10 Unsung Women Filmmakers of the Silent Era

5. Elizabeth Pickett

Elizabeth Pickett was a pioneering documentarian whose films often depicted the lives of marginalized people living in the western states of America. A graduate of Wellesley’s Women’s College in 1918, where one of her classmates was Madame Cheng Kai-Shek, Pickett went to work for the American Red Cross as a publicist and historian, where she was commissioned to direct several publicity films for the organization.

Her shorts led to a job at Fox Films (1923-1926). Pickett, who wanted to write and direct the films herself, stated that “in this business of ours the writer will have to be director as well, in order to survive,” demonstrating that she was well aware of the pitfalls women faced in Hollywood.

Her first short with Fox Variety was King of the Turf (1923), which may have been an inspiration for John Ford’s early silent Western Kentucky Pride. Cliff-Dwellers of America (1925) examined the lives of Navajo Indians living in Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park. Her short was also the inspiration for a 1929 fictional version titled Red Skin, which she wrote for Paramount. Along with writing and directing films, Pickett also titled and edited features, including The Shamrocks Handicap (1926), Marriage (1927), and Fleetwing (1928).

4. Olga Preobrazhenskaya

Olga Preobrazhenskaya was Russia’s first woman director and a pioneer in Soviet cinema. Born in Moscow in 1881, Preobrazhenskaya studied acting at the Moscow Art Theater under the tutelage of famed acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavsky. After a career on the stage, she made her screen debut in the 1913 film The Keys to Happiness. She starred in more than twenty films before she directed her first movie The Lady Peasant in 1916.

Preobrazhenskaya directed or co-directed films like Victoria, Kashtanka, Prairie Station, and Peasant Women of Ryazan, one of the few films before the Cultural Revolution about Russia’s peasantry. Today, Peasant Women is considered a masterpiece for its experimental cinematography and its proto-feminist themes. The film is also noted for its refreshing lack of propaganda.

After a period of teaching at the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography, Preobrazhenskaya returned to directing the children’s films Kashtanka and Anya. She and her husband were purged during the Cultural Revolution in 1937 because their films failed the agitprop litmus test. She did however co-direct one more film, Prairie Station, in 1941. Her work was largely forgotten in the decades that followed, but film scholars have recently rediscovered her films and now hail her as a pioneer.

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3. Dorothy Arzner

Dorothy Arzner’s film career expanded between 1919-1943, fifteen years of which she directed films, making her the longest and most prolific woman director in early Hollywood.

Born in San Francisco and raised in Hollywood, Arzner began her career by typing scripts at Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, aka Paramount. Eventually she parlayed this into a job cutting and editing films for six months at Realart Studio, a subsidiary of Paramount. Under the mentorship of James Cruze, she began working on film sets and even took charge of some of the filming.

After writing scripts for The Red Kimono for Dorothy Reid Davenport Productions, and Old Ironsides (1926), she was offered a chance to direct for Columbia Pictures, but turned it down to accept Paramount’s better offer to direct an “A” picture. While at Paramount, she directed Fashions for Women (1927), Get Your Man (1927), and Manhattan Cocktail (1928). She also directed the studio’s first sound picture, The Wild Party (1928), a starring vehicle for Clara Bow (she edited the silent film version). During the production of The Wild Party, Arzner attached a microphone to a rod and hung it above Clara Bow. This allowed them to record the actress’s voice while she moved freely on the set. Her invention, the boom mic, is still used to this day.

Arzner was given an extraordinary amount of freedom from Paramount, including her choice of crew. She directed eleven features, then left the studio in 1932 to freelance for RKO, United Artists, Columbia, and MGM. Some of her films during this period included Katherine Hepburn’s Christopher Strong (1933) and Rosalind Russell’s Craig’s Wife (1936).

She left Hollywood altogether and directed training films for the Women’s Army Corps, produced radio programs, taught filmmaking, and directed fifty commercials for Pepsi.

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