Essay's for Class

La Maternelle

La Maternelle

“[The spectator] won’t be touched at all if you don’t show him life.
If you showed him things of conventional morality, etc., he won’t be moved, you will make no impact, it will have no effect….”
~ Marie Epstein (Flitterman-Lewis 152

With this we dive straight into the brilliantly avant-garde ‘moral’ films of Mary Epstein. As all of the text point to Epstein’s impact on cinema as well as her own work have been largely marginalized. However through the readings, by Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, which attempt to re-write history to include this extremely intriguing figure of cinema history, it becomes evident that, while she may have been rather modest and not extremely bothered by this marginalization, she was a trite and true auteur of early sound cinema. In a quote from Epstein included in Flitterman-Lewis’s text she even stated that as she made the switch from acting to direction etc., she was “very happy to approach the cinema from the standpoint of mise en scène.” (Flitterman-Lewis 150) And furthermore what made her auteurist contributions to the cinematic ‘art’ (as it is obvious she was of similar mind as the directors discussed in prior essays in the belief of cinema as an ‘art’), had a decidedly, and distinctive, ‘feminist identity.’

This feminist ideal that seemed to leak into all of the work that she put out with collaborator Jean Benoît-Lévy through the 1930’s was, as Flitterman-Lewis stated, “a concern with childhood and social conditions, with women who struggle with difficulties in daily life, and with parental relationships.” (Flitterman–Lewis 153) According to the text, Epstein, from the beginning of her behind the scenes career as a scenario writer, assistant, editor etc. she continually upheld a certain association with the ‘feminine ideology.’ Through this, and in conjunction with Benoît-Lévy, she produced a good number films purveying such an ideology. Through all of the films that the two of them produced on a “perfectly egalitarian basis” (Flitterman-Lewis 151) they strived to show the audience ‘life’ in it’s natural form. Benoît-Lévy had spent most of his time prior to the making of these films working on mainly documentary educational film, which provided him with a likening toward natural settings etc. that lent itself quite well to the luminescent and poignant social drama that the two of them were producing.

In general also the two of them worked to produce films that enlightened what Flitterman-Lewis constantly refers to as a ‘reverse Oedipal’ effect, where instead of having the character/emotional focus on the male child’s attachment to the parental figure it is most often the female child’s attachment to the mother. Through this the two collaborative directors truly opened minds to the female perspective and ‘desire.’ Their films often “deal with complex interpersonal relationships among females.” (Flitterman-Lewis 164) These films were often also ‘microcosms’ of society, not only providing the viewer with the new feminine perspective but also unflinchingly enlightening them to many different social and socioeconomic dilemma of the time. Along with this the directorial duo was also known for many different beautiful visual innovations as well as their avant-garde ways of progressing story. Many of their films were said to posses well executed POV cinematography as well as a brilliant use of extreme close-up, composition, and a certain effective and gorgeous neo-silent sensibility.

And according to the text (I can’t say having only seen the following) none of their films represent all of these ideals better than their moving 1933 sound picture La Maternelle, on which Flitterman-Lewis has written a whole chapter in order to try and encompass all of the innovation and brilliance of this work. For the moment I will set aside my personal reaction to the film in order to attempt to convey the ideas put forth in this chapter, and in the following section, I will try and relate this reaction to my own personal thoughts. The focus of Flitterman-Lewis’s chapter is an investigation into the ‘dramas’ and ‘maternal relationships’ associated with main character Marie (Paulette Elambert).

Through her discussion of the film Flitterman-Lewis keep returning to a few main points. These main points, all in accordance with the aforementioned overarching investigations, are as follows; she consistently discusses the ways in which Epstein/Benoît-Lévy utilized certain techniques in order to create a psychological connection to the character and the ways in which the editing style and music collaborated in order to assist in the expression of abandonment (or perceived abandonment). Through this discussion Flitterman-Lewis focused quite a bit of the different editing techniques as well as a tendency toward extreme close-ups of not only faces by allegorical body parts and physical expressions. This is a rather interesting point, and along side the use of rapid editing and cutting between the different characters, as Flitterman-Lewis argues, created a rather relatable and engrossing atmosphere. The most extreme example of this that is discussed in this text is the attempted suicide and the lead up to this action.

Through her discussion of this Flitterman-Lewis focused on the ways in which this sequence draws the viewer into Marie’s ‘fantasms.’ This is achieved, as Flitterman-Lewis argues, through the rapid editing, and the superimposition not only of allegorical abandonment scenes from the film, but also superimposed scenes from Marie’s imagination. Through this it’s argued that the viewer crosses the bounds and is hence placed within the imagination and POV of Marie, i.e. the lines between Marie and the viewer are blurred effectively breaking the ‘fourth wall.’

Since the topic of the end has been breached through my discussion of the text, I feel this is an opportune place to begin my analysis. With this final scene Epstein/Benoît-Lévy truly brought the ‘primal action’ (as Flitterman-Lewis might say) of the film to its climax. This scene, which brilliantly, as is discussed through the text, brings the maternal, yearn to intense heights, does in many ways blur the lines between the viewer and the protagonist of Marie. One of the most striking results of this is the simple fact that once the rapidly edited montage of Marie’s POV ‘fantasms’ begin and the viewer is brought further in as Marie tries harder and harder to destroy these symbols of her escaped desire, her reasoning’s become almost subjective to the mind of the viewer.

The statement above is rather broad, and possibly a tad confusing, so I will clarify a bit. At this moment, the viewer has been witness to much of the misfortune, abandonment and depravity of Marie’s life. We, as the viewers, also have our own personal feelings about the ways in which things have and will play out, so in a way, while Epstein/Benoît-Lévy certainly have their agenda, and I don’t argue that this has been effectively portrayed throughout, through our own subjectivity, we form different opinions about the motivation of Marie’s leap into the water. Through our class discussion and reading some reactions in the text, it’s become obvious that a certain connection to the character and a slight ambiguity, have created the perfect viewer/protagonist connection through which, I propose, the viewer places his/her own subjective motives onto Marie.

