Forgotten Her-stories: Pioneer Women Filmmakers


(Pictured at top: Director, actress, screenwriter & comic genius Mabel Normand)

“Not only is a woman as well fitted to stage photo-drama as a man, but in many ways she has a distinct advantage over him because of her very nature.” – Alice Guy-Blaché

When you hear the words “movie director” what do you immediately picture? Someone in sunglasses and a flat-cap barking out orders into a megaphone? Whatever you envision, it’s probably a man and he’s probably white. Yet many of the pioneers of film-making – the very people who carved the way for the movies that we watch today – were women and people of color.  In fact the first narrative film, La Fée aux Choux (1896) – also known in English as The Cabbage Fairy – was directed by a French woman named Alice Guy-Blaché. Comb through film history books however, and you’ll find chapter upon chapter devoted to Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith but you’ll be lucky to find a sentence, let alone a paragraph, about Guy-Blaché or Mabel Normand, the woman who taught Chaplin how to direct film comedy, or Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, whose anti-lynching drama Within Our Gates (1920) remains as vital and important today as it was upon its release. It’s doubtful you’ll find a chapter in those history books devoted to Marion E. Wong, who established the Mandarin Film Company in 1916 in Oakland, California and who wrote and directed The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West (1916/1917), the first American feature length film with an all Asian-American cast.  Nell Shipman, the Canadian screenwriter/director and actress who performed all of her own stunts, is also MIA from the pages of most film history books.

Racism, misogyny, economics, the advent of sound and the domination of the big studio system all played a role in erasing the work of many of these pioneers, who may have lacked the finances needed to preserve their films and who – unlike Chaplin and Griffith – did not have access to, or the help of, the mainstream media to promote their legacies.

Admittedly I had not heard of Marion E. Wong or Nell Shipman, and knew very little of Alice Guy-Blaché before I borrowed the Kino Classics/Library of Congress DVD box set “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers” from the Toronto Public Library. The six-disc collection contains over 50 beautifully restored silent films from 1911-1929; all directed, produced and/or written by women. Guy-Blaché and Lois Weber (the highest paid director of her time) each have a disc devoted to their work, while the entire collection showcases the diversity of movies made during this exciting period in film history, when the industry was in its “wild west” infancy and anyone could take part and have a voice (much like the internet is today). It was a time when women were not just welcome but encouraged to enter the film industry: a 1920 career guide for women included a chapter on film directing written by Ida May Park, a director at Universal (sadly, all future editions of the guide omitted Park’s chapter).

There are comedies, westerns, action films and romances in this collection but the movies that interest me the most are the films containing a social message; movies that tackled still-relevant topics such as sex trafficking and slut-shaming (The Red Kimona, 1925, produced by Dorothy Davenport Reid), racism (When Little Lindy Sang, 1916, directed by Lule Warrenton), workplace sexual harassment and poverty (Bread, 1918, directed by Ida May Park) and animal rights (Back to God’s Country, 1919, written by and starring Nell Shipman). 

These pioneers were constantly inventing and re-inventing and the technical innovations of many of these early films are truly remarkable: in The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West (1916/1917) the marriage jewels belonging to an unhappy young bride morph into chains around her neck and wrists; The Red Kimona (1925) uses color stencilling to create the blood red of the kimono that brands the film’s scarlet (slut-shamed) heroine. Alice Guy-Blaché, whose tuberculosis drama Falling Leaves (1912) is pure cinematic poetry, advised her actors to “act natural“; groundbreaking advice at a time when many film actors were hysterically pantomiming. Additionally, Guy-Blaché was one of the first filmmakers to experiment with sound, as early as 1906.

Zora Neale Hurston

Among the standouts in this collection are the documentary films directed by Zora Neale Hurston (pictured). At a time when Hollywood was either stereotyping or outright ignoring Black Americans, Hurston’s Fieldwork Footage (1928) showcases quiet slices of life artfully filmed, such as a baseball game, children dancing and a baptism.

Every few years or so, someone in the mainstream media asks “Can Women be Funny?”. But Mabel Normand already answered that asinine question over one hundred years ago with a resounding “F*%K YEAH!” The Gibson girl turned director/screenwriter/comic genius has three gems in this Kino collection: Mabel and Fatty’s Wash Day (1915), Mabel’s Blunder (1914) and Caught in a Cabaret (1914). My personal favourite Mabel movie Should Men Walk Home? (1927) isn’t included in this collection but when it was screened at a Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy film retrospective at the Revue cinema earlier this year, it (and of course Mabel) got the biggest laughs of the afternoon. Mabel was making slapstick comedies before Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton; in fact, she was Chaplin’s first director. I like to think that it was Mabel who influenced the strong woman characters in Chaplin’s masterpieces Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940).

Nell Shipman

I also have this collection to thank for my new crush on Nell Shipman (pictured). At midnight on the Friday of a very long week, her Back to God’s Country (1919) had me instantly transfixed. I screened it for my boyfriend the next afternoon and we both agreed that it is one of the best Canadian films ever made (actually I’ll go out on a limb right now and declare it the BEST Canadian film of all time). This movie has it all: action, romance, adventure and even a skinny-dipping scene featuring the comely Shipman, which is sensuous and not exploitative.  However the main standout of this film is its message that animals have all the same feelings – grief, loneliness, happiness, sorrow and love – that humans do. That truth was a radical idea back in 1919. I later learned that, in addition to performing all of her own stunts and training the animals in her movies, Shipman championed for environmental protections and better treatment of animals in film. That makes her a true revolutionary at a time when most other nature filmmakers were as likely to shoot animals as they were to film them.

Film has always been about telling stories and the work collected in Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers shows that the medium is only enriched by a diversity of story-tellers.

– Heather Babcock, 2019

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