Early Women Directors
ANTHONY SLIDE (1977)
In a period when women, their rights, and their place in society are under close scrutiny and the subject of much discussion, Early Women Directors offers the first detailed history of women directors in the American silent film industry. To those who imagine that Dorothy Arzner was the only woman director in the history of American cinema, this book will come as a surprise. It illustrates the importance women once had in the film industry, and the positions of responsibility they held in the silent days, and lost with the coming of sound to the cinema.
Early Women Directors is the only volume presenting information on the careers of the thirty or more women directors at work in the American film industry during the silent era. Here for the first time are reevaluations of the careers of major directors such as Lois Weber and Alice Guy Blache. The book also offers insights into the work of directors long since forgotten, including Elsie Jane Wilson, Lule Warrenton, Marion Fairfax, and Elizabeth Pickett, as well as scriptwriters turned director such as Frances Marion. Age was no obstacle then for women wishing to direct; they might be young girls like Margery Wilson or middle-aged housewives such as Lule Warrenton.
The author has undertaken extensive research into the careers of these early women directors, uncovering every article written about them, viewing their few extant films, and, wherever possible, interviewing them and their contemporaries. Early Women Directors is profusely illustrated, with 100 rare stills, making it a fascinating document of a forgotten period of film history.
Alice Guy Blache
Alice Guy Blache was a true pioneer of the cinema. Not only was she the screen’s first woman director, she was one of the first directors. Photoplay (March, 1912) described her as “a striking example of the modern woman in business who is doing a man’s work. She is doing successfully what men are trying to do. She is succeeding in a line of work in which hundreds of men have failed.” This remarkable woman was born at Saint-Mande on the outskirts of Paris, into a comfortable middle-class family, on July 1, 1875. In the mid 1890s, she was hired as a secretary by the French film pioneer, Leon Gaumont. At this time Gaumont was primarily concerned with the manufacture of motion picture cameras and projectors; the actual production of films did not concern him greatly. It was possibly this lack of interest which led him, early in 1896, to allow his secretary, Alice Guy, to write, photograph and direct, with the help of a friend, Yvonne Mugnier-Serand, a short titled La Fee aux choux (The Cabbage Fairy).
Gaumont was pleased with the short, and Alice Guy found film-making enjoyable. She was, therefore, raised from the typical female occupation of secretary to the masculine one of film directing.
“When the history of the dramatic early development of motion pictures is written,” noted Motion Picture Magazine in 1921, “Lois Weber will occupy a unique position. Associated with the work since its infancy, she has set a high pace in its growth, for not only is she a producer of some of the most interesting and notable productions we have had, but she writes her own stories and continuity, selects her casts, directs the pictures, plans to the minutest detail all the scenic effects, and, finally, titles, cuts and assembles the film. Few men have assumed such a responsibility.”
Lois Weber was, without a doubt, the most important woman director of the silent era. Not only do her productions stand equal with those of most of her male contemporaries, but virtually all of them display concerns, principles and beliefs which few directors, male or female, would have had the courage to place on film. I doubt that Lois Weber ever wrote or directed a film in whose subject matter she did not believe.
Her films took stands on a wide variety of controversial matters: Where Are My Children opposed abortion and advocated birth control. The People vs. John Doe was an indictment against capital punishment. Hypocrites attacked hypocrisy in our daily lives, in the church, politics, and in business. The Jew’s Christmas dealt with racial prejudice.
As is fairly widely known, Lillian Gish directed one film, Remodeling Her Husband, released on June 13, 1920, and featuring her sister, Dorothy Gish. Miss Gish has written and spoken at length on the film’s production in her own autobiography, The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me, and in this writer’s The Griffith Actresses , and there is little point in repeating her comments here.
Unfortunately, Remodeling Her Husband is now a lost film, and there is no way of accurately knowing how good it was. It certainly garnered mixed notices on its original release. “If it were not for the inimitable comedy of Miss [Dorothy] Gish the feature would be a sorry affair,” commented Variety (June 11, 1920). Exhibitor s Trade Review (June 19, 1920) thought, “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.”