Film HERstory: 75+ Classic Films Directed by Women (and Where You Can Watch Them)

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“The feminine influence is needed in film.”
This statement sounds like something you might read in a contemporary article, as Hollywood’s lack of opportunities for female filmmakers comes increasingly (and rightfully) under scrutiny.

In fact, the quote is from Lois Weber, who made the remark in 1921 and directed her first film in 1911.

Many believe that women directors are a relatively new phenomenon—although Alice Guy directed her first film in 1896, Lois Weber was one of the most acclaimed directors of the 1910s, and Dorothy Arzner directed films featuring major stars at Hollywood studios from the 1920s to the 1940s.

Too few viewers and film-lovers know these women’s movies, their stories, and even their names.

Last year, when fellow blogger Marya E. Gates, creator of A Year with Women, crowdsourced a list of essential films directed by women, I found the end result diverse and inspiring. Yet, it saddens me that only 7 movies made before 1970—and none made before 1935—got enough votes to make the list.

So, I asked myself, “What have I done to spread the word about women who shaped early and classic cinema?”

Not enough, I concluded. Nowhere near enough.

After I pledged to watch 52 films by women this year (sign up here!), I offered to give classic film recommendations to other people on Twitter doing the challenge. I was overwhelmed—and overjoyed—by the interest I got in response.

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I’ve decided to post this resource, even in its current bare-bones form, as a starting point for those who want to discover women’s contributions to cinema from 1896 to 1966. To create a space for today’s women filmmakers, we have to recognize the female filmmakers of yesteryear, discuss their movies, and break down the persistent myth of “directors were always men.”

This list of over 60 films includes elegant melodramas, trashy exploitation flicks, avant-garde shorts, sophisticated comedies, groundbreaking documentaries, and gritty films noirs. There has never been only one “kind” of movie directed by women. Remember: with every film you watch, you’re reclaiming a bit of movie history and eroding a boys-only narrative that’s stood unquestioned for way too long.

A few disclaimers and caveats:

  • I have not seen all of these films—but I plan to! As I watch or rewatch them this year, I’ll probably add a few lines about each film. I look forward to discovering many of these movies along with all of you!
  • As far as I know, all films to which I’ve directly linked were made available legally. (If you own the rights to any of the films I’ve featured and want them removed from this list, please contact me; I will voluntarily take them down.)
  • Some of the films without direct links may not be available legally. I leave the search to you. I, ahem, suspect that you can find some of these films online without too much trouble. I consider that a last resort, though. If a film has a legit release, you should buy it. But if copyright owners want us to pay for movies, they should damn well release those movies! It’s ridiculous when anonymous Internet uploaders care more about sharing film history than studios care about monetizing that content. (I’m looking at you, Universal/Comcast. Get with it.)
  • This is NOT intended to be an authoritative list of movies made by women. I’ve limited myself to movies that are available to watch online for free or to buy (digital or hard copy) in the United States. If I’ve overlooked a film that you think should be listed here, and it’s available in the U.S., please let me know in the comments, and I’ll add it.
  • I do not necessarily endorse the content of these films. Some of them (like Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda films) are morally repugnant to me. For better or for worse, they’re part of a larger body of work by women directors. Pretending that offensive films weren’t made would not only erase chapters of film history, but also deny viewers the opportunity to confront the evils of the past.
  • “Classic” is a difficult word to nail down. And, yes, 1966 is sort of an arbitrary cutoff. 1965 is a date that’s often mentioned as the end of classic Hollywood. Since this list includes foreign films, I went to 1966 because there were just too many amazing movies made by women in 1966 to cut it off before then.
  • You should also support recent films directed by women. History is important—but so is voting with your dollars to show the film industry that you want to watch movies directed by women now.

Thanks for reading the fine print. Now, here’s the list…

cabbagefairy

The Cabbage Fairy – Alice Guy – 1896

Watch it on YouTube.

Felix Mayol Performs “Indiscreet Questions” – Alice Guy – 1906

Watch it on YouTube. (Note: Both the sound and the color are original. Alice Guy worked on many films that you could consider forerunners of today’s music videos.)

The Life, Birth, and Death of Christ – Alice Guy – 1906

Watch it on YouTube.

