Women have been central to the film industry since its inception in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From Nickelodeons to full-length feature films and from silent films to talkies, as writers, directors, actors, and audience members, women have influenced the trajectory of the film industry. Female stardom was an essential component of the rise of the industry, though many of these women were celebrated more for their appearances than for their acting ability.
While the popularity of certain female stars offered them legendary status, the kinds of roles they were asked to play often reinforced traditional gender roles. That story is the familiar one. This exhibit intends to reveal a lesser known part of the story. Women actually played a powerful role in shaping the early film industry. As both consumers of film and professionals in the field, both in front of and behind the camera, women dramatically affected the development of American film.
Prior to the 1930s, Hollywood provided many opportunities for women to work on films behind-the-scenes. Many studios had prominent female directors, and female screenwriters created some of the most popular movies of the period, while female film editors exercised creative control over the visual appearance of film. A few women even headed their own studios. Though these women earned their jobs through their creative talents and shrewd business sense, their presence behind-the-scenes helped legitimize film as an art form and as morally acceptable for audiences.
Alice Guy Blache directing her cast in 1915.
Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-02978.
Like men, most female directors started their careers in other areas of the film industry before making their directorial debut. Alice Guy Blaché, for example, began as a secretary and rose to studio head. She is credited as being the first female film director, and also was known for experimenting with film technique and narrative form. She began her career in France at Gaumont Film Company, owned by Léon Gaumont, and directed her first film in 1896, where she directed all the films made by the studio until 1905.
She continued to work for Gaumont until 1907, when she married Herbet Blaché. After following him to the United States in 1910, she founded the Solax Company. As its president, she both directed and supervised production of the company’s films. In 1913 the company closed down, but Blaché continued to direct for her husband until 1922,when she returned to France with her children after her marriage failed.Though her career as a director faded, she is still remembered not only for being a pioneering woman in film, but for helping to shape the early film industry.7
Alice Guy Blaché also mentored Lois Weber, one of the most famous female American directors. Weber got her start under Blaché at Gaumont in 1908. Although Blaché initially hired her as an actress, Weber’s talent allowed her to develop a career behind the screen, as well as in front of the camera. Along with acting, she “wrote scenarios and subtitles, acted, directed, designed sets and costumes, edited, and even developed negatives for her films.”8 Along with her husband, Weber was also one of the first directors to experiment with sound.
Weber is also remembered for her skillful use of film to convey social messages. Weber’s 1914 Hypocrites, for example, used a nude statue to represent “the naked truth”—and she accepted the criticism she knew she would face because of this nudity. Much more daringly, Weber made a film about birth control, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, in 1917.
Lois Weber at her piano, which she had played since she was a young girl.
Her first step into the life of the famous was as a singer and piano player,
which she had perfected in her church choir.
Library of Congress, LC-DIG-GGBAIN-32125.
Weber’s position as a woman played a large part in allowing her to make films about risky subject matter. Just as theater owners courted female patrons to legitimize their businesses, the film industry sought female directors to legitimate the very product of film. Movies directed by women automatically carried greater moral weight. Therefore, directors like Weber could explore controversial topics under the guise of moral and social reform.
Because Weber came from the middle-class, had a “religious background,” was part of a stable marriage, and embraced “maternalist reform,” she was lent a moral credence that similarly elevated her films in the eyes of moralizing audiences. Weber returned the favor, “hiring other women to write or perform other jobs within her productions.”9
In 1915 Weber joined Universal Studios, and in 1917 she established Lois Weber Productions, with Universal working as her distributor. Unfortunately, most of the films that Weber made while on her own did not find critical or commercial success,
Grace Cunard, 1916.
Lois Weber was not the only notable female director during film’s first decades.
Grace Cunard rose to fame by starring in numerous serials, but she also wrote many screenplays and directed a number of films in the World War I era. “Cunard’s depiction of strong action heroines,” notes Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, “marks an important, almost completely lost, cultural moment in which women were portrayed as active, clever, physically adroit warrior archetypes who were quite capable of saving themselves and others.”10
Paramount Studios also sought to capitalize on the ability of women to legitimize early film. Their star female director was Dorothy Arzner. Arzner began her career as a stenographer at Famous Players-Lasky, which later became Paramount. She was later promoted to film editor (a common job and stepping stone for women in the film business), and in 1927, directed her first film. When other female directors were pushed out of the business in the late 1920s, Arzner was the only woman who continuously directed films in the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s.