Some have speculated about a complete exhaustion being her motivation, some have stated that possibly she was chasing after the allegorical boat (which seems to carry all of her maternal figures away from her (a connection to be discussed further later on)) and still others have speculated that she possibly knew what she was getting herself into when she leaped to her probably demise. However, my own subjective position supposes that as she has exhausted all possible means to destroy the superimposed images (which brilliantly aren’t reflections at all and cannot be broken in conventional ways) that flicker quickly from present to past to fantasy, that in the end she feels as if all there is left to do is throw herself at them.

Through this I propose that she feels as if she has played a passive role in the loss of her mother (Sylvette Fillacier) and further she feels as if the new saintly maternal figure of Rose (Madeleine Renaud) is swiftly escaping her grasp, and at this point she feels as if everything has been taken from her as she passively objected, and now she’s had enough. Through the act of jumping she is throwing herself whole-heartedly and aggressively at the situation and the imagined visual materialization of the problem, i.e. this is her last act of desperation, but not as implied by a conventional suicide attempt, but as a naïve childish attempt to no longer hold back and watch as she is bombarded with images of desire lost and growing out of reach (being ripped from her), but to lash out.

But, at this moment I digress in order to address some of the many other inspired aspects to this multifaceted film. First and foremost to further discuss Marie’s maternal desire, it seems apt to bring up the hyper sexualized relationships between her and such figures. Through our extended introduction and courtship with Marie it becomes clear that she has grown up in a hyper sexualized world. In this world she has watched as her gender ‘role model’ maternal figure, utilized her sexuality in order to attain the things she ‘desired.’ So, it only makes sense that through the naïve perspective of an impressionable young woman this example would serve as the prototype for her own attempts at attaining her goals. Through this we see Marie expressing herself and her desires for Rose, however innocent they may be, in a rather ‘mature,’ jealous, uncomfortably sexualized manor. In a way she seems to have a sort of ‘sexual’ attachment to Rose, however, when taking all aspects into effect, it becomes obvious that she has been conditioned to express herself, and her ‘feminine desires’ in a sensual way.

Along this vein there is a certain imposed innocence upon the children of La Maternelle. At many different junctures the adult figures seem to act in ways that suggest that they have their own naïveté as to what they believed the children understood. On this subject there are two specific examples that exemplify my point; the symbolic ‘chair’ and the scenes where Marie actually had contact with her mother. Firstly the ‘musical chair’ motif is one that provides a blatant and brilliant instance of this concept, in the way that whenever anything, child or handbag (which in a way takes the place of our smile deficient co-protagonist (as many of the characters assume the protagonist role at one point or another)), rests in the chair a certain innocent melody is projected, as the adults whisper and discuss ‘mature’ themes and the ways in which these themes effect the children, as if they aren’t there. Interestingly enough not much of anything is said in the absence our beloved smile deficient character, and in fact we don’t even get to see the face of his mother, however, this is one of the more poignant uses of the innocent nursery rhyme melody as it lilts eerily emphasizing the silence, adding a excruciating commentary about the sad society in which they live.

Before further addressing some of the stylistic touches that embody the spirit of the film, two specific motifs must be addressed; the motif of the boat and the motif of the mouse. First, the motif of the boat; the viewer is first introduced to this motif as Marie and her mother look into the window at a miniature of a cruise ship as the maternal figure is being pursued by the male suitor who will eventually steal her from Marie. The editing in this scene is brilliant, as they look at this symbol of ‘escape’ and ‘voyage elsewhere’ alone, and then with swift editing the male figure imposes himself into this ‘picture,’ seemingly providing a metaphor, he is the mothers ‘boat,’  her escape. This motif is continued throughout the film as Marie and Rose find themselves in the same position as Dr. Libois (Henri Debain) shadows the two of them attempting to court Rose. And, the finale of this motif is that of the suicide scene, which is the ultimate culmination of the continued metaphor. As Marie perceives herself as abandoned by all of her maternal figures, the loves of her childhood, she finds herself at the docks, where a couple expresses sensual and emotional connection through affection with the back drop of a boat, and thus begins the montage of abandonment sparked by the catalyst of the boat motif.

The second motif I wish to remark upon is that of the mouse. This motif is slightly less emphatic, as it is only really approached at two separate intervals. In the beginning of the film we are introduced to Marie as she feels a deep empathy for a captured mouse, which the seemingly oblivious Mme Paulin (the head housekeeper of the school, who helps and works alongside Rose, played by Mady Berri) burns it in the fire of the stove. While this is a seemingly insignificant action, the metaphorical ramifications upon Marie are strong. This mouse is an allegorical representation of the children of the ‘school;’ unwanted, dirty, naïve and ultimately expendable. Marie’s empathy toward this creature speaks to her concepts of self worth, and her connection to such a creature is solidified in one of the final scenes of the film.

After her ‘suicide attempt’ Marie’s new perceived ‘nemesis’ Dr.  Libois shows up to tend to her. It’s at this point that it becomes obvious that Paulin isn’t quite as oblivious as once thought. Knowing of Marie’s connection to mice, she tells the doctor to ‘rescue’ a mouse from her in order to attain Marie’s trust and love, which he does, and the desired effect is attained. This solidifies the fact that Marie associated the mouse with herself. She saw the doctor as someone who would ‘thrown her away’ in pursuit of Rose, just as other men had tossed her aside in  order to ‘have’ her mother. Thus with this action, saving the mouse, the doctor showed that he placed value upon all life, and showed that he wasn’t one to throw out the ‘damaged’ or somewhat ‘unappealing’ in order to achieve a goal.

