What Women In Film Can Learn From The "Manless Eden" That Was Hollywood's Silent Era

Mary Pickford and Frances Marion
In 1920, philanthropist and women’s rights activist Catherine Filene published the popular book Careers for Women, designed to be “a complete and authoritative guide to the one hundred and sixty occupations open for women.” Women, according to Filene’s book, could be opera singers, dog raisers, or bee keepers; they could be surgeons, or secretaries, or stage designers.
Women could become motion-picture directors, too. In her chapter in Careers for Women, Ida May Park, a director of 14 movies and writer of more than 50, described directing as an “open field” for “hardy and determined” women. Park believed that women were well-suited to directing because of the “superiority of their emotional and imaginative faculties,” and predicted that once the profession “emerged from its embryonic state,” women would “find no finer calling” than directing.
Women never stormed the profession of directing as Park had hoped. Nearly 100 years later, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism conducted a study that found that for every woman director hired between the years 2007 and 2017, 22 male directors were hired. And of the top 100 grossing films in 2017, only 8% were directed by women, and only 10% were written by women. These startling figures have come into sharp focus in recent months, as Hollywood reflects and reassembles following the Harvey Weinstein reckoning. From predatory producers to unconscious bias, what are the factors that prevent women from climbing the ranks in Hollywood — and how can they be eased towards gender parity?
But as Careers for Women demonstrates, the American movie industry hasn’t always skewed so heavily towards employing men. Another set of astonishing statistics tells a different story about Hollywood. Between 1912 and 1919, Universal Studios’ roster of 11 women directors made a total of 170 films — and Ida May Park was one of them.
These statistics originate from a younger, scrappier Hollywood, in which silent films were produced and disseminated rapidly. Back then, movies were not the multi-million dollar engines fueling an even more lucrative business. During the silent era, which spanned from 1912 to 1929, movies were creative enterprises churned out by over 100 L.A.-based studios at once.
“We get the term ‘shooting on the lot’ because these guys just took over empty lots to make their movies,” Cari Beauchamp, a film scholar and author of the book Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, told Refinery29. “People just went in and did it. It would take five people to go on location, including the actors, to shoot the scenes, and be in theaters in a month. You’d make a movie in a week.”
In this lawless, rough-and-tumble Hollywood, women worked in all aspects of movie-making, including directing, screenwriting, film editing, costume design, producing, camera operating, stunts, and theater owning. “One may not name a single vocation in either the artistic or business side of its progress in which women are not conspicuously engaged,” wrote Robert Grau in Motion Picture Supplement in 1915. Women and men worked alongside one another, forging a new industry in real time. “In such a relatively egalitarian atmosphere, women seemed destined to become equal partners with men,” wrote Lizzie Francke in the book Script Girls: Women Screenwriters in Hollywood.
Women screenwriters — the most well-respected and well-paid being Frances Marion, Jeanie Macpherson, Anita Loos, June Mathis, and Bess Meredyth — wrote half of the silent films copyrighted between 1915 and 1925, according to Beauchamp’s Without Lying Down. A woman, Lois Weber, was the highest-paid director in town. It’s no surprise that one commentator referred to this landscape as a “manless Eden.” Unfortunately, due to intentional destruction, decay of material, fire, and neglect, much of these women’s works have been lost – according to a study from the Library of Congress, only 14% of the 10,919 American silent films released between 1912-1929 currently exist.
Part of the reason women were so involved in the production side of films was because they were the studios’ coveted audience demographic. “Theater owners were trying to cater to women, particularly white, middle-class women,” Alicia Malone, a film journalist and author of Backwards in Heels, told Refinery29. “They thought it would attract a more elegant crowd. At the beginning of film, movies were very rowdy, a cheap night out. It was unruly.”
