Silent Women Pioneers of Cinema (Eds) Bridges & Robson Review

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Silent Women: Pioneers of Cinema is the first book to give an overview of early women filmmakers in the USA, Europe and beyond. It has fantastic b/w photos which will appeal to all lovers of the cinema and its early years.

Women continue to be statistically underrepresented in creative positions in Hollywood, at the centre of the US film industry. It is becoming increasingly shocking that the number of women at the top of the film industry remains so low, despite the 2009 best director Oscar going to a woman (Kathryn Bigelow for ‘The Hurt Locker’).

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It turns out that more women were working at every level in the first 20 years of the film industry in the USA than at any point since. Early pioneers, like Alice Guy-Blaché, the creator of narrative cinema, or directors Lois Weber, Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino have been written out of film history. ‘Wild at heart’ film maker Nell Shipman and her producer husband, Ernest Shipman, made the most successful silent film in Canadian history, Back to God’s Country (1919) in which she did one of the first on-screen nude scenes. At least eight African-American women were a part of the film industry in the silent era: ranging from Eloyce King Patrick Gist and Alice B. Russell who produced films; to Tressie Souders and Maria P. Williams who directed films; and women who managed their husbands’ careers like Eslanda Goode Robeson. Breaking into the film industry was excessively tough, even Langston Hughes was locked out of Hollywood. Women involved in the suffrage movement, such Zora Neale Hurston and Lois Weber, made films of all kinds, offering a female perspective on the world. Alma Reville was a filmmaker in her own right when she married Hitchcock and worked with him on his scripts.

They and many other women working behind the scenes in film have been rendered ‘invisible’ and ‘silent’ although they directed hundreds of films, invented techniques, ran businesses and set up distribution. With the rise of the male-dominated studio system, their significant contribution to the dawn of the movies has long been forgotten.

Silent Women is full of intriguing insights and nuggets of information − it is a compelling read for the generally and genuinely curious, not just the student of cinema. The contributors include top filmmakers, writers and film experts who bring to life several great female screen legends (Lillian Gish, ‘It Girl’ Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Mary Pickford, Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead, Greta Garbo, Mae West), producers, directors, film editors, camerawomen, writers and critics of the silent era and the transition to the ‘talkies’, acknowledging their significant contribution to the growth of the motion picture industry. It’s worth buying the book alone for Kevin Brownlow‘s 1977 interview with director Dorothy Arzner.

The book is full of surprises, great for general knowledge quizzes! Here are a few nuggets:

“Few people realise that German-born director, Lotte Reiniger invented silhouette animation, and made the first feature length animated film in 1926, ‘The Adventures of Prince Achmed’, using colour-tinted film, ten years before Walt Disney.” [Directors from the Dawn of Hollywood, Francesca Stephens, p 146]

“Zora Neale Hurston was not only the first African-American female to make films but also the first anthropologist with a focus on African-American culture to ever make ethnographic films.” [Aimee Dixon Anthony: Early African-American Female Filmmakers pp.36-7]

“Dorothy Arzner invented the boom microphone, by attaching a microphone to a fishing rod to follow the actors, revolutionising the talking picture.” [Directors from the Dawn of Hollywood, Francesca Stephens, p 159]

“One or two French directors had their regular monteuses such as Jean Renoir whose partner Marguerite Renoir edited around sixty films and Marcel Pagnol who worked with Suzanne de Troeye. Director Abel Gance formed a close working relationship with Marguerite Beaugé and they collaborated for over ten years.” [Women Editors in the European Film Industry, Tania Field p 222]

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About Georgia de Chamberet 377 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.