With the recent big Oscar win for Kathryn Bigelow, the first female director to win in the Best Director category, I got to thinking about women's role in film history. It's not the first time I've thought about it. I remember back when someone first introduced me to Maya Deren. Ms. Deren's contributions to creative expression both in front of and behind the camera are significant. I began looking at other industry leadership positions that women have held in the past where men ruled the roost. I am a big classic film buff and women's names don't often come up at least when you think about the big name Golden Age directors and producers. So I looked up who might be the first and found Alice Guy Blaché (1873-1968) has been credited as the first female filmmaker. From 1896 to 1920 she directed, produced and wrote hundreds of films both silent and sound. New York Women in Film and Television's Women's Film Preservation Fund actually restored some of this filmmaker's work. It has been shown at MoMA and the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2009 and 2010.
What is particularly incredible about Ms. Blaché is that she's not only credited with being the first female filmmaker, but she also is bestowed the title as inventor of narrative filmmaking. She also applied special effects and used recordings to accompany the on screen images. Ms. Blaché began her career in France where she worked as a secretary for a still photography business before someone bought it out and turned it into a film production company. She eventually began working in most aspects of production and the company apparently became quite successful. Ms. Blaché and her husband eventually opened the Hollywood arm of the company and shortly thereafter started their own production business on the east coast. Alice famously hung a sign in her office that read "Act Naturally" and if you've seen enough films of the era, I would think that might have been a new concept. Cliché as this phrase is, it's true, Alice Guy Blaché was ahead of her time on many fronts. After her and her husband's New Jersey company, Solex ceased production, Ms. Blaché began working for William Randolph Hearst's International Film Service. She returned to France in the early 1920's and retired from production work in favor of writing and lecturing. Ms. Blaché spent her final years back in New Jersey with family.
That's quite a history for one female in a male dominated society and business, especially considering the time period. Women weren't even granted national voting rights in the United States until 1920 and couldn't serve on jury until the late 1940's (yes, I said late 1940's!).
After reading a bit about Alice Guy Blaché pioneering work, I naturally got to wondering more about female editors. From my understanding film editors of the somewhat distant past were often females. Editing was considered a technical, non creative position and therefore was an acceptable field for women to work in. The creative and directive positions were thought of as proper male roles. Therefore there are a lot of female editors, at least from the Golden Age of cinema.
So unbeknownst to the most of the world, editing afforded women a creative influence on filmmaking. Editors such as Anne Bauchens (1882-1967) an Oscar winner for Cleopatra (1934), was trained by Cecil B. DeMille and is credited as Editor of over 40 of the director's films. Margaret Booth (1898-2002), edited classics such as Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and Bombshell (1933) with Jean Harlow. She was Supervising Editor on The Way We Were (1973). Ms. Booth also cut for D.W. Griffith and produced a number of movies. Blanche Sewell (1898-1949) is famously known for her editing of The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Obviously this little blog is just scratching the surface as they say (or as a friend says "scratching the service", which I'm not sure what to make of) but my point is that women have played a key role in moving making, beyond their on-screen contributions, and they're good at it. Organizations like NYWIFT and others like The White House Project take practical steps to raise awareness of female creative leadership roles. Check out MoMA's To Save and Project annual film festival where NYWIFT's Women's Film Preservation Fund screens saved works or The White House Project's report entitled Benchmarking Women's Leadership surveying where women hold decision making positions in influential industries such as film. It's important to preserve work of previous generations so future ones have role models and because films are an essential part of our artist and cultural history. To discover and rediscover women's participation and creations in this field is to discover our own talents and potential. All this might sound a little too ernest, but if we forget about our gender's struggle for equality then may actually loose it. Besides history is fascinating and when you have a personal connection with it, as in same gender, same industry, it provides a vested interested in saving it.