The last aspect of the film I wish to briefly touch on in conclusion is the ways in which all of these different aspects were stunningly conveyed through radiant cinematic/cinematographic technique. From abstraction to well done point of view to the voyeuristic to odd and meaningful use of camera angle, Epstein/Benoît-Lévy have succeeded in heightening the power of this film. In particular the use of extreme close up had a profound effect upon my impression of the film. Whether it was hands in delicate embrace, faces in agony or piety (an aspect that seemed rather Dreyer-esque to me), or a allegorical fist crashing down on a door, this technique succeeded in playing with and upon my emotions, further adhering  me to the narrative and it’s main players.


Flitterman-Lewis, Sandy. To desire differently feminism and the French cinema. New York: Columbia UP, 1996. Print.

Mrs. Dorothy Davenport Reid (AKA Mrs. Wallace Reid)

Mrs. Dorothy Davenport Reid (AKA Mrs. Wallace Reid)

“… as the definition of filmmaking shifted away
from the feminine realm of art and toward the masculine realm of industry,
not just these, but all women in the industry, lost ground.”

~ Karen Ward Mahar (191)

With the readings for this week, a few trends continued. First of all Mahar continued to present a compelling story of an ever evolving Hollywood system and the ways in which it continued to slowly nudge powerful and fully capable women out of prominence. Acker continued to passionately and lovingly provide the reader with a well put together list of the brilliant and mostly forgotten women of the cinematic world. And, Anthony Slide continued in telling a tragic story. In this weeks readings especially, I found that Slide seemed to under evaluate the women he felt such drive to tell the story of.

Especially in the reading regarding Nell Shipman, and more importantly Mrs. Dorothy Davenport Reid (i.e. Mrs., Wallace Reid) and Frances Marion, I found Slide’s descriptions and discussions especially troubling. While all of other readings as well as the documentaries have painted these women in a very influential and positive light, Slide seems to sort of glaze over them and their influence. While it is obvious he believes that these women deserve mention, at times he seemed slightly glib, and with Mrs. Reid he even made some assertions, that all seem to be based upon heresy and his possibly misguided intuition. However, taking into account Slide’s trailblazing nature in the field, and the fact that through out the readings his text provides countless interesting and intriguing quotations compiled through his interviews as well as research into the periodicals of the time, he does provide some very important insight.

In particular I enjoyed Slide’s chapter on Margery Wilson, who seems fascinating. While we may have touched on it either in one of our discussions or as a part of one of the documentaries, I found it fascinating that she (or at least she claimed to have) been the first director to use all settings. I specifically found it intriguing to her it in her own words, “I was the first person who ever made a film – not the Italians, not The Bicycle Thief, but Margery Wilson was the first person to make a film without a studio, without a single set.” (Slide, 77)

In addition to Slide’s text, I found Mahar’s text especially informative and well written. For me this is the text that had the most resonance. The way in which Mahar gave a complete birds-eye view of the ‘setting’ of early Hollywood, was extremely helpful in building a timeline and mental image of the time. With the last few chapters of her book, Mahar leads the reader down a narrowing tunnel of opportunity for women in Hollywood. With the rise of the producer system as well as a focus on the theater as experience rather than strict avenue for viewing motion pictures came the fall of the director/star systems, Hollywood started to become (as stated in the introductory quote) an ‘industry.’ And with the ushering in of the new industry came a drastic trend toward masculine nature and efficiency.

With these system on the rise, and the major labels control, through vertical integration and bullying tactics, of the most prominent theaters, the once popular, profitable, and prosperous independents found themselves having to shut their doors, offering even less opportunities for women to achieve distinctive and gainful employment within the industry. In fact many of the women who had helped to shape the way for the current state of cinema were pushed out, to make way for the strictly commercial and capital business machine that Hollywood was working toward. Almost immediately most women producers were edged out, and fairly quickly the number of women in any sort of creative or important position dwindled (with some exceptions such as Dorothy Arzner and Frances Marion for example).

In the end as Mahar paints it, the true final blow was in the introduction of Wall Street and investment bankers. With the end of the war (WWI) and the ‘brief recession’ investing in Hollywood seemed somewhat sound. While certainly the motion picture business has taken some hits, it seemed to be an inherently profitable business, and hence investors were eager to ‘dig in.’ However, there investments came with many strings attached, and the investors wanted to see Hollywood gain some supreme efficiency (Weber was even quoted (and paraphrased in Mahar) saying that “her methods sacrificed efficiency for art” (191)) and a certain ‘old boy club’ professionalism, which spelled out the beginning of a hiatus for most women in most cinematic professions.

As far as the Acker readings went, once again, she has provided an extensive list, that only goes to show that there are and have been women working in all aspects of film since it’s creation. These readings for me are almost mind-blowing and extremely overwhelming, with the number of women, and the many ways that they are contributing. She provides such broad examples, from writers to editors to producers to directors to stars, and the most intriguing part about it is the different backgrounds from whence they have all come. These amazing women have come from different socioeconomic status, education and experience, just to name a few of the factors. Some of them even came from different art forms, many of them theater, and a few novelists.

However I digress in order to return to the two filmmakers in focus this week, writer Frances Marion and the multifaceted Mrs. Reid. First and foremost, I will talk about Reid, because talking about Marion will go well with talking about the related documentary. Mrs. Wallace Reid (or Dorothy Davenport), who unsuccessfully retired multiple times (she couldn’t stay away), got her start in through acting in her mother’s theater group, quickly moved to motion picture acting, where she quickly gained popularity. However she ended up taking a hiatus when she met and married her husband, Wallace Reid. When Mr. Reid succumb to a drug addiction (morphine) and past away, Mrs. Wallace Reid jump started her career again, making the film Human Wreckage (1923), which she stared in and of which she also had her hands in the direction and writing.

