You may have seen the episode we did featuring leading lady Meryl Streep and the indignities she faced early on including being called “a pig” by a renowned director.
Now, Meryl is a three-time Academy Award winner and one of the few actresses who has been able to reel in complex and commercially-successful roles at any age. But that hasn’t stopped her from speaking out about the treatment of women in the film industry:
Over the years, Hollywood has faced accusations of being biased against women both in front of and behind the camera. So much so that the ACLU recently announced an investigation into discriminatory hiring practices in the industry.
But there was a time when women were calling the shots. When Hollywood was in its infancy, it was common for women to be in position of power and influence. During the silent film era, women were at the forefront of the industry. In fact, more independent production companies were owned by women than men.
Here are some of the early women in film that you should know:
Alice Guy-Blaché (1873-1968)
Alice was a true pioneer in the world of filmmaking. She was there in the beginning, present when the brothers Lumière debuted the first-ever film projection in 1895. This first taste of what might be possible with the new technology spurred Alice into action and she began making her own films for the French company Gaumont Chronophone, where she had up until that point been employed as a secretary. She is widely regarded as the first female film director. Check out this trailer for the upcoming documentary, Be Natural, about Alice’s life and legacy.
Alice eventually rose to become the head of production at Gaumont, but had to resign her position when she married. She later started her own production company with her husband and continued to produce and direct films in the United States until the 1920’s, when she returned to France and spent the rest of her years lecturing and writing about film.
Lois Weber (1879-1939)
Working as a contemporary to director D.W. Griffith, Lois was one of the first film directors – male or female – to be considered an “auteur” of the form. She was the premier female director of the silent film era, emerging onto the scene as co-director with her husband, Phillips Smalley. Lois also wrote the screenplays for many of the films made with Phillips, and by the time the couple graduated to making feature-length films around 1915, she was decidedly the more dominant filmmaking partner. Lois’ films often focused on controversial social issues, like abortion and eugenics in the 1916 film, Where Are My Children.
In 1917 she set up her own production studio and was, for a time, the highest paid director in Hollywood, but like many other women working in the industry, her prominence faded as the the era of the silent film came to an end in the early 1920’s.
Mary Pickford (1892-1979)
Perhaps the most famous star of the silent film era, Mary was also a powerhouse behind the scenes. Within a few years of her first on-screen appearance she was one of the most recognizable and beloved women in the world, which gave her an unusual amount of power over her career. She was able to oversee all aspects of her films, from hiring and script development to marketing and promotion. In 1919 she partnered with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks (who she would later marry), and director D.W. Griffith to form United Artists, Hollywood’s first true independent distribution studio.
Watch Mary in the 1912 film, The New York Hat.
Marion Fairfax (1875-1970)
Marion began her career as a highly respected playwright on Broadway, before moving into the film industry. In 1915 she turned her attention to the big screen, writing several screenplays for William deMille. She went on to collaborate with a variety of big stars and production studios during the silent film era. She was wildly versatile, writing screenplays across a range of genres including this 1925 adaptation of The Lost World.
Her personal correspondence from the time indicates that she was incredibly valuable to the big studios, overseeing several productions at a time in addition to her own writing projects, but in 1926 she abruptly retired from the industry. It is speculated that the heavy work-load took its toll on her health, but no one knows for sure the cause of her early retirement.
Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979)
Certainly one of the most prolific women on this list, Dorothy’s work as a director has been incredibly important to the study and understanding of the history of women in the film industry. A true product of the studio system, Dorothy graduated from editing to screenwriting and eventually to directing films for Paramount, beginning in the silent picture era and successfully transitioning into talking films.
She spent 15 years as a director (1919-1943), with more films to her name than any other female director in Hollywood history. She attributed her success to the fact that she was not dependent on filmmaking for her financial well-being, so could simply pass the film off to another director if she had creative disagreements with the studio.
Clip from Dorothy’s 1940 film, Dance, Girl, Dance.
Woman Film Pioneers Project @ Columbia
How Women Were Written Out of Film History