Feminist Media Historiography and the Work Ahead

There has been an explosion of scholarship in the sixteen years since the Gender and Silent Cinema conference was held in Utrecht and the fourteen years since Amelie Hastie and I hosted the first conference on Women and the Silent Screen in Santa Cruz. Major books have been published on key figures, with more still in the works. [1] Anthologies and journal issues mark out the field of “women and the silent screen.” [2] There are now histories of institutions and cultural discourses that completely re-figure women’s relationship to early film culture. [3] There have been significant film restorations and major international retrospectives. [4] And we now have a comprehensive online sourcebook of information. [5]

Yet, little of this research has penetrated beyond the circle of scholars who attend these events and follow this work. Major surveys of U.S. film history omit or marginalize the contributions of women at all levels of the early industry and recent anthologies on silent cinema devote scant attention to women engaged in any capacity with early film culture. [6] Domitor and Women and the Silent Screen, the primary conferences in our field, remain on parallel tracks, with little integration of scholars and scholarship.

This troubling stalemate has prompted me to reflect on the larger project of feminist media historiography. I would like to approach the topic from two directions. First, let me begin concretely, by looking at issues raised in my own efforts to chronicle Lois Weber’s career in early Hollywood, a project that became increasingly consumed with the question of how Weber’s extraordinary stature could ever had been “forgotten.” Then I will move outwards to offer some thoughts about broader methodological issues for feminist historians of early cinema.

The Shape Described by Her Absence

Although this photoplay artist is never seen on the screen, she –
Writes her own photoplays.
Puts them in story form.
Chooses and contracts her own players.
Operates a Bell-Howell camera on many of her scenes, and
Plans her own lighting effects.
Bosses her own property “gallery.”
Sometimes “shoots” with a still camera.
Plunges occasionally into chemicals in her developing laboratory.
Writes her own titles, inserts, prologues.
Knows how to operate a printing machine.
Is her own film cutter, “splicer” and editor.
Plans her own publicity and advertising campaigns for her finished pictures.
Is her own business manager and signs all her checks.
Owns her own studio.
Was the first to “work” her players to the strains of an orchestra.
Was the first woman in filmdom to get $2500 a week (and that was years ago).
“Discovered” Mary MacLaren, Mildred Harris, Lois Wilson, Claire Windsor, Priscilla Dean and a half dozen other “stars.”
Believes that “the play’s the thing” and not the players.
Does her own cooking and raises her own vegetables.
Knows every branch of the film business from actual experience as player, director and business manager.
Supervises the marketing and distribution of her photoplays.
Is financially independent of the movie magnates.
Does a man’s work; but has never marched in a suffragist parade.
Has made nearly 100 photoplays.
Was one of the first five actresses to leave the speaking stage for picture work.
Who is she?
She is Lois Weber, qualified voter.
Los Angeles Herald, February 21, 1921. [7]

By 1921, apparently, Lois Weber was simultaneously everywhere and nowhere in Hollywood, omnipotent yet imperceptible. A catalogue of astonishing accomplishment, the poem quoted above fashions Weber as an enigma, unrecognizable even after such an exhaustive accounting. “Who is she?” the verse asks, seemingly confident that few readers will have guessed. Indeed, if this poem were to be read aloud even today at any gathering of film scholars or filmmakers, few would be able to identify its subject. The litany of Weber’s achievements, piled here as they are line by line, makes her invisibility all the more poignant. Portrayed through an accumulation of muscular verbs – she writes, chooses, operates, bosses, shoots, and plunges – Weber appears in command of every phase of moviemaking: single-handedly writing, casting, dressing, and directing her pictures; shooting, developing, and editing her footage; managing her studio; then marketing and distributing the finished products. Fiercely self-sufficient, she is “independent of the movie magnates,” writes “her own” photoplays, contracts “her own” players, plans “her own” lighting and props, writes “her own” titles, cuts “her own” films, and is “her own” business manager in “her own” studio. On one level, this frenzied résumé insists upon Weber’s multifaceted technical and artistic expertise in a male-dominated industry, showing that she is not a “director” in name only, but a hands-on practitioner with enviable authority. Even so, by 1921 this model of unilateral mastery had become outdated, a relic of earlier, artisanal modes of production jettisoned by studio conglomerates whose mass-production “efficiencies” demanded a stricter division of labour. So even as the elegy charts Weber’s stellar position in Hollywood history, it casts her as already an anachronism, already outmoded, already surpassed – and, crucially, already unknown.

