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Moving Image Section--Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division



Motion Pictures
The Silent Era
Women on Screen

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The Studio Era
The Post-Studio Era
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The Silent Era: Women Behind the Camera
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“This is the new style in fall camera ‘men.’” Photoplay Magazine. October 1916, p.103 (PN1993.P5). Moving Image Section, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.

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Before the film industry became a big business, women were involved in nearly every aspect of production. Writer Lizzie Francke has quoted screenwriter Beulah Marie Dix (1898-1973) on this point: “It was all very informal, in those early days. There were no unions. Anybody on the set did anything he or she was called upon to do. I've walked on as an extra, I've tended lights (I've never shifted scenery) and anybody not doing anything else wrote down the director's notes on the script . . . I also spent a good deal of time in the cutting room.” As Francke remarked, “In such a relatively egalitarian atmosphere women seemed destined to become equal partners with men in this new industry.” 5 The Library holds films created by many of these pioneering filmmakers, including works by Gene Gauntier (1891-1966), Helen Gardner (1885-1968), Mabel Normand (1894-1930), Cleo Madison (1883-1964), Grace Cunard (1893-1967), Julia Crawford Ivers (d. 1930), Ruth Ann Baldwin, and Dorothy Davenport Reid (1895-1977).

Alice Guy-Blaché

The first person believed to have directed a narrative film is Alice Guy (later known as Guy-Blaché, 1873-1968). In 1896, Guy was secretary to Léon Gaumont, whose French photography company was expanding to include the sale of a motion picture camera. Guy asked permission to make a story film to demonstrate the new device. Gaumont agreed, but only if the project did not interfere with her secretarial duties. Within a year, Guy was head of Gaumont film production; and by the time of her emigration to the United States in 1907, she had produced (often directing) about 400 short films.

In America, she formed her own film studio, Solax (1910-14), where, as president and chief director, she supervised the production of more than 300 movies. In 1913, Guy concentrated on making longer films, eventually directing 22 feature films. Her career spanned the evolution of film from embryonic one-reelers to sophisticated feature films that touched on topics such as marriage, divorce, and gender identity. Only a fraction of the films directed by Guy survive. Of the three extant features she made, the Library has an incomplete copy of one, The Ocean Waif (1916) [catalog record]. Several of Guy's surviving short films, including Algie the Miner (1912, FEB 7679), Canned Harmony (1912, FAA 1916), The Sewer (1912, FGE 5155), Matrimony's Speed Limit (1913, FAB 1473), and A House Divided (1913, FEA 5257), are in the Library's collections.

Lois Weber

Before embarking on a film career, Lois Weber (1882?-1939) had already toured as a child prodigy concert pianist, worked as a missionary in Pittsburgh, and appeared on the stage. In 1908, she joined the Gaumont studio in New York City, where she wrote, directed, and acted in motion pictures. Weber eventually moved to Hollywood, where she became Universal Studio's highest-paid director in 1916. In 1917, she formed her own production company and continued to make films that reflected her moral stand on important social issues. She had addressed birth control and abortion in Where Are My Children? (1916, VBK 2378), capital punishment in The People vs. Joe Doe (1916), and drug addiction in Hop, the Devil's Brew (1916). Her later films included a realistic drama of married life, Too Wise Wives (1921, FEA 7930-7935), and a treatment of the problems of ordinary people, The Blot (1921) [catalog record]. Additional holdings are listed in the Directors File.

Screenwriters and More

Women were also employed in a wide range of other activities behind the camera. They worked as costume designers, readers, script girls, film cutters, editors, set designers, and casting directors. Perhaps most significantly, as Cari Beauchamp has noted, “during the teens, 1920s, and early 1930s, almost one quarter of the screenwriters in Hollywood were women. Half of all the films copyrighted between 1911 and 1925 were written by women.” 6 The work of many of the major women screenwriters in Hollywood, some of whom also directed, can be found in the division's holdings, including films of Anita Loos (1893-1981), June Mathis (1892-1927), Frances Marion (1887-1973), Jeanie Macpherson (1884-1946), Ida May Park (1885?-1954), Bess Meredyth (1890-1969), Elinor Glyn (1864-1943), Lenore Coffee (1897-1984), and Jane Murfin (1893-1955). (See also What Women Wrote: Scenarios, 1912-1929 [catalog record], for access to dozens of screenplays written by women.)

Amateur Filmmakers

Even by the 1920s, filmmaking was not simply for professionals; it was possible for amateur filmmakers to produce fiction films for exhibition, whether for private audiences or in venues such as churches, schools, and community centers. Eloyce Patrick King Gist (1892-1974) used such venues to show films to the African American community. An independent businesswoman in the 1920s, Gist became involved with husband James Gist's filmmaking endeavors. She rewrote and re-edited his production Hell Bound Train (ca. 1929-30) and, along with James, produced, wrote, and directed Verdict Not Guilty (ca. 1930-33). The films in the Eloyce Gist Collection dramatize religious themes using casts of nonprofessional black actors. The movies were so widely shown that they literally fell apart along the splices and were received by the Library in hundreds of short fragments. Currently, only video copies of the out-of-sequence fragments for the two films are available for viewing (VBM 5130-5132). New 16mm prints will be made once the proper continuities for the films are determined. Correspondence regarding the films has been copied from the Manuscript Division's NAACP Records (box I. C-299—Subject File: Films and Plays-General—1924-33) and is available in the Gist vertical file in the Motion Picture and Television Reading Room.

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