Her name should be one of the first to pop to mind when considering the pioneers of motion pictures. But thanks to a major oversight of film history (the first of many to follow wherever women are concerned), few today would place Alice Guy on the same pedestal as her celebrated cinematographic contemporaries Louis Lumière and Georges Meliés. Such an oversight is an injustice not only to women, but also to film history as a whole. In addition to being the first woman to direct a film, Guy was also the first person of any sex to make a fiction-based film (she beat Meliés by a few months). She was also one of the first to both direct and produce filmslots of themon a regular basis and was the first individual to make a primitive sound film.
reveals the heights to which a woman could aspire
in the new and wide-open industry of film. She started
in Paris as a mere secretary at the photographic
studio of inventor Léon Gaumont. When she
asked if she could use the camera to try her own
hand at making films, Gaumont said sure, on the
provision that her passion for film didnt
interfere with her secretarial duties. As early
as 1896, shortly after the first public presentation
of Lumiéres Cinematograph (December
1895), Guy had written, directed and produced her
first short film, La Fée aux Choux
(The Cabbage Fairy). She shot this, the first
story-picture, in the garden of her bosss
villa with a backdrop or two and a few costumed
friends. A sign of the many hats worn by early female
filmmakers, she also starred in the film, which
was the first of many to follow. Up until 1905,
she single-handedly directed all of Gaumonts
productions. Secretarial duties were no longer her
concern. When the work became too much for one woman,
she hired a couple of men as assistant directors
and photoplay writers, and voilà,
the French film industry was born.
That task done, she sailed to America along with a new invention called the Chronophone (she made over 100 synchronized sound films between 1902-06) and a new husband, Herbert Blaché. In 1910, she started a film production company called the Solax Company in New Jersey. Though her husband did play a role (many female pioneers worked in tandem with their men), she assigned herself the title of president and director-in-chief. In the mere four years of its operation, Solax released 325 films under her authoritative and creative supervision, over 50 of which were directed by Alice herself. In her quest to give the virtually untapped market of American movie-goers what it wantedromance, comedy, adventure, thrills and increasingly strong female charactersshe wrote, produced and directed films in a variety of different genres. Titles included Shadows of Moulin Rouge (a macabre thriller), Poes The Pit and the Pendulum, Woman of Mystery, The Divorcée and The Empress. When she realized that people wanted not only variety but also longer movies, she started the production of multiple reels in America, taking on Edison Trust and their ban on two-plus reelers in the process. On the set, she didnt sit glued to her directors chair, ordering men to perform the more dangerous tasks. She set off explosives, organized attacks by live sewer rats, directed acrobats on the high wires of the Brooklyn Bridge and coaxed a tigress back into her cage. No wonder that in a few years time she was known and respected everywhere as one of the leaders of the American film world.
By 1917, the Solax sun was on its way down. The big studios, many of them already based in southern California, were making it impossible for independent companies to survive, and the Guy-Blachés sold out in 1920. Soon after their marriage, like many others, fell apart. Unable to find work despite her significant resume, Alice returned to France. Even though she had been a pioneer in both France and America and was recognized as "the presiding genius of the Solax Company," her name meant nothing in her native country. Without samples of her work, she could not secure a job, and Alice Guy never made another film. Predictably, her less-talented husband continued to direct long into the talkies. Frustrated and eager to claim her rightful place in film history, she returned to the States in 1927 to search for her films, but her one-woman crusade was anything but victorious. In just a few years, all of her Solax productions had disappeared. Today all that remain of her prodigious accomplishments are a few one-reel works in the Library of Congress.
THE MOTION PICTURE
MISSIONARY: Lois Weber (1882-1939)
The first native-born American female director, Lois Weber, was the only director to devote an entire career to what were known as "thought films." Like her better-known contemporary D.W. Griffith, Webers mature vision and prolific working style allowed her to quickly develop a body of representative films. She was American cinemas first genuine autrice and the only female director in American film to become as important as any man, still a hard-won feat. Though few remain today, Lois Weber directed, wrote, starred in and produced a total of nearly four hundred films. She must also be credited as being the first woman to produce, direct, star in and co-author a major motion picture (the second being Barbra Streisand with Yentl).
A complex character, sadly overlooked by many contemporary feminists because of her negative views on abortion (she was adamantly pro-birth control), Weber started out as a street corner evangelist, singing hymns in the slums of New York and Philadelphia. When no pennies fell from heaven, she took to the stage, where she met her husband, actor Phillips Smalley. After two dreadfully dull years of homemaking, she found a job at the Blaché-run Gaumont Studio in New Jersey and proclaimed the movie camera her new soapbox. "Now I can preach to my hearts content," she said, "and with the opportunity to write the play, act the leading roles and direct the entire production, if my message fails to reach someone, I can blame only myself."
