The Untold History Of The Influential Female Writers And Directors Of The Silent Film Era

By Regan Monnin··  7 min read
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The Untold History Of The Influential Female Writers And Directors Of The Silent Film Era Alamy

In just the last few years, both the #TimesUp and the #MeToo movements have swept Hollywood. Actresses are fed up with the male-dominated industry.

When you look at the numbers, it’s not hard to see why. Only seven women have been nominated for an Oscar for Best Director since the Academy’s founding in 1929; only two took home the honor. Actresses routinely have to fight for pay equitable to their male co-stars. Hollywood is an old boys club. There’s no denying that. 

But it hasn’t always been this way. In its early years, women ran Hollywood. They directed, produced, filmed, and starred in the biggest movies in silent film history. The most famous screenwriters of silent film? Women. The most prolific producers of silent film? Women. The most famous silent film stars? Women. 

A Female-Dominated Industry

How is this possible? Women’s rights were lacking in the early 20th century. For much of the silent film era, women couldn’t vote. So how did women come to hold such power in the industry?

Female screenwriters wrote half of all silent films ever produced.

The answer is rather simple: at its advent, there was no rhyme or reason to the film industry. The beginning of the business was chaotic. Rapid technological advancement allowed films to be produced at an astonishing rate. From 1904-1908, an estimated 10,000 movie theaters were built; in 1904 there had been just a handful in the entire country. With such exponential growth, movie production companies constantly lacked employees. The lack of structure in the industry allowed women into the business. From ticket girls at movie theaters to the industry’s top screenwriters and executives, women held positions at all levels. 

Behind the Camera

Women were partly successful in early Hollywood because Hollywood’s audience was predominantly female. Films made by women did particularly well as the female audiences could relate to and identify with the films. Particularly popular were romantic comedies and dramas, but some films tackled social issues head-on. Dorothy Davenport wrote and directed multiple films about controversial topics including prostitution, addiction, and domestic violence. Other female writers discussed issues of capital punishment, poverty, and contraception.  

Female writers grew increasingly popular with the success of their films, giving them power and status in the industry. Frances Marion, considered by many to be the first dominant screenwriter in Hollywood, revolutionized the industry with her partnerships with actresses. She created roles specifically for Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, arguably the biggest stars of silent film. During her career, she wrote 136 film scripts and won two Oscars. 

Marion was eventually iced out of Hollywood as the talkies rolled into town and “the tyranny of the woman writer” became an embarrassment. While the woman writer may have been an embarrassment to talkie Hollywood, women left a mark on the industry forever: female screenwriters wrote half of all silent films ever produced.

The Rise of the It-Girl

With the rise of the film industry came the “it-girl.” Popularized by actress Clara Bow in the 1927 film It, the term referred to women who had “it,” a combination of the ingenue and femme fatale. Think Marilyn Monroe, Iman, Angelina Jolie. The it-girls set the latest fashion and beauty trends and became icons in their own right. They were intriguing. An air of mystery surrounded them. They had something special, but the audience couldn’t quite put their finger on it.

It-girls exploded in popularity and notoriety as the silent film era transformed into the talkies. With the it-girl came new levels of fame. But the it-girls weren’t just beautiful. They were shrewd businesswomen and inventive creatives intent on making their own mark on the industry. 

One of the more popular it-girls, Gloria Swanson, originated Hollywood glitz and glamour as we now know it. Her long list of lovers and opulent lifestyle gained her fame as one of the top starlets of early Hollywood. Beginning her career in 1916 with slapstick comedy, Swanson quickly rose to the top of the industry. She soon found a contract with famed director Cecil Demile who transformed her into a suave femme fatale. After being refused more serious roles, she started her own production company, Gloria Swanson Productions. Swanson’s first film at her production company, Sadie Thompson, was a critical and commercial success. The film earned Swanson a nomination for Best Actress at the first annual Academy Awards in 1929. 

While Swanson is an iconic fixture of American cinema, the original it-girl Clara Bow is widely considered the leading sex symbol of the Roaring Twenties. Not only did she originate the it-girl term, but she was also able to successfully make the transition from silent film to the talkies – not an easily achievable feat. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Bow is her life outside of Hollywood. She retired in 1933 at the age of 28 and promptly moved to her husband’s ranch in Nevada where she became a rancher. 

While Bow popularized the idea of the it-girl in 1927, actresses enjoyed fame and notoriety long before the term became a part of the common vernacular. Lillian Gish, one of the most famous actresses of the era, became the first woman to ever direct a feature film with Remodeling Her Husband, released in 1920. It was her first and only directorial venture. In 1925, Gish signed a contract with MGM for $800,000 a year. The contract gave her creative control, allowing Gish to choose her screenplays, directors, and cast. Gish was granted unprecedented rights as a young actress. Her contract was the first of its kind.

The End of an Era

As the talkies came to Hollywood, some in the film industry successfully made the transition, others did not. The production companies that survived into the new era, like MGM and Universal Pictures, were run by men. Most production companies run by women were smaller and independent, resulting in less money to weather the change in technology as sound came to the silver screen. 

The message was clear: film industry jobs were no longer acceptable for respectable women.

The transition to the talkies brought an aversion to women in higher up positions. Studios consolidated power and were able to better control who was allowed to work in the industry. Career guidebooks for women, like Careers for Women and The Girl and the Job, sang the film industry’s praises in the 1920s. But the 1930s editions of the books phased out the film industry chapters completely. The message was clear: film industry jobs were no longer acceptable for respectable women.

Soon female directors, producers, and screenwriters were completely forgotten. Between 1912-1919, Universal Studios employed 11 female directors entirely. By the late 1920s, Universal had phased out its female directors. A woman would not direct a film for Universal Studios until 1982 with Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Closing Thoughts

Because of poor record keeping and the loss of countless films, we can’t know the full impact of women on the early days of the film industry. We can, however, learn about those women whose names have not been forgotten to history. 

From Frances Marion to Lillian Gish, women worked in every aspect of the film industry. Whether they wrote, directed, acted, or produced, women left a lasting impact. Hollywood owes so much to the women who shaped its early years. Without these women, the film industry would not be what it is today. 

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