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Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood
 Karen Ward Mahar

Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
$45. 291 pp. ISBN 0-8018-8436-5.


Reviewed by Anne Crémieux



Karen Ward Mahar’s thorough study of women filmmakers in early Hollywood, spanning from 1908 to 1929, is a fascinating entry into the formative years of the American film industry and how its doors opened and then closed on women directors. The author describes very specific power struggles that carry over to other fields and other times, up to the present with women comprising less than 15% of the Director’s Guild, and even less in terms of films directed or dollars earned. The first quarter of the twentieth century, that saw both the victories of the Suffragettes and the women-run censorship boards, serves as a warning to misconceived women’s causes and delusions of unstoppable feminist progress. In 1919, as women’s vote was amended into the Constitution, the backlash of cocky capitalism was just around the corner, led by the boys of big business hiring hordes of war heroes to replace female workers.

Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood mimics the structure of a silent feature. The introduction and prologue are about pre-1908 cinema, followed by Part One about the 1908-1916 Nickelodeon period, the First Stars and the Uplift movement. An Interlude is dedicated to the wave of “New Woman” heroines in serials. Part Two depicts the masculinization of Hollywood as a big business, with a special focus on Cecil B. DeMille and Lois Weber, as well as stars that started independent production companies, and the rise of the studiosystem. Finally, a short epilogue presents the woman Hollywood falsely portrayed—against her own wishes—as its first female director, Dorothy Arzner, and throws an interesting light on why she might have been the right woman in the right place at the right time.

Filled with information unrelated to gender that are key to understand the period, such as how the word “acting” supplanted “posing” after 1907 (85, quoting Richard DeCordova) or how President’s Wilson appreciation of Birth of a Nation transformed public opinion about moving pictures, Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood manages to explain the intricate workings of gendered labor, narratives, and power structure, in the light of contemporary societal discourses. Thus, as stars were perceived to be leading scandalous lives and Fatty Arbuckle was accused of rape, women directors were sought to uphold moral values and fight “poverty, male drunkenness, child labor, and the contamination of food and drink.” “All women were alleged to enjoy special insight as mothers,” Mahar explains [80]. Being excluded from democracy was not necessarily a handicap for “the fact that women could not vote placed them above politics, further enhancing their clout during an era of acknowledged political corruption.” Yet ultimately, the fact that women's skills were always attributed to some asset or fault deriving from their sex proved fatal, segregating them to more menial work. For instance, "the tasks performed by women in the photography department required what were assumed to be feminine skills: dexterity, neatness, and the ability to perform detailed, routine, fairly low-skilled tasks" [21]. "Nimble fingered girls" were called upon to clean, guide through machines, cut, and color film  (22, quoting Film Index from 1909).

Such belief in gendered work and gendered brains was held by women themselves. In a 1914 Motion Picture World article about the under-representation of women in "photodrama," French-born director Alice Guy Blaché declared that women “can make such splendid use of talents so much more natural to a woman, and so necessary to its perfection” [88]. Years later, in her autobiography, Blaché commented on the growing sexism in the industry, considering that the only reason she was given a chance at directing by Gaumont before 1900 was that the industry was yet unformed. “Once filmmaking became interesting, doubtless lucrative,” she claimed, “my directorship was bitterly disputed [44].” Although she does acknowledge the importance of individual sexism and in fact, its universalism, the author focuses on the workings of institutional sexism and how the growth of the industry and of its corporatism slowly and systematically repressed the fluidity of early production, to be replaced by the rigidity of the studio system (195-97; 201 about female editors). The war and Depression only comforted the domination of male enterprise [192-93]. This phenomenon was not limited to the United States. Alice Blaché, the woman who produced and directed In the Year 2000 (1912), "a science fiction fantasy in which women rule and men obey" [51], suffered greatly from the publicity of her divorce and upon returning to her home country, "claimed sexism made it impossible for her to pursue directing in France" [76]. She is considered as the first woman filmmaker in the industry and one of the first directors of a fiction film. Her husband continued on to a successful film career, a leitmotiv Karen Ward Mahar invariably points out about the women directors she focuses on.

