Reclaiming Early Film History: The Women Film Pioneers Project

By Kate Saccone

Like most film studies undergraduates, I was taught about the “fathers” of cinema, such as the Lumière brothers, Georges Méliès, D.W. Griffith, and Edwin S. Porter. Not once was someone like Alice Guy-Blaché, Lois Weber, or Dorothy Arzner mentioned. When I began graduate school at Columbia University I was introduced to Jane Gaines’ Women Film Pioneers Project (WFPP), which immediately destabilized my previous understanding of early film history.

The Women Film Pioneers Project

The Women Film Pioneers Project

In fact, WFPP’s “About Page” features the powerful statement that “more women worked at all levels inside and outside the Hollywood film industry in the first two decades than at any time since. The high incidence of women workers, however, was not limited to the U.S. It was a global phenomenon.”[1] This quote functions as both a celebration of women’s roles in shaping the early film industry and as a depressing reminder of contemporary challenges. WFPP—a digital resource published by Columbia’s Center for Digital Research and Scholarship and fueled by graduate students in the Film & Media Studies program—wholeheartedly embraces this dual focus. One of its main goals is to advance research on women who worked in film production globally before the coming of sound in order to “reconfigure world film knowledge”[2] today.

As the current Project Manager of WFPP, I am constantly in awe of these hundreds (and hundreds!) of female filmmakers, artists, and entrepreneurs. Not only is my sense of cinema’s past reconfigured, but my sense of cinema’s future is also revitalized. Women were there then and, even though there is pervasive gender and racial inequality in today’s film industry, we must continue to fight these widespread systemic obstacles as women have every right to be there again now. We are, as Gaines and Monica Dall’Asta put it in their introduction to Doing Women’s Film History, “constellated with women makers, then and now, in relation to the unfinished business of world feminism.”[3]

What exactly is the Women Film Pioneers Project? I must admit that I am continually redefining the project in my discussions with other people. Right now, however, I tend to think of it as both a freely accessible database that contains original scholarship (long overview essays on national cinemas and specific occupations, as well as shorter career profiles) and as a gateway or portal to further resources and archival materials (links to holdings in film archives, bibliographic resources, and moving image clips). WFPP has actually been around for over twenty years. It was first imagined as a multi-volume book set when Gaines began this research as a visiting professor at Vassar College in the early 1990s. Ultimately, WFPP became an online-only publication when she came to Columbia and partnered with the Center for Digital Research and Scholarship, which officially launched the project in the fall of 2013. Since then, we’ve continued to grow steadily, adding new career profiles almost every month. These short essays are written by established film scholars, archivists, curators, and historians, and, without these passionate contributors, WFPP would not be the well-researched and informative resource that it is today. At the time of our online launch in 2013, WFPP featured 180 profiles, including Guy-Blaché, Weber, and Arzner. As of today, we have 204 published profiles, 189 that are in progress, and over 600 names of female filmmakers and artists who have yet to be researched and written about.

Some of our dedicated graduate students at work.

Some of our dedicated graduate students at work.

For me, one of the most exciting things about WFPP is that it features women who worked in a wide variety of places, including Russia, the Netherlands, Germany, China, Japan, Turkey, Tunisia, and former Czechoslovakia. “Phase I” of the project (Fall 2013) focused on the United States, Australia, and Latin and South America, while our post-launch “Phase II” (currently in progress) features pioneers from Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Our career profiles also cover a diverse range of occupations, including directors, producers, exhibitors, editors, distributors, film critics, costume designers, title writers, screenwriters, projectionists, and theater owners.

In an effort to give you a small taste of WFPP, here are five “highlights” from the project. By no means exhaustive (believe me, it was very difficult to choose just five women), these are just a few examples of the different careers and regions that we feature:

1. Esther Eng is one of the most exciting recent discoveries for film historians and feminist scholars. A Chinese-American, openly lesbian director, producer, screenwriter, and distributor, Eng had a transnational career, making films in San Francisco, Hong Kong, and New York. WFPP made an exception to our sound era cut-off rule for Eng, who worked a little later during the 1930s and through the early 1960s. As Louisa Wei’s documentary, Golden Gate Girls (2014) illustrates, Eng’s career raises a number of fascinating and productive questions surrounding Chinese feminism, queer theory, transnational filmmaking, immigration, female authorship, and more. What I find most interesting is the fact that the majority of Eng’s films are lost, which challenges feminist film scholars to find new ways to discuss Eng, her work, and her creative agency beyond the common practice of studying the film text itself.

Esther Eng in a still from Golden Gate Girls (2014).

Esther Eng in a still from Golden Gate Girls (2014).

2. Appearing in a handful of films between 1914 and 1920, Beatriz Michelena was one of the first Latina women to become a star during the early film industry. In addition to performing in front of the camera, she also headed her own production company, Beatriz Michelena Features, from 1917 until 1920 in San Rafael, California. As an actor-producer, Michelena is not alone in having her own company. In fact, this was very common during the silent era and many other actors, like Gene Gauntier, Florence Turner, Clara Kimball Young, and more had their own production companies.[4] It is unfortunate that only one film that Michelena produced is still extant (Just Squaw from 1919 is held at the Library of Congress). One of her films, The Flame of Hellgate (1920), in particular, which she produced and starred in, sounds like it might have been an interesting text for feminist film scholars. In it, Michelena “plays a hard-riding, gun-toting daughter, who takes on the guise of a male bandit in order to track down her father’s killer.”[5]

Beatriz Michelena

Beatriz Michelena

A 1919 Picture World ad for Beatriz Michelena’s film Just Squaw (1919).