Although Slide makes some assumptions about her using her husband’s death to her advantage, there is really no evidence that she was such a cold-hearted person (although it did work out for her). Through the rest of her career, similarly to Dorothy Weber, she utilized the cinema to present depictions of moral cautionary tales, however some of them not as judgmental. For instance the film we watched for class this week, Linda (1929), which seemed to be all over the place with it’s moral compass.

Through this film, Reid expresses a mass variety of different moral stances, and the viewer at times is not sure what to think is the morally ‘just’ choice. Throughout the film the main character Linda (Helen Foster) is placed into many different dilemma and goes through so many different transforming changes it’s a tad difficult to decipher Mrs. Reid’s moral agenda. However this in and of itself is partially part of Reid’s agenda from her directorial pulpit. She places an entirely loveable character, angelically lit showing her initial ‘saintly manor,’ and sends the character though many different challenges, all set in the town named with brilliant irony, “Freedom ridge.”

First and foremost this is most definitely a film that calls into question the different ideals of the more traditional country ‘folk’ and the more ‘modern’ (‘new woman’) city dwellers. This disparity starts right at the beginning of the film, with the subtle, yet obviously foretelling presence of the teacher, Annette Whitmore (Bess Flowers). This character has been placed into the story as the viewer’s introductory contrast, immediately noticeable because of the use of clothing. When we are introduced to her, she is shown in a fashionable button up white shirt with a black tie. This instantaneously sets her apart from the country children in a stark visual contrast. We are then introduced further to Linda, who is sitting in a tree far from the other children, reading a book, which already sets her apart from the rest of her family and the surrounding population. Not only does Linda have the ability to read but she also has an aptitude and enjoyment of reading.

However right there in the tree is where we witness the origin of our first intense plot twist (of which the film has many), with the entrance of the amiable and good-natured dullard woodsman Armstrong Decker (Noah Beery). With this the stage is set for the tragedy soon to ensue. The only thing left is the entrance of yet another conflicting character comparison, that of Decker, who wishes to marry Linda (a wish Linda’s no good abusive father (Mitchell Lewis) is happy to facilitate in exchange for the sale of his lumber), and the good doctor Paul Randall (Warner Baxter) who just happens to live next door (but not for long). Through a misunderstanding Linda believes that this is the man she is to marry, and thus introduces a ‘dream’ into Linda’s head.

In order not to stray too far into plot summary, we can just say that Linda’s life from this moment on is not easy. In true martyr fashion she gives her freedom and marries Decker (even though she initially fought it, in a dramatic and rebellious move, denying an authority figure, very ‘new woman’) to save her mothers life, which becomes a mute point right as she says ‘I do.’ This tragic event is shown through a brilliant intercut, where Reid focuses interestingly on the hands of the man and wife to be, and just as the rings are exchanged cuts to Linda’s mothers quick death scene.

After this scene Linda is shown in an entirely new light. Her carefree pigtails are cut and now she conservatively sports her hair up. Along with this change in hair there’s also a change in her air, she seems immediately weighted down, by her loving and well-intentioned burden. In another plot twist the now pregnant Linda is forced to run as a woman claiming marriage to Decker appears out of no where. This is an interesting plot twist because now our heroine is placed into the role of single mother.

But, what happens next is possibly one of the biggest and most intriguing plot twists. Having had Decker’s child she decides that education is necessary in order to bring the full glory of motherhood, and leaves the child behind (in the care of the traveling saleswoman) to reconnect with Annette Whitmore. And once again, Linda is fully transformed before the viewer’s eyes, from free spirited country child to unfulfilled country wife to scared single mother and now to educated ‘new woman.’ Through all of the film Linda is precariously shown is a veil of white light as she dreams of a future similar to the present she is living in this new stage, yet the weight of her ‘tragic family’ back home is shown through her face, and even as Dr. Paul comes back into her life as the love interest she always wanted, she is held back by her past. Linda’s face is utilized as it vividly evolves with her circumstances, and Reid pays close attention to this.

In the end this film is all about love and loss, and I can’t help but think of the phrase ‘if you love something, set it free,’ as Decker knowingly hides his medicine in the plant while Linda is in the hall. With this act Decker selflessly sets his true love free. With this Reid, shows the good in all humanity. Not simply showing one side as the side of righteousness, both Decker and Linda sacrifice for the ones they love.

In addition to the narrative techniques and moral charge of the story (and the already prior mentioned technical aspects) through this film Reid also plays around a lot with composition and framing techniques as well as an compelling attention to detail in setting. One specific and reoccurring example of this is the use of the tree. This tree is where we find Linda reading, and it is also where love blossoms, Decker’s love for her, and her love for Dr. Paul, and the tree frames all of this in a sort of allegorical way, possibly representing her roots, however she escapes into the limbs, hence ‘into the clouds.’ Another interesting technical aspect of the film is the fact that Reid utilized static shots, however the gaze of the characters in said shots often represents much more of their intentions and or their mental as well as physical focus. Of course this is best exemplified as Decker’s death approaches, and he hides the pills as she unknowingly looks away into a dream.

Finally now we shall foray from Reid’s interesting edge-of-your-seat melodrama, to the documentary on Frances Marion, once again a woman who I believe Slide in a way underrepresented. However this is possibly due to the immense amount of knowledge gained about such a fascinating woman through the documentary Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Power of Women in Hollywood (Bridget Terry 2001). Through this well-done collage documentary of stock footage and reenactment style clips, Uma Thurman’s voice conveys the life of one of Hollywood’s most beloved behind the scenes women (clips from Marion’s diaries are read by Kathy Bates).

In the documentary the viewer glides through the amazing life of Frances Marion, who wrote over 200 films, many of which were and still are well thought of. Initially she did poster painting, then acting, where she met long time friend and collaborator Mary Pickford, who she is often attributed with the development of Pickford as ‘America’s Sweetheart.’ While Marion’s early forays into writing were more focused on a ‘mix of comedy and commentary,’ she is also extremely well known for her abilities to transform literature to script as well as her innovative ways of telling story.

