13 Barrier-Breaking Women of Early Cinema and Old Hollywood

ida“I do not hesitate to say that the average intelligent woman, gifted with the same sense of dramatic values as the average intelligent man, will make a better picture than he, for the reason that the woman, in addition, will have an eye for detail,” director Lois Weber remarked in 1921.

Such a matter-of-factly feminist statement from almost a century ago may sound startlingly modern, almost anachronistic. However, from the dawn of cinema, women have boldly taken on crucial roles in the film industry.

In fact, Hollywood is, in many ways, a more male-dominated environment today than it was 90 or so years ago. Scary, huh?

In order to perpetuate a culture where more women make movies now, we need to recognize the women who made movies in the medium’s formative years. Let’s take our editing shears and snip the “boys only” myth right out. It belongs on the cutting room floor.

Now, I’ve written about some of these women in previous posts, and I hope to write about more of them in the future. For now, though, I content myself with enumerating a few of the pioneers who inspire me to speak up in the hope of encouraging other women to do likewise.

Please note that I’m presenting only a very limited selection of the hundreds of brilliant women who’ve enriched the wonders of classical cinema. If you’re interested in the history of women in the film industry, I highly recommend Columbia’s Women Film Pioneers Project or Ally Acker’s book Reel Women (both of which I gratefully acknowledge as sources).

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Alice Guy (1873 – 1968) actress, director, writer, and producer

We’re talking about the world’s first woman filmmaker here, folks. She ran production at Gaumont in France, then moved to the United States and started her own studio—years before women could vote in either country! Like Méliès and the Lumière brothers, she directed hundreds of movies and shaped what the cinema would become in the crucial years between 1896 and 1916… basically from the inception of the medium.

Her best-known legacy is probably her insistence on an acting style suited specifically to cinema. However, her films abound with innovation, from integrating the special effects we associate with “trick films” into narrative to using close shots for maximum emotional impact.

Where to start with her work: Le piano irresistible (1907) in which the sound of jamming music motivates all sorts of people to start dancing. Madame a des envies (1907), about a pregnant woman on a rampage, is also a hoot. For a more nuanced, melancholic sense of Guy’s work, I’d recommend Falling Leaves (1912) or The Ocean Waif (1916).

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Lois Weber (1879 – 1939) – actress, director, writer, and producer

Not only was Weber a filmmaker of great skill, acclaim, and box office power, but she was also a true auteur, as Anthony Slide has noted. Many of her often allegorical films tackle tough social issues that continue to trouble us today, including class tensions, religious hypocrisy, and the plight of women in poverty.

Where to start with her work: Suspense (1913), a harrowing, stylish thriller that incorporates split screens, a keyhole matte, and disorienting close-ups, serves as a concise introduction to Weber’s substantial gifts. Then move on to one of her thought-provoking dramas, like Hypocrites (1915).

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June Mathis (1887 – 1927) – writer

After touring in vaudeville during her youth, Mathis shifted to screenwriting at Metro. Many of the most acclaimed actors of the day were soon clamoring for scripts by Mathis, and the studio rewarded her talent by promoting her to head of the scenario department.

With a shrewd sense of popular appeal, Mathis sculpted poignant, dramatically intense movies with plenty of spectacle and sex to win over the masses. Mathis’s discernment made her one of the most sought-after and well-paid professionals in the industry.

She also used her power as a studio executive to support directors’ right to actualize their personal visions. If Mathis had had her way, Von Stroheim’s masterful Greed (1924) would most likely have survived in a more complete form, rather than the largely mutilated version that remains.

Where to start with her work: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), since Mathis not only distilled Ibañez’s complex war novel into a crowd-pleasing romantic epic, but also insisted on casting an obscure young actor in the lead role. His name was Rudolph Valentino.

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Frances Marion (1888 – 1973) – actress, writer, director, producer

Here’s a not-so-fun fact: only about 11% of movies made these days are written by women, whereas over half of movies made before 1925 had female writers.

The most prominent of old Hollywood’s lady screenwriters, Frances Marion began by working for Lois Weber, scripted a number of Mary Pickford’s most popular vehicles, and joined the retinue of top MGM writers. Marion excelled in nearly all genres, from gritty prison dramas like The Big House (1930) to boisterous comedies like Min and Bill (1930) to passionate literary adaptations like Camille (1936).

