Zoe looks at the newest collection from the BFI which showcases and celebrates the innovative and influential female filmmakers of early cinema
In 2018, women made up only 20% of all directors; no film in the top ten highest grossing was directed by a woman, and only 8% of the top 250 highest grossing films released were helmed by a female director. While these statistics reveal a dire lack of gender parity in the filmmaking industry, you may be inclined to think that this number is a vast improvement from how things were a decade or so ago – in actuality, they’re lower than in 1998 when 9% of the Top 250 were directed by women. And although we should be looking to the future in an effort to improve the position of women, the fact that women have always had a presence in the film industry needs to be remembered. Female directors are by no means a recent phenomena.
Case in point, the BFI Early Women Filmmakers collection features a wide-ranging variety of fantastic work by female directors, writers and performers from the 1910s to the early 1940s, including Mabel Normand, Alice Guy Blaché, Lois Weber, Dorothy Davenport, Germaine Dulac, Olga Preobrazhenskaya, Dorothy Arzner and Mary Ellen Bute. Clocking in at over 640 minutes of total content, including short documentaries that help to contextualise the films of these artists, this is a set that will keep anyone serious about film history busy for some time. Each of these works certainly deserves attention and its own review, but here I will simply try to discuss several that I think most effectively represent the variety in the set as a whole: Alice Guy Blaché’s Falling Leaves (1912, 14mins), Mabel Normand’s Mabel’s Dramatic Career (1913, 14mins), and Germaine Dulac’s The Smiling Madame Beudet (1922, 43mins).
France is often thought of as one of the forebears of the film industry as we know it; with innovators like the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès presenting pioneering editing techniques and special effects, it’s understandable as to why this is. But amongst them stands Alice Guy-Blaché, a female director, and an early adopter of film as a narrative medium, and one of the first filmmakers to be overtly political in their criticisms of social problems. For instance, several films on the first disc of the set are straightforward satires, with Algie, the Miner (1912, 10mins) mocking the intersection between masculinity and class, and The Making of an American Citizen (1912, 14mins) – unfortunately through racist means – attempts to point out the normalisation of violence against women.
While Falling Leaves isn’t quite as upfront with its political messaging, its focus on the inner turmoil of a young girl dealing with the illness of her older sister is certainly unusual in that it values a female perspective. After a doctor tells the mother of the family that her eldest daughter won’t live past when “the last leaf falls”, the youngest sneaks out in the middle of the night to tie the leaves back onto the trees, in hopes of prolonging her sister’s doomed life. It may be a simple story, as so many of these shorts are, but the innocent desperation of the young girl still holds resonance over a hundred years later, suggesting that while issues like TB may mostly be a thing of the past, the universality of grief and love lives on.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum stands Mabel Normand: delightful, memorable, and hilarious. Her films may be less serious and biting than Guy-Blaché’s, but Normand’s fierce independence and energy do more than enough to position her as an early feminist icon of cinema. Boasting both a talent for physical comedy as well as the charm and likeability of a smart underdog, films like Mabel’s Blunder (1914, 15mins) remain entertaining even today. Though she is the one who helped put Charlie Chaplin on the map by making him the lead in her short Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914, 12mins) she is far more than just an extra in a man’s story – she’s an iconic filmmaker in her own right.
Mabel’s Dramatic Career may be one of the few in the set not to be directed by a woman, but it perfectly captures her comedic style nonetheless. Mabel, essentially playing an exaggerated version of herself, has had enough of trying to impress a half-witted man, and decides instead to pursue stardom. Of course, she succeeds, and the resulting scene of her ex-beau struggling to understand that Mabel isn’t actually being tied to the train tracks onscreen is brilliantly funny, and also serves as a droll way of suggesting how women may be quicker to adapt to artistic forms like film than men ever give them credit for.
Last but not least in my chosen triptych of the box set’s most memorable films is The Smiling Madame Beudet, Germaine Duloc’s masterpiece of feminist expressionism. Honestly, I found a particular plot hard to pin down when watching this tale of a woman retreating into fantasy to mentally escape her abusive husband, but it seemed as though the atmosphere of claustrophobia and misery was what’s important. The dark vignettes of her agonised face at the centre of the frame throughout the film perfectly symbolise the lead character’s entrapment through a use of filmic symbolism incredible layered and sophisticated for the period. But the most memorable image is that of her grimacing husband skulking in through the window, a horrific sight as affecting as Nosferatu’s distorted shadow creeping up the stairs.
Essentially, this box set is an invaluable celebration of the diverse work that women have always been creating in the film industry. Some have certainly aged better than others – the racism on show in many is frequently off putting – but ultimately, this set is a must-have for anyone interested in silent cinema, or anyone wanting to learn more about the history of women in creative industries.
- Mabel’s Dramatic Career, Mabel’s Blunder, His Trysting Place and Should Men Walk Home? feature previously unreleased scores by The Meg Morley Trio
- Alternative score to Should Men Walk Home? by Mordecai Smyth
- Alice Guy-Blaché: a documentary (2018, 8 mins)
- Lois Weber: a documentary (2018, 9 mins)
- Mabel Normand: a documentary (2018, 8 mins): featurette on the director
- Stills gallery
- Fully illustrated booklet with new writing on the films and filmmakers by Pamela Hutchinson, Isabel Stevens, Vicki Callahan, Ellen Cheshire, Jane Giles, Kat Ellinger, Virginie Sélavy, So Mayer and Elinor Cleghorn.
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