This book review is part of the 2021 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge hosted by Raquel Stecher’s Out of the Past blog. Click here for a list of the classic film books I am reviewing this summer and here for a list of the reviews from others written so far.
Over the past twenty years, there has been a heightened interest in the hundreds of women who worked in the silent era and helped build the film industry into the global entertainment force it is today. Karen Ward Mahar’s Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood tells the history of women filmmakers from the earliest days of the silent era to the dawn of sound. Recounting the successes of innovative auteurs, celebrating the barriers broken, and detailing the eventual decline in opportunities for women to work in the centralized studio system from the 1920s onward, Mahar writes a fascinating book filled with numerous nuggets of information.
Starting at cinema’s birth in the 1890s, Mahar argues that films were originally seen as “commercialized sensations drawn from the highly masculinized setting of the inventor’s laboratory” that put male inventors, entrepreneurs, and technicians in positions of power in the nascent industry (9). Outside of a handful of women, most notably Alice Guy-Blache, women in the first twenty years of moving pictures were relegated to unskilled, behind-the-scenes work cutting negatives and operating heavy machinery in factories that processed the camera negative.
By 1908, the industry slowly began to welcome women into more creative and influential roles. Mahar examines how more progressive cultural attitudes towards women’s leisure time and work life, the triumph of the star system, and the industry’s need to convince skeptical middle-class Americans of the movies’ morality in the wake of calls for censorship transformed the 1910s American film industry from a purely masculine space into a more welcoming place for successful women filmmakers. Mahar explores the independent production companies controlled by women stars, writers, and directors to showcase the freedom many women during the 1910s in Hollywood had in carrying out their artistic vision. Detailing the history behind Lois Weber’s social dramas, Clara Kimball Young’s star vehicles, and various other female-helmed films, Mahar brings to life an exciting movement in American film history that gave women filmmakers artistic opportunities they would not see again for decades.
A writer who previously worked for Paramount, Marion Fairfax was one of the many women filmmakers who established their own production companies in the silent era.
After discussing the success of women filmmakers in serials and short comedies in the 1910s, Mahar focuses her attention on the industry’s consolidation into several tightly run studios in the 1920s that gradually squeezed women filmmakers out of the most creative and powerful positions in the industry. Having established itself as an artistically, socially, and economically viable business by 1916, the American film industry didn’t need the credibility of the morally upright women filmmakers to stave off censors. After huge box office stars held leverage over film producers in the 1910s, film studios backed by big Wall Street in the early 1920s systematically overtook the many independent film production companies owned by women. Organized trade organizations, such as the American Society of Cinematographers, actively worked to keep their skilled positions a glorified boys club. By the time sound hit the market in 1928, women were all but cut out of the industry except for Dorothy Arzner, a director who proved to be the lone exception to the rule.
Despite the book’s ambitious scope, Mahar expertly weaves the stories of numerous women filmmakers with contemporary opinion pieces from moving picture magazines and detailed descriptions of behind-the-scenes business endeavors to craft an informative and compelling history of silent era women filmmakers. Mahar discusses such well-known women stars as Mary Pickford, Lois Weber, and Mabel Normand but also highlights lesser-known stars of the era such as Mildred Harris, Dorothy Davenport, and Grace Cunard. She also includes the stories of directors, writers, editors, stars, producers, and camera operators in her discussion, shedding light on women who found work in all types of positions in the industry. I would have personally enjoyed more discussion and analysis on some of the films created by women filmmakers but understand that Mahar’s focus on the gender roles and business transactions of the era works to brings to life both the extraordinary successes of women filmmakers and their eventual displacement in the industry.
Mahar provides readers with a clear-eyed narrative that runs throughout silent Hollywood’s history. She is determined to explain the factors and forces that first gave women opportunities to work in the industry in the 1910s and later took them away in the 1920s and in the sound era. Mahar never accepts the conclusion of ‘that’s just the way things were!’ but examines the prejudices that marginalized women in the film industry. In a world where women still aren’t even given equal pay or as many opportunities to make films as their male counterparts, Mahar’s examination of sexism in the silent era is a sadly relevant and pertinent topic.
Overall, Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood is the perfect gateway to exploring the achievements of pioneering women filmmakers. Anyone interested in the silent era will find numerous new factoids and under-discussed stars and filmmakers while anyone interested in women filmmakers will gain unique insight into an era of flourishing women filmmakers, a goal that the film industry is still struggling to achieve now.