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!

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?

A Reel Diva: Assunta Spina (1915)

bertini“It had been my idea to wander around Naples taking ordinary people from the streets. Now everyone’s invented Neorealism! The real Neorealist film is Assunta Spinta!” —Francesca Bertini in 1982

In her nineties, Francesca Bertini, the first great star of the Italian cinema, seemed like the kind of woman who’d slap Norma Desmond and tell her to get a grip. Beyond the trappings of her wealth and fame—the designer dress, the lacquered nails, the perfectly coiffed hair—La Bertini radiated every bit as much vitality and trenchant perceptiveness as she’d exhibited onscreen in the 1910s.

No self-doubt, no pandering humility, not a trace of maudlin auto-elegy crept into her brisk demeanor as she faced down cameramen in the early 1980s—advising them on how to shoot her for a documentary. Telling men sixty years her junior to “Get with it!” she berated film archivists for not transferring nitrate originals of her films onto prints that could be exhibited. She expressed her wish that her work be shared with a younger generation through television. She was the sort of woman who, when she told you she was The Greatest That Ever Lived, you wouldn’t question the fact.

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One look at Bertini at any age and you’d know: this is a goddess. A diva. A woman demands and deserves to be respected, obeyed, worshipped. An actress, an intellect, a force to be reckoned with.

At the height of her fame, Bertini owned a production company and handpicked her roles. When she made Assunta Spina in 1915, she was the highest-paid woman in the world—even Mary Pickford didn’t make as much then.

The strengths Bertini projected in her roles were far from celluloid charades. The passion, the grandeur, the ferocity you witness in her surviving films must have blazed forth from her soul, for these qualities continued to illuminate the diva from within—even when her body grew as frail as a paper lantern.

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Francesca Bertini in 1982

Bertini’s creativity and resolution brought her best-remembered movie, Assunta Spina, into being. While walking through Naples one day, it occurred to her that the story of Salvatore di Giacomo’s famous play would translate ideally to the screen with its colorful scenes of working-class romance and betrayal. Bertini contacted di Giacomo who gave her his blessing to film an adaptation.

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I cannot overstate the importance of this film—and of Bertini as its auteur. With some help from her leading man, Gustavo Serena, she directed the film. She collaborated on the screenplay. She corralled ordinary Neapolitans to appear onscreen and infuse the film with an authentic flavor. She insisted on authentic locations wherever possible. To watch Assunta Spina is to witness neorealism being born—decades before anyone spoke of neorealism.

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Real policemen escort actor Gustavo Serena down a real Neapolitan street

Unlike the colossal period films or sophisticated melodramas that dominated early Italian cinema, Assunta Spina has dirt under its fingernails. This peasant dance of violence and perversity stabs right to the heart of what Italy really was in the 1910s: a place where corruption, monotonous poverty, and primitive codes of honor constricted the pursuit of happiness (especially the happiness of women) like a sweaty corset.

This sordid tale revolves around Assunta, a spirited young woman who runs a laundry. She loves Michele, a simple butcher, but her flirtatious nature and sensual obstinacy inflame his jealousy. The fact that Assunta’s spurned suitor has been anonymously accusing her of infidelity doesn’t help. About to be married, Assunta dances with another man in defiance of Michele’s hotheadedness.

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He responds with a typically grisly manifestation of Italian machismo and slashes her face with a knife. In spite of Michele’s brutality, Assunta defends him at his trial, in vain. Desperate to keep Michele in Naples, even if he’s behind bars, Assunta agrees to become the mistress of Don Frederigo, an unscrupulous politico. (That’s Italy, folks.)

But what’s going to happen when Michele wins his release and finds out? Nothing warm and fuzzy, I assure you.

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Assunta Spina opens with a shot of the Bay of Naples, white buildings gleaming and water rippling. Then, slowly, a dissolve makes a striking woman in white materialize out of thin air onto one of the docks.

