For most of 20th century, film writing – in the US, at least – was a girls’ girls’ girls’ world where the so-called “ladies who wore white gloves” reigned in queenly fashion. But things have changed utterly, writes Tara Brady
IN THE beginning was the motion picture and the motion picture was with woman and woman was with the motion picture. We tend to speak of the history of film in terms of its founding fathers – DW Griffith, August and Louis Lumière, George Méliès – but the medium was conceived and nurtured into being with a complete contingent of parents.
There are many reasons why early film pioneers such as Dorothy Davenport Reid and Lois Weber were downplayed in the official record, but mostly it comes down to antiquated turn-of-the-century attitudes and prejudices; the great Australian film-maker Lottie Lyell had presided over dozens of projects as a writer, editor and star before she was officially credited as a director in 1931. Others never received their dues at all.
Still, for the new Thoroughly Modern Millies of the 20th century, film was a land of opportunity less bound to patriarchal structures and strictures found elsewhere. In Europe, the US, Argentina, Brazil, Egypt and India, silent cinema was shaped by female film-makers: women such as Dorothy Arzner, Ruth Ann Baldwin, Mrs George Randolph Chester, Helen Gardner, Elinor Glyn, MarieLouise Iribe, Hanna Henning, Fatma Begum, Giulia Cassini, Karin Swanström and Olga Preobrazhenskaya – to name just a few.
These women do not represent a historical lineage cobbled together after the facts; they were genuine architects of the medium; Alice Guy Blaché invented and codified the narrative film; MGM’s Margaret Booth developed the classical fluid editing style that continues to define studio output.
In early Hollywood, women worked as film editors and cinematographers and in every sector of the industry. Between 1916 and 1923, women in the film business were more powerful than in any other line of work; they wrote half the films released in 1920; in 1923, they owned more independent production companies than men did.
Nowadays, things look very different. According to last year’s annual report from Dr Martha Lauren, the executive director of the Centre for Study of Women in TV and Film at San Diego State University, in 2008, women comprised a mere 16 per cent of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 grossing films in the US. Just 9 per cent of US directors are women; only 12 per cent are writers.
Where did all go wrong? The Hays Code? The McCarthy purges? The so-called “butchification” of cinema that began in the studios in the 1940s didn’t help. The macho swagger of the French nouvelle vague and the blustering stand-offs between riders and bulls in postclassical Hollywood were of vital importance to the development of cinema. But no one could have predicted that swagger would, in due course, define every other movie.
Similarly, it would be churlish and stupid to chastise a virtuoso film-maker such as Steven Spielberg or a pioneer like George Lucas for privileging spectacle over narrative in the 1970s; a world without Jaws, after all, is an inconceivably gloomy notion. But their efforts to restore the matinee to its former glory would kickstart an unintended revolution.
Clockwise from above: film critic Lotte Eisner with the ‘machine-man’ Maria from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; film-maker Alice Guy Blaché; film critic Pauline Kael. Below: Avatar