She directed a few films but in the end, decided that she much preferred the act of writing film. This was beneficial for audiences everywhere and Hollywood in general because she was incredibly talented and made the switch to sound easily. It seemed to her a bit easier to write for sound, less cues more dialogue. In the end, she provided a bit of an exception to the rule because her success not only continued for a while, but she isn’t nearly as forgotten in contemporary society as most of the women we have talked about thus far. She was even awarded one of the third annual Oscars, and two more subsequently, the second of which made her the first person ever to have won two. This illuminating documentary truly served to introduce the viewer to the life and work of an amazing human being whose life, work and philosophies are exceptionally interesting.

Lois Weber

Lois Weber

“A real director should be absolute.”
~Lois Weber 1916 (Slide 38)

In the readings for this week we, as the readers, watched as movements, production companies and many brilliant capable women directors rose and fell. Through Mahar’s book in particular we read along as the early Nickelodeon days gave way to the ‘uplift’ movement. This movement catered even further to the sensibilities ‘inherently feminine,’ continued the trend toward distinguished and longer films and was Lois Weber’s true entrance into prominent cinema. But even this movement was relatively short lived. Sharing its limelight with serials and comedies, these three rather different movements all ushered in the era of the ‘new woman,’ however soon (in the late teens, early twenties) the audience realized it was done being preached to and simply wanted to relax and escape into respectable cinema.

Through Mahar’s text (and an off hand comment from Weber herself) it became evident that the motion picture industry was becoming a commodity. Through Weber’s ‘hay day,’ the ‘uplift’ movement (which was initially brought on by the preliminary prospect of state sponsored censorship), the industry realized that there was an audience to be capitalized on in the middle class reform movement. However as tastes change and wars were entered/fought the prospect of going to a theater to be ‘preached to’ became less attractive to the everyday movie going citizen. This coupled with the entrance of new censorship threats, spearheaded by the Supreme Court decision that films, as a marketable commodity, didn’t ‘fall under protection of the first amendment,’ was the beginning of the end for often ‘crude’ comedy, ‘dangerous’ serials and the stark moral and social commentary of unflinching filmmakers such as Lois Weber.

However the time leading up to these events, which seemed to be the initial blow in the decline of prominent women directors of the time, was a rather productive, innovative and harrowing time for women practicing the ‘art’ of the cinema. From women like Weber (discussed in all of our texts Acker, Mahar and Slide) to Mary Pickford to Mabel Normand to Lillian Gish to Ruth Roland to Dorothy Davenport Reid, women seemed to be rising all over in the industry. As stars, directors, writers, editors and producers women were on the rise. And with the entrance of the ‘new woman’ the representations of the female sex was no longer the same. Often times the women were the heroines of the films, whether moral sermon films serials or comedies, and the women acting in the dangerous and physically taxing comedies and serials were often known for doing their own elaborate and treacherous stunts.

It was clear that this ‘new woman’ was a rising power. Women were now not merely glorified ‘mantle pieces,’ they were speaking out about what they saw as moral injustices. They were also chewing gum and smoking, in public. This ‘new woman’ was breaking out into the public sphere and doing so with a vengeance. In extreme examples as stated prior women were now willingly and happily doing outrageous stunts, placing themselves in danger, basically starting to break down the gender barriers, showing that they were capable of doing most anything a man could do.

However as stated in the previous essay (while there certainly are exceptions such as Lillian Gish to name one) these women were often paired with a male, who was often times their husband, a fact, which often resulted in a seemingly inevitable downfall or down playing of the career of the woman. This in addition to a growing industry in constant flux, with studios and production companies, often started (but obviously not only) by talented female stars and promising women directors, opening and closing their doors left and right (production companies much more than studios) created an environment where that eventually led to the silencing of the female voice that the industry had relied so heavily upon to get to the place it was.

However I digress, in order to pay specific, more in depth, attentions to the director in focus for this week, Lois Weber. Anthony Slide, in The Silent Feminists referring to Weber states “Along with D. W. Griffith, Lois Weber was the American cinema’s first genuine auteur, a filmmaker involved in all aspects of production and one who utilized the motion picture to put across her own ideas and philosophies.” (Slide 29). I personally found this statement to be rather intriguing, for I have, for a long time now, had an affinity for the auteur theory (first made popular and prominent by the writers at Cashiers du Cinema and the French Nouvelle Vague movement), and upon reading about the life and films of Weber, as well as seeing a selection of her films for myself, I would have to agree with Slide’s rather grand statement.

Lois Weber, whose background was heavily entrenched in religion and stage performance (musical as well as theatrical), certainly had a vision that she wished to impart upon the world through the utilization of the cinema. She even went so far as to title her pictures “missionary pictures” in one interview. In spite of this, she also tended to have artistic intent. In her own inadvertent, and ahead of her time, statement of directorial authorship (or auteurist theory), started at the heading of this paper she went on to say “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.” (Slide 38, italics and underlines are my emphasis) Through this statement as well as the breadth of Weber’s work seems to go along with the statement made in my prior essay that, along side Alice Guy-Blaché, she saw the artistic potential of the cinema.

However the differences between the two lie in a couple of important disparities. First of all Weber was as prior stated a moralist, secondly she pushed much more blatant borders further than Guy-Blaché, and thirdly she seemed to be more aware of the audience as a sort of ‘lamb’ as well as a commercial public. While Lois Weber produced many interesting films, had a tremendous influence on directors of the time as well as the future and succeeded in being the highest paid and most trusted director of her time, she, as stated in her own words would “never be convinced that the general public does not want serious entertainment rather than frivolous.” (Acker 15) and this in the end was what led to her fade out of the spotlight.