While Frances Marion had a distaste for acting
in the films she wrote, fan magazines
of her time often expressed surprise
at her attractiveness. Many people
believed that screenwriters were
usually unattractive women who preferred
to be actresses, if their looks had allowed it.
the Performing Arts.
Women were increasingly crowded out of directing positions in the 1920s and 1930s when the “professionalization” of film as represented in the formation of bodies such as the Screen Writer’s Guild “segregated the geography of Hollywood by sex.”12
Women had always been welcome in the writing departments of many of the studios because screenwriting was an anonymous job and because writing had long been an acceptable occupation for women.
One of the most famous female screenwriters in American film history is Frances Marion. She was the highest-paid screenwriter of either gender in the 1920s and 30s and enjoyed great professional success. She was also the first woman to win an Academy Award unrelated to acting; she won Best Screenplay in 1930 for The Big House and in 1932 for The Champ. Another of her films, Dinner at Eight (1933), is considered a classic.
Frances Marion began her career in 1915 at Bosworth Studios as an assistant for Lois Weber, and often credited Weber as an inspiration. While Marion played small roles in some of Weber’s films, she also began writing, which she found to be her true calling. She wrote for many studios, but is best known for scripts she wrote for actress Mary Pickford, most notably Pollyanna (1920). The two developed a deep friendship, and Marion was responsible for many of Pickford’s roles. She also ghostwrote a fan magazine column for Pickford.
Women Behind the Camera: Women as Screenwriters
Photograph of Anita Loos and John Emerson by Edward Steichen for Vanity Fair,
Truly supportive of other women, Frances Marion also is known for reviving the career of her friend Marie Dressler. She wrote Min and Bill to feature Dressler, and the movie earned Dressler the 1931 Academy Award for Best Actress. As a result, Dressler went on to long-term stardom as Tugboat Annie.
Another female screenwriter, Anita Loos, became nationally known for writing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925), a novel she had written that she adapted for both the stage and screen. By 1925 she had written some 200 scripts for silent movies and co-authored two books on film production.
She was especially recognized for the scenarios she wrote for famous actor Douglas Fairbanks, as well as for the Talmadge sisters, Norma, Natalie and Constance. Golden stars of their time, the sisters were fortunate to have Loos’ irreverent writing as captions on the silent screen.
Her comedic scripts often contained a deep underlying cynicism and satire, much of it based on gender roles.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, for example, was based on Loos’ experience with esteemed literary critic H.L. Mencken, who joined his male friends in ignoring her—a well-paid fellow writer—to focus on an inane blonde.
Both Loos and Marion used professional names that they did not change with marriages and divorces, and both continued their careers despite changes in marital status. Loos went on to find uncommon success, even during the Great Depression, when she earned as much as $2,500 a week.
Movie poster for “The Great Moment,” written by Elinor Glyn, released in 1921.
Another screenwriter known for adapting her own novels is Elinor Glyn. Glyn was a scenario writer, but is mostly known for writing
The image of the “It Girl” came to be closely associated with that of the “the flapper”—sexually liberated, defiantly modern, and independent.
The Oscar statuette is the copyrighted
property of the Academy of Motion Picture
Arts and Sciences. ©A.M.P.A.S.®
The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was founded in 1927 with Douglas Fairbanks as the first president. The first awards ceremony was held in 1929, evaluating the films for 1927-1928. Janet Gaynor was the first woman to win the award for best actress for her roles in Seventh Heaven (1927) and Street Angel (1928). The fact that motion pictures had set up an academy and began awarding performances and productions indicates that film was finally taken seriously as an art form. The best supporting actor and actress categories were not created until 1936 so in the early years of the awards there was only one category specifically set aside for women. Other actresses that won in the early years of the award ceremony were Mary Pickford in 1930 for her role in Coquette (1929), Norma Shearer for The Divorcee (1930), Marie Dressler for Min and Bill (1930), Helen Hayes for her role in The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931) and Katharine Hepburn for her role in Morning Glory (1932).
By the time of the first Academy Awards, women directors had already been pushed out of many behind the scenes roles and were therefore notably absent from the awards outside of Best Actress. One exception is Frances Marion who won an award for Best Writing Achievement for her film The Big House (1930) and became the first woman to win an award for an achievement other than acting.
