When Women Ruled Hollywood

“Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers” visits Hollywood’s free-for-all early days, when women commanded large salaries and major creative roles


During the freewheeling, wild days of early Hollywood — before the studio system consolidated itself and censorship took hold — the industry was up in the air. Of the hustlers and snake oil salesmen and other sundry souls who were joining the ranks of the burgeoning film business in Southern California, women made up a large consortium. In fact, by 1920, Los Angeles was the only city in the West where women outnumbered men. If motion pictures were regarded as an essentially unserious pursuit, made by fast-buck artists and consumed by working-class vulgarians, what did it matter if women conceived, wrote, and even shot them?

As luck would have it, they did — in droves. Some who’d started as child actresses or aspiring starlets grew up to be scenarists, film editors and cutters, directors, producers. Others from all corners of the nation, dreaming of a more independent way of life, arrived in L.A. for clerical or service work around the studios. These included women from all backgrounds, including Chinese American Marion E. Wong (who produced and directed 1916’s Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles With the West), the author Zora Neale Hurston (who in the late 1920s made the Southern-set documentary Fieldwork Footage), and Madame E. Toussaint Welcome (who collaborated with her husband on a series of projects about African American participation in World War I). The 1910s and early 1920s soon proved a kind of golden age for women working behind the camera, in a way that Hollywood would not see again for the better part of a century.

This week, BAMcinématek provides a rare opportunity to see some of the greatest films helmed by early Hollywood’s intrepid women with “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers.” The series was organized by Kino Lorber in partnership with the Women’s Film Preservation Fund, which has been working for several years on restoring and rereleasing these often unseen silent works. In 2016, a Kickstarter appeared to fund the daunting task. Happily for all of us, the crowdfunding venture was a success, and BAMcinématek audiences will be among the first to reap the rewards. (Later in the summer, the series will travel to the West Coast, with scheduled runs at the American Cinematheque and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.)

It’s worth emphasizing that the restoration of these films was, in itself, no small endeavor. Many of the titles exhibit damage to the fragile nitrate they were once made of, or remain technically incomplete, cobbled together from surviving reels. The U.S. Library of Congress claims something like 75 percent of all silent cinema is now lost, but even the extant film tends to remain in a liminal space; it exists, but it’s not always readily available to those who wish to see it. That makes this BAM season — and Kino Lorber’s accompanying box set — novel, in spite of the aged nature of its selections. The movies within span every genre and length, from comedic shorts to women’s melodramas, early westerns to examinations of racial and sexual discrimination.

During this era, slapstick comedy and western two-reelers were the genres du jour, each allowing for the affordable recycling of sets, props, and costumes — not to mention talent. Chief among those talents was Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett’s slapstick queen. She was a beloved star, sometimes regarded as the female Chaplin for her pratfalling charms. Normand was fiercely independent and notoriously foulmouthed, a hard-living flapper girl whose reputation would later take a serious dive when she was (most believe falsely) implicated in the 1922 murder of William Desmond Taylor. At BAM, a series of films where the comedian directed herself will be screening — including one in which she appears alongside the fledgling Chaplin, entitled Caught in a Cabaret (1914).

Women known as “serial queens” — like Pearl White (The Perils of Pauline, 1914; not in the BAM series) or Grace Cunard — also captured the public imagination. These figures were action heroines in many ways, starring in thrillers and adventure films where they often completed their own death-defying stunts. Cunard was so inclined toward writing and playing adventurous roles that she sustained many injuries on set, more than once landing herself in the hospital. Perhaps her most daring role comes in 1924’s Last Man on Earth, a sci-fi that sees her kidnapping the planet’s last surviving man and holding him ransom in the face of an all-female government. In one portion of BAM’s program, on “Genre Film Pioneers,” an earlier Cunard work, A Daughter of the Law, accompanies a feature by Ruth Ann Baldwin, ’49–’17, the first western feature directed by a woman and Baldwin’s only surviving film.

