Wednesday, May 21, 2014
The Women Film Pioneers Project by Paul F. Etcheverry
"Actors - BE NATURAL!" Alice Guy Blaché
"Later, I expect to do five reel comedy dramas, that is, if we kind find the right kind of stories, but believe me, it is some job." Fay Tincher
"Alice Guy Blaché's His Double featured the first known version of the mirror routine to be recorded on film." Anthony Balducci
Today's post begins with a fact unbeknownst to many: the movie biz, in the very early days, was, to a significant degree, BUILT BY WOMEN. Although the formidable actress-mogul Mary Pickford was acknowledged (then and now) as a powerhouse on many levels, this fact about the pre-World War I history of movies tends to be forgotten. Dr. Jane Gaines, Professor Of Film at Columbia University and students from both Columbia University Libraries/Information Services' School Of The Arts and Barnard College have created the The Women Film Pioneers Project website to shine the klieg lights on this largely untold story.
As the website notes, the project spotlights "150 career profiles of female silent-era producers, directors, co-directors, theatre managers and company owners, scenario writers, scenario editors, studio accountants, title writers, editors, costume designers, exhibitors, animal trainers, and camera operators."
After 1920 and the rise of the studio system, at least until Ida Lupino started making hard-hitting noir thrillers in 1949, female directors and cinematographers proved few and far between in American films. There were screenwriters (Frances Marion, Anita Loos), but few women who helmed features besides Dorothy Arzner.
It was a different story in the early days of cinema.
When it comes to filmmaking, it was Solax Studios founder Alice Guy Blaché (1873-1968) who got there first. Along with Arzner and the prolific Universal Pictures director Lois Weber, Blaché, the cinema's first mogul, is arguably the best known of the female producer-directors who blazed trails in the beginning.
Blaché was hands-on with the new motion picture camera technology in Paris and making short films for Gaumont as early as 1896-1897.
She beat everyone else, including Edwin S. Porter, D.W. Griffith and Allan Dwan, to the punch, experimented with color technology, made sound films and also was a mentor to Lois Weber. By the time the first great screen comedians, Max Linder and Marcel Perez, had become movie headliners in 1906-1907, Alice Guy Blaché had made hundreds of films.
Comedy buffs will note that Alice Guy Blaché is tremendously important to the history of screen humor as both the first comedy filmmaker and the first to film the famous "mirror gag". It's in her 1912 Solax film His Double, which can be seen here, on historian Anthony Balducci's website.
The inventive Ms. Blaché also originated this classic comedy bit for her 1906 film The Drunken Mattress, before the rapid rise to stardom of Max Linder and Marcel Perez, before Ben Turpin in Mr. Flip, before Mack Sennett, before ANYONE.
Although long overdue recognition, respect and acclaim may not have come in her long lifetime, the comprehensive Alice Guy Blaché, Film Pioneer exhibition did hold forth (and wow 'em) at the Whitney Museum Of American Art in November 2009 - January 2010. There is also the forthcoming documentary about her career by Pamela Green and Jarik van Sluijs (note: the Kickstarter fundraiser noted in the following trailer was successful).
There were also exceptionally creative women who specialized in the field of comedy. Among the all-time favorites at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog remains the multi-talented Mabel Normand.
The queen of the lot at Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios, before that a Gibson Girl, key player at Biograph and later a Goldwyn feature film star, "Madcap Mabel" could write, act and direct with imagination and distinction.
Mabel proved herself resourceful both in front of and behind the camera in numerous classic comedy short subjects, and at one point directed then fresh-off-the-boat former Fred Karno Troupe star and new Keystone addition Charlie Chaplin.
She also had prominent roles in two of the first American comedy feature films, Tillie's Punctured Romance (starring Marie Dressler, Charlie Chaplin and most of the Keystone roster) and the enormously popular hit Mickey (1918).
The latter, a starring vehicle for Mabel, pre-dated Chaplin's The Kid in theatrical release by two years and made a mint for Mack Sennett. Its unprecedented box office success prompted Samuel Goldwyn Productions to sign her to a feature film contract.
So, in the "good news - bad news" department, Mabel continued as a top box office feature film star, but did not work behind the camera again after the freewheeling days of Keystone.
Then, as now, one showbiz pattern doesn't change. When talented comedians and comediennes transition from short films to features and become "movie stars" - then as now - the spark and originality that made them great in the first place often gets substantially watered down in the "toning down for mass audience consumption" process.
It happened to Mabel at Goldwyn, as it would for her friend Roscoe Arbuckle at Paramount (and, for that matter, to John Candy and other more recent comedy kings and queens when cast in feature films).
Filmmaker Anthony Mercaldi and historian Marilyn Slater, author of the Looking For Mabel website (and source of these wonderful stills), have been working on a documentary about her life.
