Common Careers #3, Special TCM Film Fest Edition: Fannie Hurst

Welcome back to Common Careers! I know that it’s been a minute since we visited with Bryher and Lois, but…Film noir festivals must be attended and attended to. And what fun they are! Now, after exploring the dark streets of desperation and criminality, I am back to showcase the lives and work of the unique and creative women in film history. My hope is to try to post this column on a more regular basis than I have been primarily since locating these women’s stories and their critical influence on the world and film industry can be somewhat difficult. This is a necessary task and I am more than willing to take on some of the responsibility, so let’s get back to business.

Unlike previous profiles, this entry is geared specifically to an upcoming event. I am an annual participant in the TCM Film Festival and have been so for five years: the entirety of its existence. Due to this fact, I thought it might be nice to write-up one of the women who has made a contribution to one of this year’s films. Since I always find it more exciting to look into the slightly more obscure characters in film history, I thought this would be a great opportunity to shed some light on another fascinating female figure in film and allow folks at the festival to watch her creative work a bit differently. So here we go, down the way of cinema’s path, to find one of the women who helped forge some of the more beloved roles and stories in Hollywood: Fannie Hurst.Fannie-Hurst1

Fannie Hurst was born in Hamilton, Ohio in 1889 to an immigrant Jewish family. Her parents, Rose Koppel Hurst and Samuel Hurst, were never the kind of parents to support their daughter in her writing ambitions or any kind of creative intent. Raised in St Louis, Missouri, Fannie discovered her love for the written word early and submitted short stories and articles to magazines all during high school but didn’t get anything published until college.  Indeed, her intense passion for writing got her into some trouble before she was even able to make it to higher education. In high school, Fannie had no qualms about writing term papers in exchange for math answers from high school classmates. This little “swap” almost caused Fannie’s expulsion!

Hurst had many jobs in her lifetime aside from her most famous one as a writer- salesgirl, waitress, actress, night court attendee, factory worker (to study coworkers, of course!) and television talk show/public affairs program host. Fannie Hurst was no regular gal. Aside from being a woman who knew how to make ends meet, by 1925, she and Booth Tarkington were the highest paid writers in the United States.

Of course, Fannie Hurst’s writing was not everyone’s cuppa. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book, The Other Side of Paradise, one of his characters makes a statement that lists various authors (naming our heroine as one) as “not producing among ‘em one story or novel that will last 10 years.” People felt her literature was too “corny” and she was referred to as the Queen of the Sob Sisters (although not in an altogether unfriendly way). Almost to disprove Fitzgerald’s theory of course, here we are, 100 years later and although almost all of Hurst’s books are tragically out of print, we are indeed still discussing her work. And to add to this, the films that were borne from her writing have most certainly not been forgotten. In fact, they play remarkably well and some are treasured cinematic classics. What a curious point about adaptation and media. It does strike a peculiar point about Fannie Hurst’s gift for the dramatic: did Hurst’s ability to comprehend pure emotional resonance in characters work better for visual media than for the written word? It is a conundrum and perhaps we will never know, but we might consider the possibility.

back street

Fannie Hurst was heavily critiqued for her prose, grammar and style. Yet she was also immensely popular. Over a career that spanned more than fifty years, she wrote seventeen novels, nine volumes of short stories, three plays, numerous articles, and had 33 filmic adaptations of her written works. Everyone from Doris Day and Frank Sinatra to John Garfield and Joan Crawford starred in those films, and a few of them did more than just entertain, much like Fannie Hurst herself.

 

 

The work that has been made and remade the most is her novel Imitation of Life, originally published in 1933. The first film version made in 1934, due to show at the TCM Film Festival this upcoming week, features the lustrous Claudette Colbert and the deeply talented Louise Beavers. The two actresses play single mothers raising their children together, learning how to become entrepreneurs and end up facing the ugly and distasteful world of racism. The film also confronts rare issues of skin color and topics like “passing” at a time when absolutely no film script was.

Before this film, Louise Beavers was a well-known African American actress in Hollywood, but generally known for playing the “mammy” stereotype. In Imitation of Life, Beavers became the first African American actress to give a “non-Mammy” role. By playing the part of Delilah alongside Colbert’s Bea, they created an interracial female team of womanly strength in this film, unlike anything that had been seen before. One of the more potent assets of this film directed by John M. Stahl is Louise Beavers’ portrayal of Delilah. In 1934, just the concept of giving an African American woman a part this dynamic and rich that was on par to a Hollywood starlet such as Colbert was unheard of.lrgpic21

Imitation of Life deals with several topics that were not considered “Hollywood safe” at the time- racial relations, single women, and the idea of racial “passing.” Chief of the Production Code Administration Joseph Breen was extremely suspicious of this film, rejecting the original script and calling out “miscegenation.”  However, at the end of the day, what was released did contain more of the original story. While both films are based on the same novel, more original Hurst-written Imitation is contained in the 1934 version than in the later 1959 version (starring Lana Turner and Juanita Moore).

