertha (Rilda Fernandes), who lives alone with her mother, is one of two waitresses at a bar with an exclusively male clientele, including two bandits who provoke her, thereby drawing the hero (Gentil Roiz, the actress's future real-life husband) into a fight to protect the young woman, with whom he falls in love. By seeking to come closer to the Hollywood adventure film model, it sets up the first encounter between the leading couple and the first fight between the hero and the bandits in a saloon-like environment adapted to local reality. How can these elements of the genre be configured into the conservative Brazilian milieu? Meaning, how to explain the presence of a family lady, the film's virtuous protagonist, working as a waitress in a bar frequented by bandits? The solution is a properly edifying intertitle: “When the struggle for subsistence is necessary, work is never hard.” Consequently, an artistic desire to approach the Hollywood model is met while protecting the traditional moral values of Brazilian society, avoiding the unchecked reproduction of liberal American customs. In this and other Brazilian silent films—just as in the star system that was developing in the pages of Cinearte—there was a constant need to adapt popular Hollywood narration and narratives to ideological values that were acceptable within Brazilian moral and social parameters.
This clash between industrial models and national culture was also addressed in specialized magazines, as seen in an editorial from Selecta, which in 1925 criticized the “emancipated” female characters from North American cinema who spend “fun nights out in the company of men and allow themselves to be freely flirted with and kissed.” These were behaviors that can “shake weak minds from little heads that want nothing other than this freedom ‘equal’ to that of men.” The editorial concluded, “we do not find the morals of American films very appropriate for our girls and young ladies.”41
Similar tensions were occurring in Mexico, as analyzed by Laura Isabel Serna in Making Cinelândia (2014). According to Serna, “The Mexican popular press … served simultaneously as the most efficient disseminator of U.S. film culture and as a public sphere in which the politics of that film culture were debated and critiqued.” Examining the “gendered dimensions of the intersection between American films and film culture and Mexico's postrevolutionary nationalism,” she points out how modern women's new styles and behaviors “were marked as imported customs that clashed with Mexico's traditions.”42
In this way, both the press and the films would endeavor to guide female readers and spectators toward another ideal modern woman, “one who engaged scrupulously with mass culture without allowing herself to ‘degenerate into grotesque imitation’ or fall prey to the cinema's illusions. Such a woman worked not to satisfy her personal desire, but to support her family.”43 Serna then analyzes the film Tepeyac (1917) and the version of Mexican femininity it conveys, in which the protagonist's identity is circumscribed by the home and its social embodiment, the family. Tepeyac, Serna argues, “provided audiences with a fictional example of appropriate viewing practices.”44
A similar pedagogical approach also developed in Brazilian films. Among the features produced in Recife during the 1920s, we find in The Lawyer's Daughter (A filha do advogado, 1926) a rare portrayal of a young woman with an advanced degree, publicly performing her profession. Antonieta (Olyria Salgado) has studied law, a traditionally male stronghold, and works as a trial attorney's assistant. However, this young professional, who has all the credentials needed to be cast as an example of the modern woman, is in fact the antagonist of the virtuous main character, Heloisa (Guiomar Teixeira). Heloisa is an ideal embodiment of feminine virtue and knows exactly how to cultivate beauty and fashion in the “proper” way, without excesses and always respecting domestic and family limits. Antonieta is depicted so as to emphasize the negative aspects of modernity for women when she embarks on the path of masculinity, in both appearance and behavior. With a short, à la garçonne hairstyle, the young lawyer wears male clothing and dark-framed, heavy glasses while practicing a predominantly male profession and working in the public sphere, clearly overstepping the boundaries of the domestic space reserved for women. The character Antonieta is an example of the macho woman (mulher-macho) discussed by historian Iranilson Buriti in his article on women, honor, and modernity in Recife of the 1920s. “The macho woman stereotype,” Buriti indicates, “was used in a pejorative way in this period to ridicule the masculine behavior that women adopted.”45
The young modern woman working outside of the home would be portrayed in a more positive light by the end of the decade. The synopsis of My First Love (Meu primeiro amor, 1930), considered a lost film, indicates that the protagonist is an employee in a fashion house.46 The photos available, although they do not show her work environment, place her in situations of jovial and elegant idyll with two siblings who vie for her attention.47 Modern youth is also the focus of Human Clay. Whereas Nil played a supporting role with a traditionally feminine profile, the protagonist, Vera (Gracia Morena), takes on a bolder outline. After losing her father and facing the precarious financial situation in which she, her mother, and a younger sister find themselves, Vera begins working as a secretary in a downtown law firm. The interactions with colleagues in the office, the parties she attends, and her romantic affair with a young bourgeois philanderer are other elements of the film that contribute to realizing the filmmakers' plan to depict an urban and modern Brazilian youth culture.48
