AWFJ’s December SPOTLIGHT illuminates the achievements of film historian and author Shelley Stamp, curator of Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers, the six-DVD set recently released by Kino Lorber and the Library of Congress. As curator, Stamp focuses on American films from 1911-1929, presenting works of some known and many nearly forgotten women directors whose films span every genre and style, shaping the art of cinema. The ambitious compilation of works by women directors is a revelation, an important #TheTimeIsNow moment in awakening awareness about women’s contributions to cinema. Stamp says question she gets most often from audiences who see these extraordinary films ‘Why haven’t I heard about this before?’
“It’s an absolute crime. These films are as compelling as work by directors we do know. But at the same time, they also deal with issues that male filmmakers weren’t dealing with or were dealing with differently,” said Stamp. “These films are about gender roles; they’re about marriage; about family; about poverty; sexuality; racism. And it’s really important to have a female perspective on those issues.”
The author of two award-winning books, Lois Weber in Early Hollywood and Movie-Struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture Culture after the Nickelodeon, Stamp’s role on the project evolved from her expertise on Weber, whose sophisticated films on subjects including birth control and abortion are compiled on disc two of the set (there are some on other discs, too) but represent just a fraction of her vast output.
“[Producer] Bret Wood at Kino Lorber originally approached me for a Lois Weber set. I said, ‘absolutely, yes, let’s get it out there,’” says Stamp. “While we were in the preliminary stages of that, he was finishing Kino Lorber’s Pioneers of African-American Cinema box set and that was such a spectacular success, he came back and said,‘Do you think we can expand the Weber project and include other female filmmakers? Are there enough films?’”
Knowing there are numerous films by women filmmakers working the silent era, Stamp jumped at the opportunity. “I put together a long list of everything I wanted and where it could be found and he did an extraordinary job negotiating with archives and finding prints. We had originally thought it would be a five-disc set but there was so much material we did six and even then we had to leave stuff out,” she said. “Much of this work I had never seen. Putting this together was an incredible education for me to see all of this work and the scope of it together.”
Even a scholar like Stamp, who is Professor of Film and Digital Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was stunned at the range of the work that women filmmakers in and outside Hollywood were doing 100 years ago, from the complex narratives of Weber and Alice Guy-Blaché to slapstick comedies from Mabel Normand. “Chaplin said she taught him about directing when she directed early performances of The Tramp. Her use of her face and body is fabulous,” said Stamp. “People know Keaton and Chaplin, but few know Mabel Normand and she’s right up there as far as I’m concerned.”
Another revelation was The Hazards of Helen and The Purple Mask, action adventure serials directed by and starring Helen Holmes and Grace Cunard, respectively.
“In The Hazards of Helen series, Helen is underestimated; people don’t think she can do it, yet she leaps across bridges … it’s about the female body and its ability to move and to work in this modern technological environment. What’s so striking to me is that [the films] are proving an argument we’re still having today. These are action adventure films; yes, women can direct them. Why are we still having the argument?”
Early Social Commentary
Ida Mae Park’s Bread and The Risky Road, both from 1918, are on the set’s “Social Commentary” discs. “Park, like Weber, makes explicit social problem films,” said Stamp. “In Bread she deals with the question of sexual harassment in the entertainment industry, an issue very much still with us.” Stamp added that Park in 1920 contributed to a “guide to careers for women” a chapter on motion picture directing, When the guide was reissued in 1934, said Stamp, that chapter was gone.
What changed for women filmmakers after the robust 1910s and teens?
“There is a whole series of events that happened in the early ‘20s that really shut out a whole generation of women filmmakers,” said Stamp. “Some of it has to do with what’s happening in Hollywood: studios are consolidating power, buying up theater chains, making it harder and harder for the independents and many of the independent studios are owned by women. But also there’s a social turn when the ‘20s became a conservative era.” Weber, for instance, in 1921 made What Do Men Want? which Stamp calls “a critical look at not just marriage but masculinity and capitalism.” But this time Weber, who’d built her career on popular, socially conscious films, could not get studio distribution.
As a college professor, Stamp says she loves introducing students to silent classics in her film courses. “By the time you get to the teens and ‘20s, some of the best films ever made are silent films,” she said. That’s another reason Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers is so important: it will introduce new and younger audiences to the astonishing creative work women produced a century ago.
“That is, for me, the purpose of doing a set like this: to bring these films out of the archives and get them into theaters and classrooms,” said Stamp. “I’m re-doing my silent film class for the winter to include these films.”
Why We Chose Her
Shelley Stamp is not only the curator of Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers and the author of the seminal book Lois Weber in Early Hollywood, she is a feminist film educator with extraordinary knowledge and dedication. In her books and when she appears as commentator in a documentary made about the compilation for Pioneers: First Women Directors, Shelley Stamp’s expertise and insights are delivered in an engaging, accessible manner, enhancing the viewer’s understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of the amazing women filmmakers who germinated and shaped the art of cinema. – Loren King