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Early Women Directors Remembered in The Silent Feminists

Dorothy ArznerDorothy Arzner. Notable credits include Christopher Strong (1933) with Katharine Hepburn, and Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), which features a free-for-all with Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball.
  • Film author and historian Anthony Slide discusses the subjects of The Silent Feminists, the story of pioneering women directors Alice Guy Blaché, Lois Weber, Margery Wilson, Dorothy Davenport, and Dorothy Arzner.

Film historian Anthony Slide discusses the American film industry’s early women directors

The Silent FeministsMen have dominated the film industry – like just about every industry – since its birth and first steps in the late 19th century. That’s one key reason why women’s early motion picture contributions have been largely ignored. The vast majority of movies were produced, directed, and supervised by men.

Another crucial reason is that, regardless of gender, film industry pioneers – really, like the vast majority of historical figures – have been relegated to the dustbin of history. Connoisseurs will know their names while most everybody else will have no idea that these entrepreneurial and/or gifted pioneers ever existed, their creations and innovations not only going unrecognized but also, however stupidly, dismissed as irrelevant to our era.

And that’s why it’s good news that film historian Anthony Slide’s The Silent Feminists: America’s First Women Directors is being relaunched (Rowman & Littlefield website) in the third decade of the 21st century.

Originally published in 1977 – with the less political title Early Women Directors: Their Role in the Development of Silent CinemaThe Silent Feminists consists of chapters focused on one or a group of female filmmakers who worked during the period before movies learned to talk: First Woman Director Alice Guy Blaché, Lois Weber, Margery Wilson, Dorothy Davenport (as Mrs. Wallace Reid), Frances Marion, the Universal (Cleo Madison, Ruth Stonehouse, Grace Cunard, etc.) and Vitagraph (Marguerite Bertsch, Nell Shipman, Mrs. Sidney Drew [Lucille McVey]) crowd, and relative latecomer Dorothy Arzner, whose directorial career would briefly flourish in the late silent/early sound eras.

It’s debatable whether or not these women paved the way for more female filmmakers in the United States: In the 1910s, there were at least two busy “name” women directors, Alice Guy Blaché and Lois Weber; from the 1940s to the 1960s, there was basically one, Ida Lupino, a former Warner Bros. star who continued to work as an actress while also directing several features – mostly B fare, with the exception of the 1966 Rosalind Russell nun comedy The Trouble with the Angels and its 1968 sequel.

And yet that doesn’t make the pioneering work of Alice Guy Blaché, Lois Weber, and all the others any less worthy of attention. To the contrary. It makes one understand that for socio-cultural barriers to be shattered multiple attempts may be required. And these women – including top producer June Mathis, United Artists cofounder Mary Pickford, and film editor Margaret Booth – were among the first to chisel away at the perception of what a “woman’s job” could entail in the burgeoning new industry/art form.

Perhaps just as important is that included in The Silent Feminists are the words and recollections of people who were there in those early days, among them Alice Terry, Olga Petrova, Priscilla Bonner, Esther Ralston, George Folsey, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, and featured filmmakers Dorothy Davenport and Margery Wilson.

In the past an associate researcher/archivist at the American Film Institute and resident film historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Anthony Slide (website) is also a prolific author: Titles published in the past half century include The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, Incorrect Entertainment, Frank Lloyd: Master of Screen Melodrama, and the recently published anthology The Truth at Twenty-Four Frames per Second.

The author has kindly agreed to answer (via email) several questions about The Silent Feminists and Hollywood’s early women directors. See below.

Dorothy Davenport (Mrs. Wallace Reid) Anthony SlideDorothy Davenport, a.k.a. Mrs. Wallace Reid – she was the widow of the early silent era superstar – with The Silent Feminists author Anthony Slide.

The Silent Feminists: Q&A with author Anthony Slide

First of all, what made you write a book about early women directors?

This goes back a long, long way. In 1972, I was working for the American Film Institute in Washington, D.C., and I was setting up the 1912–1920 volume of the American Film Institute Catalog.

This involved my indexing credit information from all of the early trade periodicals in the Library of Congress. And I noticed, much to my surprise, the number of films that were directed by women, and that such involvement was not worthy of special attention by those publications. It was just accepted as the way it was.

And so I became fascinated at the apparently unrecognized contribution that women filmmakers had made to early American screen history.

More female contribution to American film industry

The Silent Feminists specifically discusses American female filmmakers. When it comes to opportunities for aspiring women directors, was there much of a – or any – difference between the United States and European countries with burgeoning film industries?

I don’t know that I can really answer that question. My interest at the time was in what was going on in America, not elsewhere in the world.

Since then, I have realized that women were involved as directors in other film industries, but I don’t think they contributed as much as did women in the U.S.

Lois Weber’s ‘woman’s touch’?

We’ve already discussed Alice Guy Blaché in a different q&a, but what about Lois Weber? How were her movies different than those directed by men – or were they? Do you think one can tell her movies have a “woman’s touch,” whatever that means? Or not?

Well, I think Lois Weber’s films are certainly as good as those of her male contemporaries, and in some cases, they are quite outstanding. Suspense from 1912, with its use of a triple screen and its use of both subjective and objective camerawork, is quite extraordinary for the period. Even D.W. Griffith had not used these techniques.

What sets Lois Weber apart from other directors is that with her feature films she always dealt with social issues, sometimes major and sometimes minor – everything from contraception and capital punishment to hypocrisy in the church and society and the underpayment of teachers.

Does the subject matter show a woman’s touch? I suppose it does, but there is no reason why a male director could not have taken on these issues – but did they?

