The Uncanny Gaze: The Drama of Early German Cinema & Universal Women: Filmmaking and Institutional Change in Early Hollywood

Heide Schlüpmann,
The Uncanny Gaze: The Drama of Early German Cinema.
Urbana/Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010
ISBN: 3-87877-373-0
US$30.00 (pb)

Mark Garrett Cooper,
Universal Women: Filmmaking and Institutional Change in Early Hollywood.
Urbana/Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-252-07700-5
US$25.00 (pb)

(Review Copies supplied by University of Illinois Press)

‘Women and Film History International’ is a network of scholars, researchers, archivists, and film programmers dedicated to the study of women’s film history. The organization focuses on the silent film era, organizing international conferences, building a website, and now publishing a film book series with the University of Illinois Press. The second and third volumes in the series have now been published, each making an important contribution to film historiography in general, but also specifically to our understanding of the so-called “transitional era” in cinema in the 1910s.

Heide Schlüpmann’s ground-breaking book was first published in German as Die Unheimlichkeit des Blicks in 1990, but is now available for the first time to English readers, thanks to an excellent translation by Inga Pollmann. Having not only read the original German text, but also having translated an essay by Schlüpmann a number of years ago, I’m fully aware of the difficulties in transforming her dense and at times difficult German prose into a readable Anglo-Saxon text. A highly theoretical project, deeply influenced by psychoanalytic and feminist film theory, The Uncanny Gaze is also a materialist history of German cinema before Caligari. More than film history, Schlüpmann sees in German pre-World War I cinema a suppressed history of woman’s emancipation in Imperial Germany. This translation also jettisons Schlüpmann’s second part of the German original, which dealt more directly with film theory, while analyzing the texts of the “Kinoreform” movement of 1912-13. Accordingly, the middle class moralists of Kino reform advocated cleaning up the sewer they considered cinema, while suppressing any feminist ideology, which they deemed unhealthy for the body politic.

Beginning with the early cinema of attractions to the development and nurturing of film narrative in the period 1909 to 1914, Schüpmann is interested in exploring those phenomena in German cinema which allow for the expression of the female gaze in film, while also addressing female spectatorship. In the voyeuristic “male” narratives of the transitional period Schlüpmann repeatedly discovers moments of “attractions”, which allow for a female gaze. The German one-reel dramas of 1909/1910 recognize the female audience as their most important clientele, yet with that recognition come efforts to channel woman’s consciousness into aesthetic forms which are socially acceptable, which delimitate transgressive behavior. Schlüpmann makes her case through a series of close readings of surviving films, including films by Asta Nielsen, Henny Porten, and German director Franz Hofer.

In terms of genres addressing women spectators, Schlüpmann differentiates between the melodrama and the “social drama”. With social drama’s origins in Danish “dramas of morals” (Sittendrama), Schlüpmann claims the genre to be truly emancipatory, not only in the way these films question ruling class social mores from a woman’s perspective, but also in their scopic regime, which allows for a female gaze. Quoting early German sociologist, Emilie Altenloh, who published what is possibly the first reception study of cinema in 1914, Schlüpmann defines the social drama as realist, close to everyday life and social problems, presenting conflicts between women and social norms, and thematizing sexual difference.

Likewise, in such genres as the detective and Sensationsfilm (action films), female heroines and characters offered women spectators visual pleasure, as did moments of “attractions” and sexual liberation. This was particularly true in films featuring a female detective, in which a modern woman uses all the weapons of technology to discover the perpetrators of a crime, thereby presenting women audiences both with a controlling and self-assured female gaze and, simultaneously, a moment of self-reflexivity within the institution of cinema and woman’s place within it:

In the detective film, the self-consciousness of the technical medium of reproduction finds expression, while in the sensational dramas mentioned above, a self-consciousness of cinema – which includes these films themselves – takes shape. As a new, modern public sphere, cinema distinguishes itself by including the participation of women. Just as detective films emphasize the relationship of film to the “technologization” of society, sensational drama reflects the fact that cinema is embedded in show business. (p. 177)

In contrast, Schlüpmann characterizes German melodramas as a conservative, middle-class reaction to early cinema’s emancipatory impetus, addressing women in order to better bind them to patriarchal norms. Melodrama is seen as stylized rather than realistic, tied to theatrical convention, rather than originating in woman’s real experience, voyeuristic, rather than open to the female gaze. The melodramas of Henny Porten are singled out as leading the reactionary, anti-feminist charge, although her view of Porten is complicated by the fact that she also sees Porten as the epitome of the conservative women’s movement: sexually repressed, even masochistic, but potentially independent of male authority.

While Schlüpmann argues her case quite well in the German context, her definition of melodrama is troublesome, because it runs counter to other work, which has valorized melodrama as a potentially fruitful space for female spectatorship. Schlüpmann is aware of the problem, but notes that German melodrama has a tainted history of taming folk theater in the interests of middle class aesthetic and social norms. And while some of Schlüpmann’s terminology and methodology seems dated (a point both she and editor Miriam Hansen acknowledge), this is still an extremely important work for students of German and feminist film history.

