By Chris Robé
June 4th, 2019
“There is nothing connected with the staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man, and there is no reason why she cannot completely master every technicality of the art.” – Alice Guy-Blaché, “Woman’s Place in Photoplay Production”, Moving Picture World, 11 July 1914.
“As for the natural equipment of women for the role of director, the superiority of their emotional and imaginative faculties gives them a great advantage.” – Ida May Park, Careers for Women (1920)
As a result of the #MeToo movement that exposed the rampant sexism that has defined Hollywood since its origins, it is important to present alternative takes of filmmaking where women populate the ranks from scriptwriter, director, actor, producer, movie mogul, editor, and so on. Most people think of this as a distant goal that we must strive towards, which is in part true. But, equally important, is the reminder that this reality had already existed in the United States during film’s origins in the silent era.
For the last 30 years, feminist scholars like Shelley Stamp, Jane Gaines, Jennifer M. Bean, Diane Negra, Lori Landay, Sumiko Higashi, Lucy Fischer, and Gaylyn Studlar have excavated a vibrant history of women’s ubiquitous presence in filmmaking at all levels in silent cinema. Women like Alice Guy-Blaché ran her own studio. Lois Weber represented the top directorial draw at Universal that allowed her to commandeer her own backlot for her productions. Pearl White and Helen Holmes wrote, directed, and acted in serialized action films that featured women in adventurous leading roles.
Regardless of this recent wealth of historical scholarship that represents nothing less than a seismic shift in our understanding of past filmmaking, much film history taught to undergraduates and popularized over such movie channels like Tuner Classic Movies remain indifferent to setting the historical record straight. Names like D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Billy Blitzer, and Edwin S. Porter loom large even though many women shared equal billing to them. If anything, the effacement of women from film history serves as a strong reminder of how history is never neutral but a part of what Raymond Williams once referred to as a “selective tradition”, which is wielded to rationalize the present order of things by selectively picking elements from the past. The sexism of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking is projected onto the past because by actually confronting the reality that more women were employed in US filmmaking during silent cinema than any other time. Our quaint notion of historical progress gets derailed by exposing the assumption that men are more naturally inclined towards filmmaking and technology than women as bunk. If anything, as the introductory quotes from Alice Guy-Blaché and Ida May Parks attest, women had equal reason during silent cinema to believe that they were ideally suited to work within the medium.
Compounding the effacement of women’s importance in US filmmaking was the fact that only a small fragment of these films had been made available to the public in a few collections like Treasures from American Film Archives and those produced by the Library of Congress. But in general, such films are difficult to see for two main reasons: 1. A majority of silent films have been lost due to studios melting down and reusing the film stock of previously shot films to produce newer ones as well as the highly unstable and combustible nature of nitrogen-based celluloid used at the time that led to their rapid deterioration; and 2. A lack of resources and political will to transfer films made by women to DVD and Blu-ray. But this has somewhat changed with the recent release of Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers in late 2018.
The Blu-ray version, which contains an additional eight films not included on the DVD, packs 28.5 hours worth of films that highlight women’s central role in early US cinema. The box set notably includes fragments of films to provide a broader picture of female filmmaking talent than typically available in such collections that often prioritize complete, well-preserved films. Pioneers represents a monumental effort to correct the historical record by including over 50 films, short documentaries providing vital background from leading scholars and film preservationists, and an 80-page booklet that details each film along with other accompanying essays. Anyone interested in early cinema history needs to watch this set of films to get a more accurate understanding of women’s presence and force in shaping films during the 1910s and early 1920s.
