Silent Film Essay

Who Worked at What and When

The Vitagraph Company of America, 1910. BISON

This project began just after the centennial celebration of the motion picture, during a distinct turn to historiography in the field, and in the light of intriguing new evidence that continues to surface. We set out to prove that women were not just screen actresses in the silent era, in the two decades before the advent of synchronized sound motion pictures. Carrying over the impetus from the 1970s, we looked first for evidence that they had worked as directors but in the process we found that they had been not just directors. Women’s participation in the first two decades was both deeper and wider than previously thought. In addition to costume designer, as one might expect, the researchers on this project found, as one might not expect, camera operators as well as exhibitors (theatre owner and/or theatre manager). In her groundbreaking business history of women filmmakers in the silent era, Karen Mahar adds the colorist and the film joiner as well as the supervisor and the executive producer to this list (2006, 22–23).(1) At first, many jobs were not necessarily gender-typed, she says. In the first decade, however, some departments became exclusively organized along gender lines, with editing or joining being the most visibly gendered work.

Essanay Film Mfg Co. Laboratory personnel, Chicago. AMPAS

Yet the most comprehensive overview of the industry, Business Woman, in 1923 listed twenty-nine different jobs that women held (in addition to actress), including that of typist, stenographer, secretary to the stars and executive secretary, telephone operator, hairdresser, seamstress, costume designer, milliner, reader, script girl, scenarist, cutter, film retoucher, film splicer, laboratory worker, set designer and set dresser, librarian, artist, title writer, publicity writer, plasterer molder, casting director, musician, film editor, department manager, director, and producer.(2)

 

When Were Motion Pictures Silent?

Clare West, costume designer. AMPAS

Scholars date the advent of motion pictures from the first public Lumière Company cinématographe exhibition in Paris, France, on December 28, 1895, and in the United States, from the Edison Company’s New York City kinetoscope premiere on April 4, 1896.(3) Yet, as Mahar has pointed out, the first years were defined by competition over equipment patents, the realm of men (2006, 25). The best way of explaining early opportunities for women is to first think of the growth spurt represented by the US nickelodeon boom, 1906–1909, which meant increased demand for short, one-reel films to screen at these storefront theatres. The influx of the women we are tracking begins around 1907—the year Gene Gauntier wrote a scenario at the Kalem Company based on Ben Hur, Florence Lawrence took a role in the Edison Company’s Daniel Boone; or, Pioneer Days in America, and Alice Guy Blaché, married three days, set sail for New York from Paris, as each recalls in a memoir (Gauntier Oct. 1928, 184; Lawrence 1914, 40; Slide, 1986a, 60–61).

Adela Sequeyro, (d/p/a/o). PCPT

A Journey to the Operations of the South American Gold Platinum Co., in Colombia South America (1937) Kathleen Romoli (d). FPFC


Still Hände/Hands: The Life and Love of a Gentle Sex (Miklos Bandy and Stella Simon, 1927-28). PC 

Agnes Christine Johnston (w/0) MGM publicity photo. AMPAS

Although 1927–1928 marks the official transition to sound years in the US, many of the titles we list were issued in both silent and sound versions.(4) Titles after 1928 are included for other reasons. First, experimental and documentary work expand the definition of “silent film” because in the late 1920s and into the 1930s low-budget work was often shot silent with a nonsynchronous soundtrack added later, if at all. This allows us to consider, for instance, the extant 16mm print of the fourteen-minute A Journey to the Operations of the South American Gold Platinum Co., in Colombia South America (1937) made by anthropologist Kathleen Romoli, now in the Fundación Patrimonio Fílmico Colombiano in Bogotá. Or, we include the work of American experimental filmmaker Stella Simon, whose extant short Hände/Hands (1927–28) was restored by the Museum of Modern Art in 2001. Second, some women whose careers began in the silent era became more important in the sound era. Although she was a popular Mexican film actress in the silent era, Adela Sequeyro did not direct motion pictures until the 1930s, and two of the sound titles she directed are extant: Más allá de la muerte/Beyond Death (1935) and La mujer de nadie/Nobody’s Woman (1937).(5) There was, however, no equivalent to Adela Sequeyro in the United States.

No silent era US motion picture actress began another career phase directing in the sound era, although some writers began before 1927 and continued to work productively into the sound era. Latin American industry examples contrast here with the US industry, where, the evidence shows, the ranks of women working as scenario writer, director, or producer thinned out by 1923 (Mahar 2006, ch. 2 and 6). It is commonly asserted that by 1925 the only woman still working as a Hollywood studio system director was the now-celebrated lesbian Dorothy Arzner. Less exclusive focus on directors, however, opens up this territory. Certainly Wanda Tuchock was another woman to stay employed in Hollywood, as Anthony Slide pointed out early (Slide 1996, 136). But her 1934 credit is not for director but for codirector on Finishing School for RKO with George Nichols, Jr. Her first silent era credit is as continuity writer on the Marion Davies star vehicle Show People (1923), the treatment for which was written by Agnes Christine Johnston while Johnston was on the staff at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio. One of her next assignments at MGM was as scenario writer for the all-black cast classic Hallelujah (1929), directed by King Vidor, who also wrote the story. Like hundreds of other titles in the silent to sound transition years, Hallelujah was released in both sound and silent versions. Motion picture titles that straddle two technological moments, such as John S. Robertson’s The Single Standard (1929), written by Josephine Lovett, and Frank Borzage’s Lucky Star (1929), written by Sonya Levien and edited by Katharine Hilliker, call attention to the women whose careers began in the silent era and continued into the sound era: Josephine Lovett, Dorothy Yost, Sarah Y. Mason, Sonya Levien, Zoe Atkins, and Virginia Van Upp.

US Companies Outside Hollywood: 1915–1935

It is now well established that the phasing out of women paralleled the development of the motion picture business into the corporate studio system, in place by the mid-1920s. Yet the exceptions to the “over by 1925” rule are important.(6) Many writers and most editors continued to work within the studio system, and a few companies started by Hollywood insiders remained, such as the Dorothy Davenport Reid company, Mrs. Wallace Reid Productions, operating from 1924 to 1929, and Leah Baird Productions, started with cool producer Arthur Beck, and lasting from 1921 to 1927.

Dorothy Davenport Reid (a/p/d/w). AMPAS

Leah Baird (p/w/a). AMPAS

Osa Johnson (p/d/a/o) w/ Photoplay. PC

Another economy is operative outside Hollywood, and thus we find women financing companies with family fortunes, organizational fund-raising, professional earnings, and divorce settlements. Some, like Madeline Brandeis, worked on the edge of Hollywood, where she started Madeline Brandeis Productions to produce educational shorts, operating between 1924 and 1929. A Midwesterner whose first film was produced in Chicago, Brandeis funded her first production with her settlement from the Omaha, Nebraska, Brandeis Dry Goods Store heir to whom she was married. A number of the short films Brandeis produced as part of the Children of All Lands series, distributed by Pathé, are extant.

