The standard narrative of women in early silent cinema is one of beautiful starlets in a Hollywood machine, which reduced them to a passenger’s seat. Now, a new series at BAMcinématek, Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers, is poised to enhance our view of cinema’s history with a drastically different angle — that of women fighting since the very beginning of celluloid for a role that allowed them to express their creativity, and to bend social norms.
Lois Weber is highlighted in the BAM program with seven films she directed or co-directed. Weber partnered with her husband, Philips Smalley, and then eventually ran her own production company, Lois Weber Studios. The website Women Film Pioneers Project, which features a great profile of the Smalleys, notes that in 1916 Weber was the first and only woman elected to the Motion Picture Directors Association, “a solitary honor she would retain for decades.” Weber was chastised by her contemporaries for being too socially and politically committed, a role ill fitting to the studios’ general aim to entertain first, and to turn a quick profit.
We can see what bothered Weber’s detractors in her ambitious didactic melodrama, Where Are All My Children? (1916). The film opens with an inter-title, in which Weber announces that it is time to talk about access to contraception, “a subject of serious public interest” that cannot “be denied careful dramatization.” It’s cinema’s role to stir, and Weber knows just how to do it. In the film, an older district attorney, Richard Walton (Tyrone Power Sr.), and his young bride, Mrs. Walton (Patia Tyrone Power, which incidentally, is to this day identified on imdb.com as simply Mrs. Power Tyrone) are a childless couple. Weber quickly reveals the marriage’s central tension: Walton is a lawmaker, a man of high social standing, accustomed to debating issues pertaining to women, in their absence. In one particularly stirring scene, Walton and a courtroom filled with men only decide on women’s reproductive rights — a glaring sight today, though most likely less so in Weber’s own time, when women were often excluded from public life. Yet Weber doesn’t stop at this contrast. Childless herself, Mrs. Walton has become a confidante to many women friends, who turn to her with their unwanted pregnancies. Walton knows a trusted doctor who performs abortions confidentially. This is of great importance when her own brother comes to visit, and seduces a young woman, who has an abortion that goes very wrong. The story comes full circle as Richard Walton is called in to prosecute and sentence the doctor.
Where Are All My Children? isn’t entirely free of Victorian attitudes. It would be odd if it were, given how brazen Weber’s premise is to begin with. As it turns out, Mrs. Walton isn’t barren, but has chosen not to have children, “out of selfishness.” Though the couple remains married after the revelation that Walton, too, has had abortions, she is shown being tormented by an angel — an eerie wafting apparition. After the operations, she is unable to have babies, now that she finally wants them, a punishment and painful repenting that, in the film’s context, comes across as Weber’s attempt to appease her critics. Walton is a fine Victorian wife, after all, and so she suffers moral qualms, her nest empty for the rest of her life.
Much lighter in tone are the wickedly funny and playful films of Grace Cunard (Harriet Milfred Jeffries), who acted in over 100 films, and penned an unidentified number of them. The BAMcinématek program features Cunard’s detective story, A Daughter of the Law (1921), in which she’s the star, writer, director, and producer. Cunard plays Betty Bronson, a scrappy secret service detective, sent out to a poor mountain region to investigate and bring to trial whiskey bootleggers, during the Prohibition. Hilariously, Betty comes into this inhospitable, rustic world pretending to be an airy landscape painter. She doesn’t do as much investigating as she does chatting up the locals and eavesdropping. But it doesn’t take long for her to figure out that the very house in which she is staying lies at the center of a bootlegging scheme, including the host’s ruggedly dashing son, “’Big Slim’ Wilson, the man of mystery” (Cole Herbert). Betty and Big Slim’s improbable romance gets in the way of the locals’ plan to do away with the pesky agent. Intrigue and violence ensue, and Betty soon finds herself in a hot mess, both victim and heroine. Most notable about Cunard’s character is the distinct satirical streak that will fully emerge in American comedy only during the 1930s and World War II: a decidedly American hero, brave to a point, but willing to bend the rules and look the other way, or to lie for the sake of comfort or passion.
In the BAMcinématek’s program there is also a fragment of The Purple Mask (1917), a chapter play in which Cunard is a bit of a mix between an action hero — think Batwoman (as Cunard acrobatically climbs the façade of a building during one of her stunts), or Robin Hood. Cunard robs the rich to help the poor, although she also gets involved in a plot to rout out local socialists, who in the episode are planning a deadly public stunt. It’s a delight to see a woman in a role that provides a sense of continuity to such recent Hollywood efforts as the powerful women action heroes in Wakanda and Wonder Woman or in the Marvel series.
Finally, there is Alla Nazimova, a unique Hollywood star blazer, a lesbian actress who featured in and produced the stunning and lavish art deco film, Salomé (1923). Salomé is a character from the New Testament, the daughter of the Queen of Galilee, Herodias, who asks for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. Director Charles Bryant and Nazimova follow the original story, including the torn King Herod, but also thicken the intrigue, with Herod lusting after Salomé. Nazimova is resplendent in her role: With stark, thinly plucked eyebrows, expressive, heavily lined eyes, and a pouty, scornful mouth, she is the very picture of sublime disdain. Her body language is lithe and acrobatic, yet also androgynous, decidedly masculine. She emphasizes this with odd body poses, angular and always slightly unnatural. Her passion for Jokaanan (as John the Baptist is called in the film), who is portrayed by Nigel De Brulier, is instantaneously ravenous, a striking, eerie contrast between Jokaanan’s enervated, wane, nearly feminine body, and Salomé’s brute force.
To watch Salomé is to absorb a wondrous mix of contradictions, lavishness, and excess. There were rumors in Hollywood that Nazimova’s cast consisted entirely of homosexual actors — unproven, yet the film bears a clear mark of gender difference. The play on gender stereotypes results in a fascinating cultural artifice, beyond the biblical tale of wickedness, or unbridled carnality. The surrealist effect is heightened by imaginative, bizarre costumes, full of elaborate headpieces and fantastical elements, and a theatrical studio setting that makes Salomé seem like one of Shakespeare’s voyage plays — think The Tempest — plus a hypnotic score, by the contemporary Serbian New York-based composer, Aleksandra Vrebalov.
It would be rash to conclude that women filmmakers had a relatively free reign or easy access to financial and systematic support during the 1930s era. The Women Film Pioneers website points out, for example, that Weber had a difficult time continuing to work after her divorce from her husband and co-director, and that as late as 1996, male historians, such as archivist and preservationist Anthony Slide, cited her inability to work “without strong masculine presence.” Alla Nazimova, on the other hand, faced a considerable backlash and was rejected for roles as well as had some of her more risqué productions canceled when her relationships with other Hollywood women became public knowledge. It is then perhaps most fit to see the BAM series as an antidote to the view that women played no leadership roles, other than starlets, and in this way lays ground for further reexamination.
Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers continues at BAMcinématek (30 Lafayette Ave, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) through Thursday, July 26.