Activist Women Behind Silent Films in the United States

Women were more than solely actresses in silent films–they were producers, directors, set designers, writers, and doing any behind the scenes job that would be assumed a male dominated task. The role of women as directors first appeared in France with Alice Guy. Following Guy, the industry spread to the United States. The first two decades of silent film were dominated by women in the industry. A common theme that appears between women behind silent films is a strong dedication to activism. Women in film cannot be summarized by a list of descriptions, but rather is a history made up of unique stories and independent histories. A few activist women behind the screen of silent films in the United States, specifically the West Coast, are Lois Weber, Dorothy Davenport, Dorothy Arzner, and Tressie Souders. Choosing a few women to talk about in this industry is difficult as there are unprecedented amounts of film histories that go untold.

 

Lois Weber, born in Pennsylvania, was an actor and director. Alice Guy, the first recorded female director, claims that she started Lois Weber on her film career. Weber claimed herself as two years younger than she was when signing her initial movie contract on the East Coast; thus feeling the need to conform to desire in the film industry of younger women being more appealing. In 1912 she moved to Los Angeles to expand her film career on the West Coast. Weber, after starting as an actress, began directing with her husband and continued on to independently direct films in 1913. In 1915, she directed and starred in her own film. This film, Hypocrites, had a full frontal nude scene–a daring move for this day in age. Weber focused on controversial topics for the time such as birth control, abortion, planned parenthood, child labor, Jewish values, and capital punishment. She is known for implementing her own ideas into her films–a not common idea for the 1900s, especially for a woman. In 1916 she become Universal Pictures highest paid director, not just highest paid female director but out of all the director’s at Universal. In 1916, Weber released her most famous work, Where Are My Children. This drama about birth control, family planning, and abortion earned $3 million in one day; keep in mind that ticket costs were under 10 cents a piece. Her films were some of the first to grab the attention of censors and ‘needing’ to monitor films. Though Weber’s work can be heavily criticized today on its social messages of pro-eugenics, anti-abortion, and pro-birth control; she sparked conversations surrounding unspoken feminine topics. Weber, in 1916, claimed that “a real director should be absolute. He (or she in this case) alone knows the effects he wants to produce, and he alone should have authority in the arrangement, cutting, titling or anything else that may seem necessary to do to the finished product. What other artist has his work interfered with by someone else?… We ought to realize that the work of a picture director, worthy of a name, is creative.” History is controversial but that does not mean that stories should not be told. Ideals change throughout time, shaping how we look at activism and progress today.

 

Tressie Souders was discovered through an award given to her by the Black Press for being the “first African-American women director.” Not much is known about Sounders and her history is disputed. What is known is that in 1922 Souders released a film called, A Woman’s Error, that she wrote, produced, and directed. The film is known for its non-stereotypical voice of a black women character. This was the first and only film she directed due to the harsh industry of societal norms against race and gender. Souders resided in Kansas City, Missouri when her film was released, later moving to California. It is not known whether she moved to California for her film career or not, but records indicate that she worked as a housekeeper. Souders’ story, or lack-there-of, emphasizes the absence of history about women in film, especially black women in film.

 

Dorothy Davenport was a actor, director, and activist. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, she came from parents and grandparents who were actors. Dorothy started her film career in Hollywood with Nestor Film Company and moved to Universal Pictures. She is known as one of the early members of what is now known as Hollywood. She married Wallace Reid, whom she met through Nestor Film company, and they had a child together. After having a child she took a break from film. Wallace Reid’s career took the forefront. Her husband passed away after an injury requiring morphine, leading to a narcotic addiction. Following his death, Davenport started directing films related to social causes. She had films related to abortion, prostitution, addiction, and domestic violence. One of her films focused solely on the story of her husband and their relationship, called Human Wreckage, premiering soon after Reid’s death. Davenport’s controversial voice held authority in Hollywood, something which historians cannot answer why. This raises the question that is focused on by historians of if Dorothy Davenport would have found her success without the death of her husband–this question cannot be answered and is irrelevant. Dorothy Davenport Reid influenced the film world, changing what can and cannot be ‘discussed’ or portrayed on the screen, even if silent.

 

Dorothy Arzner grew up in Hollywood, California. She began as a writer and editor within the industry, working in the studio next to her father’s restaurant. Her film career lasted from 1919 to 1943. She is said to be the first female director of Hollywood. Arzner set forth a path for women and lesbians in film. Arzner worked for Paramount until she moved on to write scripts independently. She wrote scripts for women studios such as Dorothy Davenport Reid Productions. Dorothy Davenport and Dorothy Arzner were both involved in the production of a scandalous film in 1925. Following the film, Davenport was sued to stealing the story of another woman without permission. Arzner did not suffer the consequences that Davenport did for the film. Following this lawsuit, Arzner moved back to Paramount in 1926 with an opportunity to write and direct an “A” list film, Fashions For Women. She proceeded to write and direct four highly acclaimed films with Paramount. Following this success with the studio, she directed Paramount’s first talking film in 1929 called The Wild Party. Directing this film did not come easy, as Arzner was ready to leave for another studio. She did not want to direct another “B” list film, and threatened to leave for Columbia studios. The film had famous actress, Clara Bow, and centered around a women’s college and what happens when women veer away from the norms of dependence and silence. The Wild Party  was Arzner’s groundbreaking moment for implementing lesbian and queer tones to a film. In 1932, she left paramount creating some of her most famous films, films that challenge and call attention to the patriarchal gaze. Arzner did not receive any awards for her work, though a Hollywood star on the Hollywood Walk Fame is in her name. Katharine Hepburn wrote to Arzner in a letter, after Arzner’s retirement, “isn’t it wonderful that you’ve had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all?” Arzner broke through a space where few to no women had gone before. Her power with silent films, led to her authority in original talkies.

 

Though silent on the screen, these West Coast women portrayed unspoken topics through film–topics related to race, gender, and sexuality. Topics mentioned in their films, abortion for example, rarely make the screen in the 21st century. The silent films women made in the Golden Age are not the classic films we are taught in school, though these women shaped how films were made and what they featured. Although thought to be a male dominated industry, women in powerful film positions brought up issues and activism that are still relevant in 2018. Women existed in the industry long before their influence was recognized. Women throughout history have said let’s talk about–or silently showcase–birth control, planned parenthood, race, class, mental health, queerness. Women exist in all professions, herstory needs to be told.


The Women’s Museum of California hosts the Women’s Film Festival San Diego, a multi-day event that is entertaining, informative and provides audiences with the opportunity to learn about the important topics that affect and inspire women.

Submissions for the 2019 film festival are now open. Submit your film here

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