Women Behind the Camera: Silent Cinema

 Women Behind the Camera: Silent CinemaFrom the days of silent film, there were women directing the action from behind the camera, but their early contributions to the industry have been ignored or otherwise unheralded, in large part, over the ensuing years. Quite a few female directors produced films in the pre-sound era, including the woman considered by many to be the “first” female director, Alice Guy-Blaché, who began making films in her native France at the turn of the twentieth century. In fact, Guy-Blaché is credited by many as helping develop the art of the narrative film structure, wherein film began telling actual stories instead of merely reflecting scenes.

Guy-Blaché firmly believed that women not only deserved a place in the burgeoning film industry, but that they were, in fact, better suited for the emotional demands of moviemaking than their male counterparts. In a 1914 article for Moving Picture World, entitled “Woman’s Place in Photoplay Production,” the director wrote:

“Not only is a woman as well-fitted to stage a photo-drama as a man, but in many ways she has a distinct advantage over him because of her very nature and because much of the knowledge called for in the telling of the story and the creation of the stage setting is absolutely within her province as a member of the gentler sex. She is an authority on the emotions. [...] There is nothing connected with the staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man.”

Guy-Blaché’s directing career began with a rather innocuous one-minute short subject, La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy), which she wrote, directed, and filmed herself in 1896.

Though Guy-Blaché’s exact output is unknown, it’s estimated that she directed several hundred short films throughout her career, including Esmeralda (1906), a short silent that is widely considered to be the first—and oldest existing—movie adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

When she moved to America after marrying filmmaker Herbert Blaché, in 1907, she co-founded Solax Studios, one of the first film studios to be established in the United States (the studio was located in New Jersey, which was, in the film industry’s infancy, the center of moviemaking in the country, before filmmakers realized southern California provided better climates and cheaper living). And in 1912, she became the first woman to build her own motion picture studio, in Fort Lee, NJ.

Guy-Blaché’s work is noted for its narrative qualities, and though several of her films were classified under the catch-all title of the “woman’s film,” her work was unfailingly modern. There was an excitement to the director’s work, an indomitable insistence on experimentation that culminated in her work with Léon Gaumont (whose production company, Gaumont Films, is still in business after more than 115 years). Gaumont had developed a system for synchronizing sound and picture, which he called “Chronophone.” Guy-Blaché, who had in fact gotten her start as a secretary for Gaumont’s photography business, was one of the first film directors to utilize Gaumont’s innovation, directing dozens upon dozens of “talking picture” shorts in the first decade of the 1900s—all of which are now believed to have been lost.

These pioneering talkies are not the only Guy-Blaché films that have disappeared or disintegrated over time. It is estimated that only a couple dozen reels of the director’s work remain, and many of those are in perilous need of restoration and preservation. That process has been slow in coming, though one of Guy-Blaché’s American works, Falling Leaves (1912), was thankfully preserved by the National Film Preservation Foundation in 2004, and can be viewed online in its entirety.

In 1920, Guy-Blaché directed her final film, Tarnished Reputations, and left Hollywood to return to France. She would not work in the film industry again, and her contributions would go unrecognized until the 1950s, when she was awarded the French Legion of Honour. But though she was the first, she was by no means the only female director working her movie magic. By the time Guy-Blaché left Hollywood in the early 20s, one of her American contemporaries, Lois Weber, had built a reputation as a true auteur of film—though Weber’s film career, too, would soon come to an end.

Lois Weber

Weber, who ran away from home as a teenager, had supported herself in her youth as a kind of street-corner prophet in New York City, preaching to passersby, singing hymns, and promoting moral values and clean living. This propensity for morality would make its way into her films as she made the move to Hollywood, for Weber would go on to tackle the topics other filmmakers tended to avoid—capital punishment, racism, and abortion among them.

