Having a Voice in Silence: Women Filmmakers in the Early Days of Cinema

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A hundred years ago, the “highest salaried director in motion pictures” just so happened to be a woman.

Last month, Deadline published an article which proclaimed, “Women Working In Film Aren’t Much Better Off Than In 1998, Study Finds.” While both disappointing and concerning, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who keeps up with film industry news in any capacity – such articles (and studies) come up with a frequency and regularity comparable to that of premature obituaries of the film industry or thinkpieces blaming millennials for insert-literally-anything-here.

However, these articles, along with their more upbeat counterparts – articles reporting that so-and-so promises to do such-and-such to give female filmmakers more opportunities and fix the abysmal representation problem (which is just as bad, if not worse, behind the camera than it is in front of it) – almost always forget to acknowledge what is arguably the most damning fact in this whole scenario. As the Women Film Pioneers Project succinctly puts it:

“More women worked at all levels inside and outside the Hollywood film industry in the first two decades than at any time since.”

The fight to get more women behind the camera isn’t a matter of women trying to forge a place in the filmmaking industry, but to reclaim it. Women filmmakers may not be “much better off” than they were before the rise of social media, but they have seemingly fewer opportunities available to them than women with similar aspirations did before the discovery of penicillin.

Women’s rights and feminism have obviously made huge strides since then – for example, the suffrage movement and voting rights – but female directors in 2017 are faced with the fact that women directed 7% of the top 250 grossing films of 2016 (a 2% drop from 2015), while a hundred years ago, Lois Weber was referred to as the “highest salaried director in motion pictures.”

So what happened? In short, the rise of the studio system. The vast majority of the stories of early women filmmakers are infuriating stories of promising careers cut short – and at least a sizable portion of the blame in most of these cases can be placed on this paradigm shift, for a number of reasons which we shall return to later.

Looking at the works and accomplishments of these women can inspire somewhat paradoxical sentiments. Their achievements are as inspiring as the overall trajectories of their careers are disheartening, and seeing the full extent of exactly how far we haven’t come is downright infuriating. Also maddening is how most of these women have been relegated to the footnotes of film history or left out of the narrative entirely. Fortunately, this issue is far more easily rectified.

The story of women directors in early cinema begins with Alice Guy Blaché, not just the first female film director but one of the world’s first filmmakers, period. In addition to being responsible for what is now considered the second fictional film ever made, she was one of the first women to own her own studio and made over 1,000 films over the course of her career, including the oldest surviving film with an entirely African-American cast.

Born in Saint-Mandé, France in 1873, Guy got her start in filmmaking working as a secretary for photographer and early filmmaker Leon Gaumont. Gaumont, like the vast majority of those who first took interest in the cinematograph, was interested in filming so-called “street scenes.” Guy saw the narrative potential in film, but when she suggested to Gaumont the possibility of filming a story, his response was that that seemed “like a silly girlish thing to do.” Nonetheless, Gaumont granted Guy the opportunity to try filming a story so long as it did not interfere with her other duties. Later in life, Guy herself would argue that such an opportunity was only offered to her because Gaumont (much like the Lumière brothers) failed to see the potential of filmmaking as a storytelling medium.

In 1896, Guy made her first film, The Cabbage Fairy, inspired by a fairytale. It was one of the first fictional movies ever made, mere months after Louis Lumière’s slapstick The Sprinkler Sprinkled (currently regarded as the first fictional film ever made). Gaumont was actually pleased with the result, and Guy became his most important director. Her largest production working for Gaumont, The Life of Christ, featured more than 300 extras and 25 sets.

In 1907, Guy moved to the U.S., and in 1910 she, her husband, and George A. Magie founded the Solax Company. In these early years, Guy’s gender seemed of surprisingly little concern. When Solax moved to a state-of-the-art $100,000 facility in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the magazine Moving Picture World commented that,

“The entire studio and factor were planned by Madame Alice Blaché, the presiding genius of the Solax Company. She is a remarkable personality, combining a true artistic temperament with executive ability and business acumen. Every detail of the making of a Solax picture comes directly under her personal supervision. She takes full responsibility for the Solax product… her judgement is hardly to be questioned.”

Guy’s Solax films, which ran the gamut from melodrama to raunchy comedies, included Cupid and the Comet (1911), in which a woman’s disapproving father locks away all her clothes to keep her from eloping only to be outwitted after she steals his clothes and locks his closet (preventing him from dressing to pursue her), and In the Year 2000 (1912), a sci-fi fantasy in which women rule and men are subordinate.

Guy’s husband took control of Solax in 1913, which was already beginning to struggle as the American film industry moved westward towards Hollywood. Both the company and the marriage failed, and Guy’s husband ran off with an actress in 1918. Guy moved back to France with her children, but was unable to find work as a film director. She later returned to the United States, but was similarly shut out, in spite of her good reputation and decades of experience.

Now, an important aside: there were several reasons that women directors could find more work in 1917 than they could in 1927, and one of the most important ones was respectability. The fledgling film industry faced a major problem in that many middle class Americans – exactly the people they wanted to appeal to – saw nickelodeons as both physically and morally repugnant. Because women, with their “feminine sensibilities” etc., etc., etc., were supposed to be the moral compass of the home, filmmakers, distributors, and exhibitors all sought to appeal to this demographic. And how better to do that than putting women who representing this target demographic in key, highly visible roles? While multiple women filmmakers from the time fit the bill, none did so more successfully than Lois Weber.