Women such as Brandeis and Ruth Bryan Owen, who produced just a handful of films or even a single title, or whose involvement in film production took a secondary or, at best, equal place to other careers or to their roles as wives or mothers, might be understood as “mere dilettantes” or “amateurs.” The practice of overlooking them and their work is not restricted to standard histories of the silent motion picture era. The filmmakers themselves sometimes downplayed their own efforts as, for instance, Madeline Brandeis does when she describes her filmmaking as a “pastime” in an article tellingly entitled “Woman Makes Films for Fun.” This seemingly casual reference sheds some light on the conflicting imperatives that organized women’s abilities and desires to make motion pictures outside Hollywood, especially since, by the late 1920s, “outside” may have been the only place where they were able to continue working as filmmakers.

As a professional writer and lecturer, Osa Johnson continued to produce motion pictures after her husband’s 1935 death. The work of Frances Flaherty with her husband, Robert, considered the first American documentary maker, spans 1921–1932. Still photographer Nancy Naumburg made the 16mm titles Sheriffed (1934) and Taxi (1935) under the auspices of the Film and Photo League, the leftist New York collective. These initiatives have in common their nontheatrical distribution and their educational or political goals. While some ventures defined themselves as oppositionally outside Hollywood, others, such as the silent project The Flame of Mexico (1932), undertaken by a Washington DC diplomat’s wife, might be considered hybrid projects. Producer Juliet Barrett Rublee envisioned theatrical distribution for her tribute to the Mexican people, shot by a professional Hollywood crew. Thus, because The Flame ofMexico, a 35mm print of which surfaced in 2006, has such high production values, it is visually comparable to the Warner Brothers feature Juarez (1939) although the documentary sections remind us of Soviet avant-gardist Sergei Eisenstein’s footage for Que VivaMexico (1932). Little research has been done on the earliest companies founded by women outside Hollywood, but Mahar mentions the Blaney-Spooner Feature Film Company in 1913, the Liberty Feature Film Company in 1914, and the company organized in 1914 by author and playwright Eleanor Gates, who was interested in adapting her own literary work for the screen (2006, 66).

Regional Producing and Directing: Before and Never Hollywood

Alice Guy Blaché (d/w/p/o) My Madonna (Solax, 1915). BFI

Women’s productions were fostered by the distance from bottom line-oriented major production centers, and the number of locations they used suggest that they discovered more possibilities in region-centered filmmaking. In the first decade, when film production sprouted around New York before the exodus to the West Coast, however, there was no major production center. Recent interest in filmmaking in New Jersey calls our attention to the earliest, the Solax Company, founded by Alice Guy Blaché in 1910 in Ft. Lee. When Helen Gardner left the New York City studios of the Vitagraph Company in 1911, she started Helen Gardner Picture Players in Tappan-on-Hudson, New York. In recent years, three of her feature films, Cleopatra (1912), Sister to Carmen (1913) and ADaughter of Pan (1913) have been restored and screened. Beta Breuil made short motion picture melodramas in Rhode Island in 1915 and 1916, four of which are extant: My Lady of the Lilacs, Violets, Daisies, and Wisteria. A strong African-American community in Kansas City, Kansas, constituted a viable audience for filmmakers Tressie Souders and Maria P. Williams in an era of race-segregated theaters.

Nell Shipman (a/w/d/p/e/o) c. 1918, PC

Elizabeth B. Grimball (d/p/w) The Lost Colony 1921. NCCPA

Beatriz Michelena (a/p/o) Salomy Jane (1914). PC

Regional history itself provided the impetus for another extant title, The Lost Colony (1921), commissioned by the state of North Carolina and directed by Elizabeth B. Grimball, recruited for the job from the New York theatre after she directed the “Lost Colony” pageant. Nell Shipman Productions (1921–1925) specialized in melodrama set in the North woods, taking dramatic advantage of the wildlife and rugged Priest Lake, Idaho, landscape. A representative sample of her shorts and features are extant, including the short White Water (1921), featuring an exquisitely photographed, tightly cross-cut river rescue scene that rivals D. W. Griffith’s Way Down East (1920). Lost, however, is the Ruth Bryan Owen production Once Upon a Time (1922) shot in Coconut Grove and Key Biscayne, Florida, which stood in for mythical Arabia in a production the director-producer cast with local amateur theatre actors.

Immigrant Outsiders and Outside Insiders

Mexican-American actress Beatriz Michelena headquartered her 1917–1919 company, Beatriz Michelena Features, in San Rafael, California, north of San Francisco. One of the titles the company produced, Just Squaw (1919), is held by the Library of Congress along with earlier Western genre films in which she starred produced by other companies. In Oakland, another part of the Bay Area, Marion E. Wong started the Mandarin Film Company and worked as actress, director, scenario writer, and producer of The Curse of the Quon Gwon (1917), recently discovered and restored. An intriguing reference leads us to wonder what kind of unit Japanese-American Tsuru Aoki, wife of actor-producer Sessue Hayakawa, was working in since she is cited as having in 1913 begun a “company of players.”(7) But ethnicity and immigrant status don’t map perfectly along inside/outside lines, leading us to consider some as outside-insiders. Alison McMahan reminds us that Alice Guy Blaché was an immigrant from France and convincingly interprets her extant The Making of an American Citizen (1913) in these terms (2002, 142). But unlike so many others, Blaché did not arrive poor. When she disembarked in 1907 she held $50,000 worth of Gaumont stock that she would sell to start the Solax Company in 1910 (2002, 76).

Tsuru Aoki (a/p/o). NYPL

Sonya Levien (w). NYPL

It has long been established that the immigrant Jews who founded the US motion pictures studios, all of them male, began in dry goods and entertainment because these were the avenues open to them. The case of immigrant Jewish women is the reverse of that of the men who became moguls. For women, the two vehicles to entry were acting and writing, and these worked in different ways. Actresses of Asian or Hispanic descent or those who had migrated from Eastern Europe made difference, exotic-tinged, work for as opposed to against them. In changing her name from Miriam Edez Adelaida Leventon to Alla Nazimova, a young girl from a Russian Jewish immigrant family borrowed an exotic-ethnic effect, but later, as a mysterious lesbian and political radical, her persona acquired new associations. Nazimova Productions, 1917–1921, operating inside Metro and later linked to United Artists, was an artistically “outside” gamble in which she finally lost the money she had invested.

