Regendering the Movies

Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood
by Karen Ward Mahar
Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006, 291 pp., $45.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Samantha Barbas

 Imagine: the film industry is a bastion of equal opportunity. Women are fifty percent of top directors, producers, and writers; hold half of all top creative and executive positions; and participate equally with men in the making of the nation’s most profitable and acclaimed films.

 Now, back to reality. In 2005, only seventeen percent of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors who worked on the 250 domestic top-grossing films were women. That year (according to, almost one-fifth of the films released employed no women in significant creative or executive positions. All too often, women entertainers and executives are ghettoized in soap operas and "chick flicks." The sky may be the limit in the Hollywood of myth, but in real life, women still labor under a glass ceiling.

 Still, even those numbers are an advance, compared to where we’ve been. Between the 1920s and 1960s, when filmmaking was controlled by the studio system, only a handful of women worked as directors and producers. Yet as historian Karen Ward Mahar reminds us, it wasn’t always that way. Long before the studio era, women had a powerful presence in the film industry. “Between 1900 and 1920, women worked in every area of film production, from editing to directing to screenwriting,” Mahar writes in Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood. At the peak of their influence, between 1918 and 1922, women directed 44 feature films, headed more than 20 production companies, ran publicity departments, and wrote hundreds of produced screenplays. There may have been a glass ceiling, but it had cracks in it that allowed more than a few talented women into the elite ranks of directors, producers, and screenwriters.

 With meticulous scholarship and fluid writing, Mahar tells the story of this golden era of female filmmaking. Running through her story is her concept of the gendering—and regendering—of American film. When invented in the nineteenth century, motion pictures, initially considered a technological novelty rather than an entertainment medium, were associated with the traditionally masculinized world of science. Cameramen were predominantly male, while women became manual laborers in film laboratories. The earliest film audiences were working-class men, who crowded into nickelodeons and vaudeville houses to see one-minute “flickers” depicting stunts and suggestive burlesque scenes.

 But by 1910, a regendering of film was under way. As the cinema won an increasingly large and diverse audience, and as moviegoers began demanding longer, narrative films, male filmmakers turned to the theater for experienced thespians, who brought to moviemaking an “egalitarian work culture.” Working side by side, actors and actresses not only performed but also directed, built sets, designed costumes and wrote screenplays. By 1910, some had even become full-fledged movie stars. Eventually, some headed their own film companies. By World War I, Mary Pickford was both the highest paid star in Hollywood and one of its most influential producers.

While chase scenes, Chaplinesque farces, and bawdy comedies thrilled film fans, they terrified social reformers. Fearing the effects of cinematic sex and violence on children, Progressive-era reform groups began advocating film censorship. To redeem the image of cinema before its critics, the leaders of the film industry responded with an “uplift” campaign. They built palatial theaters, made movies based on “highbrow” literature, and turned to women, considered society’s moral guardians, as filmmakers. Serious, “social problem” films attracted educated female audiences and became centerpieces of the industry's anticensorship campaign.

 One woman who heeded the film industry’s call was Lois Weber. Born to a religious middle-class family, Weber, a former film actress, made a name for herself by directing social problem films that captured the nascent feminist spirit of the era. In an era when increasing female participation in the paid workforce, commercial entertainment, sports, and higher education was eroding the Victorian doctrine of separate spheres, Weber merged the spirit of the “new woman” with more traditional notions of feminine respectability. Her films, such as Where Are My Children? (1916), which simultaneously glorified motherhood and endorsed birth control, “advocated modesty and maternalism while presenting alluring images of sexuality and abundance,” Mahar explains. Both Weber’s films and her status as a married, middle-class Protestant gained the film industry legitimacy among Progressive reformers and drew women to the profession. During the uplift movement, Weber “fulfilled and expanded the definition of what women might do for the industry.”

 At the same time that Weber was uplifting the public image of the movies, spunky screen adventuresses and flirtatious slapstick comediennes, in dramas and comedies often made by women producers, offered a daring, rebellious vision of the “new woman.” For women audiences, the plots must have been exhilarating. In the fantastically popular Perils of Pauline adventure series, actress Pearl White raced horses, drove cars, and traveled around the world. Another series, The Hazards of Helen, featured a female radio telegraph operator who showed her mettle by saving her boyfriend from a burning train, rescuing a man from a lynching, capturing thieves, and saving the railroad company from bankruptcy—in addition to running a train as well as any man.

The woman filmmaker’s rise was as precipitous as her fall. In an era of postwar conservatism, a renewed censorship campaign cracked down on the social problem, adventuress, and comedienne genres, seeing them as controversial and risqué. And as the film industry reorganized into a series of vertically integrated companies controlling production, exhibition, and distribution—the studio system—the definition of filmmaking shifted away from the “feminine realm of art and toward the masculine realm of industry.” Women lost power on all fronts. The studios’ new mode of highly regimented, factory-like film production made directors into foremen-type figures valued for not for their artistic prowess but for their administrative ability. Even male directors had to masculinize: on the set, Cecil DeMille donned a safari outfit, complete with boots and a whip. Women, deemed emotional and weak, were said to lack the necessary ambition and authority. The studios’ policy of signing players to seven-year acting contracts stripped many female stars of their ability to bargain for creative control, and in Hollywood, male studio personnel banded together in all-male fraternal organizations, making the film industry truly a boys’ club. By 1930, the first generation of female filmmakers had disappeared.

 Like many industrial histories, Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood skirts important issues of film consumption and reception. How did female audiences respond to women filmmakers and their films? Did movie fans idolize female filmmakers in the same way they celebrated acting stars? Interestingly, during the same years when moviemaking was remasculinized, the audience was feminized—by the mid-1920s, 75 percent of the film audience was female. How, if at all, did the regendering of film affect movie content and the female fans’ relationship to the screen? Mahar also misses the opportunity for further research into the broader social impact of women moviemakers. One wonders whether filmmakers like Weber served as catalysts for feminism and feminist identification among audiences in the suffrage and post-suffrage era.

 Mahar devotes her epilogue to Dorothy Arzner, the only woman who survived the transition to the studio system. Between 1927 and 1943, Arzner, a lesbian whose cropped hair and masculine dress may have helped her enter the masculinized world of directing, made sixteen feature films for MGM. Surprisingly, Mahar overlooks the other extraordinary women who wielded power in the studio system, male domination notwithstanding. Frances Marion, one of the most successful screenwriters of the 1930s, penned over 300 scripts for MGM. In the 1940s, Joan Harrison, Virginia Van Upp, and Harriet Parsons worked as contract producers for major Hollywood studios, and actress Ida Lupino, who directed a series of low-budget melodramas, became the second woman, after Arzner, to be admitted to the Director’s Guild. Despite Lois Weber’s famous 1927 warning to aspiring women filmmakers—“Don't try it, you'll never get away with it,” she reportedly said—some women indeed tried, and did get away with it. Their stories are fruitful subjects for scholars who want to continue Mahar’s project of tracing “the way that shifts in gender perception…accompany shifts in industrial strategy,” and as she eloquently puts it, “the tangled ways that the multiple voices of society, work, family, and self determine the course of women’s lives and careers.”

Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood is not to be missed. A tale of hard work, creative vision, rags-to-riches fortunes, and formidable power struggles, the book is not only a rigorous intellectual exercise but has all the makings of a blockbuster script. In her skilled, almost loving narration of the careers of the women film pioneers, and in her analysis of the social and industrial forces behind female involvement in early film production, Mahar paints an intriguing, sophisticated portrait of a time when women distinguished themselves both in front of and behind the camera.

Samantha Barbas is the author of The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella Parsons (2005).

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