"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?
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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.
Alice Guy was a 21-year-old secretary in Paris when she went to see her first film, which happened to be the first film ever projected on a screen. It was Louis and Auguste Lumière’s Sortie d’usine, an actualité of roughly fifty seconds shot in 1895, in which a mighty volume of workers pour out of the gate of the Lumière factory in Lyon. The thing you notice is that most of the workers are women. Guy attended the screening with Léon Gaumont, the manager of a company that sold photographic equipment, and into whose employ she had talked her way with a pertness worthy of Myrna Loy, if her memoir is to be believed. Interviewing her for the position, Gaumont had balked: "I fear, Mademoiselle, that you may be too young." "But Sir," she replied, "I’ll get over that." She got the job. Six or seven days a week, from 8 am to 8 pm, she sat at a typewriter hidden behind a screen and "had to answer the imperious bell-summons from the directorial desk."
Around this time Gaumont was poised to take over the firm he’d been managing, turning its focus toward the nascent motion picture camera. In 1895, the same year the Lumières began exhibiting the brief documentary scenes that their cinématographe was able to photograph, develop and project, Gaumont bought the patents to Georges Demenÿ’s competing designs. With Thomas Edison in the United States tweaking his Kinetoscope (which exhibited moving pictures but couldn’t make them), it was a time of jostling for position in an industry that had, as yet, no clearly marketable use. This much Guy could see after she accompanied Gaumont to the Sortie d’usine screening and, subsequently, watched Gaumont’s technicians make comparable "demonstration films." She found them "both brief and repetitious" and "thought that one might do better." "Gathering my courage," she writes in her memoir with her typical mixture of modesty and pluck, "I timidly proposed to Gaumont that I might write one or two little scenes and have a few friends perform in them."
Within several years, Guy was head of the Gaumont studio in Paris (by then rival to the commercially cutthroat Pathé-Frères), where from 1904 to 1907, in addition to making silent comedies and melodramas and trick films, she directed countless phonoscènes, among the first synchronized-sound films. These crooning, pacing, winking, bowing turns by popular singers of the day anticipate by some twenty years the Vitaphone shorts that would help build an appetite for sound in the late 1920s. At one point Guy managed to book the renowned Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, who backed out at the last minute. "Which proves," she observed, "that a good voice is not always the sign of an excellent education." At Gaumont, beginning in 1905, she also hired and oversaw the work of other directors and assistants, notably Ferdinand Zecca and Louis Feuillade; "It was as if, with one mighty stroke, she had single-handedly created the entire French film industry," Anthony Slide has written. Guy left Gaumont at 33 to marry a 24-year-old Englishman, Herbert Blaché, with whom she would have two children while juggling directing and the establishment of Solax, her own studio in New Jersey.
Not unlike other female directors who thrived after her in the 1910s, Guy had a career whose ending was abrupt (and linked to a wrenching divorce). All her work was thought lost by the time she returned to France in the mid-1920s. Not only was her directing career finished; her very name was fading to a ghostly footnote. In the 1950s she wrote her memoir in an attempt to reinsert herself into the history of filmmaking. The effort paid off, with a slight delay. This winter the Whitney Museum screened a selection of her more than 130 extant films (she directed about 700; of her forty or so features, only three survive). Recently Kino released a box set of Gaumont Treasures: 1897-1913, with one of the DVDs devoted to the first decade of Alice Guy’s career. Kino also issued a DVD of The Ocean Waif (1916), one of the three surviving features. It is the first time since World War I that her work is being looked at by audiences not taking notes for doctoral dissertations.
At the dawn of filmmaking, originality was neither a creative goal nor a commercial value. Many of Guy’s oldest films are rehashes of the Lumières’ single-shot views: a scene of reedy boys romping in the white cascades of a river; a scene of blacksmiths forging horseshoes. (In Guy’s version of the blacksmiths, a little girl traipses across the scene clutching a doll. The smithies pay her no attention.) By 1906, as the business became more lucrative, Pathé-Frères placed moles in Guy’s studio, and the company remade her ideas virtually while she shot them. When she protested, Pathé merely invited her to plant her own spies on their set. Elsewhere she economized by purchasing backdrops from the Lumières (for instance, a plywood set of Parisian rooftops) and then reshooting the Lumières’ story with minor variations (thieves being chased across rooftops).
