"Early Women Filmmakers" was the final project by film preservationist David Shepherd, whose career focused on the restoration of silent films. Through his Blackhawk Films, and with the help of a number of countries all over the world, this box set, subtitled "An International Anthology", assembles 24 films of varying length and one film excerpt as a glimpse into the importance of women's contribution to cinema. The films are spread across three discs, and the box set by Flicker Alley contains separate Blu-ray and DVD editions in their own individual cases -- possibly an eye toward libraries who can get dual usage out of a single purchase. The easiest way to look at the content in the set, given the volume, is to touch on the various filmmakers represented within. Helpfully, each section of a director's work is preceded by a screen or two of text on the director's history, and each film is preceded by a text description of the film.
First up, both in terms of the set and film history, is Alice Guy-Blache. A secretary at Gaumont when the Lumiere brothers unveiled the first projected film, Blache was, at the very least, one of the first two people to look at film as a medium with potential for fictional storytelling, and from 1896 to 1906, she may have been the only woman director in existence. "Early Women Filmmakers" comes in closer to the end of that period, starting with the simple Les Chiens Savants (1902), a video of a woman performing circus tricks with a group of dogs. There are six Alice Guy-Blache films included in the set, the most impressive of which is Making an American Citizen (1912), which follows two Russian immigrants and their assimilation into American culture. When it was made, the film's story about a man learning America isn't sexist was probably told in earnest, but now the short seems positively ironic. Across these six films, it is impressive, especially in Le Barricade (1907), a drama about a young man inadvertently being identified as part of a gang, how much Guy-Blache manages to capture without intertitles through her skill at visual storytelling.
The set contains only three films by director Lois Weber, but two of them are among the set's most incredible inclusions. The first is a short, Suspense (1913). A prime example of how visual language hasn't changed in over 100 years, Suspense looks pretty much like a 21st century thriller, telling the story of a man racing home to save his wife and child from a vagrant. The film includes a three-way split screen of the man talking to his wife on the phone as the bum listens in, and a frantic car chase from the office to the house, complete with the standard sideview mirror shots of the police trying to catch up. The second is the set's crown jewel: Weber's feature-length drama The Blot (1921) which outlines the complicated push-pull web of class divide linking a group of people in an unidentified American town. It centers itself around entitled rich kid Phil West (Louis Calhern), and his infatuation with Amelia Griggs (Claire Windsor), daughter to his impoverished professor, Andrew (Philip Hubbard). Andrew's poverty leads to the suffering and angst of his wife, Mrs. Griggs (Margaret McWade), which then fuels a jealous battle between Mrs. Griggs and the woman next door, Mrs. Olsen, whose husband Hans is a successful shoemaker. Similar to Guy-Blache's American Citizen, there is a somewhat ironic quality to this story of a rich kid facing the excess his wealth provides him while leaving others without, but Weber's precise storytelling and Calhern's fantastic performance provide powerful emotional hooks that help The Blot feel as if it's hardly aged. Given the tenor of the modern world, it also seems refreshingly optimistic for a film by a female filmmaker (not that modern women have much to be optimistic about at the moment), although Weber tinges the ending with some bittersweetness.
Three more filmmakers have multiple films on the set. The first is Germaine Dulac, whose picture La Cigarette (1919), about the angst of an older musuem curator and his younger wife, is a surprisingly compassionate picture. The film uses dramatic conflicts that still exist in romantic comedies today (misunderstandings and lack of communication), only in service of a longing sadness, resolved by Dulac in an unexpected way. The other two filmmakers, Lotte Reiniger and Mary Ellen Bute, both use animation in their films. Reiniger's style involve black silhouettes in front of a white background, apparently crafted by Reiniger by hand. All three of her shorts are delightful, but Papageno (1935), a musical adventure, is particularly charming, including a scene where a man wrestles a snake while his female companion escapes on an ostrich. Her style, especially during the musical sequences, feels like a foreshadowing of the work of Alex Budovsky. Bute has two shorts, one of which is a bizarre, experimental educational film on the parabola (titled, unsurprisingly, Parabola), but the other is a fun, hand-drawn piece about ghosts and bats dancing in a graveyard, titled Spook Sport (1939).
A handful of the remaining films also stand out as marvelous. Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) is an stunning underground experimental film about a woman returning home and possibly slipping into a strange nightmarish dream. It's hard to imagine David Lynch not having been inspired by Deren. I was surprised to learn that Charlie Chaplin's famous Tramp was introduced in a film by a woman as opposed to one of his own: Mabel's Strange Predicament (1914), by Mabel Normand. In it, the tramp is a more lecherous drunk who sets off a series of slapstick antics by leering after Mabel when she's locked outside of her hotel room in her pajamas. Last, but certainly not least, Claire Parker's A Night on Bald Mountain (1933), created using the incredible technique of pinscreen animation, is a dazzling, visually stunning wonder that has to be seen to believed. Even with the set's brief description of pinscreen animation, the resulting visuals are painterly and unreal.
Not every film in the set bowled me over. Dorothy Davenport has a feature in the collection (made under the moniker Mrs. Wallace Reid) The Woman Condemned (1934), a stagnant thriller of mistaken identity that seems exciting on paper but eventually becomes tedious as it goes on, possibly due to its lack of a score. An excerpt of Dorothy Arzner's Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) is interesting but mostly whets the appetite for further Arzner, and the set has none. Madeline Brandeis' The Star Prince (1918) is an overlong and uninspired fairy tale that seems mostly notable for its early special effects and its use of child actors. There will also always be controversy over anything by Leni Riefenstahl, and this set does offer one propaganda film entitled Day of Freedom (1935). Her use of light and shadow and the depth of the frame is stunning, but the subject matter may understandably put people off. However, the importance of the collection goes beyond the subjectivity of which films are good or bad. What matters is that they were made, and thanks to Shepherd and his collaborators, they can be celebrated one way or another for years to come.
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