Something of this paradox is conveyed in the way that Weber inhabits both past and present in the poem’s fictive space. She simultaneously “is” and “was” – “the first” to have achieved significant milestones in the industry, yet still very much active. Indeed, Weber emerges from a nexus of contradictions – a filmmaker who takes still photographs, an actress who no longer appears on screen, a star maker for whom the play is more important than its players, a female voter who is not a suffragist, and a successful businesswoman who cooks her own meals, tends her own garden, and does not consort with feminists. Most paradoxical of all, Weber is a woman doing “a man’s work,” a woman famous in filmdom for something other than being “seen on the screen.” As if to emphasize this particularly vexing phenomenon, the poem begins apologetically, insisting on her importance even though she does not appear on screen. This reminds us of how ubiquitous was the view, even then, that women belonged more properly on the screen than behind the scenes. Working off screen, Weber’s contributions to early Hollywood are much less visible – not because she is a director or a screenwriter or a studio owner, but because she is a woman assuming these unaccustomed roles. Most striking is the way Weber is figured as an enigma, the way such a dizzying list of accomplishments ends with the riddle “Who is she?” That is, ultimately, the most arresting contradiction in the poem, a portrait of a figure simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, peerless yet anonymous. It is remarkable, too, for the way it foreshadows Weber’s marginal place in histories of American filmmaking. The question, then, is not “Who is she?” but how could a figure of such renown remain so unknown?

“History has not been kind” to Lois Weber, Richard Koszarski reminds us; or, as Anthony Slide puts it, she “lost her way.” For Koszarski, Weber has been “forgotten with a vengeance.” [8] She is not alone, of course. Descriptions of loss and forgetting pervade the discourse on early female filmmakers: Alice Guy Blaché is “the lost visionary of cinema,” as Alison McMahon puts it, her life and work a “lost garden” for those trying to document it. Gene Gauntier is “cinema’s forgotten pioneer.” Nell Shipman, Canada’s “forgotten star.” Elvira Notari is “lost in male-dominated culture,” so obscured that Giuliana Bruno must play cartographer to map not only Notari’s presence but also the traces of her absence. [9]

What does this “loss” and “forgetting” look like? And what are its consequences? It is clear in Weber’s case, at least, that this vengeful “forgetting” began during her lifetime, began even as she continued to work in Hollywood in the late 1920s and early 30s. An industry in the throes of corporate conglomeration, accelerated by the transition to sound, distanced itself from an “ancient” past, a past that included such incredible “hi-jinx” as letting women direct. As Karen Ward Mahar has demonstrated, the capitalization of Hollywood in the 1920s fuelled efforts to “re-masculinize” the industry, helping it to keep pace with evolving American corporate culture. [10]

The process of “forgetting” Lois Weber during these years took shape in two phases. First, in the early 1920s, she was re-cast as a “woman’s filmmaker.” In an effort to capitalize on the overwhelming majority of female patrons at the cinema, Weber was celebrated for her ability to craft “a woman’s picture in a woman’s way to a woman’s taste.” [11] As a female writer-director making female-centred productions aimed at an explicitly female audience, Weber held real currency. At no other point in her career, in fact, were Weber’s films marketed so exclusively to women or associated so pointedly with a feminine authorial viewpoint. Reviewers now frequently took note of “Miss Weber’s deft feminine touch,” her “feminine angle on the making of motion pictures,” and the “delicate suggestion of the feminine viewpoint” appreciable in her work. “Her photoplays are cross-sections of a woman’s soul,” one profile proclaimed. [12] Yet, Weber’s status as a “woman’s filmmaker” placed her at a paradoxical locus – prized, yet marginalized. Her work was valued while simultaneously set apart from the presumed mainstream.

By the late 1920s, a revised narrative emerged, one that not only sidelined Weber as a “woman’s filmmaker,” but highlighted her role as a female filmmaker in order to mark that role as an anomalous one. Even while she still enjoyed an active career, Weber was cast as the “only woman director in cinemaland.” In 1927 Moving Picture World went one step further, describing Weber as “the only woman ever to achieve success as a motion picture director,” an astonishing erasure of the historical record. By 1933 Weber was paired with Dorothy Arzner as “the only women anyone can remember as having directed.” In the late 1930s Weber became the “lone woman movie-maker of silent days,” her “unique” and “solitary” achievements relegated to “long ago.” One of the few “ladies who could make a camera sit up and talk,” who “ever got away with it on a big scale,” and who could defy the “old filmdom jinx,” as if some mystical phenomenon, not gender bias, had clouded historical memories. [13] Weber was forgotten, here, in the same moment that she was remembered. She became the exception that proved the rule.