In the silent era, European exoticism was also faked. Welsh immigrant Muriel Harding styled herself as Polish countess Olga Petrova and as a move for artistic control, started Petrova Pictures Corporation in 1917, outside the studio system (McMahan 2002, 180). Valda Valkyrien, the Danish actress born in Reykjavik, Iceland, adopted the aristocratic persona of Mademoiselle Valkyrien to help her career when she immigrated to the US. She found work at the Thanhouser Company and later announced the Valda Valkyrien Production Company, although the evidence that the company produced any films has yet to be found.

Writers Sonya Levien and Anzia Yezierska were both from poor Jewish families that emigrated from Russia and settled on the Lower East Side of New York City. Yezierska, a reluctant transport to Hollywood, wrote about her bitter disillusionment in Cosmopolitan magazine in an article that begins, “I was very poor. And when I was poor, I hated the rich.”(8) Her collection of short stories was produced by Goldwyn Pictures as Hungry Hearts (1922), 16mm prints of which are held in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles and the National Film and Television Archives in London. Frederica Sagor Maas, a second generation Jewish American born in the US in 1900, and blacklisted along with her husband in the 1950s, died January 5, 2012 at the age of 111.

One openly bisexual writer, Mary MacLane, became famous for her nonfiction The Story of Mary MacLane published in 1902 when she was only nineteen. She would sign a contract for several films with the Essanay Company, then in Chicago. Only one, however, was made, as Men Who Have Made Love to Me (1918), adapted by MacLane from her own short story and starring herself. The single film phenomenon is a pattern and marks another way insiders were outsiders. Temporary insiders were soon “outsiders,” and often on the verge of losing the precarious foothold they had established (sometimes as heads of companies or units within larger companies)—unless they achieved stardom as actresses or unless they were part of a powerful producing family. See “The Family System of Production.”

New York, California Before Hollywood, and Hollywood: 1907–1923

Women’s Work before It Was “Women’s Work”

Gene Gauntier (a/w/d/p) Kalem stock company. AMPAS

Work on the early motion picture set was relatively flexible, and in 1908 acting and directing were jobs like any other, on a par with lab work (Jacobs 1975, 59).(9)Gene Gauntier describes the Kalem Company ensemble work from 1907 to 1912 as a scramble in which she did almost every job (Gauntier 1928). Actress Florence Turner even did the accounting at the Vitagraph Company studio in Brooklyn, New York, according to Stuart Blackton’s memoirs. At the Famous Players-Lasky Company in California, writer Beulah Marie Dix, newly arrived from the East Coast in 1916, stood in as an extra, learned about the camera, and took care of the lights (Brownlow 1968, 276). Many, like Bradley King, moved up from the lowest rung jobs as stenographers.(10) As Mark Cooper describes the layout of the new Universal City lot completed in 1915 in Los Angeles, it created a kind of “laboratory for gender experiment” facilitated by “physical mobility” on the set in contrast to the New York office hierarchy (Cooper 2010, 63). These conditions produced the phenomenon we call the “Universal Women,” the largest concentration of women who worked as directors, sometimes also as writers, actresses, and producers, from 1916 to 1921: Ruth Ann Baldwin, Grace Cunard, Eugenie Magnus Ingleton, Cleo Madison, Ida May Park, Ruth Stonehouse, Lule Warrenton, Lois Weber, and Elsie Jane Wilson.

The Family System of Production

Gertrude Homan Thanhouser (a/w/p). PCET

Boundaries between family and business were often blurred, best exemplified by the position of Gertrude Thanhouser, listed on articles of company incorporation as primary company stockholder,who acted, wrote, and served as a Thanhouser Film Company executive. Lloyd Lonergan, Edwin Thanhouser’s brother-in-law, wrote roughly nine hundred Thanhouser scenarios, and his sister Elizabeth Lonergan wrote for the Biograph and Kalem companies (Azlant 1997, 241).(11) The DeMille dynasty that begins with mother Beatrice deMille is well known, but she is noted less for the scenarios she wrote for the Lasky company. The paternalism of Cecil B. DeMille and his brother William deMille (spelled differently) benefited writers Jeanie Macpherson, Olga Printzlau, Beulah Marie Dix,and Clara Beranger, as well as executive secretary Gladys Rosson and editor Anne Bauchens. All had long tenures beginning in the 1910s when what became Paramount Pictures was the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Players and then the Famous Players-Lasky Company.

Lorna Moon (w), MGM publicity portrait. AMPAS

Scenario writer Lorna Moon‘s illegitimate child with William deMille was adopted by his brother Cecil and his wife. Paula Blackton as director and actress was recruited along with her children in Vitagraph Company cofounder Stuart J. Blackton’s Brooklyn, New York, studio.Later in London, at Blackton Productions, Stuart Blackton gave daughter Marian Blackton a valued place in production decisions as well as her start as a writer. Close working relationships fostered what could be called a “familial system of production,” which crossed and sometimes overrode the stages film historians have identified: the cameraman system, the director-unit system, and the central producer system of production.(12)

 

Paula Blackton with J. Stuart Blackton and their children Charles and Violet at the grand piano. USW

Jeanie Macpherson (w/d/a) with photo of Cecil B. DeMille. BYU

 

Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Mary Pickford (a/p/w/o), Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, founders of United Artists, 1919. PC

The motion picture set was also a newly gender-mixed workplace that fostered liaisons, and the married or romantically linked creative team was a norm. Going it alone was the exception. In the majority of these cases, however, the woman, not the man was “the ticket” since it was her stardom that commanded resources. See “The Star Name Company.” Men most often handled the money and business side in the partnership (Mahar 2006, 73). Historical evidence, however, challenges gender assumptions. We find men who were financially irresponsible (as in the case of the Victor Company started by Harry Solterer with Florence Lawrence) and women who demonstrated remarkable business acumen. Charlie Chaplin, for instance, recollects Mary Pickford at the meeting to form United Artists in 1919: “She knew all the nomenclature: the amortizations and the deferred stocks, etc. She understood all the articles of incorporation, the legal discrepancy on Page 7, Paragraph A, Article 27, and coolly referred to the overlap and contradiction in Paragraph D, Article 24.”(13) he jury is still out, however, on the role that husband Herbert Blaché played in the dissolution of the Solax Company (1910–1922), which became Blaché American Features (1913–1914), effectively demoting Alice Guy Blaché from company president to vice president (Mahar 2006, 73–76; McMahan 2002, 77, 121, 172–73).

