Apr 6, 2016

Book Review-- Silent Women: Pioneers of Cinema

Silent Women: Pioneers of Cinema
Edited by Cheryl Robson and Melody Bridges
Aurora Metro Press, 2016
Available April 26

Before the movies became big business, women held a wide array of roles behind the camera, many more than in today's industry. They were producers, directors, cinematographers, editors, writers and even studio heads. In a new collection of essays these lesser known filmmakers are given their proper place in film history as influential pioneers in a quickly expanding medium. Silent Women: Pioneers of Cinema has its rough spots, but for the most part this is an entertaining, inspiring and hugely necessary celebration of female talent that includes women in film from around the world.

In thirteen essays, Pioneers of Cinema touches on each aspect of filmmaking and introduces an international cast of female talent. It took a long time to get through chapters about early African-American female filmmakers, European women behind the camera, and Karen Day's brief history of women in film, because I kept stopping to write down names so I could search out the films of these women and learn more about them. It was also fascinating to read Kevin Brownlow's interview with director Dorothy Arzner, perhaps the last before her death, in which she tells great stories about her work process and the matter-of-fact way she advanced through the studio ranks.

While Hollywood dominates the narrative, I appreciated the substantial international focus in the book, and that female filmmakers of color were given ample attention. There is the overall message that the gender issue must be inclusive in itself. The industry cannot be truly diverse unless the views of not only women, but different kinds of women are heard.

As a lot of the stories told here are intertwined, there is a fair amount of repetition. I think I might have read the story of French filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché about three or four times. It could get tedious, but as the essays are written to stand on their own, I couldn't think of how that information could be better presented. On the upside, this is an ideal book for browsing.

While I found it to be good overall review of screen talent, Bridges' chapter on Female Legends of the Silver Screen was a weak spot in the book. It's meant to give a quick view of the great female stars of the silent period, but in several spots there is misleading or false information. There is the claim that Greta Garbo "revelled in parties, glamour and a decadent lifestyle," which is essentially the opposite of the plain-dressing, health conscious and reclusive star's personality. Marlene Dietrich is given credit for Garbo's lead role in Queen Christina (1933) and it is claimed that silent star Olive Thomas was found "naked and dead" in her hotel room when she had actually suffered for five days before dying of mercury bichloride poisoning. I found the lack of attention to these and other facts disappointing, because the rest of the book is such a revelation, and particularly since most of them could have been easily checked. In fact, a source cited at the end of the chapter tells the true story of Thomas' death.

In a powerful closing chapter, director Maria Giese reflects on recent struggles in the Hollywood film industry to gain equity for female film directors. Giese has become an important figure in that fight, having attracted notice for her complaint to the ACLU about the lack of opportunities for women in filmmaking. She shares stories of her own efforts and of other women who have spoken out and worked to make change. It is incredibly frustrating to read Giese's account of the ways women have been ignored, condescended to and even threatened in their quest for gender parity, but she ends on a positive note, hopeful that now that the issue is getting constant, serious attention it will eventually lead to better conditions.

Despite its flaws, Silent Women: Pioneers of Cinema is an essential book for anyone interested in film. It is an interesting history on its own and a great starting point for more study of individual talents. Just seeing the names of these influential women in print is a great starting point in giving them their proper due. They are a testimony to the women in the fight for industry equity today, without whose talents the movies are much less than they could be.

Many thanks to Aurora Metro Press for providing a copy of the book for review.

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