The film has been remade several times over, turned into a television series and remained popular the world over. It is the one Hurst work that has genuinely changed the landscape of cinema. The National Film Registry selected the 1934 version for preservation in 2005 and it continues to be a valuable piece of moving image history when it comes to African American representation and strong examples of rich female characters in film. This is not the only thing that has established Fannie Hurst in the halls of greatness but if this had been the only thing she had done, it would have been enough.imitation_of_life_1934-2

Hurst did not write this “just because.” Imitation was apparently inspired by a trip to Canada taken with close friend and confidente Zora Neale Hurston. One can only assume that what occurred during the voyage was less that satisfactory at times and struck Hurst in such a fashion that she felt inspired to write a tale involving race, passing and the ins and outs of what is involved in an interracial friendship. But this seemed to be par for the course in Hurst’s personal affairs.

Fannie Hurst’s life was as unusual as her writing was prolific. Convincing her parents that she was going to go to graduate school in New York after graduating from Washington University in 1909, she moved there and never attended Columbia as promised.  Although she never made it to graduate school, her work in politics and feminism more than made up for any advanced degree. Marrying Russian pianist Jacques Danielson in 1915, the couple maintained separate dwellings, told no one of the wedding until 1920, and had an arrangement with one another to renew their vows every five years…but only if both parties agreed.

Fannie Hurst was one of the original members of what was called the Lucy Stone League. Founded in 1921, it was a women’s rights organization that primarily encouraged women to keep their maiden names upon marriage. This group began with the advocation of keeping surnames post-marriage and expanded, essentially challenging “state and federal laws that allowed a woman to be seen as a commodity belonging to her husband, laws that allowed her to be beaten and denied her property or inheritance.”

Although it has been well documented that she had at least one affair with Canadian explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Hurst was most dedicated to her husband. Married for 37 years, Danielson passed away in 1952. Upon Hurst’s death in 1968, 16 years worth of letters were discovered in her house, all of which were written to her long-gone life partner after his death. There’s something sadly romantic about that. It certainly matches the tone of her fiction.

But Fannie Hurst was more than the Lucy Stone League. She became great friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, supporting the New Deal and chairing a national housing committee from 1936-1937.  She raised funds for WWII refugees and was a member on the board of the New York Urban League. A delegate to the World Health Organization in 1952, she was also part of a group called the Friendly Visitors, women who regularly volunteered in a New York women’s prison. When Fannie became entangled with Justice Arthur Goldberg in 1962 and he stated, “that it is time that we evaluated Women on merit and fitness for a job,” her quick response was, “Time sir! You are a half century too late.”

Eleanor Roosevelt and Fannie Hurst

Eleanor Roosevelt and Fannie Hurst: fast friends!

Her contribution to the moving image media world was not solely made through the adaptation of literary works. Beginning in 1958, Hurst hosted a talk show called Showcase that featured public affairs panels and social issue-based interviews. Showcase was one of the first television forums in which the gay and lesbian community was invited to speak on their own behalf instead of being given the third degree or being treated as though they were a science project. Most previous television appearances of homosexual men or women featured them being studied or questioned as though they existed within a fishbowl or were a group to be “dealt with” by a panel of specialists.

Hurst’s breakthrough show was not as popular as one might have hoped. While Fannie Hurst’s support of the gay and lesbian community was unfailing (and had been so for years), the television stations were not all game for this content. While her fame certainly had some cache, it didn’t outweigh rampant homophobia. Showcase was cancelled several times by more than one station, finally ending for good after a year.  As Steven Capsuto writes, “Hurst had contentious disagreements with station managers over her insistence on presenting panel discussions about homosexuality, and these broadcasts may have contributed to the cancellations.  When the second station, New York’s Channel 13, axed the show definitively in 1959, Hurst had begun devoting one show a week to the subject of homosexuality.  The final Showcase broadcast focused on same-sex desire among teenagers.”

While Fannie Hurst may have been called Queen of the Sob Sisters and criticized for her writerly techniques, her success is undeniable. Films like Young at Heart (Gordon Douglas, 1954), Humoresque (Jean Negulesco, 1946), and both versions of Imitation of Life (John M. Stahl, 1934, Douglas Sirk, 1959) show the way in which her written word had the ability to be converted to graceful, touching and enjoyable film work. Although modern temperance for melodrama may have lessened in the last 75 years, Hurst’s ability to catalyze real emotion and make an audience feel for a character remain altogether genuine. And in an environment where the vast majority of filmic content produced has a certain level of smarminess or “ironic nudging” there is something very fresh and real about a woman who just wanted to tell a good old-fashioned tearjerker tale.