One thing worth stressing about early cinema is that it beckons towards a very different time of filmmaking. Hollywood only began forming in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Many historians have argued that the classic Hollywood system was not fully formed until the coming of sound during the late 1920s and Wall Street’s greater intervention after the economic crash of the Great Depression in 1929. The mid-teens marks a transitional period in US filmmaking. Thomas Edison, who had established the Motion Picture Patents Company in 1908 that controlled the sale of raw film stock and cameras along with distribution, began losing control over his film monopoly through court challenges. The moguls of Hollywood were only beginning to assemble and concentrate their power on the West Coast. Countless independent filmmakers stretched across the country with certain enclaves on the East Coast and within cities like Chicago. Film, initially dismissed and/or feared as a working-class entertainment, was working hard by the late teens and early 1920s to court middle-class respectability.
This all created ideal conditions for the presence of women filmmakers. Due to film’s initial association with working-class audiences, most Protestant businessmen dismissed the industry as a passing fad, which allowed an opening for innovative Jewish entrepreneurs to seize control. Even Edison, who had a stranglehold on the industry, could not conceive of audiences sustaining interest in films that ran longer than an hour or so. Film was merely only one of his multiple business interests. So here was an opening for women to advance in a severely undervalued industry.
Likewise, film practices were somewhat amorphous and open to innovation. There was not a strict division of labor of who did what in the filmmaking process, which came to define Hollywood during the 1930s with the formation of the screenwriters, screen actors, and screen directors unions. Women played multiple roles in films behind and before the camera as actors, scriptwriters, producers, and directors. Additionally, actresses could contribute to the script with improvisation. Scenes were rewritten on the fly. As Shelley Stamp points out in the box set’s accompanying booklet, the notion of authorship was much more fluid. This is reflected in the many collaborations between men and women we see in Pioneers: Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley, Grace Cunnard and Francis Ford, Nell Shipman and Bert Van Tuyle, Helen Holmes and J.P. McGowan to name a few.
Finally, accessing a predominantly female audience was considered a key element in film gaining respectability during the late ‘teens and early ‘twenties. As a result, it was a smart business decision to have women serve as screenwriters, directors, and producers to create the very films that might appeal to middle-class women. One must also recall that this was the age of the “new woman”, when women were fighting for suffrage, equal rights in the workplace, their presence in public life, and their own pleasure. Filmmaking was only one element of a much wider feminist movement that was manifesting itself in various forms from the flapper to the suffragette to the birth control advocate to the bohemian female writer and political activist. Female filmmakers were in good company.
With all this said, one should not over idealize the presence of early women filmmakers. The box set does a good job of showing how women serving as core creative personnel can at times re-inscribe racist, sexist, homophobic, and classist assumptions while also challenging gender stereotypes in significant ways by offering a much broader understanding of women’s interests, desires, and abilities. After all, mostly white women gained access to the industry with many coming from middle-class origins. As a result, they projected many of their own biases concerning race and the lower-classes into their filmmaking while still pushing for more diverse representations of women. Just because one comes from an oppressed group doesn’t necessarily make that person enlightened. The films in the set represent a wide range of attitudes and points-of-view. Needless to say, the diversity of material on Pioneers cannot be easily summarized in a pithy review. But I would like to highlight some of the set’s most important aspects.
Domesticity comes under close scrutiny in many of the
films. Alice Guy-Blaché, who is considered one of the first female
filmmakers and has an entire disc dedicated to her in the box set, often
produced films centered on the trials and tribulations of marriage. A House Divided
(1913), which had been available previously on a Library of Congress
collection and is only available on the Blu Ray edition of the box set,
concerns the misunderstanding of a husband and wife. The husband
(Fraunie Fraunholz) mistakes a pair of gloves in the house as evidence
of his wife’s affair. Likewise, the wife (Marian Swayne) mistakes the
husband smelling like perfume as evidence of his infidelity. The gloves
actually belong to the boyfriend of the maid of the house while the
perfume on the husband originates from an over-ambitious perfume
salesman who doused him earlier in the day.
