Celebrating Women in Classic Film: The Silent Directors.

Today, March 8, is the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, which falls, appropriately enough, at the start of Women’s History Month. Though it’s not a nationally-recognized holiday here in the United States (as it is in several countries across the world), it is nonetheless a day in which we celebrate women–our achievements, our lives, our contributions–everything that makes women just plain awesome.

This being a classic film blog, I wanted to put IWD (and Women’s History Month) in some kind of cinematic perspective. There have been a myriad of strong, talented women to make their mark on the big screen in the past hundred years. So important have they become to our pop culture consciousness, we recognize them by first name: Bette, Katharine, Ginger, Lana, Marilyn, Myrna, Audrey, Claudette … the list goes on and on. But though the contributions of notable classic film actresses are widely appreciated and recognized for their part in opening doors to the female stars that would follow (as they should be), the behind-the-scenes players were just as important in carving out a place for women in the Hollywood “boys’ club.” Throughout the month of March, we’ll be taking a look at some of these remarkable women, starting today with those who were calling the shots on set during the pre-sound era.

The Silent Directors

From the days of silent film, there were women directing the action from behind the camera, but their early contributions to the industry have been ignored or otherwise unheralded, in large part, over the ensuing years. Quite a few female directors produced films in the pre-sound era, including the woman considered by many to be the “first” female director, Alice Guy-Blaché, who began making films in her native France at the turn of the twentieth century. In fact, Guy-Blaché is credited by many as helping develop the art of the narrative film structure, wherein film began telling actual stories instead of merely reflecting scenes.

Guy-Blaché firmly believed that women not only deserved a place in the burgeoning film industry, but that they were, in fact, better suited for the emotional demands of moviemaking than their male counterparts. In a 1914 article for Moving Picture World, entitled “Woman’s Place in Photoplay Production,” the director wrote:

“Not only is a woman as well-fitted to stage a photo-drama as a man, but in many ways she has a distinct advantage over him because of her very nature and because much of the knowledge called for in the telling of the story and the creation of the stage setting is absolutely within her province as a member of the gentler sex. She is an authority on the emotions. […] There is nothing connected with the staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man.”

Guy-Blaché’s directing career began with a rather innocuous one-minute short subject, La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy), which she wrote, directed, and filmed herself in 1896.

Though Guy-Blaché’s exact output is unknown, it’s estimated that she directed several hundred short films throughout her career, including Esmeralda (1906), a short silent that is widely considered to be the first–and oldest existing–movie adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

When she moved to America after marrying her husband, filmmaker Herbert Blaché, in 1907, she co-founded Solax Studios, one of the first film studios to be established in the United States (the studio was located in New Jersey, which was, in the film industry’s infancy, the center of moviemaking in the country, before filmmakers realized southern California provided better climates and cheaper living). And in 1912, she became the first woman to build her own motion picture studio, in Fort Lee, NJ.

Guy-Blaché’s work is noted for its narrative qualities, and though several of her films were classified under the catch-all title of the “woman’s film,” her work was unfailingly modern. There was an excitement to the director’s work, an indomitable insistence on experimentation that culminated in her work with Léon Gaumont (whose production company, Gaumont Films, is still in business after more than 115 years). Gaumont had developed a system for synchronizing sound and picture, which he called “Chronophone.” Guy-Blaché, who had in fact gotten her start as a secretary for Gaumont’s photography business, was one of the first film directors to utilize Gaumont’s innovation, directing dozens upon dozens of “talking picture” shorts in the first decade of the 1900s–all of which are now believed to have been lost.

These pioneering talkies are not the only Guy-Blaché films that have disappeared or disintegrated over time. It is estimated that only a couple dozen reels of the director’s work remain, and many of those are in perilous need of restoration and preservation. That process has been slow in coming, though one of Guy-Blaché’s American works, Falling Leaves, was thankfully preserved by the National Film Preservation Foundation in 2004, and can be viewed online in its entirety.

In 1920, Guy-Blaché directed her final film, Tarnished Reputations, and left Hollywood to return to France. She would not work in the film industry again, and her contributions would go unrecognized until the 1950s, when she was awarded the French Legion of Honour. But though she was the first, she was by no means the only female director working her movie magic. By the time Guy-Blaché left Hollywood in the early 20s, one of her American contemporaries, Lois Weber, had built a reputation as a true auteur of film–though Weber’s film career, too, would soon come to an end.

Weber, who ran away from home as a teenager, had supported herself in her youth as a kind of streetcorner prophet in New York City, preaching to passersby, singing hymns, and promoting moral values and clean living. This propensity for morality would make its way into her films as she made the move to Hollywood, for Weber would go on to tackle the topics other filmmakers tended to avoid–capital punishment, racism, and abortion among them.

Weber got her start with Gaumont, too, as a writer, director, and sometimes actress of hundreds of short Chronophone films beginning in 1908. But Weber soon tired of producing the shorts and longed to make a more artistic statement with her work. In 1914, Weber’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice became the first full-length feature directed by a woman. Later that same year, she directed Hypocrites, a highly controversal film that depicted a fully-nude Weber as the physical representation of “truth” (a scene from the film is embedded below).

Hypocrites marked the first in a series of “message” films that Weber directed in the ensuing decade. Her films engaged in social commentary, often dealing with taboo subjects like abortion, as in her 1916 film Where Are My Children?, which was inspired by Margaret Sanger’s fight to promote reproductive knowledge and birth control. The film takes an active stance against abortion, implicitly judging its core female characters–a group of wealthy women who obtain multiple abortions in order to maintain their fancy-free lifestyle–for their “immoral” choices.

