Women lead in the early years of film and animation

Smoke swirls. A dancer leaps in lamplight. A deer’s shadow ripples on the water. In Berlin in 1923 a young filmmaker and director, Charlotte “Lotte” Reiniger, brought together the Chinese art of shadow puppetry and the Arab tales of The Thousand and One Nights.

She had already made a name for herself with short film, and with the encouragement of a producer, studio space in an outbuilding and her husband as camera man she set out to do something wholly new.

In 1926, she finished The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the first full-length animated film — ahead of Walt Disney and Snow White by 11 years. Jean Renoir praised Reiniger’s film as a masterpiece and showed it in Paris.

Prince Achmed journeys to the Berkshires (in 2014) to the Berkshire Museum with Ben Model, the silent film accompanist from the MOMA in New York City, to play the live score. Nannina Gilder, film curator for the Little Cinema at the Berkshire Museum, has invited him in, and she will speak about Reiniger’s work to launch a new series, “Behind the Camera: Women in film.”

It took Reiniger and her team three years to make “Prince Achmed.”

“She did it with stop-motion and hinge silhouettes,” Gilder said. “It’s not filmed in real time. She set up each frame.”

Reiniger created more than 100,000 frames with cut-paper figures and scenes, and she adjusted each one so precisely that her figures move as smoothly as light on water. She lifted her camera high above a surface as large as two tables together and set scenes between layers of glass, Gilder said. She found ways to create special effects with sand and soap.

The German pioneer of silhouette animation film Lotte Reiniger creates cut paper images in the London Abbey Arts Center garden, in a photo made publicly available by the copyright holder, Christel Strobel, agent for Primrose Film Prod.
Primrose Film Productions

The German pioneer of silhouette animation film Lotte Reiniger creates cut paper images in the London Abbey Arts Center garden, in a photo made publicly available by the copyright holder, Christel Strobel, agent for Primrose Film Prod.

She was not alone. In the early 1900s, the medium and world of film was new. It had no set rules, and it had less money at stake, Gilder said. Many of the earliest innovators, the strongest pioneers and the most recognized artists were women.

In 1896, Alice Guy-Blaché made the first film ever to tell a story, Gilder said. She went on to direct more than 1,000 films in her long career, and in 1910 she and her husband formed the Solax studio in New York and New Jersey, where she directed.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Frances Marion became America’s highest paid screenwriter and the first person to win two Academy Awards for screenwriting. She worked with silent film star and producer Mary Pickford, who co-founded the United Artists film studio with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith.

In 1916, producer, screenwriter and director Lois Weber was the highest paid film director in the U.S., and probably in the world, Gilder said.

Weber pioneered split-screen and became one of the first directors to experiment with sound. She was the first American film-maker to use film to “put across her own ideas and philosophies,” writes film historian Anthony Slide.

She was respected, Gilder said. The notoriously penny-pinching producer at the studio where she directed said he would give her whatever budget she asked for. And in 1917 Weber became the first female director to own her own studio.

In the early days of cinema, women made huge innovations. And they have been forgotten.

“People think women getting involved is new,” Gilder said.

Not long ago, someone recommended to her a book about “the first woman film producer,” and she asked whether it was about Alice Guy Blaché on the East Coast or Lois Weber on the West Coast in the 1910s. The book turned out to be set in the 1970s.

“A lot of people are aware of women in film now and assume that today we must have the largest number of women in film ever,” she said. “We like to say ‘look how far we’ve come’ … but the numbers today do not look good.”

Compared with film 100 years ago, Gilder finds the industry today lagging behind substantially. Between 1911 and 1938, half of all films had a female screenwriter, she said — today, only 10 to 15 percent.
“Women were extremely active in the early 1900s, before World War II,” she said.

At the height of the suffrage movement, on all levels women were getting into more varied professions, she said. During the war, women came into the workforce as men were drafted into the military.

“Then it became their duty to leave jobs when the men came home,” Gilder said. “I think this affected the whole movement. Through World War II, it had been patriotic for women to be in the workforce. After the war, it was much harder.”

She also finds film roles for women are often stronger in the early 1900s.
“Female characters [then] say more and do more,” she said. “Actresses in the early days had more power. They were a draw, and they were paid more.”

Alfred Hitchcock’s films gave her an example. In his 1954 film, “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” Doris Day plays the lead as a singer. But this is a remake: In Hitchcock’s own 1934 version of the same film, Edna Best in the same role is a sharpshooter — and she leads the action.

This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle in 2014, in my time as editor of Berkshires Week and Shires of Vermont. My thanks to Vice President of News Kevin Moran.

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