Rather than talking it over, the couple explodes into accusations. The film suggests the lingering suspicions and distrust that lurk beneath certain seemingly happy relationships. Only the smallest amount of evidence can set off hostilities like a powder keg. As the film advances, the couple only communicates through humorous notes as advised by their dimwitted lawyer. One exchange entails the husband writing, “I need a new hat.” His wife replies, “Keep on needing it.” They attempt to keep up appearances before others who visit the home while their unhappiness manifests itself in their notes. An intertitle announces, “They agree to live separately together.”
But the couple’s discomfort in not speaking to one another is also displayed in their actions like the husband’s ham-handed gesticulations and the wife’s incessant pouting. When the wife wants her husband to apprehend what she thinks is a burglar breaking into their house, she hands him a gun by pushing it aggressively into his chest as he cautiously backs away. Tension and frustration translate through their pantomime. Ultimately, however, they reconcile after realizing their mutual mistakes.
Additionally, the film hilariously relates workplace discontent through its figure of the secretary of the husband. She aggressively stabs her typewriter keys with her fingers as she exaggeratedly chews her gum with a sullen look. When she notices it’s quitting time, she throws a book onto the floor to draw her employer’s attention to the clock. She finally leaves after slamming her chair under her desk. The secretary clearly relates that this is only a job for her, not a career. One cannot help but read into the character Guy-Blaché’s discontent when she was a secretary for a film studio before advancing to filmmaking. The secretary makes it clear through her actions she could be doing much better things than working for her buffoonish boss.
In a more disturbing fashion, Linda (Dorothy Davenport Reid, 1929) follows an abusive domestic relationship. Linda’s father wants to marry her off to a man more than twice her age who is a mill owner and represents an opportunity for the father to sell his timber. When her mother challenges the father’s actions, he whips her into submission. The household represents pure chaos and discontent. A horde of dirty children swarm the family table. The father yanks one by the shoulder to remove him from his seat while banging on the table for his supper. The shot cuts to his slump-shouldered wife in the corner with heavy makeup around her eyes to reveal her utter exhaustion. Linda (Helen Foster) understandably runs away from home.
Linda (Kino Lorber)
Sunshine Molly (Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley, 1915), which only remains as a film fragment, exposes workplace harassment as Molly (Lois Weber) serves as the sole woman working the kitchen in an oil field. “Bull” (Phillips Smalley) pinches her bottom while she serves dinner to the men. She breaks a plate over his head and casually continues about her business. The other men remarkably ally themselves with Molly and refuse to speak to “Bull” until she forgives him.
Like many of these films, however, it backtracks on its politics to reveal that “Bull” is a good guy after all and Molly marries by film’s end. His earlier abuse gets narratively accommodated. An old man rationalizes such harassment when later stating, “I used to pinch pretty girls when I was younger.” Harassment gets translated as unsuccessful and inept courting. Likewise, Linda from the earlier film also returns home to reconcile with her husband on his death bed. Despite his pedophilic desire to marry a girl in her teens, the mill owner is exposed to have a heart of gold underneath his perverted initial actions.
Sunshine Molly additionally encapsulates Lois Weber’s visual brilliance that challenges even the best cinematography and editing done by the men of her day. The film begins with a dramatic pan across the oil fields as we watch derricks drill rhythmically for oil over a gaunt landscape until the shot finally halts on Molly standing at the side of the road with a bag in hand. The sequence visually suggests that she will be the film’s central focus. Similarly, at another moment, a high angle shot looks down to the mess hall table as the men stand at attention while Molly enters the room. The table diagonally points towards Molly, who stands center frame, the composition revealing Molly’s authority to the men. Such visual savvy makes it clear why the box set dedicates an entire disc to Weber.
In Scandal Mongers (1914), co-directed with Smalley, the naturalistic acting gives the performances a modern feel. The film also capitalizes upon the special effects of the day like frequently using lap dissolves to superimpose a straw monster-like figure when scandal begins brewing beneath the surface such as when the boss escorts his female employee home after she sprained her ankle.
