Published:  12:13 AM, 24 July 2018

Thrills, tears and the real gone girls of cinema

Thrills, tears and the real gone girls of cinema

Manohla Dargis

Tucked into "Careers for Women," a 1920 book about the work that women do - beekeeper, detective, coroner - is a chapter on the motion-picture director. The account was written by Ida May Park, an actress turned filmmaker who wrote a few dozen movies and directed about a dozen more between 1917 and 1920, most at Universal. 

She believed that women were naturals to direct; she also warned that it wasn't for everyone. As it turned out, she doesn't seem to have directed again after 1920, instead becoming another of cinema's mysteriously missing and forgotten women - its real gone girls.

That could describe many female filmmakers who too often have been written out of the history they helped make. You get a sense of the scope and profundity of this erasure in "Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers," a wonderful series that opens Friday at BAMcinématek. 

Presented with Kino Lorber and the Library of Congress, this weeklong survey offers a thrilling look at the variety of films made by women, most before they won the right to vote. These are women who - as directors, producers, writers and stars and sometimes all at the same time - helped create cinema but whose contributions remain undervalued or ignored, which of course makes the series also of this moment.

The program includes stories and characters often associated with women, but there's plenty here that doesn't conform to type. There are tear-splashed melodramas like Alice Guy Blaché's "The Ocean Waif" (1916), but also slapstick comedies like Mabel Normand's "Caught in a Cabaret," starring Charlie Chaplin (1914), and Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley's thriller "Suspense" (1913).

The stories take on love and war as well as poverty (Ida May Park's 1918 "Bread"); birth control (Weber's 1916 "Where Are My Children?"); and prostitution (Dorothy Davenport and Walter Lang's 1925 "The Red Kimona"). One must-see is Marion E. Wong's "Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles With the West" (1916), thought to be the first feature by a Chinese-American filmmaker. (A chunk is missing but it's still worth watching.)

Some of the names here will be more familiar than others. After decades of neglect, filmmakers like Guy Blaché are being written back into history by archivists, scholars, distributors and online resources like the fantastic Women Film Pioneers Project. (The titles in this series were selected from a six-disc boxed set that Kino Lorber will release in November.) 

Born in France in 1873, Guy Blaché is widely thought to be the first female director, making her debut at Gaumont in 1896. She became one of its most important filmmakers, but in 1907 moved to the United States, where she thrived and built a studio in Fort Lee, N.J., only to later fall into obscurity, dying in 1968.


The series includes five films that illustrate her range. The delightful, still-startling "The Little Rangers" (1912) is an action-packed western centered on a male villain and two hard-charging heroines, one of whom looks about 12 and has a very big gun and long, fetching curls. 

Shot in the wilds of New Jersey, the slim story finds the villain engaging in dastardly deeds only to be chased by his persistent female pursuers, who set his lair on fire with a flaming arrow and force him right off a cliff. "The Little Rangers" resolves on a note of forgiveness rather than vengeful violence, but its heroines are as tough and as trigger-happy as any comparable hero in a movie by a man.

Most of the titles have female-driven narratives, but some turn on male protagonists, including Ruth Ann Baldwin's entertaining "'49-'17," about a judge who's nostalgic for his Gold Rush days. 

And while many of the movies feature women who are the heroines of their own lives, the stories and their endings don't always fit contemporary feminist ideas and ideals. These pioneers were women of their times, as is evident both in some racism and in some of the attitudes about women's bodies and social roles.

The pioneers who made these movies did so despite the industry's early male domination and, for a time, they flourished. The scholar Shelley Stamp, who curated the Kino Lorber set, believes that at least two questions are worth considering when we talk about what happened to these women: "Why did they disappear?" and "Why have we forgotten them?" 

Speaking by phone recently, Ms. Stamp said that the disappearance happened fairly rapidly. By the early 1920s, a group of studios were consolidating power by buying up theater chains. This in turn shut out independent filmmakers, including women and people of color.

To pay for their theater chains, the studios borrowed from Wall Street and cleaned up their profile. By the mid-1920s, Karen Ward Mahar writes in her book "Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood," "the gendered studio" had emerged. Directing, producing and editing became masculinized - only writing remained open to women - and the crafts became "sex-typed." 

In the new rationalized, centralized studio, the producer dominated. As if to compensate for the director's reduced role, the job's physical difficulties were increasingly invoked: the director Cecil B. DeMille said women would "crumple from the strain" of 18-hour days.

This masculine corporate culture squeezed out women who wanted to work and it facilitated what Ms. Stamp called a "historical amnesia" that was in evidence even in early film histories. Weber is mentioned only in passing in Terry Ramsaye's 1926 book "A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture" and Guy Blaché isn't there at all, slights and omissions that became maddeningly routine. 

The same year that book appeared, a Boston newspaper asserted Weber "is the first of her sex to break the male monopoly on the directing of motion pictures." Two years later, that same newspaper announced that Dorothy Arzner was the only woman director.

That would have been news to more than one female filmmaker, including Dorothy Davenport (billed as Mrs. Wallace Reid), whose touching 1929 melodrama "Linda" is a series highlight. 

Helen Foster stars as the title heroine, a poor country lass who's keen on a doctor (Warner Baxter, all smiles and 'stache) but whose brutish father marries her off to an older man sensitively played by Noah Beery (a near look-alike for his brother Wallace Beery). By the time the film opened, female directors were on their way out and only two - Arzner and Ida Lupino - would work in Hollywood over the next decades.

There are probably other explanations for why women disappeared from directing and why those who continued working in the industry as writers, secretaries, producers and so on have been historically overlooked or ignored. It's easy to imagine that as women gained power in the larger world - the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920 - efforts to keep female workers from encroaching on male terrain increased. 

Even so, women of all colors continued to work in Hollywood, including in wardrobe, hair and makeup departments. However ostensibly humble their roles, these women also helped make movies and their invisibility speaks to the biases of those who tell history.

Of course there have always been those who could not - cannot - imagine women doing anything of merit other than performing on camera. Contemporary historians have begun examining all the roles that women have taken in movie history, including during Hollywood's golden age. 

They're finding women who were always there. It's exciting, necessary work. Women have a history of being hidden in plain sight, whether they're written out of even recent histories or yet more studio executives insist that they can't find suitable women to hire. A series like "Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers" is a crucial part of this revisionism, a corrective to our collective amnesia.


The writer is an American film critic

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