Where to start with her work: The Champ (1931), the much imitated, never equalled macho tearjerker that won Marion an Oscar.

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Anita Loos (1888 – 1981) – writer and producer

Loos started her film career in 1912 at the tender age of 24, writing original stories for D.W. Griffith. When sitting through Griffith’s colossal Intolerance (1916), you can enjoy the varied linguistic textures of the intertitles, written by Loos.

Most famous for her novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Loos also made a name for herself in the talkies by writing witty screenplays and original stories, frequently centering on conflicted, brassy heroines trying to overcome their shady pasts.

Where to start with her work: The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912). Yes, that’s right, Loos wrote the scenario for what some consider to be first ever gangster film.

Although multiple writers worked on the wild Jean Harlow comedy Red-Headed Woman (1932), much of its ditzy-genius dialogue sounds in tune with Loos’s nothing-sacred sense of humor—and it comes with my hearty endorsement!

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Mary Pickford (1892 – 1979) – actress, writer, and producer

Don’t let the ringlets fool you. A founder of United Artists and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Pickford was a formidable self-taught businesswoman and a damn sharp producer.

Arguably the most popular and influential star in the history of American film, she rose from obscurity to give joy to millions and played an integral role in creating Hollywood as we know it.

Where to start with her work: For a short taste of Pickford at her sassiest, check out the empowering role-reversal fantasy The Dream (1911), a one-reeler she also wrote, in which a nasty husband imagines his wife turning the tables on him. As for her features, I’d recommend starting with Sparrows (1926), a taut Southern Gothic fable that Pickford produced. It’s one of the great treasures of the silent era.

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Lillian Gish (1893 – 1993) – actress and director

Fetishized onscreen as the waifish ideal of 1910s femininity, Gish in real life was anything but frail. She directed only one film, which has sadly been lost, but she was actively involved in almost every aspect of her career, bringing the cameraman Hendrik Sartov to D.W. Griffith’s attention, for instance.

Once she joined MGM’s stable of stars, she enjoyed unprecedented artistic control and lobbied to make meaningful, morally challenging films like The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928). Gish picked her director, Victor Seastrom, and her leading man, Lars Hanson, for both films. She also had to clear the adaption of Hawthorne’s novel with women’s organizations around the country, because the studio feared that her public would object to such a racy story! Without Gish’s efforts, at least two masterpieces of the late silent era wouldn’t exist.

Where to start with her work: Her influential performance in Broken Blossoms (1919) will break your heart. Grab a box of tissues (and a good friend) and weep away. Then dig up a copy of The Wind (1928); without giving away too much about the plot, I’ll just say that The Night of the Hunter isn’t the only movie to feature a gun-toting Gish…

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Mae West (1893 – 1980) – actress and writer

It seems strange to group Mae West with women who made their film debuts decades before she did. Born the same year as Lillian Gish, West created a name for herself in the theater, writing and starring in plays so scandalous that she was brought to trial for indecency.

Although the Hays Office warned studios against hiring West, Paramount ignored the edict. West’s bawdy brand of comedy—and she wrote her own fantastically quotable dialogue—raked in huge box office profits, saving Paramount from bankruptcy. Her ribald, confident persona appealed to Depression-era audiences. Better yet, her frank sexuality and proudly independent attitude appalled the censors.

Where to start with her work: She Done Him Wrong (1932), and remember it’s spoofing melodrama.

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Mabel Normand (1895 – 1930) – actress, director, writer, and producer

Before there was Charlie Chaplin, there was Mabel Normand, exploring the largely uncharted territory of screen comedy. In her own words, “Since all previous laughs had been achieved through the spoken word, and in our early days, through slapstick hokey, I had to cleave a path of laughter through the wilderness of the industry’s ignorance and inexperience, I created my own standard of fun.”

Where to start with her work: You’ll enjoy the spirited hijinks that Normand directed in Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914). I also recommend the cheeky feature-length romp Mickey (1918), which she produced.

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Dorothy Arzner (1897 – 1979) – writer, director, and editor

The only woman director working at a major Hollywood studio in the 1930s, Dorothy Arzner specialized in movies focusing on the struggles of driven, headstrong female protagonists. She directed Clara Bow’s first talkie, The Wild Party (1929), and interesting vehicles for the top female talent of the day, including Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and Maureen O’Hara, among many others.