Suspense (Weber and Smalley, 1913) represents a tour-de-force in film technique. The film riffs of the “last minute rescue” films made popular at the time by D.W. Griffith. The plot construction is simple: a wife, played by Weber, has a tramp invade the home while she alerts her husband to the threat over the phone. A series of stylized shots punctuate the film. A magnificent triple split-screen has the wife in one section speaking on the phone to her husband who occupies another section. In a third section, we watch the tramp attempting to enter the home. Later, when the wife suspects something is wrong, she looks out the window only to see the tramp’s face in close-up from a high angle shot as she is looking down at him. The crosscutting of the sequence raises tensions as the tramp creeps through the house while the husband drives frantically back home to the rescue. Tracking shots follow from the car as it careens towards its destination. A shot that anticipates Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) shows the tramp’s hand plunging through the bedroom door the wife has locked herself behind. Cut to wife screaming, holding her baby.
Such mastery reveals why Universal considered Weber one of its most prized directors. Her work not only represents some of the most engaging filmmaking of the era, but her wide breadth of interests from the suspense film to birth control to religious dramas to modern marriages addressed many issues of the day.
Suspense (Kino Lorber)
Suspense also indicates an unfortunate tendency that runs throughout many silent films: women’s independence also often leads to their vulnerability. D.W. Griffith particularly mastered this in films like Birth of a Nation (1915) where Southern girls who chose to explore the forest on their own can expect nothing less than being raped. But Griffith was not unique in his approach. Much cinema at the time exhibited anxiety over women’s newly found independence. The box set shows how this tendency coursed through many women’s produced films.
A Daughter of the Law (1921), written, directed by, and starring Grace Cunnard, begins with Betty, “star detective of the Deparment”, as one intertitle notes. She plays with her grumpy boss’s hair, teasing him as she convinces him to let her chase after illegal bootleggers. Cunnard provides an engaging performance by commanding the space around her with confidence and enthusiasm. Her smile and energy become infectious. Yet after she goes undercover, she gets found out and tied to a log by the townspeople and sent down rapids, leading to her rescue by and pairing up with one of the men.
The Hazards of Helen, a remarkable 119 part serial that ran from 1914 until 1917, stars Helen Holmes as a telegraph operator who often has to save the day. Holmes wrote, directed, and performed her own stunts. In The Wild Engine, Helen deals with the sexism of her boss who claims, “Women cannot use their heads in case of emergency.” Despite such sentiments, Helen proves herself up to the task as she chases down a runaway train by motorcycle. In one miraculous moment, Helen plunges off a raised draw bridge with her motorcycle in pursuit. Nonetheless, she manages to halt the train by the film’s end.
This episode reveals dual anxieties at work that Ben Singer has identified in his book Melodrama and Modernity (Columbia University Press, 2001) as being central during the early twentieth-century: women and technology. Often fear of women’s independence and recent technology like the car, the locomotive, and streetcars were conflated together in such tropes like the bad female driver. Interestingly, this episode has a woman taming technology thus dismissing the anxiety about women’s independence that her boss holds as antiquated. Helen commandeers another locomotive to stop the runaway one, thus revealing her mastery of multiple forms of technology and her ability to use her head in case of emergency.
Technology and female agency arise again in Something New (Nell Shipman and Bert Van Tuyle, 1920), a film only available on the Blu Ray edition. Shipman stars as a young female writer who finds inspiration in observing two men speaking to one another: one mounted on a horse and another in a car. As a result, she frantically begins typing up a Western where technology and Western imagery complement one another, which comprises much of the rest of the film.
Something New (BFI)
Something New challenges the limited representation of women on the screen. When two field hands talk about a “writing woman” coming to town, they expect a homely, meek, and bespectacled woman. Instead emerges a smiling Shipman in cowboy hat, enthusiastically introducing herself to the men. Later on, Shipman wards off bandits by popping them off with her revolver from a barn’s window. Only after one of her men get caught must she surrender.
