For the sake of clarity, I'm breaking down the set into sections. The sections are roughly based on the disc breakdowns, although this is not strictly "by disc," as Kino almost certainly made some decisions on where to slot in a few of the films based on disc space.
14 films by Guy-Blache are included here, covering a period from 1911 to 1916, and while these particular selections don't find her tackling social issues as openly as Lois Weber (disc 2), it's still easy to see her examining the dynamics of marriage and how women are often at the mercy of men's whims (fathers and husbands), as well as a bit of class commentary, exploration of masculinity, and some progressive racial representation.
Most of the films here are about couples, either married or looking to get married, in which a male authority figure stands in the way of a woman's freedom. In Tramp Strategy, Algie the Miner, and Canned Harmony, it's the father disapproving of a potential husband. The first few of these shorts generally resolve themselves in a happy ending, with everyone laughing at the wacky antics, but later ones have tinges of darkness creeping in, such as the unhappy unions in Burstup Holmes' Murder Case (a tonally disjointed short where a suspicious wife briefly thinks her husband's been beheaded, and a bumbling detective comes into investigate who "killed" him) and A House Divided (a man gets so mad at his wife, he demands she only communicate with him in writing, even when they're in the same room). The incomplete Algie is a particularly interesting deconstruction of traditional masculinity, which finds the prim and fussy title character heading out into the world to prove to his girlfriend's father that he's a man. Algie's effeminate behavior early on hasn't aged so well, but Guy-Blache's overall message that sensitivity and support are better than brute strength remains valuable.
Although some of Guy-Blache's shorts use the exaggerated pantomime that silent films are known for, it isn't long before her actors are giving what feel more like contemporary performances. Guy-Blache was famous for the acting mantra "Be Natural," which was printed on a sign hanging at her studio, and that philosophy becomes evident as the films progress. The High Cost of Living features an excellent lead turn by Lee Beggs, as a miner who is selected by his colleagues to represent the workers when they seek to confront their boss for low wages. Beggs' subtle physical performance conveys his character's broken, worn-down spirit in a manner that feels more modern than the style of some films that would be made 10 and 20 years later. There is also the groundbreaking short with an African-American cast, A Fool and His Money. Although this is more in the traditional, exaggerated school of silent film acting, it's shocking to see a movie from 1912 about black characters that doesn't truck in caricatures or come off as racist, telling a straightforward story about luck and overconfidence.
Much of the work on Disc 2 of Pioneers (with a handful of additional work on other discs) was done with collaborator and first husband Phillips Smalley, who appears with her in many of the films. She was known as one of the early film industry's most prolific filmmakers, providing either acting, writing, or directing services to as many as 400 films (only a tiny fraction of which survive -- Kino and Flicker Alley's sets cover almost all of them). The lightest one of the bunch is the relatively playful fragment of Lost By a Hair, in which a bunch of men conspire against a suave romantic rival to try and reveal his hairpiece.
Pretty much every other short included here covers some form of social oppression, with an unsurprising focus on the ways men's actions come to harm women. Too Wise Wives is a particularly brutal melodrama about a woman (Claire Windsor) who wishes her distant husband (Louis Calhern) would accept her methods of affection, and another (Mona Lisa) who has learned the minimum amount of effort required to keep her husband (Phillips) happy. It may be too easy to view the film through a modern lens, but there is the strong sense, given Weber's general inclinations, to believe the ending is less happy than one of the characters seems to think it is. Scandal (also known as Scandal Mongers) is even more depressing, in which a rumor started by rich gawkers unravels multiple marriages and nearly drives a businessman (Phillips again) to suicide when he falls into financial ruin. That would be dark enough, but Weber uses this string of disasters to move her characters into new positions where rumors can destroy them further, culminating in a cold-blooded murder and (in reels summarized by text) the death of someone's mother. Most depressing of all, Disc 2 ends with the surviving bits of What Do Men Want?, which starts with a man struggling with domestic malaise (how terrible) and eventually builds to a suicide by drowning (admittedly, parts of the film that do not survive seem to have led things to a comparatively lighter payoff). Scandal Mongers and What Do Men Want? unfortunately inspire thoughts of gloomy, faux-profound interconnected ensembles like Crash (2005) and misery porn like Babel.
