Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology
USDVD release date: 26 May 2017
Flicker Alley has compiled a three-disc anthology of films united only by the fact that all were directed by women prior to the end of WWII, thus covering the first 50 years of cinema. In fact, it’s a six-disc set, since the contents are offered on both Blu-ray and DVD. While hardly including all women directors of this era, it manages to represent most of the famous ones.
Disc One opens with Alice Guy, the first woman filmmaker and the first person to create a fantasy film and a film in two shots. The first three selections here are French and were in Kino’s Gaumont Treasures set: an actuality of a woman in a leotard with performing dogs, a slapstick epic of a barrel rolling over people, and a drama of mother and son amid violence in the streets.
Three 1912 one-reelers belong to her graceful American period, when she and husband Herbert Blaché were sent to the US by Gaumont; thus she’s billed as Alice Guy-Blaché.
Falling Leaves, previously seen on More Treasures from American Film Archives, has a new restoration and score; this sentimental family drama demonstrates early cinema’s sense of staging in depth along multiple planes, with characters usually moving from the background to foreground. The same can be seen in The Girl in the Armchair, which also cleverly sets off spaces within the frame via that armchair. Making of an American Citizen shows how strangers bully and threaten an immigrant brute who abuses his wife until she learns to speak up for herself (to “be American”) and he reforms in jail.
The next exhibits belong to Lois Weber, a household name during the Teens and for a while the most highly paid filmmaker in the world. One of the cinematic masterpieces of 1913 is the ten-minute Suspense, previously in Image’s Unseen Cinema box, made by Weber and husband Phillips Smalley. It uses a triangular split-screen, unusual angles and close-ups, mirror shots, and D.W. Griffith’s crosscutting between rescuers and victims to tell of a middle-class wife and mom (Weber) defending herself against home invasion by a tramp, an emblem of lower-class poverty and evil.
The Weber-scripted Discontent (1916) shows her keen observation of character in a short about a cranky Civil War veteran who can’t be happy and breeds discontent around him; it’s one of the wave of films made on the 50th anniversary of the war but has nothing to say about it directly, instead focusing on contemporary character and social malaise.
Weber wrote, directed and independently produced The Blot (1921), a feature-length canvas for her social portraiture and a complex, nuanced web of flawed characters: a family in genteel poverty, their upstart foreign nouveau riche neighbors, and the thoughtless wealthy set. In a beautiful, sharply defined restoration, this feature is replicated from a 2004 Milestone DVD, complete with an excellent commentary that examines the film’s assumptions on class and gender. These brilliant, intimate dramas show Weber as the Jane Austen of silent cinema, an insightful chronicler of human folly.
Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914)
Mabel Normand was a comedienne who also wrote and directed many of her own shorts for Mack Sennett. One of these is Mabel’s Strange Predicament, historically important as the film for which Charlie Chaplin invented his Tramp look: derby hat, mustache, baggy pants, tight waistcoat. It’s been available, for example on Flicker Alley’s Chaplin at Keystone set, and it’s not in great shape. Its inclusion makes the point that Normand was the star and the boss here, as in many films, and isn’t given enough credit for mentoring Chaplin’s career.
Disc Two contains four features from three filmmakers. The Star Prince (1918) is a children’s fantasy from Chicago-based Madeline Brandeis, who made films and wrote novels. She used all-child casts, which gives her films the homemade quality of a school play. The plot of this one involves a haughty child who arrives on a star, a phenomenon never explained, and spends most of the movie wandering the forest in haphazard adventures with dwarfs, fairies and a talking squirrel. This is the third Brandeis film I’ve seen, and they strike me as curious artifacts of a personal filmmaker and evidence of the health of independent silent cinema, yet not so much as great movies.
Germaine Dulac made great movies. This French artist made all kinds of films, including the avant-garde masterpiece The Seashell and the Clergyman (1927), available in a European DVD release but not in this set. Instead, we get two exquisitely composed, suspenseful chamber dramas about the fantasy of suicidal husbands. They could both be described as comedies about people who make themselves miserable, and studies in middle-class marital misunderstanding. In both films, the wife is smarter than the husband, and this leads to a happy ending in one case, a sense of entrapment in the other.
