Wise Guy

Nick Pinkerton on “Woman with a Movie Camera” at Anthology Film Archives

Lois Weber, Shoes, 1916, 35 mm, black-and-white, silent, 60 minutes.

ALICE GUY-BLACHÉ—then just plain Alice Guy—was working as a secretary for Léon Gaumont’s photographic equipment company when the boss received an invitation to an event hosted by Auguste and Louis Lumière, two brothers from Lyon, set for March 22, 1895. The focus of the evening was color still-photography processes, but for an encore the brothers introduced their “projection Kinetoscope,” a machine that projected moving images—in this case, the images of workers leaving a factory. While both Gaumont and Guy-Blaché immediately perceived the commercial possibilities of such a novelty, Guy-Blaché was somewhat quicker to imagine its potential for narrative storytelling, and when she proposed to Gaumont that she might make some fictional films for his rapidly established Gaumont Film Company, it seemed a harmless enough idea.

Almost certainly the first female filmmaker and a woman with as good a claim as anyone to having witnessed the birth of cinema, Guy-Blaché went on to direct hundreds of short and feature-length films over the next quarter century—including early “Phonoscope” talkies—working in France and later the United States, where she and her husband cofounded their own company, Solax, in Flushing, New York, in 1910, at which point she was on her way to being the highest-paid woman in the country. She can be seen telling her life story in archival footage that appears in Marquise Lepage’s 1995 documentary The Lost Garden: The Life and Cinema of Alice Guy-Blaché, playing with a selection of Guy-Blaché’s surviving work at Anthology Film Archives’s series “Woman with a Movie Camera: Female Film Directors Before 1950,” a bit of programming archaeology that proves we don’t have to speculate what a film grammar that women helped to create and innovate might look like—we’ve been watching it all along.

Guy-Blaché crossed the Atlantic, but her career didn’t survive the end of her marriage and the migration of the American film industry to the West coast. (After returning to France, she spent her final years with a daughter in New Jersey; you can visit her in the Catholic cemetery in Mahwah.) She was an anomaly in the industry, male-dominated from the first, but she wasn’t alone for long. By Guy-Blaché’s own account, she gave a start to Lois Weber, an innovator of some stature—Suspense (1913), co-directed with her husband Wendell Phillips Smalley, is considered to be one of the earliest surviving examples of the split screen, used to build drama as home-alone housewife (Weber herself) is menaced by a rampaging hobo, while her hubby rushes to the rescue. Fellow director-star Gene Gauntier was just as likely to do the menacing and rescuing herself, rising to fame in Nan, the Confederate Spy serials, though her filmmaking efforts were rather more pictorialist—The Colleen Bawn (1911), which plays Anthology, is most noteworthy for its location views of Ireland taken some five years before independence.

Esfir Shub, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, 1927, 16 mm, black-and-white, silent, 101 minutes.

The consolidation of the Hollywood studio system around the permanent arrival of talking pictures made things more difficult for independent operators like Guy-Blaché, Gauntier, and Weber (The latter two operated, respectively, Gene Gauntier Feature Players Company and, as a subsidiary of Universal, the Rex Motion Picture Company.) The business became increasingly standardized, and directing, a position of newfound prestige, was more rigidly reserved as “men’s work,” though women continued to wield power in front of the camera, as well as in screenwriting and editing, both positions in which Dorothy Arzner cut her teeth before she got her start in the director’s chair.

Arzner is represented at Anthology by her excellent Merrily We Go to Hell (1932), titled for the salutation that Fredric March’s bibulous newspaperman-cum-playwright repeatedly offers before taking his first of very many drinks. March stars opposite Sylvia Sidney, a long-suffering mate who finds solace from women, but can’t help but follow her man straight into the abyss, a plummet that ends at a reunion with no promise of peace or permanence—it’s a throttlingly emotional film, one that locates the stark desperation beneath the relentless gaiety that has come to define the “Pre-Code” movie. When Arzner made her final film in 1943, there was only one woman in America left making narrative features—though not in English. San Francisco–born Esther Eng made Cantonese-language pictures in both her hometown and Hong Kong, beginning in 1937. Unfortunately, these survive only in fragments—including one from Golden Gate Girl (1941) which contains the screen debut of Bruce Lee, playing a baby girl—though Anthology will be playing S. Louisa Wei’s documentary Golden Gate Girls (2014), which pieces together the story of Eng’s convention-flouting life. (In more ways than one—like Arzner, Eng was openly gay.)

At roughly the same time that Arzner and Eng were making straightforward narrative dramas, Maya Deren and husband Alexander Hammid were creating some of their best-loved and most influential experimental shorts—not playing Anthology, though one of the theaters is named for her, so we can probably forgive the slight. In the years to come, as today, women would frequently find themselves more easily able to work in non-mainstream idioms—avant-garde film, documentary, and so forth. The same applied overseas, and the European directors represented here—with the noteworthy exception of the Scandinavian contingent, including Norwegian Edith Carlmar’s noir effort Death is a Caress (1949)—are a motley crew of nonconformists, including animation pioneer Lotte Reiniger and Surrealist fellow-traveler Germain Dulac. The Soviet Union officially believed in the equality of women, and in the years of feverish experimentation before the pall of sterile Soviet Realism fell over Russian cinema, Esfir Shub used newsreel clippings and Imperial home movies to produce her sprawling found-footage montage The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), which recreates the world before the Revolution as a powder keg waiting for a match. While we’ve got Bolshies on hand, there are no Nazis allowed, the conspicuous absence in the series being Triumph of the Will (1935) architect Leni Riefenstahl. One understands why this particular guest might be unwelcome at the party, though it does seem a little strange to exclude the woman who, with 1938’s Olympia, essentially created the visual vocabulary that we still use in filming sport.

Casting light on a little-known aspect of film history, Anthology’s survey is a series for discoveries—for me, the heretofore-unheard-of masterpiece was Shoes, a 1916 social realist drama directed by Weber which unstintingly details grinding poverty as experienced by a department store shop girl (Mary MacLaren) supporting her family in a tenement apartment with no help from her worthless layabout father, so that there’s never any money left over on payday for her to replace the tattered leather rags on her feet with which she stumps to work every day. One can still feel the deprivation that haunts the film—Weber was a deeply religious woman who entered cinema with a clear sense of mission. To be truly poor is to have no room for error, and the film raises the event of a rainy morning that threatens our heroine’s scrupulously cutout cardboard insoles to the level of tragedy. I don’t like to be hasty in my judgements, but a century is probably enough time to declare Shoes a masterpiece.

“Woman with a Movie Camera: Female Film Directors Before 1950” runs through September 28 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.