Female Pioneers of Cinema – The Ladies That Did It First

When it comes to learning about the history of film you will find a severe lack of women in the picture. I can attest to this as someone who studied film at university. From the technology’s inception, to experimentation with the medium, all the way through to what we consider classic cinema; the films that represent the best of movie making, the techniques, scripts, and theory’s that we pondered were mostly male dominated. Some might say that it’s just a representation of the time and there weren’t any female filmmakers back then. But they would be wrong.

Over the last month or so publicity for a film by Pamela B Green called Be Natural has spiked in my news feed and so the name Alice Guy Blanche may have crossed your social media path as well. Chances are you probably still don’t know who she is or what she did. Be Natural is a documentary that dives into the story of Alice Guy Blanche, the first ever female filmmaker, and why she faded out of film history.

The films sounds great but its important to note that like Alice, there are other female pioneers of cinema that have seemingly been omitted from the film history timeline. Hundreds of early film directors, script writers, production assistants, film colourists and more have been left out of the history books. There is a great website I found doing research for this post which highlights many of these women’s accomplishments and is a catalogue for the missing half of film history. The Women Film Pioneers Project is full of names so here are just a few that stood out to me.

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston has been considered one of the first female African-American filmmakers. Her work mainly consisted of ethnographic style projects documenting a day in the life of an African-American. She later worked as an on staff screenwriter for Paramount pictures in 1941 but worked mainly as a playwright and novelist.

Bess Meredyth is mentioned in nearly every account of women screenwriters of the silent era, but very few details about her work seem to exist. One of the only places on paper her work has been documented is in an autobiography written by her son John Meredyth Lucas and even then there are gaps. Meredyth’s most prolific period was between 1914 to 1920 where she wrote, acted, and directed motion pictures with her husband. Credits for projects always a little dubious in this era as a couple working together the sole credit would oftentimes go to Meredyth’s husband Wilfred Lucas. Over her career Bess Meredyth accumulated over 125 writing credits for most of the major studios most famously assisting in the supervision on Ben-Hur.

Dorothy Arznor

Dorothy Arznor‘s film career spanned from 1919 to 1943, fifteen years of which were spent as a director. She remains the most prolific woman studio director in the history of American cinema having directed 11 films for Paramount pictures including Sarah and Son (1930) and Anybody’s Woman (1930), and Honor Among Lovers (1931). She was also one of the few female directors to make the transition from silent to sound film. Dorothy has been embraced by both feminist film critics and queer film theorists for her films emphasis on the importance of female relationships.

Mary Pickford worked as an actress for many years transitioning into film in 1913. Her incredible success as an actress gave Pickford incredible bargaining power. In 1916, Pickford had negotiated a contract that gave her a $10,000 a week salary, 50% of the films profits, and her own production company. She would even sign off on every aspect of her productions, from the script to the director and was even known to have had a hand in the editing. In 1919 at just 27 years old she founded United Artists distribution company along with other names including Charlie Chaplin.

Read on about more women film pioneers HERE

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