In one film, a housemaid is lighting a fire when she spontaneously combusts out of the chimney.
Her body parts rain down on the village. When she returns, as a ghost, to her gravestone, the audience sees the epitaph inscribed on it: "Here lies Mary Jane. Rest in pieces."
"Once I saw that, I was like, OK, this is awesome," said Maggie Hennefeld, assistant professor of cultural studies and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota.
Hennefeld had long been interested in comedy and film. But seeing the 1903 movie "Mary Jane's Mishap" inspired her research into the early days of silent film, when female stars used slapstick for feminist aims. That research informs her new book, "Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes," and on Thursday, a free film screening at the Trylon Cinema in Minneapolis.
Slapstick is "about laughing at images of violence," Hennefeld said by phone. "In order to laugh at this violence, we have to believe at some level that the violence is harmless or exaggerated."
That becomes more complicated when the on-screen violence is against women, she continued. "A lot these films you can read both ways -- as representing disturbing fantasies of violence against women... but I think most of them call for a feminist reading."
In "Mary Jane’s Mishap," the 4-minute film about the housemaid, "this is a woman breaking free of the domestic sphere," Hennefeld said, "and the only way she can get out is through the chimney."
Women played a big role in the early days of silent film, starring, directing and producing the shorts, said Hennefeld, "probably because cinema wasn’t big business." The "vast majority" of those films have been lost, she said. Researching the book meant trekking to archives in Washington D.C., England and France, finding reviews in popular magazines and digging through copyright documents.
The dozen films showing Thursday at the Trylon are "my very favorite films," Hennefeld said. Some of them have "probably never been exhibited in the big screen in the U.S. before -- or at least not for 100 years."
IF YOU GO
SPECTERS OF FEMINIST SILENT FILM COMEDY
7 p.m. Thursday, April 5