The author looks at every way in which women managed to participate in the early film industry and how their positions evolved, from the usher girl to the script girl, from the nickelodeon owner to the film stars turned producers. Women were the greatest audience drawer as far as actors were concerned, but moral values, decency, and propriety were essential ingredients producers constantly had to reckon with. Athletic, inventive, bold women starred in adventurous western serials that always had an interesting romantic twist. They were called “new women,” speaking their minds in ways that still feel terribly modern today. “White slavery,” the abduction and prostitution of unknowing victims, was a great favorite of the urban masses, which producers attempted to exploit by offering serious, socially concerned fictions, but which were soon denounced for their voyeurism by the rising local censorship organizations, led by women who were denouncing not what women were doing but what men in the industry were making them do.

Many women started their own companies, the most famous probably being Mary Pickford, who along with husband Douglas Fairbanks and friend Charles Chaplin, founded United Artists. Many other female stars hoped for greater freedom and became their own producers, but most failed for numerous reasons, which Karen Ward Mahar diligently notes, including that athletic clubs, where most business deals were made, were off limits to women [181], or that women-directed films were readily labeled “women’s films” [191], diminishing box-office appeal. In chapter five, entitled “the Real Punches,” the author looks at the rise and ultimate failure of the “uplift movement” and the women filmmakers who supported it, advocating a socially uplifting cinema art, while men like D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille found the formula that would uplift the studio system and the big business ethics it advocated: entertainment. Karen Ward Mahar discusses two films with similar plots, one by social-uplifter Lois Weber (Shoes), the other by entertainer Cecil B. DeMille (The Golden Chance), both from 1915, the year Birth of a Nation came out [136-41]. While pointing out all the reasons why Weber’s is a “better” film, DeMille’s certainly sounds like it was more fun to watch. In an interview for Moving Picture World, Weber predicts that “the frothy, unreal picture is doomed.” Lois Weber was “tired of unrealistic, happy endings.” Cecil B. DeMille, not pictured in the best of lights in this book, was certainly better adapted to the times to come.

The greatest male filmmakers apparently did not do much to promote female filmmakers, even when they were good friends. Karen Ward Mahar quotes Charles Chaplin’s autobiography about Mabel Normand, whom he made many early films with. She was directing a picture starring Chaplin and was not letting him improvise on the set:

‘That was enough, I could not take it—and from such a pretty girl.’
Chaplin replied,
‘I’m sorry, Miss Normand, I will not do what I’m told. I don’t think you are competent to tell me what to do.’ [112]

Throughout the book, it is staggering to notice how the male references, Chaplin, Fairbanks, DeMille, Selznick, Ince, are necessary to situate the mostly unknown women whom, apart from a few major stars such as Pickford, Normand, Gish, or Garbo, the average reader quite simply knows very little about. In 1927, Dorothy Arzner was publicized by Paramount as their first female director, with no mention of Lois Weber’s prolific career at the studio. 

The final chapter on Arzner is short and serves as a conclusion of sorts. Arzner was manly in every way, wearing men’s suits and living with female companions, so that she was not feminized by the press or her co-workers, on the contrary. She declared herself that she “wanted to stand up as a director and not have people make allowances that I was a woman,” often complaining that “she had far more troubles from women than men” [206]. Karen Ward Mahar’s theory is that Arzner “got away with being a female director because Hollywood filmmaking could remain a man’s world, even with Dorothy Arzner in it” [207]. Unfortunately, Karen Ward Mahar does not discuss at all the kinds of films Dorothy Arzner made, possibly because unlike the other female filmmakers presented in this book, much has already been written about Hollywood’s only Golden Age female director, along with Ida Lupino whose career spans a later period.

To avoid the impression of inevitability that her thorough demonstration might induce, Mahar remarks that

the very presence of this generation of women filmmakers demonstrates that the male domination of Hollywood moviemaking was not a foregone conclusion but rather the outcome of a historical struggle that might have had a different ending. [ 203]

She concludes on the present times: “A century after the integration of women as filmmakers, the promise held out by the early American cinema is still unfulfilled” [208]. The reader is invited to return to the very first page and read the quote from Moving Picture’s 1916 July 1st edition stating that “any position which a man has occupied in the new industry has been, and is now, occupied by a woman.”

The book includes extensive endnotes and a comprehensive index, along with a bibliographical essay that provides a pleasant change from the usual uninformative bibliographic lists.


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