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.
SATURDAY DOUBLE-BILL DISCOUNT!
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.)
1929, Dorothy Davenport, USA, 73 min. With Helen Foster, Warner Baxter, Noah Beery.
"A series highlight." - Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
A busy actress during the 1910s, Davenport turned to filmmaking after the scandalous drug-related death of her movie-star husband Wallace Reid. Much like Lois Weber's early features, Davenport's films crusaded on the behalf of social issues, such as drug addiction, juvenile delinquency, and prostitution. In LINDA, she tones down the sensationalism to produce a lovely and sensitive film whose virtues are well-served by the excellent quality of this digital preservation. Men ain't good fer much in this tale of a backwoods gamine (Foster, channeling Mary Pickford) who is pressured by her abusive pa to marry a much older man (Beery, in an unexpectedly sympathetic spin on his usual villainous roles). A shocking revelation sets Linda on a bumpy path that includes flight, female camaraderie, high society, social work, a handsome doctor (Baxter), and a jolting, fiery climax. DCP digital. (MR)
The Red Kimona
1925, Walter Lang and (uncredited) Dorothy Davenport, USA, 78 min. With Priscilla Bonner, Carl Miller.
"A gripping account of not only Gabrielle's plight, beautifully evoked by Bonner, but of the social hypocrisies which kept women like Gabrielle forever tainted a fallen woman." - Felicia Feaster, TCM.com
Continuing in the muckraking vein of her now-lost addiction drama HUMAN WRECKAGE (1923), Davenport appears at the beginning and end of THE RED KIMONA to implore the women in the audience to face their responsibility toward their less fortunate sisters. Seduced, pimped, and abandoned in New Orleans' notorious Storyville district, Gabrielle Darley (wide-eyed Bonner) moves to Los Angeles, where a run-in with her seducer leaves him full of bullet-holes and herself on trial for murder. Her cause is taken up by a publicity-hungry society dame, whose rich friends are eager to hear all the juicy details of Gabrielle's trick-turning past. Abandoned by her fickle sponsor (but befriended by the woman's good-guy chauffeur), Gabrielle finds her tainted reputation blocking her road to reform and driving her straight back to Storyville. This excellent tinted copy also features the selective use of red-colored objects, including the titular garment that serves as the emblem of the heroine's scarlet past. Davenport based the film on a true story and even used the subject's real name, leading to a ruinous invasion-of-privacy suit. Silent film with prerecorded music score by Libby Meyer. DCP digital. (MR)
The Curse of Quon Gwon
1916, Marion E. Wong, USA, 36 min. With Violet Wong, Marion E. Wong.
This 80-min. program centered on racial and sexual identity is headlined by the earliest known Chinese American feature film. It was made by the Oakland-based company Mandarin Films, founded by director/actress Wong. Missing footage and intertitles make some plot points unclear (a speculative plot summary can be found here), but it still registers (in a remarkably sharp copy) as a sophisticated melodrama of a young westernized bride who encounters disdain, and worse, from her husband's traditionalist family. THE CURSE OF QUON GWON is preceded on the program by four shorter films; read on for details. All in DCP digital with prerecorded music scores. (MR)
When Little Lindy Sang
1916, Lule Warrenton, 11 min.
A charming schoolhouse comedy in which a black girl's skin color and ear-splitting singing voice initially set her apart from her white classmates.
Zora Neale Hurston Ethnographic Films
1928, Zora Neale Hurston, 12 min.
These documentary sketches were made when the famed novelist was an anthropology student seeking to preserve a record of African American life in the rural South.
A Fool and His Money
1912, Alice Guy-Blaché, 11 min.
A rival-suitors comedy by the first important woman filmmaker, considered to be the earliest surviving film with an all African American cast.
Algie, The Miner
1912, Alice Guy-Blaché, 10 min.
ALGIE, THE MINER serves up gay subtext galore (and even some intimations of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN) when a "sissy" stereotype ventures into the Wild West.
Motherhood: Life's Greatest Miracle
1925, Lita Lawrence, USA, 59 min. With George E. Patton, Adelaide M. Chase.
"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." - Christina Newland, Village Voice
MOTHERHOOD parallels the stories of two women who become pregnant at the same time: Mae, a working-class gal whose husband could be more attentive, and Flo, a rich socialite who resents the little bundle's intrusion on her social life and fashion choices. The film's views on abortion would not be shared by many women of today, but director Lawrence shows a keen eye for observing the contrasting milieus of her dual heroines. Except for one brief scene with heavy decomposition caused by pink tinting, this is a sharp copy that shows off Lawrence's distinctive use of spacious interiors, suggesting a filmmaker for whom decor is destiny. Preceded by A DAUGHTER OF "THE LAW". Both in DCP digital with prerecorded music scores. (MR)
A Daughter Of "The Law"
1921, Grace Cunard, 22 min.
An action-packed drama featuring serial queen Cunard as a police detective who goes undercover in Tennessee moonshining country.
1915, Lois Weber, USA, 53 min. With Courtenay Foote, Myrtle Stedman.