Women Filmmakers and Directors (Foster, 2014)
The history of women filmmakers is a rich and fertile body of knowledge that has been largely ignored, until recently, by mainstream film historians. Nevertheless, women were very much involved in the creation of the visual art form known as motion pictures from its beginnings until the present.
In fact, women were at one time far more prominent in film production circles than they are now.
In the early days of film, women such as Alice Guy, Gene Gauntier, Hanna Henning, Ida May Park, Olga Preobrazhenskaya, Nell Shipman, Ruth Stonehouse, Lucille McVey Drew, Elvira Notari, Lois Weber, Dorothy Arzner, Germaine Dulac, Marie Epstein, Grace Cunard, and many others were involved in creating the new visual format.
Unfortunately, when the first surveys of film history were written, and when the first pantheons of directors and major players were drawn up, most of the accomplishments of women directors, producers, and scenarists were overlooked. Even feminists tended to believe that there simply were no women involved in the production end of early films; women were viewed as objects of a voyeuristic ?male gaze,? in films that were supposedly all directed and created by men.
Women were written out of history as active participants in the production and creation of film, film movements, special effects, the star system, the studio system, independent and experimental forms, and genres. It seems as if historians were primarily interested in women in front of the camera as actors and sex objects. Creative women, however, were very much participants in the history of filmmaking.
For example, Alice Guy, a French woman director, is generally credited as having directed the first ?narrative? film. Her film, La F?e aux choux, is in many ways a film like that of her male contemporaries; it tells the story of a fairy tale in which a woman who cannot bear children creates them in a cabbage patch. Guy was instrumental in the development of such early pioneering techniques as special effects (masking, superimposition, and other in-camera effects). She was also very much a pioneer of the very first genre vehicles, yet Alice Guy is rarely cited as the originator of these genres. The hundreds of films she directed include everything from melodramas to gangster films, horror films, fairy tales, and even short music films featuring famous opera singers?forerunners to today?s music videos.
It is hard to overestimate the talented contributions of this pioneering woman director who worked in early primitive color techniques such as handed painting and stamping and also created some of the first examples of sound films, recorded on wax cylinders.
And Alice Guy was not by any means the only woman producer/writer/director to contribute to the development of the film form. Internationally, many other women, most of whom are barely remembered today, were also prominent in silent-film production.
For example, in Australia, the McDonagh sisters (Paulette, Phyllis, and Isobel) taught themselves filmmaking from the vantage point of actresses. Their early films were only recently ?rediscovered? and written back into Australian film history.
Hanna Henning, a German director who made many silent films, awaits rediscovery, as does Ida May Park, an American director who made scores of films in the silent-film period. The years have been a bit kinder to Lois Weber, Cleo Madison, Dorothy Davenport Reid, and Dorothy Arzner, all of whom have had their films survive and who have been rediscovered and celebrated in film festivals and archival retrospectives such as those at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the American Museum of the Moving Picture in Astoria.
Women directors thrived during a short period in the beginning of filmmaking production, especially in the teens and early 1920s. In this period, before film directing was seen as primarily a ?masculine? occupation, women directors were numerous and busy.
This period is well covered by Anthony Slide in his book, Early Women Directors. So many women were active in film production: Julia Crawford Ivers, Nell Shipman, Ruth Stonehouse, Lottie Lyell, Musidora, Margery Wilson, and many others.
Many women were employed at the Universal Studios, where Carl Laemmle was not averse to hiring women as directors. Women were also highly active in this period as screenwriters.
Many women directors of color worked outside the studio system as independent producer/directors. African American women directors such as Eloice Gist and Zora Neale Hurston developed and introduced the independent personal film. Gist was a preacher who wrote, produced, directed, and self-distributed her own films; she lectured with them as she went from town to town, speaking with films such as her Hellbound Train, which depicted the narratives of figures bound for hell because of various moral trespasses.
Zora Neale Hurston, as many now know, pioneered the ethnographic film that featured the insider informant. Hurston?s films were ahead of their time in that she understood the value of herself as an insider informant in the stories she told about the African American community.
Beyond the United States, women were instrumental in pioneering schools of film. Women such as French filmmakers Germaine Dulac and Marie Epstein were groundbreakers in the experimentation with film.
Dulac is now finally hailed as one of the champions of the experimental French film. She was loosely associated with the Surrealists, the Impressionists, and the poetic realists. Her films are currently championed and lionized as part of a canon of important experimental films that challenged the borders of poetic filmic expression.
