When the earliest audiences sat down to enjoy the invention of the cinematograph, they marvelled at the technology, not the content. The magic of this process, of putting one image in front of the other, shining light through celluloid and recreating in two dimensions and monochrome such familiar scenes as a baby being fed, wasn’t associated with storytelling from the beginning, but that would happen soon enough. By the time cinema became an industry in the 1920s and one of America’s biggest exports in the 1940s, many of the artists from the years between the artform’s inception and its maturity were mostly forgotten with the exception of those who stuck around long enough to still be appearing on screen (Chaplin and Keaton, namely). It should come as no surprise that many of these long-lost pioneers were women. They worked as producers and directors (sometimes while also performing in front of the camera) but whose numbers dwindled by the time the industry formed a power structure that, as we often see in America’s economic growth throughout the twentieth century, sees patriarchy and capitalism walk hand in hand.
It also could not have helped keep these pioneer women on audience’s minds that many of those featured in the Criterion Channel’s Early Women Filmmakers collection died so young: children’s author Madeline Brandeis (car accident) and French director Marie-Louise Iribe (illness) both at the age of 39, French journalist Germaine Dulac died during the war at 59, frequent Chaplin collaborator Mabel Normand of tuberculosis at 37 and Maya Deren from a brain hemorrhage at 44. Were it possible that they could extend the development of their craft into the sound era under the harsh male gaze of Hollywood’s studio heads, they might have made a more lasting impression, running alongside the sole celebrated female auteur of the mid-century, Dorothy Arzner.
In terms of those who lived long, full lives and yet still needed the more recent, revived popularity of silent cinema to make their names known again, we could also note that many of the directors in this collection reached their artistic zenith in a period before movie magazines and publicity machines, and worked in an era that lost its popularity very quickly with technological revolutions. Upon closer examination, though, it appears more likely that their lives got in the way: Olga Preobrazhenskaya began as an actress and directed films under Soviet control from 1916 to 1941, dying at the age of 90, and Dorothy Davenport began directing under the name “Mrs. Wallace Reid” after her husband’s death from morphine addiction at the age of 31, but by the studio era was pushed out of the director’s chair and only has credits producing and writing (she died at 82). The collection centers around Alice Guy Blaché, who rose from employee at the still-extant Gaumont studios to its head of production, then resigned when she got married, moved to the States and began her own studio with her husband. She is considered to be the only female filmmaker who worked from 1896 to 1906, made hundreds of movies, then following the dissolution of her marriage and move to Hollywood, ended her career in bankruptcy, never again making a film between 1922 and her death (at the age of 94!) in 1968 (you can discover the details in Marquise Lepage’s excellent documentary The Lost Garden: The Life and Cinema of Alice Guy Blaché).
The Criterion Channel has taken Flicker Alley’s Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology collection, previously available on DVD and Blu-Ray, and generously presented it to subscribers, preserving the company’s helpful and informative biographies that accompany each film. The artists cover a span of decades and countries and provide the opportunity to see cinema come into its own through a variety of perspectives, also among them animators Mary Ellen Bute and Lotte Reiniger, who directed the first animated feature film, MIT engineer graduate Claire Parker, the inimitable Lois Weber, the perpetually controversial Leni Riefenstahl, and two African-American pioneers, Eloyce Gist and Zora Neal Hurston.
The Cigarette (Germaine Dulac, 1919)
Dulac’s earliest extant film is a stunningly photographed and sharp tale of masculine fragility and marital vulnerability. A middle-aged museum curator loves his very young wife but believes her friendship with a golf pro is making a cuckold of him. Having in his possession (and actually displayed in his hallway) the mummified remains of an ancient Egyptian man who poisoned himself for love of his unfaithful wife, our present-day hero plans to do the same, contaminating one of the cigarettes in the box on his desk and waiting for fate to do the rest. Wittily clever and stunning to look at, the film has a great deal of sympathy for its characters even when they are their most self-indulgent.
The Peasant Women of Ryazan (Olga Preobrazhenskaya, Ivan Provov, 1927)
Extraordinarily good, tragic melodrama about the lives of women in rural 1914 Russia. A stubborn, angry father forces his son Ivan to accept an arranged marriage with Anna and the union is immediately blessed thanks to their instant attraction. The man’s daughter Vassilisa loves a blacksmith that he refuses to let her marry, so she goes and lives with him without getting married and the couple make themselves a target for judgment in the community. When the men go off to war, Anna falls victim to her father-in-law’s abusive lust and dreads her husband’s return, while Vassilisa’s fortunes go elsewhere. Superb characterizations and a deeply moving story about the space between expectations of women’s behaviour and the realities that they are subjected to, enriched by Preobrazhenskaya’s setting it in a landscape that has as much bucolic splendour as it does the hard toil of working on the land.