Still from The Blot (1921)

Still from The Blot (1921)

The readings are however simply there to enhance and educate our readings of the actual films, of which we viewed snap shots of two, Hypocrites (1915) and Where are my children? (1916), the entirety of one feature, The Blot (1921) and one short, How Men Propose (1913). Through the viewings of these films the legend of Lois Weber told through the text came to life. Weber’s vision was no only resolute in its moral message, but it was also artfully and skillfully done.

In the two snap shots that we initially viewed, I found myself glued to the screen, wanting to see more. Regardless of the validity of the moral messages of the films in relation to my own personal beliefs, the techniques utilized as well as the ways in which she weaved her moralist realism with somewhat surrealist filmic techniques was mesmerizing.

In the first of the two, Hypocrites, she proposes to enlighten the general public about their own hypocrisies by ‘holding the mirror.’ In this film, which may very well have had an effect upon Vera Chytilova’s Fruit of Paradise (1970) in it’s imagery, the viewer is presented with the provocative metaphorical vision of ‘the naked truth.’ This ‘character’ who is superimposed and hence a mere ghostly figure dancing on top of and around her surroundings provided not only an extremely intriguing cinematic technique but also a brilliant visual metaphor.
Though the clips of the film we saw Weber’s ‘elusive’ truth figure, dances through allegorical scenes of the past and present, in essence shining a reflective light upon the hypocrisies of past and current societies, concurrently making the point that truths elusiveness is nothing new. In the film, which comes full circle, both the modern and past clerical seekers of ‘truth’ (who enlighten people and their loved ones to their own hypocrisies through her mirror) end up ‘martyrs’ when their respective congregations refuse to acknowledge truth in its raw form. In this film Weber utilized many different filmic techniques in order to create a complex and beautiful argument for her own moralist point that society hides from, ignores and is often mortified by ‘the naked truth,’ which often points to their own moral pitfalls.

In the second film that we viewed clips from, Where are my Children? Weber’s moral realism shines it’s divine light upon the quandary of readily available birth control as prevention of abortion. In this film, which opens with a beautifully (multiple) super imposed vision of heaven and the hierarchy of the unborn, Weber makes quite clear her moral objection to abortion. The titular line refers to the sadly ironic statement from the district attorney as he questions his wife about her secretive abortions. It is at this moment, when both of the characters realize the gravity of their situation that the emotion read on their faces and body language pulls at the heartstrings of the viewer. Through this as well as the bulk of the rest of the film Weber is in earnest trying to put forth what would have been considered a compelling argument against abortion, and through this and the comparison with birth control attempts to propose the latter as the morally just alternative.

In addition to this being entertaining and intriguing morally propagandistic film, it also masterfully utilized many different innovative filmic techniques. Aside from the aforementioned use of multiple superimpositions in the opening scenes, as well as a masterful utilization of natural light and deep space (as Weber was oft to use), the concluding scene, which we viewed in class, blew me away. In the viewings of clips from this film and the film prior, I’m like to believe that Weber was simply a master of utilizing superimposition in an effective way. In the melodramatic conclusion to this film the viewer watches as the children they would have had fade in and out as they (the couple) and their ‘lost’ children gracefully age. Having the couple sitting in the same spot subtly aging and having the children and prospective adult children wafting through the surroundings created an undeniably emotionally evocative as well as proving an impressive narrative technique.

Following the viewing of clips from Where are my Children? We viewed one of Weber’s masterpieces, The Blot, in full. This film which initially proposed itself to be about the immoral deficiencies in pay for those that “clothe the mind and soul” (i.e. the educators and the clergy) ended up much more an investigation of socioeconomic class, and the gendered roles involved in the aforementioned classes. Brilliantly Weber not only comments upon the chasm between the pay of educators and clergymen and those of the skilled workforce and inherently rich, she does so though a melodramatic story focused upon the difficult decisions and almost allegorical moral representations of greed and pride, as well as her somewhat characteristic focus upon the functional material possession of shoes (also the metaphorical and allegorical focus of Shoes (1916)).

The most intriguing aspect of this film is the way in which Weber stunningly intercuts between four completely separate cultural and socioeconomic representative groups. With the beginning of the film we are introduced to the academic family (in the introduction to the much parodied father) as well that of the bourgeois student. Brilliantly Weber immediately identifies her sympathies with the academic through perspective as the camera looks up at him and down at his pupils. These are two of the most contrasting groups, because while the academic is fit to impart knowledge upon these brat children of the rich, he himself is immediately shown in despair, unfulfilled by his job and unjustly compensated (as will become further evident as we follow him home.
As the Professor (prof Griggs played by Philip Hubbard) returns home to his family, a wife (Margaret McWade) and child Amelia (Claire Windsor) he brings with him a representative of one of the other ‘classes,’ the local minister. This minister (whose name and the actor who played him I couldn’t find) has ambitions to marry the angelic Amelia, however, has little more to offer her than her own father. With this introduction of the ‘clergyman’ of the story Weber has fulfilled her initial purpose of shining her moral projection light upon the desperate circumstances of those who ‘clothe the mind and soul.’ However there is yet one more group that she wishes to introduce, that of the skilled laborer.
For this the viewer only has to voyeuristically gaze next door at the Olsen family, who has recently become rich due to their father’s hard work as a shoe maker (yet another reference to Weber’s favorite class symbol, the shoe). The Olsen family is large, boisterous and pompous, absorbed in their own wealth. While the majority of their children are selfish oblivious brats and the mother is a despicable symbol of greed and self-righteous consumerism, the father and ‘model’ son are both firmly grounded. This is the middle ground. On many aspects the clergyman and the professor are seen on the same level and the bourgeois rich ‘jazz’ meets ‘country club’ representatives are seen on a completely different level, the Olsen’s are seen as the middle.

