Silent No More: BAM showcases the work of pioneering women filmmakers in July series
Ask film historian Shelley Stamp, UC Santa Cruz professor and founding editor of Feminist Media Histories, about misconceptions people have concerning early female filmmakers, and her immediate answer is this: “That there weren’t any.” The names most people know from the first decades of film history belong to men: Griffith. Chaplin. Lumière. Pioneers honed their crafts, and money rolled in, with studios—and studio moguls—springing up to transform a freewheeling enterprise into a behemoth that would transform culture the world over for the next century-plus. More male names: Mayer. Warner. Cohn. Only later, we are told, were women able to carve out a space behind the screen as well as in front of it, with the early triumphs of those such as Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino leading to your modern-day DuVernays and Bigelows.
But a new series curated by Stamp—running at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from July 20 to July 26—wants to introduce a wider audience to some different names: Lois Weber. Alice Guy Blaché. Nell Shipman. Grace Cunard. These are, as the series title proclaims, “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers.”
“The business wasn’t nearly so male-dominated in its early years,” Stamp explains. “Many female filmmakers thrived, many female stars had powerful production companies, and all of the top screenwriters were women in early Hollywood. Women’s voices were valued in the first decades of moviemaking, much more so than they are now, I believe.”
One of the most successful women directors of this early period was Lois Weber, who (per Stamp) “had a 30-year career that encompassed many of the key changes to the early industry—the move to Hollywood, the rise of feature films, studio conglomeration, even the coming of sound.” “Pioneers” plays host to two programs of Weber’s shorts, one each on Friday the 20th and Saturday the 21st. A particular standout is 1915’s Hypocrites, playing on Friday, a then-controversial film in which Weber takes aim at those who hide immoral behavior under a cloak of pseudo-religious piety. In that film, Weber shows a remarkable aptitude for visual storytelling. Those who associates silents with a certain level of prudishness may be shocked to see that the character of “Truth” is played by an entirely naked actress.
The genres on display in Weber’s programs run the gamut, from thriller to dramas to an early music video (The Rosary), putting lie to another misconception people have about early female filmmakers. Hell, it’s one people have about female filmmakers today: that they mostly make “women’s films,” aka films either made exclusively for women or addressing so-called “women’s” issues. (Kathryn Bigelow and Lynne Ramsay may have something to say about that.)
On the contrary, “Pioneer”’s opening-night film, 1919’s Back to God’s Country, is a full-on action-adventure movie. The film was written by and stars Nell Shipman, playing a frontierswoman who—with the help of a dog magnificently named Wapi the Killer—defeats a band of brutal criminals in the Canadian wilderness. With its nail-biting third act chase (on dogsleds, no less!), it’s no surprise that this one was remade twice, once in 1927 and again in 1953 with Rock Hudson. (Both films had male writers.)
To be sure, Shelley notes, a lot of the films in BAM’s series do focus on “key feminist issues like gender equality, racism, birth control, prostitution, poverty, queerness, motherhood, animal rights and more.” For example, there’s 1925’s The Red Kimona (screening Sunday, July 22), directed by Dorothy Davenport and Walter Lang, about a woman (Priscilla Bonner) forced into prostitution. Kimona literally—by way of a framing device where a narrator directly addresses the audience—asks viewers not to castigate its heroine, but instead to offer sympathy and support to those in similar situations.
Davenport’s Linda (1929), screening Monday, July 23, offers an indictment of limited opportunities offered to women in its story of an intellectually curious but uneducated young woman (Helen Foster) forced to marry an older man despite being in love with someone else. Both Linda and The Red Kimona put their heroines directly at the center of their own stories. They have agency. To be sure, they suffer at the hands of men—both individuals and the wider patriarchy—but instead of being meek, pitiable victims who require rescue, they save themselves through perseverance and strength of character. Often, the people who help them along the way are not men, but other women.