By 1916, she was working as the highest paid and most competent director at Universal Studios. No wonder she was also elected "Mayor of Universal City." Weber was apparently a one-woman studio herself, and by 1921 she was widely recognized as a picture pioneer and powerhouse. Motion Picture Magazine wrote: "Associated with the work since its infancy, she has set a high pace in its growth, for not only is she a producer of some of the most interesting and notable productions we have had, but she writes her own stories and continuity, selects her casts, directs the pictures, plans to the minutest details all the scenic effects, and, finally, titles, cuts and assembles the film. Few men have assumed such a responsibility." Fiercely independent, Weber must have also felt a responsibility toward other women in her field, for she used her powers to help promote the careers of fellow filmmakers like Cleo Madison, Lule Warrenton, Jeanie MacPhearson and Frances Marion.
As a celluloid missionary
to the modern times, Weber was determined to make
films that would not so much entertain as change
peoples notions about society and their role
in it. Though not a carefree flapper, she was in
many ways the model modern. Her serious, socially
engaged dramatic pictures challenged the prevailing
Victorian moral climate. In their frankness, they
boldly exposed the hypocrisy of such institutions
as marriage, government and high society and shocked
people into awareness by being immorally moral.
In The Hypocrites (1914), she used a story
of the religious duplicity of a monk as a way of
criticizing hypocrisy in marriage and corruption
in politics. Because of its subject matter and a
scene containing full female nudity, the film was
banned in many states and sparked riots at New Yorks
Strand Theatre. The People vs. John Doe (1916)
attacked capital punishment as well as shady police
methods used to obtain criminal confessions. Two
of Webers most challenging and controversial
films, the five-reel extravaganza Where Are My
Children? (1916) and The Hand That Rocks
the Cradle (1917) turned a favorable spotlight
on the taboo theme of birth control, while they
opposed abortion. Add topics like divorce, drug
abuse, materialism and sexual promiscuity to her
sensational list, and it becomes obvious why her
films were admired, talked about, censored and often
closed down by the police.
"Ill never be convinced that the general public does not want serious entertainment rather than frivolous," Weber said in a 1921 interview. Unfortunately, she didnt yet realize the extremes of frivolity that were to characterize the Roaring Twenties. As the years passed and the gin flowed, the public lost interest in her thought-provoking pictures. They wanted Clara Bows sex appeal, not Lois Webers preaching. When the talkies arrived in the late 20s, they announced that Webers moment had truly passed. Her vision just wasnt suited to sound, and even though she was the second individual (after Alice Guy) to make a sound picture, she only made three talkies of negligible merit. Unable to land directing jobs after the last of these, Weber worked for pennies as a script doctor and eventually withered away into a forgotten ghost of Hollywood past. When she was asked before her 1939 death what shed say to other women considering becoming directors, she answered bitterly, "Dont try it."
She had her reasons. With the male-run studio system firmly in place by the talkies, big profits and job specialization took precedence over versatility and a pioneering spirit, qualities so crucial in the silent era. Unless they looked like Jean Harlow or acted like Norma Shearer or Marlene Dietrich, women in Hollywood were politely shown the door. No matter what their past experience, no matter how fundamental a role they played in the new art and industry of film, as directors they were just too risky to hire. It was fun while it lasted, though, right?
Dorothy Arzner (1900-1979)
Director Dorothy Arzner was an exception to the new Hollywood rules. Because of a curious mixture of talent, character and independent sources of wealth, she became the only female director to survive the devastating transition from silence into sound. She was the only working woman filmmaker in Hollywood between 1929 and her forced retirement in 1943.
If anyone wore the pants at Paramount Studios, it was Dorothy Arzner. She entered the field as an editor and writer at Paramounts subsidiary, Realart Studio, where she worked on such classics as Valentinos Blood and Sand (1923), the spectacular westerns The Covered Wagon (1923) and Old Ironsides (1926) and the Mrs. Wallace Reid production, The Red Kimono (1925). Confident in her skills and eager to start directing, Arzner went right to the top and told Paramount head B.P. Schulberg she was leaving to go work for rival Columbia. When he enticed her with a job in the scenario department and a vague promise about directing in the future, she demanded he find her immediate work on an A picture (B pictures were already becoming the new female territory). Within months, she was behind the camera on the set of the light comedy Fashions for Women (1927), starring the first of her female stars-to-be, Esther Ralston. Her career was off to a flying start.
