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.