In a film industry that had come to embrace a factory system mentality, Arzner was a rebel. She’d direct the film her way or not direct it at all. As she said, “My philosophy is that to be a director, you cannot be subject to anyone, even the head of the studio.”

Where to start with her work: Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), an acidly feminist take on the seedy world of burlesque and club dancing. It was also Arzner’s penultimate film.

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Margaret Booth (1898 – 2002) – editor and producer

When we talk about influential women in film, the temptation is to focus on directors, writers, and producers. However, editors literally piece movies together, setting their rhythm and contributing a vital interpretative component of filmmaking.

Starting out as a “cutter” on Griffith films, Margaret Booth moved on to MGM and rose to the position of editor-in-chief, supervising the assembly of hundreds of movies. In fact, Irving Thalberg coined the phrase “film editor” to describe Booth and to eliminate the unskilled connotation of “joiner,” “patcher,” or “cutter.”

Where to start with her work: The Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), which displays her knack for creating tension through dynamic, rapidly-paced passages of editing.

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Virginia Van Upp (1902 – 1970) – writer and producer

One of the few women to hold a leadership position at a major Hollywood studio in the Golden Age, Van Upp was appointed executive producer and second-in-command at Columbia by the notoriously hardboiled mogul Harry Cohn.

Starting out as a screenwriter, she was instrumental in defining the public image of Rita Hayworth. Van Upp supervised two of the most lush and enduring of 1940s films noirs: Gilda (1946) and The Lady From Shanghai (1947).

Where to start with her work: Cover Girl (1944), a vibrant musical with plenty of wisecracking dialogue for undaunted career woman Eve Arden… saying what we imagine Van Upp would say if she were in the movie. One suspects that she wrote herself into her own script!

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Ida Lupino (1918 – 1995) – actress, director, writer, and producer

Groomed as a potential replacement for Bette Davis at Warner Brothers, Lupino projected a wounded, soulful toughness during her prime as an actress, even in the most insipid films. But she longed for more and, after picking up the fine points of direction by observing the likes of Raoul Walsh and William Wellman, she formed an independent production company.

Lupino made low-budget films with surprisingly ambitious subject manner. As Ally Acker wrote, she “chose controversial, socially conscious issues for the themes of her movies: rape, bigamy, polio, unwed motherhood.”

Where to start with her work: The Hitch-Hiker (1953), a nail-biting, ferocious cautionary tale of two dudes in distress held hostage by a serial killer.

Who am I forgetting? Which pioneering woman from film history most inspires you?

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The Reel War: Historic Pictures from WWI’s Celluloid Front

Dismissed as an insipid novelty less than a decade earlier, the film medium flexed its muscles during World War I as it never had before. Movies documented life in the trenches for eager audiences on the home front… while conveniently concealing gory realities. They cheered the hearts of those fighting the battles. They even helped to turned the tide by persuasively prodding America into the fray.

The war also forever altered the landscape of film production and distribution, decimating European national cinemas and establishing Hollywood as the industry’s juggernaut. Screenwriter Anita Loos observed, Hollywood “was an outcome of an economic situation created by war.” If the conflict shaped Hollywood, Hollywood shaped the war, as well. Propaganda pictures moulded public opinion with “real-life footage” actually shot on California sound stages. Movie stars, still a relatively new phenomenon, drew massive crowds and raised even more massive amounts of money for the war effort, demonstrating the unprecedented power of celluloid fame.

So, without further ado, I invite you to ponder these images, gleaned from a variety of sources, that convey the multi-faceted significance of film and filmdom during WWI.

mary_doug_and_charlie_againDouglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin insist that every part of America should make a contribution to the war effort by buying Liberty Bonds. (And, is it just me, or is Charlie giggling over Florida’s phallic shape?)

WAR & CONFLICT BOOKERA:  WORLD WAR I/PATRIOTISM

The irrepressibly likable Douglas Fairbanks engages a sea of spectators while talking up the third Liberty Loan in front of the Sub-Treasury building in New York City. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

As the actor’s son, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. remembered, “When my father tried to join up [for active service] he was personally written to by President Wilson at the time who said ‘For heaven’s sake, we’re not going to let you do that because you can do much, much more for the country by raising these vast sums which nobody else can do.'”

