Alice, Cleo, Dorothy, Lois and Ruth

More DVD releases, though in this case it is the DVD release (22 April) of titles previously only available on videotape. Kino is issuing three DVDs of silent films made by American women directors, available singly or bundled as ‘First Ladies‘. Kino claims that “the mid-1910s was a virtual golden age for women directors, with over a dozen women working behind the camera.” ‘Golden Age’ might seem to suggest an era of unfettered opportunity and creative expression, which was hardly the case. No woman was able to get behind the camera without a tough struggle, but nevertheless there were proportionately more women directors at this period than for many decades thereafter, and enough survives for us to value a distinctive and often clearly feminist body or work.

First up is the double-feature The Ocean Waif (1916), directed by Alice Guy-Blaché and 49-17 (1917), written and directed by Ruth Ann Baldwin. Alice Guy (right) or Alice Guy-Blaché (she married cameraman/ producer Herbert Blaché) is arguably the most notable of early women filmmakers; certainly one whose career has been championed in some quarters to the point of myth. She was taken on as Léon Gaumont’s secretary in 1897, and swiftly became head of film production at Gaumont, producing hundreds of short films (including proto-sound films). She moved to America in 1907 when her husband was made head of Gaumont’s office in New York. She returned to filmmaking in 1910 for her own company, Solax, before becoming an independent filmmaker, and it was during this period that she made The Ocean Waif for William Randolph Hearst’s International Film Service. Kino describes it as “a romantic story, plenty of pathos but no brutality, a likeable hero and an innocent young woman, and a suspenseful plot with a dramatic and happy ending”. It is one of the few films of hers from this period that survives. She carried on directing with moderate success throughout the teens, but her career petered out after her divorce in 1922, after which she returned to obscurity, only to be rediscovered in old age and awarded the Legion d’Honneur by a grateful French government.

The American Ruth Ann Baldwin was a journalist turned screenwriter, film editor and director. 49-17 is a parody Western, starring Jean Hersholt. It was her only feature (she directed several two-reelers), though apparently it was a hit, and the remainder of her film credits are for scriptwriting.

Lois Weber

Baldwin worked for Universal studios, which seems to have been more encouraging of women directors than its rivals. It was home to Cleo Madison, actress turned director of the short film Eleanor’s Catch (1916), which is paired on the second DVD with Lois Weber’s feature The Hypocrites (1915). Weber (left) is the most notable of American women director of the silent era, a filmmaker as bold in technique as she was in ideas. She too started with the Gaumont company, as an actress, where for a time she worked alongside Alice Guy, and married a Gaumont manager Phillips Smalley. She turned to directing films in 1911, directing many shorts, including (with Smalley) the classic stylistic thriller Suspense (1913), before making her name with a succession of controversial and issue-led films, such as Where Are My Children? (1916) on abortion, The People vs John Doe (1916) on capital punishment as The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1917) on birth control. The Hypocrites (1915), on religion and hypocrisy, itself caused contoversy for its use of nude woman (representing naked truth). She too worked for a time at Universal, enjoyed further success as a director into the early 1920, only to see her career crumble following the break-up of her marriage and a nervous breakdown.

The third DVD, The Red Kimona (1925) was directed by Dorothy Davenport Reid, better known as Mrs Wallace Reid (right), the wife of the wretched Wallace Reid. He was the actor whose death through drug addiction so shocked Hollywood and the nation, leading his wife to appear in the impassioned anti-drug film Human Wreckage (1923), which featured in the Bioscope Festival of Lost Films. After the success of that film she formed her own production company, and made this concerned drama (based on a true story) of a young woman lured into a life of prostitution, starring Priscilla Bonner. Its notable female credits continue, with a story by future director Dorothy Arzner and screenplay by Adela Rogers St. John. She continued to have some success as a director into the 1930s and thereafter as a screenwriter.

As said, it would be misleading to look upon 1910s America as some sort of golden period for women filmmakers, except by the modest proportion of women able to make films compared to later decades. It was still a cinema dominated by men in every field of production, and probably only Lois Weber rose to real prominence and power. Alice Guy worked regularly as a director in America throughout the 1910s, but generally for minor film companies set up by her husband. Her public profile was nothing like Webers. Dorothy Davenport made some courageous films, but she was never a leading figure, and by the mid-1920s women filmmakers were virtually unknown in America. The others were actresses or scenarists who were allowed a brief turn behind the camera.

However, if it was not Utopia, it nevertheless was a time of opportunities to be taken to create films from the woman’s point of view, and this Guy, Weber and Davenport undoubtedly did. They did not simply ape common themes and styles but purposefully chose subjects of particular interest to them as women, or simply revealed a different eye in how they placed and treate female protagonists within the narratives that they told. These films are no mere curiosities, but evidence of a different way of making films and seeing films. It’s good to see them made available again in this way.

And now La Roue

Having already pronounced Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913) to be the finest silent DVD release of the year, it looks the upcoming new release from the same company, Flicker Alley, may occupy a close second place. In May they are releasing a 2-DVD set of Abel Gance’s bravura La Roue (1923). Here’s the blurb to explain the film’s importance to the history of cinematic expression:

Never before released in the United States, this monumental French film is one of the most extraordinary achievements in the whole history of cinema. Written and directed by Abel Gance (Napoleon, J’Accuse), three years in production, and for its time unprecedented in length and complexity of emotion, La Roue pushed the frontiers of film art beyond all previous efforts. Said Gance, “Cinema endows man with a new sense. It is the music of light. He listens with his eyes.”

Taken to its bare bones, the story deals with Sisif, a locomotive engineer who saves Norma, an infant girl, from a train wreck and raises her as his adopted daughter. Norma thinks Sisif’s son Elie is her brother, and when the two fall in love, she leaves to marry a virtual stranger. Sisif is also obsessed with her and the plot elaborates this triangular relationship. German director G.W. Pabst, an ardent admirer of La Roue, was encouraged by Gance’s example to undertake his own remarkable explorations of human psychology in such silent films as Secrets of a Soul, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl.

Yet La Roue is even more remarkable for its cinematic accomplishment than for its story. The film was taken almost entirely on location. Sets were built along the railroad tracks in the yard at St. Roch, near Nice, and at an elevation of 13,000 feet on Mount Blanc. Gance pioneered a dazzlingly innovative style of rapid montage that revolutionized filmmaking around the world, especially in the works of Eisenstein and his contemporaries in the Soviet Union. Almost every sequence was experimental; as his cinematographer, L-H Burel recalled, “I’d never come to the end of it if I were to list all the tests we did, all the special effects I invented, and all the innovations we launched.” Like Intolerance and Citizen Kane, La Roue became a source book of cinematic invention that reverberated in countless other classic films over the decades. It was hailed by artists and intellectuals, who recognized it as a stunning advance in modern art. Said Akira Kurosawa, “The first film that really impressed me was La Roue.”

This new restoration with a running time of nearly four and a half hours, accompanied by Robert Israel’s symphonic score, is the fullest presentation of La Roue to reach the public since 1923. It at last allows audiences today to experience the amazing, poetic vision that Abel Gance brought to the world. The DVD also includes a short film that provides a vivid documentary record of the great work in production, along with a booklet containing an outstanding essay by William M. Drew on the history and impact of La Roue, and comments by Robert Israel on the score.

Though not on sale yet, there’s a pre-release offer of $31.95 (normal price $39.95), with orders shipped on or just before 6 May.