Fannie Hurst’s life and everything she managed to do with it makes her a marvel. What a treasure it is that we can say that she is part of our history of women in film.

 

Fannie Hurst with her Yorkshire Terrier, Orphan Annie.

Fannie Hurst with her Yorkshire Terrier, Orphan Annie.

Common Careers #2: Annie Winifred Ellerman aka Bryher

I hope you enjoyed reading about Lois Weber last week as much as I enjoyed writing about her. One of the most enjoyable things about this series is that I get to exploit the blog medium as much as possible in the relaying of these women’s profiles. As much as I loved graduate school, I felt that there was a serious disconnect in the way in which we conveyed our academic work.

I believe that, in this day and age, when we have access to moving image elements that can make our arguments more dynamic than ever and give further validation to our academic research, we should enrich these pieces, not leave them dry. Using stills, clips and documents within a piece is a glorious way to make a piece more palatable and, indeed, more accessible to a larger audience.  Multimedia academics is a delicate world but something that is fun and wonderful to explore and intelligently exploit as often as possible. I feel that it aids the consumption of materials as much as it does the production.

So now…………

Common Careers#2: Annie Winifred Ellerman aka Bryher

Winifred Annie Ellerman, 1894-1983

Bryher, 1894-1983

Bryher is one of the most fascinating women that you have likely never heard about but you will be absolutely floored by once you have. I know I was. Born Annie Winifred Ellerman in 1894 to John Ellerman who, at the time, was the richest Brit who had ever lived, little Winifred missed out on her complete inheritance due to the fact that she was technically illegitimate: she was born 15 years before her parents were legally wed. Not to say that she wasn’t well-off she did fine, apparently showing more business sense later in life than her brother who had inherited more of the family bankroll and mismanaged it entirely. Winifred Ellerman, born of shipping royalty, was not a woman who was going to go the way of most women of the day. In fact, she went with women of the day instead.

Although she got married twice, Winifred had no questions about her sexuality: she was an out lesbian (or as out as you could be in the early part of the twentieth century), and used her husbands as “beards.” She explored that aspect of her life to the fullest, having very extensive relationships with other women, most significantly with the poetess and writer, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), who she maintained a strong relationship with from 1918 until H.D.’s death in 1961.

Photograph of Bryher, taken by Man Ray in 1923

Photograph of Bryher, taken by Man Ray in 1923

According to the Cambridge Companion to Gay and Lesbian Writing, Winifred had her name legally changed by deed poll to Bryher in 1951. However, she began using it far before. The name itself was born from a fond experience of the Isles of Scilly during her youth and a desire to free herself from the bonds and obligations of what it meant to “be an Ellerman.” Thusly she renamed herself after a favored island. This would be the name she would be known by for the remainder of her writing career as well as everything else she participated in. Her solid financial status gave her the ability to back and publish a slew of different publications and fund the burgeoning psychoanalytic community in Vienna, including becoming friendly with Freud.

Not only that, but Bryher risked her very life by making her home in Switzerland a way station for Jewish refugees to escape from Germany into Switzerland, from 1933 to 1939. Indeed, without this “underground path,” one of the more notable philosophers of our time, Walter Benjamin, might have perished. Shortly after this dangerous mission, she and H.D. fled their Switzerland home to London, narrowly escaping.

Bryher married two men. She did this primarily in order to gain the freedoms that only a married woman had at the time: travel, personal independence, and complete separation from her family. Her first marriage, to Robert McAlmon, lasted from 1921-27, at which point Bryher divorced him. Mind you, she had met H.D. already, and was in a very deep relationship with her, so McAlmon also simply served as a marriage of convenience. A very short time after that first divorce, Bryher remarried Kenneth Macpherson, and they built a house in Switzerland that they called “KerWin” (after each of their names). Their marriage spanned from 1927-1947.

Neither of Bryher’s marriages was straight-up, so to speak. McAlmon was gay, thus Bryher was as much a “cover” for him as he for her. Macpherson on the other hand? Well, his relationship with Bryher was more complex and interesting. Macpherson too shared Bryher’s attraction towards the same-sex, but, on occasion, he took a female lover. At the time of his marriage to Bryher, that female lover happened to be H.D., Bryher’s lover as well. So, as you see, this was not exactly Leave it to Beaver.

Kenneth McPherson and H.D. in Switzerland, where they spent the majority of the 20s and 30s

Kenneth McPherson and H.D. in Switzerland, where they spent the majority of the 20s and 30s

Bryher’s confident lesbian identity never conflicted with H.D.’s bisexuality, as both women had laid claim to their sexuality early in life. Previously, H.D. even bore a daughter named Perdita (to a friend of D.H. Lawrence’s, Cecil Grey!) who Bryher ended up adopting a few years later. Contrary to the way that society at the time viewed the “homosexual impulse,” neither woman harbored any kind of negative feelings about the way that they lived their lives; these were revolutionary figures in the way that they constructed their creative and sexual identities in a world that was (and still is) very confused in the way women are allowed to do so. H.D. and Bryher had an open relationship with one another, a productive friendship and their academic/film/literary work made a significant difference in women’s history and cultural history in general.