The Woman Condemned (Dorothy Davenport, 1934)
A popular singer (Lola Lane) decides to take a break from her career but doesn’t tell anyone why, presumably to get away from her lover’s complicated relationship status with other women. A career cat burglar (Claudia Dell) breaks into Lane’s apartment and witnesses Lane’s murder, then once found on the premises is arrested and placed on trial for the crime. Thankfully, Dell’s beauty has captured the eye of newspaper reporter Richard Hemingway, who investigates the case in the hopes of getting his lady freed. All this in a mere 65 minutes as director Dorothy Davenport (a former silent screen star, billed here as Mrs. Wallace Reid) makes up for the awkward early 1930s’ sound recording quality with a twisty and exciting plot.
On the Barricade (Alice Guy Blaché, 1907)
Perceptive, deeply amusing short in which a young man interrupts a meal with his mother to go on an errand. He ends up accidentally walking into a barricade being created by revolutionaries against national authorities, but is more concerned with getting in trouble at home than anything that could happen to him at the end of a policeman’s rifle. There are a great deal of specific and smart elements packed into this six minutes of magnificence.
Suspense (Lois Weber, Phillips Smalley, 1913)
Weber shows incredible skill with pace and editing in this exciting short. After her husband goes off to work in the city, a confused vagrant breaks into Weber’s house where she is alone with her baby. She calls her husband to come home and he steals a car to do so, chased by the police while racing to get to his wife who has barricaded herself in her bedroom.
Mabel’s Strange Predicament (Mabel Normand, 1914)
The “strange predicament” of the title is that hotel guest Mabel is being harassed by a drunk Charles Chaplin (putting his Little Tramp on screen for the first time). She hides under the bed in another man’s room, which becomes a problem when the man, his dog and even her own suitor enter the room searching for her. Normand’s prolific career included a number of collaborations with Chaplin, many of which she directed, and this one is proof of a gift for directing spontaneously smooth comedy.
The Stolen Heart (Lotte Reiniger, 1934)
The people of a village play their musical instruments that are then stolen by a miserable villain, and with the loss of music the town loses its soul. Thankfully the musical instruments eventually escape and restore joy in this animated fable that many saw as Reininger commenting on Nazi oppression.
Day of Freedom (Leni Riefenstahl, 1935)
Riefenstahl’s films are often presented as examples of how effective propaganda can be. In her case, she successfully sold an evil message through highly persuasive images of strength and power. After the German army complained about not being enough of a focus in her best known work, Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl made this short that celebrated the country’s military might. Once again she very skillfully edited together images that emphasized aesthetic superiority and bottomless resources to convince audience members that the Third Reich’s plans to take over the world couldn’t possibly fail.
Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort, South Carolina, May 1940 (Zora Neale Hurston, 1940)
Fans of Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust should check out this footage captured by author, anthropologist and filmmaker Hurston at a church on one of the Sea Islands in South Carolina. The lack of electricity made it impossible to record sound, so the soundtrack uses different audio recorded by Norman Chalfin around the same time. Beautiful, clear footage makes for a rich and effective glimpse into a time and place.
Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, Alexander Hammid, 1943)
Deren was one of the pioneers of the avant-garde in American filmmaking, and this fourteen-minute exploration of surreal imagery is considered her cornerstone work. It’s the kind of thing that would later be fodder for arthouse parody, but here the compilation of elements, from the key that gives her access to the world outside her domestic limitations, to the mirrored figure reflecting back her feelings about her self-image, are as thoughtful as they are self-consciously composed.
The Blot (Lois Weber, 1921)
Weber laments a society that builds prestigious institutions of learning for the sons of rich men to attend, but doesn’t pay its educators a living wage. Professor Philip Hubbard can barely keep up with mortgage and groceries and his family does without proper nutrition, which his student Louis Calhern learns when he falls in love with the professor’s librarian daughter (Claire Webber). Its possible that Weber lays the poverty-angle on a bit thick (like having the professor’s wife, played by Margaret McWade, steal a chicken off her neighbour’s window sill), but she gets subtle and natural performances out of her actors and, in a time when the medium relied on clichés to get stories across to audiences, makes a film relatively free of them.
The Smiling Madame Beudet (Germaine Dulac, 1923)
Dulac examines the imbalance of power in modern-day marriage, presenting a very grim portrait of a couple who have lost whatever connection they may once have had. Tired of being ignored by her husband and left to sit around her house with little to do, Madame Beudet escapes frequently into fantasies about an alternate world in which she is more than just a wife. Driven to despair, she puts bullets in the gun her work-obsessed husband likes to play with, thinking that she can end their misery by getting him to kill himself. The results take an ironic turn in this interesting, often imaginative drama.
Hell-Bound Train (James Gist, Eloyce Gist, 1930)
The Gists were a married couple who made this film to be presented at religious gatherings. Its clever conceit functions somewhat similarly to the more recent phenomenon of “hell houses” in faith-based communities. A train moves swiftly on its tracks with the devil (an actor in a terrific costume) as its engineer. Each car of the train highlights a different kind of sin that is a danger for god’s children in the jazz age, and could lead to their eternal damnation: dancing to secular music, drinking, gambling and the inevitable sexual wantonness that follows. It sounds corny and the few resources that the filmmakers, pioneers in African American cinema, had at their disposal is obvious, using only available light, shooting on 16mm film and presenting some very basic visual effects (particularly in the conclusion when the train of fools reaches the fiery pit of hell). The cast of actors all perform their cautionary tales with marked sincerity, though, and us modern-day heathens can get an almost twisted glee out of the wholly unironic manner in which the lessons are meted out.