A shawl wrapped around her shoulders, she looks into the distance, as if foreseeing the tragedy in her future. The figure turns to the camera and looks practically at the audience, before slowly pivoting away.

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Out of context in terms of plot, this lilting yet vaguely tense shot testifies to the power of Bertini’s presence. With hardly a motion and, of course, no words, she conveys that all we need to know about Assunta—a woman of unexpected depth, a troubled low-caste beauty, a part of Naples just as much as the sea and the sun.

Like some of the best neorealist films (Bicycle Thieves comes to mind), Assunta Spina can sustain mildly surreal touches such as that dissolve… before veering back to gutter realism. After all, isn’t life like that too? Don’t we find that the surfaces of our daily existence serve as mirrors for what’s going on in our souls? For instance, Michele’s “Bucheria” (“Butcher’s Shop”) sign looms prominently in the background as his jealousy flares up and foreshadows his act of unthinkable hate against the woman he loves.

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Assunta’s strangely distorted and warped reflection in the door of her laundry elegantly conveys her divided loyalties.

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These symbolic hints, rather than diminishing the documentary importance of Assunta Spina, elevate the film as a whole. These psychological insights teased from quotidian existence demonstrate that, as André Bazin would later suggest, realism can coexist with more metaphysical and spiritual explorations of humanity.

Cameraman Alberto G. Carta, who worked with Bertini on her most acclaimed vehicles, including Tosca, Lady of the Camellias, and two versions of Odette, imbued Assunta Spina with an ominous lyricism. Naples street scenes take on a jagged, fragmented look in contrast to the all-engulfing skies of sequences near the Bay.

Negative space, dead space often gobbles up most of the screen as we struggle to look at the main characters—taking up only a small segment of frame in a long or medium long shot.

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The lack of close shots in the film reflects Bertini’s belief that they distract from the drama of the moment and can actually prove disruptive to the audience’s identification. Admittedly, I don’t think that close-ups had acquired a truly important place in Italian cinema at that time. Even so, the decision to keep editing to a minimum and to allow scenes to unfold in long takes enhances the realistic ambiance of the work: undivided space, unabbreviated time.

Cutting doesn’t micromanage or pre-digest the performances, which inhabit and fill each long take with searing drama. For the most part, the audience must dwell with the characters in real time (apart from the occasional cut or intertitle) and scan the screen for signs of rising tempers and escalating grudges.

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More importantly, Carta’s camerawork emphasizes a certain pattern in staging. This film’s visual refrain consists of variations on the image of Assunta in the foreground with a man—whether her lover, her spurned suitor, or her “protector”—standing sinisterly in the background.

Not only does this recurrent compositional choice create suspense and tension within a single frame, but it also suggests the theme of a woman haunted and threatened by unappreciative and predatory men.

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(See Raffaele in between Assunta and her father here?)

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And yet, Assunta Spinta does not linger on a “women’s weepie” tale of victimization as much as it traces a tough proto-feminist narrative. This flawed but enduring woman possesses more positive traits than any of the men in her life. She bravely lives down the consequences of the tragedy that unfolds around her and shows agency in her struggle to respect the one man she truly cares about.

The men who hover around Assunta seem at times like exteriorizations of her inner anguish. Like furies, they torment her and give her no peace. Each man serves to bring out a different facet of her personality: the tender bride-to-be with Michele, the coquette with Raffaele, and the femme fatale with Frederigo.

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One woman, three personas: with Michele…

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…with Raffaele…

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 8.54.09 PM…and with Don Frederigo

Whereas her different admirers possess rather one-track motivations, Assunta’s multi-layered psyche defies you to interpret her. Bertini’s earthy, beguiling performance eschews all neurotic hand-wringing while conveying the enigmatic, passionate nature of her character.

Why does Assunta form emotional bonds with men who hurt and use her? Why does she play with men’s affections? We receive no clear answer; affection, love, physical attraction, preconceived notions about martyrdom, the desire for sexual power, and the hope for a happy home all compete within her.

