Tag Archives: film history

Alice Guy-Blaché and Beyond

From Photoplay: Grace Cunard (April 1916) and Elsie Jane Wilson (February 1918)

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.”

From the May 1917 Photoplay

  • 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.

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The Naked Truth

Lois Weber gets next to no attention outside of film history classes, so I decided to write about her movie Hypocrites (1915) over at Movie Mezzanine. Made in that fuzzy period before what we know as “narrative filmmaking” had totally solidified, it’s a weird sight for 21st century eyes: wonky structure, unabashed sermonizing, and more interest in social critique than storytelling. Also of note is the double-exposed nude woman onscreen for about half the film’s running time. This particular silent landmark may not have aged too well, but it still holds some historical appeal for the curious moviegoer.

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One Against All

By Andreas

Two very different movies, a western and a film noir, blossomed from the paranoia of the early 1950s with identical scenarios. In each film, a lone lawman sees an Absolute Evil that he’s morally compelled to fight. (In one, that Evil is paroled gunfighter Frank Miller; in the other, it’s mob boss Mike Lagana.) In each, that lawman’s world is permeated by cowardice and corruption, and his would-be allies refuse to help fight the Evil. And in each, he takes a stand, risking his life for the town that deserted him.

These similarities between High Noon (1952) and The Big Heat (1953) are anything but coincidental. Rather, they’re open-ended, metaphorical reactions to America’s Cold War crisis of conscience. Bombarded with threats from without and within—China! The Rosenbergs! The Soviets! The Blacklist!—the nation spent the early ’50s twisting itself into knots. Naturally, Hollywood followed suit, albeit in a genre-colored fashion that sufficiently distanced its stories from present-day political realities.

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Lost in Termination

In the inaugural piece for her new GQ series “The New Canon,” Natasha Vargas-Cooper writes the following:

Whether reverence for movies from a bygone era is rooted in merit, nostalgia, or neurosis about film being an inferior medium to literature, movies keep pace with social mores of a time and deserve to be free of the tastes and prejudices of people who grew up without Quentin Tarantino.

Am I crazy, or is Vargas-Cooper completely full of incoherent shit? I really want to know! Every time I reread the intro section of her article, I question my sanity a little more. Is it an elaborate prank? Is she trolling her readers? Or does she really believe that “any movie made before, say, 1986 has received its due respect”? Is she just trying to flatter the ignorance of her audience? Or is she trying to look edgy and populist in a way that, as Glenn Kenny rightly points out, is about half a century behind the times?

Mind you, I’m just addressing the article’s first five paragraphs and their philistine manifesto. The rest of the piece, discussing Terminator 2, is pleasantly written and generally inoffensive, hardly appropriate for the first skirmish in a culture war. Where are the bold claims and aesthetic gambits suggested by her introductory bravado? She really just echoes what everybody’s been saying about T2 since it was released two decades ago. Could it be that she’s all bark, no bite? Or that she has no idea what the hell she’s talking about?

Take a sentiment like this: “[I]t’s an obligation that every generation must take upon itself in order for art to thrive: tear down what’s come before and hail our own accomplishments as good enough. Otherwise we exist in a sort of dead time, retreating back to the nostalgic and sacrosanct.” Why, it’s like she took a handful of somewhat iconoclastic ideas, then mashed them together without worrying about whether or not they made any kind of sense!

Because yes: it is good to question received wisdom. (Duh.) But no, it’s not good to “hail our own accomplishments as good enough”—i.e., settle for mediocrity. This seems obvious. Is this obvious? I mean, why would any person with a modicum of critical thinking skills ever want to trash everything that came before the past 25 years, let alone use that desire as a battle cry in a GQ article? (And on what planet does being open-minded cause us to exist in a “dead time”?)

I could go on and on about Vargas-Cooper’s ridiculous bullshit—her reference to nonexistent “purists” who refuse to discuss Paul Thomas Anderson; her framing of the series as a wacky but noble experiment; her apparently belief that militant anti-intellectualism and blatant ageism are radical ideas—but I’d be wasting my breath. The point is that we have enough blind spots as it is; we don’t need to validate them! And for Natasha Vargas-Cooper, the lesson is that you can slaughter sacred cows without slaughtering your own credibility.

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The Wizard of Winnipeg

By Andreas

[This post is my contribution to the Maddin-est Blogathon in the World! Contest, being hosted by Fandor’s Keyframe blog.]

Q: Why is Guy Maddin one of the world’s greatest living directors?

A: Because he finds cinema’s future in its past.