The second half of the film chronicles one of the men, Bill Baxer (Bert Van Tuyle), leading her rescue and freeing the mine from the bandits’ control. But rather than riding by horse to the rescue, the male hero takes a car to plunge it through rivers, brush, mountains, and desert for a sneak attack. Long segments of the film luxuriate in showing the car bursting through desert brush and cautiously negotiating over extremely dangerous and rocky terrain. Rather than seeing the West and modern technology as mutually opposed, the film encourages their linkage. The West is not so much threatened by technology as reconfigured by it.
Although Bert saves Shipman from an attempted rape, they both prove an equal partnership in their escape. Bert drives the car as Shipman shoots at the enemy. After Bert becomes incapacitated from being shot, Shipman takes over the wheel and just as deftly navigates the car through the dessert terrain. Something New, contrary to most other films, reveals a comfort with technology and women’s centrality in what has typically been defined as a predominantly male genre. Furthermore, the film stresses how the very Western we are watching is a product of Shipman herself who brackets the film’s ends with images of her faithfully typing the story we just watched.
The film’s final intertitle states in all caps: “THERE IS ALWAYS SOMETHING NEW.” A close-up follows of Shipman looking directly at us laughing at the camera. One cannot help but feel this is a not-so-veiled reference about her own positionality in filmmaking and the way in which Something New asserts female agency in multiple ways: in the Western narrative where Shipman helps save the day; in the metanarrative where Shipman types up the story we just watched; and implicitly in Shipman’s partnership with Van Tuyle behind the camera in creating the story in the first place. A heady vertigo ensues where one feels that the harmonious relationship onscreen between Shipman and Van Tuyle can only exist because a likewise equal partnership exists off-screen.
Salome (Kino Lorber)
Female desire and agency proliferates throughout many of the box set’s films in different forms. In Salomé (Charles Bryant and Alla Nazimova, 1923), held by many as a precursor to queer cinema with its mostly androgynous cast and camp aesthetic, Nazimova commands the minimalist setting as she lusts over one of the men throughout the film. Her desire becomes so all-consuming that it seizes control of the entire film, halting any notion of plot development for a series of spectacles that center around Nazimova’s sexual needs and frustration.
The Dream Lady (Elsie Jane Wilson, 1918) provides an unexpected treasure in the way multiple forms of female agency dictate the film’s plot. Carmel Myers plays the film’s protagonist, Rosamond Gilbert. Although largely forgotten now, Myers, at her height, represented one of the most glamorous and alluring film stars during the silent era, staring in roughly over 50 feature-length silent films. The Dream Lady relates why. Myers’ expressivity and energy makes her compelling to watch as she bounds across the screen as the film’s ingénue. Her uncontainable energy makes her character’s desire to build a cabin in the woods and become a soothsayer for all who pass by somewhat plausible. Rosamond’s very being relays her defiance of not being hemmed in by the world’s restrictions.
While holding court in the woods, Rosamond comes across a young woman named Sydney Brown (Kathleen Emerson) who wants to be free of her parents’ supervision. Rosamond dresses Syndey in men’s clothes, an aviator jacket and cap, while slicking back her hair as they celebrate Sydney’s newly found freedom. Syndey admits: “Mother believes I’m at a friend’s house for a few days. What a joy to be free—to move about without being controlled—at the whim of my fantasy!” Sydney befriends a man in the woods who becomes her hunting partner, unaware of her gender switch.
Most remarkably, Rosamond’s love interest spies her exchanging hugs and kisses with Syndey dressed as a man. Even though Rosamond quickly becomes aware of the mix up, she doesn’t disabuse him of his confusion since she considers his petty-minded possession of her unbecoming. By film’s end when things get sorted out, she chastises her beau: “It was she, my young client, who allowed herself to kiss me. See how unfair you were?” The film goes through the predictable heterosexual pairing up during its final minutes. But this containment by film’s end cannot erase the unbounded energy the Rosamond represented throughout it as she made other people’s dreams come true while she lived perfectly content alone in the woods.