During her marriage to McAlmon, Bryher strongly endorsed (and financially backed) his formation of the publishing company that distributed the works of authors such as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound. After their marriage ended, she decided she did not wish to be out of the literary game and kept money flowing to Mr. Joyce and assisted American expatriate Sylvia Beach in her efforts to keep the Shakespeare and Company  bookshop afloat. In 1927, shortly after getting married for the second time and beginning her cooperative relationship with Macpherson and H.D., she began to invest a great deal of time, money and energy in film-related projects. Bryher became a kind of film activist, highly involved in publishing for, creating and analyzing the cinematic world; her contributions creating a small but significant set of visual and written works that remain useful and groundbreaking even today. It was at this point that Bryher, H.D. and Macpherson began to call themselves “The POOL Group,” and proceeded to create a film company (POOL Productions), invent the first English-language journal dedicated entirely to film theory (Close-Up), and published a variety of books written by Macpherson and Bryher, as well as other film-related literature.

The POOL Group Logo

The POOL Group Logo

Before they began publishing or creating, POOL placed an announcement in various magazines and journals. It stated,

POOL

is announced.

It has projects. It will mean, concerning books, new hope.

It has projects. It will mean, concerning cinematography, new beginning. 

New always. Distinguished, and with a clear course.

BOOKS.           FILMS.

encouragement.

CLOSE UP a monthly magazine to begin battle for film art. Beginning July. The first periodical to approach films from any angle but the commonplace. To encourage experimental workers and amateurs. Will keep in touch with every country and watch everything. Contributions on Japanese, Negro viewpoints and problems, etc. Some of the most interesting personages of the day will write.” (p. 9, Close Up 1927-1933: Cinema and Modernism, Edited by James Donald, Anne Friedberg, & Laura Marcus)

Clearly they had quite lofty goals. Is it possible that they believed that they would keep in touch with every country and watch everything? Perhaps. The contributors to Close Up and the POOL Group themselves were very optimistic and extremely passionate as certain artists and film theorists have been known to be,  (see: Cahiers du Cinema for further reference). As time wore on, however, it became very clear that the greatest accomplishment of The POOL Group was to be Close-Up, so they phased out or lessened other publications and projects and focused on that.

The film work done by the POOL Group is highly worth recognizing, however. Borderlinethe experimental silent film that stars Paul Robeson and his wife as well as other POOL Group members was unavailable for years, locked away and unavailable for public consumption. But it is a masterpiece. This work not only tackles interracial romance in 1930 but was accomplished through Robeson donating much of his time almost voluntarily. Borderline ended up highly censored and controversial, as one might imagine, given the subject matter and time period. It was the POOL Group’s primary feature film, and although it was written and directed by Kenneth Macpherson, it certainly was a POOL Group production and involved all members. Much like the Lois Weber work, we must be grateful for Borderline’s recovery out of invisibility and restoration by George Eastman House, making this critically important piece of cinema once again viewable.

 

 

Bryher and H.D. filming Borderline (1930). Bryher played the Manageress & H.D. played Astrid

Bryher and H.D. filming Borderline (1930). Bryher played the Manageress & H.D. played Astrid

Author Susan McCabe writes of an unpublished interview from 1979 in which Bryher states that “Film was not my metiér,” and points to the heavy involvement of H.D. and Macpherson when it came to the establishment of The POOL Group and, especially, Close-Up. However, this statement seems to overlook her own intimate involvement with every part of the POOL Group and her own contributions. Whether she felt that her connection to film didn’t last (she became a fiction writer after this period and never delved into the film theory/critical world much after this) and thus it “didn’t count” or she was trying to give her partners more credit really that crucial when you look at her contribution in the end.  Her relevance and value to the film community and to film history itself is unquestionable.