A devout Christian from a middle-class family in Pennsylvania, Lois Weber made a name for herself with her many highly successful social problem films and morality tales. In addition to being the first American woman to direct a feature-length film – The Merchant of Venice (1914) – she was the first (and only) woman elected to the Motion Picture Directors Association (a precursor to the Directors Guild of America), and is credited with several innovations in filmmaking, including the use of split screen to simultaneously show multiple viewpoints. Her films were extremely popular, and she signed a contract with Universal Studios in 1916 that, according to Photoplay magazine, made her “the highest salaried director in motion pictures.” At her peak, she was a household name on the level of D. W. Griffith or Cecil B. DeMille.

Much like Guy Blaché, Weber’s marriage was also a business partnership. Her husband, Phillips Smalley, co-wrote/produced/directed many of her films. However, the degree of Smalley’s contributions has been subject to some skepticism (and even in contemporary publications she was the more famous of the two). Regardless, Smalley’s presence was necessary to paint a portrait of Weber as simultaneously an utterly modern working woman and a sort of domestic goddess. The media ate it up. Weber was a master of seeming paradox; she portrayed herself as both the picture of modernity and domestic femininity, meanwhile she crafted morality films that appealed to mature, discerning audiences and at the same time incited their fair share of controversy. Hypocrites (1915), for example, is a cinematic sermon on hypocrisy which also features full-frontal female nudity and was banned in the entire state of Ohio. The film was highly successful even without Ohioan audiences, earning back more than six times its original budget. Weber’s other films covered everything from opium addiction to capital punishment to birth control.

Hypocrites (1915): Guess which one’s Naked Truth.

Again, much like Guy Blaché, Weber’s marriage fell apart around the same time she lost her studio. She continued to direct, though, even making one sound film – White Heat (1934) – before her death in 1939, by which time she had fallen into almost total obscurity.

Earlier I mentioned that the rise of the studio system was at least partly responsible for the downwfall of almost all female directors. Now let me explain why.

For one thing, the increased power of the studio system seriously impacted that of all but the biggest movie stars. Many women, including Weber, got their start in the film industry working as actresses (as many women directors working today still do), but with restricted power came far fewer opportunities for such career switches.

Furthermore, by this time, the film industry had not just achieved the respectability it so desired, but also a good deal of power. The industry as a whole had proved itself to be more than a passing fad, and Wall Street investors started taking a lot more notice. The film business was well and truly a business. Values shifted towards efficiency and the increased regimentation of the filmmaking process. Roles became more and more sex-typed. While screenwriting and editing especially still remained somewhat women-friendly (though that would shift – at least somewhat – too), direction and production were regarded more and more as men’s roles (cinematography and camera operation was highly masculinized from more or less the very start).

The very argument that enabled and popularized women directors like Weber and Guy Blaché – that they approached filmmaking with a uniquely feminine touch defined by artistry and sensitivity – served as the foundation for the argument now used to deny them work, as all the traits that had once been seen as virtues were now seen as potential hindrances. While Weber and Guy Blaché are the most famous examples, they are far from the only female filmmakers to have fallen into this trap.

In this case, though, it is ultimately the exception that proves the rule.

Around the same time Weber’s career started to fall apart, Dorothy Arzner was just getting started. After a brief stint at medical school that was interrupted by World War I and never resumed, Arzner started her film career with a visit to the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation (which would later become Paramount). Here she observed that “if one was going to be in the movie business, one should be a director because he was the one who told everyone else what to do.”

After working briefly as a script transcriber, Arzner began working as an editor. While editing Blood and Sand (1922), she saved money by intercutting stock footage into the film – the sort of efficient attitude that was now prized. Arzner worked as an editor for around eight years before getting an opportunity to direct. Her first film was Fashions for Women (1927), and from that point on she directed two more silent films before moving to sound – the only female director to make that transition in Hollywood, and the only female director to get consistent work in the studio system through the 1930s. While her films were usually regarded (or in some cases, dismissed) as “women’s films,” Arzner’s avoidance of feminine stereotypes and refusal to present herself in a traditionally feminine way undoubtedly worked in her favor, and helped her keep her career moving forward when so many of her contemporaries could not.

While these three are perhaps the most well-remembered women directors of the silent film era – the first, the most famous, and the one who survived through the rise of the studio system and the switch to sound – they were far from alone. In the U.S., there were the likes of Cleo Madison, Lule Warrenton, Frances Marion (also the first person to win two Oscars for writing), Dorothy Davenport Reid, Julia Crawford Ivers, Ruth Stonehouse, Nell Shipman, Tressie Souders (first female African American filmmaker), Margery Wilson, Madeline Brandeis, Grace Cunard, and Marguerite Bertsch. In the UK, the documentarian Jenny Gilbertson (who wrote, directed, lighted, staged, filmed and edited all her films). In France, the feminist experimental filmmaker Germaine Dulac. In Italy, Elvira Notari and Elvira Giallanella. In the Netherlands, Caroline van Dommelen. In Czechoslovakia, Olga Rautenkranzová and Thea Červenková. In Germany, there was Lotte Reiniger (director of the oldest surviving animated film). In Australia, the McDonagh sisters, Paulette, Phyllis, and Isabel. In Russia, Aleksandra Khokhlova, Ol’ga Rakhmanova, and the documentarian Esfir Shub.

Human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes I try to be funny on Twitter.