This sense of female agency and desire permeates all of Mabel Normand’s comedies as well, which receive a hefty presence in the box set. Normand started off as a model who then migrated into film acting and directing. As a short documentary on her in the box set notes, Normand was one of the first people to direct Charlie Chaplin and by some accounts taught him the ropes of filmmaking while they were both working for Mack Sennett. Shelly Stamp, in the same short documentary, rightfully stresses how Normand represented a new vision of femininity on the screen: brash, physical, unapologetic, beautiful and funny.
In Mabel Lost and Won (Normand, 1915), only available on the Blu Ray set, Normand plays a debutante of the smart set. She catches her fiancé necking with another woman in a dark room as he confuses her with Normand. In a hilarious sequence Normand turns her back on her fiancé all the while gesturing towards her empty ring finger, holding it out and tugging on it in a not so subtle message. She pouts until he finally places a ring on her finger. She points to her cheek for a kiss, which her beloved stubbornly ignores. Refusing his refusal, she grabs his face and kisses him, which finally causes him to return the favor. In this simple two-shot, Normand seizes the space with her antics. Her body movements and expressions ensnare viewers as well as her fiancé.
Her performance with Chaplin in Caught in a Cabaret (Normand, 1914) represents two masters of comedy at the top of their game. The film addresses Chaplin as a lowly waiter at a raucous bar who eventually crashes a high society party. The early sequences of him sneakily eating food from customers’ plates and drinking their whisky on the sly shows the pure appeal of the chaos and upending of norms that Chaplin’s Tramp figure always represented.
Normand plays a high society woman. Chaplin, dressed as the Tramp, saves her from a mugging while her useless boyfriend watches from the sideline. Normand hilariously chastises her boyfriend who returns after the thief flees by stomping her foot and turning her body aggressively away from him as she invites The Tramp to her cocktail party as he misleads her to think he is a Baron.
The clash between high-and-low-society predictably follows. Although Normand is a part of the upper-crust, her animated actions are more in tune with Chaplin’s as she escorts him through the party. She enticingly leads him to a private bench to have him woo her. Chaplin’s and Normand’s interactions play off one another well as The Tramp increasingly gets drunk, belching and dropping his drink, while she teases him while also looking on in somewhat amused concern. They attempt to sing together as she sways back-and-forth rhythmically while he loses the beat while hiccuping. They feed off each other’s presence while the other guests look on in horror.
The film has been available on a previous Chaplin box set with Normand appearing as a mere footnote in Chaplin’s career. By instead placing him and Fatty Arbuckle, who she also regularly worked with, within her oeuvre, the box set emphasizes the importance of Normand as a filmmaker and comedian in her own right.
Despite the varied ways in which many of the aforementioned film’s represent female desire and agency both before and behind the camera, various classist, sexist, and racist portrayals haunt many of them. Motherhood: Life’s Greatest Miracle (Lita Lawrence, 1925), on the Blu Ray edition only, trucks in heavy doses of paternalism and patriarchy as it frets about jazz-age women shirking motherhood for various sins of the flesh. The film provides one long chastisement by priests and doctors against women not having children. Where Are My Children? (Weber and Smalley, 1916) makes a eugenics appeal for birth control among the lower-classes while dissuading middle-class white women from not having children since their superior race needs to populate the earth. Racism serves as the main punchline in When Little Lindy Sang (Lule Warrenton, 1916). Lindy, the sole black school girl in an all-white school, has an overpowering voice that her teacher constantly silences. However, when a fire breaks out, Lindy’s teacher enlists Lindy to sing in rhythm so the children can file out orderly to escape. Lindy’s main purpose is to usher her white peers to safety.
