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.
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.)
Each director is introduced with a short intertitle:
And then each film is given its own introduction:
The set is divided by director. It starts, and rightly so, with:
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)
The Blot (1921)
The Blot also includes a commentary track by Shelley Stamp.
Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914)
The Star Prince (1918)
La Cigarette (1919)
La Souriante Mme. Beudet (1922)
The Peasant Women of Ryazan (1927)
Le Roi des Aulnes (1929)
The Stolen Heart (1934)
A Night on Bald Mountain (1933)
Mrs. Wallace Reid (Dorothy Davenport)
The Woman Condemned (1934)
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
Spook Sport (1939)
Dance, Girl, Dance (excerpt) (1940)
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.
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.
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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