"A particular standout...Weber shows a remarkable aptitude for visual storytelling." - Rebecca Pahle, Film Journal International
One-time church worker Lois Weber was the preeminent American woman filmmaker of the silent era. She rose to prominence in the mid-1910s with a series of successful feature films that tackled controversial issues, such as birth control, abortion, drug addiction, and capital punishment. HYPOCRITES is best known for its use of an unclothed woman to represent Truth, but that is only one late-appearing element in a boldly unconventional, multileveled work. HYPOCRITES employs two time frames, an extended dream sequence, an allegorical screen-within-the-screen in the form of Truth's mirror, elaborate camera movements, and a final ironic twist to tell the parallel stories of a medieval monk and a modern-day minister who struggle against the hypocrisy of their times. Sharp tinted copy with intermittent decomposition. Preceded by two Weber shorts: SUSPENSE and THE ROSARY. All in DCP digital with prerecorded music scores. (MR)
1913, Lois Weber, 12 min.
Dazzling technique is applied to a home-invasion story.
1913, Lois Weber, 15 min.
A popular song and a circular frame enclose a sadly ironic tale of lovers separated by war and devotion.
Shorts program: Pioneer Comedies
1913-23, Various directors, USA, 75 min. With Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand.
Film historian and curator Shelley Stamp said of pioneer comedy director/actor Mabel Normand, "Her films are truly hilarious and frequently offer very pointed critiques of gender norms and class propriety." A similar observation could be made about the other films in this program, both by Ms. Normand and others. All in DCP digital with prerecorded music scores. (MR)
That Ice Ticket
1923, Angela Murray Gibson, 10 min.
Independently produced in North Dakota, THAT ICE TICKET is a lively variation on the early "mischief film" genre.
Matrimony's Speed Limit
1913, Alice Guy-Blaché, 14 min.
Like Buster Keaton's SEVEN CHANCES, MATRIMONY'S SPEED LIMIT uses the device of a desperate man who has to meet a marriage deadline in order to claim an inheritance.
1913, Alice Guy-Blaché, 14 min.
A frantic farce involving a mix-up between a dog and a baby.
1914, Mabel Normand, 17 min.
Cross-dressing confusion reigns when Mabel dresses as a chauffeur, and her fiancé dresses as Mabel!
Caught in a Cabaret
1914, Mabel Normand, 24 min.
CAUGHT IN A CABARET features evolving newcomer Charlie Chaplin as a waiter in a cheap joint visited by society girl Mabel and her slumming friends.
1922, Charles Bryant and (uncredited) Alla Nazimova, USA, 73 min. With Alla Nazimova, Mitchell Lewis.
"My own personal choice of a must-see film...SALOMÉ is 72 minutes long, and every minute is breathtaking." - Rebecca Pahle, Film Journal International
This visually stunning, one-of-a-kind adaptation of Oscar Wilde's transgressive play has been called the first American art film, a landmark of queer cinema, and a pioneer attempt to evolve a "female movie modernism." Authorship of the film has been divided by film historians among producer/star Alla Nazimova, the celebrated Russian actress whose passion project the film was; credited director Charles Bryant, who was wed to the actively lesbian Nazimova in a so-called "lavender marriage;" and uncredited scenarist Natacha Rambova (aka Mrs. Rudolph Valentino), who was responsible for the film's eye-popping costumes and set design, based on Aubrey Beardsley's famous illustrations. Having murdered his brother, King Herod of Judea lusts after his niece Salomé, but the pouty vixen (lithe, androgynous Nazimova, in a micro-mini-tunic and glittery popcorn hairdo) sets her sights on the loin-clothed prophet Jokaanan, whose thunderous rejection leads to the legendary dance and severed-head smooch. According to Kenneth Anger, SALOMÉ was cast entirely with gay and bisexual actors, and, although his claim is probably exaggerated, the film - "high camp" before the term was invented - is gloriously saturated with gay sensibility. Sharp copy with tinted inserts and some damage and deterioration. Silent film with prerecorded orchestral score by Aleksandra Vrebalov. DCP digital. (MR)
1920, Nell Shipman and Bert Van Tuyle, USA, 57 min. With Nell Shipman, Bert Van Tuyle.
"Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the film is the way in which the automobile emerges as a quasi-subjective companion and lover whose relationship with the woman soon displaces the male hero to the visual and narrative margins." - Jennifer Parchesky, Film History
An intrepid entrepreneur as well as on-screen heroine, Canadian-born Nell Shipman specialized in independently produced outdoor dramas that feature plenty of scenery, wildlife, and wild action. SOMETHING NEW (sharp copy with minor damage) begins with Nell at her typewriter bemoaning a lack of inspiration, until the sight of a cowboy and an automobile has her cooking up a thrill-packed adventure set in Mexico. There she is kidnapped by bandits (stereotype alert) but manages to escape, thanks to a handsome engineer (co-director Van Tuyle), her own efforts (after her savior passes out), and the real "hero" of the film, a Maxwell motor car, which plunges up, over, and down the rocky terrain with unflagging persistence. This "Women in Action" program begins with THE WILD ENGINE and THE LITTLE RANGERS. All DCP digital. (MR)
The Wild Engine
1915, Helen Holmes, 11 min.
A self-contained episode of the long-running railroad-centered serial THE HAZARDS OF HELEN, featuring the most independent of the many female serial heroines of the era, Helen Holmes.
The Little Rangers
1912, Alice Guy-Blaché, 12 min.
Two gun-totin', mighty-young gals help maintain law and order in the Wild West.