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More than Mary Pickford: Some Notes on the Labor of Women in Silent Cinema

Cleopatra (Charles L. Gaskill, 1912)


The most recent bi-annual Women and the Silent Screen conference (its eighth edition) took place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania last September. To most, Pittsburgh is probably only known as a former steel industry town with a longstanding reputation as a living “hell.” Barbara Stanwyck was eager to flee the city in 1933’s Baby Face no matter what the cost, and according to John Wayne in John Ford’s 1952’s The Quiet Man Pittsburgh was all “steel and pig iron furnaces so hot a man forgets his fear of hell.” Pittsburgh was incidentally also the place of birth of silent film pioneer Lois Weber, who was one of Universal’s top female directors (others were Elsie Jane Wilson, Ruth Stonehouse, Lule Warrenton, and Cleo Madison) between 1912 and 1914. Weber briefly left and made pictures at the Bosworth Company but returned to Universal in 1915. She wrote and directed features as diverse as The Dumb Girl of Portici (with Anna Pavlova) and the anti-abortion and pro-birth control drama Where are my Children (1916). In 1921, Motion Picture Magazine praised her for her “unique position” in film history. Thus Pittsburgh’s social, industrial and cultural history proved a fitting background for the conference’s theme: women, labor, and working class cultures in the silent era. Pittsburgh’s pig iron furnaces are of course a thing of the past now and it proved a very pleasant, green and cozy university town. While this won’t be an academic report of the papers delivered – although the edition was high-standing, expertly organized, and academically stimulating – I will take the opportunity to put the spotlights on some of the pioneering women who were “recovered” (as we like to phrase it) during the conference.

Why this “recovery work?” one may wonder. Well, one fact that previous conferences have convincingly shown is that for a long time women have been written out of cinema history. (The years are particularly unkind to women in more than one sense, it would seem.) With the help of initiatives such as the Women Film Pioneers Project, the founding of the international research group Women and Film History International, the restoration of recently discovered films (or film fragments) by women in various archives, the retrospectives or screenings of female oeuvres at festivals and archives (Pordenone, San Francisco, Bologna, Moma, Eye a.o.), the past editions of the WSS conference and the appearance of excellent scholarly work that has reclaimed these women and their role in (early) film history, this fact no longer needs to be reiterated ad infinitum. This surely does not mean that all work is done, far from it, but the conference presenters did not dwell too long on the narrative of the industry’s gradual masculinization and corporate institutionalization and the erasure of the labor women had performed there, so they could focus on exploring new methods of describing, understanding, contextualizing, archiving and reconsidering female labor and presence in the film industry.

And present they were. In their own stubborn, self-assured, sometimes eccentric and always norm-defying ways – these female film pioneers led active, sometimes successful, sometimes frustrating lives at the center (or at the fringes) of the new art and industry. What these women had in common was pluck, nerve, and persistence. Although much is already known about the lives of the famous actresses of the day, whose iconic presence and lingering fan-following make them easier to remember or visualize as active participants of cinema, women were also active in other creative fields. They were writers, title-writers, story editors, set dressers, choreographers, costume designers, directors, film editors, amateur filmmakers, dancers, critics, producers, even camera-operators (if only a few). I’ll offer a limited selection of women that captured my imagination.

Mary Manning (1905-1999), an Irish actress, writer, exhibitor, producer, film society founder, and critic, is an example of such a multi-talented and multi-tasking entrepreneur. She seems to have been one of the first true cinéphiles (before the word was formally invented) and she was involved with and interested in everything do to with cinema or the theater, whether commercially valuable and mainstream or more risky and experimental. (She herself experimented with non-linear narratives structures, flash backs and self-reflective inter-titles.) Manning, who apparently was also a close friend of and collaborated with Samuel Beckett, was both creative and reflective: she wrote for film, produced films, and for a while was the film critic for The Irish Statesman and had a film column in Motley. In these critical arenas she developed her ideas on cinema, which were usually against or critical of Hollywood standards and passionately promoted an independent Irish film industry that would be different from Hollywood and open to experimentation and change. How such an active and creative life in film was obscured over the years seems hard to fathom but into obscurity she did slip. Donna Casella’s talk filled up a big gap in Irish film history. For more, see Casella’s contribution on Manning on the WFPP website here.