But she was not alone, of course. Fighting against the erasure of their contributions to early Hollywood, Weber and her contemporaries tried valiantly to insert themselves into chronicles of Hollywood history being written during these years. Linda Arvidson Griffith published When the Movies Were Young in 1925. That same year Nell Shipman’s chronicle of her experiences filming under extreme winter conditions in northern Idaho was serialized in the Atlantic Monthly. Gene Gauntier published her memoir, “Blazing the Trail,” in Woman’s Home Companion three years later. Taking another tack, Mary Pickford purchased a good portion of her Biograph titles in the 1920s in order to control their destiny – and her legacy. [14] When sound technology swept Hollywood in the late 1920s, Weber took out a full-page ad in the trade journal Film Mercury touting her work directing sound films at American Gaumont two decades earlier; she penned a two-part syndicated newspaper piece reflecting on her own career in light of diminishing opportunities for women; and she continued work on a memoir entitled The End of the Circle that was to have been published shortly before she died in 1939. [15]

Taken together, these women’s efforts mark a struggle against a historical narrative that was already taking shape. Terry Ramsaye, Benjamin Hampton, and Lewis Jacobs, Hollywood’s first historians, say virtually nothing about women’s contributions to early Hollywood and film culture more generally, save for mention of the most prominent female stars, fashioning a template that persists even today. [16] Despite significant research by Slide and Koszarski dating back to the 1970s, Weber’s career is still overlooked in most major histories of American silent cinema, marginalized in relation to her contemporaries, Mack Sennett, Marshall Neilan, Maurice Tourneur, Rex Ingram, and Thomas Ince, let alone D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. [17] The most prominent histories of American cinema barely consider her work at all. [18] And with the notable exception of Mark Garrett Cooper’s revisionist study, Universal Women, virtually all modern histories of Universal Pictures are silent on Weber – the director whom Carl Laemmle considered his “best man” on the lot; co-head of the studio’s celebrated Rex brand; mayor of Universal City; the studio’s highest-paid and most respected director in the mid-1910s; the first director released from contract to form her own production company; and the figure later appointed to head Universal’s story department and develop new talent during a period of transition in the 1920s. Astonishingly, Weber receives absolutely no mention in standard histories of Universal’s early years, and in one case is remembered only for the role she reportedly played in re-editing Rupert Julian’s Phantom of the Opera (1925), at best a footnote to her celebrated career. [19]

Weber’s marginalization is figured most graphically in introductory texts that, if they allow for the impact women had in early Hollywood at all, insist on framing those accomplishments in a box literally set apart from the main narrative, a postscript, an addendum with no possibility of ever being incorporated into that narrative, let alone changing it. Weber and her contemporaries are highlighted and exiled in the same gesture. In one striking example, Weber receives passing mention in an introductory film history text that informs readers about “a brief vogue” for female filmmakers in early Hollywood, a trend the authors dub “the feminine mystique,” ensuring its anachronism and enshrining it in enigma. [20] Evidently the story Hollywood began telling about itself in the 1920s – that female filmmakers were an anomaly, that women chiefly served the glamour industry, and that female viewers and female subject matter were marginal to the box office – has been so indelibly imprinted that generations of historians have repeated and reinforced the story for nearly a century.

In marked contrast to her striking obscurity in standard histories of American cinema, early Hollywood, and Universal Pictures, Weber assumes a prominent place in any tally of women filmmakers. [21] Should she be recognized principally for her achievements as a woman, or does she warrant broader recognition as a pioneering filmmaker? The answer, most certainly, is both. Regardless of her gender, Weber was a figure of seminal importance in the evolving U.S. film industry. It should be clear that histories of American silent cinema can no longer be written without considering Weber’s legacy. She was one of the era’s most respected directors, one of its leading filmmakers alongside Griffith and DeMille. Like them, Weber was invested in cinema’s “uplift,” but she chose an alternate tack, emphasizing a popular cinema of social engagement over highbrow literary adaptations and historical epics. Unlike her contemporaries, she wrote or adapted her own screenplays and was one of the first to form an independent production company after World War I. Recognized as one of the most eminent filmmakers in the industry, she was accorded top salaries, lucrative contracts, hyperbolic press coverage, and enormous creative freedom. An industry leader, she was instrumental in the professionalization of screenwriting in the 1910s, then in the late 1920s helped lead the professionalization of directing through her work on the first director’s committee at the newly formed Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. A groundbreaking celebrity director, arguably the first of her generation to achieve such fame, Weber spoke tirelessly on behalf of the industry, testifying to its artistic and cultural potential in the early years, then coming to its defence during the star scandals of the early 1920s. An intrepid pioneer in the field of social-problem films, through her work Weber spawned landmark censorship cases that tested early regulatory practices, and she emerged, alongside Griffith, as a steady voice against efforts to censor the movies. A proponent of realism and naturalistic acting, she was also a visual stylist particularly adept at conveying psychological interiority, marshalling details of gesture, expression, and props and experimenting with lighting, location shooting, and multiple exposures.