Epstein is also being reconfigured into the landscape of film history. Her pioneering and mastery of poetic realism, combined with her narrative techniques, are finally being included in film history. Agn?s Varda, the Belgian woman director who helped pioneer the New Wave, is also finally being credited for her contribution to the development of the new school of filmmaking previously only attributed to directors such as Fran?ois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and other male directors. In Italy, as Giuliana Bruno uncovered, the early silent filmmaker Elvira Notari was already beginning to embrace the artistic precepts behind Neorealism, a school of film that arose in Italy many years after her death.
By the 1930s there were fewer and fewer women directors. Film was beginning to be viewed as an art form and as a powerful medium in the marketplace. Many women directors left the field when it was clear that society no longer approved of women working in such a high-profile job that clearly indicated power in the public sphere.
Among the exceptions were German director Leni Riefenstahl, who is universally credited with pioneering the documentary form and the technique of propaganda.
Dorothy Arzner, a lesbian filmmaker, was one of the few prominent women directors in the 1930s. Mary Field is credited with pioneering the British nature film at about this time.
Mary Ellen Bute was one of the pioneers of the experimental film in the United States. Her use of oscillated light to form patterns choreographed to music was far ahead of its time.
The 1940s were a fertile time for experimental women filmmakers. In this era, Maya Deren and Marie Menken introduced many of the ideas and forms of experimental avant-garde cinema. In Britain, Joy Batchelor created animated films. In France, Jacqueline Audry directed glossy studio-produced films. In the Soviet Union, Wanda Jakubowska pioneered many of the Soviet ideals of the social document film. In Mexico, Matilde Landeta fought to direct her own productions after having served as an assistant director for many, many years. She managed to direct a few of her own projects despite the sexism of the industry.
In the 1950s, Ida Lupino claimed that she did her work simply because there was no one else available, but the passion of her efforts belies such modesty. She tackled controversial subject matter and invented many of the techniques and themes associated with film noir.
In the 1960s many women directed personal experimental films.
Mai Zetterling, for example, began as an actress, but soon tired of working within the confines of a male-dominated system, and created her own visions of the world. Sara Aldrege was another important innovator in experimental film. One of the greatest of the experimental directors of the 1960s, Carolee Schneemann deals with issues of sexuality, power, and gender, as does Barbara Hammer, who began working as a director in the early 1970s.
The multiplicity of visions among women directors is startling; it forces us to look at ourselves as women, and as members of society, in a series of entirely new and enlightening ways.
In the 1970s, 1980s, and the 1990s, there has been an international rise in the number of women filmmakers, both independent and studio directors. Women have been prominent as filmmakers in both developed and developing countries. Despite the rise in the number of women filmmakers, the auteur film director continues to be thought of as male.
Despite women?s contributions to the development of the art form and many of its pivotal movements (from Surrealism to New Wave to documentary and the personal film), women filmmakers continue to be marginalized in dominant discourse. Women filmmakers, through their exclusion from history books, have been denied a sisterhood. Each generation of women filmmakers stands apart from its earlier predecessors. Remedying the paucity of scholarship on women directors is compounded by an unavailability of many of the films made by women in the early days of cinema, many of which have been lost, neglected, or destroyed. Film scholars have produced a remarkably persuasive body of film criticism that begins the belated recognition process of women film directors and their achievements.
Despite a clear lineage, women filmmakers have managed to be influenced by one another, even if they have been marginalized or excluded from film scholarship. Barbara Hammer and several women directors credit, for example, the work of Maya Deren, whose experimental films were profoundly personal and expressed a female camera-eye. Diana Barrie claims she was most influenced by Deren?s Meshes of the Afternoon. Alice Guy was a mentor and influence on Lois Weber, who followed in her footsteps to produce, write, and direct her own material. Weber, in turn, had a profound effect upon the career of Dorothy Arzner, who had a successful directorial career within the confines of the studio system of Hollywood in the 1930s.
Dorothy Arzner, however, admitted she stifled her criticism of other filmmaker?s studio projects. As the only woman director in the studio system, she felt she ?ought not complain,? and yet she carefully maintained that no obstacles were put in her way by men in the business. Elinor Glyn, the famous author and early filmmaker, seemingly did not recognize the clearly sexist critical lambasting she received for her adroit and sharply observed comedy, Knowing Men.
