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Women Behind the Camera: The Dawn of Cinema

by Sarah Soliman

In 2021, the winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, was Titane, from French director Julia Ducournau. This was the first time since 1993, when Jane Campion’s The Piano shared the Palme with Farewell My Concubine, that a film directed by a woman won the festival. Earlier last year, at the Academy Awards, Chloé Zhao won the Best Director statuette, and her film Nomadland was named Best Picture. As with Cannes, this was only the second time in the Academy’s 93-year history that a woman, or a film directed by a woman, received the night’s the top honors. 

In recent years, there has been increased discussion about women behind the camera. Seeing female filmmakers gain attention at big festivals and awards shows is cause for optimism (more good news: Jane Campion seems likely to win this year’s Best Director Oscar), but what matters more is that women continue to get opportunities to direct — or write, score, edit, light, produce — films.

From the dawn of filmmaking to today, there is a rich history of women shaping this art form. As we celebrate Women’s History Month in March, The Marquee will be devoting all of this month’s posts to women working behind the camera. The idea for a month-long series came about, by the way, because there were far too many exciting artists and films to be contained in just one post! Which is maybe the most hopeful thing of all, when thinking about women in cinema — there’s just so much to discuss!

To quote The Sound of Music, “Let’s start at the very beginning.” In this case, that means 1896, when Alice Guy-Blaché became the first woman to make a film, and one of the very first people ever to make a narrative film. She initially worked as a secretary for inventor and camera manufacturer Léon Gaumot, and soon saw the potential in moving pictures for storytelling. Her first film was La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy), in which a smiling young woman plucks babies from a cabbage patch. The film is available to watch on YouTube, and I’d highly recommend it if you have a minute and a half to spare. She was quickly made head of film production by Gaumot. After moving to the United States with her husband, Guy-Blaché started her own company, Solax, in 1910. She made hundreds of her own films, including some early Westerns. In 2019, Manohla Dargis wrote about Guy-Blaché for the New York Times’ series Overlooked. This thoughtful obituary is well worth your time if you’re curious about the pioneering Alice Guy-Blaché.

Guy-Blaché was far from the only woman making films at the time. In the 1910s, before directing was seen as glamorous and before the movie industry became an enormous money-maker, women often outnumbered men in filmmaking. The highest paid director of the era was Lois Weber, who was also a screenwriter and an actress. With The Merchant of Venice in 1914, Weber became the first American woman to direct a feature film. Much of her work tackled social issues, including ones that we still grapple with today. Her films addressed capital punishment in The People vs. John Doe (1916), drug abuse in Hop, the Devil’s Brew (1916), poverty and wage equity in Shoes (1916), and contraception in Where Are My Children? (1916). She founded Lois Weber Productions in 1917, and for a time, her name was held in the highest regard, alongside Cecil B. DeMille, as one of the most powerful people in filmmaking. The PBS series American Masters did a feature on Weber that is available to watch on YouTube.

The 1920s saw significant shifts in filmmaking. As movies became big business, it became less and less common for women to be in powerful positions in the industry. The only woman working within Hollywood’s studio system was Dorothy Arzner. Her first film was the silent Fashions for Women in 1927, but she managed to survive the transition to sound, and in fact directed Clara Bow in her first talkie, Get Your Man. Arzner worked with some of the biggest stars of Classic Hollywood: Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, and Joan Crawford were among her leading ladies. To celebrate the release of her film Dance, Girl, Dance on the Criterion Collection, film magazine Little White Lies wrote a profile of Arzner and her career. The article is a great place to start to learn about the filmmaker, and to dig in a little more on the films themselves, you can check out the Criterion website.

We’ll see you next week, as The Marquee continues to explore stories of women filmmakers!