Some of Weber's work reveals conservative political leanings that were popular at the time. Where Are My Children? is a feature starring Tyrone Power Sr. as Richard Walton, a child-loving district attorney who prosecutes a doctor for distributing "obscene" birth control literature. Unbeknownst to Richard, his wife Edith (Helen Riaume) has had multiple abortions performed by a local doctor, Herman Malfit (Juan de la Cruz), and has recommended Dr. Malfit to her friends as well. When Dr. Malfit botches an abortion on Lillian (Rena Rogers), daughter of the Waltons' housekeeper (Cora Drew), Edith's secret is revealed, permanently damaging Richard and Edith's relationship. Weber presents motherhood as a gift from God (each child is a soul dispatched through the literal gates of Heaven), seems to believe Edith is selfish to deny her husband the child he desires, and worst of all, argues in favor of racist eugenics practices. On the other hand, she presents birth control as preferable to abortions or the conditions unwanted children might suffer in). Her most explicitly religious film is Hypocrites, which takes place over two time periods. Gabriel (Courtenay Foote) is first seen as medieval monk whose statue of "The Truth" results in his death. The film then jumps forward to the then-present day, where Gabriel is visited by "The Truth" (Margaret Edwards), who leads him on a journey through modern man's various hypocrisies and immoral dealings.
In Hypocrites and others, such as The Rosary and Idle Wives, Weber shows off her skill at pushing the form forward. "The Truth" in Hypocrites is the ghostly vision of a naked woman superimposed upon the footage of Foote. She uses her magic mirror to reveal hypocrisy, holding it up so that the audience can peer at the alternate image inside. The Rosary, meanwhile, is basically a music video, adapting a song that was popular at the time it was made into a film that the music plays over. The short also frames the entirety of the action inside the circle of the rosary itself. The fragment of Idle Wives that survives, tragically ends shortly after the second narrative begins, but it offers up a startlingly cutting-edge meta-narrative, in which a number of unhappy people go to see the new Lois Weber movie, entitled Life's Mirror, which will reveal the ways in which their lives are actually better than they seem to believe.
A reasonable chunk of the disc is allotted to Mabel Normand, with four of her comedy shorts included here. Normand, as some may already be aware, directed the first-ever short featuring Charlie Chaplin's iconic Tramp character (although it would end up being the second one released). That film, Mabel's Strange Predicament, appeared on Flicker Alley's set. Here, we get Caught in a Cabaret, in which the Tramp pretends to be a rich ambassador to try and win the affections of a woman (Normand). Again, as in Mabel's Strange Predicament, Normand's vision of the Tramp character is less charming than his later appearance in Chaplin's own films. Here, the Tramp is a slovenly drunk, a horndog, and a con man whose actions come back to haunt him. This is accompanied by one of her films with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Mabel and Fatty's Wash Day, in which both Normand and Arbuckle get along better with each other than with their controlling and obnoxious spouses. There are also a couple of wacky rom-coms, Mabel's Blunder and Mabel Lost and Won, the former of which even involves multiple people in disguise following up misguided suspicions about what the others are up to.
The most ambitious film of the lot is '49-'17, by Ruth Ann Baldwin, in which an aging and wealthy judge (Joseph W. Girard) decides to live his retirement out in the most extravagant way: resurrect an old West town by hiring a theater troupe to live there with him, and revisit the glory days he never got to have. His assistant, Tom Reeves (Leo Pierson) complies, and the illusion turns out to be even better than the judge could've imagined when they end up with a real old West-style villain terrorizing the entire town. Although the film is a bit long and sometimes drags, one doesn't have to dig far to see parallels between the premise and modern-day works such as Synecdoche, New York and "Westworld."
That said, one of the most compelling pieces in this section, and perhaps the entire set, is among the simplest: Nora Zeale Hurston's "Ethnographic Films." Given all of the common aesthetic qualities of surviving silent film (the exaggerated acting, the print damage, the tinting, etc.), it can start to read more like a stylistic affectation, rather than representative of a moment in time. This 13-minute piece of documentary footage taken in segregated areas, capturing black audiences at an early baseball game, children dancing, and a baptism, among other things, is an incredible reminder that this is material that has survived 100 years or more, and we are privileged to have the ability to watch it today.
