One century ago this week, the May 18th, 1918 edition of “Moving Picture World” carried the following two-page ad:
Perhaps the single most striking thing about this ad from our perspective a century later is that a film of this prominence, considered worthy of an expensive advertising buy, was directed by a woman. Moreover, the female director’s name, Lois Weber, is prominently featured in the ad. It seems clear that her name is considered a selling point in the same way that, say, the name of D.W. Griffith was considered a promotable asset. Indeed, her 1915 release, HYPOCRITES, doesn’t content itself with featuring her name conspicuously on the main title card:
In addition, following the title card, we see a full-screen portrait of Weber, with her signature across the lower right — “Yours sincerely, Lois Weber”:
It was a stamp of creative ownership that went beyond a mere screen credit. And it was a trademark signet enjoyed by vanishingly few Hollywood creators, including her male counterparts.
It is well known that even in the 21st century Hollywood is largely a boys’ club. Female directors are beginning to be acknowledged, but it has been a long and tedious process to reach that point. With that in mind it would seem reasonable to assume that the situation could only have been worse in 1918, two years before women were granted the right to vote by the Nineteenth Amendment. But the truth is that women figured prominently in early cinema — not only as actresses but also as screenwriters, as directors, and even as executives.
French director Alice Guy was a particularly early pathfinder, making her first film for the Gaumont company in 1896. In 1907 she married Herbert Blaché and came to the United States with him as Alice Guy Blaché. In New York she started her own production company called Solax and in 1910 began making films for distribution through Gaumont.
Another pioneer was Gene Gauntier. She made her bones in the business as an actress for the Kalem company, but soon took on script writing assignments for Kalem as well. By December of 1912 she was ready to leave Kalem to establish her own production house, the Gene Gauntier Feature Players Company. She would later sell the story of her beginnings in the movie business to the “Woman’s Home Companion” in a series of as-told-to articles entitled, with no small justification, “Blazing the Trail”:
Female script writers were plentiful in those early days. Examples include Olga Printzlau, Margaret Turnbull, Jane Murfin, Eve Unsell, Jeanie Macpherson, Beulah Marie Dix, Anita Loos, and many more. It’s not a stretch to say that women dominated the screenwriting field in those days. This payroll listing from the scenario department at Famous Players – Lasky in 1928 shows Jeanie Macpherson and Beulah Marie Dix (under her married name) receiving higher pay than the male writers:
What accounts for the pre-eminence of women in these early days of Hollwood, given what we know about the industry in more recent times? Karen Ward Mahar, in her book WOMEN FILMMAKERS IN EARLY HOLLYWOOD, advances the proposition that the evolution of motion pictures began with a technological phase, in which various moving image and projection devices, from magic lanterns to zoetropes to sequential photographs, were consolidated into pieces of hardware that we would recognize as movie cameras. This phase was dominated by men, naturally enough given that gender roles at the time defined this kind of tinkering with mechanical gadgetry as the province of males. But if this new toy was to be exploited commercially, it wasn’t enough to simply present photographs that moved. People would pay to see that novelty once or twice, but would tire of it soon enough. It was the use of these moving images to tell stories that made them profitable on an ongoing basis.
But as soon as movies started to tell stories people began to worry about what kinds of stories they were telling. The early nickelodeons appealed primarily to the lower economic classes and were regarded with disdain by the upper classes. This prompted considerable hand-wringing about what kind of entertainment was being provided in these shabby showplaces. Thus, Mahar points out, from around 1908 to 1916 there is a period of “uplift” during which the movie industry strives to demonstrate that their storytelling intentions are entirely noble. One way of conveying this intent was to hire women to write the scripts. The prevailing gender stereotype, after all, held women to be inherently morally superior to men.
So what happened? With women apparently so firmly entrenched at all levels of the burgeoning industry, why didn’t Hollywood remain a lucrative haven for creative women? Because, Mahar points out, there was a third phase — the big business phase. The uplift phase worked, you see. Movies were ultimately accepted, and even embraced, by the upper classes. In the wake of that acceptance, what had already been a lucrative business moved up to the next financial stratum and became a major industry, on a par with the automotive industry or the steel industry. Once high finance entered the picture in the form of capitalization from Wall Street bankers, a more conservative world view inevitably took root. Now that women were no longer needed to confer a comforting sense of moral rectitude, they found their prominence in the industry slowly but surely, and quite firmly, eclipsed. Only now, decades later, are women once again approaching the level of prestige and influence they once enjoyed in Hollywood.
Meanwhile, a recently produced documentary on the work of Lois Weber is now making the rounds of the festival circuit:
YOURS SINCERELY, LOIS WEBER, directed by Svetlana Cvetko, takes its title from the highly personal by-line depicted above. The web site for the film is yourssincerelyloisweber.com.
For more information on the prominence of women in early Hollywood, I recommend these books:
and also this web site: