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Celluloid Pioneers: Who Were the First Women Filmmakers?

Kino Classics’s new release attempts to redress a story of cinema centred on white male accomplishment

The early, enterprising years of American cinema – when the medium was still shaking off its fairground disreputability and the profession of film director had yet to take on the prestige and pseudo-military, authoritarian air that it later would – were, in many ways, kinder to women with ambitions to work behind the camera than the decades following the establishment of the major studios. Look no further for evidence of this fact than Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers, a new home video box set released by Kino Classics, a sort-of sequel to their earlier effort to redress a story of cinema centred on white male accomplishment, their 2016 Pioneers of African-American Cinema.

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Dorothy Davenport, The Red Kimono, 1925, 

Dorothy Davenport, The Red Kimono, 1925, film still. Courtesy: Kino Lorber Repertory

Made up of six discs boasting, per the packaging, ‘more than 25 hours of material’ shot between 1911 and 1929, the Kino set is arranged according to theme or individual auteur: There are two discs, for example, dedicated to ‘Social Commentary’ films, and one that hails ‘Genre Pioneers’. The set begins, as it practically is obliged to do, with Alice Guy-Blaché, the French-born, one-time secretary to camera and photography supply manufacturer Léon Gaumont. When her employer made the leap into fledgling motion picture technology after witnessing Auguste and Louis Lumière’s first public exhibition of their new invention, she had her boss’s blessing to make her first short, the 1886 La Fée aux Choux (The Fairy of the Cabbages), by many accounts both the first narrative film and first film ever directed by a woman.

The films in Kino’s US-focused collection come from the period when Alice and her husband Herbert Blaché had decamped to the States, forming their own production company, Solax Studios. It had its headquarters first in Flushing, Queens, then Fort Lee, New Jersey; and was one of the great cinematic success stories in the years before the American motion picture business moved west.

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Alice Guy-Blanché, A Fool and His Money, 1912, film still. Courtesy: Kino Lorber Repertory

Alice Guy-Blanché, A Fool and His Money, 1912, film still. Courtesy: Kino Lorber Repertory

Guy-Blaché, like many a female filmmaker, has been a figure of renewed interest in recent years. She is the subject of a new documentary, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2018), which takes its title from the innovator’s on-set dictum, purportedly accountable for the greater naturalism of the performances in her films. Looking at Guy-Blaché’s work for evidence of a feminine sensibility, we might note a preponderance of plots which revolve around conspiracies, often with the contrivance of a sympathetic maid, to bamboozle patriarchal authority. Manipulations to win approval of a forbidden marriage in Tramp Strategy (1911) and Canned Harmony (1912) or, in The Coming of Sunbeam (1913), to accept a disowned grandchild are just a few of the many subterfuges on display. In A Fool and His Money (1912), a poor suitor makes his way into the home of his upper middle-class beloved by reinventing himself as a swell after chancing across a fat lost wallet – though the most noteworthy element here is the fact that the cast is all Black.

While it would be tempting to take this as evidence of a solidarity between an enterprising female director working in the years before suffrage and the likewise socially-and-politically marginalized African-American community, it’s wishful thinking. Guy-Blaché’s Matrimony’s Speed Limit (1913), for example, contains a dumb and cruel gag in which the unveiling of a Black woman as a marriage prospect is treated as a punchline. If the early settlement years of the picture business offered a precious few opportunities for women, for non-white women the pickings were slim-to-non-existent – the sole work by a Black woman contained here are Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnographic studies of African-American communities in central and southern Florida, previously included in the Pioneers of African-American Cinema set. Race is addressed, at least, in Lule Warrenton’s When Little Lindy Sang (1916), which is wrenching in its depiction of a lone pre-adolescent Black student’s humiliation at the hands of her white classmates, while one of the most remarkable films excavated for Kino’s set is The Curse of Quon Gwan (c. 1916-17), an independent Chinese-American production shot in Oakland and directed by and starring Marion E. Wong, president of the fledgling Mandarin Film Company.

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Marion E. Wong, The Curse of Quon Gwan, c. 1916–17, film still. Courtesy: Kino Lorber Repertory

Marion E. Wong, The Curse of Quon Gwan, c. 1916–17, film still. Courtesy: Kino Lorber Repertory

Perhaps the most purely enjoyable of Guy-Blaché’s shorts – at least as represented by the eleven-minute fragment here – is The Little Rangers (1911), an eastern-shot Western distinguished by its hard-chargin’, lasso-swingin’, pistol-packin’ ladies. They are but a few of the early action stars to be found here; also for the viewing are three of the 119 (!) episodes that the Kalem Company made of the ‘The Hazards of Helen’ (1914-17) series, a knock-off of Pathé’s popular ‘The Perils of Pauline’ (1914) franchise, featuring Helen Holmes as a railroad telegraph operator who, though underestimated and ill-used by her employers, rises to the occasion again and again in times of crisis with quick thinking and feats of derring-do, saving runaway trains and getting the drop on stickup men. More impressive still are the three rollicking, brawling episodes of The Purple Mask (1917), the collaborative work of Grace Cunard and Francis Ford, brother of the better-known John, in which Cunard plays a masked super-thief determined to relieve the ultra-rich of their lucre and put it towards the common good, and Ford the detective always a few steps behind her.

