The Time Women Dominated the Silent Film Industry
In 2010, Katheryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the OSCAR for Best Director with her 2009 film, The Hurt Locker. The significant achievement occurred nearly 120 years after the advent of motion picture cameras and 114 years after Alice Guy-Blaché made the first fictional, narrative film.
The industry that has long been accused of misogyny is one that was built on the backs of women - women of wit and verve and ambition - who dominated film during the silent era. “There were over 30 women directors prior to 1920, more than any other period in film history,” wrote film historian Anthony Slide. “Women directors were considered equal to, if not better than, their male colleagues.”
In fact, a great many women were behind the camera in those days—producing and directing films, and running studios. Women also pioneered much of the film technology that still exists today—only to be pushed out of the burgeoning industry once its influence and moneymaking potential had become more widely recognized.
When the writer and satirist Dorothy Parker and her writer husband, Alan Campbell, moved to Hollywood and signed contracts with Paramount, she was paid four times as much as he was. Frances Marion, who would go on to become the founding vice president of the Screen Writers Guild, was the country’s highest-paid screenwriter in the 1920s and ’30s; more than 100 of her scripts were made into films, and in 1930, she became the first woman to win an Oscar for writing. Lois Weber, a prolific screenwriter and director, in 1917 became the first woman to establish and run her own film studio. The year before, her wage as a director was the highest in Hollywood.
Predictably, most of these women were white, as people of colour were largely kept out of even this nascent art form. Even so, the early period of cinema was rich with opportunity for what critics would now call independent film, and opportunities at the grassroots level and on the fringes provided fertile ground for different types of voices to emerge. Although fewer than 10 black women were known to be part of the film industry during this period, several—including the producers Eloyce King Patrick Gist and Alice B. Russell and the filmmakers Tressie Souders and Maria P. Williams—held positions of creative control. Others, such as Eslanda Goode Robeson, the wife of the actor Paul Robeson, gained power through managing their husbands’ careers.
The Chinese American artist Marion Wong acted in, produced, and directed her own films during this era, starting when she was barely out of her teens. Her 1916 debut, The Curse of Quon Gwon: When The Far East Mingles With the West, is considered by some to be the first authentic depiction of the Chinese American experience on film. As her grand-nephew later marvelled, “How did this 20-year-old woman get this idea? … She wrote the script, directed the film, played the villainess and she was the producer. She raised the money!”
In fact, the greater abundance of female creators and power players during this time made a great deal of sense since, in pre-1930s America, women made up 60–83 percent of the cinema audience—higher even than the 51 percent of moviegoers that women accounted for in 2018, the most recent year measured by the Motion Picture Association of America. Before behind-the-camera roles were as firmly defined as they are now, there was a strong tradition of actor-producers. Many female actors who were dissatisfied with the roles being written for them by men became writers and directors themselves, and began production companies to make their own films.
During the silent era, cinema was generally viewed as a fringe medium, an eccentric hobby, not something meant to last or make any real money. In such a context, and given that a lot of men were away fighting in World War I during this period, women had the space and freedom to express themselves through this new art form.
Female filmmakers basking in directorial spotlight were soon pushed to the sidelines, as the formation of a studio system run by men – keen on modelling it after other male-oriented clubs and trade organizations – began to grow. As a result, the professional clout of women dwindled. No longer able to thrive after the industry’s transition from silent films to talkies, they were relegated to roles of anonymity in which their services could be exploited and their minds, ravaged.
This is not to say that women were solely responsible for providing studio figureheads with the material that would ultimately attract a staggering audience turnout of 85 million per week (mostly women). They most certainly constituted a significant portion of the workforce and contributed a great deal to the oeuvre of others through editing, acting, writing and/or designing. Some even excelled in “female professions” such as script continuity, makeup and costumes. But, only a few were able to effectively extricate themselves from the mire that was Hollywood’s studio system – which was hell bent on achieving unmitigated power and success.
Director extraordinaire, Dorothy Arzner , was one of the women who survived the onslaught of commercialization, making an impressive 20 feature films over the course of 24 years. But, there were others - equally prolific and formidable in spirit – who were not granted the same fortune and prominent place in history.
How did it all begin?” asked Linda Seger in, When Women Call the Shots: The Developing Power and Influence of Women in Television and Film. “It began with a woman,” she asserted. And this woman was none other than Alice Guy-Blaché who, filled with the singular resolve of a woman in a male-dominated world, approached Leon Gaumont (inventor, engineer and industrialist) for a job.
Though Guy-Blaché first started as a secretary, it wasn’t long before she began to envision new possibilities for this newfangled technology. Specifically, it was after attending a Lumière brother’s film exhibition in 1895 that she was struck with the idea of making a story film. “I fear, Mademoiselle, that you may be too young,” she was told. “But Sir. I’ll get over that,” she replied.