Weber got her start with Gaumont, too, as a writer, director, and sometimes actress in hundreds of short Chronophone films beginning in 1908. But Weber soon tired of producing the shorts and longed to make a more artistic statement with her work. In 1914, Weber’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice became the first full-length feature directed by a woman. Later that same year, she directed Hypocrites, a highly controversial film that depicted a fully-nude Weber as the physical representation of “truth.”

Hypocrites marked the first in a series of “message” films that Weber directed in the ensuing decade. Her films engaged in social commentary, often dealing with taboo subjects like abortion, as in her 1916 film Where Are My Children?, which was inspired by Margaret Sanger’s fight to promote reproductive knowledge and birth control. The film takes an active stance against abortion, implicitly judging its core female characters—a group of wealthy women who obtain multiple abortions in order to maintain their fancy-free lifestyle—for their “immoral” choices.

Weber’s films rivaled D.W. Griffith’s as some of the most popular movies of the 1910s, and in fact she became the highest-paid director at Universal Studios with the success of Where Are My Children? and the same year’s Shoes. In 1917, that success allowed Weber to start her own film studio, Lois Weber Productions, and she continued to make full-length features for several years, including one of her most notable films, 1921′s treatise on poverty, The Blot. A 1922 divorce sent Weber into a tailspin, however, and her directing career faltered. She made a handful of films in the 1920s, and her final film—her first and only talkie—was 1934′s White Heat (no relation to the 1949 James Cagney vehicle). She passed away in 1939.

Guy-Blaché and Weber are not the only female directors working during the silent film era: Frances Marion, Dorothy Davenport Reid, Lotte Reiniger, Mabel Normand, Lottie Lyell, Germaine Dulac, and Elvira Notari are among some of the more notable women who also directed pre-sound films. But sadly, many of the films of these early female directors have been lost. In recent years there has been a concentrated effort by the Women’s Film History Project to raise funds in order to preserve these movies before they are lost forever. Still, the movies that we do—thankfully—still have are a great indicator of the sheer talent that drove these women behind the camera. Their films are entertaining, invigorating, thought-provoking, and memorable—everything a movie should be, and more. In the almost one hundred years since Alice Guy-Blaché proclaimed that women could make movies just as handily as a man, the female filmmakers who’ve followed her have proven that there’s no limit to women’s creativity when it comes to the silver screen.

Brandie Ashe is a writer and recent escapee from graduate school. She is now in hiding on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Brandie and her blog co-authors Carrie and Nikki recently celebrated their 100th post on their blog True Classics: The ABCs of Classic Film, where they share their love of Alfred Hitchcock, screwball comedies, Katharine Hepburn, and all things old-school Disney. Visit their Facebook page here.

  • Anonymous.

    I guess there have always been more male than female film director’s because women just aren’t nearly as interested in directing films as are men. Hence: men direct, women write.

  • FilmFan

    Whatever you paid for your graduate study was worth it; in my humble opinion! Wow! Eye opening stuff. Women of vision who seized emerging technology to grab the attention of the wider world. Leading to female directors today who win Academy Awards for their war films (The Hurt Locker.) When you can, please give us more info on the preservation efforts being undertaken to save these earliest movies of female directors. By film archives? Steven Speilberg? Who please?

  • Olivia

    Interesting that I read this now. I just started watching that TCM series “The History of Film”. I’m glad for that documentary and this article as I find behind-the-scenes film stuff fascinating.

  • Christine Harrison

    I’d love you to write a full-length book on the subject. It would be well overdue and a fine tribute to these pioneering women. It’s important as well to remember that a large number of silent screen actresses were very active behind the camera as well as in front of it – for instance, Mary Pickford was one of the founders of United Artists, and had a very good business mind.

  • David Ecklein

    Lillian Gish, more famous as a silent superstar, actually directed one film herself, “Remodeling Her Husband” (1920). This comedy was no short or novelty, but an A-list Paramount release with 50 minutes length. According to my source (IMDB), no known copies exist.

  • Alex

    This article is amazing, thank you so much! I will definitely be looking into these filmmakers. Of the women you mentioned, I only knew about Lotte Reiniger.