La Cigarette (1919)
In La Cigarette (1919), an older fuddy-duddy poisons one of his cigarettes when he imagines his young wife is unfaithful. The ironically titled The Smiling Mme. Beudet (1922) goes expressionistically inside the mind of a bored and unhappy wife, like Emma Bovary without the outside interests, who wishes her boorish husband would shoot himself. As cinema, it’s exuberant in its exploration of style. As drama, it’s an emotionally ambiguous and relentless slice of observation.
The Peasant Women of Ryazan (1927)
Olga Preobrazhenskaya’s The Peasant Women of Ryazan (1927) is an ethnographic fable from the Soviet school, full of lyrical images of harvesting windblown wheat fields and peasant women dancing circles in kerchiefs and heavy unflattering dresses. Just before WWI, and therefore just before the Soviet Revolution, the village’s gossipy melodrama unfolds. The local rich farmer marries off his son to a bride he lusts after himself, while his uppity daughter causes a scandal by moving in with the blacksmith. The lengthy wedding party is a symphony of layered moods, sly glances, and drunken festivity.
The woman who flouts patriarchal-capitalist tradition and works for the common good will find her place in the postwar coda, while the traditional simpering bride suffers under forces and double-standards that overwhelm her. Thus, the film offers an eye-pleasing melodrama while criticizing the old values, as hypocritical figures make the sign of the cross while acting without love and mercy, although none of this is underlined heavily in the manner of Eisenstein and other colleagues.
According to Jay Leyda’s 1960 book Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film, the filmmaker had been a popular pre-Revolution actress and directed very good children’s films; let’s see them next! He and other sources say the film was co-directed by Ivan Pravov, not mentioned here; they directed several films together. For the record, another important Soviet woman of this era is documentarian Esther Shub, whose The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927) is on Flicker Alley’s box Landmarks of Early Soviet Film.
Disc Three is a festival of 11 talkies from eight filmmakers, and most of them are experimental items concerned with visual effects.
La Roi des Aulnes (1929)
Marie-Louise Iribe’s La Roi des Aulnes (1929) adapts Goethe’s poem and Schubert’s song “The Erl-King”, an expression of the Romantic Era’s obsession with poetic death. The tragic episode concerns a father traveling through a forest by night with his son. The beautiful boy-child is wheedled and lured by a sinister creature who covets him. The father cannot see any of the supernatural events, interpreting them rationally, and since the boy is feverish, he might be hallucinating.
This 45-minute feature is a vehicle for superimpositions of the giant Erl-King and his tiny fairy women who prance balletically in flowing garments for rather too long. An image of the father carrying his son looks forward to a similar image with a father and daughter in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), based on another product of Romanticism’s morbid impulse.
Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)
Lotte Reiniger was a German stop-motion animator who worked with cut-out silhouettes and created the first animated feature, the brilliant Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), released on DVDs from Milestone and BFI. This set contains three later shorts, Harlequin (1931) , The Stolen Heart (1934) and Papageno (1935). All are fables indebted to music and folklore and make a natural transition from Iribe’s film while harking back to the Brandeis feature.
The first film depicts the saucy misadventures of a romantic cad and trickster who listens to the devil. The second features a Grinch-like figure (and not dissimilar to the Erl-King) who steals a town’s musical instruments, only to learn that the power of music can’t be muzzled. The last, inspired by Mozart’s The Magic Flute and adapting its music, is the most exquisitely detailed of the three, and that’s saying something. Reiniger made films through the ‘60s and would be a great candidate for a box set.
A Night on Bald Mountain (1933)
Another animation milestone was created by American artist Claire Parker and her husband, Russian animator Alexandre Alexeieff. A Night on Bald Mountain (1933)—yes, the same musical piece that would feature in Fantasia (1940), and another devil-inspired work—introduces pinscreen animation, a process of arranging pins on a board and filming the shadows cast thereby.
