The Silent Feminists
America’s First Women Directors
Anthony Slide – Boston /London 1996
The concept of women as directors began in France in 1896, when Leon Gaumont permitted his secretary Alice Guy to direct La Fee aux Choux, arguably the first fictional film. In France, between 1896 and 1907, Alice Guy directed some 400 films. Subsequently, she married Englishman Herbert Blache, and the couple came to the United States, where Madame Blache directed or supervised the production of a further 354 films. In terms of quantity, it is doubtful any other director approached her output. In 1912, she became the first woman to build her own studios and the first American director of either sex to handle such an undertaking. Had it not been for an over-ambitious husband and the need to care for a young daughter, Alice Guy Blache might have continued directing well into the sound era, but she was forced into retirement in the early 1920s.
Women and the American Silent Film Industry
The First World War did generate at least one woman filmmaker in government service, and that was Catherine Short, who produced conservation films for the U.S. Food Administration, featuring such popular stars of the day as Marguerite Clark, Elsie Ferguson, and Mabel Normand. According to The Dramatic Mirror (May 11, 1918), Short’s productions showed “how to save the various commodities most needed by the Government at this time.” In the fall of 1919, D. W. Griffith set up his own studio complex at Mamaroneck, New York. As he was busy in Florida, working on The Idol Dancer and The Love Flower, he suggested to his leading lady, Lillian Gish, that she should direct the first film at the new studio, a comedy titled Remodeling Her Husband, featuring Gish’s sister, Dorothy.
Lillian Gish recalled:
He [Griffith] said, “How would you like to direct a picture with your sister? I don’t want to break up a happy family, but I think you could do it. I think you know as much about movies as I do.” Well, I went home and talked it over with mother and Dorothy to see if they thought it was a good idea. Of course there was no story. Dorothy thought it was all right, and we got a little piece of business Dorothy found out of a funny magazine, and wrote a whole story around that. I asked if I could have Dorothy Parker come and help me with the sub-titles, because she’d never written for the films, but I thought she was so witty and so bright, and I wanted it to be an all-woman picture too. So she did—and then Griffith left with everybody. He left Harry Carr—he was with the Los Angeles Times, an editorial writer, a very brilliant man—and me to do this film I didn’t have anybody from the staff to get the studio ready. Well! I had to put in telegraph poles, because we couldn’t get enough electricity out on the point. I was taking scenes—it was December — and I’d have Dorothy and James Rennie [the leading man who later married Dorothy] playing the love scene, and it looked as if they were blowing smoke in one another’s faces, it was so cold. I then had quickly to go down to New Rochelle and get all my scenery. I had to design all my scenery; there were no set designers. Dorothy helped with her costumes, but I had to see to all the other costumes, see to all the furniture in the sets—you had to do everything. George Hill was the cameraman, and he was just back from the war, and he had shell shock and was hysterical. And I know I got my main set—the living room—so big and not high enough at the back, so that if he took the whole room in, he shot over the top. He threw his hat in the air, and jumped and stamped on it, and had hysterics about that. I had to keep him calm. Oh, it was terrible. I had only fifty thousand dollars to make this picture with. We had a scene on Fifth Avenue, and the day before we were to take it, I found you had to have police permit, and it took several days to get. If that happened, I had to have all my crew on salary over the holidays. I said, I just can’t; it’s too far over the budget. I asked the company and crew if they would take a chance of going to jail with me, because we were doing something illegal. Well, 57th and Fifth Avenue is the busiest section in New York, and I had to have a bus go by a taxi cab, the wife sitting on top of the bus, seeing her husband with a woman in a taxi cab. We had no permit, and we had the cameras in the car ahead, and as we turned, a policeman saw what was happening and held up his hand. Then, he looked at me, and looked again, and then he put his fingers to his mouth and forced a smile [in reference to Gish’s actions in her previous film Broken Blossoms J. I said, “Yes,” and he waved us on and we got by. We finished at 58 thousand dollars and it made, I think, ten times what it cost, which not many films do today.
When Griffith came back, I asked him why he did that to me, had me get a studio ready and make a picture when it was the first one and such an awful chore. He said, “Because I needed my studio built quickly. I knew they’d work faster for a girl then they would for me. I’m no fool.” And his studio was ready when he came back. He moved right in, took all his interiors quickly, and released his pictures. One of the most eagerly sought after of “lost” films.
Remodeling Her Husband was released on June 13, 1920 to mixed reviews. “If it were not for the inimitable comedy of Miss Gish the feature would be a sorry affair,” commented Variety (June 11, 1920). Exhibitor’s Trade Review (June 19, 1920) opined, “Lillian Gish’s directorial task is performed in a fashion which gains for her much of the credit attending the picture’s success. The continuity is good, the grouping skillful and smooth; swift action prevails throughout.” The most interesting comment was made by the distinguished critic Bums Mantle in Photoplay (September 1920):
This is a woman’s picture. A woman wrote it, a woman stars in it, a woman was its director. And women will enjoy it most. It does an unusual and daring thing; it presents the feminine point of view in plot, in captions, in sets and acting. Our worthy contemporaries of the various trade journals took a good crack at it. They have to take a good crack at something. But at the Rialto in New York, where this review was accomplished, the audience just sat back and howled—and there were men there, too. Lillian Gish has gone back to acting, but we’d like to tell her that she is almost as good a directress as she is an actress—and that’s going some. Little things count in this picture; details are not overlooked. Dorothy Gish is just—Dorothy Gish, which is enough for most people. There is no-one like her, and when she gets good stories she should lead her class. James Rennie, recruited from the legitimate, is a gratifying leading man.
It is true that Lillian Gish did not direct another feature, but she was responsible for an important piece of film, and that was the original screen test of a young woman named Lucille Langhanke, who came out to Mamaroneck in the summer of 1920. A harried D. W. Griffith passed her over to Lillian Gish. “She herself directed the test,” the actress recalled, discussing lighting and angles with the cameraman, using reels of film, taking the whole afternoon. I recited bits of poetry, I stood and turned, I walked, I sat and talked to her off-camera. I was completely at ease and happy, for she kept saying, “That’s lovely — fine, turn a bit more, pretend I have a puppy in my lap—oh yes! that’s beautiful.”
Female performers dominated as stars in the silent era, and many headed their own production companies. Mary Pickford was as astute a businesswoman as she was an actress, and she was, of course, the only woman involved in the establishment of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927. With Lillian Gish, Pickford remains one of the icons of the silent screen, a silent star who along with Garbo, Swanson, and a handful of others remains instantly recognizable and identifiable by her last name alone.
Mary Pickford never took credit as a director, but she was obviously heavily involved in the production of her own films, and her directors were hand-picked to follow her commands. At the insistence of her mentor, D. W. Griffith, Lillian Gish did direct one feature film in 1920, Remodeling Her Husband, starring sister Dorothy. When Mary Astor came out to the Griffith studios in 1920 to make a screen test, Lillian Gish directed her, thus starting one of the cinema’s finest light dramatic actresses on her road to fame.