In 1907, Guy-Blaché was called on to act as ambassador for Gaumont’s interests alongside her husband in America. There, she would spend the next decade writing, producing and directing another three hundred films, while utilizing an approach to female characters that would act as a paradigm for her successors.
A few months later, in 1896, her dream was realized and La Fée aux Choux was produced. The simple fairy tale about children spawned in a cabbage patch tackled no lofty ideals. Yet, it successfully carried the camera beyond its initially utilitarian purpose and into the realm of artistry, escapism and fiction. Impressed with Guy-Blaché’s work, Gaumont established a film studio, of which Guy-Blaché became the first producer-director-writer and production head. There, she spent the next decade working on up to 400 films.
“She used close-ups, double exposures, fade-outs, and reversed the film to show a house demolished and rebuilt,” wrote Seger. “She pioneered location filming, shooting many of her films on the streets of Paris. She was the first to use sound and colour in films, experimenting with techniques developed by Gaumont as early as 1900.”
One such film, in which a powerful female protagonist is portrayed, is In the Year 2000 (1912), which concerns a time when women rule the world. Under Solax Company, which was the studio she established in Fort Lee, New Jersey, Blaché would continue to cement her status as a pioneering woman and film professional. To emphasize the importance of such a feat, only one other woman in film history would own and control a film studio, and that was Lois Weber.
Lois Weber began her film career with Gaumont in the United States, and whether or not she was mentored and inspired by Guy-Blaché is a moot point. She did, however, swiftly ascend the ladder with Phillip Smalleys (her husband) in an impressively short period of time. According to Seger, “by 1911, she was writing, directing and acting in films. By 1915 she was as famous as D.W. Griffith or Cecil B. de Mille,” and just one year later she was purportedly earning 5,000 dollars a week.
Universal even subsidized her own production unit. And, though the film industry had a reputation for hiring female directors in order to legitimize their product and lend it an air of morality, Weber transcended the role of pawn. She used film as a tool for social exploration, commentary and protest.
In Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917), she tackled the issue of birth control; in The People vs. John Doe (1916), she questioned the validity of capital punishment; and in Where Are My Children? (1916), she focused on the controversial issues of birth control and abortion. With Weber, film was not simply entertainment—it was a sober, socio-cultural reflection of her time.
Weber’s “ideal picture entertainment” was “a well assorted shelf of books come to life.” Far from apathetic, she aspired to create work that would “have an influence for good on the public mind.” So, after leaving Universal to establish Lois Weber Productions, she used her newly acquired and unbridled creative license to focus on the lives and experiences of women.
By the early 1920s, her career was on the fritz. It’s difficult to say whether it was due to the solemn “sermon-like” agenda of her work, the demise of her marriage, the advent of sound production, or her independently run production company. But, it was most likely an amalgam of all four.
Even sadder, though, is how she was regarded, in retrospect, as a “star-maker.” Her pioneering spirit and directorial prowess swamped with male-dominated historical recollections, along with a slew of other women directors, writers, and producers - they disappeared. But, there was one woman who prevailed, securing herself that marginally prominent place in film history that so many others were denied.
Dorothy Arzner – short-haired and makeup-less – was an anomaly in the industry. In the wake of the big studio uprising, women were still sought after as they continued to wield the ability to legitimize film, and those at the pinnacle of the hierarchical pyramid sought to capitalize on this.
Arzner became Paramount’s star female director, working with some of Hollywood’s most high profile stars including Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball and Joan Crawford. How and why this happened is in many ways mystifying, because “although women had made successful films, their contributions were not recognized and they were bypassed in the development of the studio system.”
Beginning her career as a stenographer for Famous Players-Lasky (Paramount’s first incarnation), Arzner was soon promoted to film editor. And by 1927, she had directed her first feature, Fashions For Women. Though most of her output was quite conventional, it is not difficult to find traces of feminism in her films.
'Her use of peripheral characters was extraordinary,' said director Francine Parker in Seger’s When Women Call the Shots, 'as was her insight into how women talk and relate to each other and how they view the world. Her artistry encompassed outlandish wit, dazzling characterizations, warmth, humaneness, meticulous imagery, technical virtuosity, as well as spectacular command of the language and mechanics of the motion picture. And, in its day, top box-office draw.'
Arzner was a modern woman through and through. She shared her life with dancer and choreographer Marion Morgan. She wore tailored, conventionally "masculine" clothing. And she sported a short, slicked-back do with no make up to boot. Such a modern lifestyle drew her to a modern career.
"I wanted to heal the sick and raise the dead instantly," stated Arzner. “I didn’t want to go through all the trouble of medicine. So that took me in the motion picture industry.” And that is where she would remain until an unspecified illness forced her to abandon her post in 1943. She would later return to direct a few short films and teach at UCLA (Francis Ford Coppola was one of her students), but she remains a mostly unsung talent of her time. And still, to this day, a member of America’s league of most prolific female film directors.