The first movie theater opened in 1905 in Philadelphia and showed short silent films accompanied by a piano. Due to the miniscule admissions fee, these dark, unpleasant theaters attracted a clientele of poor, urban immigrants looking for an evening out. An editor from Moving Picture World at the time snidely remarked that “any person of refinement looked around to see if [he were] likely to be recognized by anyone before entering the doors.” Soon, the movie house landscape became more varied, with institutions catering to different niche audiences. Movie houses that charged higher admission and attracted a middle-class audience were called “theaters.” And these refined theater-owners put ads and coupons in women’s magazines.
Since theaters were trying to cater to women – who, according to a 1927 statistic uncovered by Moving Picture World, comprised 83% of the moviegoing audience — it followed that women would be recruited to create content that appealed to the target demographic. Frances Marion, a screenwriter perhaps best known for her long working partnership with the silent era megastar Mary Pickford, explained that women could better “determine and understand women’s likes and dislikes, and thus be able to give them the kind of pictures they enjoy.”
That said, men still controlled most studios – with some exceptions. Pioneering director Alice Guy-Blache and her husband, also a director, founded the Solax Company, the largest pre-Hollywood film studio, in 1908. In 1917, Lois Weber became the first woman to own her own movie studio, Lois Weber Productions. But it would be men like the Irving Thalberg, who ran Universal Studios at 20, and Louis B. Mayer, the power broker whose predatory behavior is likened to Harvey Weinstein’s, whose careers would persist through the dramatic changes of the 1920s.
Part of what held women in Hollywood together in this burgeoning, male-dominated industry were the friendships and working partnerships they created with one another. “There were a variety of women who gravitated toward bringing in other women,” says Beauchamp. “These women were creating a path. No one had done any of this stuff before. Every day was a discovery.”
When tracking the careers of some of the most prolific and influential filmmakers of the era, the effects of the supportive network of friendships become tangible. In addition to running a studio, Lois Weber made a name for herself creating movies about social issues between 1914 and 1921. The most famous of which, Where Are My Children?, focused on abortion; another riveting movie called Shoes, now heralded as a feminist classic, looked at the devastating ramifications of poverty on a young woman’s life.
Weber, who had tremendous connections in Hollywood, looked out for other women with burgeoning careers in front of and behind the camera. “She’d hire women. I think it was a natural reaction to having so much to deal with in society,” said Malone.
So when a young woman named Marion Benson Owens came to Weber looking for work, Weber took her on as a screenwriter and mentee. First, though, Weber recommended Owens change her name to something more suitable for Hollywood – and so the budding screenwriter became Frances Marion. By the end of Marion’s career, as launched by Weber, she had written 325 films across all genres and was the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood.
Marion’s legacy is defined by her movies, and by the careers she helped along the way – just like Weber’s. Marion wrote her best movies for Mary Pickford, who happened to be the highest paid performer in Hollywood at the time, and the first performer to ever receive a million dollar contract, beating Charlie Chaplin to it by two years. After comedian Marie Dressler descended into poverty for some years, Marion helped her chart her way back into motion pictures. When her screenwriter friend Lorna Moon fell ill with tuberculosis, Marion used her clout to sell her script Dark Moon for $7,500, enough for Moon to enter a sanatorium for further treatment.
Courtesy of Cari Beauchamp
Pictured: A Frances Marion "Cat Party"
Essentially, Marion was the locus of networking for women in film. Famously, Marion hosted Friday evening gatherings with Hollywood’s women power players, from actresses to directors to screenwriters. The women dressed down, exchanged notes on the business and their experiences, and formed long-lasting friendships. The press derided these gatherings as “cat parties,” but they were far more than simple gatherings: Without anyone watching, the women could be exceedingly honest with each other, and create an atmosphere of both solidarity and professional improvement.
“They were meeting with each other. Talking with each other. Taking care of each other, professionally and personally,” said Beauchamp. These women helped each other’s careers in every stage, from stuntwoman Helen Holmes hiring Helen Gibson to do the even scarier stunts, to Marion’s cohort of female talent.