Ida May Park, another woman among many who directed in the 1920s, refused her first job directing, thinking it an unfeminine job. Even contemporary women directors find the notion of a feminist approach to filmmaking incompatible with their need for acceptance in the industry.
The recently deceased Shirley Clarke refused invitations to women?s film festivals, even if she agreed that women directors should be recognized. French filmmaker Diane Kurys finds the idea of women?s cinema ?negative, dangerous, and reductive,? at the same time claiming, ?I am a feminist because I am a woman, I can?t help it.?
Other women directors make absolutely no excuses for their feminism. Carolee Schneemann, Yvonne Rainer, and Barbara Hammer, for example, make films that deal directly and uncompromisingly with issues of sexuality, power, and gender. Donna Deitch was primarily motivated to make Desert Hearts because she saw a lack of films?especially commercial films?that center around a lesbian relationship. Hammer was drawn to experimental formalist filmmaking precisely because it did not seem to be (yet) the exclusive domain of men.
Some women directors wish to make films that employ newly defined heroines or that reverse gender expectations.
Sally Potter?s The Gold Diggers is a case in point. Michelle Citron?s Daughter Rite consists of a narrative about two sisters and their mother and ignores the trappings of heroism. Doris D?rrie?s film Men . . . is an attempt to see men as comic gender reversals of the mythic Marilyn Monroe type. Social concerns are also prevalent in the films and voices of women directors. Barbara Kopple?s American Dream covers union battles. Marguerite Duras, a French critic and writer, and Trinh T. Minh-ha, a Vietnamese deconstructionist critic and documentarian, are centrally concerned with deprivileging the screen from its power to distort social reality. Trinh T. Minh-ha questions the ability of the image itself as a historicist account of truth. Clearly then, women directors are often compelled to redefine the boundaries of cinema.
Women directors face a lack of support not only as a result of their gender, but also because they have a remarkable tendency to choose ?controversial? or ?difficult? subject matter.
Shirley Clarke had enormous difficulties funding The Cool World, an early 1960s experimental film (shot in 35mm) about racism and drug dependency. British feature director Muriel Box faced similar difficulties proving herself in a male-dominated industry.
Jodie Foster and Penny Marshall stand as proof that some women manage to find funding and support from Hollywood executives, but both have had to use their acting as leverage in the decision-making process.
Racism in Hollywood is a problem only compounded by sexism against women of color. The new African American ?wave? of feature filmmaking is predominated by men such as Spike Lee and John Singleton. African American women directors such as Julie Dash, Kathleen Collins, Alile Sharon Larkin, and Barbara McCullough have so far not been offered lucrative package deals by industry executives. Similarly, Asian American women directors have had major difficulties finding funding and distribution. Christine Choy faced enormous interference and lack of support in the production of her film Who Killed Vincent Chin?, a film about violence and racism directed against Asian Americans. Kathleen Collins spent more than a year trying to fund her film Women, Sisters, and Friends.
Julie Dash continues to have to search aggressively for funding, even after the critical success of her Afrocentric Daughters of the Dust. Claire Denis was forced to face humiliation and scorn when attempting to finance her independent feature Chocolat, a film that directly attacks African colonization. Similarly, Ann Hui?s Boat People, a critically successful film that documents the harsh realities of Vietnamese refugees, clearly deserves wider distribution. Distribution and finance remain as formidable barriers that independent filmmakers find themselves up against.
An unbelievable amount of hardship seems to have been suffered by women directors, yet an unrivaled degree of perseverance seems to be a common factor in many of their experiences. Early pioneering film director Dorothy Davenport Reid faced the resentment of her male colleagues as she struggled to create her own cinematic visions of the woman?s plight in American society.
Yet Reid went on to make a series of intensely personal films that argued against drug addiction, prostitution, and sexism. Yvonne Rainer recently managed to fund a film about menopause, Privilege, despite its supposedly taboo subject matter, because of an incredibly loyal following and an intense determination to make the film. For all of these women, the need to make films is a fierce desire they must simply obey, no matter the cost.
Whether working in the industry or making films with the aid of grants and personal financial subsidies, women filmmakers have helped to shape the world of film as it is today. Some women film practitioners see themselves as harbingers of change, instructional forces, barometers of social reintegration; other women see themselves as workers within a tradition that they attempt to subvert from within. The immense contribution made by these women is a legacy that is rich in personal insight, hard work, careful study, and often sacrifice to achieve the aims they held for their creative endeavors.