The strange effect sometimes resembles claymation yet is far from that. The results are a link between pointillism and pixels, and this film also contains multiplane effects of the type devised by Reiniger. A few moments of live model photography have animation layered over. As the notes put it, this 18-month production uses Mussorgsky’s music for “interplay between shadow/light, permanence/impermanence, motion/stillness, human/animal, and night/day”. In other words, everything constantly flows and morphs into something else. Facets released a 2009 DVD set collecting their work but this is a 2016 restoration.
Skipping to later in the disc, Mary Ellen Bute is another animation pioneer whose play of music and abstract shapes probably influenced Walt Disney. The black and white Parabola (1937) is basically a live action study of sculptures, using music by Darius Milhaud. Spook Sport (1939), the only color film in the set and a vibrant work of joy and beauty, features drawings on the filmstrip by young animator Norman McLaren. The scene is a “graveyard gambol” where spooks “cavort about and make merry” in a “new type of film-ballet” to Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre”.
Bute’s films have been included on the Center for Visual Music’s recent Visual Music: 1947-1986, as well as Image’s Unseen Cinema box, Flicker Alley’s Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film and Kino’s Avant-Garde 3, and they really all need to be gathered in one place.
The Woman Condemned (1934)
Returning to the mundane world, although not by much, we have actress Dorothy Davenport, who billed herself as Mrs. Wallace Reid after she famously became a widow to her husband’s drug addiction. She’s represented by the last film she directed, a “Poverty Row” indie called The Woman Condemned (1934).
With a print in better shape than you’d expect, this spins the mystery of a glamorous radio singer (Lola Lane) whose murder is laid at the hands of a plucky mysterious woman (Claudia Dell) who’s been off-handedly married to a total stranger and smiling wiseacre reporter (Richard Hemingway). Unless I missed it, the movie ends without ever explaining who the heroine is. Jason Robards Sr., Mischa Auer and Louise Beavers have supporting roles. While hardly a masterpiece of style, it’s not dull and contains a few elements of sympathy for women’s roles in society, including those arrested for “soliciting”.
Day of Freedom (1935)
The most controversial inclusion will be a 2015 restoration of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 short Day of Freedom, made at Hitler’s request to celebrate the military might of the new Germany, with soldiers, horses and weaponry presented as semi-abstract geometries not totally unlike the work of Busby Berkeley.
We have Reininger-esque silhouettes and the presumably unintentional homo-eroticism of comradely bonding over cigarettes and washed torsos. We have solar reflections and an expressive non-narrative soundtrack. Mostly, we have lots of airplanes and swiveling anti-aircraft cannon as Nazi leaders beam upon all this phallic explosion, although of course they’re not actually shooting down their own planes, so it’s some kind of firing with blanks or deliberate missing. As usual, Riefenstahl makes propaganda in her own way as a play of light and movement. A modern scholar provides subtitles to help identify what we’re seeing.
Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)
For the sake of representation, a four-minute excerpt from Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), with Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball, stands for the output of Dorothy Arzner, the only female director of talkies for major Hollywood studios before WWII. The scene is the movie’s most famous, when O’Hara’s character tells her stage viewers to “go ahead and stare” and challenges the masculinity of her audience. The effect is rather spoiled, however, by ending in a catfight.
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
The set closes with one of the most famous films here and one included in several previous releases. Maya Deren’s absolutely silent Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) is a Freudian dream-film that catches a sense of dreamy surrealism in a cyclical scenario of a woman following versions of herself and indulging fantasies of violence.
Made with Deren’s husband Alexander Hammid, this continues the set’s trend of films made by women with the collaboration of their husbands (Guy, Weber, Reiniger, Parker), a situation that allowed the emotional and financial support to pursue their vision in a world where women’s options were often limited. While many male directors also worked with wives or girlfriends (Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Cecil B. DeMille, etc.), it was more a matter of choosing to do so, not that it wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
The women represented here came from many different backgrounds and sets of opportunities. Brandeis, for example, apparently had a privileged background that left her free to pursue her interests, while Arzner worked hard to rise in the industry after going to medical school. Whatever the situation, they all pointed themselves toward leaving a mark on the history of cinema. They succeeded. First, they survived the travails of an unpredictable male-dominated industry, and then these films survived the tribulations of time when so many have passed into dust. Today’s audiences are doubly fortunate to have such a box.