An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Women in Early American Films: 1895-1930

Denise Lowe,
An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Women in Early American Films: 1895-1930.
Binghampton NY: Haworth Press, 2005
ISBN: 978 0 7890 1842 7 US$69.95 (hb)
ISBN: 978 0 7890 1843 4 US$49.95 (pb)
623 pp
(Review copy supplied by Haworth Press)

In the current revival of interest in the early film industry, marked by a large number of new publications, this book covers essential territory – biographies and filmographies of the major silent Hollywood movie stars, as well as those few other women who made their mark in an essentially male-dominated industry. It includes the well-known (Alice Guy, Clara Bow, Mae Marsh, Lilian Gish) but also the less well-known: Margaret Booth who spliced film for D.W.Griffith and went on to edit for MGM over a 30-year career, or novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart who at one time rivalled Agatha Christie in popularity and wrote more than thirty film scripts, or actor Mary Thurman who starred opposite Richard Bathelmess, William S. Hart and Monte Blue.

In addition to the personality entries, there are occasional subject entries, for instance on the Mandarin Film Company (the only silent film company producing films for Chinese audiences, and with a woman president, Marion E.Wong, who also acted in the company’s films) or the W.A.M.P.A.S. Baby Stars (those young female actors selected for special promotion each year by the Western Associated Motion Pictures Advertisers).

Having this kind of information easily accessible in a single volume will greatly benefit students of the silent cinema, as well as researchers. The appendices will also be invaluable, listing the longest careers of silent actors, the W.A.M.P.A.S. baby stars for each year (1922-1929), the women of the silent period whose foot- and hand-prints appear in the Forecourt of the Stars at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and the women who appear on the “Hollywood Walk of Fame”.

There are thumbnail photographs of many of the subjects – of surprisingly good quality, given the limitations imposed by the choice of such a grainy paper. However, there are also some unexpected absences from the photo gallery: well-known names like Annette Kellerman, Elinor Glyn, Anita Loos, or Carole Lombard.

For though the book is organised like an encyclopaedia – alphabetical entries on people and subjects – it is not encyclopaedic in scope. There are some puzzling absences, not accounted for in the author’s rather bland preface: Louise Lovely and Priscilla Bonner (with prolific and influential acting careers), Natasha Rambova (flamboyant and controversial), or Edith Head (hugely influential, over a very long career that began in the 1920s). The appendix “Female pioneers behind the scenes in the film industry 1895-1927” is also rather puzzling. It appears to have the laudable aim of redressing the balance a little – giving credit to the women who played technical roles or wrote screenplays as well as to actors. However, fourteen of the more than fifty names on the list do not have entries in the body of the book, and this is accounted for by a footnote which suggests that the information available about them was insufficient or unreliable. But this just makes the reader wonder how they got onto such a list in the first place.

In fact, the most serious problem with this book is the absence of any rationale for the selection of subjects, any discussion of the methods by which the information was gathered and any explanation of the purpose behind the appendices. The book is clearly intended as a ready reference on a library shelf – and it will serve that purpose admirably. However, the opportunity has been lost to make it more than that. The next generation of feminist film scholars need to understand how and why such a book comes to be, if they are to pick up where the current generation leaves off.

Ina Bertrand
Created on: Tuesday, 19 July 2005 | Last Updated: 19-Jul-05

About the Author

Ina Bertrand

About the Authors

Ina Bertrand

Ina Bertrand is Principal Fellow, Cinema Programme, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. She was foundation editor of Screening the Past.View all posts by Ina Bertrand →