Although there are no longer any consultable prints of the film, Sheila Schvarzman makes the critical assessment that the introduction of a middle-class working woman, a fact appreciated in Cinearte as being one of the film's innovative aspects, “in fact does less to affirm the woman's independence than it does to signal her helplessness and displacement. Vera does not work for the sake of independence, but out of necessity, something that the repairing marriage will certainly fix.”49
This analysis is consistent with historical studies on women and gender hierarchies in the first decades of the twentieth century in Brazil. According to historians Marina Maluf and Maria Lúcia Mott, women's professional activity outside the home “was only considered legitimate when it was necessary for the family's livelihood, and rarely for personal fulfillment.”50 The sphere of work, the authors argue, proved to be a central pillar for upholding male power:
Work was in fact what granted the husband power, just as it granted him full rights over the household, while making him responsible, albeit formally, for maintaining, assisting, and protecting his own family. Bearing this in mind, the husband performed a function that was positively valued and dominant in marital society. … The same discourse that made work and male identity coterminous conceived women as being limited to the interior space of the home.51
The husband was responsible for public identity, the wife for domestic identity.52 When these boundaries began to be breached as women gradually started occupying public space and taking on professional activities outside the home, tensions and moralizing opprobrium increased. According to historian Margareth Rago, the invasion of urban space by women “does not translate to the softening of moral demands, as demonstrated by the persistence of old taboos, such as virginity. Instead, the more she escapes the private sphere of domestic life, the more bourgeois society burdens her with the anathema of sin, guilty feelings for having abandoned the home, her needy children, her husband worn out from long hours of work.”53
Working in public locations could even place the woman in a situation of suspicion and surveillance. Historian Sueann Caulfield discusses young, working-class women such as saleswomen in retail garment stores aimed at a clientele from richer classes: “Since these professions exposed ladies to public spaces, they were suspected of ‘clandestine prostitution’ by the police and other public officials.”54
Given this sociocultural background, it is possible to form an idea of the pressures and moralizing judgments to which actresses in Brazilian films of the period were subjected. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that many of these women associated themselves with male figures embodying recognizable authority (fathers, husbands) to legitimize their work in motion pictures and the public exposure that ensued. Nil never stopped referring to the support and encouragement her father provided her, directly connecting him to her own work in film. In one interview in the newspaper Cataguases, she observed, “He was and still is my master and I can assure you that his lessons and advice stoked certain characteristics people say I have and sparked others that I am still improving. My first performance was in In the Spring of Life, where I worked with the admirable goal of pleasing my father.”55
If to the press, and specifically to this newspaper published in the city she lived in, Nil made sure to clearly state her father's influence over her work in order to fit the traditional values of the local society, in her private correspondence with journalist Lima she expressed more freely her active role in producing Miss Right Now and the influence she had on her father, namely convincing Comello to return to filming after the partnership with Mauro at the Phebo production company dissolved: “It was no small feat getting Daddy to decide to go into filmmaking on our own account.”56 So, it was Nil stoking and sparking Comello, rather than the other way around.
In the case of de Verberena, even while entering the unprecedented enterprise of being a woman directing films in Brazil, she relied on the support of her husband, Laes Reni, her partner in the production company, and with whom she costarred in The Mystery of the Black Domino. Also with respect to the need to secure legitimization through reference to a male figure, the life and career of Carmen Santos diverged from usual and accepted female behavior. At a very young age she started a relationship with Antonio Seabra, a rich industrialist from a prestigious Carioca family, who provided her career with continuous and broad financial support. It was, however, a “marriage with neither written agreement nor marital residence,” as Ana Pessoa defines it.57 While the union with Seabra provided Santos with the funds for taking hold of the reins of her career, “her exotic relationship, which does not include a single requirement of traditional concubinage—after all, they did not even live together—must have not only brought her the inescapable stigma of being a lover, but also marked with uncertainty the scope of her initiatives.”58 In this situation, male support, albeit fundamental, could not be used to vouch for the work of the actress and her production company, since it clashed with the public morals and manners of the time.
