Nannina Gilder reveals women filmmakers and directors before 1960

A young woman sits in a hospital bed, holding her infant son, and she is crying. To take care of him she will have to go back to her job at the mill, but then who would stay with him on her shifts? She has a few days left to decide whether to give him up for adoption. And she is trying to imagine what his life will be if they stay together. 

I know what they call children like that, she tells the woman who runs the home where she is staying for these few weeks. He must never hear that word.

In 1949 in Los Angeles, at the height of U.S. censorship, Ida Lupino succeeded in making a film about unwed mothers.

Not Wanted shows Sally, the young woman in the lead, with honest empathy. In the decades before Roe vs. Wade, more than 100,000 young women every year wound up in maternal homes like hers.

Lupino had been a Hollywood star before she and her husband formed an independent film company. She would go on to direct films about subjects and perspectives Hollywood rarely showed: people living with polio in No Fear, a woman surviving rape in Outrage.

She was bold, says Nannina Gilder, a Berkshire screenwriter and historian with an interest in the history of women in film. And she was not alone. Women were making films in the U.S. and around the world in the early days of film-making, as they are today.

Gilder introduced Lupino and her work to an absorbed audience at Ventfort Hall in the first of a series of talks on women directors and filmmakers before 1960, on Thursday evenings from January 23 to February 13.

Women have directed and invented in film since its beginnings in the 1890s, Gilder said.  They have made powerful work through 30 years of silent films, into sound in the 1920s and through two World Wars.

But those early leaders and visionaries are often forgotten, she said. They are left out of histories, and people too often talk of a woman in film as “the only one”— which makes women filmmakers sound rare and solitary, and discourages people from looking for them.

“I’m amazed at the breadth of how many women were directing film then,” Gilder said.

They were known and immensely successful in their day, and their films were successful, critically and commercially.

In 1916, Universal Studios had six women directors on their payroll, she said, and they were known and important. The leader of that group, Lois Weber, was the highest paid director in Hollywood and considered in her day at least the equal of DW Griffiths and Cecil B. DeMille, among the top U.S. directors in the 1910s.

Sally Forrest stars as Sally Kelton in Ida Lupino's 1949 film Not Wanted.
Kino Lorber

Sally Forrest stars as Sally Kelton in Ida Lupino's 1949 film Not Wanted. Courtesy press photo from Kino Lorber

The birth of film

Women were often pioneers, Gilder says. She looks back as she shares a cup of tea in Lenox before her opening talk. In fact, she says, the first film director, and the first film-maker to tell a fictional story on camera, was a woman. 

In the earliest days of film, a wanderer in Paris might have seen Alice Guy standing on a platform with a tripod, guiding her actors and crew. 

Guy was a 22-year-old secretary at the Gautmont camera company in Paris, Gilder said, when she saw the Lumière brothers demonstrate their own newly invented motion picture camera. They had taken a short documentary-style clip of factory workers leaving a mill. They thought the technology would be a brief curiosity. 

Guy thought it could be a tool for telling stories. She convinced her bosses to let her make short films to show customers.

“She and Georges Melies were the first two who developed film for storytelling,” Gilder said.

From those early scenes, Alice Guy founded the Gautmont studio and ran it from 1896 to 1906. She made sound films with synchronized phonograph records 25 years before sound came to Hollywood.

“She made music videos,” Gilder said.

She also liked to film outdoors, Gilder said, and she developed ways of blending scenes of Paris with closeup shots of the actors’ faces she filmed indoors in her studio, establishing emotions. In one comic short film, a pregnant woman walks through a park with a mischievous gleam, savoring a lollipop, a glass of absinthe, a pickled herring … while her beleaguered husband races after her, pushing their toddler in a pram.

“Pay attention to gender roles (when you see her work),” Gilder said, smiling. “She likes to play with the dynamics between men and women.”

In 1909, Guy moved to the U.S. with her husband and became one of the first women in film to open her own studio, Solax.

Yet a history of the Gautmont studio — written while she was still alive — credited her films to a younger film-maker, a man she had taught, Gilder said. And until recently Guy’s films have been hard to find in the U.S.

Many early films have been lost, Gilder said, and those preserved may only exist in a film canister decades old. It takes time and resources to restore them and transfer them to a form people can watch now at home.

But she has seen a reviving interest recently, enough to encourage independent film distributors to restore some of these classics. In fall 2018 the New York company Kino Lorber releases a boxed set of silent films directed by women, and she has seen others.

“I’ve been thinking about this seminar for a year,” Gilder said. “More films have been made available recently.” 

They have also released several of Ida Lupino’s films in beautiful quality. 

“It changes the experience to have a beautiful, crisp presentation,” Gilder said.

Sally Forrest and Leo Penn appear in Ida Lupino's 1949 film Not Wanted.
Kino Lorber

Sally Forrest and Leo Penn as Steve, the piano player, meet in Ida Lupino's 1949 film Not Wanted. Courtesy press photo from Kino Lorber

In the director’s chair

Bright sun falls across Sally’s face as she sits with a stark pattern of light and shade on the wall behind her, looking back on a hard year. Lupino is known for her eye for light and shadow in the films she directs, and for innovation and compassion.

In Not Wanted, Sally is 19. She is lithe and exuberant, inexperienced and playful. She is a young woman working in a café in southern California who had to leave school to help her parents. Imagine her at home in a din of constant nagging, getting ready for a night with friends, sliding the wide neckline of her dress down off her shoulder. At work she is listening to the pianist practicing next door. Her chestnut hair is bound back and falls in a soft fringe on her forehead.

Lupino was filming in city streets, boarding houses and parks, and not in a Hollywood backlot. Her down-to-earth approach was rare, Gilder said. She cast actors she had found and recognized, not known stars, though she knew the scene. She had been in film since she was 14, in Britain and then in the U.S., and by 1941 she had top billing in High Sierras with Humphrey Bogart.