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Mary Pickford stirs up a crowd with her patriotic rhetoric at a Liberty Bond rally in Washington, D.C. on April 6, 1918. A single speech from Little Mary could harvest some big cash—millions in a day. Image from the Library of Congress [Source].

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Doug and Mary pose with relief packages. Another image from the Library of Congress [Source].

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Fairbanks, Pickford, and Chaplin make an appearance in Philadelphia, lobbying support and funds for the third Liberty Loan drive.

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Silent film actress Edith Storey knits a sweater for her brother in the Navy, while wearing a Russian Army uniform for her latest film. Wartime fan magazines often shared images of female stars working at their needles—in the hopes that their legions of fans would follow suit and contribute warm woolens for the boys overseas.

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The silent screen’s original vamp, Theda Bara visits a ward of wounded veterans. Though famous for playing carnivorous femmes fatales, the actress revealed her heart of gold by raising money for the war effort and visiting army camps to raise morale. (Image from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)

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This image showing Private Keaton of the Fortieth ‘Sunshine’ Division suggests that even the Great War couldn’t make a dent in Buster’s poker face. Still, the silent clown recalled his frustration with the fact that the U.S. Army clearly didn’t design uniforms with men of his build (a lean 5’5″) in mind; his standard-issue outfit made him “look and feel ridiculous.”

Although Keaton applied himself dutifully to army life, he reported in his memoirs, “It was not always possible to take that war seriously. In the first place, I could not understand why we, the French, and the English were fighting the Germans and the Austrians. Being in vaudeville all my life had made me international-mided. I had met too many kindly German performers—singers and acrobats and musicians—to believe they could be as evil as they were being portrayed in our newspapers. Having known Germans, Japanese jugglers, Chinese magicians, Italian tenors, Swiss yodelers and bell-ringers, Irish, Jewish, and Dutch comedians, British dancers, and whirling dervishes from India, I believed people from everywhere in the world were about the same. Not as individuals, of course, but taken as a group.”

Image from Wikimedia Commons via this article about Keaton’s service in WWI, which I recommend.

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Speaking of comedians… Max Linder, the ground-breaking French comic (right), convalescing from a major injury at an army hospital and holding hands with, I believe, a member of a Senegalese tirailleur unit. The first international film star, Linder projected a dandyish screen image and was known for his ubiquitous silk top hat—he’s all but unrecognizable in this cloth cap and ragtag bundle of clothes. Sadly, Linder’s career would suffer from the decline of the French film industry following the war; he directed and starred in feature-length comedies in the United States, but met with only limited success among American audiences.

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Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Studios, solemnly works under a service flag decorated with a star for each studio employee in the military—and there are 217 of them. German-born Laemmle, aiming to distance himself from a background which made him a possible target for prejudice and even boycotting, green-lit some of the most virulent anti-Hun propaganda films of the era. Years later, however, his studio would produce the acclaimed WWI drama All Quiet on the Western Front, which expresses a poignant anti-war message through its sympathetic German protagonist.

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Pickford in uniform? Did she single-handledly win WWI like she seems to do in the movies? Well, no, but she was the honorary colonel and “godmother” of a regiment, the 143rd Field Artillery, jokingly referred to as “Mary’s Lambs.”

A uniformed Pickford also presided over a group of studio employees known as the Lasky Home Guard who vowed to enlist and serve their country. As Agnes de Mille remembered, she “wore a splendid couturier’s outfit of patriotic grey with a little veil down the back. She looked splendid… and sent them to death very valiantly. The grisly part is some did go to death.”

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Two volunteers with the YMCA use a portable projector to show movies to an audience of soldiers in France.

In the Photoplay article that accompanied this image, Janet Cummings of the overseas YMCA service extolled the importance of movies to American troops: “Film has been the recruiting sergeant, the drillmaster, the morale-strengthener and the faithful comrade-in-arms of this country’s army in cantonment, on board transport, in front line camp, in the zone of the rear and in hospital.”

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American sailors crowd in to enjoy a comedy projected on their battleship’s patch.

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An open-air movie theater in an American army encampment. In this picture, however, no movie is playing. A boxing match is taking place on the stage in front of the screen instead.

