Campus & Community

Radcliffe Fellow explores early female film pioneers

6 min read

Discovery of ‘treasure trove’ of women sparks Jane Gaines’ work

Jane Gaines explains that the ambiguity of roles and responsibilities in the early years of filmmaking sometimes worked to women¹s advantage. (Staff photos Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office)

When Jane Gaines was studying film history in graduate school, tracking the achievements of the industry’s early female pioneers was easy. There were exactly four: two French, Alice Guy-Blache and Germaine Dulac, and Americans Dorothy Arzner and Lois Weber. By the 1990s, however, scholars had unearthed, from deep in film archives around the world, evidence that hundreds of women worked in the early years of silent film, as directors, producers, writers, and editors as well as actresses. Between 1916 and 1923, women in the motion picture industry were more powerful than in any other business in America; in 1923, more women than men had their own independent production companies.

“What happens when suddenly you find a huge treasure trove of names and credits and work?” Gaines, a Radcliffe Institute Fellow, said at her Fellows’ Presentation at Radcliffe Wednesday (Oct. 29). A professor of literature and English, and director of the Program in Film and Video at Duke University, Gaines is at work on a book about these female film pioneers.

In it, she is exploring a two-pronged mystery. First, how were so many women erased from the history of film when in the industry’s earliest years, from 1895 to 1925, they were so prominent? An intriguing question, certainly, but the erasure of women’s roles from history is hardly a new phenomenon.

Yet the feminist scholars who re-inserted so many women into history starting in the 1970s missed these film pioneers, too, a far more mysterious occurrence.

“Why, when feminist film criticism dating from the 1970s occupied a very strong intellectual position, did the field miss the phenomenon?” said Gaines. “Why did they stay missing?”

Ilana Löwy, Katharine Park, and Judith Smith (from left to right) listen to Gaines’ talk.

The discovery and exploration of this robust evidence of women in the early film industry goes beyond simply adding women into a history that had forgotten them, said Gaines; rather, it requires a paradigm shift.

“This changes the feminist film theory, which at this moment was deeply invested in the paradigm of sexual looking … that men looked, and women appeared,” she said. This unearthing of women’s prominence in filmmaking shifts the paradigm from men looking at women to men looking to women.

Easy come, easy go

The title of Gaines’ presentation, “First Film Fictions,” nodded to a double meaning. Gaines’ work explores the historical fiction that women were absent from the pioneering days of film at the same time it looks at the content of the films – fictions, in a departure from the documentaries that preceded them – that these women created.

One concrete explanation for the disappearance of women in the early film industry is the disappearance – literally – of their films. Gaines noted that these early films were industrial objects, not art, and they have not survived the years well. The nitrocellular stock on which they were produced is chemically unstable and perpetually in a state of decomposition.

“They have a very limited but unpredictable life span,” she said. “They could at any point explode.”

Women film pioneers, too, had a limited life span. Not only have they been missing from the canon of film history, said Gaines; after the end of the silent era in film, around 1927, they went AWOL from the behind-the-scenes industry completely, appearing only in front of the camera, as actresses. She places the blame on the economics of the film industry.

“I wanted to prove that the commercial conditions which gave rise to the production of these fictions by women turn out to be the same conditions that produce their disappearance later on,” she said.

The growing popularity of fiction films between 1895 and 1916, she said, produced an increasing demand for product. To meet this booming demand, women “were given many, many more chances to direct and produce,” she said.

Simultaneously, the burgeoning film industry sought to clean up its seedy reputation and expand its audience beyond the working class to a more middle-class culture.

“What do you do to make it more genteel?” asked Gaines. “You insert women behind the scenes. You give the productions morality and virtue insurance.” And while women may have been “invisible” players, working as directors or scriptwriters or editors, publicity put them front and center to take advantage of their civilizing influence on the industry.

The next few years, from 1916 to 1923, saw what Photoplay magazine called the “her own company epidemic.” Women-owned independent production companies survived and thrived, sometimes affiliated with larger studios but often truly independent efforts. What’s more, noted Gaines, this era was fruitful for many independent filmmakers, including African Americans. “The small business becomes big business,” she said.

The ambiguity of roles and responsibilities in the early, pre-union years of filmmaking also worked to women’s advantage, said Gaines, encouraging creative collaboration rather than a rigid definition of jobs.

“The set hierarchy was not yet a set hierarchy,” Gaines punned. “For many women, the move from secretary to director/producer was a lateral move.”

Fact and fiction

Gaines illustrated her talk with a short silent film called “Shoes,” created in 1916 by prolific filmmaker Lois Weber. Although Weber took her plots from newspapers, she created fictions, giving the public access to the interior worlds of the kitchen and the bedroom that were inaccessible in documentaries. “Fiction could go in and could be excused, because after all, it was only fiction,” said Gaines, adding that Weber parlayed fiction to explore marital and extramarital issues, working-class poverty, and prostitution.

In “Shoes,” a young shop girl wrestles with a moral dilemma: should she marry, or should she turn to prostitution, represented by lavish gaiety at the Blue Goose speakeasy? The quandary turns on shoes, both her own worn pair, which Weber shows up close walking through a soaking rain, and a glorious high-buttoned pair the heroine admires in a shop window.

Fiction flirts with fact as the film probed women’s roles and expectations, which Gaines said could easily have been the filmmaker’s dilemma as well.

“Could she have a husband and also run a film company?” Gaines wondered. It was a question that, like the films themselves, had a brief shelf life. “In 1916, no one knew the outcome of the drama. But by 1925, the film industry had been thoroughly masculinized, and she was sent home,” said Gaines.