The Erl King (Marie-Louise Iribe, 1931)
Iribe films an adaptation of Goethe’s poem using the music that Schubert composed to accompany it, a mix of the traditional fairy tale of the Grimm fairy tale of the king of the elves with the dramatic story of a father and son. A man is seen traveling on horseback with a young boy that we come to realize is ill, trying his best to get him to help. The boy is visited by visions of dancing fairies and is tempted by the Erlking to leave his father and follow him to a life of riches and pleasures. The lovely visual effects are seamlessly integrated into the main action as Iribe elegantly represents the tragedy of what is happening through the mode of fantasy.
A Story Well Spun (Alice Guy Blaché, 1906)
Delightful short in which a man gets into a giant barrel and is pushed down a hill. Aside from the fun of its conceit, attention must be paid to Guy Blaché’s skill with photography and editing.
Falling Leaves (Alice Guy Blaché, 1912)
A sweet fable about a little girl who learns that her older sister is dying of consumption. The doctor tells her that the patient will be dead by the time the last leaves fall to the ground, and our tiny heroine decides to forestall the inevitable by going into her garden and tying leaves to their branches. Light, poignant and so elegant in execution.
The Girl in the Armchair (Alice Guy Blaché, 1912)
Blaché created such interesting situations in her short films, including this sweet tale of a gambling addict who is ashamed to reveal his problem to his wealthy father. He rejects the young woman that he is introduced to as a marriage prospect, but she loves him anyway, and after she witnesses him steal money from his father’s safe to pay off a large debt, she steps in to take care of the matter. Instead of a melodramatic tone of self-sacrifice, Blaché emphasizes delicacy and kindness, which makes this film feel so light and sweet.
Discontent (Lois Weber, Allen G. Siegler, 1916)
An intelligent and absorbing drama that takes a sensitive look at old age as well as examining the effect of class difference within a family. Old uncle J. Edwin Brown hates his life at his old folk’s home and is elated when his wealthy nephew invites him to come and live in his mansion. The family is welcoming but Brown finds the lifestyle too rich for his blood. Weber puts a lot of philosophy into a short running time in this poignant study.
Papageno (Lotte Reiniger, 1935)
The joyful bird catcher in Mozart’s The Magic Flute is the focus of this lovely short in which Reininger animates his adventures in the forest with excerpts from the operetta accompanying him on the soundtrack. The attention to detail in the design of characters and settings makes monochrome silhouettes feel lush and alive before your eyes.
ONLY IF YOU’RE CURIOUS
Miss Dundee and Her Performing Dogs (Alice Guy Blaché, 1902)
Guy-Blaché’s oeuvre includes a wealthy variety of features and shorts, narratives and novelties, and this one is the latter. For five minutes we get to enjoy the titular sideshow act, our lovely hostess prompting her various furry canine friends (and she has quite a few of them) to perform delightful tricks for the camera.
Making an American Citizen (Alice Guy Blaché, 1912)
Guy Blaché reportedly based this one on her own experience immigrating to the United States with her husband. An eastern European couple follow their neighbours’ advice to seek out a better life in America, but when they arrive find that the American dream makes some very harsh demands before allowing them their chance at prosperity. Expertly shot and performed.
Harlequin (Lotte Reiniger, 1931)
Reiniger was an animation artist whose style took the form of silhouettes, inventing an early version of the multiplane camera that she used for all her works. Best known for her feature film The Adventures of Prince Achmed, she also made this elegant short, a love story in which her paper cutouts have the flow and strength of ballet dancers.
A Night on Bald Mountain (Alexandre Alexeiff, Claire Parker, 1938)
Setting Mussorgky’s music to animation is more famously done in Disney’s Fantasia a few years later, but this is certainly the more haunting exploration of the piece, in which the directing couple use painstaking pin-screen animation to create all the scary things that come alive in the darkness of night.
Spook Sport (Mary Ellen Bute, Norman Mclaren, Ted Nemeth, 1939)
Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre is set to beautiful, full-colour animation from Bute’s experimental imagination, with Canadian Oscar-winning filmmaker Norman McLaren painting the images directly on celluloid. The precision with which the sound and image work together is awe-inspiring.
The Star Prince (Madeline Brandeis, 1918)
Brandeis employs an entire cast of children in her film which accompanied the fairy tales she published in print around the same time. It’s a lovely morality tale about kindness and modesty in which a little boy who fell from a star and was raised by a humble farmer grows up to think himself better than all his peers. After cruelly rejecting the birth mother who comes to claim him, a fairy godmother turns him hideous and he realizes the error of his ways, but must travel to a faraway kingdom in order to save a princess from marrying an evil dwarf (who is, ironically, taller than the other actors). A few moments of inventive magic perks up an otherwise straightforward film.
Parabola (Mary Ellen Bute, Ted Nemeth, 1937)
Bute and Nemeth create ten minutes of footage examining the beauty of “nature’s poetry”, compiling a series of images of arcs and examining them from all angles. Aesthetically pleasing, highly experimental.