- Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers by Kino Lorber
Blu-ray set distributed by Kino Lorber, 2018
In a concluding supplement for Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers, Kino Lorber's substantial Blu-ray collection, scholars Cari Beauchamp, Karen Ward Mahar, Anthony Slide, and Shelley Stamp discuss the nature of American filmmaking during its foremost years of production. They note, for example, how the medium's cast-off status helped open its doors to practitioners often marginalized in other forms of endeavor, including Jews and women. But while certain studios seemed especially keen on hiring and promoting a female workforce (Universal, most importantly), these filmmakers were nevertheless part of a financial, fairly exploitive bottom line, and as with much of early cinema, absolute authorship proved notoriously hard to ascertain. In any case, what was produced in the years 1911–29, as evinced throughout this compilation, was an extraordinary advancement in style and narrative, in thematic maturity, and in an essential diversity of vision. Whether the films were necessarily [End Page 171] good or bad is irrelevant, for through the eyes and ideas of these female filmmakers, one sees the neglected promise of an entire gender, and the evolution of art itself.
This fundamental context forms the framework of more than seventeen hundred minutes of content, spread over six discs in complete and fragmented samples, and it starts with a summarized spotlight on Alice Guy-Blaché. In Mixed Pets (1911), one sees Guy-Blaché's masterful arrangement of character movement and the comic timing of characters' entrances and exits. Her light touch and balancing of tone are prominent features of 1912's Algie the Miner and 1913's Matrimony's Speed Limit. Her advanced visual dexterity is viewed in the tripartite frames of Canned Harmony (1912), in the artful use of natural light in A Fool and His Money (1912), and in the revelatory point-of-view shots of Burstup Homes' Murder Case (1913). Like many of the films collected in Pioneers, Guy-Blaché's work is based around misunderstandings and altered or mistaken identities, usually with good-humored consequences (Tramp Strategy, 1911; A House Divided, 1913), but her elegant, decorous design complements an exceptional penchant for naturalistic performance (as Slide notes, she had a sign posted at her Solax studio reading, "Be Natural").
Lois Weber's talents are likewise shown in great variety. Her Idle Wives (1916) is a self-conscious portrait of urban poverty where moviegoers attend a reflective film-within-a-film. On the Brink, from 1911, showcases the depth of her interior and exterior staging (compared to From Death to Life, a period piece that Weber released the following year with rather rudimentary set design). The pictorial variance of her work is affirmed by The Rosary (1913), a Civil War drama framed within the circular border of its eponymous string of beads, and Suspense (1913), one of the more famous films of this collection, with extreme overhead angles and a brilliantly executed triangular split screen, following the simultaneous actions of three characters in a well-paced rescue/chase. Weber's religious ideology is vaunted in the allegorical Hypocrites (1915), a somber and unashamedly preachy film consumed with social moralizing and the search for an "elusive truth." A brief segment of Lost by a Hair (1914) follows. Weber's Too Wise Wives (1921) was one of the films made with her husband, Phillips Smalley, and is typical of Pioneers' several Jazz Age tales about the modern upending of moral, sexual, and social conventions, usually within, or contrasted against, an archetypal domestic backdrop.
As the assembled group of archivists and historians observes in a handful of commentary tracks and short documentaries (one wishes for more of each), the women who made the films included here, and others, weren't automatically beholden to "women's issues" or strictly female-centric themes. Oftentimes, as Slide notes, they were simply making films—period—with no adherence to any single template. Most notable in this Kino Lorber collection are the forays into the Western genre. Alice Guy-Blaché's Greater Love Hath No Man (1911) juggles a love triangle and an exciting shootout with equal...