No gender emphasis

Can you tell us how popular were the movies directed by women? What did critics of the period think of them? Did their gender ever play a role in how they were reviewed?

As I have already mentioned, reviewers at the time did not necessarily identify the work of the women involved. Certainly, I think I can state with some conviction that gender did not play a part in how the films were reviewed. Of course, it shouldn’t.

And I think today it is unfortunate that critics always find it necessary to emphasize that a film is directed by a woman – that direction does not make the film any better or any worse. Unfortunately, today we are obsessed with political correctness and the promotion of women as directors. We should look at talent and not gender.

It’s similar in a way to this notion that only gay actors can play gay roles. In truth, a gay actor should be good enough to take on any part, just as a straight actor should be. What a terrible world it would be if a great modern gay actor such as Jonathan Bailey was only allowed to play gay roles. Bridgerton would lose much of its male and female audience.

Margery Wilson Anthony Slide Katja RaganelliMargery Wilson, Anthony Slide, and filmmaker Katja Raganelli, whose credits include the features Longing for Women: Dorothy Arzner and Alice Guy Blaché (TV), and the short Margery Wilson.

Margery Wilson

Margery Wilson, whom you knew personally, isn’t a name that rings much of a bell these days. What can you tell us about her and her work?

Margery Wilson directed a handful of silent films, but she is much better known from that era for her work as an actress. She played Brown Eyes in the Huguenot story from Intolerance. She was William S. Hart’s leading lady in a number of films.

In later years, she gained considerable fame as a writer, lecturer, and radio broadcaster promoting charm and positive thinking. I think she was a bit taken aback when I first met her early in 1972 and was so excited that I blurted out, asking where she had been since she ended her film career in the 1920s.

But she invited me back to her house and gave me a root beer float. And ever since then, she would tell people that she was responsible for introducing me to root beer floats (which I didn’t actually like very much). Margery was a nice lady, but very serious and very intelligent.

Dorothy Arzner

As a director of mostly talkies, Dorothy Arzner is probably the best-known pre-1950 American female filmmaker. What was she like? What do you think of her work? Any favorite/least favorite titles (and why)?

I never met Dorothy Arzner. I think she is an interesting character, worthy of more study.

During her lifetime, she always denied she was a lesbian, and claimed the manly hairstyle that she adopted in the 1920s had nothing to do with gender but was designed to show that she was one of the guys.

In the silent era, she was really more important as an editor than a director. Personally, I don’t think that all her films are that good. I suppose my favorite Arzner films are Christopher Strong [1933] and Dance, Girl, Dance [1940]. The first because it is so fascinatingly awful, and Dance, Girl, Dance because of Lucille Ball’s performance.

What lasting influence?

Are you aware of any lasting influence – whether cinematically or socially/culturally – that these early women directors had, whether in the industry or in the culture at large?

Sadly I don’t think that any of these early women directors had any lasting influence on the motion picture.

If they did, women directors would have continued in the industry and grown in importance and number through the years. But they didn’t.

Lois WeberLois Weber.

Controversial woman pioneer

To some extent or other, the women directors discussed in The Silent Feminists were obviously a product of their time. What can you tell us about their views/works that would (still?) be controversial to those who are a product of the late 20th century/early 21st century?

Again, it was all so long ago. I suppose one might argue that Lois Weber is somewhat controversial because her views can be taken as rightwing. While she promoted birth control, she was anti-abortion and she seemed to embrace eugenics, claiming that the poorest members of the working classes should not be allowed to increase and multiply.

It is quite possible that Lois Weber is not venerated in the way that Alice Guy Blaché is simply because she is too rightwing for modern women to accept.

Look at the way the women’s movement tends to ignore the accomplishments of Margaret Thatcher, of the past female leaders of India [Indira Gandhi] and Turkey [Tansu Çiller] because their opinion and views are not those of the women’s movement.

Book vs. documentary

What are the key differences in terms of approach/content between The Silent Feminists and the documentary of the same name?

Well, the documentary The Silent Feminists was made by my former business partner, Jeff Goodman and I. It was something that I very much wanted to do, and to which Jeff brought technical expertise and enthusiasm. It was made for less than $20,000, and it shows.

All the interviews were shot in 16mm and lab costs were high. It is not like today, where you can shoot and reshoot in digital format without any additional cost. In fact, we had to rehearse almost what was to be said in order not to waste film.

We were lucky to be able to include interviews with those from the past, and very lucky that [Lost Horizon and Father Knows Best actress] Jane Wyatt agreed to narrate. The documentary was based on what was available visually. And it was limited in its length – only 45 minutes.

Movie suggestions

Most people are unfamiliar with early movie directors, regardless of gender. When it comes to women directors, which titles would you recommend to those who would like to become acquainted with the work of the female filmmakers discussed in The Silent Feminists?

First, I would highly recommend Pamela Green’s documentary Be Natural, which tells you all you want to know about Alice Guy Blaché. Definitely, check out Lois Weber’s Suspense and perhaps The Blot, of which I am particularly fond. I do admire Mrs. Wallace Reid’s The Red Kimona (or Kimono as it should be).

In conclusion, may I just thank Jed Lyons, the president of Rowman & Littlefield, the publishing conglomerate that owns Scarecrow Press. It was Jed who suggested reprinting both The Silent Feminists and The Memoirs of Alice Guy Blaché in new editions, priced at under $30, and with new introductions by me.

So, all readers can thank Jed by going out and buying copies and helping his bank balance remain healthy.

Margery Wilson, Dorothy Davenport, Katja Raganelli, and Anthony Slide images: Courtesy of Anthony Slide.

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