Essential as she was to the fledgling movie business and its evolving crafts of directing and screenwriting, Weber’s career and legacy cannot be understood without taking her gender into account. Active female protagonists were central to her films from the very beginning – these include the struggling wives, daughters, and mothers she played in her Rex shorts; memorable characters like Portia in The Merchant of Venice (1914) and Fenella in The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916); women facing poverty, addiction, and scandal in her Universal features; married women and single working women jointly navigating modern sexual mores in the post-war years; and performers juggling fame, glamour, and commodification in the Jazz Age. With female protagonists at their centre, Weber’s scripts grappled with issues close to women. Marriage and domesticity, to be certain, but her films also grappled with sexual violence, abusive relationships, contraception, wage equity, prostitution, unplanned pregnancy, and a sexual double standard. What is more, her social-problem films made it clear that any issue, from capital punishment to poverty to addiction, not only affected women but necessitated women’s engagement in order to effect social change.

Conscious of her prominent role in the industry, Weber helped foster a safe, educational space for young women at the Girls’ Studio Club, maintained strong ties with feminist clubwomen, and mentored several generations of aspiring actresses, screenwriters, and directors. So marked were her collaborations with other creative women that Weber’s films were sometimes referred to as “suffraget [sic] propaganda” and accused of harbouring “alarming feministic tendencies.” [22] Nurturing the talents of performers like Mary MacLaren, Mildred Harris, Claire Windsor, and Billie Dove, Weber wrote mature parts for them, characters explicitly designed to counter dominant images of women on screen. In interviews and public statements she spoke with mounting frustration about the limited roles offered to women in Hollywood films. Weber also spoke out against discrimination in the industry, insisting on a place at the table when the Photoplaywrights League formed in 1912, protesting the growing climate of hostility toward women directors in the 1920s, and trying against all odds to ensure her own historical legacy in the last years of her life.

Weber’s celebrity persona, uncommon for a director of this era, also fed on ideas about femininity, whether in early accounts of creative collaborations with her husband, Phillips Smalley, used to smooth the bold image of a woman filmmaker, or in later tales of her role as “star maker,” used to align the female director with Hollywood’s production of glamour and fame. Later in her career, as she became isolated as the “only” woman director in the industry, she was valued for her presumed ability to cater to cinema’s overwhelmingly female audience, while simultaneously discounted solely as a director of “women’s pictures.” As the poem that opens this essay reminds us, Weber embodied a puzzling paradox throughout her career, a “domestic directress” at once Lois Weber and Mrs Phillips Smalley, a filmmaker who matched the “strength of a man” with “feminine intuition.” If Weber’s status as a bourgeois married woman lent the movies some credibility in their early days, by the end of her career Weber’s reputation as a lone female filmmaker had become a pretext for marginalization. A peerless figure in American silent cinema, Weber’s place in early Hollywood and in subsequent histories of that period can be understood only by taking account of her gender. Femininity explains not only her successful navigation of the fledgling movie business but also her subsequent obscurity. It makes her a figure of fascination for feminist historians, yet invisible to many others.

In the end, then, my account of Weber’s career considers two questions simultaneously. It seeks to demonstrate once and for all that Weber was a pivotal figure in American movie culture, that histories of silent cinema, early Hollywood, and American filmmaking can no longer ignore her films, her career, and her legacy. At the same time, by examining Weber’s public persona, the study evaluates how Weber, her work, and her working relationships were understood during her lifetime and how they have come to be understood, forgotten, or lost in subsequent years. At issue is not only the question of why Weber deserves study and recognition, but also the inverse question – how and why she became “lost” and “forgotten” in the first place. Even now, as industry executives and pundits continue to find themselves amazed that women make popular, profitable, and interesting films – even that women watch movies at all – when female filmmakers still negotiate the awkward terrain of “chick flicks,” and when being “seen on the screen” is still considered women’s primary role in Hollywood, it is essential to remember that these fictions have a long tail. A vengeful “forgetting” of women such as Lois Weber yields a skewed narrative with profound consequences for subsequent generations of filmmakers and filmgoers.

This profound amnesia evokes what Avery Gordon describes as the paradox of historical subjects who are “there and not there at the same time.” Using Patricia Williams’ account of researching her great, great grandmother, an African American slave, Gordon explains that Williams found not the woman she was seeking, only “the shape described by her absence.” [23] Gordon provides a powerful guiding metaphor for tracing the subaltern, racialized subjects who “haunt” U.S. history. And I find it an equally evocative trope for feminist historiography. Gordon describes a project that is not simply about finding female film pioneers and inserting them into a conventionally understood trajectory, nor even re-writing that trajectory with women fully incorporated. Her work maps an endeavour that involves first, confronting the effects of women’s absence in conventional film histories, understanding that the absence has consequences, and confronting the reality that we will not necessarily “find” our women, only the “shape described by their absence.”

