The goddesses of early cinema
Bill Shepherd, Jack Fletcher, (unidentified) and director Paulette McDonagh on the set of The Cheaters. Courtesy the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.
Stories & Ideas

Wed 18 Mar 2020

The goddesses of early cinema

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Chelsey O'Brien

ACMI Curator

Assistant Curator Chelsey O’Brien walks us through this pantheon of cinema’s first female trailblazers and their stories.

Alice. Lois. Mabel. Paulette. These are just some of the names of female filmmakers that shaped the first few decades of the moving image, yet were largely written out of its story.

The women of early cinema were bold, determined and unapologetic. They were multi-talented, regularly working in front of the camera and behind it. They broke with theatrical traditions of the period by acting naturalistically for the camera. They championed female stories. And they did their own stunts. Often called ‘tomboys’, they pushed against gender norms and achieved things society did not expect from women at the time.

Alice Guy-Blaché

The Mother of Cinema

Alice Guy-Blaché (1 July 1873 – 24 March 1968)

Powerhouse filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché was the first recorded female director in the world. She made her debut in 1896 with La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy), credited as being the first fictional film with a scripted narrative. Known for her authentic and natural style, she would often shoot on location with hundreds of extras.

In 1910, Guy-Blaché opened her own studio, Solax, and made films featuring strong female protagonists. She even trained actress Vinnie Burns to do all her own stunts for action features including Two Little Rangers (1912) and the elaborate three-reel feature Dick Whittington and His Cat (1913).

Guy-Blaché was deeply interested in relationship dynamics and explored these in A House Divided (1913) and Matrimony’s Speed Limit (1913), both pictures that emphasised her stance on marriage as an equal partnership. She went on to direct, produce or supervise nearly 750 films throughout her career.

Lois Weber

The technical genius

Lois Weber (13 June 1879 – 13 November 1939)

Lois Weber was mentored by Alice Guy-Blaché at The Gaumont Film Company's Flushing studio. She was similarly ahead of her time, and considered one of America's most important silent era directors alongside D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille.

In 1916 Weber was the highest paid studio director in Hollywood. She championed more complex roles for women in the film industry, and was an advocate for cinema's potential to promote social justice. Her hugely popular films often directly addressed topics such as capital punishment, drug addiction, religious hypocrisy, poverty and contraception.

Weber also pioneered the split screen and double exposure film techniques. Her 1913 film Suspense creates high tension by showing simultaneous action; splitting the screen into three triangles to portray all three characters concurrently. In Hypocrites (1914), Weber used double exposure to scandalously feature the first full-frontal nude scene in cinema with a statue springing to life as a naked woman who danced translucently across the screen. Weber went on to write, direct, edit, produce and at times act in over 140 films.

Lottie Lyell

The plucky naturalist

Lottie Lyell (23 February 1890 – 21 December 1925)

Darling of the silent era, Lottie Lyell played a major role in the then-burgeoning Australian film industry as a writer, editor, director, producer, art director and actor. Although she collaborated closely with the filmmaker Raymond Longford, it is now widely agreed that she was responsible for a great deal more than she was credited for at the time, partly due to the inconsistency of early film credits and the loss of many of Australia’s early films.

Lyell didn’t fit the typical image of a glamorous screen star; she was plucky and bold, regularly portrayed strong female characters and did all her own stunts. Her performance style was uncommonly naturalistic for the period, lending a greater sense of realism to her films. Her screenplays frequently challenged social norms by presenting the woman’s point of view. The Woman Suffers (1918) is often considered Australia’s first feminist film for its well-promoted moral message regarding double standards experienced by men and women. Specifically addressing issues of domestic abuse, abortion, and suicide, the film was ground-breaking for its time. It examined how an unmarried pregnancy could ruin a woman’s life without affecting the life of an equally accountable father.

Mabel Normand

The first lady of comedy

Mabel Normand (10 November 1892 – 23 February 1930)

The rambunctiously slapstick tomboy Mabel Normand, appeared in 167 shorts and 23 feature films. She also directed, led a production company and worked with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Oliver Hardy.

Normand was fearless. She had a strikingly modern performance style, frequently improvised on screen and regularly volunteered to hurl herself into wild stunts – all for comedy. She enjoyed subverting gender traditions of the time. She tumbled down cliffs, flew airplanes and shot guns, often dressed as a boy. She also arguably became the first star to break the fourth wall for comedic purposes speaking directly to the audience, a device that became a trademark for her character of Madcap Mabel. Working closely with Chaplin at the start of his career, Normand directed his Tramp character’s debut in Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914). Film historian Raymond Lee contends that a study of Normand’s films before Chaplin arrived in the US shows gestures, mannerisms and even whole routines which later became a part of Chaplin’s act.

