World Women: Still Circulating Silent Era Film Prints

Article excerpt

Feminists in film studies have been surprised to find evidence of so many women who worked as producers, directors, and writers during the first decades of the silent motion picture industry.1 Few had imagined how many women worked in the United States, nor how many had pursued two-continent careers, crossing not only the Atlantic but the Pacific, nor how many crossed borders within continents in search of opportunity. Western feminism, however, has not automatically produced the right research questions, and if ever there was a case to be made for comparative national, worldinclusive feminist studies, this is that case.2 A great triumph of feminism has been its critique of the limits that have historically been placed on women's success in the working world, but feminism has not necessarily prepared us for so many striking exceptions to the rule. We did not expect, for instance, to find silent-era film producer Bahiga Hafez in Cairo, Egypt.3 Thus when we extrapolate from the first world to everywhere else, we risk underestimating whole worlds of women. A revised rule of thumb for research on women in the international silent film industries might then be this: in parts of the world we once thought women could not possibly have worked as producers, directors, or writers, they will be found.

Corollary to the rule that women might be found where we least expect is the rule that a woman producer might have worked in more than one national industry or even that she left one part of the world to start a motion picture venture in another. Stephanie Socha traveled from her native Poland, for instance, to start a film acting school in Lima, Peru, before directing and producing Los abismos de la vida (1929).4 Fern Andra, a circus performer from Watseka, Illinois, left her hometown and by 1915 had set up the Fern-Andra Film Studio in Berlin, Germany.5

With preliminary research uncovering so many multiple-nation careers, we may begin to ask how so many women dreamed and then facilitated the global reach the new industry promised, a question that might not have been asked with regard to men.6 The continental moves of celebrated male émigré directors has explained entire schools of exported and imported visual style. Certainly the female equivalent of a world style is the diva form developed by Danish actress Asta Nielsen in The Abyss (1911).7 We can trace the diva's bodily attitude and downward-spiraling narrative from Denmark to Germany to Italy to Mexico.8 A distinction, however, needs to be made here between circulating motion picture prints and the transnational careers of motion picture personnel. For we are interested in asking about non-correlation as well as correlation. In the most perfect correlation, prints traveling ahead prepared the opportunity for a cross-continental career, as in the case of American Florence Turner, whose motion picture popularity in Britain made it possible for her to start Turner Films, Ltd., in London in 1913.9 There, with Larry Trimble, she produced and starred in the extant short Daisy Doodad's Dial (1914), as well as later feature films. Turner, the former "Vitagraph Girl," is only one example of an actress who could claim international star recognition and thus take advantage of the creative and economic opportunities that opened up in that first decade. Here let us not take for granted the practice, predominant in the West, of women taking women's roles. If men had played women's roles, as they did in Japanese silent cinema, actresses would not have been on the set to prove their indispensability and thus eventually to have been able to parlay box office success into investment capital.10

Women producers and writers (some of whom were effectively directors) are significant for what they tell us about economic mobility and job fluidity. The opportunities for women in the first decade constitute a case study in which neither class nor gender disqualified job seekers. In addition, in an industry so new it is remarkable to find the apparent ease with which some women moved between national industries, even given a language difference. …