While she may not have seen film as the subject in which she excelled or found her “voice,” Close-Up appeared in 1927 and concluded its run in 1933, working its magic by deeply studying topics in film culture that had not been dealt with up to that point. It explored women in the film industry, film technology and technique, race, cinema and class consciousness and other socially relevant film subjects. Furthermore, due to the fact that there were poets, authors and film professionals contributing to the journal, Close-Up benefited from those women and men who elaborated on the experience of the cinema, politics of visual construction, technical aspects of film and simple film reviews. It also underscored the contributions of directors such as Pabst, Eisenstein and Dreyer and highlighted the critical value of Russian filmmaking to the cinematic world.photo 3 Macpherson served as editor-in-chief, while Bryher was assistant editor. H.D. was a regular journalist/contributor, but all members of the POOL Group wrote for the magazine. Close-Up advertised itself as being the “official guide to better movies” and made demands on the cover, stating “WE WANT BETTER FILMS!!” photo 2 Close-Up was nothing if not versatile. Just to examine the content of the journal, these are a few of the articles that were published: The Negro Actor and the American Movies by Geraldyn DismondThe Cinema in the Slums, The Front Rows, There’s No Place Like Home by Dorothy Richardson (another stunningly fascinating woman of the era who wrote these pieces for her regular column Continuous Performance, a feature focused on the experience of watching a film), The Sound Film: A Statement from U.S.S.R. by Sergei EisensteinW.I. Pudovkin, and The Independent Cinema Congress by Jean Lenauer. For Bryher, the journal became more a space to express politics and community coordination in the filmic world than one of critical review. The articles that Bryher wrote had titles like How I Would Start a Film Club (1928) or What Shall You Do in the War (1933). The latter of the two articles, written during the onset of WWII, contained the following quote:

Let us decide what we will have. If peace, let us fight for it. And fight for it especially with cinema. By refusing to see films that are merely propaganda for any unjust system. Remember that close co-operation with the United States is needed if we are to preserve peace, and that constant sneers at an unfamiliar way of speech or American slang will not help towards mutual understanding. And above all, in the choice of films to see, remember the many directors, actors and film architects who have been driven out of the German studios and scattered across Europe because they believed in peace and intellectual liberty. (p.309, Close Up 1927-1933: Cinema and Modernism, Edited by James Donald, Anne Friedberg, & Laura Marcus)

 

photo 1

After working with Close-Up , Bryher moved on to other creative pursuits, writing several books and continuing to sponsor literary publications and financially support H.D., although their relationship altered considerably over the years and they lived apart from each other after 1946. Bryher died in 1983 in Switzerland, alone and almost forgotten. To this day, Bryher’s importance to the film world and as a woman in film history has remained buried in obscurity. Without Bryher, there would have been no POOL Group, no Close-Up, no Borderline. It is critical to note that it was not merely her finances that made these projects happen. While Bryher may have been the “money (wo)man,” she also backed them with her unending passion for action. Much like Lois Weber’s drive to depict that which she felt was genuinely important through the visual image, Bryher worked endlessly to make certain that the things that she believed in were published and distributed and accessible to readers and viewers in addition to giving the creative people she believed in a chance to produce their work.

Bryher’s contributions to  film culture are vast and many. Some of the first examples of advanced critical film theory and discussions of film in its social application were brought up in the pages of POOL publications. Revisiting these articles, they are still relevant to today’s film world. There is something fresh and active and new about this voice that she helped create, a film voice that sang for experimental works and Russian cinema, the glory of sitting in a darkened theater with strangers and the disappointment of the most recent Hollywood fare over foreign works. Why are we not celebrating People of Color in cinema more? Why are women not having stronger roles? These topics that we speak about today in 2014 BEGAN here.

It is this voice that, even many decades later, points out how little some things have changed. It is my humble proposition that we make Bryher more of an important figure for women in cinema. After all, who doesn’t need how to form a film club? Bryher has more to teach, and I think that she always will.

I ask you all, because her question maintains the utmost relevance: What shall you do in the war?

 Addendum: Once again, giving a shout-out where it’s due, I highly recommend that you read one of my very favorite professor’s work on this topic, Historical Predictions, Contemporary Predilections: Reading Feminist Theory Close Up by Amelie Hastie.  It is AWESOME, and it will give you a much more full study on this fantastic subject. I would highly recommend it.  Without Professor Hastie, I would know nothing about Close-Up and I am the better person for it. The book that I have is so marked up & full of notes…It’s well-loved. So I hope you dig this jaunt! The POOL Group and Close-Up are some fascinating stuff!

Common Careers #1: Lois Weber

Welcome to Common Careers, the series about women who helped to create the moving image world and industry and make it the dynamic and vibrant world that it is today. As I noted in my initial introduction, this series has come about as a result of the fact that we have begun to talk about women’s invisibility on a larger scale again. Discussions on the Bechdel Test and statistics on how many women are hired on a regular basis in powerful roles have become part of the “daily share-ables” on our social media landscape (Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter). But what we are not making part of the new feminist media discourse is the fact that there was a previous set of women who set the stage and had their creative say and work ignored once the Big Boys with their Big Toys came around. These were the women who helped build what we have now and truly gave us a foundation for the way we look at actresses of today and women’s place in media. And they’ve been there since the very start. And with that, we will begin just there- at the very beginning of movie history, the silent era.

