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.