Male power in early 20th century
Made in 1919, the year before women gained the right to vote in the United States, the ultimately disappointing (and sleep-inducing) Phil-for-Short tells the story of an unconventional young woman (minor 1910s leading lady Evelyn Greeley) who sets her eyes on a geeky professor of Greek. The problem is that the professor (minor 1910s leading man Hugh Thompson) had been previously hurt by his conniving former fiancée, and is thus unwilling to have anything to do with the opposite sex. At that point, woman starts chasing man.
Directed by the prolific Oscar Apfel – by 1920, Apfel had directed more than 70 shorts and features – from a screenplay by Clara S. Beranger (a specialist in stories focusing on female characters) and Forrest Halsey, Phil-for-Short starts out well by portraying the plight of liberated women in the still highly reactionary 1910s.
Phil, whose name Damophilia was inspired by a Sappho poem, horrifies the local religious prudes: She dresses casually, works like a man, is fluent in Greek, enjoys performing ancient Greek dances, and even has a man’s nickname. Better PHIL than DAMN, is her rationale.
Unfortunately, what promised to be a funny and clever critique of early twentieth-century sexism and hypocrisy takes a rather quick turn toward conventional romantic comedy. What could have been the most interesting element in the film – Evelyn Greeley disguising herself as a boy – is depicted in a manner that leaves no room for any gender-bending commentary.
Women chasing men was hardly a film novelty even in 1919, and Phil-for-Short offers precious little else to maintain one’s interest during its last two-thirds. As a result, even at a short 70 or so minutes, Phil-for-Short ends up overstaying its welcome by a good half hour. All in all, this proto-feminist effort is at best a minor historical curiosity.
Phil-for-Short (1919). Director: Oscar Apfel. Screenplay: Clara S. Beranger and Forrest Halsey. Cast: Evelyn Greeley, Hugh Thompson, Charles Walcott, Jack Drumier, John Adrizani, Ethel Grey Terry, Edward Arnold.
Professor Illington (Charles Walcott), a Greek scholar, is so enamored of his work that he has named his daughter Damophilia, after a poem by the independent-minded Sappho. Damophilia (Evelyn Greeley) – who prefers to be called “Phil” – is as much a free spirit as the ancient Greek poetess.
After Prof. Illington dies, the stern banker Donald MacWrath (Jack Drumier) is appointed Phil’s guardian. Eventually, Phil gets fed up with MacWrath’s and his sister’s strict ways and, disguised as a boy, she runs away.
Phil ends up at a university, where she becomes the assistant of the Greek professor, John Alden (Hugh Thompson). She immediately falls for his geeky looks, but John is an inveterate misogynist. And who could blame him? His fiancée had betrayed him – she had a lover on the side, and only wanted to marry John for his money.
After John and Phil are caught in a compromising situation – all Phil’s fault, of course – John decides to marry Phil in order to save his reputation. Yet, he remains aloof until he starts believing that Phil is having an affair with a famous violinist (John Adrizani). Jealousy makes John’s heart finally burn with passion.