Weber’s films rivaled D.W. Griffith’s as some of the most popular movies of the 1910s, and in fact she became the highest-paid director at Universal Studios with the success of Where Are My Children? and the same year’s Shoes. In 1917, that success allowed Weber to start her own film studio, Lois Weber Productions, and she continued to make full-length features for several years, including one of her most notable films, 1921’s treatise on poverty, The Blot. A 1922 divorce sent Weber into a tailspin, however, and her directing career faltered. She made a handful of films in the 1920s, and her final film–her first and only talkie–was 1934’s White Heat (no relation to the 1949 James Cagney vehicle). She passed away in 1939.

Dorothy Davenport Reid was another actress-turned-director who had gotten her start in silent films working with Griffith. She was born of an entertainment family–her father was noted character actor Harry Davenport, best known for his role as Dr. Meade in 1939’s Gone With the Wind, and her aunt was well-respected nineteenth-century theater actress Fanny Davenport. She began her career playing bit parts in silent films, and while working at Universal Studios, she met popular actor Wallace Reid when they co-starred in the 1912 Western His Only Son. They were married the following year and continued working together on the creation of a number of short films, sharing the duties of acting, directing, and filming up to two pictures a week.

The Reids: Wallace and Dorothy

As Reid’s star continued to rise with the release of Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), Dorothy’s own ambitions took a back seat to her husband’s career. But in 1923, Reid died of a drug overdose after having become addicted to morphine in the wake of a train accident. Afterward, Dorothy returned to filmmaking with the production of Human Wreckage (1923), a movie which centered on the dangerous effects of drug addiction. Crediting herself as “Mrs. Wallace Reid,” Dorothy traveled the country with the film, underscoring its anti-drug message. The film, labeled by one critic at the time as “the most important film ever made,” is now lost.

Dorothy then directed two more “social consciousness” films: 1924’s Broken Laws, which dealt with the subject of juvenile delinquency (this film, too, is now lost); and 1925’s The Red Kimona, based on a story by her protege, Dorothy Arzner, and noted screenwriter and journalist Adela Rogers St. John. She is credited as the producer of the film (again as “Mrs. Wallace Reid”), but her contributions as co-director (with Walter Lang) were not acknowledged on-screen.

The Red Kimona focuses on the issue of prostitution, depicting a young woman (played by Priscilla Bonner) who is sold into white slavery only to break down and murder her pimp. The controversial subject matter aside, Davenport neglected to change the name of the protagonist and was sued by the woman whose story had inspired the film. Davenport lost much of her fortune in the process.

Dorothy Davenport Reid went on to direct several more low-budget films for independent producer Willis Kent, including Linda (1929), Sucker Money (1933), Road to Ruin and The Woman Condemned (both in 1934). She soon gave up directing for producing and then moved into screenwriting in 1938, never stepping into the director’s chair again.

The directors mentioned here are not the only female directors who were working during the silent film era: Frances Marion, Lotte Reiniger, Mabel Normand, Lottie Lyell, Germaine Dulac, and Elvira Notari were among some of the more notable women who also directed pre-sound films. But sadly, many of the films of these early female directors have been lost. In recent years there has been a concentrated effort by the Women’s Film History Project to raise funds in order to preserve these movies before they are lost forever. Still, the movies that we do–thankfully–still have are a great indicator of the sheer talent that drove these women behind the camera. Their films are entertaining, invigorating, thought-provoking, and memorable–everything a movie should be, and more. In the almost one hundred years since Alice Guy-Blanché proclaimed that women could make movies just as handily as a man, the female filmmakers who’ve followed her have proven that there’s no limit to women’s creativity when it comes to the silver screen.

Thursday, we’ll take a look at the female directors who made their mark in the years after their “silent sisters” of film.

3 thoughts on “Celebrating Women in Classic Film: The Silent Directors.

  1. Wow, I had never heard about these women before! What an interesting post! I’m always mixed-up with dates, so it was useful to know that there were known short films directed by a woman in the late XVIII century. And oh my gosh, that clip with the babies was horribly creepy. How can she hold them that way???

    • I know–she’s just throwing those babies around like they really are cabbages! It’s just insane to me to see that clip and realize that it was filmed over a century ago–seems unreal!

  2. Wish I had seen this post before, but glad to know about it, now! Women’s film history is a passion of mine, and I specialize in research on African American women filmmakers of the silent and early sound eras of cinema. Guy-Blache & Weber are definitely two of the earliest, and now, thanks to women’s film historians, women filmmakers we know of to have existed! They had impressive output, creative vision and were true trailblazers. I did a project for a U.S. film history course on Lois Weber and used her film, Hypocrites!

    Yvonne Welbon of Sisters In Cinema http://www.sistersincinema.com also helped blaze the trail for African American women’s film history and did her doctoral dissertation on it (and made a film!) Her work helped inspire and inform my own — talk about hidden film history — it’s not just women in general whose film work isn’t known or taught about, it’s also Black women filmmakers who are up against even more intimidating odds.

    Do you know of the Women Film Pioneers Project started by film scholar Jane Gaines? There is a project now hosted & is being developed by the Center for Digital Research and Scholarship at Columbia University. Projects list: http://cdrs.columbia.edu/cdrsmain/projects/#wfp You can also check out my post on my blog, Her Film: http://herfilm.wordpress.com/2010/06/01/women-film-pioneers/.

    Lovely post, thanks so much for writing it! Check out this piece on Guy-Blache from a few days ago at the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gerit-quealy/women-director_b_1008535.html.

    Happy writing!!!!!!!!

    Kyna (Her Film http://www.herfilm.wordpress.com – @herfilm – facebook.com/herfilm)

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