Lois "the Wizard" Weber (1879-1939), screenwriter, one of the highest paid directors in the silent era, and highly focused on social reform and gender issues through her cinematic output

Lois “the Wizard” Weber (1879-1939), screenwriter, director, one of the highest paid professionals in the silent era, and highly focused on social reform and gender issues through her cinematic output

Lois Weber, author of “How I Became a Motion Picture Director” (1915), was, as Shelley Stamp writes, “one of the top talents in Hollywood. In 1916, she was the first and only woman elected to the Motion Picture Directors Association, a solitary honor she would retain for decades.” Not only that, Weber was one of the first individuals to use full frontal nudity in a film that was not intended for pornographic use.

While it may seem surprising that there were women in the the early days of film who were not only granted power within the industry but were also able to use their creative energies in order to further messages of female equality, it is essential to look at the social landscape at the time. Women’s suffrage had been growing and gaining speed and membership over the last 50+ years, so by the time Weber began her career as an actress and then as an apprentice under the guidance of the woman who is widely considered to be the first female motion picture director, Alice Guy-Blaché, the pursuit (and investigation) of subjects such as birth control, marriage, economics and freedom was not entirely verboten. At least not according to the standards that a modern female director of the time whose desire was to investigate these “social problems” through the filmic text and create a context for which more could be better understood and learned by a society that (more than likely) was not having much of it.

As we will see, looking at the early women in film, they may not always have aligned themselves with the women’s rights movement. While the content of their filmwork and their careers and, indeed, their very existence in the film community identified them as having a strongly advanced female position, many of these women didn’t identify with political structures and their personal lives reflected a different world than their professional ones. Women in early film, Lois Weber being a prime example, were not always “big hearty independent females who didn’t need a man.” As history has shown, a certain percentage of the hard luck stories of these amazing women came from their dedication to their marriages or relationships above their careers, and much of their work and careers failed when their relationships did. Lois Weber was extremely successful throughout much of her life, but had terrible luck with men (struck it rich with the alcoholic variety), and ended up dying penniless and practically forgotten at age 60. The only film community members who supported this legendary figure after death were other women in the community: celebrated screenwriter Frances Marion paid for her funeral and renowned gossip columnist Hedda Hopper gave her more than a few sentences in the newspaper as an obituary. And for a woman who changed the silver screen? That seems beyond heartbreaking. It’s just wrong.

Lois Weber and her first husband, Wendell Phillips Smalley, began making films together for Universal in the 1910s. Weber could do it all and did! She wrote, directed, acted, did subtitling, edited and apparently developed negatives as well. She started really getting attention when she started making films that made people a little upset due to the highly controversial content. The primary film talked about within this context is her 1914 feature film, Hypocrites, which she directed and wrote. Not only did this film feature full frontal nudity, but it dealt with issues of moral blindness, religious figures and being faced with the “Naked Truth” in the form of (literally) the naked form of a highly attractive (but uncredited) Margaret Edwards (who later plays a naked statue in the film as well).

Hypocrites was banned in Ohio, reportedly asked by James Michael Curley, the mayor of Boston at the time, to have the negatives be painted over so that the “Naked Truth” be a bit less revealing, and altogether scandalous. But it was popular and gained her confidence with the higher-ups at Universal who made her one of the top-paid filmmakers in Hollywood at that time. Weber went on to make other films like Where Are My Children? (1916) with her husband, which focused on illegal abortion, birth control and concepts of “obscenity” loosely based on Margaret Sanger.

Still from Lois Weber's "Where Are My Children?" depicting the soul of a baby above a possible mother...

Still from Lois Weber’s “Where Are My Children?” depicting the soul of a baby above a possible mother…

This film was very popular (although, again, not with the censors), included the “high-tech” use of trick photography and multiple exposures and inspired an unofficial sequel,  Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917) in which Smalley and Weber star as husband and wife sex education and family planning advocates. Tragically, Hand is considered a lost film, like many of the great silent works of the day, and unless it is located at some later date (never give up hope!), we may never know what that film held for us. Erik Bondurant writing on Where Are..states that “Lois Weber, one of the first and greatest directors in cinema history, provides a much-needed woman’s voice and eye on the topic.” While many things about abortion and family planning have changed since the days of Margaret Sanger getting slapped with obscenity charges for birth control pamphlets, I think it is safe to say that the films that Weber contributed within this genre of women’s social reform are no small matter in film history. Indeed, if one were to look at the films released in 2013/14, and consider what we can/can’t do and what is socially acceptable or what will make money and the fact that we are allowed R ratings and plenty of full frontal nudity (no negative painting required!), it could be said that the works being released in the teens were of a more strident and generous nature for women’s livelihoods.

Aside from issues of family planning, Lois Weber tackled poverty and its connection to a young woman’s moral breakdown (Shoes, 1916), drugs (Hop, the Devil’s Brew, 1916), antisemitism (A Jew’s Christmas, 1913) and many other issues with her films. The problem is that, much like Hand That Rocks the Cradle, most of these films are lost to us. As Anthony Slide so deftly notes, “The major problem in any attempt to rediscover America’s first female directors is that the films themselves are missing…Lois Weber directed some forty feature films but only a dozen can be found in film archives. It is not even the simple matter of the films being lost. An equal problem is that what films have survived are not always the best examples of the director’s work.”

