Movie Women

Movie Women: A History 

Alice Guy-Blaché, 1 July 1873 – 24 March 1968, was one of the first filmmakers to make a narrative fiction film. She was the first woman to direct a film and from 1896 to 1906 the only female filmmaker in the world. She experimented with sync-sound, colour-tinting and special effects.

Sarah Bernhardt, October 22, 1844 – March 26, 1923, was a leading French stage actress who starred in some of the most popular French plays of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rostand called her “the queen of the pose and the princess of the gesture”. She was one of the first actresses to make sound recordings and to act in motion pictures, helping to legitimise the new medium.

Florence Turner, January 6, 1885 – August 28, 1946, made her movie debut in 1907 in How to Cure a Cold. She made the movie for the Vitagraph Studios and, in an era when actors were not identified by name, became known as ‘The Vitagraph Girl’. By 1910, Florence’s name was known to the general public, and by 1915 she’d started her own production company, Turner Films.

Florence Lawrence, born January 2, 1886, was Hollywood’s first movie star. In the early days of filmmaking actors were not named, for fear that they would demand higher salaries. However, Florence received a credit for her acting, and her popularity soared. She made close to 300 films during her career. 

Gene Gauntier, August 26, 1885 – December 18, 1966, was a writer, actress, producer, director and stuntwoman. She developed the format for the serial, and wrote many of the daredevil scenes she later appeared in. She also wrote a screenplay adaptation for Ben Hur in two days.

Mary Pickford was the first actor, male or female, to become a millionaire. She starred in fifty-two features and appeared in numerous shorts. Typecast as an ingénue, she struggled later in her career, with ‘grown-up’ roles and with the talkies – she only made four talkies. Her contribution in co-founding United Artists and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was as important as her movie roles.

During the silent movie era, women virtually controlled the industry. For example, women screenwriters outnumbered men ten to one. A leading light was Lois Weber, pictured. Lois was the first woman to write, direct, produce and star in a movie. 

One of Lois Weber’s most notable films, Hypocrites, 1915, featured the first full-frontal female nude scene. The British Board of Film Censors passed the film. However, the movie caused riots in New York, was banned in Ohio, while the mayor of Boston demanded that the film’s negatives should be painted over to clothe the naked woman.

Norma Talmadge, May 2, 1894 – December 24, 1957, was a leading actress of the silent era. She specialised in melodrama, but failed to make the transition into talkies, retiring after just two films.

In 1916, Norma married millionaire film producer Joseph M. Schenck (divorced 1934) and the couple created their own production company. 

As Norma considered retirement, her sister Constance, also an actress, sent her a telegram with this advice: “Quit pressing your luck, baby. The critics can’t knock those trust funds Mama set up for us.”

Francelia Billington, February 1, 1895 – November 24, 1934, was an actress and crank turner (camera operator). Many women of the early silent era multitasked as actresses, producers, directors and camera operators. She said, “I suppose that it is still a novelty to see a girl more interested in a mechanical problem than in make-up.”

Francelia died of tuberculosis, which claimed many people in the 1910 – 1950 movie community.

Widely regarded as the finest actress of her time, Lillian Gish appeared in cinema’s first close-up. She said, “I was facing a blizzard in Way Down East (1920). The wind on the peninsula was terrible. The snow as it came against my face melted, and on my eyelashes – icicles! Griffith (director, D.W. Griffith) yelled at the cameraman, “Billy, Billy, get that face!”

The first female scriptwriter employed by a film company, the Triangle Film Corporation, Anita Loos, April 26, 1888 – August 18, 1981, wrote the subtitles for D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic Intolerance and introduced wisecracking to movie intertitles. International fame arrived in 1925 through her novel, Broadway play and movie, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

1920s – 1960s