Unfortunately, little is known about Baldwin’s life, including her date of death. She is far from the only woman in the season to share this sad fate. Lule Warrenton, a director whose 1916 When Little Lindy Sang is a brief anti-racist parable set in a schoolhouse, had an entire company that seemed to have vanished from the record. In 1923, she apparently attempted to form a production outfit solely by and for women, but the details of the venture are — for now — lost to history. These days, even the most revived names among the women included are little-known by the wider public. Alice Guy-Blaché and Lois Weber, both prolific directors with a bevy of firsts to their names, are featured at BAM with their own stand-alone auteur programs, affording them the importance that they held in their respective careers.

By 1916, Weber was reported to be the highest-paid director in Hollywood. She would later start her own company, Lois Weber Productions, which she operated in unconventional ways: shooting on location, experimenting with form in a way most major studios did not. Her repeated thematic concerns around motherhood, marriage, the confines of femininity, even birth control (Where Are My Children?, 1916) are an inevitable result of the creative freedom she enjoyed in a time before censorship. Weber reportedly took seriously what she believed to be the power of cinema, and her films, as such, focused on heavy subject matter. For example, in Shoes (1916), Weber zeroes in on issues around poverty and the exploitation of impoverished women, observing a dime-store worker (Mary MacLaren) forced to prostitute herself for money. But formally, too, Weber was a trailblazer: She is credited with one of the first-ever uses of split screen in cinema, in her 1913 short Suspense.

Guy-Blaché was among the first filmmakers in history to complete a narrative film (1896’s La Fée aux Choux); she also maintained an East Coast–based production company, Solax, that housed a state-of-the-art facility in the early 1910s. With A Fool and His Money (1912), you can see unfold the oldest surviving film featuring an all-black cast. That same year’s Algie, the Miner appears to depict thinly veiled homosexuality with a light comedic touch. The apotheosis of the Guy-Blaché program — and the longest film, at forty minutes — is The Ocean Waif (1916), which explores female empowerment via the drama of a young woman desperate to escape her abusive stepfather. This was Guy-Blaché’s project for William Randolph Hearst’s studio, and therefore a good deal more conservative than her other pictures, but it nonetheless crackles with a tremendous performance from gorgeous lead actress Doris Kenyon.

Given the social mores of the time, “Pioneers” is not devoted exclusively to movies with progressive sensibilities. Lita Lawrence’s 1925 feature, Motherhood: Life’s Greatest Miracle, serves as a morally upright instructive to young expectant mothers. Lawrence walks the audience through the parallel stories of a poor newlywed and her well-off neighbor, who both fall pregnant at the same time. The poor woman is apprehensive but pleased; the rich woman is horrified, wanting nothing more than to be rid of the child. Both, of course, are eventually reconciled to their happy maternal fates. Male authority figures in Motherhood refer to abortion as “selfish” and “cowardly,” and the narrative seems not to disagree. But a title card at the close of the film dedicates it to the “noblest sacrifice of woman,” and the movie overall depicts with earnestness the concerns over money and health that often plague expectant mothers. It’s hard to imagine a man from the period taking on the same subject with such zeal.

By the late 1920s, the boys club of Hollywood had started to take over. Tensions rose over external calls for censorship and internal scandal; the major studios formed under autocratic men like Louis B. Mayer. The more seriously movies and their earning potential were taken, the less central women tended to become in their official narrative. Increasingly sidelined and written out of history, many of the era’s prominent women directors would fade into obscurity as the years passed. While “Pioneers” may seem remote to us now — given the roughly century-long time span separating us from the films in the season — the subjects it underlines are evergreen. It locates women working within the system, in all roles and at all levels, who gave cinematic life to our perspectives. That these earliest of female filmmakers tended to side with the marginalized and the ignored is no great coincidence. As cinephiles continue to recognize the importance of reviving what’s been lost to time, the hope is that efforts like “Pioneers” will continue to crop up, filling in the blanks of the past and reclaiming the medium’s forgotten stories.

‘Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers’
July 20–26