Hopefully, this will go some distance towards counteracting the avalanche of misinformation and gossip about Miss Normand over the decades.
All efforts to set the historical record straight regarding Mabel - well, as much as possible for a subject who passed away 84 years ago - are most welcome. After all, by the time the likes of Vsevolod "V.I." Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein were enthusiastically investigating the history of filmmaking, Mabel's time in movies was coming to an end.
Also prominent among the director-writer-comediennes was the versatile and ever-inventive Fay Tincher (1884-1983), subject of the posting right here on April 17.
Fay's funny and outrageous performances as Ethel The Stenographer in The Bill The Office Boy series for Komic made her a major movie star in 1914.
She went on to co-star in a series of 5-reel dramas and comedies with DeWolf Hopper at Fine Arts Film Company, distributed by Triangle.
After leaving Fine Arts, she formed The Fay Tincher Comedy Company to produce and star in comedies for World Film Corporation.
Unfortunately, none of the three films (Main 1-2-3, Some Job and Oh, Susie, Behave) survive. All that exists from the 1918 productions are stills.
Christie Comedies signed Fay to headline "2-reel specials" in 1919. In an alternate "wishful thinking" universe, one would have liked to see Fay write, direct and produce her own films for Christie. It didn't happen.
As it turned out, very likely as a response to the Mack Sennett Studio's popular western comedies starring Polly Moran as Sheriff Nell, the Christie studio cast Fay in a series of westerns as a take-no-prisoners pistol packin' mama.
While such starring vehicles as Rowdy Ann and Wild & Western, without a doubt, remain extremely funny and her originality and screen presence undeniable, these action comedies, no doubt, were not exactly what Fay had in mind when she signed with Christie in the first place.
Of course, latter-day silent movie buffs wish that Al Christie had said "Fay, here's your production unit, go ahead, write and direct the 5-reel features you want, pick your crew, just bring 'em in on time and on budget. Have fun." Based on Fay's incendiary and creative performances onscreen, one imagines she would have brought ingenuity, verve, independence and out-of-the-box thinking - yes, the very traits still not exactly prized by Hollywood - to such an assignment.
Other comediennes were known to have, as did many silent era headliners, produced, worked on scenarios and at least co-directed their own series. Yet another was the brilliant comedienne and character actress Gale Henry, who organized her own production company after starring in 1-reelers for the ridiculously prolific Universal Joker series in 1914-1917.
Much of the career of Gale Henry - and that's hundreds of comedy shorts made by Universal, Nestor, L-Ko and Bull's Eye/ Reelcraft during the WW1 era - has been lost due to vault fires and the Nitrate Won't Wait phenomenon. That includes an overwhelming majority of the short subjects she headlined (including the Lady Baffles & Detective Duck series), as well as hilarious character roles in a good many feature films.
Fortunately, her scene-stealing turn with Raymond Griffith in Open All Night, and howlingly funny supporting parts in the films of director/writer/comic Charley Chase survive - and demonstrate that Gale was one of the most talented comediennes to ever appear in films.
After she left the silver screen with a bang with a memorable appearance in the 1933 Charley Chase short Luncheon At Twelve, Gale, with her husband, Henry East, became prominent in a very successful second career supplying studios with top-notch canine talent - and that meant only the best barkers, including the immortal Asta from Metro Goldwyn Mayer's Thin Man movies!
The difficulties inherent in research on pre-1920 cinema are many and involve the following questions. How does one corroborate information, debunk misinformation and double-check stories when every one of the subjects, their friends and contemporaries have been deceased for many decades? And how does one confirm historical accuracy, given faulty memories and penchants for throwing former colleagues under the bus?
is a dilemma all historians must wrestle with - hopefully with the success of "Bull" Montana, Gorgeous George, Ravishing Ronald, Randy "Macho Man" Savage or Leila Ali. Noting the extent to which writers adore hyperbole, about the best one can do is, should a statement or note be based on conjecture - and, in all honesty, has never been adequately corroborated or confirmed - then admit it up front and not make any pretense that the statement is factual!
In the case of Mabel Normand, there have been so many totally uncorroborated allegations put forward as fact, both during her lifetime and well after her untimely death, than one simply doesn't know where to begin.
In the cases of comediennes Fay Tincher and Alice Howell, they dropped so thoroughly and completely out of sight after leaving show business that interviews from their days in movies are all we have to go on.
Many of the old Hollywood secrets died with these stars and the whole truth will never be known.
As more formerly lost films are discovered, however, there will be more added to the story.
So, today, we respectfully tip the Marlene Dietrich top hat to these great artists of silent movies - and all the researchers and research subjects in the The Women Film Pioneers Project.
The truth is there in the finished films.