The "chick flick" basically began with Arzner. Like many before her, she was drawn to stories featuring tough, charismatic and awkwardly sensual women. Men were generally relegated to the sidelines, necessary only to move the plot and to highlight the more central and complex female bonds. As a modern woman, Arzner could understand her characters struggles, most notably the inability to find easy satisfaction in traditional female roles. As a closeted but evident lesbian (she lived with her partner, the dancer Marion Morgan), it seems she could also appreciate and highlight her actresses beauty, strength and powers of attraction. "There should be more of us directing," she once said. "Try as any man may, he will never be able to get the womans viewpoint in directing certain stories."
After making two films with Esther Ralston, Arzner was assigned to work on two films starring Clara Bow, Get Your Man (1927) and The Wild Party (1929). Although Ralston was apparently uncomfortable with her directors sex and sexual preference (oddly, many actresses were opposed to having a woman direct them), in the open-minded, free-spirited Clara Bow, Arzner met her match. Evidently the two were different enough to bond easily on the set, and Bows characteristic dynamism even inspired her more practical director to invent the fish-pole or "boom" microphone. The Wild Party, which, like all of Arzners major films, still exists today, is memorable not only as the first talkie of Paramount and "It girl" Clara Bow, but especially as the first picture which portrays the subject of female bondingat an all-girl collegein a positive light. The film opens with several co-eds lounging around the dorm together in their sexiest lingerie and only gets better from there. Though the explicit relationships are heterosexual, the women are clearly more in love with and dependent on each other than any man. This and other Arzner films no doubt paved the way for todays more frequent and open exploration of the pleasures and pitfalls of being a woman, evident in films as diverse as When Night is Falling (Patricia Rozema), Go Fish (Rose Troche), High Art (Lisa Cholodenko), Boys Dont Cry (Kimberly Peirce) and Female Perversions (Susan Streitfeld).
Tough, independent and unconventional, Arzner worked both as and with Hollywoods new breed of heroine. She paired up with Katharine Hepburn in the love vs. independence battle Christopher Strong (1933), with Rosalind Russell in the domestic nightmare Craigs Wife (1936), with Joan Crawford in The Bride Wore Red (1937) and with the soon-to-be TV queen Lucille Ball in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940).
During her lifetime, Arzner was celebrated as both a star maker and a profit maker. Miz Director always finished well under budget, and many of her films were smash hits. Her box-office savvy is, of course, the reason why Paramount kept her around. As women directors continue to discover, after one or two flops Hollywood rarely gives them a second chance. If only the same were true for Renny Harlin and producer Kevin Costner.
Arzner learned the hard way that directors, at least those of the fair sex, are as subject to typecasting as actresses. No matter how hard she tried to be respected solely on the merits of her work (in the early 20s, she even refused credit in order to avoid the gender bias), she was forever singled out and labeled as a "woman director," the only one at Paramount, the only one in Hollywood. If her movies were good, it was because of Arzners "womanly touch." If they were bad, this same female qualityi.e., too much sentimental fluffwas to blame. She could dress, as she did, in pants and tie, wear her hair cropped short and forego make up, but shed never be "one of the boys."
Despite the no-win situation, Arzner managed to retire a winner. In 1938, she eventually worked her way into the Screen Directors Guild, which before, and for the most part even after, was a strictly male club. History, with a boost from feminism, has cast a favorable light on her life and work. Thanks to the survival of her films and curiosity about the possible interplay between her films and her personal life, many today recognize her as the leader and the loner she truly was.
THE INDIE QUEEN
MOTHER: Ida Lupino (1918-1995)
In 1975, just a few years before her star shot into the constellation of Hollywoods Walk of Fame, the Directors Guild of America sponsored a benefit in Arzners honor. Ida Lupino, the next and one of the last women to carry the directing torch in America solo, presented the film clips in honor of her deserving predecessor. It is appropriate that Lupinos self-chosen nickname on the set was "mother of us all" because this accomplished actress-turned-writer, producer and director marks a turning point in the history of the female filmmaker. Though her feisty nature and independent spirit were reminiscent of early greats like Weber and Guy, Lupino was the first American woman director to have both feet planted in the era of modern cinema. Because of this, her challenges were noticeably greater than those faced by previous directors like Arzner, who benefited from the after-glow of the silent period. Not one to settle for the meager offerings of the major studios, Lupino quit Warner Brothers and her job as second-string Bette Davis and started her own independent film production company, Filmmakers, in 1949. This was an early sign of things to come, as the goal of Filmmakers was to do "high quality, low budget independent films on provocative subject matter, to tell how America lives and to be commercially successful at it." Opting for total creative freedom over mainstream Hollywood security, Lupino went out on limb in order to make the kinds of gritty, suspenseful, unconventional pictures that were faithful to her artistic, social and personal vision. Reminiscent of the early pioneers and a beacon for future indie directors, she proved that women are at their best flying solo. In the conservative, Pleasantville decade of the 1950s, Lupino shocked McCarthy-fearing movie-goers into recognizing that women were capable of a lot more than June Cleaver dullness and love-torn "chick flicks."
