Unboxing the Silents: Early Women Filmmakers, an International Anthology from Flicker Alley

The film industry’s gender gap behind the camera is in the news a fair bit these days. Campaigns like #52FilmsByWomen are shining a spotlight on the talents of female directors and while it is wonderful to celebrate modern women with megaphones, let’s not forget their ancestresses.

I was so excited when Flicker Alley announced the upcoming release of the Early Women Filmmakers box set. One of the final projects of the late, great David Shepard, this set focuses on the directors of mainstream studio films, tiny indie films, animation, drama, comedy from the first half of the twentieth century. Truly, something for everyone. Let’s dig in!

Thanks to Flicker Alley for providing a copy of this collection.

Basics:

The set is a dual-format release with both DVD and Bluray included. It has a street date of May 26, 2017.

We get two three-disc cases (one for the DVDs, one for the Blurays) in a cardboard slipcase with a 28-page booklet, which contains essays by Kate Saccone of the venerable Women Film Pioneers Project.

The set is divided into three parts. The first disc contains works from the three silent era women directors most of us recognize today: Alice Guy-Blaché, Lois Weber and Mabel Normand. The second disc has silent era talents who are, perhaps, less famous but just as worthy: Madeline Brandeis, Germaine Dulac and Olga Preobrazhenskaia. The third disc is from the sound era, though a few of the films can still be considered silent. It includes works from Marie-Louise Iribe, Lotte Reiniger, Claire Parker, Dorothy Davenport, Leni Riefenstahl, Mary Ellen Bute, Dorothy Arzner and Maya Deren.

There are 25 films in total. Most of the non-English titles have optional English subtitles rather than new English title cards. (Many film fans, myself included, prefer the subtitles, so this is a good thing.)

The Menu

Each director is introduced with a short intertitle:

And then each film is given its own introduction:

Films:

The set is divided by director. It starts, and rightly so, with:

Alice Guy-Blaché

Les Chiens Savants (1902)
Une Histoire Roulante (1906)
La Barricade (1907)
Falling Leaves (1912)
Making an American Citizen (1912)
The Girl in the Armchair (1912)

Les Chiens Savants (1902)
Look at his wittle top hat!!!
La Barricade (1907)
Falling Leaves (1912)
Guy’s Solax logo

Lois Weber

Suspense (1913)
Discontent (1916)
The Blot (1921)

Suspense (1913)
Discontent (1916)
The Blot (1921)
Lois Weber’s logo.

The Blot also includes a commentary track by Shelley Stamp.

Mabel Normand

Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914)


Madeline Brandeis

The Star Prince (1918)


Germaine Dulac

La Cigarette (1919)
La Souriante Mme. Beudet (1922)

La Cigarette
La Cigarette
La Souriante Mme. Beudet
La Souriante Mme. Beudet

Olga Preobrazhenskaia

The Peasant Women of Ryazan (1927)

Marie-Louise Iribe

Le Roi des Aulnes (1929)

Lotte Reiniger

Harlequin (1931)
The Stolen Heart (1934)
Papageno (1935)

Harlequin
The Stolen Heart
Papageno

Claire Parker

A Night on Bald Mountain (1933)

Mrs. Wallace Reid (Dorothy Davenport)

The Woman Condemned (1934)

Leni Riefenstahl

Day of Freedom (1935)

(Obviously, the inclusion of any 1930s Riefenstahl material is going to be controversial but I really don’t feel like hosting that debate today. I will say, however, that presenting an evil film in an academic setting– as this box does– is not the same as endorsing it.)

Mary Ellen Bute

Parabola (1937)
Spook Sport (1939)

Parabola
Spook Sport
Spook Sport
Isn’t her logo adorbs?

Dorothy Arzner

Dance, Girl, Dance (excerpt) (1940)

Maya Deren

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

As you can see, there is variation in image quality but that is to be expected in a set of this nature. Overall, the visuals are excellent and I think you will find that the works of Alice Guy (who tended to fill every square inch of her frame) particularly benefit from Bluray release.

Music:

The sound films have their original soundtracks, of course, but the silent films showcase an array of talent. Frederick Hodges, Tamar Muskal, Judith Rosenberg, Sergei Dreznin, Rodney Sauer and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra all lend their talents to this release.

I particularly enjoyed Muskal’s moody string accompaniment to The Last Leaf and Dreznin’s folksong-infused score for The Peasant Women of Ryazan. (The latter is likely to be controversial because it contains vocals. I loved it to pieces.) All the scores are both enjoyable and appropriate, at least to my philistine taste.

Verdict:

This box left me stunned and breathless. Applause for everyone involved in the project! The sheer variety is astonishing and I had a grand time watching everything.

For me, the standouts were the films of Germaine Dulac, Olga Preobrazhenskaia and all the animation. The work of Mary Ellen Bute in particular is best appreciated in motion, the screencaps do not do it justice.

This box is a whirlwind tour of film history with a feminist twist. An absolute must-buy!

P.S. Some readers have asked if this set will overlap with the upcoming Kino set entitled Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers. I am happy to say that there is almost no overlap and, further, the Kino set focuses on women behind the camera in general, while the Flicker Alley set is entirely dedicated to women directors. I recommend getting both.

Availability: The disc can be preordered now.

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6 Replies to “Unboxing the Silents: Early Women Filmmakers, an International Anthology from Flicker Alley”

  1. Cannot get enough of this wonderful boxed set: we’ve been so drawn to it that have been watching a few of its films each night since it arrived. Ordered two more sets that will make terrific birthday gifts for a couple of close friends 😀

  2. Speaking as someone who has written an original screenplay set in the late 1910s featuring the Mothers of Cinema including Guy-Blache, Weber, Marion and others, this set is an absolute must-buy for me. I’m especially interested in the more obscure ladies and their work, although I’m slightly disappointed they didn’t include Weber’s most controversial film WHERE ARE MY CHILDREN? I know Milestone is putting out restored versions of SHOES and THE DUMB GIRL OF PORTICI later this year and that HYPOCRITES has been available for years, but I’m still a little surprised WHERE ARE MY CHILDREN? wasn’t included, as i already have THE BLOT w/Stamp’s commentary on DVD.

    By the way, Fritzi, do you think A-list Hollywood actresses would jump at the chance of playing the Mothers of Cinema onscreen in a huge Hollywood production? For example, can you see Marion Cotillard playing Alice Guy-Blache or Taraji P. Henson playing Madam C.J. Walker?

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