Falling Leaves – Alice Guy – 1912

Watch it on YouTube.

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Suspense – Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley – 1913

Watch it on YouTube.

Daisy Doodad’s Dial – Florence Turner – 1914

Watch it on YouTube.

Won in a Cupboard (a.k.a Won in a Closet) – Mabel Normand – 1914

Watch it on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website. (Note: This is accompanied by audio commentary. You can mute the video and play some ragtime music on YouTube while you watch, if you’d like.)

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Mabel’s Strange Predicament – Mabel Normand – 1914

Watch it on YouTube.

Caught in a Cabaret – Mabel Normand – 1914

Watch it on YouTube. (Sorry, I wish I could find better quality…)

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Assunta Spina – Francesca Bertini and Gustavo Serena – 1915

Available on DVD from Kino.

Hypocrites – Lois Weber – 1915

You can buy it to stream on Amazon. It’s also available on a Kino DVD.

Eleanor’s Catch – Cleo Madison – 1916

Available on the same Kino DVD as Weber’s Hypocrites.

The Ocean Waif – Alice Guy – 1916

Available to stream for free on Amazon if you have a Prime subscription. It’s also available on a Kino DVD.

’49-’17 – Ruth Ann Baldwin – 1917

Available on the same Kino DVD as Guy’s The Ocean Waif. You can also stream it on Fandor.

Something New – Nell Shipman and Bert Van Tuyle – 1920

Watch it on YouTube or download it from the Internet Archive.

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The Love Light – Frances Marion – 1921

Watch for free at the Internet Archive.

The Blot – Lois Weber – 1921

Available on DVD from Grapevine Video and The Milestone Collection.

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The Grub Stake – Nell Shipman and Bert Van Tuyle – 1923

Watch it on YouTube or download it from the Internet Archive.

The Smiling Madame Beudet – Germaine Dulac – 1923

Watch it on YouTube or download it from the Internet Archive.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed – Lotte Reiniger and Carl Koch – 1926

Available on DVD from The Milestone Cinematheque.

The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty – Esfir Shub – 1927

Available to stream on Fandor with a subscription.

Suggested for this list by Keefe Murphy.

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Get Your Man – Dorothy Arzner – 1927

Ahem… let’s just say you’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

L’invitation au voyage – Germaine Dulac – 1927

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

Women of Ryazan – Olga Preobrazhenskaya and Ivan Pravov – 1927

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

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Sensation Seekers – Lois Weber – 1927

You can watch or download it at the Internet Archive.

The Seashell and the Clergyman – Germaine Dulac – 1928

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

Linda – Dorothy Davenport – 1929

Available to stream for free on Amazon if you have a Prime subscription.

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The Wild Party – Dorothy Arzner – 1929

You can watch or download it at the Internet Archive.

And Quiet Flows the Don – Olga Preobrazhenskaya and Ivan Pravov – 1930

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

Anybody’s Woman – Dorothy Arzner – 1930

You can watch or download it at the Internet Archive.

Sarah and Son – Dorothy Arzner – 1930

You can watch or download it at the Internet Archive.

Honor Among Lovers – Dorothy Arzner – 1931

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

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Mädchen in Uniform – Leontine Sagan and Carl Froelich – 1931

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

Merrily We Go to Hell – Dorothy Arzner – 1932

Available on DVD from the Universal Vault Series.

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The Blue Light – Leni Riefenstahl – 1932

Available on DVD from Pathfinder Home Entertainment.

Broken Shoes – Margarita Barskaja – 1933

Watch it on YouTube.

Suggested for this list by Eric of The Indie Handbook.

Sucker Money – Dorothy Davenport and Melville Shyer – 1933

Watch it on YouTube or stream it for free on Amazon if you have a Prime subscription.

Christopher Strong – Dorothy Arzner – 1933

Available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Finishing School – Wanda Tuchock and George Nichols Jr. – 1934

Available on DVD from Warner Archive.

The Woman Condemned – Dorothy Davenport – 1934

Watch it on YouTube or stream it for free on Amazon if you have a Prime subscription.

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The Road to Ruin – Dorothy Davenport and Melville Shyer – 1934

Watch it on YouTube or stream it for free on Amazon if you have a Prime subscription.