Interestingly enough, the price of admission to screenings “over there” cost five or ten cents for an enlisted man. Many soldiers couldn’t spare a nickel, so Americans on the home front helped them out by buying and donating movie vouchers. At the time, railroads sold mileage booklets that would enable a traveler to ride for a certain distance. Hence, the film vouchers were affectionately called “smilage” booklets—letting the troops smile and forget their cares for an hour or so.

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Second-Lieutenant A.H.C. Sintzenich of the U.S. Signal Corps prepares to record some footage with his Debrie camera from a light railway track in Sussex, England…

debrie1 …and now Sintzenich braces himsele to take off and capture some aerial shots.

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D.W. Griffith (wearing a bow-tie) visits an active battlefield sector in France—just 50 yards away from the German lines—while developing his wartime drama Hearts of the World. Invited to Europe by the British government, Griffith was the only film director allowed to tour the trenches. (Previous three images from the National Archives and Records Administration.)

Yet, Griffith witnessing war firsthand—after faking it so often on film—described the experience as an anticlimax:

“It was exactly as I had imagined wars in many particulars. I saw, for instance, many troop trains moving away to the front. I saw wives parting from husbands they were never to see again. I saw wounded men returning to their families. I saw women coming away from the government offices, stunned with grief, a little paper in their hands to tell that the worst had happened.

“All these things were so exactly as we had been putting them on in the pictures for years and years that I found myself sometimes absently wondering who was staging the scene.”

~          ~          ~

Please note that most images with no specified source were cropped and edited (by me) from digitized issues of Photoplay magazine, for which I gratefully acknowledge the Media History Digital Library.

Lost and Found: Reflections on an Evening with Mary Pickford

cameraLast night, I was part of the first audience to see a long-lost film for over 80 years.

I’m still trying to wrap my brain around that.

This story starts with a condemned barn in New Hampshire, marked for demolition. In 2006, contractor Peter Massie did a routine sweep of the site. Let’s just say it’s a good thing he did, because, to his surprise, Massie discovered a 1920s Monarch projector and seven reels of film.

How those films ended up in the barn remains a slight mystery, although they were probably shown as part of a boy’s summer camp once located on the land there. Massie contacted Dr. Larry Benaquist of Keene State College, who sent the fragile nitrate film—the strips stuck together and the sprocket holes shredded—to Colorlab Corp. for the challenging restoration. Out of the cache, the lab identified four films presumed lost, including the 1911 Mary Pickford vehicle “Their First Misunderstanding.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint the last time when this film was shown; it might have been reissued a few years after its initial release. It might have been seen sometime in the 1920s, but it had almost definitely not been projected since the dawn of the talkies.

Until last night, when “Their First Misunderstanding” saw the light after so many years of darkness.

At Keene State College, this short film had its re-premiere, projected on a big screen from a digitized copy. Professor Benaquist and Christel Schmidt, a Pickford scholar and editor of Queen of the Movies, introduced the program. In addition to the rediscovered film, the screening included another Pickford one-reeler, “The Dream” (1911), and perhaps her greatest film performance in Sparrows (1926), all with live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis.

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(Poster design by Caitlen Brown.)

“Their First Misunderstanding,” a concise one-reel marital dramedy, might not seem like anything special out of context. However, Schmidt explained the significance of the rediscovered film. The short movie represents a crucial piece of cinema history: it’s the first film that gave Mary Pickford billing under her real name, as well as her first film with the Independent Moving Pictures Company, or IMP.

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(Frame from the collections of Keene State College and the Library of Congress.)

Pickford also wrote the scenario for “Their First Misunderstanding.” This wasn’t particularly unusual, since she shrewdly sold many scenarios to the production company she worked for, as well as to others, as a way of earning extra income. Nevertheless, I enjoyed knowing that Mary’s genius for cinema pervaded the short film, not only through her performance but also through all of the “bits of business” she had concocted. When Mary toyed with a cigarette, beat the hell out of a suitor with an enormous bouquet, or snuggled sadly by a fire, all of those actions came from her nimble, vivacious mind.

Although “Their First Misunderstanding” survives astonishingly intact for having languished in a New England barn (without the protection of a film canister) the years had taken their toll. The one-reeler begins and ends a bit abruptly due to missing footage.The opening scene of the film, which mostly likely started with a scene of the couple’s wedding, has not survived. However, in its present state, it opens with a brief shot of Owen Moore’s character frantically packing for his honeymoon.

