10 Unsung Women Filmmakers of the Silent Era

2. Lois Weber

Lois Weber was one of the earliest women directors of the silent era. After a stint in theater, she began writing and co-directing films with husband Phillips Smalley for Gaumont and Reliance Studios in 1907. Billed as the Smalleys, the husband and wife team moved to Universal to work on their Rex brand in 1912, directing sophisticated one or two-reel films that featured a regular stock company. In 1914, they directed the four-reel adaptation of The Merchant of Venice, the first feature to be directed by a woman.

At Hobart Bosworth Production, they directed a second feature length movie titled Hypocrites (1915). An allegory about sexuality and hypocrisy in organized religion, the film featured the first full-frontal female nude. The controversial film incited riots in New York City and was banned in Ohio.

The Smalleys returned to Universal the following year, where Weber directed social-issues films like The People vs. John Doe (1916), about capital punishment; Hop, the Devil’s Brew (1916), about drug abuse; Shoes (1916), about poverty and wage inequality; Where Are My Children (1916) and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917), about contraception.

In 1917 Weber started her own production company, Lois Weber Productions. The company erected a 12,000-square-foot outdoor stage on the property it acquired and turned an old home into administrative offices. At this point in her career, Weber was the highest paid director in Hollywood. She had more control over production, including experimenting with film techniques and shooting on location, as well as less censorship.

After the Smalleys’ divorce in 1922, Weber’s production output slowed. However, she did go on to direct five more features: A Chapter in Her Life (1923); The Marriage Clause (1926); Sensation Seeks (1927); The Angel of Broadway (1927), and White Heat (1934).

1. Alice Guy Blaché

Alice Guy Blaché is the first woman director in the history of cinema.

Born in 1873 in Paris, France, she began her career as a secretary at the still-photography company Gaumont. When the company acquired the rights to a 60mm motion picture camera, it went into the nascent movie business. The screening of the Lumiére brothers film footage shot on a 35mm camera inspired Guy’s boss, Leon Gaunt, to shoot a fictional film with the camera. Guy was chosen to direct.

Guy shot The Cabbage Fairy (1896) on the back lot of the Gaumont company, using still-photography tricks she learned from photographer Frederic Dilly to create the film’s special effects. Vie du Christ was her second film at Gaumont. The thirty minute reel featured 25 sets, including numerous exterior locations, and more than 300 extras.

After marrying English cameraman Herbert Blaché, Guy headed Gaumont’s office in New York. After their stint at Gaumont, the two left to form their own production company Solax, where they produced a picture once a week. Some of these films included A Man’s a Man (1912), The Roads That Lead Home (1913), The Making of an American Citizen (1912), The Detective and His Dog (1912), The Pit and the Pendulum (1913), and others.

Blaché left production duties and became the company president, but resigned a year later to start a rival company. However, the couple continued to work together until WWI slowed down production. After their marriage dissolved, Blaché moved to Hollywood and Guy continued to work intermittently. Her last film, Tarnished Reputations, was shot in 1920. She later returned to France with her children.

Barbra Streisand once stated that Guy was “a French film pioneer who invented the director’s job.” She was awarded the French Legion of Honor and the Director’s Guild of America Lifetime Achievement Award. At the ceremony, director Martin Scorsese said: “It is the hope and intention of the DGA that by presenting this posthumous special directorial award for lifetime achievement, the Guild can both raise awareness of an exceptional director and bring greater recognition to the role of women in film history.”

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Written by Cynthia Scott

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