In this special episode of Your Gal Friday we talk about 4 early film pioneers that created the framework for movies today spanning from 1896-1982. The 4 gals in this episode are: Alice Guy Blache, Lois Weber, Dorothy Arzner and Margaret Booth.
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Alice Guy Blaché
She was a gal of many firsts in filmmaking. She created invented and improved upon the framework that would not only make movies last over 100 years but make them profitable.
Alice was born in 1873 in France. While working as a secretary for Gaumont (at the time a still-photography company) she attended a Lumiere Brothers event that showcased moving pictures of workers leaving the Lumiere plant in Lyon.
The brothers showed various exhibits of this new technology wondering just what the uses could be. Something clicked in Alice, she wrote in her autobiography, “I thought I could do it better” and she did.
She thought would be more exciting to tell a story in a moving picture. She asked her boss, Gaumount, for permission to make a film on her lunch break and she made The Cabbage Fairy which is considered by many to be the first narrative or story film, though some historians argue because there was a narrative film by Gaumont himself and by George Méliès very close to that same time and records were not seemingly important. But time seems to be more favorable for the two when there is a strong chance Alice was first.
Google isn’t even nice to Alice, searching “first narrative film” it comes up with The Great Train Robbery in 1903 by Edwin S. Porter but we can do math and The Cabbage Fairy was made in 1896.
It’s important to note that at this time film was new, it wasn’t the industry we know today and it was seen as something that would not make money as it was not seen as having commercial value.
More context of the time period the major players historian site are:
- The Lumiere Brothers – they made about 50 films themselves
- George Méliès made about 500 films
- D.W. Griffith made roughly 500 films
- Alice made over 1000 films
Alice was a visionary who combined special effect visuals – like hand tinting color, and running a film backwards.
Fun fact that will make you “that person” on Trivia night. What do you remember being told is the first film to use sync sound? The Jazz Singer, right? Well, The Jazz Singer was released in 1927 using the Vitaphone, a record-like disc to accompany the film. Alice released films with the Chronophone (also a record-like disc that was also synced to film) as early as 1908. It was Alice’s idea to combine visuals to a song and not just have the music be an accompaniment but also sync to the picture. Basically Alice created the music video in 1908 as well as the first sound and picture sync’d images.
Alice moved to the United States in 1907 to be Head of Production for Gaumont’s US operation. A few years later she opened her own film studio, The Solax Company with husband Herbert and George A. Magie.
In Fort Lee, New Jersey. They created a state-of-the art facility with in-house film processing, stages with glass roofs, state of the art stages, set fabrications works, costume departments and administrative offices. This made her the first female studio owner.
Ft. Lee was the largest area of filmmaking pre-Hollywood. D.W Griffith, Fatty Arbuckle and Mack Sennett were there.
At Solax Alice direction to her actors was to “be natural.” By the time film came around, theater was definitely more well known as a storytelling medium. When you act in a theater production you have to over exaggerate everything so that it reads well to the audience. On the flip side, you do not need to exaggerate at all on film because the camera can pick up every last detail. Somehow Alice instinctively knew this and was always telling her actors to “be natural” and to fight the urge to exaggerate the acting.
While Alice was making films and inventing new ways to tell a fuller story, she put her husband in charge of the business side. He not only choose some poor investments, but he also started another competitive production company and had an affair with an actress from one of his films.
The company folded in 1922 due to Herbert’s bad investments and Alice didn’t make another film. She did try a come back in 1927 like Méliès did but by then the film industry was financially successful and that meant little room for women in positions of power.
She lived until 1968 and saw not only the industry that she helped create thrive, but also to see her work forgotten.
While Alice was working for Gaumont in NY, she met chronophone singer, Lois Weber . Alice recommended Lois for scriptwriter and director.
Lois made 200-400 films, many of them co-directed with her husband.
In 1912 Lois moved to Los Angeles. A year later she was voted the first mayor of the brand new, Universal City.
Now because she was the Hollywood side of the early film there are claims to fame given to her because Hollywood wanted to reinvent itself and separate itself from the east coast years. She’s credited as the first female-directed feature for The Merchant of Venice. However, Alice made a feature in 1913 called Dick Whittington and His Cat. It is also said Lois is the first woman to own her own studio but Alice did that 7 years before with Solax.
However Lois was wonderfully inventive and quite a bit more daring than Alice when it came to the subject matter of her films.
