- Introduction:Women and the Silent Screen: Cultural and Historical Practices
Feminism has reinvigorated the study of silent cinemain recent years, bringing renewed questions to bear on not only who is included in histories of the medium, but also how that history is written. By expanding our fields and modes of research feminism has also expanded the questions posed about film history: How did women produce knowledge about the new medium and its social role? What part did female writers and celebrities play in molding cultural expectations about women's work, sexuality and marriage? On what terms did women negotiate cinema's social space and its imaginary enculturation? Finally, how might all of these questions affect the ways work is produced in film and media studies in a broader sense? That is, how can the dual intersection between early film scholarship and feminist methodology help us think about the subjects we study and how we approach them historically?
The essays we have included here represent only a small sampling of the work of close to 60 international scholars who gathered for the 2001 conference on Women and the Silent Screen at the University of California, Santa Cruz. All have been revised and updated for this issue of Film History. This unprecedented event provided an opportunity to take stock of an emerging field, share approaches and resources, and consider how work on women in silent cinema intersects with broader questions of film historiography and theory. Thus, while this collection marks a particular gathering, it also reflects changing approaches to historical research in silent cinema more generally. In designing the conference we sought to move away from the early focus of feminist analysis on representations of women onscreen and canonical silent-era female directors and screenwriters to invite broader conceptions of women's motion picture work, expanded notions of authorship and new theoretical and methodological models for performing the work of film history. We hoped this would in turn reinvigorate modes of inquiry in film studies generally – questions of methodology, authorship and appropriate objects of study.
Covering a variety of historical and theoretical concerns, the research collected in this special issue thus displays the burgeoning depth of feminist inquiry in early cinema, focusing less on representations of women onscreen than on the ways women shaped the silent period as directors, writers, taste-makers, celebrities, moviegoers, theorists and historians. We have chosen essays that largely move beyond the familiar pioneering figures of the early period, as well as the traditional focus on filmmakers and stars, to consider other kinds of film labour, novel research sources, and innovative historiographic approaches. Drawing on a rich array of primary historical materials from studio archives, industry trade publications, movie fan ephemera, and the popular press, feminist inquiry can use particular case studies as the nexus of a broader investigation of film culture – its institutional structure, its celebrity culture, its social climate, and its increasingly prominent role in daily life.
In order to appreciate the diverse range of contributions that women made to early filmmaking, traditional conceptions of cinematic labour must be [End Page 107] reformulated to include both new categories of workers and new ways of looking at the labour performed by established players. Heidi Kenaga's essay examines the throngs of 'film-smitten girls' who arrived in early Hollywood in search of stardom, demonstrating how the troubling influx of single, transitory women to Los Angeles prompted early attempts to regulate not only female labour, but private conduct as well. At the other end of the spectrum, Anne Morey finds that writer and taste-maker Elinor Glyn performed another kind of labour to define her authorial signature well beyond that traditionally accorded screenwriters. Shelley Stamp unpacks the work performed by celebrity portraits of Lois Weber and her husband and collaborator, Phillips Smalley, arguing that metaphors of marital harmony that sought to explain the couple's creative partnership ultimately could not contain the challenges their working relationship presented to dominant models of gender relations. All three articles demonstrate the importance of looking beyond film texts to study the culture of early Hollywood as a workplace and living space for women.
An emphasis on women...