Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood

By Marcellus, Jane | Journalism History, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood


Marcellus, Jane, Journalism History


Mahar, Karen Ward. Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. 336 pp. $45.

Think of Hollywood filmmakers of the early twentieth century, and Cecil B. DeMille or D.W.Griffith may come to mind while Alice Guy Blaché, Gene Gauntier, and Lois Weber probably do not. Active movie makers in the 1910s and early 1920s, these and other women wrote scripts, produced and directed movies, and edited film before the studio system relegated women to subordinate positions in the mid-1920s. Karen Ward Mahar's Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood examines these women's careers, revealing a window in time when women enjoyed greater opportunities than before or since. "For more than a decade," she writes, "it appeared that creative and powerful women were going to be the norm in the American film industry, not the exception. Women filmmakers were said to be at the beginning of their stories-that the exceptional would soon be unexceptional and that workday parity with men was in the near future. Yet it was not to be."

Mahar argues that between about 1896 and 1908, novel new technologies and content for men dominated filmmaking. Thus, "the American film industry emerged within a masculinized context." Longer, more dramatic films developed around 1908, bringing middle-class concerns that nickelodeon fare was harming "impressionables." A censorship crisis and the resulting "uplift movement" meant the industry needed women, who were thought to be morally superior. Opportunities followed.

The greatest value of Mahar's book is that it introduces female filmmakers who might otherwise be forgotten. Blaché, for example, was one of the first filmmakers of either sex, a French expatriate who made more than 100 films before coming to the United States in 1907. As "director-general" of Solax, she made typical films: "melodramas, comedies, westerns, and military pictures." However, Mahar says, her films were marked by strong female agency, cross-dressing, and struggles against patriarchy. For example, Cupid and the Comet is about a woman who takes her father's military uniform to elope with her fiancé. The father, having no clothes, arrives at the wedding in his daughter's dress. In the Year 2000 features women who rule and men who obey. Gauntier, meanwhile, started as an actress but wrote scenes, directed, played leading roles, and worked with technical aspects such as developing, printing, and titling. Like many women, she learned several jobs to succeed in the business. Women also directed at large companies, including Universal and Vitagraph, and several female stars had their names on companies, though these were often backed by major producers such as Louis B.

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