- Lois was the first to use split screen in her 1913 film Suspense.
- Her film Hypocrites (1915) had the first female nude scene.
- Where Are My Children (1916) discussed abortion and birth control.
In 1914 Bertha Smith estimated Weber’s audience at 5-6 million a week and that she was as famous as D.W. Griffith and Cecil B deMille.
In 1915 she worked for Universal and was their highest paid director. Carl Laemmle, “who was known more for his frugality and cunning business sense than philanthropy”, said of Weber: “I would trust Miss Weber with any sum of money that she needed to make any picture that she wanted to make. I would be sure that she would bring it back.”
In 1917 she was the only woman granted membership in the Motion Picture Directors Association and she opened her own movie studio Lois Weber Productions.
But it would be short lived.
Her marriage started to fall apart and she resisted the assembly line-style style of Hollywood films at the time. She wanted to concentrate on one film at a time. She shot her films in sequence, her films were cheap, done fast, efficiently and sensational topics and titles helped but it wasn’t enough. Lois found it difficult to pay the bills and find the capital to finance her own productions. So she went to Louie B. Mayer and made 2 films. Then to Paramount to direct 5 films. This gave her enough money to buy the land her studio was on.
By 1920 she was considered the “premier woman director of the screen and author and producer of the biggest money making features in the history of the film business”.
But again, it would be short lived.
The 20’s were a time of the Jazz Age; flapper girls and a focus on fun and escapism were king. Lois was making films about marriage and domestic life. Titles like To Please One Woman, Too Wise Wives and What Do Men Want? Her films and views were considered “quaint” and she fell out of favor and her Paramount contract was cancelled. And her production company financially collapsed.
She had a nervous breakdown in 1923 – like ya do when everything in your career falls apart – and she took 2 years away from movies.
In 1925 she came back to Universal. Carl Laemmle hired her to be in charge of story development for Universal’s adaptation of popular novels. They already had success with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Lois came to work on the re-edits of Phantom of the Opera.
She then worked on the adaptation of Uncle Tom before getting a new distribution deal with Universal for her own films. Once again making her “one of the highest paid women in the business.”
But once again it was short lived.
She was attached to direct some films and then taken off the projects. So she went to United Artists as a script doctor. Her good friend Frances Marion (also a screenwriter) helped.
Her final film was director-for-hire gig for the Seven Seas Corporation called White Heat. It was her last film and her only talkie.
5 years later she died of a bleeding stomach ulcer. She was 60 years old.
Dorothy was born in San Francisco and grew up in Los Angeles. Her father owned a restaurant that many Hollywood people frequented.
She wanted to be doctor so she enrolled at USC and also worked overseas during WW1 in the ambulance corps. In the book Directed by Dorothy Arzner she quoted as saying, “I wanted to heal the sick and raise the dead instantly. I didn’t want to go through all the trouble of medicine… So that took me into the motion picture industry. “
At the invitation of her friend William DeMille, a film director (and younger brother of Cecil B. DeMille) Dorothy visited Famous Players-Lasky in 1919.
On her tour of various departments of the studio that would soon become Paramount Pictures Dorothy said, “I remember making the observation if one was going to be in the movie business, one should be a director because he was the one who told everyone else what to do.”
She started at a stenographer that year. She’d type up scripts and get an idea of not only their format but also learn what made a good film script.
She moved up to script transcriber but she wasn’t a stellar typist so after only 3 months she got a job in the Paramount editing bay.
She impressed the big wigs with her work on Blood and Sand and film starring Rudolph Valentino. She inter-cut stock footage of bullfights into the picture about a peasant who becomes a champion bullfighter. She saved the studio money and established her filmmaker eye.
In1927 Paramount assigned her Fashions for Women, a silent film, about a cigarette girl who impersonates a famous model. The film was a success.
She directed two more silents for Paramount Ten Modern Commandments 1927 (which is now a lost film) and Get Your Man with Clara Bow. We said on the show that it was incomplete however we found the full film on You Tube.
The transition to talkies was Manhattan Cocktail a part-talkie like a lot of what Hollywood was doing at the time. This was also a lost film except for a montage sequence.
But 1929’s Wild Party was monumental for Dorothy in a lot of ways. It was Clara Bow’s first talkie, so it was a star vehicle. Clara also wasn’t used to microphones and it’s said she would interfere with being able to move around and also she would glance at them during takes and ruin the shots.
