Monday, December 10, 2018

Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers





curated by Shelley Stamp



In collaboration with the Library of Congress, Kino Lorber and film historian Shelley Stamp have curated an impressive and comprehensive collection of early female directed films. Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers is a 6 disc Blu-ray set (also comes in DVD format) that contains over 50 films ranging from shorts, feature films and incomplete movies. The set also includes 8 short informational documentaries, various commentary tracks and original music. What began as a Kickstarter campaign now is is a bonafide piece of film history that any movie buff would be proud to own.

We talk about Pre-Codes, that time period after the silent film era and before the strict enforcement of the Hays Code, when filmmakers had more free rein on releasing films with explicit content. But what about the pre-studio era of silent films? In the early days of motion pictures, the art form wasn’t taken seriously. This opened doors for African-American, Jewish and Female filmmakers to use their creative talents in a new field. Being a film director was a viable career for women because there was no set gender standard. According to film historian Cari Beauchamp, there were over 100 movie studios in the 1910s and between 1920 and 1933 those consolidated into only 7. Along with the male-dominated unions and guilds that sprung up during this time, female filmmakers were shut out making room for the male directors who would take over Hollywood. For one glorious period in early film history however, there was an output of great films that ranged in breadth, depth and subject matter.

“The films that these female pioneers wrote, produced, and often directed have an emotional depth one doesn’t find in other films.” – Ileana Douglas

Included in Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers are 58 of these films, each offering a look into an incredible time in the early history of film. Each disc is arranged by theme and a handful of the films included are exclusive to the Blu-ray set which makes that one even more valuable. With 80% of silent films lost, it’s incredibly important to appreciate what we have and that includes incomplete films. According to Rob Stone, Moving Image Curator for the Library of Congress, fragments tend to languish in vaults and are even more forgotten than whole surviving films. I’m grateful that the Pioneers set includes fragments as well films with some damage, restored to the best of the ability of the preservationists who worked on this project.

Each of the 6 discs contains extras, either commentary tracks or documentaries, averaging about 15 minutes each, on different subjects. These documentaries add real value to the set and I encourage you to watch them before tackling any of the films. They provide context and background information that is crucial to appreciating the movies you are about to see. The talking heads in these docs include principal curator Shelley Stamp as well as other curators, film historians, experts, archivists, preservationists, etc. My only small critique is that these extras start rather abruptly and could have used a short intro for more ease in viewing.

In addition to the docs and commentary is a 76 page booklet which includes an introduction by Ileana Douglas, an essay on the history of female filmmaking by Shelley Stamp, essays on the restoration and spotlights on one particular film and one particular filmmaker, information about the Women’s Film Preservation Fund and a thorough index of credits for the films included in the set. It’s a substantial booklet that reads like a film history book on its own. Another element that adds a lot of value to the set is the original music by silent film accompanists and composers such as Ben Model, the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, Renee C. Baker, Makia Matsumura, Maud Nelissen, Dana Reason, Aleksandra Vrebalov, etc. I was particularly struck by the score for Back to God’s Country (1919) by Dana Reason and Salome (1923) by Aleksandra Vrebalov.

Going through the Pioneers set was an education in itself. It’s feminist film history in a box. These trailbrazers set a precedent that film history has forgotten and it’s up to us to make sure those lessons are not lost. The subject matters range from gender identity, marriage, adultery, birth control, religion, sexual abuse, etc. However not all of these directors were progressive proto-feminists. Lois Weber for example was a former missionary and had very conservative views. As we’ve learned over the years of studying the history of film, the more perspectives the better.

Some of my favorite films in this set include Mabel Normand’s comedies, Alice Guy Blache’s rags-to-riches-to-rags short A Fool and His Money (1912), Zora Neale Hurston's ethnograph vignettes of African-American life in rural Florida circa 1928, Lois Weber’s controversial feature Where Are My Children? (1916) (starring Tyrone Power Sr.!), Weber’s marital drama Too Wise Wives (1921) (featuring a very young Louis Calhern), Nell Shipman’s Back to God’s Country (1919) (she’s my favorite of the early female filmmakers) and Nazimova’s fantastical Salome (1923).

The Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers set contains the following:

Disc 1: Alice Guy-Blaché 
Disc 2: Lois Weber
Disc 3: Genre Pioneers
Discs 4 & 5: Social Commentary
Disc 6: Feature Films Era

Directed by Alice Guy-Blaché 
Greater Love Hath No Man (1911)
Tramp Strategy (1911)
Algie the Miner (1912)
Canned Harmony (1912)
Falling Leaves (1912)
A Fool and His Money (1912)
The High Cost of Living (1912)
The Little Rangers (1912)
Burstup Homes' Murder Case (1913)
The Coming of Sunbeam (1913)
A House Divided (1913)
Matrimony's Speed Limit (1913)
The Ocean Waif (1916)

Directed by Lois Weber
On the Brink (1911)
Fine Feathers (1912)
From Death to Life (1912)
Hypocrites (1912)
The Rosary (1913)
Suspense (1913)
Lost By a Hair (1915)
Sunshine Molly (1915)
Idle Wives (1916)
Scandal (aka Scandal Mongers) (1916)
Where Are My Children? (1916)
Too Wise Wives (1921)
What Do Men Want? (1921)

Directed by Helen Holmes
Hazards of Helen Ep. 09: Leap From the Water Tower (1915)
Hazards of Helen Ep.13: The Escape on the Fast Freight (1915)
The Hazards of Helen Ep. 26: Wild Engine (1915)

Directed by Grace Cunard
Purple Mask, The; Episode 5, Part 1 (1917)
Purple Mask, The: Episode 12 (Vault of Mystery) (1917)
Purple Mask, The; Episode 13, Part 1 (The Leap) (1917)
A Daughter of "The Law" (1921)

Directed by Mabel Normand
Caught in a Cabaret (1914)
Mabel's Blunder (1914)
Mabel Lost and Won (1915)
Mabel and Fatty's Wash Day (1916)

Directed by Nell Shipman
Back to God's Country (1919)
Something New (1920)

Directed by Ida May Park
The Risky Road (1918)
Bread (1918)
Broadway Love (1918)

Miscellaneous
49 - '17 (1917) directed by Ruth Ann Baldwin
The Colleen Bawn (1911) script by Gene Gauntier
That Ice Ticket (1923) directed by Angela Murray Gibson
Ethnographic Films (1929) directed by Zora Neale Hurston
The Call of the Cumberlands (1916) directed by Julia Crawford Ivers
Motherhood: Life's Greatest Miracle (1925) directed by Lita Lawrence
Eleanor's Catch (1916) directed by Cleo Madison
Her Defiance (1916) directed by Cleo Madison
The Song of Love (1923) directed by dir. Frances Marion
Salome (1923) produced by Alla Nazimova
The Red Kimona (1925) directed by Dorothy Davenport Reid
Linda (1929) directed by Dorothy Davenport Reid
When Little Lindy Sang (1916) directed by Lule Warrenton
The Cricket (1917) directed by Elsie Jane Wilson
The Dream Lady (1918) directed by Elsie Jane Wilson
Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingle with the West (1916) directed by Marion E. Wong

Extras/Short Documentaries
An Introduction to Series
About the Restorations
Alice Guy-Blache
Lois Weber
Mabel Normand
Serial Queens
Social Commentary
The End of an Era








Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me a copy of Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers for review.

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