Some antidotes to such toxic representations can be found in the few films made by women of color found on the box set—namely two films. Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnographic films, which had been previously available on a Treasures from the American Archives set, represent rare instances of intimate portrayals of African-Americans. In one moment, a couple of black female school children look directly back into the camera, moving closer as if encouraged, a sense of connection building between the filmmaker and those being filmed.
Similarly, The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West (Marion E. Wong, 1917), represents the first Chinese-American independent US productions. The film counters Orientalist tropes as its lead couple negotiates American assimilation, revealing the precarious balance between adaptation and cooptation. Touching scenes of Chinese-American life abound throughout the picture such as when a son, dressed smartly in business attire, soothes his mother’s worries by rubbing her back. She wears a traditional Chinese dress. The image reveals the complex relations that different generations of Chinese-Americans have towards their adopted country.
Many of the actors in the film are family members, which helps relate a familiarity and intimacy between them such as when a young couple drink tea together during a moment of rest. The film represents the one-and-only film to emerge from the Mandarin Film Company after receiving small box office sales that broke the company, a not uncommon fate for many new filmmakers who want to work outside the system.
Back to God’s Country (David Hartford and Nell Shipman, 1919) represents the difficulty in trying to easily assess many of the film’s politics. Shipman provides another compelling performance as Dolores LeBeau, a woman comfortable in nature and with animals who understandably marries a naturalist, Peter Burke (Wheeler Oakman). Trouble arises as Burke encourages Dolores to accompany him on an ill-fated voyage to the Artic Sea. The boat gets locked in ice floes with its captain having eyes (and hands) for Dolores to such an extent that he intentionally injures her husband with a falling ship’s mast.
The Curse of Quon Gwon (Kino Lorber)
Although 60 miles away from any medical help, Dolores holds off the captain and his henchman at bay with a gun. She soon leads a dog sledding trek for help all the while being pursued by her nemesis. Beautiful vast snow-drenched shots follow of Dolores leading her team while her husband lies prostrate on the sled.
The problem, however, arises in the way the film foists a racial hierarchy upon its animals. Dolores befriends Wapi, a “devil dog”, as described in the film. Strangely, Wapi’s irritability is attributed to, in one intertitle, being “a white man’s dog in a brown man’s land.” Suddenly, with Dolores appearance as white angel, Wapi heels and becomes her lifelong companion. He not only assists in driving the dog sled but also in attacking her pursuer. Women’s independence becomes inextricably linked with white superiority. The film’s bizarre way in which it racializes a dog reveals its strong investment in whiteness and how gender and race cannot be easily disentangled from one another as the film champions only a female white empowerment.
P ioneers; First Women Filmmakers embodies a mammoth task of not only drawing attention to the large amount of female filmmakers who defined US silent cinema, but also by addressing the complex and at times vexed representations that plagued their work as well as the true advancements in representing a diversity of desires, images, and agency. Sadly, by the time Hollywood began consolidating itself during the early 1920s, many silent cinema directors were marginalized, ill adapted to the new producer-based system that challenged their autonomy and alternative ways of making films. Many know the story of Eric Von Stroheim’s tragic relationship with Hollywood in his production of Greed (1924), an eight-hour film that was seized by MGM and butchered into a two hour and ten minute print. Many tales abound regarding many of the great male directors of the early silent era being shunned by Hollywood. Lesser known are the countless women who had been ejected from the system and represented a threat to the much more hierarchical classical Hollywood system the studio bosses were putting in place.
Pioneers provides an important reminder of the possibilities that actually existed for female filmmakers before Hollywood fully came into its own. Although some female executives have come to power recently within Hollywood, the Sony hack revealed how having women in power does not necessarily remedy sexism. Pay inequities between female and male actors continued to flourish at Sony Pictures under CEO Amy Pascal’s watch. By focusing on female filmmakers one cannot help but recognize the deep sexism and misogyny that structured the origins of Hollywood. The box set, as a result, implicitly raises the question that the #Metoo movement at its more radical moments similarly asked: do we ultimately have to destroy Hollywood in order to save it?