One of the major highlights here is the inclusion of the surviving pieces of Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingle With the West, which is the oldest known Chinese-American feature film. Only two of the reels survive. Deciphering the story beyond the culture clash between Chinese and Western traditions outlined in the title is a challenge when so much of the movie is lost, but the remaining reels have a similar impact as Hurston's "Ethnographic Films," in that we see director Marion E. Wong's cast (made up of family and friends) receiving and trying on traditional outfits that the viewer can assume are authentic to the time period. Similarly, the preservation of When Little Lindy Sang feels like an important accomplishment. This story of racism, directed by Lule Warrenton in 1916, still packs a painful punch today as Lindy (Ernestine Jones) suffers bullying and exclusion, even by classmates who seem to be sympathetic to her plight. The film's happy ending is pat, but the short remains dramatically and emotionally compelling.
Aside from those diverse shorts, the social commentary in question is mostly centered around the oppression of women. Cleo Madison's Her Defiance and Dorothy Davenport Reid's Red Kimona and Linda are all centered around women struggling under the patriarchy. In Her Defiance and Linda, that comes in the form of arranged marriage: the former finds Adeline (Madison) fleeing a marriage to an older man arranged by her controlling brother Thomas (Taylor N. Duncan), whereas in the latter, young and kind-hearted Linda (Helen Foster) endures her marriage to Armstrong Decker (Noah Beery) out of kindness, even though her heart belongs to a handsome doctor (Warner Baxter). Although Linda is still feminist commentary (Linda's abusive father essentially bargains her away for a better price on his lumber), the character's unwavering nobility toward a creepy philanderer (and his eventual redemption) are frustrating. Her Defiance is more palatable, structuring the story around a misunderstanding between Adeline and a more suitable beau, businessman Frank Warren (Edward Hearn). Red Kimona, meanwhile, is fascinating in that it features Reid in bookend sequences talking about the film's lesson, but the story itself drags on as Gabrielle (Priscilla Bonner) tries to repair her life after shooting and killing an unfaithful suitor. The script for Red Kimono was co-written by Dorothy Arzner, who would go on to direct herself (and later subject to a lawsuit, as the film was advertised as being based on a true story, without the permission of the woman in question). Finally, two fragments also fit under this topical umbrella, both by director Ida May Park. Only two minutes of The Risky Road survive, making them mostly interesting as a historical artifact, while Bread follows an aspiring actress played by Mary McLaren, who resists the advances of a predatory producer despite being on the brink of starving to death. The editing juxtaposition of McLaren, alone in her ratty apartment, desperately hungry, with the producer chowing down on an extravagant meal, stands out as a modern technique.
The remainder of the films are a bit debatable as to their social commentary, despite their quality. One of the more charming films in the entire set is Elsie Jane Wilson's The Dream Lady, which stars Carmel Myers as Rosamund Gilbert, a perpetually optimistic and self-possessed woman who dreams of owning a house in the forest, being a soothsayer, meeting a nice man, and owning a dog. When her elderly uncle dies and leaves her $10,000, she sets about realizing those dreams, taking in a little orphan girl in the process (Elizabeth Janes), and nearly getting roped in by a shifty businessman (Philo McCullough) who threatens the relationship between her and handsome suitor John Squire (Thomas Holding) through his shady dealings. A subplot with Kathleen Emerson as a female client of Rosamund's who wishes to be a man is intermittently intriguing, with Wilson non-judgmentally playing with gender, but the film's overall strength is basic charm. Similarly, Nell Shipman's Something New, in which an aspiring author dreams up a western adventure in which the modern invention of the automobile is pitted against old-fashioned horseback riding, can be viewed as a metaphor for Shipman's own authorship. At the same time, the short borders on non-sequitur comedy at this point, as Shipman's protagonist takes over for battered rescuer Bill Baxter (Bert Van Tuyle) behind the wheel of his car. The entire second half of the film is a slow getaway from the horseback-riding villains using the vehicle, and although this is not intended as a slight or criticism, there is something increasingly funny about the number of consecutive shots showing Shipman doggedly piloting the vehicle down another rocky and unforgiving slope (think the rakes in "The Simpsons" episode "Cape Feare," or Andy Samberg falling down a hill in Hot Rod). The (unintentional? wry?) humor is further underlined when considering the car as a reflection of Bill's ego, which takes a mighty beating crawling over rocks and branches.