Josephine Lovett (w/a). AMPAS

The couple mode within the familial system was most likely a continuum, from the rocky liaisons undermined by infidelities to the collaborators-for-life, exemplified by teams whose contracts stipulated joint work, like writer-editor team Katharine Hilliker -H. H. Caldwell, who practiced job-sharing. See also “Women Scenario Editors”; “Scenario Writer to Screenwriter.” Mr. and Mrs. George Randolph Chester (Lillian Chester) and Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew (Lucille McVey) gave their marital status names to production companies although of a very different kind since the Chesters were writers who attempted to produce only once (The Son of Wallingford, 1921). The Drews developed a married couple comic persona for their “Mr. and Mrs. Drew” series, precursor, Mahar says, of the domestic screwball comedy. Further Mahar raises the delicate issue of who did the work, suggesting that it was Mrs., not Mr. Drew who produced and directed the series within the Vitagraph Company (2006, 117).(14) Anthony Slide writes that Alice Terry was known to have stepped in to finish directing scenes for husband Rex Ingram (1996, 130–31). In a 1922 interview Louella Parsons conducted with husband of writer Josephine Lovett, director John S. Robertson, he describes their relationship as the “work and play together” ideal personified by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Mary Pickford (Parsons 1922, 4). The fan magazine publicity that espoused an equal partnership ideal, however, creates a smoke screen around the circumstances. As Shelley Stamp explains in her critical analysis of the domestic discourse around directing-producing team Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley, these relationships contained many ingredients.(15) Countering the image of perfect partnership, however, is the evidence that Weber was the dynamo (Mahar 2006, 91–92). In many cases the separation of female from male partner in a creative team may be an artificial after-the-fact operation. Unofficial information that conflicts with published motion picture credits is indicated in the “Credit Report” note following the Archival Filmography and Not Extant Films at the end of each profile. The following list of working partnerships indicates that most were husband-wife relationships.

Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew (p/d/w/a). PC

Alice Terry (a), Rex Ingram The Arab (1924). PC

Working Partnerships

Husband-Wife Team:

Mary Jobe Akeley —  Carl Jobe Akeley

*Leah Baird (actress-writer) — Arthur F. Beck (producer)

* Bessie Barriscale (actress-producer) — Howard Hickman (actor-director)

Cora Beach (writer) — Walter Shumway (writer)

Dwinelle Benthall (writer) — Rufus McGosh (writer)

Clara Beranger (writer) — William deMille (writer)

Ouida Bergère (writer) — George Fitzmaurice (director)

Pauline Bush — William Dowlan

*Lillian Chester (writer-producer) — George Randolph Chester (writer-producer)

Frances Hubbard Flaherty — Robert Flaherty

*Gene Gauntier (actress-writer-director-producer) — Sydney Olcott (actor-director-producer)

*Gene Gauntier (actress-writer-director-producer) — Jack C. Clarke (actor-director)

Eloyce Gist (editor) — James Gist (director-writer-producer)

*Ethel Grandin (actress) — Ray Smallwood (cinematographer-director)

*Alice Guy-Blaché (director-producer) —  Herbert Blaché (director-producer)

Ella Hall – Robert Z. Leonard

*Gale Henry (comedienne-writer-producer) —  Bruno J. Becker (producer)

Katharine Hilliker  — H. H. Caldwell (editors, producers)

*Helen Holmes (actress) — J. P. McGowan (director)

Osa Johnson (producer, cinematographer) —  Martin Johnson (producer, director)

Agnes Christine Johnston (writer) — Frank Mitchell Dazey (writer-director)

*Florence Lawrence (actress-producer) — Harry Salter (actor-producer)

*Marion Leonard (actress-producer) — Stanner E. V. Taylor (director)

*Anita Loos (writer) — John Emerson (director-writer)

Hope Loring (writer) — Louis “Buddy” Lighton (writer-producer)

Josephine Lovett (writer) — John S. Robertson (director)

Sarah Y. Mason (writer) — Victor Heerman (writer)

*Lucille McVey (actress-director-producer) — Sidney Drew (actor-director-producer)

Bess Meredyth (writer) — Wilfred Lucas (actor-director)

* Mae Murray (actress) — Robert Z. Leonard (director)

*Ida May Park (writer-director) — Joseph DeGrasse (director)

Dorothy Phillips — William Stowell

*Mary Pickford (actress-producer) with Douglas Fairbanks, D. W. Griffith, and Charles Chaplin

*Josephine Rector (writer) — Hal Angus (director)

*Lillian Case Russell (writer) — John Lowell (actor-writer)

Alice B. Russell (actress-producer) — Oscar Micheaux (director-producer)

Florence Ryerson (writer) — Colin Clements (writer)

*Norma Talmadge (actress-producer) — Joseph M. Schneck (producer)

Alice Terry (actress) — Rex Ingram (director)

*Gertrude Thanhouser (actress-writer-producer) — Edwin Thanhouser (producer)

Rosemary Theby — Robert Henley

*Mrs. M. Webb (writer) — Miles M. Webb (producer)

*Lois Weber (actress-writer-director-producer) and Phillips Smalley (actor-producer)

*Madame E. Touissant Welcome — E. Touissant Welcome (co-producers)

*Kathlyn Williams (actress-producer) — Charles Eyton (producer)

*Maria P. Williams (writer-producer) — Jesse L. Williams (producer)

Elsie Jane Wilson (actress-director-writer) — Rupert Julian (director)

*Clara Kimball Young (actress-producer) — Harry Garson (director-producer)

Dorothy Yost (writer) — Dwight Cummings (writer)

Relationship Unknown:

*Beatriz Michelena (actress-producer) and George Middleton (director)

Never-Married Couple:

*Gale Henry (actress-producer) — Bruno J. Becker

*Helen Gardner (actress-producer) — Charles L. Gaskill (writer-director)

*Jane Murfin (writer) and Larry Trimble (actor-director-producer)

*Nell Shipman (actress-writer-director) — Bert Van Tuyle (director)

*Florence Turner (actress-director-producer) — Larry Trimble (actor-director-producer)

Fake Marriage:

*Marie Dressler (actress-producer) — Jim Dalton (business manager)

Team, Not Romantic Couple:

Sada Cowan (writer) — Howard Higgin (writer)

*Grace Cunard (actress-writer-director) — Francis Ford (actor-director)

*Gene Gauntier (actress-writer-director-producer) — Sydney Olcott (actor-director-producer)

Julia Crawford Ivers (writer) — William Desmond Taylor (director)

* Indicates started production company together. Note: See Women’s Production and Pre-Production Companies for dates and company names

