Alice's Wonderlands: On Alice Guy Blaché
"Records show that about three-fourths of matinee audiences are woman," wrote the Hollywood mogul Irving Thalberg in 1924, his use of an abstract noun underscoring his philosophy. "That is why I say that pictures should be made primarily for the feminine mind." Barely 25, Thalberg had recently come to MGM from Universal, where in the space of five years he had managed a revolution--including streamlining production and yoking each director to a producer elevated to oversee every aspect of the creative process--that had spread in Hollywood after World War I. In this matter of the feminine mind, the wisdom he offered was not original: it had long been a truism that women went to the movies in large numbers and that a sagacious businessman would indulge their tastes. What many people had forgotten by 1924, or would forget soon after--and would never know to forget today--is that the "audiences are woman" hypothesis had been taken to mean something very different just a few years earlier. It had been one of many overlapping, contradictory explanations, often rehashed in the press, for the surprising power of women in filmmaking. If female viewers decided the fate of movies, who better to make movies than females?
At one point in the 1910s, Universal had as many as nine women under contract as directors. (After Thalberg became manager in 1919, only one woman was hired to direct.) It wasn't just that an astonishing number of women occupied key creative positions--half of silent-era screenwriters were women, for example. Even women still working their way up could appreciate the egalitarian climate of the industry. Not yet standardized, it was struggling to meet a booming demand for fresh product. For a brief period its male entrepreneurs and innovators required all talent on deck; gender norms were a luxury they preferred to forgo. Social currents also fostered this openness: at the turn of the century women were finding their voices in public life, working outside the home in growing numbers and organizing and agitating for temperance, suffrage and birth control. "Never before in civilization," wrote Jane Addams in 1909, "have such numbers of young girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon city streets and to work under alien roofs; for the first time they are being prized more for their labor power than for their innocence, their tender beauty, their ephemeral gaiety." As movies grew in popularity alongside these public revisions of feminine virtue, the notion of women making movies became less of a leap. The cultural moment lasted just under twenty years, collapsing under the combined weight of censorship and redoubled sexism around the time, ironically, that American women got the vote. Their power in Hollywood never recovered. In 1920 Houghton Mifflin, unwittingly heralding the end of an era, published a guide called Careers for Women, where among entries on architecture, business and medicine was a chapter on film directing. When the guide was reissued in 1934, the section on directing was simply dropped.
As for ourselves, we can hardly afford to be smug. The persistent scarcity of women in cinema periodically streaks back into headlines like a comet. The most recent sighting was this past fall and winter, when talk about Kathryn Bigelow receiving an Academy Award nomination for directing The Hurt Locker, and the release of films by women about women who enlarged possibilities for women--Anne Fontaine's Coco Before Chanel, Mira Nair's Amelia, Drew Barrymore's Whip It--presented another moment for taking stock. In a year-end essay, Manohla Dargis of the New York Times cited some painful statistics: in the eighty-year history of the Academy Awards, three women (Lina Wertmüller, Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola) have been nominated for best director, and none of them left with Oscar. "Of the almost 600 new movies that will be reviewed in The New York Times by the end of 2009," Dargis wrote, "about 60 were directed by women, or 10 percent." A few days later in the Times Magazine, Daphne Merkin profiled the commercially successful director Nancy Meyers as the exception that proves the rule. Alas, in a backward glance at women in film, Merkin epitomized the culture's longstanding amnesia toward the brief reign of female directors. She wrote of "a tradition in place since the 1910s of women writing and editing for the movies. (Anita Loos wrote for D.W. Griffith; Frances Marion worked on about 200 movies starting in the midteens.)" All true, but as long as you're name-dropping, wouldn't it be nearer the mark to mention Lois Weber, Ida May Park or Lucille McVey Drew, among a dozen other commercially successful female directors of the silent era?
Perhaps the memory of those women has been eclipsed by our burning for the actresses of the 1930s. The tremendous appeal of films made just before the adoption of the Production Code, with their sublime indifference to middle-class propriety, and of sparkling screwball comedies produced after the Code, with their more artful handling of sex--and especially their complex, self-aware female leads (Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn)--has come to stand for the moment when films, for once, gave women their due. Trying to look further back, our vision fails to curve over the horizon. To some historians, the women of the silent era appear fundamentally silly. In Complicated Women, Mick LaSalle pokes fun at the pent-up sex drive of a 1920s starlet: "She played the glamorous woman who could--if she so chose, but she never chose, but she could if she wanted to, but she never wanted to--behave with the same license as a man." How intriguing, then, that women at that time were far more professionally liberated than those of the next decade, whose career choices were reduced to superstar or seamstress (or, occasionally, editor).
The kinds of movies that flourished in that co-ed environment are hard to summarize, partly because women directed all kinds; unlike Nancy Meyers, they didn't specialize in "women's pictures." Another complicating factor is that the period's archival record is spotty; as the historian Anthony Slide has pointed out, in many cases what has survived of each director's films is not her best work. Nor had the medium reached maturity; most of the films look crude to eyes accustomed to the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer and Dziga Vertov, which doesn't mean they aren't surprising or satisfying to watch. For some years toward the end of this era, and auguring its end at the hands of censors, directors like Weber stood for moral uplift, for movies with a message. The early 1910s were the heyday of the serial heroine, when every week a fresh episode of The Hazards of Helen or The Perils of Pauline--written and often co-directed by the women who played the title roles--would prove that a young lady could chase robbers across the top of a speeding train just as well as a man, if not better. But the first decade of filmmaking, roughly 1896-1907, belonged to one female director alone, and by the 1910s she was a crucial precursor for the Helens and Paulines.