The two bum notes in this section are Motherhood: Life's Greatest Miracle, which joins Where Are My Children? in its unfortunately retrograde messaging. Lita Lawrence's film follows two women (Nance Newman and Adelaide M. Chase), one rich and one poor, embarking on the journey toward motherhood. The film shames Flo for not respecting the God-granted miracle of motherhood, which she ultimately learns to respect after being prevented from having an abortion. One scene in particular stands out as racist, featuring a caricature of a black mother. On the other hand, Alla Nazimova's Salome is an entire warehouse full of scenery-chewing melodramatics, featuring some of the most needlessly affected acting in the entire set. In the documentary featurette, there is brief discussion as to whether Nazimova's short is a key piece of queer art. Interpreting the film that way isn't a stretch, per se, but extracting that based on the film's acting style alone has an air of surface-level analysis. It's not all bad: Nazimova (and/or credited director Charles Bryant) uses color timing in an interesting way, and the relatively elaborate sets and costumes make the film feel like an early predecessor of epics like Ben-Hur and Cleopatra. It's too bad those flourishes are in constant competition with the over-the-top performances (not to mention, this is another one of the shorts in the set with some overt racism).
First up is Julia Crawford Ivers' Call of the Cumberlands, which stands out as one of the few films on the set that does not feature a female protagonist. Online sources say that the film was directed by Frank Lloyd and that Ivers only wrote the film, but presumably Kino's scholars have more information than Wikipedia. In the film, Samson South (Dustin Farnum) is next in line to be the head of the South family, which has been engaged in an ongoing stand-off with the Hollmans for years. When someone shoots and kills a member of the Hollman family, tensions are raised again, but Samson has art on his mind, inspired by the appearance of a great wilderness painter named George Lescott (Michael Hallvard). Despite the objections of his family and his would-be lover, Sally Spicer (Winifred Kingston), Samson leaves the Cumberlands and travels to the city, where he learns the rules of upper-class society from George's sister, Adrienne (Myrtle Stedman). In some ways, the film feels like a counterpart to Guy-Blache's Algie the Miner, only reversed. Of the features, this is arguably the least unique, offering pretty straightforward drama, but it works pretty well (even if the ending arguably takes a couple of steps back in terms of Samson's character development).
Fans of the surviving snippets of The Risky Road and Bread will be relieved to see a feature of Ida May Park's has survived in its entirety, Broadway Love. Right from the beginning, it's clear that the three films had common themes, telling another story of would-be stardom surrounded by predatory men. In Love, Midge O'Hara (Dorothy Phillips) is a nearly penniless chorus girl who is friends with the leading lady, Cherry Blow (Juanita Hansen). Cherry has the fame and the wealth, but is unhappy with her current beau, Jack Chalvey (Harry von Meter)...largely because he's starting to run low on cash. Cherry invites Midge to a fancy party thrown by rich playboy Henry Rockwell (William Stowell), and Midge agrees, but the night causes her no end of trouble. A hometown farmboy named Elmer Watkins (Lon Chaney!) with his sights set on Midge stalks her to the party and has to be thrown out, she finds herself talking Jack out of a suicide attempt, and Henry Rockwell tries to rape her on the way home, which she escapes by falling out of the carriage and suffering a head injury. Later, she travels to a beach resort to recover, only to end up surrounded by the same three men. Park gives Rockwell a startling amount of leeway, but if the film has a larger problem, it's that it becomes hard to tell Rockwell and Chalvey apart solely by their appearance. There is also, in what will unfortunately become a theme among these last films, some outright blackface.
The best of the films on the final disc is David Hartford and Nell Shipman's Back to God's Country, an adaptation of Whapi, the Walrus, by James Oliver Curwood. Following a prologue filling in the history of Wapi, a mistreated dog, the film moves to the wilderness, where Dolores LeBeau (Shipman) lives a quiet life among forest animals. Throughout the films in the set, there is a consistent affinity for dogs, and here we get what borders on an outright "wacky animal" movie, although Dolores' crowd of creatures aren't particularly comedic. Dolores lives with her father, Baptiste (Roy Laidlaw), and they welcome the company of an author named Peter Burke (Wheeler Oakman), who is looking for some excitement to help inspire his latest work. All three of them end up with more excitement than Peter bargained for when a monstrous man named Rydal (Wellington A. Playter) and his partner (Charles B. Murphy) show up, with Rydal posing as a Mountie using the uniform of a man he and his partner murdered. In the ensuing fracas, Baptiste and Rydal's partner are killed, but Rydal escapes. Peter and Dolores are married, and move to the city, where Dolores misses her animals. Peter promises they'll move back, but first they must take an Arctic voyage, where Dolores is horrified to discover, some time after setting sail, that their captain is Rydal, and he's got a plan. Peter is sidelined by Rydal's scheming, leaving Dolores (and the nearly-forgotten Wapi) to figure out a way to get Peter to safety and get rid of Rydal once and for all. The film offers some of the most impressive scope of any film in the set, taking the action from the mountains to the city to the ocean to the Arctic, with some impressive river stunts, a fight sequence, and a chase across an icy horizon. Both Shipman and Playter are great, and Shipman seems to have a genuine connection with the animals. Back to God's Country is one of the first Canadian feature films, and it's a good one.