Mark Cooper’s Universal Women focuses on what might be the heaviest concentration of women directors at any American studio ever. Between 1916 and 1919, Universal employed no less than eleven women as directors, including Grace Cunard, Lois Weber, Cleo Madison, Ida May Park, Ruth Stonehouse, Elsie Jane Wilson, and Ruth Ann Baldwin. Yet, despite initial advertising about the uniqueness of these women, Universal by the end of the decade had replaced virtually all of them with men. In the absence of most of the actual films and all of the company records, Cooper’s challenge, then, is to account for the appearance and disappearance of women behind the camera. He therefore constructs his argument around the assumption that “films constituted a nexus of interpretation that proved consequential for the gendered division of labor” and that “the evolution of film genres made women directors disposable by insisting their films be womanly.” (p. xxix) In other words, this is the story of how an institution made the possible almost completely impossible.

Cooper begins with a discussion of the founding of the Universal Film Manufacturing Company in 1912 out of an amalgamation of numerous smaller firms, leading to a production and distribution strategy that featured an array of brands, each associated with a particular genre. In an era before the dominance of feature length films, this strategy allowed cinema owners to order a mixed program exclusively from Universal, featuring a variety of genres. But Cooper also demonstrates that far from being against the advent of features, as previous literature has characterized Carl Laemmle’s Universal, the company actually experimented with full length film production early on, especially in the definition of its “Bluebird” label, which would become the home of most of its women directors. Cooper next theorizes that the establishment of a centralized, self-sufficiently organized studio plant was mitigated by the notion that Universal City was simultaneously a family and a performative space, thus blurring the boundaries between narrative fictions and off-screen biographies, between work and play, home and profession. Not only did some studio employees eat, work, and sometimes live on the lot with their families, not only were husband and wife directing teams commonplace, but also Universal’s studio tour brought tourists to watch films being made en famille. Since family and performance spaces are often coded feminine, it is not surprising that actresses could slide into positions of authority, as was the case of Laura Oakley and Lois Weber, who were elected sheriff and mayor of Universal City, respectively. Gender play thus became a feature of Universal’s films, in particular in Bluebird films, where women were both behind and in front of the camera and where the heroine actively engaged in “professional” activity, not just house work.

However, as the decade wore on, Universal faced a number of crises, including the cancellation of its shorts program, a war related entertainment tax in 1917, and the Spanish influenza epidemic in 1918, each of which affected not only the company’s economic fortunes, but also the employment of women as directors. In what Cooper describes as essentially a three part process, Universal went from gender agnosticism in assigning women directors to all kinds of genres, including westerns and serials, to touting its women directors in 1918-19 as uniquely qualified to make films for a predominantly female audience, to eliminating women in 1920 from any directorial role. This was accomplished in part by cutting production of genres in which women had excelled – social problem films, short dramas, kids pictures – but also by turning directorial control of melodramas of marriage (a female domain) over to the less talented husbands of some of the hyphenated women (actress-writer-directors).

Productively utilizing Rick Altman’s definition of film genre as an evolving strategy by studio executives to interpret groups films with certain traits, then attempt to reproduce a successful formula, Cooper reads Universal’s genre production in terms of a gendered division of labor. Thus, Universal’s successful serials featuring Grace Cunard and Francis Ford, presented strong women, but “defined organizational power as normatively masculine.” (p. 117) In the realm of dramatic features, Lois Weber was explicitly associated with films of moral uplift and social criticism, but by 1917, Ruth Ann Baldwin, Cleo Madison, and Ida May Park were identified as directors of “women’s psychology,” i.e. films in which the objective of the heroine is to marry well and avoid the pitfalls of sexual impropriety or falling into prostitution. Simultaneously, these films defined class and gender relations by coding social position as male and sexual/familial harmony as female. Women directors brought a certain fashion sense to these films, but gender politics were anything but feminist. However, as Cooper notes, once the studio had established what female audiences wanted, namely narratives of working class women in peril of losing their respectability or women in grasp of upward social mobility through marriage, it was possible to return to the institutional norm of professional male directors and no longer necessary to hire women directors.

Both Schlüpmann and Cooper, then, analyze moments of feminist emancipation in the film industry of the 1910s, which are quickly suppressed in favor of the gendered status quo, as the industry itself transitioned to larger corporate entities controlled by men. It would take another fifty years for not only the studio system to break down, but also for women to again find a significant authorial voice in the cinema. Happily, we now know through these works that the possible could have been a reality much sooner.

Jan-Christopher Horak,

Created on: Monday, 23 August 2010

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, UCLA Critical Studies. PhD. Westfaelische Wilhelms-Universitaet, Muenster, Germany. Publications include: Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995). Presently writing a book on the American designer, Saul Bass.View all posts by Jan-Christopher Horak →