Triumph of the Will – Leni Riefenstahl – 1935

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Synapse Films.

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The Bride Wore Red – Dorothy Arzner – 1937

Available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Olympia Part 1: Festival of the Nations and Olympia Part 2: Festival of Beauty – Leni Riefenstahl – 1938

Available on DVD from Pathfinder Home Entertainment.

Dance, Girl, Dance – Dorothy Arzner – 1940

Available to buy for streaming on Amazon or as a DVD from Turner Home Entertainment.

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Meshes of the Afternoon – Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid – 1943

Watch it on YouTube.

The Private Life of a Cat – Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid – 1943

You can watch or download it at the Internet Archive.

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Blue Scar – Jill Craigie – 1948

You can watch it on free-classic-movies.com.

Gigi – Jacquline Audry – 1949

Available as an extra on the Blu-Ray of Vincente Minnelli’s Gigi.

Never Fear (a.k.a. Young Lovers) – Ida Lupino – 1949

Available to stream for free on Amazon if you have a Prime subscription.

Outrage – Ida Lupino – 1950

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

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Olivia – Jacqueline Audrey – 1951

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

Hard, Fast, and Beautiful – Ida Lupino – 1952

Available on DVD from Warner Archive. You can also stream it for free on Amazon if you have a Prime subscription.

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The Stranger Left No Card – Wendy Toye – 1952

Watch it on YouTube. Note: The Stranger Left No Card won for best short fictional film at Cannes in 1953.

The Hitch-Hiker – Ida Lupino – 1953

Watch it on YouTube.

The Bigamist – Ida Lupino – 1953

Watch it on YouTube.

Huis Clos – Jacquline Audry – 1954

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

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Simon and Laura – Muriel Box – 1955

Available on DVD from VCI Entertainment.

La Pointe Courte – Agnès Varda – 1955

Available to stream instantly on Hulu if you’re a subscriber. Also available in a DVD box set from the Criterion Collection.

Three Cases of Murder – Wendy Toye, David Eady, and George Moore O’Ferrall – 1955

Watch instantly on Hulu if you’re a subscriber.

Eyewitness – Muriel Box – 1956

Available on DVD from VCI Home Video.

Con la vida hicieron fuego – Ana Mariscal – 1957

Watch it on YouTube.

Suggested for this list by Bucketofcake.

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The Truth About Women – Muriel Box –1957

You can watch it on free-classic-movies.com.

The Very Eye of Night – Maya Deren – 1958

Watch it on dailymotion.

Le Secret du chevalier d’Éon – Jacqueline Audry – 1959

You’ll find it online if you’re looking for it.

Nude on the Moon – Doris Wishman and Raymond Phelan – 1961

Available to download at the Internet Archive.

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Cleo from 5 to 7 – Agnès Varda – 1962

Available to stream instantly on Hulu if you’re a subscriber. Also available in a DVD box set from the Criterion Collection.

The House Is Black – Forugh Farrokhzad – 1962

Watch it on YouTube.

We Joined the Navy – Wendy Toye – 1962

Available to stream for free on Amazon if you have a Prime subscription.

El camino – Ana Mariscal – 1963

Watch it on YouTube.

Suggested for this list by Bucketofcake.

Bad Girls Go to Hell – Doris Wishman – 1965

Available to stream on Fandor.

Le Bonheur – Agnès Varda – 1965

Available to stream instantly on Hulu if you’re a subscriber. Also available in a DVD box set from the Criterion Collection.

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Blood Bath – Stephanie Rothman and Jack Hill– 1966

Available on DVD from MGM.

Suggested for this list by Directed by Women.

Daisies – Vera Chytilová – 1966

Available to stream instantly on Hulu if you’re a subscriber. Also available as in a DVD box set from the Criterion Collection.

The Trouble with Angels – Ida Lupino – 1966

Available to buy for streaming on Amazon or as a DVD from Columbia/Tri-Star.

Wings – Larisa Sheptiko – 1966

Available to stream instantly on Hulu if you’re a subscriber. Also available in a DVD box set from the Criterion Collection.

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Feel free to make suggestions or let me know which films you’ve enjoyed most!

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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.

dorothyarzner

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.

margaretbooth

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?