While Guy-Blaché was the trailblazer for female filmmakers in Europe and then America, it is another figure, the prolific director/ actress/ producer/ screenwriter Lois Weber, who has a significant claim on being the first consummate female filmmaking genius in American movies. It’s a claim borne out by her 1916 dramatization of the precarious existence of lower-class women, Shoes, restored by the EYE Film Institute Netherlands and recently released on home video by Milestone Films. Weber is all over the Kino set, and if Guy-Blaché’s personality is somewhat difficult to pin down, Weber’s is stamped onto every film. A 23-minute fragment of her feature Idle Wives (1916) illustrates her belief in the potential of cinema as a medium of moral improvement: an array of unhappy characters from various class backgrounds and walks of life go out to see a movie – announced on the marquee as Life’s Mirror by Lois Weber – and are chastened by witnessing personally pertinent goings-on in the various threads of the storyline, which give them pause to reflect on their own moral shortcomings.

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Lois Weber

Lois Weber, Suspense, 1913, film still. Courtesy: Kino Lorber Repertory

The image of the mirror was a crucial one to Weber and figures prominently in her extraordinary film Hypocrites (1915), in which the spirit of Naked Truth – a nude actress, Margaret Edwards, rendered ghostly through superimposition – enters various modern scenes and, holding up a mirror to the proud and the Pecksniffian, reveals their Janus-faced phoniness. There is, without doubt, a punitive, finger-wagging side to Weber, the child of a Pittsburgh-area missionary and a onetime street-corner evangelist for the Church Army Workers organization, but it is more than made up for by her robust visual imagination. Suspense (1913) innovates split-screen effects for a thriller that’s every bit the equal of contemporary work by D.W. Griffith, while The Rosary (1913) views a picturesque star-crossed Civil War romance through a matte circle, framed by a string of rosary beads. Weber’s moralizing is the driving force of her work and perhaps necessary to her continued pursuit of it – when motion pictures were still struggling for respectability, how much more might women’s pictures have needed to appear unimpeachably upright? Consistent in her films is a fiery, reformer’s spirit, a tender regard for the suffering of common people that feels as though rooted in a real acquaintance with straightened circumstances, and an attention to the attrition of work, particularly women’s labour.

Housework, a staple of women’s cinema from Weber to Chantal Akerman, also figures in a fine piece of silliness starring Keystone Studios’ brilliant comedienne Mabel Normand, the Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle co-directed Mabel and Fatty’s Wash Day (1915). Normand was a friend of Helen Holmes who’d introduced the latter to the movies and, starting her own company with Mack Sennett in 1916, she might have opened more doors for other women still, had her career not been sidelined at the beginning of the 1920s by a series of scandals. Through this same period, one of consolidation for the studio powers, the opportunities for women to make movies would be less and less, until from 1927 to 1943 there was exactly one female director at work in Hollywood, Dorothy Arzner – represented here by Walter Lang and Dorothy Davenport Reid’s muckracking marvel The Red Kimona (1925), on which she has a screenwriting credit.  

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Dorothy Arzner, Salomé, 1923, film still. Courtesy: Kino Lorber Repertory

Dorothy Arzner, Salomé, 1923, film still. Courtesy: Kino Lorber Repertory

Closeted at only the barest, most symbolic level, the lesbian Arzner still never made a film as flamingly queer as 1923’s Salomé, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play produced by and starring the Russian actress Alla Nazimova, infamous in her day for her same-sex Sunset Boulevard ‘sewing circle’. Where the florid and feverish Salomé comes to us more-or-less intact, other films in Kino’s set have not been so lucky. As exhaustive as this collection may seem, it is only a miniscule portion of the story of women filmmakers in the US, a story that often comes to us in fragments, if it has physically survived at all; their contributions to the silents having gone to dust like so many films from the period. The Curse of Quon Gwan, for example, is represented by the two remaining reels of a total eight; absent of intertitles, you have to guess at the details of the plot and wonder what the succession of ceremonial scenes has to do with the promise of the subtitle ‘When the Far East Mingles with the West’.

That Weber is a great filmmaker is, and has long been, an indisputable fact. If Marion E. Wong was or might have been is less easy to say, and in some respects irrelevant to the power of The Curse of Quon Gwan – a power derived from the very existence of these scarce moving images of Chinese-Americans setting themselves before the camera, life’s mirror. Such miracles abound in Kino’s boxed set, from features to flotsam; what they’ve assembled isn’t just a few curios, but an entire curriculum.

Main image: Lois Weber, Hypocrites, 1915, film still. Courtesy: Kino Lorber Repertory

Nick Pinkerton lives in New York, USA. His writes regularly for Artforum, Film Comment, Sight & Sound and Little White Lies.

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