It's a shame the order of God's Country and the final film, Marion Frances and Chester M. Franklin's The Song of Love, couldn't have been reversed just to send the set out on a high note. This final film is technically impressive but one of the more dated films in the set, in which Noorma-hal (Norma Talmadge), a popular Arabian dancer, finds herself in a love triangle with Secret Service agent Raymon Valverde (Joseph Schildkraut) and Ramlika (Arthur Edmund Carewe), the man that Valverde is there to stop. Some of the early scenes have a bit of screwball snap to them, but this is a darkly dramatic film, which, yes, features a number of very white actors playing Arabian soldiers. It also doesn't help that the ending is missing, with the entire climax summarized in text. Although the film has impressive scope, making good use of the locations and sets, and it features some of the more impressive action filmmaking in the entire box, the film's mix of racial and religious plot points is a tough sit.
A complete listing of the films in the set, including a handful that did not fit neatly into the coverage in this review, can be found on Kino Lorber's website, here.
The Video and Audio
Sound for all of the films is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, offering brand new musical scores conducted by a long list of silent film composers (most of whom, in keeping with the theme of the set, are women). There is a latitude to the scoring of these films that some viewers might struggle with -- a couple of the compositions, for example, use guitar and some other instruments that call attention to themselves more than others. It is also worth noting that some of these shorts offer more than one score option, which will not come up for the viewer if they use the "Play All Films" options on each disc.
In addition to the video featurettes, there are commentaries on Canned Harmony, A Fool and His Money, Burstup Holmes' Murder Case, A House Divided, and Matrimony's Speed Limit by film historian and filmmaker Alison McMahan, author of Alice Guy-Blache: Lost Visionary of the Cinema. Note for the reader: I did not sample these commentaries, in part because they are somewhat obscured on the menus for individual films, and also because this review was already unreasonably delayed.
Disc 2 features only a couple of supplements. Like Disc 1, there is "Lois Weber" (8:35), which dives into the filmmaker the disc is dedicated to. I believe some of the comments here are duplicated among the other features, but not so much so that the featurette is not worth watching. There are also two more audio commentaries: Paul Young, associate professor and chair of Film and Media Studies at Dartmouth, on Hypocrites, and Gaylyn Studlar, director of Film and Video Studies at University of Michigan, on Too Wise Wives.
Disc 3 has two video documentaries, one on "Mabel Normand" (7:56), and the other on "Serial Queens" (7:01). The one on serial stars is particularly interesting, as the serials only survive today in the form of random episodes, and the ones included in the set are among the disc's most exciting and lively shorts (not to mention, they're representative of genre work that women today are most routinely shut out of). There is also one audio commentary, by prolific film author and historian Anthony Slide, on '49-'17.
Discs 4 and 5 are both "Social Commentary," and the extras are spread across the two discs. Disc 4 contains the featurette, "Social Commentary" (11:03), which again provides an overview of the basic area of filmmaking by the same participants. The audio commentaries are all on Disc 5, where Anthony Slide returns for Bread and The Red Kimono, and Gaylyn Studlar returns for Salome.
Finally, Disc 6 wraps things up with a final documentary short, "End of an Era" (10:03). Unsurprisingly, the focus turns to the modern industry, with plenty of insight onto how fast things changed for women in Hollywood and how quickly the history of female filmmakers was erased by people writing books just 10 years later. Cecil B. DeMille is cited as a particular influence on the modern picture of a director as a masculine, dominating presence, one which unfortunately persists in the 21st century (and which inevitably has some bearing on the abuse that many people, men and women, have faced from controlling and overly aggressive "auteurs").