The “Genre Film Pioneers” block, playing on Tuesday, July 24th, gives us films from Grace Cunard (who “wrote, directed and acted in her action-adventure serials, usually doing her own stunts,” per Stamp) and Ruth Ann Baldwin, whose ’49-’17 (1917) is an offbeat revisionist western about a young man who enlists a theatrical troupe to recreate a Gold Rush town for the benefit of an nostalgic ex-miner forced to leave his beloved Old West decades earlier.
Two of the most famous women filmmakers are represented in BAM’s series: Alice Guy Blaché, who gets a Saturday, July 21 program that includes the entertaining melodrama The Ocean Waif (1916) and A Fool and His Money (1912), per BAM “the oldest known film to feature an all-black cast,” and comedy queen Mabel Normand. For silent film newbies unsure about dipping their toes in, Stamp recommends the Normand program—screening on Wednesday, July 25th—as a good first step. “Normand was an amazing comedienne who directed Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle at the very beginning of their careers. Her films are truly hilarious and frequently offer very pointed critiques of gender norms and class propriety.”
Other films screening as part of “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers” include Curse of Quon Qwon: When Far East Mingles with the West (1916), the first-known Chinese-American feature (only two reels exist); and Fieldwork Footage (1929), 10 minutes of documentary footage shot by none other than Zora Neale Hurston. The footage seen in that latter film is workaday—children playing, a man chopping wood, a woman dancing—but no less striking for it. Those two films screen with Lita Lawrence’s Motherhood: Life’s Greatest Miracle (1925), which touches on birth control and abortion, as part of Sunday, July 22nd’s Social Work/Social Issues block.
The series wraps up on Thursday, July 26 with my own personal choice of must-see film: 1923’s Salomé, the long-time passion project of its star and producer Alla Nazimova. Nazimova, a bisexual Russian dancer/actress, according to legend cast Salomé entirely with gay actors. Whether true or not, the camp value of Salomé is definitely there, thanks to its lavish, Art Nouveau-inspired set and costume design and Nazimova’s deliriously magnetic performance as the spoiled, sensual daughter of King Herod. Filled at all times with an electric energy, Nazimova always appears poised on the edge of explosion. Kino Lorber provides a new 2K restoration and a new score from Aleksandra Vrebalov. To Stamp, the score brings to mind “early 20th-century avant-garde music”—to me, knowing not what “early 20th-century avant-garde music” really sounds like, it just sounds plain metal as hell, perfectly befitting the story of a woman who (spoiler alert?) makes out with a severed head. Salomé is 72 minutes long, and every minute is breathtaking.
The issue of silent-movie scores is an important one for Stamp, who credits “horrible musical accompaniment”—along with bad prints, improper projection and missing color tinting—as a reason that many people shy away from silent films. “Seeing gloriously restored prints projected on a large screen, accompanied by fabulous new scores really changes things for people,” she explains. Films for the Pioneers series were selected by BAM programmer Jesse Trumbull from a six-disk set Stamp is curating for Kino Lorber; as part of crafting that set, the films were given new scores, most of them by female composers. Some BAM screenings, as noted on the website, will be paired with live musical accompaniment.
Taken as a whole, “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers” mounts a convincing case for familiarizing oneself with the output of early women filmmakers—and for seeing their films on the big screen. Confession time, and I’m going to need all silent-film aficionados to look away for this one: Watching silent films alone, at home on my TV, it can be easy for me to get distracted. I know I’m not alone in this; modern audiences are used to more direct, in-your-face stimuli than what silent movies typically provide. Seeing silents on a big screen, where you’re captive to the experience, looking up at those big, luminous, expressive faces, is the only way to go. And those who miss out on what the filmmakers screened in BAM’s series achieved are missing out on a vital part of film history. These women “were fierce and determined and relentless,” says Stamp. “When opportunities for female directors became harder to come by in the 1920s, they persisted. When the first histories of cinema did not recognize their accomplishments, they protested. We couldn’t hope for better role models.”