A 1919 Picture World ad for Beatriz Michelena’s film Just Squaw (1919).

3. A personal favorite of mine is Frances Taylor Patterson, one of the earliest University lecturers on cinema. Patterson began teaching Photoplay Composition in 1917 at Columbia University when the first (male) lecturer left for the military. Last spring, I had a chance to visit the campus archives and see her 1920 syllabus (a whopping twenty-nine pages long) for a home-study version of the course. I was immediately impressed with how she was already treating film as the complex medium that it is. On the one hand, her lesson plans were similar to those of an English class, focusing on structure, characterization, plot mechanics, and setting. However, Patterson also recognized the power of cinema as a visual art form, encouraging her students to study the aesthetics of film closely. According to Dana Polan, she had the university set up projectors in an auditorium, so that she could regularly screen films like Nanook of the North (1922) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).[6] At the same time, Patterson also understood that photoplay writing was an element of a commercial industry and invited practitioners like Clara Beranger and Eve Unsell to give lectures in class.[7] Various practical units in her syllabus included “The Photoplay Market” and “Assets for Success.” The latter emphasized courage, banishing resentment, and humility as the keys to making it in the industry.

A 1920 Photoplay article by Frances Taylor Patterson (pictured)..

A 1920 Photoplay article by Frances Taylor Patterson (pictured).

4. Another fascinating pioneer is Drusilla Dunjee Houston, an African-American journalist and writer in Oklahoma, who, in as early as 1902, began to write her own photo-play as a challenge to Thomas Dixon’s plays and novels and then later to the film based on Dixon’s work, D.W. Griffith’s overtly racist The Birth of a Nation (1915). The screenplay, which was fifty-eight pages long, was never produced. As WFPP contributor Peggy Brooks-Bertram points out in her career profile: “Drusilla Dunjee Houston explains what happened to ‘Spirit of the Old South: The Maddened Mob’ in the prologue to it: ‘The photoplay lay for long years, pushed aside by executive duties and also because the author knew that American literature was only catering to Topsy, Uncle Tom, and slap-stick minstrel Negro types. This screenplay represents an early attempt to refute not just the racist themes in Birth of a Nation but also an attack on all of Thomas Dixon’s novels and plays that contributed to the film.’”[8]

5. Last but not least, I want to briefly highlight Elvira Notari—a director, actor, screenwriter, producer, and distributor who owned and operated her own film company, Dora Film Company, in Naples, Italy. According to Kim Tomadjoglou’s profile, Notari was extremely prolific, driven, and ambitious: “over the course of 25 years in which she made 60 feature films and hundreds of shorts and actualities, she led Dora Film to become one of Naples’s leading production houses.”[9] One of Notari’s films, ‘A Santanotte/The Holy Night (1922) was restored between 2007 and 2008 and in the short clip that I have viewed, you can see that she had a keen sense of how to utilize the cinematic space of the frame. Notari, who was nicknamed “The General” for her “authoritarian attitude,”[10] provides an example of a powerful female entrepreneur and artist who in some sense—from our contemporary perspective at least—has reclaimed the image of the demanding male director/studio head.

Obviously, these five women are just a small sample of the many wonderful female film pioneers included in WFPP. I hope people will take the time to explore more of our career profiles, as well as check back regularly as we continue to grow. As a young female cinephile, what excites me most about the Women Film Pioneers Project is that it is not a static entity—new research is constantly being done on these women. For example, we have recently received new biographical information on African-American filmmaker Tressie Souders and new scholarship has been published on directors like Weber and Germaine Dulac. This sense of the expandable is enhanced by the ability to see many of these women’s existing films (of course, some are easier to find and access than others), which broadens and complicates our sense of the early global film industry.[11] It is important to take into account women’s contributions to early film—from well-known artists like Guy-Blaché to the anonymous workers who we may never know—because it challenges the established narrative that only great men invented and shaped cinema.

 

[1] https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/about/

[2] ibid.

[3] Dall’Asta, Monica and Jane Gaines. “Constellations: Past Meets Present in Feminist Film History.” In Doing Women’s Film History. Eds. Christine Gledhill and Julia Knight. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015. 22.

[4] For more, see the list of “Women’s Production and Preproduction Companies” in the United States Overview Essay by Jane Gaines and Radha Vatsal: https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/essay/how-women-worked-in-the-us-silent-film-industry/. Obviously, we see different levels of involvement and participation in these companies, from complete control and ownership to a male producer or studio head simply using the actress’ name and star power to promote the new company and its output.

[5] Lyons, MaryAnne. “Beatriz Michelena.” In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2013. Web.   September 27, 2013.  https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/pioneer/ccp-beatriz-michelena/

[6] Polan, Dana. Scenes of Instruction: The Beginnings of the U.S. Study of Film. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. 58

[7] ibid.

[8] Brooks-Bertram, Peggy. “Drusilla Dunjee Houston.” In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta,

eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2013. Web.   September 27, 2013.   <https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/pioneer/drusilla-dunjee-houston-2/>

[9] Tomadjoglou, Kim. “Elvira Notari.” In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2013. Web.   September 27, 2013. < https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/pioneer/ccp-elvira-notari/>

[10] ibid.

[11] WFPP tries to provide as much information on archival holdings/the status of film prints as possible in the filmography of each profile. We also make an effort to list DVD resources and streamed media, when available: https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/resources/appendix-d-electronic-sources/