Lupinos films pack a punch. It is difficult to watch the best of them without becoming physically and psychologically engaged. My palms actually sweat. They are disturbing in the way that only hard-hitting and skillfully made films have a way of being. A chilling concoction of social realism à la Lois Weber and film noir, her pictures were generally shot on-location for an average of $160,000 and featured troubled characters trapped in triangles of anxiety, despair and moral ambiguity.
Not Wanted (1949), the first film she co-wrote and directed, deals almost too frankly with the taboo subject of unwed mothers and unwanted pregnancy. Sally Kelton is a virginal 19-year-old working gal who tries to escape her mundane existence by following a passionate but self-involved touring pianist. When she tells him shes pregnant, he leaves her to deal with it on her own, telling her bluntly that she knew what the deal was, that he made her no false promises. Ashamed and confused, she quits her new job and a potential (and pathetically crippled) new fiancé and, after wandering the streets in a daze, checks into a hospital for unwed mothers. As in most of Lupinos films, the truthful camera turns subjective when you least expect it. In a masterfully shot delivery scene, the expressionless faces of doctors and nurses fade in and out of focus as Sallys baby is extracted. Complete silence. She is detached from her body in a cold, death-like way. When she gives her child up for adoption, another phase of torment begins and she winds up in prison after stealing an unattended baby. The film ends with a tense final chase scene, which has you wondering whether shell leap off a bridge or be caught by her crippled boyfriend.
Lupinos Outrage (1950) takes on an even tougher, and until then totally avoided, issuerape. In this film, a young office worker (Mala Powers) is brutally assaulted on her way home from work. She finds refuge at an orange ranch where a minister helps her renew her faith in herself and others. Though criticized for run-of-the-mill plot lines, Outrage was applauded for its restraint and courage in dealing with such a risky, controversial topic.
Ida Lupino is often viewed as an anti-feminist because she subversively played up her gender (at a time when most women were trying to appear sexless to get ahead) and because many of her female protagonists were paralyzed by an inability to act. But it must be stressed that thisbeing caught between a rock and a hard placeis a constant in all of Lupinos films and one of the clearest signs of her stature as autrice. The paralysis of her young women is no less evident in her middle-aged leading men.
In her constantly surprising film The Bigamist (1953), for instance, a traveling salesman (Edmond OBrien) is trapped by his love for two different women in two different California cities. Not simply a guilt-free playboy, he is a caring husband who is driven to marrying a second wife (played by Lupino herself) when she becomes pregnant with his child. But his real motivation is lonelinessthe loneliness of a man whose (first) wife is too preoccupied with work to tend to his emotional needs. Traditional male-female roles are clearly subverted here. Tormented by guilt, the bottle-wielding husband is caught in a dilemma of duty, doubt and desire that not even the law can effectively resolve. As in most of her films, Lupino achieves a kind of moral ambiguity and detached objectivity by establishing multiple viewpoints (the husband, the two wives, an elderly adoption investigator), which strengthen the tension between the protagonist and the social forces that cause or accentuate his or her inner turmoil.
This same tactic works to perfection in a film that Lupino and others recognized as her masterpiece, The Hitch-Hiker (1953). Based on the real-life case of a 21-year-old kidnapper and hitchhiking slayer of six, this tense psychological noir shot in the barren California-Mexico desert is essentially a power struggle between the criminal and the two middle-aged fishing pals who pick him up. The dialogue is minimal, the pace is slow but kinetic and the setting is an ominous backdrop to the unknown fate of the gun-held victims. Like the bum-eye of the hitchhiker, which remains creepily open even when he sleeps, Lupinos camera keeps the viewer guessing along with the two fearful men up until the films quick, decisive ending. Its pretty much guaranteed that after seeing this film no one was praising or criticizing her for having a "womanly touch." This is about as raw as it gets.