Lois Weber was not only a striking figure by way of filmic subject matter or in the high amounts of money that she was being paid as a filmmaker, but when she left Universal in 1917, Weber formed her very own production company, establishing her place in history as the first female director to do so. Lois Weber Productions concentrated on films that were more focused on the female experience in domestic life: What Do Men Want (1921), a melodrama about male infidelity in marriage, and The Blot (1921), a story that centers on issues of poverty and wealth between the classes and how they experience one another and survive were examples of the kinds of works that were par for the course. However, unlike working for Universal, she was able to have a great deal more power in the manner in which the films were shot (on-location and in narrative sequence).

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While Weber’s career went downhill in the 1920s, and some have attributed it to her failed marriage to Smalley (as he was her partner in many creative endeavors) it is more likely, according to Shelley Stamp, that things took a downturn due “to larger circumstances at play in Hollywood during the early 1920s, circumstances that compromised the fate of many independently run production companies, especially those headed by women. Plus, Weber’s focus on urban social problems, rather than amusement, and on the complexities of marriage, rather than romantic courtship, was increasingly perceived as outdated, overly didactic, and dower.” However, it is worth mentioning that during this same time, Weber solidified her relationships with the female community of Hollywood in a variety of ways and, although her career might have been heading south, she was maintaining her dedication to being a strong woman in the community and seeking out bonds with the rest of the women in Hollywood. She went to special women’s luncheons, did a national speaking tour on the subject of “Woman’s Influence in the Photoplay World.”  “Alternating with her talks on ‘woman’s influence,’ ” As Shelley Stamp writes, “Weber also spoke about more controversial topics like ‘Moving Picture Censorship’ and ‘The Sunday Blue Laws’ to women’s clubs in Denver, Salt Lake City, Topeka, and Indianapolis. A staunch opponent of censorship, Weber addressed clubwomen at a time when they were stepping up calls for greater regulation of motion pictures. Following their successful campaigns for women’s suffrage and prohibition, both ratified in 1920, women’s groups were considered extremely influential and effective advocates for social change.”  If Lois Weber couldn’t change the world through making the films, she was going to try to connect with the other powerful women in the country in order to create and point out the changes that needed to occur. Once a social reformer, always a social reformer.

Stamp’s initial summary of Weber’s career turnaround is highly probably. While Lois Weber eventually remarried and produced more films, she never again reached that same peak that she had back in the ‘teens. But judging from publications of the time, she may have not been alone in this. Circumstances changed for industry women in the 1920s and onward. The May, 1917 issue of Photoplay magazine describes the misogynistic landscape that women directors were dealing with to a T: “Another good omen is the subsidence of the ‘her-own-company’ epidemic. It seems to have been a winter disease, as the coming of spring brought with it a cessation of corporation founding activities.” Of course, this “news piece” is just above another item that discusses Ruth Ann Baldwin, another female director of the time, describing her in terms of belonging to the “so-called fairer sex” and having just married an actor that she had recently “bossed around” in a number of films for Universal. As time went on, opportunities for women to flourish a la Lois Weber, slowly collapsed and transitioned into very different opportunities and all new challenges. Although women maintained a certain amount of power and became highly in other areas, the so-called “her-own-company epidemic” was a very special period of film history and one that really created a space for films to be made that explored the female experience.

Finally, Lois Weber’s work, while we don’t have as much as we would like, has had some wonderful time spent on it recently and has renewed interest in this wonderful and tragically ignored figure in women’s film history. The EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands has done a remarkable job restoring her film Shoes (1916). I was lucky enough to see a presentation about it at an archivist’s conference a while back and the work and energy that they put forth on this piece is simply stunning. With that, I leave you with a clip showing the before/after of the restoration work, and hope that you have enjoyed this week’s Common Careers!


ADDENDUM: Huge shout out to Professor Shelley Stamp!! She was an amazing professor that I actually was lucky enough to have during my undergraduate years at UCSC, and without her copious writings on Lois Weber, I would not have been able to verify some of the information I had and thus complete this profile. I highly recommend that you read the entirety of this article if you are more interested in Lois Weber: http://www.frameworkonline.com/Issue52/521stamp.html and also REALLY recommend that you all visit the Lois Weber profile that Shelley Stamp also did on the INCREDIBLE AND AWESOME Women Film Pioneers Project. https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/pioneer/ccp-lois-weber/

Also, that site is my hero. Seriously.

