I have two definitions of what history is, which I wrote years ago and have repeated several times thereafter – and here they are again:
1. History is what was known once but has been forgotten
2. History is the present’s interpretation of the past
It’s worth considering these when contemplating the subject of women’s film history. Has the recent upsurge in interest in the history of women in the silent era of filmmaking occurred because we are revisiting, and rewriting, history to fit with the understanding that we now have of the world? Or was the contribution to women and early film always an important one, only to be obscured by a subsequent male-dominated writing of history? What is film history anyway?
Either way, some of the most vital, revealing and useful work on early film history in recent years has been concerned with the particular contribution made by women, and not just as actresses but as directors, scenarists, editors, title writers, camera operators, costume designers, cinema managers, even as audience members. The silent film era saw a huge contribution from women, sometimes as part of mainstream film production, sometimes on the margins, always overturning perceptions. Part of the great interest silent film has is that it was a time of great discovery, where the rules had not been set down and how this new medium should be expressed was not fixed. By the end of the silent era those rules were all too firmly in place, and it is no coincidence that women’s contribution to film production falls away thereafter, only to be revived in recent times as the means of production change again from the monolithic to the individual.
This work on women and early film reached some sort of apotheosis with Columbia University’s Women Film Pioneers Project website, which documents the lives of many of the women who helped make silent cinema – and in so doing changes our notion of what silent cinema was, or is. As is stated on the About page, the governing principle behind the project has been “What we assume never existed is what we invariably find.”
The website documents over 300 women from around the world who made a distinctive contribution to film. They range from Mexican film critic Cube Bonifant to Italian actor-director-producer Elvira Notari, to Russian editor Esfir Shub, to Peruvian screenwriter Maria Isabel Sánchez Concha Aramburú, to Scottish documentary filmmaker Jenny Gilbertson, to Chinese scriptwriter Pu Shunqing. Each entry comes with photograph (where one exists), profile, bibliography and filmography.
The profiles are engagingly written and filled with character. One gains a sense of great individuality and enterprise in the diverse stories that are told. The range of countries covered and of the kinds of contribution made to filmmaking expand one’s ideas of what silent cinema was, and how far it extended. Two things for me stand out in particular. One is how so many of these women took on many roles, often at the same time, as independence in filmmaking required them to take on several functions, just to get the films made the way that they wanted them to be made. Alla Nazimova, for example, is listed as being art director, costume designer, director, editor, film actress, producer, screenwriter, set decorator, theatre actress, and title writer (not always at the same time). The other is the number of histories where still so little is known about the person. A few fragments of information, perhaps not even a photograph to show us what they looked like. Tressie Souders, the first African-American woman film director, is an example of someone for whom we have no dates, no photo, no biographical information and – saddest of all – no surviving film. How few fragments are often all that survive of a life we have put to the margins.
The Women Film Pioneers Project does not only document those on the margins, however. There are such notable names as Alice Guy Blaché, Anita Loos, Louella Parsons, Dorothy Arzner and Elinor Glyn, and if the better-known names were American or worked mostly in America, then that is only a reflection of how the film industry was.
The site also offers an extensive resources section, with bibliographies, references works, film sources, links, and ‘unhistoricized women film pioneers‘ – an ugly way of describing a lengthy list of women filmmakers yet to have been researched and written up by the project. There is much work yet to be done. There are also contextualising essays, including How Women Worked in the US Silent Film Industry, African-American Women in the Silent Film Industry and Women as Camera Operators or “Cranks”. Extensive cross-referencing encourages the reader to explore other lives which took on the same role in film production, or who were operating in the same geographical area.
The Women Film Pioneers Project is edited by Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, and is produced in partnership with Columbia University Libraries, with support from Columbia University, School of the Arts, Film Program. The original intention had been to produce a printed women film pioneers sourcebook, but even as the first contributions had been made for this, the project morphed into an online one, launched in 2013. The quality of the research one now sees on the site is often remarkable. Although with so many contributors (over 200) there is an inevitable variety of approaches, researchers now access an impressive range of resources, in particular the digitised newspapers and online family history databases that have turned so many past uncertainties into certainties.
Though the site has the appearance of being a finished work, it is a work-in-progress and wants to be a work-in-progress. It is recovering film history and re-imagining film history at the same time.
I have written four profiles for the site: Jessica Borthwick (the first woman to film a war), Ada Aline Urban (financier and company director), Abby Meehan (fashion journalist and director of fashion films), and published this week, Alice Rosenthal (I’ve also made contributions to the profiles of Eugenie Magnus Ingleton and Mary Murillo).
Present at the very start of the British film business, Alice Rosenthal became sales manager and stock keeper for the Warwick Trading Company, the leading British film company of the 1890s. She worked for other film companies, then ran a cinema in Croydon for a short while, then formed a company, A.R. Film, and made a few comedy films before the First World War brought her ambitions to a halt. Previously only a footnote in other histories, it was a challenge but a pleasure to find sufficient material to pull her story together, drawn from genealogical sources (I learned a lot about Jewish family history), licensing records, digitised and undigitised trade journals, clues from descendants, and a fair bit of luck. I concluded it with this bold claim:
Film history tends to privilege producers, operators and performers. But one such as Rosenthal, who cared for the physical films, promoted them, sold them, and was the commercial face for an emerging industry, played no less of a pioneering role, one that needs to be remembered now. The British film business, in some sense, began with Alice Rosenthal.
Bold, but defensible. If you were around in the latter half of the 1890s and you wanted to get into this new business of film, you needed to go to the London offices of the Warwick Trading Company and get yourself a projector and films. It was Alice you met and Alice who sold them to you. That’s how films started. The mechanics and the inventors have hogged the limelight for too long.
(Of course, film also started with the first audiences who witnessed it, but that’s an argument for another time.)
What is so powerful and so inspiring about the Women Film Pioneers Project is the parade of faces on its Pioneers page. Here are people who looked set for one track in life whose lives were changed utterly by the new invention of film. Alice Rosenthal was a dressmaker before she found herself managing the sales of a film company. Film, for these women, was a liberating force. They brought to the new medium an energy that helped define its character. The more pioneer stories that are researched and published, the more certain this truth must be. In those faces we see the look of change.
Note: This post is based on one I wrote back in 2013 for my old Bioscope blog which I published briefly but then withdrew (long story). I’ve updated it as appropriate.