Early cinema does not exactly seduce the viewer with lush visuals or subtle performances. As even Alison McMahan, Guy’s biographer and most tireless champion, phrased it at a panel discussion last fall, "Nobody wants to sit down on a Saturday night" and watch the films of Alice Guy, but everyone wants to know why "both her careers were over by the time she could vote in either country where she lived." Yet contemporary viewers could also fail to be moved by the moving picture: in those earliest days, when people were unaccustomed to the medium, silent film retained the strangeness it has reacquired since. You get a hint of this in Red Velvet Seat, Antonia Lant’s vast, piquant anthology of women’s writings on the first fifty years of cinema. Here we discover an article from the San Francisco Examiner of 1897 by Alice Rix ("no dates found," says her bio note at the back of the book), who gives a candid assessment of the medium:
The lights go down and the single light boxed in the gallery reaches out over the house and burns on the canvas screen. The audience is shrouded in the silent dark. The light widens on the canvas and suddenly the screen is alive with the figures of men, moving, gesticulating, smiling, speaking, without sound. It is weird, peculiar, a little uncomfortable–a grayish shuddering semblance of humanity, neither shadow nor substance, neither quick nor dead.
It is very trying to the eyes, but it is even more bewildering to the brain. One cannot but seek to liken it to something–and it is like nothing in all the world. It is like nothing I have ever thought of as belonging to other worlds. These silent, moving shapes are neither ghostly nor shadowy. They are fully featured and of the earth. Their unreality is in their grayish color, their strange silence and the eternal blinding, flickering light that plays over them as at the morgue water runs over the faces and bodies of the dead.
This is not a pretty simile, but the Veriscope is not an entirely pretty exhibition. It is in its way a little awful.
At the turn of the century, film comprised a "cinema of attractions," in the words of film scholar Tom Gunning: it was a carnival diversion, a vaudeville bauble, a machine-age marvel. One recalls the lament in Ezra Pound’s 1920 poem "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley": "The age demanded an image/Of its accelerated grimace." The borrowings (and outright thefts) that marked Alice Guy’s first years behind the camera make it all the more interesting that, in her memoir, she nominates a different sort of film for her maiden effort in directing: La Fée aux choux (The Cabbage Fairy). This film is not a documentary scene such as the Lumières were making; it is not a trick film à la Méliès; it’s not a chase caper or a one-gag bit of slapstick. It is a fantasy along feminine lines, a minute-long meringue in which a smiling lady curtsies to the camera amid wooden cutouts painted to look like cabbages, bends down behind first one "cabbage" and then another, and plucks up several squirming, naked infants, placing them on the ground in front of her. The contrivance of the whole production–revolving around this rather stiff pixie cultivating her two-dimensional garden–has the unexpected effect of making the babies look like what they are: somebody’s actual babies, probably catching a chill.
Some scholars don’t believe this film was her first: Guy’s claim that it was shot in 1896 is contradicted by the Gaumont catalog, which dates it to 1900. Guy also seems to confuse it with a more sophisticated film, La Sage-femme de première classe (Midwife to the Upper Class), whose date of 1902 is not in question. La Sage-femme is a variation on the choux theme, with fancier camera work, three characters instead of one and a gently satirical story: a wife and husband, played by Guy, visit a midwife who runs a cabbage patch, where they choose their baby from several specimens pulled out of cabbages. At the end, when the new mother is walking off with her child, the husband reluctantly turns to the midwife and drops a few coins into her hand. As Alan Williams writes in his supremely sensible essay for the catalog of the Whitney show, Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer, whether Guy filmed La Fée in 1896 or four years later is fairly moot: "no one else in the world, at that time, would probably have made such a film. It is, in terms of cinema, a relatively original work in a medium that thrived on imitation."
The genial absurdity of both cabbage films–and the odd confidence of their interest in women’s bodies and experiences–heralded what would become most special about Alice Guy’s vision. In a remarkable film of 1906 called Madame a des envies (Madame Has Her Cravings), the main character is comically pregnant, her belly stuffed with what might be a breadbox, and driven to snatch food out of strangers’ mouths. Her giddy refusal to restrain herself, her appetite for mischief–she’s filmed in groundbreaking close-ups licking her lips and rolling her eyes with pleasure, all but catching the eye of the audience–tempts me to dream that a 17-year-old named Charles Chaplin saw this movie in some English town that same year, when he was touring the music halls and already standing out amid a troupe of clowning teenagers.