The Work Ahead
How do we trace shapes described primarily by absence when charting histories of women’s engagement with early movie cultures?

First and foremost, we must “look past the screen,” to use a phrase coined by Jon Lewis and Eric Smoodin, exploring what they call “the possibility of film scholarship without films.” [24] It is an approach that is important for all media historiography, of course. But it is particularly important for feminist media historiography, not because so many early films do not survive, but because looking past the screen changes our object of study. It moves our gaze away from representations of female characters on screen, away from the spectator-screen binary, into a world of culture, a world where women circulate, have agency, and make meaning. Let me give one brief example of how looking past the screen re-configures the landscape of film history. It is arguable that early popular discussions of movies and movie-going in the U.S. were shaped primarily by and for women. Movie reviews, profiles of stars and their homes, and critic assessments of cinema’s cultural impact were all central to the evolving discourse on cinema. Women were central authors of this discourse, the principal celebrities profiled within it, and often its primary audience as well. As Richard Abel has so thoroughly documented, many of the pioneering journalists who covered cinema were women, including Grace Kingsley of the Los Angeles Times, the first newspaper writer assigned to cover movies full-time in 1913. [25] A quick survey of fan magazine writing in the late 1910s and 1920s reveals that at least half of the featured pieces in each volume were written by women – writers who first forged the intimate tenor of celebrity profiles. Hilary Hallett has demonstrated that these portraits helped an entire generation of young women forge new identities. [26] And the Better Films Movement, so central to the evolving discourse on cinema, was also largely the purview of women. I believe we can demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt that far from being a marginal adjunct to America’s evolving movie culture, women sat at its heart.

We must also fundamentally reconceive authorship. The true scope of women’s engagement with, participation in, and production of early movie culture comes into view only when we move beyond a focus on female directors and screenwriters. Anne Morey, for instance, describes Elinor Glyn’s attempts to shape herself into a brand by becoming an advisor to film productions on aristocratic mores and manners. Mark Lynn Anderson’s work on Dorothy Davenport Reid provides another potent example of the varied contexts in which we must consider female authorship in early Hollywood, for Davenport Reid used her considerable public renown to assert an authorial presence outside the accustomed roles of director or screenwriter. Another example, as Pam Cook proves, is designer Natacha Rambova. [27] Yiman Wang’s work on Anna May Wong and Terri Francis’s work on Josephine Baker make clear the authorship, or self-authorship, staged by performers, particularly women of colour who pushed within and against racist caricature. [28] We might also consider the role that feminist groups played in authoring films, particularly those aligned with women’s suffrage, temperance, and the fight to legalize contraception, as they were among the first to mobilize cinema for political causes. [29] For Patricia White re-thinking authorship also necessitates considering how women’s authorship might be veiled or hidden, not only in documents of the time but in subsequent histories. Her work on Alla Nazimova’s Salomé (1923) reminds us to be attentive to questions of “representability” even in academic scholarship. [30]

We must trace alternative genealogies, as Paula Amad does in her study of Colette’s film writing. Returning to consider Colette’s neglected film criticism of the 1910s and 1920s, Amad disrupts accustomed genealogies that have mapped a masculinist path from Louis Delluc to André Bazin and onto Cahiers du cinéma and the French New Wave. Instead, Amad finds Colette attentive to a “more socially specific and materially embodied world of audience reception,” practicing a mode of film writing akin to “the broader examination of the cinema by diverse modernist women writers.” [31] What other alternate genealogies can we map?

We must embrace unsuitable sources. In order to tell these stories we must draw on alternate archives and unorthodox materials. Amelie Hastie, writing her own “film history without films,” draws on ephemera that other historians have ignored or discounted, finding rich fields of recollection in celebrity cookbooks and advice manuals, in Colleen Moore’s dollhouse, and even in the annotations that Louise Brooks jotted throughout the margins of her book collection. In doing so, Hastie expands our notions of authorship, insisting that by sharing recipes and advice, touring the country with a jewel-encrusted dollhouse, and scribbling marginalia, women were inserting themselves into a historical narrative from which they had been excluded and in which their agency had been overlooked. Only by recovering and engaging such “miscellany,” as Hastie calls it, are we able to recognize these women’s contributions and write them into the narrative. [32]

We must acknowledge our libidinal investments. Cari Beauchamp once characterized screenwriter Frances Marion as her “dead girlfriend,” confessing a libidinal investment that I have also come to recognize in my own relationship with Lois Weber. [33] Inviting us to appreciate our emotional responses as historians, Kay Armatage describes how moved she was to find vestiges of Nell Shipman’s physical labour on typewritten script drafts and correspondence. “The holes in the paper that Shipman produced by the force of her body on the machine astound with the materiality of the force of punctuation,” Armatage recalls, describing the “erotic thrill” of encountering such traces. [34]

