“I grew up in the business when everybody was so busy learning… that no one had time to notice whether or not a woman was gaining a foothold…” Lois Weber
It is estimated that around half of all silent film scripts were written by women – a much higher ratio than at any other period. That figure is open to dispute but there’s no doubting the importance of women in writing and directing during the years when cinema was still finding its commercial feet.
Chief among those who wrote and directed was Lois Weber who also, of course, performed. Shelly Stamp’s fascinating study of her career shows how she emerged very strongly as a film-maker of conviction and success before her challenging cine-agitation started to fall from fashion at the same time as the industry grew more coldly commercial. The success of Hypocrites and Where Are My Children? was not to be repeated in the post-war years and as the twenties progressed Weber fell from auteur to “star-maker” as superficiality took over and women grew from creators into commodities… “finding” people with glamour and star quality became more of a story than the composition and creation of quality films.
|Posh shoes from Shoes (1916)|
Why did women lose their footing so spectacularly? The profit motive ensured that an industry was developing that would be driven by the masculine ego – and there were plenty of huge ones around. In spite of the fact that the vast majority of the audience were women, it was now men who would largely dictate the versions of femininity they would watch on screen.
After Lois Weber in 1919, Universal wasn’t to have a woman director on its roster until 1982… that’s a long time in showbiz, enough for a dozen careers-worth of your modern popstar-to-actor-to-CBB contestant.
|The book of the moment|
Tonight was the launch of Silent Women: Pioneers of Cinema a new book celebrating the growing restoration of the reputations of those who not only filled the skills gaps in early cinema but more than played their part in the most crucial period of development in cinema history.
A number of the book’s authors were on hand to discuss the book and to illustrate some of the themes. Cheryl Robson explained the work’s origins in the project Celluloid Ceiling: women film directors breaking through which focused on the “now” and inevitably led the gaze backwards to a more equitable time. Then Melody Bridges ran through an overview of the contents including some fascinating footage of the one-woman outward-bound film-course leader that was Nell Shipman.
|Nell Shipman and a bear|
Nell was seen driving a pack of huskies through the snow, forging ice-cold torrents and being in dangerously close proximity to a grizzly bear: surely we need to find out what happened to that bear!?
Ms Shipman is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to women taking creative control and the book aims to highlight not just the directors but also the cinematographers, writers, editors and producers. The contributors are clearly passionate about the work and there’s the added bonus of the text of an interview conducted by Kevin Brownlow with Dorothy Arzner. There’s also the revelation that the world’s first cinematographer was a woman called Laura Smith from Brighton who was cranking the handle as far back as 1897…
The book is available direct from Supernova Books and you won’t want to miss out: honestly, don’t blame me if you’re caught out at the next silent film gathering and you haven’t read it!
|Mary and that cast of several!|
Of all the silent women, Mary Pickford stood tallest and retained a position of power the longest, from actor to producer and industry figure. But she started out on the boards and as a player for Biograph. Pamela Hutchinson introduced us to The New York Hat (1912) a film dominated by Mary as well as the unexpected hat and a cast, as she pointed out, of literally several other future stars: two Gishes, two Pickfords, a Mack, a Mabel and a Barrymore.
It’s a special film, it gets better every time I see it and it makes me cry.
|Lois takes charge|
Then Bryony Dixon introduced tonight’s leading woman: Lois Weber – simply one of the most important and talented directors and writers of the period from the human species.
Shoes (1916) comes from Weber’s peak period of progressive preaching but Bryony was right to question why it is only women who seem to be slighted by the description of making films about “social issues” – imagine Ken Loach dealing with the poverty trap encapsulated in this film?
|Feet for purpose?|
Weber announces the film as a follow up of sorts to Where Are My Children? although Eva Meyer’s plight is only tangentially related. Eva (played by Mary MacLaren) has the bad luck to be the daughter of a lay-about (Harry Griffith) who is more concerned with drinking, smoking and reading dime trashy novels than providing for his wife and four children.
Eva works at a five and dime store and barely earns enough to keep herself and the family afloat. All the while her shoes are falling apart and, as they cannot afford a new pair, she keeps on having to cut out and insert cardboard.
The shoes mark a very real humiliation as those around her are well shod and don’t have to spend all day in sodden torment. But the sums don’t add up and this is no quaintly melodramatic confection but a real slice of everyday misfortune: Weber wasn’t one to let a confected happy ending undermine her truth.
Fellow shop girl, Lil (Jessie Arnold) responds to the playful overtures of cheeky chappie 'Cabaret' Charlie (William V. Mong) and ends up with a new watch as a sign of payments made in kind. Is this the only way Eva can hope to keep her feet dry?
|Trouble in store|
Lillian Henley provided expert accompaniment drawing some lovely plaintive lines as Eva’s desperation grows. It’s a simpler, less dramatic film than Children or Hypocrites but Shoes does its work equally well.
Weber described her background as “church army” and couched her stories in a moral rather than political framework using the medium to “preach to my heart’s content”. As Stamp posits, by involving the viewer in her character’s inner world’s she shifted the focus away from a purely sociological view of the situation and invested her audience with the need to make their own choices. We don’t just see Eva’s dilemma, we experience it and she wants a reaction.
Weber hoped to uplift the quality of cinema and she also wanted to generate debate and a thoughtful response: this is cerebral cinema from a woman of genuine conviction. We’re not battered down by 90 decibel IMAX-fuelled super heroics but we’re no less affected by the combination of performance, narrative and music.
Which is exactly why, Mr Osbourne, Mr Duncan Smith… Dave… you really ought to watch more silent film!
We watched the 2010 EYE reconstruction which melds a 1916 print with a sound re-mix from the early 30s to create the best possible version of Shoes. We’re lucky to still have it.
Another one of those killer facts: there were more women working in Hollywood in 1916 than in 2016… Why is that? If Lois Weber was still around, she'd make a film about it.