Guy’s comedies often feature cross-dressing as part of the joke, as if she couldn’t stop appealing the life sentence of gender. In some films the cross-dressing is garden-variety, adding an extra wacky flourish to an already wacky tale. In Le Matelas alcoolique (The Drunken Mattress, 1906), the seamstress who unknowingly sews a drunkard into the mattress she’s restuffing is, in fact, male. The comedy here is all in the gags–"she" rolls with the mattress down an embankment, hefts it across Paris, drags it from under an automobile, among other indignities. It probably helped that a man was performing these stunts. Alice attended a screening of the film in Rouen and later recalled "an explosion of gaiety" in the seats around her. "In front of me, one young woman twisted in her chair and begged between shouts of laughter: ‘Enough, enough, I’ll wet myself!’" Things get a little more Dada in La Femme collante (The Sticky Woman), a short but deep comedy of the same year, in which a genuine woman goes to the post office with her maid. The maid sticks out her tongue–an organ that could double for Mick Jagger’s–to help with affixing stamps, exciting the attention of a mustachioed rascal nearby. When he lunges over and kisses her, they get stuck, and a scissor-snip leaves the scamp’s mustache on the maid’s deadpan, self-possessed face.
The theme reaches its wildest embodiment in Résultats du féminisme (The Consequences of Feminism, 1906), a cutting satire of gender roles in which the cross-dressing is worn on the inside. Women are in charge; men preen and sew and cannot make up their minds. Women look through them unless there’s a chance to pounce on one and devour him with kisses. One poor fellow swoons and his Lotharia revives him with smelling salts, the quicker to lure him into the double bed idling in the background. All this is genuinely funny–the guy who keeps mincing around with mannerisms that today look high camp must have ruptured a few laugh hernias in Guy’s time–but it leads to a curiously ambivalent conclusion. When the woman who seduced the mincing fellow ignores his pleas to help care for their children, he summons a crowd of discarded men. Together they storm the women’s club, kick the ladies out and claim it for their own–their rightful, dominant place in society finally re-established. But for the audience to cheer their triumph, we must accept the terms of this satire and absorb the thought that half of society gets a rotten deal from the other half. It’s a sneaky little farce.
"What particularly excited me about film," wrote Maya Deren in a 1946 piece that appears in Red Velvet Seat, "was its magic ability to make even the most imaginative concept seem real. For if the tree in the scene was real and true, the event which one caused to occur beneath it seemed also real and true. And so one could create new realities which, being rendered visible, could stand up to the challenge of ‘Show me!’" The political correlative of this notion–that women gained crucial confidence simply by seeing themselves in new ways on the big screen–emerges from the polyvocal Red Velvet Seat as a unifying theme. And to the extent that Alice Guy’s work embodies this idea, the arc of her career also outlines its limits. By 1910, when she was directing her own Solax-produced films in New Jersey, Guy was married with a child (and had acquired a new surname: Blaché). She was no longer the only woman in the business, and it seems that her impulse to "make imaginative concepts seem real" changed into a simpler need to keep making movies. As Karen Ward Mahar writes in her valuable history Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood, the industry by then had acquired a concern for moral standards (motivated by the bottom line, of course), which it looked to women to raise and maintain. The National Censorship Board was established in 1909, and by the mid-1910s not only were most censors women but female directors were often touted in advertising to underline the "artistic" status of their films. Guy Blaché, whose Gaumont offerings had once been deemed too risqué for squeamish American audiences, now was held up as an ideal filmmaker, a woman of "enlightenment and superior breeding." Her movies got longer and their narratives more elaborate, and though spunky heroines might rather breathtakingly save the day in her westerns, or little girls help save ailing siblings in her domestic dramas, some of her anarchic energy was sacrificed.
If Alice Guy Blaché aligned herself with a refined ideal that sought higher-class audiences, a younger generation of women were all too eager to pander to the masses. It can be jolting to see one of the early serials, ten- to twenty-minute capers that came out on a weekly basis in the 1910s and whose creative vision was inseparable from their leading ladies. They’re the definition of good clean fun, but still, you don’t expect a Victorian damsel–cinched waist and ankle-length skirt, her long hair in ringlets–to duke it out with gun-slinging smugglers. Helen Holmes, the original star of The Hazards of Helen, which ran for 119 episodes from 1914 to 1917, wrote many of its episodes and collaborated with her director husband, J.P. McGowan, later starting her own production company under which she made further serials. She begins more than one installment as a young lady politely defying the ranks of men in the railway office who’d deny her a job as telegraph operator, and finishes by single-handedly foiling a worse set of bad guys who had attacked her isolated outpost. In Pathé’s The Perils of Pauline, the heroine travels the world hoping to become a great writer, all the while evading the homicidal advances of a man who’s after her inheritance. During the early 1900s an image of the New Woman was taking shape–athletic, fearless, independent–and the popularity of serials showed how ravenous was the appetite for her: when a fan magazine asked readers to name their favorite motion picture star in 1916, Pearl White, a k a Pauline, beat out both Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish.