Boiled down into a sentence fragment, that’s essentially why I love the movies of Guy Maddin. That’s why I’m on tenterhooks to see his new movie, Keyhole, which debuted to middling reviews at TIFF. (Hah, as if any reviews could keep me away from the latest Maddin!) He’s an alchemist, cultivating fake mythologies and secret histories from a lifetime of pop-cultural consumption. If any 21st century filmmaker deserves the epithet “mad genius,” it’s this long-lost love child of von Stroheim and von Sternberg.

And he’s not just a Dr. Frankenstein, breathing life into dead forms. Yes, he smears his lens with vaseline and invokes the techniques of silent cinema, but these willful anachronisms are colored by Maddin’s sensibilities: a sharp sense of verbal and visual humor; a love of manically over-the-top melodrama; and a sardonic, nostalgic, magically realist vision of his native Winnipeg. These hallmarks brand each of Maddin’s films as unmistakably and unforgettably his.

Conveniently, Maddin’s filmography has a clear halfway point to chart the evolution this loopy, quasi-surrealist style; just look before and after his landmark short film Heart of the World (2000), a frenzied origin story for cinema. Pre-Heart, we see four feature films, each with their respective virtues and signs of a true original at work, but also fairly detached and silly. Archangel (1990), for example—a hazy tale of raging amnesia in WWI-era Russia—has its share of unique pleasures, but it’s by no means essential.

But post-Heart of the World, Maddin really took off. He made a silent ballet adaptation of Dracula (2002); the musical tragicomedy The Saddest Music in the World (2003), also his greatest crossover success to date; and three weird, wonderful semi-autobiographical films, culminating in his masterpiece My Winnipeg (2007). (Though Cowards Bend the Knee’s traumatic peepshow and the gimmicky adventure of Brand Upon the Brain! are not to missed.)

In these increasingly personal films, Maddin mixes irony with genuine emotion like a kid conducting a risky science experiment. The border between real life and his strangely plausible fantasies grows thin. Even in the outrageously expressionistic Saddest Music, Maddin plays devilishly with cultural memories of the Depression and personal definitions of “sadness.” By the time of My Winnipeg, which meshes archival footage and childhood recollections with grainy shots of present-day Winnipeg streets, any and all “truth” has been swallowed whole by Maddin’s feverish imagination.

His wistful voice, the voice of a poet-documentarian, guides the viewer down My Winnipeg’s stream of consciousness, through bursts of absurdist comedy and pockets of deep, unexplained trauma. Maddin is an odd, endearing man; when I saw him provide live commentary on Saddest Music in the summer of 2009, he sprinkled his talk with extremely personal details, shocking in their candor. But, judging by his films, that seems to be how Maddin operates: life fuels film, and vice versa, and it’s unclear where one ends and the other begins.

P.S. — For more Maddin love, go read Christianne’s post about him at Krell Laboratories, “Heart of Cinema.”

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Link Dump: #26

This kitty, about to nom some spilled jam, is from Chuck Russell’s 1988 remake of The Blob. It has a couple kitties, which are used (like this one) mostly as jump scares. Thankfully, none of them die—which is surprising, since The Blob ’88 is pretty merciless with its kills. It even has its blob monster eat an innocent preteen boy, right onscreen! It’s brutal, I tell you. Also thankfully, it has the redeeming beauty of a young Shawnee Smith spread throughout the film. Overall, it’s a pretty mediocre, if occasionally inventive, remake.

Don’t let yourself get devoured by a hungry blob from outer space! Read these links and stay informed:

  • Ever wanted to see a detailed history of America’s long, fucked-up relationship with breakfast? It’s right here in the “54 Cereals We Loved and Lost.” From consumerist madness (“Transformers Chocolate Flavored Cereal”??) to the least healthy options imaginable (Fruit Islands cereal with Nerds candies inside), it’s all on display.
  • What could be more dark, extreme, and disturbingly funny than Dogtooth? I guess we’ll find out soon
  • This interview is about 8 years old, but I just recently found it—and it’s still fascinating and worth peeking into. It’s with William K. Everson, one of the great film historians.
  • Speaking of film history, Matt Barry of The Art and Culture of Movies has been writing about early French filmmaker Ferdinand Zecca. If you care about silent comedy, you owe it to yourself to read these articles.
  • This video shows 36 deaths from Alfred Hitchcock movies… at the same time!
  • Ever wanted to get around your house using slides? Now you can! (Maybe? If you can afford a custom-made house?)

