Earlier this year, I conducted a series of Google searches where I typed in “Germaine Dulac” followed by “Leontine Sagan.” Since those are the names of two major female filmmakers—best known for The Smiling Madame Beudet (1922) and Mädchen in Uniform (1931), respectively—my plan was to uncover other women who were their contemporaries behind the camera. I found far more than I’d expected. I turned my findings into a series of tweets, and now I want to turn those tweets into something a little more solid and in-depth.
Dozens of women flourished as directors of silent films, and the vast majority of them are forgotten today. Much of their work is undistributed or lost, and the preservation of their legacies is further hindered by the “great man” bent of critics and historians. The two women whose names are most commonly cited in film history classes, Alice Guy-Blaché and Lois Weber, are relegated to footnote status: “Oh, and women were working then, too.” Thankfully, some scholars have fought to counter this forgetfulness. The Women Film Pioneers Project (WFPP), for example, is a database initiated at Columbia University that organizes a mountain of research on the women of silent cinema. (“They were not just actresses,” explains its mission statement.) Much of the information here was found in their annals.
Below I’ve written about 15 women, spread across seven countries, who directed movies between the 1910s and ’30s. Many of them started out as actresses, and the majority were also married to filmmakers. Most of them are profiled at the WFPP as well. Admittedly, these are only the scantest of biographical outlines, but then this is intended to act primarily as a naming of names. If I write down the name of a woman who lived and died before we were born, and you read it, then you’ve thought of her. You’ve remembered. It’s a start. To borrow a phrase from Andrew Sarris’s (very male) The American Cinema, these are “subjects for further research.”
- Ruth Ann Baldwin (1886-19??) started out as a screenwriter and directed two features, A Wife on Trial and the western ’49-’17, both of which starred her husband Leo Pierson and were released in 1917.
- Grace Cunard (1893-1967) worked as an actress for decades, beginning in serials at Universal. Her directorial career spanned from 1913 to 1921; her two features bear the pulpy titles The Purple Mask (1916) and The Woman of Mystery (1920).
- Marie Epstein (1899-1995) had an expansive career, much of it in collaboration with either Jean Benoit-Lévy or her famous brother Jean. Her (often co-)directed features were released between 1927 and 1938. Later in life, she worked alongside Langlois at the Cinémathèque.
- Mary Field (1896-1968) worked for years making documentary shorts on social or scientific subjects. After World War II, she went over to the BBC. She directed a single fiction film, the “quota quickie” Strictly Business (1931).
- Eloyce Gist (1892-1974) worked with her husband James to make a pair of features, Hellbound Train (1930) and Verdict Not Guilty (1933), intended primarily for exhibition in Black churches. She’s the subject of a restoration effort by academic and filmmaker S. Torriano Berry.
- Anna Hoffman-Uddgren (1868-1947) “made five films 1911-1912,” says Swedish film scholar Fredrik Gustafsson, “but four are lost. The one that remains is a filmed play, Strindberg’s The Father. Between Hoffman-Uddgren and Mai Zetterling in the 60s only five women got to direct feature films in Sweden and only one film each.”
- Lottie Lyell (1890-1925) was the long-time collaborator and romantic partner of fellow Australian film giant Raymond Longford. She wrote and co-directed one (presumed lost) film with him, The Blue Mountains Mystery (1921).
- Cleo Madison (1883-1964) directed and often starred in a couple dozen films between 1915 and 1916, out of which only two shorts (Eleanor’s Catch, which is included on the Kino DVD of Weber’s Hypocrites, and The Power of Fascination) survive today.
- Paulette McDonagh (1901-1978) was an Australian filmmaker who collaborated with her sisters Isabella (an actress) and Phyllis (a producer and production designer) to start McDonagh Productions. They made four features and a handful of documentary shorts between 1926 and 1933.
- Elvira Notari (1875-1946) was a major figure in the early Italian film industry. She co-founded Dora Films with her husband Nicola and directed dozens of films between 1911 and 1929, including the then-controversial melodrama ‘A Santanotte (1922).
- Ida May Park (1879-1954) was married to director-producer Joe De Grasse, who filmed many of her screenplays. She directed a number of films between 1917 and 1920; the two that survive are Broadway Love, starring Lon Chaney, and Bread (both 1918). While she was on set in February of that same year, she spoke to Photoplay’s Frances Denton about her career:
- Olga Preobrazhenskaya (1881-1971) worked as both an actress and a director, the latter often in collaboration with Ivan Pravov. Her most acclaimed film remains Peasant Women of Ryazan (1927). (Another female filmmaker from Russia was Elizaveta Svilova [1900-1975] who was the wife of Dziga Vertov and helped edit Man with a Movie Camera. She directed several documentaries between 1944 and 1953.)
- Esfir Shub (1894-1959) pioneered the use of preexisting footage in documentary filmmaking, beginning with her Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927). She helped her colleague Eisenstein shape his own theories of editing. (This past April, she was ballyhooed in Sight & Sound’s “The World of Silent Cinema” column, so perhaps she’s starting to receive the attention she’s due.)
- Tressie Souders (1897-1995) wrote and directed one film, subsequently lost, entitled A Woman’s Error (1922). She was, like Flames of Wrath (1923) director Maria P. Williams (1866-1932), based in Kansas City, Missouri, and both were among the first women of color in the country to work as filmmakers.
- Elsie Jane Wilson (1885-1965) was an Australian actress and the wife of actor-turned-director Rupert Julian before she became a director herself, making several features between 1917 and 1919. Three of them survive. She was, per the WFPP’S Michelle Koerner, one of the “Universal Women,” like Ruth Stonehouse (1892-1941), another actress who directed one-reelers during the same time frame.