Saturday Night Spotlight #21: Margaret Conneely

Today’s Spotlight shines on a woman director so obscure by today’s film-and-media standards that she does not have an IMDb page for her career: Margaret Conneely (1914 or 1915-2007), an amateur filmmaker with a small but memorable body of work. Referred to as “Chicago’s First Lady of Amateur Film,” all of her films are shorts in the 16mm (“home movie”-type) format. I might never have heard of her had I not attended the screening of Nancy Savoca’s film Dogfight (1991) at MoMA last Friday. The feature was proceeded by Conneely’s 1959 short film Mister E, which I really enjoyed. Although Conneely did not make any feature-length films, her shorts in both the fiction and nonfiction genres have a style distinct to her. The actors in her films do not have the luxury of a synchronized soundtrack; instead, there is either narration to represent the characters’ points of view or there is asynchronous dialogue that never exactly matches the actors’ mouth movements. Still, the technique is charming, especially given the pronounced Chicago accents in many of the voices used in the recordings. Mister E has been restored thanks to the Women’s Film Preservation Fund run by the organization New York Women & Film in Television (NYWIFT) and the entirety of Conneely’s film oeuvre has been saved and preserved by the Chicago Film Archives. For more information: a CFA page analyzing three of her films, more CFA information on their Margaret Conneely collection here and here and a local article about the archive here. I implore you to click the links provided for the full versions of Conneely’s short films as well. All of her films can be found here after searching “Margaret Conneely Collection” on YouTube.

Fairy Princess (1956) – Conneely’s niece stars in this seven-minute fantasy about a little girl whose Christmas prayer, to get a fairy princess doll, comes true. Telling the story through both the acting and the voiceover narration (possibly Conneely herself – I’m not sure), the director employs stop-motion animation to show the doll’s magical movements when it moves on its own. The film won Conneely both local acclaim and awards, including an honor as one of the Photographic Society of America’s “Ten Best” films of 1956. (You may see the film here and read more about it here.)

Mister E (1959) – In this weird but wonderful twelve-minute masterpiece, a fed-up housewife teaches her husband some lessons about spending too much time out of the house on boys’ nights out, thanks to a helpful, human-sized dummy cleverly named “Mister E,” designed to cause suspicion and jealousy in the husband when he mistakes the doll for a real guy from afar. Confusion and a man-on-mannequin “murder” follow, but all eventually rights itself in the end. (You may see the film here.)

The “45” (1961) – In only eight minutes, Conneely establishes a tense and intriguing story: what’s a woman to do when a man barges into her home, toting a gun and demanding to see her husband? Fears of violent crime pervade her mind, of course, and as the minutes tick by we wonder how the narrative will play out. The main actor has a very all-American look, but there is something very French-crime-thriller-esque about the leading lady. (You may watch the film here.)

Chicago: The City to See in ’63 (1962) – A travelogue that pays tribute to her hometown, this thirteen-minute film takes the viewer on a trip through Chicago with a narrator along for the journey. There are two versions available on YouTube: this one uploaded to the site in 2012, with more vibrant colors, and this new video transfer uploaded only a few weeks ago, with a cleaned-up soundtrack but more muted hues in the cinematography.

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