Underexposed: The Role of Women Filmmakers in the Early Days of Cinema

The BFI’s new boxset highlights the important part women played in establishing cinema as an artistic medium 

In her essay accompanying the British Film Institute’s new Blu-ray box set release, Early Women Filmmakers 1911–1940, silent film specialist Pamela Hutchinson makes a powerful case for Alice Guy-Blaché (18731968) being the founder of narrative filmmaking. (A documentary on her life, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, was released in 2019.) Born in Paris, Guy-Blaché worked in France and the US: the two countries where moving image was pioneered. On 22 March 1895, she attended the Lumière brothers’ demonstration of the Cinématographe. The following year, she was the first woman to direct a film: La Fée aux choux (The Cabbage Fairy), which was also the first-ever scripted fiction film. This, like so many important silent films, is long lost. The Guy-Blaché works on this box set consist of six shorts made in the US between 191214, and the surviving 41 minutes of a feature, The Ocean Waif (1916).

Guy-Blaché is uncredited on the strongest of her featured works, a loose adaptation of an O. Henry short story titled Falling Leaves (1912). This touching, ten-minute melodrama shows the director’s skill in working with actors, especially six-year-old Magda Foy as a girl who reacts to hearing that her older sister will die of tuberculosis ‘before the last leaf falls’ by tying them to the trees. Guy-Blaché then moved into comedy, anticipating Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant (1917) with Making an American Citizen (1912). In the film, marriage equality is pictured as a condition of citizenship: Americans teach Mrs Orloff – a newly arrived migrant to the US – to stand up to her abusive husband and invert their (imported) gender roles.

Olga Preobrazhenskaya, Peasant Women of Ryazan, 1927, film still. Courtesy: © British Film Institute, London

With her unfussy mid-range shots, Guy-Blaché helped to establish the conventions of cinematic naturalism. The prolific Lois Weber (1879–1939) – who made one film per week in 1911 as writer, actor, director, editor and negative developer – pioneered formal techniques such as the split screen in Suspense (1913), which she co-directed with her husband, Phillips Smalley. This single-reel thriller is rightly seen as one of the first ‘experimental’ films. Using a triangular triptych to show us a woman urging her husband to rush home before a burglar breaks into their house, the tension is heightened further with close-ups on the intruder’s eyes and hands; the motif of his arm breaking through a door later became a horror-movie trope. Like Guy-Blaché, Weber is better with drama than comedy: The Blot (1921), a realist work documenting poverty and inequality through a forensic focus on two families, is far more affecting than the fusion of social commentary and comedy in Discontent (1916), the story of an elderly Civil War veteran dreaming of the luxurious life his nephew enjoys. 

Alice Guy-Blache, undated. Courtesy: The British Film Institute, London

Alice Guy-Blaché, undated. Courtesy: The British Film Institute, London

The second disc showcases Mabel Normand (1892–1930), who has not been forgotten, but whose contribution to the development of film comedy has been seriously understated. The five works here in which she features as director and/or actor have not all aged well – the plots of the shorter works are hard to follow, and the slapstick nowhere near as sophisticated as that developed by her co-star Charlie Chaplin in His Trysting Place (1914). She was the star of Should Men Walk Home? (directed by Leo McCarey in 1927) and it’s her strongest (and final) film. It’s a subtle commentary on class and gender via its romantic story of two thieves who decide to work together after failing to con each other. Normand’s faux-naif character shows her mastery of facial expression, gesture and timing and she outshines one of her subsequently far more famous co-stars – Oliver Hardy.

Dorothy Arzner, Dance, Girl, Dance, 1940, film still. Courtesy: © British Film Institute, London

The collection highlights the contributions that female directors made not just to the transition from shorts to features, but also from silent movies to ‘talkies’. Marie-Louise Iribe’s Le Roi des Aulnes (The Erl King, 1930), a surrealist-inflected adaptation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem ‘Erlkönig’ (1782), makes beautiful use of double-exposure, which lends a dreamlike quality to the fairies that the folkloric Erl King conjures up in the forest. The film draws on the aesthetics of Iribe’s avant-garde contemporaries such as Jean Epstein and Jean Cocteau, even if it eschews aural experimentation, grafting a few lines of dialogue into essentially a silent film. Iribe’s compatriot Germaine Dulac – one of the most fascinating figures in 1920s cinema and surely worthy of her own collection – features twice here. Her most famous work, The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928), made with Antonin Artaud, is not included, but The Smiling Madame Beudet (1922) is. It remains a bold and innovative film, portraying the protagonist’s inner life and desires through double exposure, extreme close-ups, dissolves, montages and associative editing. It’s more of a psychological portrait than a feminist statement but, for Dulac to portray a woman frustrated with her marriage was, for the time, a revolutionary act in itself.

The final disc offers a rare chance to see a work by Olga Preobrazhenskaya (1881–1971), one of the first female Soviet filmmakers. Her best-known feature, The Peasant Women of Ryazan (1927), is an intriguing counterpoint to Guy-Blaché’s Making an American Citizen, contrasting the fortunes of two women in the same village – one of whom represents traditional gender roles, the other a ‘New Woman’ as theorized by the Bolshevik feminist Aleksandra Kollontai. Preobrazhenskaya doesn’t fit into the Soviet avant-garde lineage of Sergei Eisenstein, Lev Kuleshov and Dziga Vertov, although the film’s climactic montage on the death of the protagonist achieves a similar level of psychological insight to Dulac’s Madame Beudet. Preobrazhenskaya’s technique has all the more impact for its place within a naturalistic film that, like Dulac’s work, makes its male characters subservient to the development of its female ones.

Mabel Normand, Mabel’s Strange Predicament, 1914. Courtesy: © British Film Institute, London

Bookending the collection, Mary Ellen Bute’s captivating abstract animation, Parabola (1937), represents the pre-war North American avant-garde: a culture changed irrevocably by one of the greatest female filmmakers, Maya Deren, whose Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), marked the birth of US underground film. As with any collection of such ambition, there are inevitably omissions, but Early Women Filmmakers clearly states its point: women played an important part in establishing cinema as an artistic medium – not merely by participating in crucial developments, but by leading them.

Early Women Filmmakers 1911–1940 is released on Blu-ray by British Film Institute.

Main image: Dorothy Arzner, Dance, Girl, Dance, 1940, film still. Courtesy: © British Film Institute, London

Juliet Jacques is a writer and filmmaker based in London, UK. Her most recent book, Trans: A Memoir, was published by Verso in 2015. She co-hosts Suite (212) on Resonance 104.4fm, which looks at the arts in their social, cultural, political and historical contexts.

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