We must make absence productive. One of the earliest books in our sub-field, Giuliana Bruno’s Streetwalking on a Ruined Map: Cultural Theory and the City Films of Elvira Notari, remains one of the most compelling for its historiographic claims. Faced with an overwhelming absence of filmmaker Elvira Notari’s work and life, Bruno rejects a conventional approach. “Rather than manufacturing Notari’s textual losses, invoking an authorial original form,” she writes, “I have aimed at leaving the gaps and making them (in)visible.” Bruno aligns her process with the analogous enterprise of preserving art frescoes. Both, she notes, demand a “mobile observer” whose gaze shifts in time and space. “Viewed from afar, the overall restored picture appears seamless, yet the sites of absence, hence the (analyst’s) work of intervention, are evident, as, on closer observation, one becomes aware of the different textures of the reconstructed parts.” [35]

Finally, we must offer more composite views. The close, careful archival histories produced by feminist historians over the past two decades represent some of the very best scholarship on silent cinema and some of the strongest feminist research in the field. However, meticulous case studies of individual women and discrete historical moments have done little to disrupt conventional histories. They remain on a parallel track, interesting footnotes to the central story. Our scholarship is accumulating along the sidelines of film history, railing in the dark like Louise Brooks’ marginalia, populating the little grey sidebars of our students’ textbooks. The only way to disrupt the narrative is to re-write it completely. Individual case studies – which are mounting at an impressive pace – ought to be drawn together and mobilized in the service of a new overarching narrative, a narrative that asserts the fundamental importance of women’s engagement with early film culture. In the American context, I believe it is fair to say that women largely produced U.S. film culture. [36] Another important composite narrative is a global perspective on modernity, femininity, and moving image culture. [37] My examples have been drawn largely from early Hollywood, since that is the terrain I know best, but there is every indication that other histories in other global and regional contexts would benefit from similar methodologies.

Patricia Zimmermann reminds us that the goal of feminist historiography is not to construct a competing narrative that repeats the methods and tropes of conventional history; it is to “engage and dismantle” the “foundational myths and images” of those histories in a mode that “rethreads the very processes of historiography.” [38] This is our charge. We must look at the whole picture of women’s engagement with early movie culture. We must take women – and our own scholarship – out of the little grey boxes relegated to the sidelines of film history. We must disrupt conventional narratives with new avenues and new possibilities. We must trace the shapes defined by women’s absence.


Portions of this article are adapted from my book Lois Weber in Early Hollywood (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015).

