- In the q&a below, film author and historian Anthony Slide discusses The Silent Feminists: America’s First Women Directors, featuring several of the United States’ – and the world’s – first women filmmakers. Among them: Alice Guy Blaché, Lois Weber, Frances Marion, Margery Wilson, Dorothy Davenport, and Dorothy Arzner.
The Silent Feminists: Film historian Anthony Slide extols the American movie industry’s first women filmmakers
In the United States and elsewhere, men have dominated the movie industry – like just about every other industry – since its inception in the late 19th century. As a result, the vast majority of movies were (and continue to be) produced, directed, and supervised by men. That’s the crucial reason why women’s early motion picture contributions have been largely overlooked.
Another key reason is that, regardless of gender, film industry pioneers – really, like the vast majority of figures from the past – have been relegated to the dustbin of history. Connoisseurs will know their names and achievements, while most everybody else will have no idea that these entrepreneurial and/or gifted individuals 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.
Silent era pioneers
Originally published in 1977 – with the less political title Early Women Directors: Their Role in the Development of Silent Cinema – The Silent Feminists is made up of chapters centered on one or a group of women filmmakers who were active 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 crowd at Universal (Cleo Madison, Ruth Stonehouse, Grace Cunard, etc.) and Vitagraph (Marguerite Bertsch, Nell Shipman, Mrs. Sidney Drew [Lucille McVey]), and relative latecomer Dorothy Arzner, whose directorial career would briefly flourish in the late silent and early sound eras.
Admittedly, it’s debatable whether or not these women paved the way for future U.S.-based female directors. After all, there were at least two busy “name” women filmmakers in the 1910s, Alice Guy Blaché and Lois Weber, whereas from the late 1920s to the late 1980s there would be no more than one at a time – if any at all.
In the 1930s and early 1940s, there was, however intermittently, silent era veteran Dorothy Arzner (Christopher Strong, The Bride Wore Red). In the postwar years, former Warner Bros. star Ida Lupino directed a handful of mostly B features from 1949–53, in addition to the 1966 Rosalind Russell nun comedy hit The Trouble with Angels.
In the early 1970s, Elaine May directed two studio features, A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid. And in the 1980s, Barbra Streisand made a splash of sorts with the musical Yentl. (Elaine May made a different kind of splash in 1987 with the mammoth box office dud Ishtar.)
Yet that reality doesn’t make the pioneering work of Guy Blaché, Weber, Arzner, and all the others any less worthy of attention. Instead, it makes us to come to grips with the fact that multiple attempts may be required for sociocultural barriers to be shattered. And these women – one must add to the list producer/scenarist June Mathis, United Artists cofounder Mary Pickford, and film editor Margaret Booth – were among the first to chisel away at the constraints of what a “woman’s job” could entail in the burgeoning new industry/art form.
When it comes to The Silent Feminists, perhaps just as important as its subjects are the recollections of people who were there in those early days, among them actresses Alice Terry, Olga Petrova, Priscilla Bonner, and Esther Ralston; cinematographer George J. Folsey; actor Charles “Buddy” Rogers; and featured actresses/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. 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 are a few of his books published in the last half century.
The veteran author has kindly agreed to answer (via email) several questions about The Silent Feminists and the United States’ early women filmmakers. See below (lightly edited for clarity).
First of all, what made you write a book about the first women filmmakers?
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 women behind the camera in the American film industry?
The Silent Feminists specifically discusses American women filmmakers. When it comes to opportunities for aspiring female 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 discussed Alice Guy Blaché in a previous 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 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 the underpayment of teachers and hypocrisy in the church and society at large.
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 – [when that in itself] 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 were only allowed to play gay roles. Bridgerton would lose much of its male and female audience.
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 [e.g., The Gunfighter, The Desert Man].
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.
As a director of mostly talkies, Dorothy Arzner is probably the best-known pre-1950 American woman 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 [her sexual orientation] but was designed to show that she was one of the guys.
In the silent era, she was really more important as an editor [e.g., the blockbuster The Covered Wagon] than as a director. Personally, I don’t think that all her films are that good.
I suppose my favorite Arzner films are Christopher Strong  and Dance, Girl, Dance . The first because it is so fascinatingly awful, and [the second one] because of Lucille Ball’s performance.
No lasting influence
Would you say these first women filmmakers had a lasting influence in the industry?
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.
Polemical early woman filmmaker
To some extent or other, the early women filmmakers 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 opinions 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 to the uninitiated
Most people are unfamiliar with early movie directors, regardless of gender. When it comes to women filmmakers, which titles would you recommend to the uninitiated?
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.
“First Women Filmmakers Remembered” endnotes
Margery Wilson, Dorothy Davenport, Katja Raganelli, and Anthony Slide images: Courtesy of Anthony Slide.
“First Women Filmmakers Remembered: The Silent Feminists” last updated in March 2023.