Common Careers: Profiles of Women in Media Culture

Funny business, a woman’s career. The things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you get back to being a woman. That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not, being a woman. Sooner or later, we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted. And in the last analysis, nothing’s any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed, and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman. You’re something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings, but you’re not a woman. Slow curtain, the end.                                                                                                                                                                                         – Margo Channing,  ALL ABOUT EVE

Margo Channing, the central figure of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Academy Award-winning film All About Eve, is undoubtedly one of the greatest female characters in cinema history. But Bette Davis, the woman who made her screen-famous, is the woman behind the woman, so to speak. Bette Davis’ dominance and desired control over her roles and career in real life bled over into the majority of the fictional characters that she played. From the 1930s onwards, Davis sought her independence from the studio contract system. Beginning with a court case that she ultimately lost (WARNER BROS v NELSON, 1936) her desire was to free herself of her current ties and open up more possibilities for her to play parts in whatever films she wished, seeing as the roles she was receiving from Warner were (in her eyes) limiting her career. This small set-back did not stop Davis, however. Although she continued under the aegis of Warner Brothers and became quite successful, she reached out in other ways. To Warner, Davis may have simply been viewed as one of their more financially attractive properties. To Davis, her heightened position in Hollywood gave her power and leverage. And she was quick to take notice of this. In 1941, she became the very first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. However, she relinquished the position a few months later when her Academy cohorts refused to agree with her “radical” idea of supporting the troops and having a performance and nationwide broadcast for the war effort in lieu of the annual Academy Awards.

Bette was a smart woman. While most people are quite familiar with the unyielding and assertive figure she cut on-screen, the lesser-known facts about Davis are just as striking. When her contract with Warner Brothers was renewed in 1944 she made damn sure that she got something in return: she would be allowed to produce 5 films herself, in addition to starring in them. Out of the five, the only one that was ever actually made was A Stolen Life (Curtis Bernhardt, 1946), but she produced the hell outta that picture. Davis freed herself from the bonds of Warner Brothers in August of 1949, calling it her “professional divorce” and becoming a freelance actress for the remainder of her career. For a woman who existed and played within the “studio limits” she definitely pushed them, both within the films she made and through the life she led outside of the sound stage.A Stolen Life2a

But let’s face facts here: the pure unadulterated truth is…there were a great deal more working women than Bette Davis in Hollywood at that time. Not only that, but many of them were women who had more control over their own careers, economic possibilities and personal situations than even Bette Davis. While not all of these women can say that they rocked the very foundations of the film industry by suggesting that they skip the Holy of Holies (the Academy Awards) in exchange for a war fundraiser, many of these women did other things in Hollywood that had a similar effect.

I engaged in a conversation a few weeks ago with a few people online about women’s roles in the film industry today versus what they used to be and when that changed. As a trained film scholar and media archivist who specializes in women in film culture/film history, I realized that we were missing some vital information. As a woman in the film community, I am thrilled that we have established a vital and dynamic interest in getting women the recognition, equality and positioning that we deserve. The heightened enthusiasm for positive female representation in media that certain groups like the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media and Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls at The Party have shown is nothing short of brilliant as far as I’m concerned.slider-geena-announcement

But we have a problem. We seem to be reinventing the wheel in certain circumstances. There is a disconnect and it is a big one. That disconnect is called history. Didn’t we have women doing some pretty awesome stuff and being excellent role models a while back? Is our cultural memory that short?

Admittedly, back in the earlier days of cinema, women did not have certain advantages that we have now. For example, pants. In the film noir, Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950) Peggy Cummins’ character, Annie Laurie Starr, is reprimanded for wearing pants to work. This is probably not a scene we would see in a film today. However, much like this sartorial issue, it is also sadly unlikely that we would see such an exciting and elegantly laid out character like Annie in a film of today.

I believe we have either forgotten where we come from or we did not know in the first place. Either way, it is important to be reminded. What I have noticed is that a certain percentage of the modern film community is just that: modern. And that is an unhealthy thing. If we are sitting around tweeting, blogging and posting about the place of women in film today but forget to mention that women in film have a very distinct timeline of their own, I can only think that there is a problem and it needs adjustment.

I don’t think one can think about the women who helped to create our moving image culture too much. Thus I have decided to write one profile a week about a woman in film culture who has significantly changed the face of moving images as you and I know them. Some of them you will be familiar with (like Bette Davis) and some of them you may have no clue about. But all of them are important. And all of them have had a hand in developing the world that is now woefully lacking in positive female representation and female employment.

I have decided to title this weekly column Common Careers based upon the quote from All About Eve. I am doing this not simply because all of the individuals do, indeed, share that “common career” of being a woman, but they also share the problematic nature that that quote itself possesses. I cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, pretend that Margo Channing’s statement is one of perfection; it is not. But then again, sometimes the best way to explore our hero(ine)s is through their flaws. I find that quote as fascinating for its dependence on heteronormativity as I do for its search for identity.

So join me won’t you? Each week we will look at a different woman and explore the females of the past and their impact on the future.

Welcome to Common Careers. I look forward to your company and hope you enjoy!