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 8.38.43 PMThis visual motif of men in the background while Assunta silently wrestles with herself in the foreground also provides some of the most oddly composed shots in the film. Characters stand too close or too far from the camera for comfort, as though distant slices of reality were stacked on top of each other.

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It’s almost as though these men are just figments of her imagination—they exist only by virtue of their relationships with her. Unlike films that try to capture “a woman’s world” or some such hermetically-sealed cliché, Assunta Spinta gives us reality as a woman and a woman as reality. Admittedly, that sounds like a paradox: how can a single person represent reality? Wouldn’t that be allegory, sort of the opposite of realism?

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At the risk of generalizing, I would argue that, whereas narratives revolving around men tend to be goal-oriented, narratives about women often seek to unlock the truth of social conditions. Even the fact that Assunta’s body is made to feel and carry the signs of her ordeal—being scarred by the man she loves, forced to surrender her virtue to a slimy Don—links her as a character directly to irrefutable impact of her suffering, to the empirical evidence of poverty and abuse.

Reality leaves its mark on her, inside and out.

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Assunta, marginalized and forsaken

Moreover, the film’s intense attention to the textures of slum life somehow seems to echo Assunta’s own unflinching ability to size up a situation.

When Michele slashes her cheek, for instance, she immediately calls for a mirror. This scene didn’t exist in the play or the book. Bertini added it. She understood that this woman needs to see. Neither we, the viewers, nor Assunta herself can look away from the collision course of her sad destiny.

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Much of the movie consists of shots of Assunta simply sitting or standing, mulling something over. Her internal world—not one of imagination and fantasy, but of grim decisions and common sense—is echoed in the grime and roughness of Neapolitan streets and the ironic whiteness and bustle of Assunta’s laundry.

I once saw an old religious painting (I can’t for the life of me remember its title, shame on me) where one of the people in the composition is staring off into space but, from the expression on his face, the viewer immediately comes to the conclusion that the figure is somehow seeing the entire scene within himself. We perceive the connection between Assunta and reality through a similar intuition.

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In fact, she delivers the most important “line” of the film, at the very end, mostly offscreen. As she’s led away while the camera lingers on the empty set—as though the realism of the scene speaks for her, as if its textures had absorbed her, imbibed her. As if she were the environment and the environment was the most eloquent possible elegy for her.

The subtle psychological probing of the film, coupled with its insistence on verisimilitude (real locations, non-actors, dialect, an immersion into Neapolitan culture), make it a potent forerunner of post-WWII art cinema.

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And through it all, Bertini owns the screen. The cinema is her home, her country, her fiefdom. The camera was infatuated with this firestorm of a woman whose naturalistic, yet vividly theatrical style must have been to the 1910s what Magnani’s exothermic charisma became to a later generation. So many Method-like details combine to produce a believable human being—not an actor—before us.

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The way she pops a piece of bread into her mouth and chews it disdainfully. The way her hand clings to the side of a wall as she begs a man not to desert her. The way she can’t bear to look at Michele as she confesses what she did to keep him close to her. The dignified honesty of her every movement justifies why she was not only one of the cinema’s first great stars, but also one of its first great artists.

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If you appreciate the hardboiled poetry of Neorealism, make a point of tracking down Assunta Spina. Kino’s edition comes with a documentary on Bertini, L’Ultima Diva, in which she, in her nineties, sits down with interviewers, watches Assunta Spina, and offers, basically, a commentary track on her masterpiece. Listening to someone provide a minute-by-minute explanation of movie’s production a century ago—can you imagine a better portal into film history? And Bertini’s vibrant descriptions and blunt opinions revive this key moment in cinema’s development.

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She was the godmother of Neorealism, the idol of an era, and one of the most versatile, sublime women to electrify the screen. And she knew it, too.

Now, that’s a diva.

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I did this post as part of my Italian Film Culture Blogathon. Be sure to check out what the other bloggers have been getting up to!

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