“She played tough dames,” Gilder said, “and she was one. In Hollywood then, you didn’t get to choose the films you performed in. The studio chose for you, and they could suspend you if you refused. She was a contract star for Warner Bros., and she was suspended often. 

“And when she wasn’t working, she would watch the directors, the cameramen, editors, lighting people … and ask questions.”

In 1949, she married a producer at Columbia, and they started an independent film studio together. When the director they had hired had health trouble as shooting was about to begin on their first film, she stepped in.

As Gilder describes her, she launched in joyfully, telling the stories she wanted to tell. She cared about real people. She took on difficult subjects, and she researched them thoroughly. 

She visited maternal homes while she was writing Not Wanted (collaborating with Paul Jericho), and she saw young mothers from many backgrounds living together, young white women like Sally from the Los Angeles, young black women, Latina women and Chinese women. She wanted to show them in her film, Gilder said, and though her producers refused, she does show a black baby among the newborns at the home and young Asian woman among the young mothers Sally gets to know. 

She wanted to make a film in the Mexican community later on, Gilder said, but she could never get funding.

It took finesse, she said, for Lupino to get Not Wanted onto the screen at all.

“In 1949 and 1950, she’s dealing with the censors. The Hays Code is in effect, and she’s battling them to get stories on screen.”

The Hays code, enforced most strictly from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s, imposed what it considered moral limits on film plots and characters, among them that sex outside marriage was condemned, any act considered criminal had to be punished, and any character considered criminal could not be sympathetic.

Lupino could not even use the word pregnancy in the script, Gilder said. But she told a human story from a woman’s perspective. And Gilder is amazed at Lupino’s insight in putting her audience into the skin of a woman in labor.

“She’s known for her point of view shots,” Gilder says.

When Sally has her baby, the camera shows her moved from her bed onto a gurney and wheeled into a delivery room, and then the lens turns to look up into the doctors’ hazy faces. Lupino gives us the scene through Sally’s eyes.

Sally Forrest stars as Sally Kelton in Ida Lupino's 1949 film Not Wanted.
Kino Lorber

Sally Forrest stars as Sally Kelton in Ida Lupino's 1949 film Not Wanted. Courtesy press photo from Kino Lorber

Stories from a women’s point of view

When women have a say, they can bring relationships to film not often seen. In Not Wanted, Lupino shows us a mother and child. 

And a director like her mentor, Dorothy Arzner, can bring out complicated friendships between women.

Arzner will step into the spotlight in Gilder’s second talk. She worked in film from 1919 to 1943 and as a director for 15 years, Gilder said. She worked with major Hollywood studios and on independent films, and she made the transition from silent film into sound.

She was at Paramount in the early days of the ‘talkies’, as actors were trying to adjust to fixed microphones on sets. The actors had to stay still to record clearly, Gilder said, and in Arzner’s first sound film her leading woman, Clara Bow, felt stilted. Arzner hung a mike from a fishing pole and arranged it to follow Bow around the set, so she could move freely.

She brings a similar freedom and nuance to relationships, Gilder said.

“I’ve always loved old films,” she said, “and when I see films by women of that era, I’ll think, this is what I’ve been missing. Women screenwriters are important too, but a woman at the helm does change the way a movie looks — and the way it looks at the women in it.”

On January, she talks about a powerful team in Arzner’s Dance Girl Dance — Lucille Ball and Maureen O’Hara are dancers trying to make a living. Ball, practical and comic, sees burlesque as a way to earn money and success. And O’Hara wants the freedom to dance as an artist.

“Maureen O’Hara is a ballet dancer working as a show girl,” Gilder said. “… They are two different women, both driven, and they are friends. There’s complexity to the friendship — there’s rivalry. They help each other and undercut each other.” 

“… Maureen O’Hara’s character is firm. She knows what she wants, and she is not afraid to ask or demand it.”

Arzner herself could be honest, with rare courage, about who she was and who she loved.

“Arzner was boldly out in the 1930s and 1940s,” Gilder said.

She had a relationship for 40 years with dancer and choreographer Marion Morgan.

Filmmakers in partnership and community

Like Lupino, she had to express some of her beliefs and passions obliquely in her work. 

Jacqueline Audry, the focus of Gilder’s February 13 talk, would express ideas of sexuality and gender that a U.S. filmmaker could hardly touch.

Working in France after World War II, Audry also faced censorship, Gilder said, but under different standards. Censorship in the U.S. would have clamped down on any suggestion of love between men or women.

Audry pushed at that boundary. 

“A film like Olivia could have definite Sapphic overtones,” Gilder says. “She was not hiding the queer elements in it, or at least she was hiding them in plain sight. The two women leading the school are clearly shown as a longstanding couple with a fraught relationship. She couldn’t have shown it in Hollywood.”

She also became known for film adaptations of novels like Colette’s novels Gigi, Minne and Mitsou. Comic or sad, they center on women looking for independence, freedom of mind and companionship.

They are qualities Gilder finds in filmmakers and directors and wants to recognize, companionship included.

Women who worked in film were friends, she said. They would mentor and support each other. Alice Guy knew Lois Weber. Dorothy Arzner encouraged Ida Lupino. helped launch Katherine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell.

“This long history is important,” Gilder said. 

If a young woman wants to become a director, it’s easier if she feels the dream is within reach and someone is listening.

Gilder will talk about Lotte Reiniger, a pioneer in animation, on February 6, and Cannes awardwinner Wendy Toye and French filmmaker Jacqueline Audry on February 13. She may expand the series in the spring, she says, to consider the first surrealist filmmaker, or the first movie of the French New Wave.

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