Through the contrast and the voyeuristic ways in which it is shown to us, we become blatantly aware of the mindsets of the different levels of wealth. On top we have the ‘students’ (and the representative thoughts of their parents) as the oblivious rich. They don’t even think about the plights of the lower classes. Then on the next level we have the self-righteous greedy middle class fully aware of all of the class separations and glad to be where they are. And at the bottom of the spectrum, we have the enlightened and the educated, who not without fault are prideful. While we are presented with a few example of atypical characters (Father Olsen, his son, and in a way Phil West, high class suitor of Amelia, played by Louis Calhern as he comes out of his own haze of oblivious indifference) the pedestal character of the film is the ever angelically lit Amelia, who judges no one, merely exists as an almost allegorical ideal of how a pious, polite, beautiful and kind young woman (no wonder everyone’s in love with her).

In the end this film, which is filled with subtle and interesting filmic techniques, such as the use of voyeurism (in all facets of the word, viewer and character) and interesting composition most notably that of the hierarchal representations through composition (Phil above the clergyman as the both court Amelia), is a luminous example of Lois Weber’s ‘uplift’ moral realist melodrama. And, upon conclusion (and throughout, with the transformation of Phil West), she makes a point of showing that everyone is capable of change.

As a quick conclusion to our study of Lois Weber we were presented with an example of a short slapstick comedy of hers, How Men Propose (1913). While The Blot at times seemed to be a bit of an indictment of the ‘new woman,’ this short film whole-heartedly embraced it and invited the viewer to laugh at the humorous and absurd situation, which the central ‘new woman’ figure orchestrated. Satisfying its purpose, this film was entirely ridiculous and amusing, as well as an intriguing bit of commentary on the conventions of gender relations.

So, I have decided that as I am now in a new film class, I shall post all of the weekly papers up on this blog. So, from this point I will post these papers which are somewhat rough, yet as usual I put an equal amount of passion into each.

On to the content of the papers. The class is titled “Women
Directors in Film History,” so such will be the content. I will be analysing both the texts read for class, initially Ally Acker’s Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema 1896 to the Present, Anthony Slide’s The Silent Feminists: America’s First Women Directors, and Karen Ward Mahar’s Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood, as well as the films screened. As the class goes on the text analysed will change, and will be indicated when there is a change.

This will be the first installment, yet since I have turned in 3 papers I will post the others in quick succession of posting this.

Alice Guy-Blache

Alice Guy-Blache

“Of all of the arts there is probably none in which they can make such splendid use of talents so much more natural to a woman than to a man and so necessary to it’s perfection.”

~ Alice Guy Blaché speaking of woman’s role in film
From “Woman’s Place in Photoplay Production”

