Wednesday, July 18, 2018


In honor of the series "Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers" running July 27-29 at the Egyptian, author and historian Cari Beauchamp provides some background on these innovators and their peers.

Alice Guy-Blaché was not only the first woman director, she was one of the very first film directors, period. She was a secretary to camera maker Leon Gaumont, and together they attended the first-ever public screening of a movie in Paris in 1895, "Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory." As a result, Gaumont agreed to let Alice "play" with their cameras as long as her clerical duties didn't suffer. Her after-hours creations became among the first narrative films and they were so successful, she was made the head of Gaumont’s newly formed production company in 1897. Over the next decade, she directed over 1000 short films and when she moved to America in 1910 with her husband, the cameraman Herbert Blache, she formed Solax in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where she directed and supervised several hundred more films over the next four years. Despite having two children to look after, Guy-Blaché kept pace with the production schedule of D.W. Griffith, who was directing his films for Biograph in nearby lower Manhattan.

Alice Guy-Blaché. Courtesy of Cari Beauchamp
New York and New Jersey were the hub of activity in the early years of the motion picture industry. Few took filmmaking seriously as a business, and so the doors were wide open to women who were unwelcome in other professions. Movies were an idea one week, filming the next, and in the theaters within a month. There were no paths to follow and no rules to break.

As the demand for movies skyrocketed, Hollywood became a magnet for women and Lois Weber, who had worked with Guy-Blaché in Fort Lee and was a pianist turned actress/ director, quickly rose to the top using innovative camera angles, split screens, and natural backgrounds and locations. With stories that stressed social significance and questioned prejudice, abortion, and society's priorities in films such as Where Are My Children?, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, and The Blot, Weber became the highest-paid female director in the country. Her husband Phillips Smalley was occasionally credited as her co-director, but it was her controversial films such as The Hypocrites, featuring a reappearing naked woman dubbed "Miss Truth," that really packed the theaters and cemented her fame. "After seeing Hypocrites," said Variety, "you can't forget the name of Lois Weber." She was mentioned alongside Griffith and DeMille as one of the most innovative forces in filmmaking.

Lois Weber actively promoted other women. She encouraged Cleo Madison and Dorothy Davenport Reid to direct, and brought Frances Marion under her wing. Weber was the most famous of a dozen women directors who found a booster in Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal. Cleo Madison starred in and directed dozens of films there as did Ida May Park, Ruth Ann Baldwin, Ruth Stonehouse, Lule Warrenton, and Grace Cunard. When Laemmle’s “Universal City” opened in 1915, Lois Weber was named “Mayor.” Two years later, Weber became the first woman to own her own studio.

Lois Weber. Courtesy of Cari Beauchamp
There were dozens of other women who helped blaze the path. Gene Gauntier began in pictures as an actress in 1906, but quickly moved to writing and directing. She claimed she could turn out three one-reel scenarios in a single day. The Vitagraph actress Helen Gardner formed her own producing company and made a dozen feature films under her own banner. Margery Wilson, who played "Brown Eyes" in D.W. Griffith's film Intolerance shortly after arriving in Los Angeles in 1914, directed several feature films as well as writing a half-dozen books. Marion Wong was president of Mandarin Film Company, reported to be "the only Chinese producing concern" in America. Nell Shipman traveled the country directing wildlife adventure films. Jeanie MacPherson, another actress-turned-director, went on to lasting fame as the writer of many of Cecil B. DeMille's great epics. And Dorothy Davenport Reid, an actress who appeared in over 100 films, turned producer after her husband, heartthrob Wallace Reid, died in 1923 of complications due to the drugs he became addicted to after an injury. Davenport Reid examined the evils of drug addiction and prostitution in her social commentary films that addressed societal problems rarely discussed in public.

Because of the collaborative and fast-moving nature of filmmaking, so different than today, it is easy to get caught up in the question of who directed, who wrote, or who "first" did what. In reality, women wore many hats and the bottom line is that for a brief but amazing time, they were encouraged to join a business where they were professionally nurtured by their bosses and each other. As Frances Marion noted at the end of her life, "I have found that it has always been one of my own sex who had given me a helping hand when I needed it." They took care of each other and were good friends; many of the friendships lasted throughout their lives, long after they had left the business.

By the time women were "given" the right to vote in 1920, they had been thriving at every level of movie making, as directors, producers, editors, and writers, for a decade. While writers' names often did not appear in the credits of the early films, from the copyright records in the Library of Congress we know that almost half of all films written between 1912 and 1929 were written by women.

It is difficult to overstate the impact their films made. At a time when most Americans had never been further than ten miles from the birthplace, different mores, fashions, lifestyles, and foreign lands were available for a few cents on the local big screen. Suffragettes marching in the newsreels built support for their cause, films such as A Girl's Folly revealed both the tangible benefits and the emotional price of living the high life and Gloria Swanson, dripping in jewels and furs, sparked imaginations. Movies opened up the world to an entire generation.

Yet just as quickly as the opportunities for women to control their own creative product had opened, they began to close. Large studios became the most economical method to churn out these new high-budget "talking" pictures. Sound required a massive influx of capital, and Wall Street invested. Over one hundred production companies had flourished in Los Angeles at the beginning of the 1920s, but they fell victim to consolidations, mergers, and bankruptcies, reducing the number of profitable studios to only a handful by 1933. New layers of bureaucracy were added, jobs were tightly delineated, and with production and distribution controlled by only a few, women were pushed aside. Movie making was now big business.

When Cleo Madison could no longer find backers for her own films, she returned to acting in minor roles in minor films. As early as 1919, Gene Gauntier became convinced the business had "passed her by" and she moved to Sweden to write novels. Both Lois Weber and Alice Guy-Blaché suffered from the professional jealousies of their husbands and both couples separated in the early twenties. Alice returned to France and her efforts to direct in the late 1920s were rebuffed. Weber's "message films" left Jazz Age audiences cold and while she attempted several "comebacks" during the twenties, when she died in 1939, with Frances Marion at her bedside, she was managing an apartment building in Fullerton. “The premier woman director of the screen and author and producer of the biggest money making features in the history of the film business" only two decades before, warranted only a few lines of an obituary in Variety.

A precious few of the women survived in the business into the late thirties, compromising along the way to the point that, as Frances Marion put it, "screenwriting became like writing on the sand with the wind blowing." Just as Rosie the Riveter was sent home after World War II, the women of Hollywood were no longer welcome in jobs men now wanted. A handful of women would continue to work behind the camera, but directors such as Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino were the rare exception to the rule.

Ida Lupino
While the number of women working in Hollywood today does not touch those of the early years, today’s women have a rich history to inspire them and claim as their own. And by knowing these women have come before us, we are no longer isolated. Instead we are links in a strong chain of talent and determination and that awareness is a powerful thing. 

Cari Beauchamp is the award-winning author of Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood and five other books on film history. A Vanity Fair contributor, Cari has written and produced documentaries, serves as the Resident Scholar of the Mary Pickford Foundation, and is the only person to twice be named an Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Scholar.