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(Keene State College/Library of Congress.)

From there, the newlyweds meet at a train station where their families ambush them with well-wishes and a cascade of rice. From her first appearance, luminous Mary Pickford looks elegant in a luxurious travel outfit of white fur, which she adjusts and preens daintily, the image of a new bride wanting every last detail to be simply perfect. Among the crowd on the train platform are an unrecognizable Ben Turpin (with nary a googly eye in sight!) and a very recognizable and dapper Thomas Ince who bobs up and down like the center of attention, seemingly unaware that he is not the star of the film. The newlyweds embark on their honeymoon, filled with hope and love.

But the intertitles warn us that marital bliss doesn’t last forever: “One Year Later: Oh! How Different It Is!” It’s always a joy to listen to a modern audience laugh at intertitle jokes, and, last night, we roared at this 1910s equivalent of the CUT TO: juxtapositions that movies still use as punchlines.

Apparently, one year later, the husband has grown into a self-absorbed lout who mostly ignores his chic wife. Mary tries various tactics to get his attention—pretending to smoke one of his cigarettes, massaging his scalp, and going into full-on melodrama mode—but none of them work. When the couple attends a party, hubby goes off into another room with a society cutie, leaving poor Mary alone to fret and worry. Never one to sit around and do nothing, she decides to do a little flirting of her own with the ludicrously caricatured poet-pianist—think Snidley Whiplash as Romeo—who’s playing at the dinner party.

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(Keene State College/Library of Congress.)

To his dismay, Mary’s husband walks in on her intimate conversation with the poet. Soon the would-be romancer is visiting the couple’s home. The husband decides to rig up a little bell on the house door, so that he knows when any visitor comes to call. This, of course, leads to a number of false alarms, as the husband nearly suffers a fit of apoplexy… only to discover a deliveryman at the door. In another adorable scene, the poet does come for a visit, but has to do his wooing from the entrance of the room to keep the bell from ringing. Is this seeming like a lot of plot developments for 11 minutes? Because it’s not over yet. Mary’s scenario packed in an abundance of comedy and drama in an impressively short time.

The husband finally buckles under the suspicion and decides to leave his wife, writing, “You’re not the woman I supposed you were.” He leaves her to the poet. Mary, however, had no intention of going away with the second-rate scribbler. When the fawning suitor appears, she whips him out of the house with a bouquet of enormous flowers!

curlsDesolate over the loss of her husband, Mary crawls into his study (read: mancave, circa 1911) and curls up with his smoking jacket to comfort herself. Let me mention that the naturalistic light in this final scene, seemingly from the single source of a fireplace, resembles a moving Rembrandt: hauntingly exquisite and warm.

The husband returns, shambling in, filled with remorse; as he looks down, he unexpectedly sees his wife. Overcome with happiness at finding that she never ceased to love him, he goes in for a kiss and she shares his joy. Until she smells the tobacco on his breath and coughs. But snuggles with him anyway. The sophisticated mixture of melancholy and humor in this conclusion save it from pure sentimentality. (One suspects that Chaplin picked a thing or two from watching Pickford one-reelers.) We realize that these flawed young married people have lost a few illusions, but gained a firmer bond of friendship and consideration. Knowing how it feels to get hurt, they will try not to hurt each other anymore.

You can watch “The Dream,” the second film on the program, online, and I eagerly recommend that you do, if only for the pleasure of watching alternate-universe Mary Pickford totally trash a living room. In the brief fantasy-allegory, another less-than-ideal husband goes out drinking and treats his wife horribly. Crashing on the sofa, he has a dream where his wife acts like him—a brazen, sardonic lush, who goes about drinking, shattering the china, and staying out late partying. He wakes up screaming, relieved to find his sweet real-life wife just as she was, and recognizes the treasure that was under his nose all along.

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(Library of Congress.)

Both short films humorously advocate for equality and trust within marriage. The one-reelers focus on women who start to behave like their wayward husbands (whether in real life or in fantasy) and, in so doing, force their husbands to recognize the error of their own ways. Ironically, Pickford’s life mirrored her art—but without the happy ending. According to Schmidt, Pickford married her co-star Owen Moore two days before the release of “Their First Misunderstanding.” The nightmare marriage paralleled the bad relationship that we witness at the beginning of “The Dream” and ended in divorce. Alas, Moore didn’t learn from his onscreen acts of repentance.