In our class’s introductory couple of weeks, we have been studying the very origins of the cinematic art and the roles that women played in the birthing of said art. All of the different readings (Mahar, Slide and Acker) and documentaries (Women Who Made the Movies (1992, Foster/Dixon), The Silent Feminists: America’s First Women Directors (1993 Goodman/Slide) and Silent Garden (the Alice Guy Blaché doc. 1995, Lepage)) that we have watched as precursory viewing/reading have painted a rather casual and friendly environment for women in early film. However, as the text and documentaries embellished this environment was completely conditional, the depths of which would end up in a marginalization of their efforts for the most part.
I found the quote, which introduces this paper, to be a rather interesting one. Once I finished the readings and started to think about all of the different accounts that we have been exposed to through this last few weeks, I decided to go back and look at Blaché’s essay presented in the back of Anthony Slide’s The Silent Feminists. Upon reading this passage, one specific word popped out at me a few times, art. While reading Kane Ward Mahar’s in depth account of films conception in general in Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood I started to notice an interesting pattern, that when there was a discussion of the men involved in early film there was barely any mention of art. Whenever such men were discussed they always marginalized the prospects of cinema. For many if not all of the original filmmakers this new medium was simply an intriguing new scientific innovation. They were (for the most part) mostly fascinated by the fact that they could produce a moving image.
Through Mahar’s book idea is continued in the way that she discussed the fact that while many different jobs were available for women in film the few that remained almost all male were those of the technicians, cinematographer etc. as well as that of the accountants etc. When I started to think about this in relation to Blaché’s essay, it all started to make sense, sure while men may have been the ‘creators’ of the new innovative medium, it took the sensibilities and imagination of a woman, Alice Guy (Blaché) to shine light on the practical and artistic possibilities of the medium, with her first film (widely considered the first narrative film) La Fée Aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) (1896). While this is certainly not to downplay the artistic films to be made after this by such brilliant male directors as Georges Méliès, for example, it is just to state that it took the perspective of the ‘gentler sex’ (as Blaché herself puts it) to unearth the narrative and artistic possibility of the medium. And for this Blaché was rewarded with respect and a relatively (since it was cut prematurely short and has been criminally overlooked) successful career, aiding in the productions (as director, writer, producer etc.) of hundreds of films (the exact number isn’t agreed upon by the different references) working on early sound film, starting her own production company, Solax, and continuing to strive for, and achieve, cinematic excellence until the end.
Other than the prior discussed director, the introductory material was also effective in a few other veins. Through the books and documentaries we were introduced to many different personalities who we will investigate further throughout the semester, as well as the ways in which the filmmaking system worked, and the places in which women found roles in such a system. Through these introductory materials we were introduced to such important names such as Blaché, Lois Weber, Lillian Gish, Dorthy Arzner, Ida Lupino Maya Deren, Lola May Park, Cleo Madison, Germaine Dulac and many more, and given a snap shot at the contributions each has made to the history of film.
Along with that we were introduced to the concepts involved in film production. From the fact that in the beginning directors, stars, producers and technicians names were unimportant and took a back seat to the studio title, to the different ways in which film was sold and displayed for the masses (nickelodeons etc.), to the legality of it all (much of which surrounded the arrogant and paranoid Edison) the reader/viewer gains a pretty clear perspective on how the silent beginnings of film worked. And further the roles of women, as well as the evolutions of these roles, were laid out.
In the beginning the roles available for women were said to require ‘dexterity but not skill,’ such as coloring and printing of film. However many different events, as well as a natural evolution of sorts, started to open further opportunities for women. Events such as the need for a more respectable and moral image, theatrical blueprints being utilized in the furthering of film as an art, and the rise of the star system (to name a few) brought with them a much more collective and equal everyone pitch in and do what you can environment to filmmaking. With this rise women happened to be the most prominent and beloved ‘stars’ and hence carried quite a bit of weight in the growing industry. Through this and the fluidity of roles brought on by the theatrical system (which was also quite female weighted), women gain the opportunities to try their hands at many different jobs. From producer to director to writer to editor to set design to owners and operators of theaters, the cinema seemed to be the most promising field of employment for women of the day (as was alluded to by many of the journals of the day). However, even before Mahar mentioned it, I started to notice another trend, and that is the fact that while at this time there were many powerful women involved in film, the majority of them seemed to be paired with a man, keeping them safely shaded little did they know that it wouldn’t be long before this shade would soon engulf them leaving the majority of them in the dark.
As the class progressed from Documentaries to the actual films of our first director Alice Guy Blaché all of the previous tidbits we had learned came to life on the screen. While Guy Blaché, who ‘had a velvet glove, but was capable of using an iron fist’ (paraphrase) and strove to produce films under the creative motto of ‘BE NATURAL,’ produced hundreds of films few have survived (although more are being discovered regularly). Of the available films we viewed three, Making an American Citizen (1912), Falling Leaves (1912), and The Consequences of Feminism (Les Résultats du Féminisme, 1906). While this is merely a cursory glance at her enormous catalogue, it certainly proved good examples of her true brilliance.
The first film viewed was The Making of an American Citizen. This film was a scathing and hilarious satire of America as well as many different immigrants. Through this film, which was with out a doubt a comedy Guy Blaché used on location shooting and deep focus as well as ridiculously over dramatized caricatures in order to create a critical portrait of an emerging powerful ‘melting pot’ of a country, as well as it’s legal system. In this film she presented many different minorities and the ways in which they had assimilated to the ‘American way.’ This is even further intriguing as Guy Blaché herself was an immigrant, which likely brought further insight for her.
In addition to and in accordance with the idea of assimilation, Guy Blaché seems to expressly deal with the treatment and roles of women in America. In the end of the film the husband who has been imprisoned in order to ‘teach him a lesson,’ returns home and all is well. He treats his wife better, he does all of the hard labor, even doing so with an air of femininity (the satirical treatment of masculinity giving way to femininity seems to be a theme in some of her works, certainly in this film as well as the last of the three we viewed) and both of them seem to have been converted to good god fearing Christian American citizens, and all’s well that ends well (with a detected hint of sarcasm).
The second more serious film was the melodrama Falling Leaves. In this film Guy Blaché’s artist eye became a tad clearer. In this film she continued to execute brilliant use of deep focus and extremely interesting composition with a focus on variant focal planes and interesting compositions. While Blaché’s comedies were much better known, this drama was completely enrapturing. Through the perspective of a child Trixie (the ‘Solax Kid,’ Magda Foy) the audience watches as her family tries to come to grips with the mortal illness of her older sister.
A number of scenes in this film are exceptional examples of the brilliant techniques of Guy Blaché, the first of which that struck me was the scene in which Trixie eaves dropped as her parents (played by Blanche Cornwall and Darwin Karr) and the initial doctor discuss the impending death of her sister Winifred (Marian Swayne). In this scene the silent shadowy presence of Trixie is beautifully handled. With the adults in the foreground and Trixie dancing around the back so as to stay ‘out of sight.’ While it seems as if the adults would have noticed her, the way in which this eavesdropping is given a visual life is incredibly complex and intriguing and gives depth not only to the focal plane and composition, but to the furthering of the plot as well.
The second scene that really stuck out to me was the scene where Trixie distraught about her sisters imminent passing ‘by the time the last leave hits the ground’ (beautiful imagery) escapes her perfectly lit bedroom to go outside and tie the previously fallen leaves back onto the trees. This scene extremely well put together. With the action in the lower half of the screen and often to the side, the viewer’s eye is drawn throughout the frame as Trixie struggles passionately to reattach the fallen leaves. This scene is also interesting in the way in which the trees frame the composition, the path to the gate providing an opening into deep space with beautiful hazy scenery in the background.
In the end this film is in many ways a typical melodrama at heart signified by the ‘happy ending’ with a newly prospective marital couple presented at the close, previously terminal Winifred and her savior Dr. Earl Headley (Mace Greenleaf). However Guy Blaché’s flair for the beautiful and artistic makes this an interesting film and important living artifact.
The third and final Guy Blaché film viewed was the absurdist comedy The Consequences of Feminism (Les Résultats du Féminisme, 1906). Through this film Guy Blaché truly went far out in her depiction of gender role reversals. In this Guy Blaché showed the different sexes completely embodying the opposing gender roles, which could be taken as a sort of indictment of the feminist movement, or it could be taken as a feminist picture in which Guy Blaché is in a way trying to show how absurd it is to have either sex completely embody the any gender.
In this film the men cross dressed, sewed, took care of the children, acted daintily, were thinner and more fragile and enacted all of the typically ‘female’ chores with an especially over dramatized femininity. Where as the women were big, brutish, smoked, drank, sat as the men took care of the chores, and were extremely aggressive in their sexual advances. Basically in the end this is a brilliant satire that worked in the time because of the ambiguity of its end message, and the fact that in the end the men rebelled and order was restored. This provides us with just another example of Alice Guy Blaché as a brilliant director that handled satirical social commentary with an impressive finesse.