Domestic Relations

Sarah Y. Mason writing & swinging children, AMPAS

Dorothy Davenport Reid (a/p/d/w) with Wally Reid and children. MOMA

Dorothy Davenport Reid (a/p/d/w) with son and dog. MOMA

Alla Nazimova (a/p/d/w/e/o). USW

Hollywood home, Alla Nazimova (a/p/d/w/e/o). MOMA

Mabel Normand (p/d/w/a) with chauffeur. AMPAS

Fan magazine writers liked to point out exceptions to the rule that creative teams were husband-wife teams. Motion Picture Magazine had to tell readers that Francis Ford was not married to Grace Cunard, but that he had a “real wife,” as they put it—Mrs Elsie Van Name Ford—who wrote the stories he used in the independent productions he made after leaving Universal Pictures.(16) But where the studios specialized in publicizing spouses, thus advertising the heterosexuality of creative personnel, the industry community was divided about children and upheld what might be called a “double standard” of domestic disclosure. In 1916, Photoplay, typically obtuse on the subject, stated the obvious—that in the screen industry, actresses were always “Miss” whether married or not. But the editors take to task those women who keep their children secret, referring to them as “queer movie mothers ashamed of their babies.”(17) Researchers on this project confirm that there are relatively few contemporary references to children born to and raised by women working primarily as screen actresses. Writer Frances Marion in a 1958 interview later explained the practice of camouflaging not only pregnancy but child-rearing when she confirmed that “Husbands and babies had to be hidden in the background.” Marion thinks that Gloria Swanson was the first to dare to say that she was married and also that she was a mother.(18) Still in 1958 terminated pregnancies and illegitimate children could not be mentioned and researchers have had to wait decades for “reveal all” autobiographies in order to begin studying the work-to-domestic relations ratio in these women’s emotional lives.(19) The moral code, however, may have been more strict for actresses than for female scenario writers. A rare photograph of mother Sarah Y. Mason, who worked with Victor Heerman as a husband-wife writing team, plays on her double role dexterity. Also unusual is this image of parents and children not featured as a performing family. The photo of Dorothy Davenport Reid with husband Wally Reid and their children Betty and Wallace Reid, Jr., circulated as a publicity image after he tragically died as a consequence of morphine addiction in 1923 and she returned to work, visibly the suffering widow. Sometimes atypical units were featured in fan magazine articles as when the home life of Cleo Madison was filled in with a mother and the invalid sister she supported. A woman was single because she was divorced (as Madison) or in between husbands or lovers. She was single even if, especially if, she was in an established lesbian relationship like Dorothy Arzner and her partner Marion Morgan or writer Zoe Akins and actress Jobyna Howland. Researching these alliances requires us to look behind references to a woman’s “single” status or see the terms “companion” or “roommate” for the code words they really are. We learn to be sensitive to the references to serial relationships that point to gay and lesbian liaisons as, for instance, Anita Loos ’s mention in a 1938 letter to H. L. Mencken that Zoe Akins had a “new lover” (qtd. in Holliday 1995, 233).

What we want to know most of all is what went on inside the homes of Hollywood celebrities and their friends. Zoe Akins was noted for the parties she threw at her home at 6350 Franklin Avenue in Hollywood for guests such as Dorothy Arzner, director George Cukor, writer Somerset Maugham, and actress Billie Burke (once allied with Arzner). From a Cecil Beaton article in Vogue in 1931 we know that “the house shared by the Misses Zoe Akins and Jobyna Howland” was “full of the most exquisite objects, full of charming and literary personalities” (qtd. in Mann 2001, 74).

We can infer from the great number of exterior photographs of motion picture celebrity homes that fan magazines tantalized readers with these images. Photoplay made the connection between these exteriors and the domestic comfort of their interiors in a 1917 article. The publication of images of the homes of Marie Doro, Gladys Brockwell, Louise Glaum, Ruth Stonehouse, Mary Pickford, Bessie Barriscale, Tsuru Aoki, and Kathlyn Williams suggests that mansions and adorable bungalows were good publicity for their owners. Strangely, Photoplay dares to address the means by which these players were able to acquire the capital to buy luxurious homes, tying their earnings to the enthusiasm of fans in a reference to the “net proceeds of homage.”(20) But fan magazine writers had to strain to make a connection between what looks like real estate advertising and the lives of favorites. To score a photograph of Alla Nazimova standing outside her mansion in jodhpurs would have been a coup. Then again, the number of willing subjects reminds us of how many not only understood the motion picture advertising value of signs of wealth but also its diversionary function. Mabel Normandoutside her home sitting in her chauffeur-driven limousine belies a life of scandal and chronic illness. The diversion of the home also promoted diversion itself as an ideal. Here, the aura of work-as-play enveloped writers as well as players. Highly paid Famous Players-Lasky scenario writer Beulah Marie Dix walking her dachshund in front of her luxurious Southern California stucco residence reassures readers that her work is not exactly work. One angle on the story about Dix (and a rationale for taking interior publicity photographs), might have been that she worked from home.

Whose Work: Credits and Uncredited Work

Beulah Marie Dix (w/o) outside her home. NYPL

Male-female working partnerships raise the difficult question as to whether the female contribution was submerged or whether joint authorship had its own assumed standard. Collaboration was the norm in the first decade at the start of which all creative workers were uncredited. One early film historian would thus describe the development of the motion picture industry as moving from anonymous production to screen credit (Jacobs 1975, 121).(21) Attribution, if there was any, was unofficial, as Eileen Bowser explains in her study of the 1907–1915 years. Credits were not advertised in trade papers until in 1911 when the Edison Company published relatively complete cast lists (actors, directors, authors) and around the same time a few companies placed cast credits in titles, as Bowser determined from examining surviving motion picture film prints (Bowser 1990, 118).(22) The combination of early anonymity and the very conditions of collaboration in the case of creative couples can create some confusion. Following the Archival Filmography and Not Extant Films, contradictory records and retrospective corrections are referenced in the “Credit Report” note.

Director and/or Producer

Lillian Gish (a/d/w) (Remodelling Her Husband, 1920). PCMC

Griffith Mamaroneck Studio, New York, 1920. BISON

The focus here on women directors is both a misnomer and a key. In her important introduction to the “Cinema as a Job” section of The Red Velvet Seat, Antonia Lant explains that, given the “fluctuation” of opportunities in this period, directing, the plumb job, is a “most sensitive indicator of job range” (562). That the trade press, fan magazines, and the women most involved also saw directing as a key indicator is borne out in what Lant terms the “debate” over the question of the female director. She finds that these public discussions kept alive the terms of the debates around women’s suffrage, terms that were echoed in the 1970s (568).(23) One finds among the figures quoted here the position that women were not suited to direct (Lillian Gish, Alice Guy Blaché) as well as the position that women were uniquely suited to it (Clara Beranger, Lois Weber, June Mathis). Ida May Park espoused both positions at different times in her career (Denton 49; Park 335–37). Many have noted the apparent inconsistency between public statements and the responsibilities these women undertook, most notably directing, producing, and executive managing, and Lant reminds us to consider the historical moment in which these statements are made (562). Here we also emphasize the conditions under which women worked. For instance, the months in which Lillian Gish, in the absence of D. W. Griffith, acted as supervisor of the Mamaroneck, New York, studio, she also directed her only motion picture, the feature Remodelling Her Husband (1920). Richard Koszarski provides the information that the studio, the former Flagler estate, was under construction and the cameraman Gish relied upon was suffering from World War I shell shock (2008, 17).