As for the actresses, several of them started acting in film when they were called to do so by boyfriends or husbands with whom they costarred and/or under whose direction they performed. In these cases, too, the work of women was authorized and legitimized by figures of male authority. Marriages between actors would even be welcomed in the specialized press since they granted respectability to the work of actresses and to Brazilian cinema in general. When reporting the marriage of Almery Steves and Ary Severo in Selecta in early 1926, Lima claimed that “this way, the cinematographic circle is becoming one family. That's how we can prove that there is no reason why some of cinema's detractors should depreciate the morality indispensable to the biggest Art of them all.”59
In the campaign developed by Lima and Gonzaga to defend Brazilian cinema in the Rio de Janeiro magazines there is a clear and constant negotiation between traditional morality and modern seduction. When analyzing Cinearte, scholar Ismail Xavier identifies, among the various contradictions in the campaign, the “struggle for patriarchal respectability and certain demands of the politics of stardom,” pointing out “the mediation between the imperatives of an honest and respectful image and the inherent ideology of pleasure and seduction” as a reflection of the magazine's central advertising function.60
In the films, however, at least in those preserved titles to which I have access, respectability overshadows seduction. Even those female characters emerging from productions like Lips without Kisses who seem to be more modern are cast in an extremely conservative light that pigeonholes them into socially accepted norms. Conservativism, in fact, characterizes a good deal of Brazilian silent films, and not just in relation to the place of women. As the scholar Maria Rita Galvão notes in her study on silent cinema in São Paulo, “There is no criticism or nonconformity of any kind.”61 Her comment is shared by researcher Jean-Claude Bernardet, who amplifies the absence of relevant discussions that address workers and social contradictions. From Bernardet's perspective, the ideology that inspires films “is certainly petit bourgeois.”62 Even though most Brazilian silent fiction films were produced by immigrants and lower- and middle-class people, they tend to portray the values of the conservative elite, a universe to which the filmmakers rarely belonged.
This petit bourgeois mentality not only limited the representation of the leading actresses' work in these films, but also naturalized and rendered invisible the work performed by lower-class supporting female characters, such as housemaids, and the actresses who portrayed them. In these cases, gender bias joined racial and class prejudice since these characters came from lower orders, were not considered white, and played subordinate roles. In a country where slavery had been abolished for only a few decades (since 1888), labor and especially manual labor continued to be seen by white people “as the duty of the blacks, of slaves…. The idea of work brought with it a suggestion of degradation.”63 In the view of sociologist Adalberto Cardoso, the legacy of slavery “includes a depreciated perception of manual work, a derogatory image of black and even national people as workers, an indifference of the elites toward poor majorities, and an extremely rigid hierarchy.”64
Bearing in mind this colonialist legacy, it is possible to gain a more adequate appreciation of the limits that restricted the work of women and female characters in Brazilian silent cinema. A woman artist like Eva Nil passed through this restrictive territory with clear professional ambitions, driven by the encouragement and constant exposure provided by Cinearte and other periodicals. Besides ubiquitous conservatism on- and offscreen, she also faced other significant restrictions, such as the fact of living in a small city, far from the financial and cultural axis established by the metropolises of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and the very limitations of Brazilian cinema with its rather sparse professionalizing opportunities for artists and technicians.
The production of Miss Right Now, which might have been a first step in the direction of Nil's realization as a film professional, did not achieve the intended results, not just because of the unsuitability of its protagonist—an action heroine who countered the romantic type that had been prevalent in Nil's previous star promotions—but also due to the precarious conditions for producing, distributing, and exhibiting Brazilian films at that time.
Nil's experience in Miss Right Now resonated with broader cultural expectations brought to bear upon Brazilian cinema in general and female film stars in particular, an arena in which constant negotiations were required between the Hollywood model and the necessary accommodations to Brazilian patriarchal standards of moral behavior, especially regarding women's work. Although inspired by Hollywood, Miss Right Now chose a popular genre of the 1910s rather than investing in a more modern plot. This was surely due in part to Atlas-Film's scarce financial resources, which required a simple plot with plenty of outdoor shooting, sparing elaborate settings. But that does not fully explain the option for an active protagonist, which was made at the expense of the star persona that Nil and the press had carefully built.
Disregarding the ingenue type with which she was frequently identified, and avoiding the vamp character, a figure perhaps too bold for her standards and family background, Nil played an action heroine. Although considered both outdated and not suited to her type, performing an action heroine gave her “an opportunity to play a role in which the work is not completely passive,” as she wrote to Lima concerning her future part in Human Clay. In Miss Right Now, not only the character on-screen but also the work Nil performed behind the camera escaped from the circumscribed space to which actresses and other female film professionals were constrained in the film business, at a time in Brazil when gender hierarchies imposed narrow limits on women's professional activities outside the sphere of domestic life.