[1] See, for example, Giuliana Bruno, Streetwalking on a Ruined Map: Cultural Theory and the City Films of Elvira Notari (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 4; Alison McMahan, Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema (New York: Continuum, 2002); Kay Armatage, The Girl from God’s Country: Nell Shipman and the Silent Cinema (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003); Karen Ward Mahar, Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2006); and Tami Williams, Germaine Dulac: A Cinema of Sensations (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014).
[2] See, for example, Jennifer M. Bean and Diane Negra, eds., A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002); Sofia Bull and Astrid Söderbergh Widding, eds., Not So Silent: Women in Cinema Before Sound (Stockholm: Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis, 2010); and Monica Dall’Asta, Victoria Duckett and Lucia Tralli, eds., Researching Women in Silent Cinema: New Findings and Perspectives (Bologna: Alma Mater Studiorum, Università di Bologna, 2013), http://amsacta.unibo.it/3827/, accessed 16 March 2015. For a sampling of journal special issues see “Early Women Stars,” ed. Jennifer M. Bean and Diane Negra, Camera Obscura 48 (2001); “Dossier on Another Cinephilia: Women’s Cinema in the 1920s,” ed. Rosanna Maule and Catherine Russell, Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 46, no. 1 (2005); “New Women of the Silent Screen: China, Japan, Hollywood,” ed. Catherine Russell, Camera Obscura 60 (2005); “Femmes et cinema muet: méthods, approaches, problématiques,” ed. Rosanna Maule, CinémaS 16, no. 2 (2005); and “Women and the Silent Screen,” ed. Amelie Hastie and Shelley Stamp, Film History: An International Journal 18, no. 2 (2006).
[3] See, for example, Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); Mark Garrett Cooper, Universal Women: Filmmaker and Institutional Change in Early Hollywood (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010); Hilary A. Hallett, Go West, Young Women!: The Rise of Early Hollywood (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013); and Laura Isabel Serna, Making Cinelandia: American Films and Mexican Film Culture Before the Golden Age (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).
[4] Significant retrospectives include “Germaine Dulac, Cinéma Pur,” Il Cinema Ritrovato, 2006, curated by Tami Williams; “Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer,” Whitney Museum of American Art, 2009, curated by Joan Simon; and “Lois Weber, the Wizard!,” Il Cinema Ritrovato, 2012, curated by Mariann Lewinsky Sträuli and Shelley Stamp.
[5] Women Film Pioneers Project, ed. Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, Center for Digital Research and Scholarship, Columbia University, 2013. https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/. Accessed 16 March 2015.
[6] For a recent example, see A Companion to Early Cinema, ed. André Gaudreault, Nicolas Dulac, and Santiago Hidalgo (Maden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).
[7] Quoted in Anthony Slide, Early American Cinema, rev. ed. (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1994), 161-62.
[8] Richard Koszarski, “The Years Have Not Been Kind to Lois Weber,” Village Voice, 10 Nov 1975, 40, repr. in Women and the Cinema: a Critical Anthology, ed. Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1977), 147; and Anthony Slide, Lois Weber: The Director Who Lost Her Way in History (Wesport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996).
[9] McMahan, Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema; The Lost Garden: The Life and Cinema of Alice Guy Blaché, dir. Marquise Lepage (National Film Board of Canada, 1995); Peter Flynn, “Gene Gauntier: Cinema’s Forgotten Pioneer,” unpublished paper presented at the University Film and Video Association Conference, 2011; “Nell Shipman: Canada’s Forgotten Star,” Toronto International Film Festival program, 2003; and Bruno, Streetwalking on a Ruined Map, 4.
[10] Mahar, Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood, 179-203.
[11] Moving Picture World, 18 December 1920, 913-14.
[12] “Ample Variety in Grauman Program,” Los Angeles Times, 31 May 1921, III 4; “To Please One Woman,” Photoplay, Mar 1921, 62; Edwin Schallert, “Seeks Ideal Themes. Lois Weber Now Fulfilling Cherished Project,” unidentified clipping, vol. 2, Claire Windsor Scrapbook Collection, Cinematic Arts Library, University of Southern California (CWSBC); and “Lois Weber Is Whole Show in Her Company,” unidentified clipping, vol. 2, CWSBC.
[13] Edwin Schallert, “The Eternal Masculine,” Los Angeles Times, 22 June 1932, 11; Philip K. Scheuer, “Why Can’t Women Be Good Directors?,” Los Angeles Times,14 October 1934, A1.; and “Mary Pickford Will Deny Old Filmdom Jinx,” Miami News, 8 July 1935, 15.
[14] Linda Arvidson Griffith, When the Movies Were Young [1925] repr. (New York: Arno, 1977); Shipman’s serialized articles became the basis for her later book The Silent Screen and My Talking Heart: An Autobiography (Boise: Boise State University, 1987); Gene Gauntier, “Blazing the Trail,” Woman’s Home Companion, November 1928, 15-16, 132, 134; and Christel Schmidt, “Preserving Pickford: The Mary Pickford Collection and the Library of Congress”, The Moving Image 3, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 64.
[15] The Film Mercury, 6 Jul 1928, n.p., quoted in Slide, Lois Weber, 142; Lois Weber, “Many Women Well Fitted by Film Training to Direct Movies,” San Diego Evening Tribune, 24 April 1928, 3; Weber, “Hostility of Men Drawback to Women Making Success in Picture Directing, Claim,” San Diego Evening Tribune, 25 April 1928, 13; and Edwin Schallert, “Movieland Jottings and Castings,” Los Angeles Times, 22 August 1939, I3. Slide reports that Weber’s sister Ethel tried for years to have it published without success, before it was eventually lost or stolen towards the end of her life. See Slide, Lois Weber, 151.
[16] Terry Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1926); Benjamin B.Hampton, A History of the Movies (New York: Covici, Friede, 1931); and Lewis Jacobs, The Rise of American Film: A Critical History (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1939).