Ida Lupino is the uncontested mother of todays newest and toughest generation of femmes filmmakers. By favoring independence and creative control over guaranteed box-office success, she crafted the motto "direct or bust!" which seems to be the driving force behind many of todays best films. The Lucille Ball of the directing world, Lupino was also the first to take advantage of the smaller, yet oftentimes greener pastures of television. After her company went under, she kept her directorial muscles flexed by working on a hundred or so episodes of everything from Bonanza to Gilligans Island.
If Ida Lupino were still alive today, you might see her name behind an episode or two of Sex and the City. Shed be in good company. Today, directors as different in style as Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan), Allison Anders (Gas, Food, Lodging) and Allison MacLean (Jesus Son) keep their visions flexible and their pockets filled by occasionally directing for television. But women filmmakers of today dont need to settle for the motion picture purgatory of television. Nor, it seems, are they about to.
It may be too early to tell, but the signs of a new Golden Age of women in film are pretty damn encouraging. Thanks in part to the growing significance and support of independent film companies and festivals (Sundance, Telluride, the Independent Film Channel) and to the affordable option of digital filmmaking, women are finally getting a degree of exposure they havent seen for nearly a century. Graduating from top film schools in constantly rising numbers, their names are popping up (almost) everywhere lately in connection with first-rate, original, independently produced films. And when they deserve it, they are met with recognition, rewards and, most importantly, the promise of being able to make more films. Like many of the best pioneers, young women directors are going for the gold by taking on projects they can study and shape, films that will allow them full, or nearly full, creative control. Films that pack a punchand a message.
Sexuality, violence, gender issues, rape, drug addiction, psychotic fantasiesno topic is taboo to todays indie women directors. True to history, these women seem to be at their best when forcing, shocking or poetically seducing us into dealing with subjects that wed otherwise turn away from, thank you. And we are starting to love them for it.
Kimberly Peirces disturbing debut, the transsexual tragedy Boys Dont Cry, was routinely hailed as one of the best pictures of 1999. Allison MacLeans drug-enhanced tale of addiction and redemption, Jesus Son, wowed critics across the country with its innovative story-telling techniques and its surprising blend of down-and-out degradation, goofy humor and pure-hearted humanity. In her adaptation of Brett Easton Elliss F slasher novel, American Psycho, Mary Harron made audiences laugh and cringe at Patrick Batemans blatant dissection fantasies and the ignorance of his vapid yuppie friends. Sofia Coppola set herself apart from her father in her stunning first film The Virgin Suicides, a beautifully layered story of five ill-fated sisters and the young boys who worshipped them. The indie festivals have already started to take notice of the merit of some of the best womens films. Girlfight, an original story about a girl who learns to control her temper and channel her strength in the boxing ring and the debut of 33-year-old writer-director Karyn Kusana, won both Best Director and Grand Jury Prizes at Sundance last year. Writer-director Jenniphr Goodmans first feature, the existentially inclined romantic comedy The Tao of Steve, has also earned kudos for its writing, directing and acting. In January, Sundance awarded Kate Daviss digital documentary about a transsexual whos dying of ovarian cancer, Southern Comfort, the Documentary Jury Prize. The alternative press is catching on, too. Always on the lookout for cutting-edge films, Gadfly graced its "Top Ten Films of 2000" list (March/April, 2001) with three, count em three, of these women-directed filmsJesus Son, American Psycho and The Tao of Steve.
As other women continue to settle for less, sometimes a lot less, in Hollywood, these young pioneers are doing things the hard way. If they continue to be backed by funding, talent and the endurance of a boxer in the 11th round, they could be making films for a good long time. I know Ill be there in the ring, watching and cheering them, the ghosts of Guy, Weber, Arzner and Lupino by my side.
In 1912, Alice Guy
produced a science fiction film called In the
Year 2000 in which women were portrayed as the
rulers of the world. Since this film did not survive
the test of time, it should be remade, the dates
pushed up a year or two. Instead of science fiction,
though, Id propose a true-to-life story starring
the future rulers of the film world. Hopefully,
by the time this film is made, the word "woman"
will have blown away with the "male"-dominated
mainstream. At this point in utopian time, an innovative,
independent and truly great maker of films will
be called, simply, a filmmaker.
Best of Gadfly:
of the Apes
an Apathetic Audience
Rock(A Hard Day's Night)
Cannes Film Festival
Ebert's 3rd Overlooked Film Festival/David Urrutia
Is on My Side
Artist Not at All Known as Prince
Up on Ochs
From the Book of Job
in Terre Haute