We had a few memorable search terms recently, like the very enthusiastic “a day to fucking remember” and the grammatically redundant “the scarest bloodest person the world pictures.” We had the very, very specific “pictures of black hoes selling pussy in 1992 in crack dens.” Finally, I thought we’d had every variation on “pussy” and “vagina” imaginable, but some intrepid netizen surprised me: “tree in pocahontas vagina.” YEAH.

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More Faces of Bela Lugosi

Long ago, I started a movie-by-movie tribute to Bela Lugosi. Now, as we conclude what would’ve been his 128th birthday, I’d finally like to continue this series with a few more roles. (For what it’s worth, I learned that The Vault of Horror had a post with the exact same name as mine, four months earlier. Great minds think alike…?) Tracing the path of Lugosi’s career through his landmark roles is really revelatory, since it not only shows the highs and lows of his professional life, but also maps out the anatomy of studio-era Hollywood. He moved from dizzying stardom at Universal in the 1930s to decades of typecasting, painkillers, and undignified appearances in Poverty Row garbage, followed by a brief resurrection with Ed Wood. It’s a strange story worthy of a horror movie itself. So, on to the faces…

White Zombie (1932)

This is less a film than an hour-long fever dream; it observes a pair of newlyweds in Haiti who fall under the sway of Murder Legendre, an enigmatic spellbinder who creates zombies to slave in the local sugar mill. At the behest of the couple’s rich host, Legendre reduces the bride (Madge Bellamy) to a pliant, mindless body, triggering a series of angry confrontations in a seaside castle. White Zombie is slow-paced and impressionistic, giving Bela enough room to work his spell on the bride and the audience. As Legendre, he’s malevolent but also cryptic, going methodically about his dark business without any wasted words. Although he’s neither the film’s prime mover nor its hero, he’s still its main focus – the deep, foreign presence at its center. It was in White Zombie that Bela originated the hypnotic hand gesture of which he later said, according to Ed Wood, “you must be double-jointed. And you must be Hungarian.”

The Black Cat (1934)

In the first of his many pairings with fellow legend Boris Karloff, Bela played a Hungarian veteran bent on revenge. Although he initially seems normal enough to the American couple he travels with, Bela’s Dr. Werdegast is actually a little mad – understandable given that Karloff’s Hjalmar Poelzig stole away his wife and daughter while he was stuck in a prison camp. Bela’s eccentric, erratic performance fits right into this truly oneiric film, as scenes of relative quiet gives way to Black Masses and cat mutilations, and Karloff matches him tic for tic. When Vitus finally exacts his grisly revenge, it’s both satisfying and terrifying, a worthy culmination of a bizarre 65 minutes and a subtle but white-hot performance.

The Corpse Vanishes (1942)

Easily one of Bela’s most compelling Poverty Row vehicles (in this case, for Monogram), The Corpse Vanishes is defined by its eruptions of weirdness. For example: although they’re not vampires, Bela and his insane wife (the “sister” from Cat People, Elizabeth Russell) still sleep in coffins. The film pads its one-hour running time with a subplot about a plucky investigative reporter and the doctor she loves, but at its core is Bela as a mass-murdering flower expert who dwells in a house of horrors – including secret passageways, corpses, and a family of henchmen whose matriarch eventually turns on him. As usual, Bela’s character has a tragic wrinkle: he has been forced into his bizarre, deadly racket in order to scientifically preserve his wife’s beauty. Oh, Bela, always the gentleman.

Glen or Glenda (1953)

Generations of Ed Wood cultists have tried and failed to figure out what, exactly, Bela is doing in Glen or Glenda. The film is already a no-budget, quasi-documentary dream narrative about transvestites in the ultra-conservative 1950s. But Bela’s narration – if “narration” is the appropriate word – adds the extra, unquantifiable ingredient that throws the film into another territory altogether. Inexplicably surrounded by skeletons, bookshelves, and liquid-filled beakers that summon up a horror film milieu, Bela comments vaguely on the follies of mankind: “One is wrong, because he does right; one is right, because he does wrong. Pull the string!” He delivers these lines with such emphasis that you assume there must be rich, philosophical meaning behind them. And, well, maybe there is.

In each of his performances, Bela elevated the film he was in with his mystical, alien persona. With his thick accent, the fierce look in his eyes, and the subtle curve of his eyebrows, Bela could turn the most routine, cheap mad scientist movie into a vortex of mounting weirdness. And in a film like The Black Cat or Glen or Glenda, where the weirdness was implicit in the director’s vision, Bela could eradicate what little sanity was left and transform the film into a sublime if confusing experience. His beautiful Hungarian voice took Ed Wood’s out-of-this-world screenplay for Glen or Glenda and turned its hallucinogenic dialogue into cult film scripture. Happy birthday, Bela.

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