10 Unsung Women Filmmakers of the Silent Era

8. Dorothy Davenport Reid

Dorothy Davenport Reid was one of the first women producers and directors in early Hollywood. She began her career as an actress with the Nestor Film Co. in late 1911. Along with her husband Wallace Reid, she became a popular screen presence at Universal. Yet, after the birth of her son in 1917, her career stalled while her husband’s skyrocketed in the Cecil B. DeMille productions. A morphine addiction, however, ruined his career, and his drug-related death rocked Hollywood with one of its first scandals.

Billing herself as Mrs. Wallace Reid, Davenport Reid returned to work after her husband’s death as a sometime actor, director and producer. She used the medium to deliver social messages about drug abuse, domestic violence, and sex trafficking. Some of the movies she produced included Human Wreckage and The Red Kimono.

Many of her films were produced under Thomas Ince’s film production, but after his death Davenport Reid, who starred in Human Wreckage, introduced the movies and took screen credit for three productions. She was also sued by a woman who claimed that the film The Red Kimono used her life story and name without permission. Since most of the films are lost, scholars don’t know for certain how much credit she should be given for any of these early films.

She did, however, produce many films under her own company Dorothy Reid Davenport Productions. In 1929, she directed the feature Linda, a story about domestic violence, arranged marriages, and bigamy. It is also notable for its depiction of female friendships and loyalty. Though the lawsuit was initially decided in Davenport Reid’s favor (the decision would later be reversed), her film production collapsed, ending her career behind the camera as a pioneering filmmaker.

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7. Madeline Brandeis

Madeline Brandeis’s film career began after she became independently wealthy enough to pursue a hobby. Her first movie, which was commissioned by the Omaha Chamber of Commerce, was the love story When East Meets West (1919). After moving to Hollywood, she produced and financed Not One to Spare (1924), The Shining Adventure (1925), and Young Hollywood. Few prints of her films survived.

Brandeis also produced a children’s educational series for Pathé. Titled Children of the Lands, these films were one-reel travelogues that were shot in Europe and the U.S. and featured local cast and crews. She wrote, produced, edited, and sometimes even developed the films which were later shown in elementary schools. The League of Nations recognized her work as a contributor to World Peace.

By the 1920s, Brandeis’ film career ended, but she later had an equally successful career as a children’s book author just as the popularity of children’s books were taking off in the United States.

6. Helena Smith Dayton

Helena Smith Dayton became the first female clay animator in film when her short Romeo and Juliet was made in 1917. The film was unique in that it pioneered the use of real doll clothing and human hair to create realistic depictions of human movement. A review of the short for The Moving Picture World hailed her “magic touch” in taking on the “responsibilities of life, and love, and sorrow for which the play requires…”

Dayton’s career in film was brief to the extreme. After completing Romeo and Juliet, she joined the YWCA and served in France after the United States entered World War I. Her short film helped pioneer the art of clay animation.

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