Nobody knows exactly how many silent films were penned by women. Screen credits were a bit odd back in the day and a good number of studio records are gone forever. However, it has been estimated that as many as 50% of all silent films were written by women. Other estimates hover around 30-40% but that’s still a darn sight better than the 15% of modern Hollywood. (Oh, and they’re paid less for their work too.)
(And this is where the men invade, carefully ‘splaining to us wee women that we just need to work harder. And then I am forced to lay an ancient curse upon their heads: May they ever find themselves barefoot in a room full of Legos with their shoes outside the door.)
Not only did women bring their unique perspective to cinema, they often wrote juicy roles for actresses. The intriguing and empowered female characters of silent cinema seemed to be linked to the large percentage of women writers. Fancy that.
For this month, I have selected a grab bag of movies written or co-written by women, both famous and obscure. About half of them I have never seen before, so these films may be good, they may be bad but they will illustrate just how common women were in the writers’ rooms of American cinema.
As an appetizer, here is a selection of woman-written silent films that I have already reviewed and think are particularly important and/or enjoyable:
The Lad from Old Ireland (1910) written by and starring Gene Gauntier (and shot on location!)
Stella Maris (1918) adapted masterfully for the screen by Frances Marion
Miss Lulu Bett (1921) novel by Zona Gale adapted for the screen by Clara Beranger
The Captive (1915) co-written by Jeanie Macpherson and Cecil B. DeMille, the first in a long writing partnership
Little Annie Rooney (1925) written by Mary Pickford (she couldn’t find a story she liked and so she wrote one herself using an alias)
The Enchanted Cottage (1924) adapted for the screen by Josephine Lovett
Show People (1928) written by Agnes Marie Johnston (she received prominent billing on advertising materials)
The Cruise of the Jasper B (1926) adapted for the screen by Zelda Sears and Tay Garnett (and contains a hilarious inversion of the male gaze)
Every silent film buff should read WITHOUT LYING DOWN: FRANCES MARION AND THE POWERFUL WOMEN OF HOLLYWOOD.
Yes, though I must caution that it repeats uncritically the myth about MGM changing the ending of THE WIND.
I own the book myself and have read it several times, and thanks Fritzi for warning us about the discussion on THE WIND. I also highly recommend Karen Ward Mahar’s expansive (and definitive, I believe) 2008 critical study Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood.
Wonderful theme for this month! Since books are being discussed, any opinions on Karen Ward Mahar’s Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood, which includes so many writers/directors/producers/studio owners?
I haven’t had a chance to look at it closely but it seems intriguing 🙂
And all I had to do was scroll down..lol Mahar’s book is, to me, the absolute definitive on the subject to be picked up. Probably my favorite section is when Mahar talks about Universal Studios, which specifically catered to women writers and directors, even hosting a parade where Carl Laemme and Universal’s mayor, Lois Weber, introduces all of the brand new talent, including an all-woman police force!
It is that! Covers quite a few women writers, including a lot of personal favorites wearing multiple film production hats. Treatment not cursory, either, with a nice fat footnotes section and primary/secondary source essay to chew on. It’s a good read, a page turner, even 🙂
Mahar’s Preface says she was inspired by (among other considerations) Anthony Slide’s ’77 book Early Women Directors which describes the early times when women directed films by the dozen. He called it “a forgotten era.” Not around here, though!
How about Anita Loos, one of the great screen writers in Hollywood.
I don’t actually care that much for her work (how the heck do you manage to write an all-woman film that still fails the Bechdel test?), though I did review The New York Hat:
Anita Loos is one lady I did meet. It was Summer of 1972, I think, at the Book Cadillac Hotel downtown Detroit. This was an author’s luncheon and she signed a book she had recently had published but I can’t remember the title. Also was one other and the author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull who came from Michigan. We had spatchcock for the main course which I had never had before.
And here’s me thinking it’s the kids who keep hiding my shoes and spreading lego on the floor….
Ha! People underestimate my powers!
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