The findings here indicate no perfect correspondence between directing or writing jobs and identification with feminism or even espousal of equality for women. A very few associated themselves with feminism (Sonya Levien, Adela Rogers St. Johns), and at least one first associated with and then disassociated herself from feminism (Olga Petrova). Surprisingly, one of the most unqualified statements on behalf of women’s equality comes in 1912 from Beatrice deMille, the mother of motion picture impresarios William and Cecil B. DeMille, and in her own right a powerful New York theatrical agent who became a scenario writer: “This is the woman’s age. I think it has come to stay. Every relation between the sexes has changed. Hereafter, no woman is going to get married without feeling that she is getting as much as she gives. This may sound… crude… but it expresses pretty clearly what I mean…. This theme ‘women’s equality’ lives very close to my heart.”(24) We could take up this theme and claim the first two decades as a “Golden Age of Women in Cinema.” Or, we can approach the question with more caution since the evidence is not all in as yet.

Alice Guy Blaché (d/w/p/o) My Madonna (Solax, 1915). BFI

The competing evidence of women’s own writings as well as other sources from the 1910s and 1920s point to an evolution of job terminology as well as of the jobs themselves. While Alice Guy Blaché would be called a “directrice,” she was also clearly a producer, beginning in France at the Gaumont Company and continuing in the US, where she was producer as well as president of the Solax Company, as Alison McMahan tells us in her definitive study (McMahan 2001, chs. 3 and 4). Consider as well the power of retrospective recollection in memoirs and later interviews to make claims as well as to issue disclaimers. Charlie Chaplin notoriously credited himself as director on Keystone Company films on which Mabel Normand was assigned as director.(25) Terminology in addition to roles themselves was in flux, so there was no standard way of referring to a woman who stage-directed a one-reel motion picture production as JeanieMacpherson, who in 1916 was referred to as a “directress,” did (Martin 95).

Jeanie Macpherson (w/d/a) The Tarantula (1913). AMPAS

Often male as well as female directors were “picturizers,” and, ambiguously, just “producers.” Even the Universal Weekly, the company house organ, through the 1910s uses “director” and “producer” almost synonymously, Cooper finds. To complicate matters, a unit within a larger company (effectively a company within a company), might be headed by a “producer” or a “producing director,” he further explains (Cooper 2010, 40). Here, we have credited women who were involved in production companies as “producers” as a means of adding a facet to a career, understanding, however, that there is more variance under the term “producer” than under “director.” Karen Mahar has used the term “actor-producer” picked up below. See “The Star Name Company.”

Not only were “producing” and “directing” terminologically interchangeable, but the distinction between directing, acting, and writing was not always clear. As an actress who in 1917 would start a company, Petrova Pictures Corporation, Olga Petrova recalled in her memoir, Butter With My Bread, that in the “infancy” of the industry, written scenarios were conceived as well as abandoned by both director and actors. Here she describesthe creative exertions of “Mr. K.,” the director who rewrites by enacting, and the ravishment of the heroine, an expectant mother, in a scene from an unnamed domestic melodrama:

Although the scenarios were always read to me for approval, it was quite possible for a director to change them out of all recognition as we went along. Members of the supporting cast rarely knew more of the piece than the episodes in which they appeared. These scenes were outlined by the director, but for the most part he left the dialogue to the imagination of the performer. As it was considered very amusing by some artists to try to break one another up, the dialogue, during the actual photographing of the scene, had very often nothing in common with the action. This was disconcerting enough, but the habit of a certain director of counting aloud between bellows through a megaphone, to “hop it up” or “ease it up,” was more disconcerting still. Very early in Mr. K’s direction I found the only way to combat this was to stop in the scene and beg his pardon for not having understood. This of course wasted considerable film, for we had to start all over again. Usually after the first day or so of the filming of a story, Mr. K would discard the script and outline the scenes from memory. Sometimes he improved on the original, sometimes he didn’t, but his manner of telling was always picturesque. I remember very well one scene going something like this: “You’re in your living room, working on some baby clothes. You register great joy at the coming of the little stranger. Your husband’s away and you’re thinking about a surprise he’s going to get when you give him the glad news. There’s a knock at the door… the mail man… a letter from your husband. Perhaps it’s to say he’s coming back sooner than you expected. You press it to your heart. You break the seal. You read it once. You can’t believe your eyes. You read it again. He ain’t coming back. He ain’t never coming back. He’s gone off with your best friend. Here we’ll count five for you to faint. You drop all of a heap, the letter clutched in your hand. We count five again. You come to. You look around you. ‘Where am I?’ you register. You drag yourself on your hands and knees to the couch, and you throw yourself face down on… shoulders… sobs. Your whole life’s ruined. Nothing matters no more. Suddenly you hear a sound. The latch clicks. You look up. The Baron enters. With a lascivious smile on his lips he comes toward you. “‘So… he’s gone,’ says the Baron. ‘What did I tell you?’ he says. ‘Didn’t I say he was a no-good bum? Didn’t I tell you he was playing around with this dame? And you wouldn’t believe me, would you? You sacrificing yourself, doing your own housework, wearing mangy old duds, never going anywheres, just so he could build up his business. Now you see where he’s brought you.’ “‘Don’t, don’t. Have mercy. Have pity,’ you says. Then he says, ‘Now maybe you’ll listen to me. Maybe you’ll come to have a little sense. There’s lots left to live for. It’s a great life if you don’t weaken. You can have beautiful clothes. You can have maids to wait on you. You can have a fine house, not a dump like you got now. You can have diamonds and yachts, and travel. I’ll settle a hundred thousand dollars on you. All you’ve got to do is say the word.’ “Now he starts coming nearer. He gets his arms around you. You try to push him off of you. You struggle to your feet. But he’s still grabbing you by the waist. Your hair gets all loose and falls over your shoulders. Your kimono tears open at the throat. You try to pull it together, but no use. As you struggle and struggle it gets ripped all the way down. Still you fight on, but you’re no match for the Baron. At last he overpowers you. You fall exhausted…. Cut.” By this time Mr. K had worked himself into a very interesting state of emotion. He was, as was once said of Mr. Gladstone, “carried away by his own exuberance of his own verbosity.” I felt I could never do any sort of justice to the scene after his description of it. This conviction was further strengthened by the fact that the “Baron” was a short, thin, pale weed of an individual whom I could very easily have taken over my knee and given a good trouncing (Petrova 1942, 260–61).