[17] See Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By . . . (New York: Knopf, 1968); George C. Pratt, Spellbound in Darkness: A History of the Silent Film, rev. ed. (New York: Graphic Society, 1973); William Everson, American Silent Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978); David Robinson, From Peep Show to Palace: The Birth of American Film (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996); Richard Abel, ed., The Encyclopedia of Early Cinema (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2004); and Keith Withall, Studying Early and Silent Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014). Slide’s and Koszarski’s work mark major exceptions in this regard.
[18] See, for example, Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America (New York: Vintage, 1976); and Jon Lewis, American Film: A History (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007).
[19] Cooper, Universal Women; I.G. Edmonds, The Big U: Universal in the Silent Days (South Brunswick, NJ: A.S. Barnes, 1977); Bernard F. Dick, City of Dreams: The Making and Remaking of Universal Pictures (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1997); and Robert S. Birchard, Early Universal City (Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2009).
[20] Louis D. Giannetti and Scott Eyman, Flashback: A Brief Film History, 6th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2009), 45.
[21] See, for example, Louise Heck-Rabi, Women Filmmakers: A Critical Reception (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1984); Barbara Koenig Quart, Women Directors: The Emergence of a New Cinema (New York: Praeger, 1988); Ally Acker, Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema, 1896 to the Present (New York: Continuum, 1991); and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Women Film Directors: An International Bio-Critical Dictionary (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995).
[22] H.H. Van Loan, “Lois, the Wizard,” Motion Picture, July 1916, 44; and Rosalind Shaffer, “News of Films and Players,” Chicago Tribune, 17 July 1927, F3.
[23] Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 6.
[24] Jon Lewis and Eric Smoodin, eds., Looking Past the Screen: Case Studies in American Film History and Method (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).
[25] Richard Abel, Menus for Movieland: Newspapers and the Emergence of American Film Culture (Oakland: University of California Press, forthcoming), chap. 4.
[26] Hallett, Go West Young Women!.
[27] Anne Morey, “Elinor Glyn as Hollywood Labourer,” Film History: An International Journal 18. no. 2 (2006): 110-118; Mark Lynn Anderson, “Dorothy Davenport Reid,” Women Film Pioneers Project, https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/pioneer/ccp-dorothy-davenport-reid/, accessed 16 March 2015; and Pam Cook, “Picturing Natacha Rambova: Design and Celebrity Performance in the 1920s,” in this special dossier.
[28] See Yiman Wang, “The Art of Screen Passing: Anna May Wong’s Yellow Yellowface Performance in the Art Deco Era,” Camera Obscura 60 (2005): 159-91; and Terri Francis, The Audacious Josephine Baker: Blackness, Power, and Visual Pleasure (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, forthcoming).
[29] See Kay Sloan, The Loud Silents: Origins of the Social Problem Film (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), chap. 4 and 5; Stamp, Movie-Struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture Culture after the Nickelodeon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), chap. 4.
[30] Patricia White, “Nazimova’s Veils: Salome at the Intersection of Film Histories,” in A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema, 60-87. In using the term “representability” here I am adapting it from White’s work on lesbian representability. See Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).
[31] Paula Amad, “‘These Spectacles Are Never Forgotten’: Memory and Reception in Colette’s Film Criticism,” Camera Obscura 59 (2005), 122, 130, 148. On this broader trend of early women’s film writing see Amelie Hastie, “Historical Predictions, Contemporary Predilections: Reading Feminist Theory Close Up,” Framework 46, no. 1 (2005), 74-82; and Antonia Lant, ed., Red Velvet Seat: Women’s Writings on the First Fifty Years of Cinema (London: Verso, 2006).
[32] Amelie Hastie, Cupboards of Curiosity: Women, Recollection, and Film History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007); and Hastie, “The Miscellany of Film History,” Film History: An International Journal 18, no. 2 (2006): 222-30.
[33] Cari Beauchamp, “Resurrecting Frances Marion: A Personal Journey,” Keynote Address, Women and the Silent Screen conference, University of California, Santa Cruz, 2001. See also Beauchamp, Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood (New York: Scribner, 1997).
[34] Armatage, The Girl from God’s Country, 256, 260.
[35] Bruno, Streetwalking on a Ruined Map, 6
[36] I begin to make this argument in Stamp, “Women and the Silent Screen,” in The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film, Volume 1: Origins to 1928, ed. Roy Grundmann, Cynthia Lucia, and Art Simon (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 181-206. Anne Morey and I are currently co-authoring a book on the same subject.
[37] Key texts on this subject include Patrice Petro, Joyless Streets: Women and Melodramatic Representation in Weimar Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989); Zhang Zhen, An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema, 1896-1937 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); and Serna, Making Cinelandia.
[38] Patricia R. Zimmermann, “Flaherty’s Midwives,” in Feminism and Documentary, ed. Diane Waldman and Janet Walker (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 65.

About the Author

Shelley Stamp

About the Author

Shelly Stamp

Shelley Stamp is Professor of Film and Digital Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she currently holds the Pavel Machotka Chair in Creative Studies. She is the author of Movie-Struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture Culture after the Nickelodeon (Princeton University Press, 2000); co-editor of American Cinema’s Transitional Era: Audiences, Institutions, Practices(University of California Press, 2004); and founding editor of Feminist Media Histories: An International Journal. Her most recent book is Lois Weber in Early Hollywood (University of California Press, 2015). She is now at work on a comprehensive history of Women and the Silent Screen in America, co-written with Anne Morey, to be published by Columbia University Press. View all posts by Shelley Stamp →