Nell Shipman
Nell Shipman

Every chance one gets to hear more about the fascinating Canadian-born actress, director, writer, producer Nell Shipman (1892-1970) [pictured above – ed.], star of The Girl From God’s Country (Shipman & Van Tuyle, 1921) and The Grub Stake (Shipman & Van Tuyle, 1923) I welcome with open arms. After getting caught up by Denis Côté’s Bestiaire last year, my interest in Nell Shipman has received a fresh boost. Apart from their nationality Côté and Shipman also share an interest in animals and zoos. In his film Côté observed a Quebec zoo and its human and non-human animals. Shipman’s relationship to zoos was of a more practical and direct nature: with her own production company she owned her own menagerie (which included dogs, a honey-bear, a wolf, deer, skunks, bobcats, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, horses) and turned out a series of pictures in which animals played a prominent part. Back in the silent days, there were several film companies with their own menageries on the lot, such as the Selig Company, the Mack Sennett studio (yes, animals are essential to slapstick), and Universal. Animals fulfilled a variety of functions in silent films: they appeared as pure spectacle (think Electrocuting an Elephant), as plot devices initiating a chain of comic or dramatic events, they functioned as sentimental triggers, as figurations of cultural values or as metaphors. Also, an added attraction of the movie animal (from the viewpoint of the studios) was that they often received both very good reviews and a loyal fan following. (Jeanine Basinger details in her study of silent stars how critics seriously commented on Rin Tin Tin’s acting, and yes, the canine screen hero received fan mail!) Commentators often remarked upon the “naturalness” of animals in films. The animal’s lack of camera (and salary) consciousness and their sure-fire authenticity (really, there is no acting going on, just tricks) proved refreshing compared to stale generic conventions, convoluted plotting and the machine-like efficiency and artifice of Hollywood cinema. Nevertheless, the Universal Studio supposedly got rid of its on-site menagerie sometime after the arrival of sound because the wild animals proved too noisy for sound recording. In contemporary cinema, the real animal is increasingly (but not always) replaced by CGI techniques (most recently the bear in Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s The Revenant, or parts of Richard Parker – the tiger- in Life of Pi, but the Coens worked with a real cat for Inside Llewyn Davis). While this solves the problem of how to compensate or ethically account for animal labor and the issue of animal rights and safety, the computer-generated animals in films that are to a large extent about our relationship towards the animal, about their existence, essence and soul as well as our own (like Lee’s Life of Pi or like Darren Aronofsky’s digital Noah) feel out of place because, well, without aura.

But let’s return to Shipman, whose films were melodramatic adventure stories with a distinct focus on the relationship between humans and nature, more specifically the relationship between woman and animal. The possibility of animal intelligence, animal emotions and agency, and inter-species mutual understanding is proposed via plotting, narrative structure and inter-titles that represent animal thoughts or the psychological or practical motivation for an action. For example, in one of Shipman’s short features, A Bear, a Boy and a Dog (1921) the bear compares his monotonous life in a zoo to “the saddest prison of all.” (See Kay Armatage for an extensive study in Nell Shipman, The Girl From God’s Country (2007). It is a rich source of valuable historical information and compelling theoretical insights.)

Of course, much can be gained from reading Shipman’s own writings, The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart, a memoir, and Blazing the Trail, a fictionalized account of her own experiences. In these books we encounter a smart, practical and hands-on woman who is a bit theatrical in her style but the passion feels genuine. Shipman was clearly a warm-blooded, sensuous woman, who built up intense – sometimes-romantic – relationships with some of her co-stars but those with the non-human animals lasted the longest. In Pittsburgh, Amy Shore talked about Shipman and suggested that we cautiously reexamine Shipman’s reputation as “inter-species” advocate, and look critically at the labor of the animals ‘acting’ in her films. The dominant narrative of female-animal camaraderie that somewhat prettifies Shipman’s achievement and aims should not shield the many stories about the “well-intentioned but incapable” (as Shore put it) treatment of the animals at Shipman’s private menagerie. The radical willingness of Shore to put her own previous research and conclusions into question was quite courageous and refreshing.

