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Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers

October 6 - 29

"A wonderful series...a thrilling look at the variety of films made by women, most before they won the right to vote." - Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

This series of eight programs focuses on the significant contributions made by female American film directors during the silent era. The films in the series, many of them presented in new digital restorations, have been made available through the efforts of Kino Lorber and the Library of Congress.

The series opens on October 6 with LINDA, a lovely, little-known 1929 melodrama directed by Dorothy Davenport, presented in an exceptionally well-preserved copy, with live piano accompaniment by the peerless Dave Drazin. Early explorations of diversity are represented by Marion E. Wong's THE CURSE OF QUON GWON (1916), the earliest known Chinese American feature film; a selection of documentary sketches filmed by famed novelist Zora Neale Hurston; and SALOMÉ, a pioneer example of queer cinema, adapted from Oscar Wilde's play. Four short films by Alice Guy-Blaché, the first important woman filmmaker, are included in various programs, and there is a program devoted to Lois Weber, the preeminent American woman filmmaker of the silent era.

The silent era, especially the 1910s, represented an era of opportunity for women in Hollywood that would not be equaled until at least the 1970s...and, in some respects, possibly still hasn't been equaled. One factor was the enormous popularity of female movie stars, who often had the clout to form their own production companies (Mary Pickford even co-founded a major studio, United Artists!). Another factor was the less hierarchical and compartmentalized structure of the early film industry, which made it easier for women to cross over into directing from other fields, such as acting and screenwriting.

A third factor was the fear struck into the movie industry by censorship forces, culminating in the landmark Mutual Decision of 1915, which denied First Amendment protection to movies. By the conventions of the day, women were considered the guardians of morality for society at large and therefore capable of providing "moral uplift" of the sort that Hollywood badly needed to spruce up its image.

Lois Weber's HYPOCRITES, Lita Lawrence's MOTHERHOOD: LIFE'S GREATEST MIRACLE, and Dorothy Davenport's THE RED KIMONA reflect this strong interest in social and moral reform. However, the interests of early women filmmakers were by no means confined to message movies. The films in this series encompass a wide range of genres and styles, including slapstick comedies, westerns, thrillers, action films, melodramas, and art cinema. Even when they are not being overtly serious or transgressive, these films often deliver between-the-lines questionings of conventional attitudes toward gender roles, domestic relationships, social behavior, and much else.

In the American film industry during the period 1910-1930, there were around forty women who directed at least one or two films, and, of those, perhaps fifteen or twenty were able to amass a larger number of directing credits, topped by Alice Guy-Blaché (24 features and ca. 400 shorts) and Lois Weber (38 features and ca. 100 shorts). Although those numbers are still a long way from gender parity, the inroads made by these pioneers look all the more impressive when one considers that, during the next forty years (1930-1970), there were only two women directors (Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino) working in Hollywood.

Why did the door that had been opened to American women filmmakers in the silent era slam shut so tightly? Film historians have advanced multiple reasons, but the most important were the increasing industrialization of the American film industry and the entrenchment of the studio system. These developments had the effect, either directly or indirectly, of closing off several of the main avenues that had been open to women filmmakers and solidifying what historian Karen Ward Mahar has called "the masculinization of the American film industry." The contributions of these pioneer women filmmakers can serve as an inspiration today, as Hollywood, in the wake of recent upheavals, struggles to make significant progress toward increased diversity.

As is usually the case with the surviving works of the silent era (over half of whose output is now considered lost), the films in this series often show signs of damage and deterioration. We have tried to select, as much as possible, those films that are in the best condition. Thanks to the efforts of the archives and foundations involved in the project, several of the films (such as LINDA, THE RED KIMONA, MOTHERHOOD, A DAUGHTER OF "THE LAW," and THE ROSARY) have been beautifully preserved. We have provided brief condition assessments for each feature film in the descriptions below.

Martin Rubin, Associate Director of Programming

Special thanks to Jonathan Hertzberg of Kino Lorber Films.

Buy a ticket at our regular prices for the first "Pioneers" program on any applicable Saturday in October, and get a ticket for the second "Pioneers" program that day at the discounted rate with proof of your original purchase: General Admission $7; Students $5; Members $4. (This discount rate applies to the second feature only. Discount available in person at the box office only.)