The viral speed with which these heroines attained blockbuster fame and then melted away into second- and third-run houses rivals any career arc of the Internet age; and yet it’s hard to dismiss the idea that they inspired a generation of girls who would, by the early 1930s, be forging a new image of femininity onscreen. For it wasn’t only that, say, Grace Cunard playing Patsy Montez, a rich debutante in The Purple Mask (1916-17), donned a cape and stole from the rich in order to improve the lives of various unfortunate women; it was also that Cunard and her co-director, Francis Ford (John Ford’s older brother), visibly collaborated on these films, and that the head of Universal, Carle Laemmle (several years before promoting Irving Thalberg), threw the mighty dollars of his promotion machine behind their serial–specifically, "a twenty-two-page press book, ‘teaser’ ads in newspapers, souvenir buttons, mirrors, postcards, and, of course, broken coins." Strong women had value.
As if life were imitating art, a relatively collaborative culture thrived in Hollywood during these years. Perhaps no director starred more convincingly in the serial of her own life than Gene Gauntier, whose career was long finished by the time she wrote her memoir Blazing the Trail in 1928. Gauntier was the writer and star of The Girl Spy, whose popularity as a feature in 1909 led to its two-year run as a serial and ultimately to A Hitherto Unrelated Incident of the Girl Spy in 1911. Little in Gauntier’s movies can compare with the moment she describes in Blazing the Trail as her initial "plunge" into filmmaking: not knowing how to swim, she accepted a friend’s offer to join him on location, on Long Island, where a woman was needed to fall forty feet into a river. "I was afraid–horribly so. But I was going through with it if it killed me."
No single thing led to the demise of this relatively egalitarian era in Hollywood. The serials had a naturally short life span, and meanwhile film was under the scrutiny of that other icon of early twentieth-century female power–the reformer. Agitation by women’s groups to clean up motion pictures, together with a brief dip in attendance during the recession that followed World War I, was enough to scare the industry into regulating itself and scrapping all those unnatural girl heroes. What became of the female directors who worked in other genres is more ambiguous, having to do with the precarious perch they occupied and the industry’s rapid stratification. Most women who rose to prominence behind the camera were partnered, domestically and professionally, with a man. Though the women dominated as directors, they relied on their partners to handle the finances. The arrangement proved disastrous.
In her memoir, Alice Guy Blaché notes with gratitude that her husband, Herbert, insisted on making the deals, freeing her to focus on directing: "I would have embarrassed the men, said Herbert, who wanted to smoke their cigars and to spit at their ease while discussing business." But when he decamped for California with a younger actress in 1918, Alice’s career took a nose dive. In misfortune, too, she was a trailblazer: the collaborative, upstart, let’s-put-on-a-show business in which she had thrived was coming to resemble every other major industry, streamlined and hierarchical. By the late 1910s clubs and trade associations formed across the country to lubricate the flow of money between powerful executives, and women were locked out of the process of creating new realities. In this climate, if your marriage to a producer husband ended, whom could you approach about your next project? Irving Thalberg?
Guy Blaché gambled on a fellow creative. Alighting in Hollywood in 1920 in hopes of a reconciliation with Herbert (which was not to be), Alice still had enough clout to get a meeting with the world’s biggest superstar. At 31, Charlie Chaplin was in the middle of shooting The Kid, a film that would deepen and refine the possibilities of silent comedy. Guy Blaché, then 47 with hundreds of films to her credit, proposed making Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie, a nineteenth-century French farce, "which I had Americanized as well as I could." His reply was nonnegotiable. "No," he told her, "I intend to make films of more feeling." You might say that a new generation, with subtler tastes, couldn’t help but sideline women like Guy Blaché, whose most innovative work lay a decade in the past. Yet Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie did get made. René Clair directed it in 1927. In a final twist, Clair decided to shift the action of the mid-century play to 1895–partly from a wish to spoof the earliest years of film, which by then had passed into nostalgia. Two years ago the comedy was screened at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy, amid a bewitching retrospective of Clair’s silent work. It got a lot of laughs.