Olga Petrova (a/w/p) advertising slide Paramount Pictures, 1917. PCJY

Petrova’s description of Mr. K’s direction contrasts with her experience of working under the direction of Alice Guy Blaché, who was more open to actor’s contributions:

In the first scene, as in all succeeding ones, Madame Blaché outlined vocally what each episode was with action, words appropriate to the situation. If the first or second rehearsal pleased her, even though a player might intentionally or not alter her instructions, as long as they did not hurt the scene, even possibly improve it, she would allow this to pass. If not she would rehearse and rehearse until they did before calling camera. When she had cause to correct a player, she would do this courteously, and in my case, which was more than often, she might resort to her native tongue. This gentle gesture touched me deeply, softened any embarrassment I might feel. After all the scenes were set for the day had been shot, the close-ups followed…. These concluded, Madama looked, and was, tired. But during rehearsals and shooting she never lost her dignity or poise. She wore a silken glove, but she would have been perfectly capable of using a mailed fist if she considered it necessary (Petrova, “A Remembrance,” in Slide 1986a, 102–103).

Women’s Producing Companies: “Her Own” or Not Her Own?

Slide Cheating Cheaters (1919) Clara Kimball Young (a/p), Kathryn Stuart (w). PC

Ethel Grandin (a/p/o) with her own portrait. UW

Second Wave feminists often quoted modernist writer Virginia Woolf’s advice that if she is to write “A woman must have money and a room of her own.” The case of women who helped to start companies in the motion picture business, however, is not exactly parallel. Even while the attempt to gain more creative freedom may have explained the fact that there were more total independent companies with women’s names than men’s names, many factors intervened in the complicated process of industrial motion picture production. First, the concept of “Her-Own-Company” that Karen Mahar has retrieved for us is somewhat ironic in that it comes from a 1916 Photoplay editorial that refers to a “‘her-own-company’ epidemic,” by which the magazine means that from its point of view there were entirely too many companies started by star actresses following the example of Mary Pickford and Clara Kimball Young. Second, Mahar divides the phenomenon of women’s companies including the star name company into two “waves” or movements, with Photoplay’s imagined “epidemic” applying to the second. Thus: Movement 1: 1911–1915 and Movement 2: 1916–1923.(26) Third, and perhaps most important, Mahar cautions that the star actress’s name is no guarantee of the amount of power she wielded in the enterprise, particularly since the majority of these businesses were male-female partnerships (2006, 62). In the absence of company business records, most telling are documents such as distributor George Kleine’s deposition in the 1915 legal proceedings against Grandin Films involving Ethel Grandin and her husband Ray Smallwood. Clearly we cannot tell from the company name alone about either business arrangements or creative dynamics, and the term “company” may refer to either an independent legal entity or to a creative team, which might include an actress, a director, a writer, a camera operator, and others assigned to work together—again, a company within a larger company.

The Star Name Company

Marion Leonard (w/a/p). AMPAS

Gene Gauntier (a/w/d/p). PC

Nell Shipman (a/w/d/p/e/o) The Grub Stake (1922) Priest Lake, Idaho. Intertitle: “Dawn brings to Faith the determination to seek the one way out.” PC

Film studies scholarship on the US star system has been particularly strong on the commodification of the star actress as a modern form of public personhood.(27) In this scholarship, female stars such as Marlene Dietrich have been understood as taking symbolic control of their on-screen images.(28) Until recently, however, the idea that women in the silent era attempted to take control of their images by legal and economic means was an anomaly. Now, however, a second wave of star studies will need to consider the silent era “actor-producer” as well as the “actor-writer” as we imagine the many who also wrote their own scenarios. The question once posed of how to interpret image and narrative as favoring a woman’s point of view now becomes one of how actresses first used scenario writing as well as performance to turn the tables on convention. If, after they achieved fame, they chafed against creative constraints, how did they manage to break away and start up one business after another? In this regard, Marion Leonard may be as historically significant as Florence Lawrence, so often cited as the first motion picture star. At the Biography Company, Leonard is thought to have written and/or directed the extant one-reel Lucky Jim (1909), in which Jim is not so lucky because he has married a physically abusive shrew. In 1911, Leonard and her director husband, Stanner E. V. Taylor, left Biograph to set up Gem Motion Picture Company, the first of two companies they would start, capitalizing on Leonard’s popularity because they could.

The star name company in which the star’s name may or may not have been used in the title was either a company or a “unit” within a larger studio or company, thus more of what might be called a “dependent company” as opposed to an independent company. For example, actor-director Sydney Olcott and Gene Gauntier worked together as the Olcott-Gauntier unit within the Kalem Company, 1910–1912. After Olcott and Gauntier, along with her husband Jack C. Clark left the Kalem Company, they operated as Gene Gauntier Feature Players Company, an independent company, between 1912 and around 1915. The differences between being a totally “indie” company or a semi-independent company that was part of a larger studio or company boiled down to the sources of capital, the advantage of self-contained departments (editing, publicity, legal), and, most significant in terms of public exhibition, commercial distribution that might be undertaken by the larger company that had its own distribution channels. For some, as was the case with the Kalem Company, distribution to exhibiting theatres was guaranteed by the Motion Picture Patents Company cartel. Later, beginning in 1915, larger companies began to buy up their own theatres, a means of insuring exhibition. Independent companies, however, had to contract with separate distributing or releasing companies, sometimes at their peril. Producer-writer-director Nell Shipman recalled in her autobiography that she had been tricked into taking too low a percentage on the distribution deal that she struck with American Releasing Corporation for The Grub-Stake (1922). As a consequence, she lost money when she should have been the one to profit (114–115).