Lotte Reiniger

The master of animation

Lotte Reiniger (2 June 1899 – 19 June 1981)

Throughout her career, Lotte Reiniger made nearly 60 films with her own distinctive style of silhouette animation. She cut out and animated all her paper silhouettes by hand before painstakingly photographing them frame by frame to create the illusion of movement.

In 1923 she invented the first multiplane camera; her tricktisch, or trick table, gave the impression of depth to flat cell animation through layers of stacked glass above the camera’s lens. This ingenious invention allowed her to further develop fantastic and imaginative worlds for her characters, best exemplified in Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed) from 1926. The seminal film, widely credited as the world’s first animated feature, also included jewel-like colours and shades of black which added dynamic visual richness. Reiniger’s stunning animations have influenced animators, filmmakers, graphic designers and composers across the decades.

Paulette McDonagh

The gifted amateur

Paulette McDonagh (11 June 1901 – 30 August 1978)

Paulette McDonagh and her sisters Isabel and Phyllis closely collaborated on six films towards the end of Australia’s silent film era when opportunities for women in the film industry were limited. They were the first Australian women to own a production company, McDonagh Productions Ltd, as well as being the first to receive credit as filmmakers in their own right.

Without formal training, McDonagh honed her craft through observation and her love of cinema-going. She repeatedly viewed films to analyse cinematography, editing and performance. The sisters’ approach to filmmaking was directly informed by the films they enjoyed watching, preferring Hollywood melodramas and German Expressionism to local films.

Independently made on small budgets, the McDonagh films were entertaining, romantic melodramas set in urban environments, in contrast to the bush narratives popular in other Australian films of the period. Their films featured emotionally honest characters who resonated with their audiences. Thrifty and knowing exactly what she wanted in each scene, McDonagh would divide the shooting schedule into a series of shots so that cameraman Jack Fletcher only needed to join end-to-end during post production.

McDonagh also directed the Donald Bradman documentary How I Play Cricket (1932), which included the well-known scene demonstrating his extraordinary hand-eye coordination.

Watch an excerpt

Dorothy Arzner

The innovator

Dorothy Arzner (3 January 1897 – 1 October 1979)

The only female director working in the studio system during Hollywood’s Golden Age, Dorothy Arzner moved from silent films to the talkies with grace and commercial success – an industry shift that other silent directors failed to achieve.

Working from the ground up, Arzner began her career as a typist, editor and screenwriter before going on to direct 16 features. She was the first woman to join the Directors' Guild of America, and as a renowned star-maker, directed Rosalind Russell, Katharine Hepburn, Ruth Chatterton, Maureen O’Hara and the young Lucille Ball in early breakout roles.

While directing Paramount’s first talkie The Wild Party (1929), Arzner invented the first boom mic, initially to follow the movements of silent star Clara Bow, a famously energetically performer. Rigging a microphone to a fishing pole, Arzner gave Bow the ability to move freely on set and express her iconic physicality.

Arzner made films that critiqued the male gaze such as Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) and championed ambitious and independent women in Working Girls (1932) and Christopher Strong (1933). Although she was working within the studio system, Azner stated that as she was not financially dependent on filmmaking, she was always willing to give a film to another director if she couldn’t make it her way.

Arzner openly lived with her partner of 40 years, choreographer Marion Morgan, during a time when homophobia had increased in Hollywood due to the introduction of the Hays Code, as well as a return to strict gender roles post WWII.

Ida Lupino

The trailblazer

Ida Lupino (4 February 1918 – 3 August 1995)

Director and actor Ida Lupino fearlessly blazed the trail for independent filmmakers. Although she started her career in front of the camera, it was behind it where she firmly left her mark. Determined to create “pictures of a sociological nature … to tackle serious themes and problem dramas,” Lupino shot films quickly and cheaply on the streets of LA, developing an unsentimental, documentary style.

Forming the independent production company The Filmmakers with her then-husband and producer Collier Young, Lupino got her first uncredited directing debut on Not Wanted (1949), which explored the era’s taboos regarding sex and unwanted pregnancy. Lupino originally wanted to call the feature, ‘Unwed Mothers’ however this was rejected by the censorship board. Unperturbed, Lupino changed the title, but used her first choice as the film’s tagline on all marketing. The film was revered as a “masterpiece of low-budget Expressionism”.

After The Filmmakers was disbanded, Lupino began a steady career directing for television, her ability to work quickly and stick to budget gaining her work on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Fugitive and Gilligan’s Island. She was also the only woman to direct an episode of The Twilight Zone in its entire 156-episode run.

The stories of early female trailblazers in cinema will be woven throughout ACMI’s new permanent exhibition and programming. Help us preserve, present, and celebrate the works of seminal female creators with a tax deductible donation to the museum today.

Chelsey O’Brien curated the Moving Pictures section of ACMI’s new permanent gallery. She is also a film programmer at the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival. Chelsey is interested in the history of early cinema, movie-going culture and contemporary moving image practice.