So Dorothy had a microphone fastened to a fishing pole and had the mic above the actor’s heads. You know inventing a little thing called the boom mic.
Now Dorothy didn’t file for a patent but she’s widely credited for its invention.
She made a few more films for Paramount before she left and worked as an independent director. In her independent days this is where she launched the careers of Katharine Hepburn (Christopher Strong), Rosalind Russell (Craig’s Wife), and Lucille Ball (Dance, Girl, Dance).
Here is an amazing scene from Dance, Girl, Dance.
Hepburn said of Dorothy in her autobiography: “She had done many pictures. Was very good…She wore pants. So did I. We had a great time working together.”
Dorothy became the first woman to join the newly formed Director’s Guild of America (DGA).
Dorothy never made an official statement regarding her sexuality but her 40 year relationship with choreographer Marion Morgan was no secret.
Her last film was First Comes Courage in 1943. During production she fell ill with Pleurisy – an inflammation of the lungs – and the picture was finished by Charles Vidor but she still got on screen credit.
With the world at war, she made training films for the Women’s Army Corps.
Did some commercials for Pepsi at Joan Crawford’s request. They worked together on The Bride wore Red.
Later she became a teacher at UCLA, Francis Ford Coppola was one of her students.
Died 1979 in La Quinta, CA at the age of 82.
Margaret started as a “patcher” (editor) for D.W. Griffith in 1915.
After a few years, she worked for Louis B Mayer where she was taught more of the craft of film editing from John M. Stahl. She credits Stahl with telling her “The value of a scene…when [it] drops or doesn’t drop, and when it sustains.” She would practice with film left on the cutting room floor.
She developed a craft of cutting to a rhythm. In scenes of marching she’s cut on the foot steps, in musical she cut on the downbeats.
Many women were “cutters” and it was called that because they used scissors or razors to cut the film. It was Irving Thalberg who started called cutters “Film editors” and according to Cari Beauchamp of the book Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood it started with Margaret.
In 1929 Margaret was credited as a solo editor for The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The film also hard part-sound and Booth became to go-to editor. So much so that Ally Acker wrote in Reel Women that “For 3 decades, no film left [MGM] without her imprint.” This meant that some films she worked on she didn’t get on screen credit for but directors and producers her input and skill was very desirable.
In 1935 She was nominated for an Academy Award for editing Mutiny on the Bounty. A film she was an uncredited editor on also won an academy award for its editing that little film was Ben Hur.
From 1924-1968 Margaret worked at MGM. As a supervising editor she worked on notable films, The Wizard of Oz, The Red Badge of Courage, and Gigi.
Later she went to Rastar until her retirement in 1986. At Rastar she was a supervising editor, The Way We Were, Funny Lady, Murder by Death and Goodbye Girl. She was also an associate producer at Rastar with films, Seems Like Old Times, The Toy, and Executive Producer of The Slugger’s Wife.
She was a known to be a sassy gal. She preferred that directed stayed out of the cutting room. Ray Stark at Rastar said about her “Margaret was tough, unsentimental editor who read film like others would read a book.” She was a perfectionist and was considered “difficult” by some but others liked her because she was fast and she was tough.
She once asked George Roy Hill. “Mr. Hill are you telling me you want that on a 60-foot screen?”
“I guess I don’t, do I?” He replied.
“No you don’t.” Booth said firmly.
She was awarded an Honorary Oscar in 1978, a Women in Film Crystal Award in 1983 and an American Cinema Editors Career Achievement Award in 1990.
Her final movie was Annie (1982). She died of complication from a stroke in 2002. She was 104 years old.
Kate & Phoebe talk about these 4 gals and their legacy in this week’s episode. Click Here to listen.
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ABOUT YOUR GAL FRIDAY
Your Gal Friday is a weekly podcast with supplemental video and article profiling and amazing gal of our galaxy that we can all learn from. Each month your hosts Kate Chaplin & Phoebe Frear talk about the life and legacy about a gal in the subjects of art, history, science and culture.
Your Gal Friday also ties into Gal’s Guide school outreach. Gal’s Guide offers a K-University presentations of Women You Didn’t Learn About in School. Showcasing 14-26 amazing gals to classrooms and assemblies, the presentations spotlight these gals where the podcast goes more in depth of your new favorite gals every Friday.
- #11 Mary Anderson (Science)
- #12 Julia Child (Culture)