In the US, companies formed pre-World War I, 1910–1915, were coincident with the foundation of the first moving picture businesses, the transition from one- and two-reel to multireel films (from shorts to features). Post-World War I company foundation corresponded with the American rise to world film industry dominance made easier by weakened French, German, Italian, and British motion picture businesses.(29) Here is how social and economic conditions in Mahar’s two high points for US star name companies favored initiatives differently:

Wave 1: 1911–1915: Actresses left Biograph, Kalem, and Vitagraph, the companies that had promoted them to stardom. Marion Leonard, the second “Biograph Girl,” started Gem (1911) and later the Mar-Leon Corporation (1913); the Vitagraph star who gave her name to Helen Gardner Picture Players (1911–12) produced features; and Ethel Grandin, with Raymond C. Smallwood, formed Grandin Films (1914–1915) and later Smallwood Film Corporation. With Sydney Olcott, Gene Gauntier started the Gene Gauntier Feature Players Company (1912–1915), and the first “Biograph Girl” Florence Lawrence, with Harry Solter, her husband, formed the Victor Film Company (1912–1914). Here, as counter to the myth of available US capital, it is notable that “Vitagraph Girl” Florence Turner, frustrated in her attempt to raise financing in the United States, found it in the United Kingdom. With Larry Trimble she set up Turner Films, which operated in Britain, 1913–16, but was curtailed finally by World War I.(30) Renting the Hepworth Studios in London, the two produced, among other titles, the extant one-reel comedy in which they compete in a funny face-making contest, Daisy Doodad’s Dial (1914). One might have thought that US women, replacing men drafted into the armed forces in World War I, would thus get a foot in the door in the film industry. While women did not replace men in the US, they did in the German film industry, where even an American, a circus performer from Watseka, Illinois, seized the opportunity. She hyphenated her first and last names as the Fern-Andra Company, begun in 1915.

Frame enlargement Florence Turner Daisy (a/p) Daisy Doodad’s Dial (Turner Films, 1914). USW

Frame enlargement Florence Turner Daisy (a/p) Daisy Doodad’s Dial (Turner Films, 1914). USW

Fern Andra. Filmmuseum Berlin

Slide The Common Law (1916) Clara Kimball Young (a/p), Beryl Morhange (w). PC

Wave 2: 1916–1923: Let us consider this second high point from the industry perspective of “too many women.” Recall that in December 1916, Photoplay editors identified what they thought was a disturbing development in Hollywood. They count six “producing companies headed by women” either already “grinding out plays” or in early stages of formation (“Close-up,” 63-64). Yet Photoplay makes two exceptions— companies started by Mary Pickford

Given the general academic consensus around the periodization of silent film into a series of distinctive stages as described in the Introduction, the kind of broad, single-author overviews spanning the whole of the silent era that once marked film scholarship have become relatively rare. (Far more common are anthologies and edited collections that bring together work by specialists in different temporal periods of silent film, as detailed in Anthologies, Essay Collections, and Journals.) Still, readers who are new to the study of silent film and looking for a place to start can find some useful titles, both new and old. Kobel 2007 offers what is arguably the most thorough overview of the silent era written since the 1990s; aimed at the general reader, the book is meticulously designed and illustrated with more than four hundred images from the Library of Congress. Robb 2010 provides a more concise introduction intended largely for students and can serve as a useful jumping off point for further study. Everson 1978, which focuses on the silent film in America only, also provides useful introductory material, although readers should be aware that Everson’s views on the evolution of silent film have been thoroughly revised by later scholars. Predating Everson, Brownlow 1968 was at one point the most prominent and important text on the history of silent film, arguing for its value and artistry at a moment when many still viewed the silent cinema as archaic. It remains useful for the sheer volume of original interview material that it includes, although Brownlow’s hagiographic work, like Everson’s evolutionary view, has been largely supplanted by later historicist and neoformalist approaches to film studies. More personal reflection than scholarly history, Card 1994 presents a loving look at the era of silent film by an archivist and film collector who dedicated much of his life and career to preserving the works of that era, many of which he first saw as an adolescent during the 1920s. Usai 2000 shares with Card a dual focus on film history and film preservation as it relates to the study of the silent era. For readers who wish to understand the way that academic film historians since the 1980s have come to divide silent era filmmaking into multiple historical and stylistic periods, Thompson 1985 offers a useful point of entry. Those readers looking for a more informally presented but still rigorous introduction to silent film should consult The Bioscope, a blog on silent film research and appreciation containing fourteen hundred entries searchable by topic and theme. Interested readers are also urged to visit other complementary articles within Oxford Bibliographies that provide further detail on specific topics and time periods that fall under the general rubric of “Silent Film.” These include the entry on “American Cinema, 1895–1915” and entries on various national cinemas, and the numerous entries on individual stars, directors, and films of the silent era from around the world.

  • The Bioscope.

    E-mail Citation »

    Although it ceased being updated in 2012, The Bioscope remains one of the most readable, authoritative, and comprehensive silent film websites, first started as a personal project by the British Library’s moving-image curator. Particularly useful for its silent film FAQ and its lengthy guides to online and DVD resources.

  • Brownlow, Kevin. The Parade’s Gone By. . . . New York: Knopf, 1968.

    E-mail Citation »

    A vivid, critical reflection on silent era films and filmmaking, at one time the seminal work on the subject. Brownlow’s work predates and is out of step with most current scholarship, but the personal interviews with over one hundred silent era directors, producers, and stars give the book an enduring value.

  • Card, James. Seductive Cinema: The Art of Silent Film. New York: Knopf, 1994.

    E-mail Citation »

    An engaging, richly illustrated, and amusingly argumentative survey of silent film colored by the personal reflections and recollections of a pioneering collector, archivist, and silent film enthusiast who was the founder and curator of the famed motion picture archive at the George Eastman House.

  • Everson, William K. American Silent Film. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of the standard texts of silent film history in the United States. While later scholars have significantly complicated its evolutionary narrative, Everson’s work remains in print and still provides a useful introductory overview, particularly of the classical silent era. Special topical chapters cover genres, production design, and the intertitle.

  • Kobel, Peter. Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture. New York: Little, Brown, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of the most comprehensive overviews of silent film to be released in recent decades, with dedicated chapters on stars, directors, genres, sound and color, the press, the film business, and silent film outside the United States. Lavishly illustrated with over four hundred rare images drawn from the Library of Congress.

  • Robb, Brian J. Silent Cinema. Harpenden, UK: Oldcastle, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    An accessible guide for beginners, organized thematically rather than historically. Includes a dedicated chapter on silent comedy and one on silent era scandals; individual descriptions and analyses for some of the major silent films; and an overview of major print, online, and DVD resources for studying silent cinema.

  • Thompson, Kristin. “The Formulation of the Classical Style, 1909–28.” In The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. By David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, 245–472. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203358818E-mail Citation »

    Thompson offers a foundational articulation of the multiple historical and stylistic periods that make up the latter decades of the silent film era. While her periodization has been refined and further subdivided by later scholars, readers interested in understanding how film historians since the 1980s have approached the silent cinema might start here.

  • Usai, Paolo Cherchi. Silent Cinema: An Introduction. 2d ed. London: British Film Institute, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    Revised and expanded from its original publication under the title Burning Passions in 1991. Provides a history of cinema’s first thirty years alongside information on the processes of film restoration and preservation that have been so central in enabling the study of silent era film.

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