It’s hard not to detect feminist undertones in the onscreen depiction of macho spouses who neglect their wives and expect them to deal with it—but who freak out when their wives pay them back in kind. The movies astutely illustrate how a husband’s lack of respect for his wife, combined with the abuse of his greater social freedom, can ruin an otherwise happy union.

I especially appreciated the nuances that Pickford brought to her character in “Their First Misunderstanding.” Unlike the droll polar personas in “The Dream,” she doesn’t strike us as either a passive bride or a scarlet woman, and flirts with another man only after her husband starts misbehaving. She may not be perfect, but she certainly comes closer than her husband. Pickford’s light touch for this sort of romantic farce comedy makes us sympathetic to her plight; we enjoy her enjoying herself, but ultimately root for her to make the right decision and turn her husband back into the man she married. Because she is clever, beautiful, and loving, she succeeds.

While these films still place most of the burden of keeping a marriage together on the women, at least they honor that burden. I imagine that Pickford’s performances and scenarios motivated quite a few husbands in the audience (in 1911 and last night) to appreciate their wives more, lest they threaten to run off with the next leering poet they meet!

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William Beaudine’s Sparrows features one of the strongest, feistiest female protagonists I know of. Pickford’s performance as Molly, a spunky teenager who leads a group of orphans through miles of dangerous swamps in a desperate escape from a brutal “baby farm,” inspired the steely role of Miss Cooper in Night of the Hunter (1955). Lillian Gish immortalized that part, but as Christel Schmidt noted, this was unusual, considering her frail star image in the silent days, in contrast to Mary Pickford’s up-by-her-bootstraps persona. “Lillian Gish would get trapped on an ice floe and need to be saved by Richard Barthelmess, whereas Mary Pickford might save Lillian Gish from an ice floe.”

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It was inspiring to savor the audience’s vibrant reactions to the film. Some of us even hissed and booed the vile Mr. Grimes and his nasty family. Unfortunately, the DVD print projected was not a good one, but accompanist Jeff Rapsis more than compensated for this by creating a delightfully suspenseful score. Having seen the film on DVD with a recorded score, I admired how Rapsis delicately underplayed the maudlin aspects of the film, instead highlighting its rich blend of poignant humor and tense action, all graced with glimmers of tenderness. I also have no idea how Rapsis managed, at certain key moments, to ring a bell WHILE playing his keyboard, but somehow he did. He’s also written up a wonderful piece on his blog about creating a score for the rediscovered one-reeler, which makes for terrific reading.

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Without a doubt, the entire evening will take an honored place among my filmgoing memories. However, I keep circling back to those 11 minutes that no audience had collectively experienced for almost a century. As Christel Schmidt said, “This film wanted to come back to us.” This encounter was meant to be.

I found my mind drifting to the Japanese concept of ichi-go-ichi-e, or “one time, one meeting,” the idea of something that happens only once in a lifetime, that acquires a tremendous weight of destiny through its uniqueness. Cinema is almost the opposite of this—a film is the same every time you see it. Or is it? You never see the same film twice, because you are different each time. The screening of “Their First Misunderstanding” brought on this epiphany, because of the sheer onceness of that particular encounter. We live in the midst of this onceness and never quite realize it. The moviegoers who went to see that film in 1911—could they have imagined how irreplaceably precious it would become to us?

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(Keene State College/Library of Congress.)

Cinema is my personal religion, so I can only describe what I felt last night as a vision, in many senses of the word. The imprint of light, of time, is caught on celluloid. Once that celluloid is gone, the soul of that moment returns no more. What was rescued from a little New Hampshire barn, then, wasn’t merely a museum piece, but a relic, something saturated with long-lost memories. At the risk of sounding a little too Proustian, the screening of “Their First Misunderstanding” last night was the restoration of lost time, the opening of a portal to another world that had been closed to us for longer than the span of the average human life.

In 1911, there were still a large number of people who scoffed at the idea that images produced by a machine could provoke laughter, tears, affection. But Mary Pickford knew different; she publicly heralded film as an art when few others would’ve dared to use the word. I think that she would have been proud to witness her films flood into a theater so removed from their time and place, yet magically connected to those bygone days through the power of the seventh art.

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