Everything changed with the invention of the “talkie” — or movies with sound — in 1927. In a sentence, that’s when the movie business began to be taken more seriously as an engine for profit. Wall Street began to invest, and the many studios were consolidated into fewer, more powerful production hubs. Beauchamp says that in 1920, the L.A. directory listed 100 filmmaking companies; by 1933, there were seven. “By ‘33, moviemaking is a big business,” Beauchamp explained. “Salaries are higher. The guys wanted the jobs.”
With the consolidation of power into a few major Wall Street-backed studios came the elimination of the egalitarian, creative flourishing of the silent era – thus compromising women’s once prominent position in the business. “The most important reason to understand why there was this incredible group of women working in the movies was because filmmaking wasn’t taken seriously as a business. That was key to it,” Beauchamp explained.
While women still remained the subject of the movies — after all, they remained a coveted audience through Hollywood’s Golden Age — they were no longer the directors. Between the years of 1912 and 1919, Universal Studios had a host of 11 women directors who worked for them consistently (including Lois Weber). Then, beginning from the mid-1920s stretching to 1982’s Fast Times in Ridgemont High, directed by Amy Heckerling, Universal did not hire another woman to direct films. Dorothy Arzner, who survived the great culling, was one of the few women who continued to find work as a director in the talkie era.
Essentially, working behind the camera was no longer seen as a viable option for women, and that message was passed down. When the book Careers For Women was re-published in 1933, the chapter on “motion picture director” had been quietly removed. Women who worked as actresses had a new set of dangers to reckon with: The predatory behavior of extremely powerful male executives, who, under the restrictive contract system, had complete control over their careers (and to a large degree, their personal lives).
And so, we ended up at the current state of women in film, which is encapsulated by the disheartening statistics at the beginning of this article. Given the radically different nature of the film industry now, we’ll never return to the Manless Eden – but there are some notable women emerging from the pack of men. Even the past calendar year held some landmark moments for women in film. With her debut Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig stole our hearts (and got an Oscar nomination); Patti Jenkins led a movement with Wonder Woman. With A Wrinkle in Time, Ava DuVernay became the first woman of color to direct a movie with a budget exceeding $100 million; Rachel Morrison became the first woman cinematographer to be nominated for an Oscar, thanks to Mudbound.
Networks of women – just like the ones established during Frances Marion’s cat parties – are crucial for establishing parity in the film industry, and launching careers like Morrison’s, Gerwig’s, Duvernay’s, and Jenkins’. As a 2015 study from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film demonstrated, when women are directors or producers, they’re significantly more likely to bring other women aboard in behind-the-camera positions. Beauchamp cites Film Fatales, a nonprofit organization founded by Leah Meyerhoff in 2013, as a prime example of women in film coalescing to form crucial support networks. Every first Monday of the month, members of Film Fatales — each of whom has directed at least one feature film – gather at the home of a host for a dinner party, and a discussion around a predetermined, craft-related topic, like communicating effectively with cinematographers or raising funds.
“It’s a very simple, but very workable, organizational model,” Beauchamp said. “That’s how change is going to happen. Slowly but surely. The day-in, day-out connections and hiring.”
During the silent era, women in Hollywood had Marion and her parties, and a robust network of highly successful women willing to bolster other women’s burgeoning careers. Those networks are being formed again — and Film Fatales is just one organization helping to do so. Notably, today’s networking groups are far more inclusive than the silent era’s. Though the level of gender parity achieved in that era was astonishing, the accomplishments were largely limited to white women.
Beauchamp sees the solidarity of the silent era’s women reflected in movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up. “The rising up of the women with #MeToo and Time’s Up is another way of getting together and solving the problem. It’s not personal. It’s systemic. Sexism is systemic,” Beauchamp said. “[Women in Hollywood] knew that back then, and somehow, we managed to forget it. It’s certainly been brought home once again with Time’s Up and #MeToo.”

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