The woman who completely blew me away was Helen Gardner. She was an actress, director, scenarist, producer, costume designer and film editor and has to her credit that she (together with Marion Leonard) was the first woman to form her own independent film company as early as 1912 (“Helen Gardner Picture Players”). She was gutsy enough to leave Vitagraph to be her own boss and made ambitious films for her own company. I have discussed the importance of independent female production in an earlier blog and here again I want to point out how remarkable the bold entrepreneurship of the women who were central to the “Their Own Company Craze” truly was. I learned to my surprise and delight that Gardner had well-developed ideas about the cinema, about its purposes and its aesthetic and moral properties. She entertained “a philosophy of cinema,” as Dorin Schumacher (Gardner’s granddaughter and biographer) daringly but suitably called it. This “philosophy” can be grasped from a variety of written sources -essays, poems, meditations, rants and letters- Gardner has left behind. Much like Lois Weber, Gardner’s aesthetic principles and ideals were lofty, clean, and clear-cut. She wanted to bring to the film industry a particular type of picture that would set it apart from the commercial, run of the mill lore that was produced by other companies and that flooded the screens. Her philosophy – often expressed in interviews and profiles – was not a commercial stratagem, a way to better ‘market’ her films (although she probably believed she would win a particular audience with it) – but an actual vision that corresponds with ideas put forward by contemporary advocates of the cinema and early theorists like Hugo Münsterberg or Vachel Lindsay. She was an early advocate of cinema as a ‘true seventh art,’ cinema as an art of truth and sincerity.

For Gardner, cinema’s ability to edify was important and she believed that hers should be a cinema of ideas and motifs (instead of just spectacle and popular romance), a cinema that with a combination of aesthetic excellence and dramatic power would grip the imagination of “respectable” audiences. (She was aware of her “double” audience and hoped that both the masses and the classes would discover and come to respect the cinema as a valid form of art.) Her discourse reveals the ideals and ideas of the Uplift movement dominant in the teens at the time and precedes a broad industry move towards greater respectability through female patronage, or the courting of men and women of “good taste” and “intellect” (again a class consideration). This appeal to “better audiences” is also reflected in her filmography, which features adaptations of Thackeray, Dickens, and her performing as remarkable historical figures such as Cleopatra (in 1912). Clearly, Gardner was clever enough to select or create meaty parts for herself. Unlike most women of her time, Gardner did not mind emphasizing her agency and more specifically her intellect. (Lois Weber was often described as “Mrs. Philips Smalley” and it seems that she held on to a rather reconciling discourse that stressed her domesticity as well as her professionalism. This discourse of female professionalism moderated by or legitimized by domestic metaphors and ideals was typical of the day.)

Gardner was a trailblazer for a variety of trends or evolutions within the film industry such as feature film productions, female independent productions, the implementation of culturally prestigious source material, the courting of “respectable” audiences” but is less well remembered than other women of her time. (I plead guilty for yapping on about Mary Pickford so often.) A search for her on the internet tells one why she is so relatively obscure: there are very few photos of her readily available, few posters, few documents that would tell the story of how this women dared to make a path for herself in a new art and industry. Additionally, in the publicity of the day (and in some contemporary accounts about her life) she is overshadowed by her (lover-)producer Charles L. Gaskill, who got the credit but who actually co-produced his films with her money. As the world is becoming increasingly visual – a picture, a visual, is proof of something true, tangible, important – it is essential that she and women like her be exposed more. (Here and here are good places to start if one is interested.) Thankfully there is a book underway. This is truly something to look forward to.

The next Women and the Silent Screen conference will be held in Shanghai in 2017.

PS. The women summed up above were expertly discussed by Donna R. Casella, Doris Schumacher, and Amy Shore. If only my notes had been better, then I would have mentioned so many more!