When women called the shots

Movies: AMC pays tribute to four women who directed films in the infancy of the industry.

May 30, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

In a just world, Alice Guy would be remembered by students of cinema in much the same way as D.W. Griffith -- as a filmmaker who helped create the language of the movies, developing and furthering techniques that have been at the center of every film from "The Birth of a Nation" to "American Beauty."

But Guy, who is credited with being perhaps the first person to realize that film could tell a story and not just record events, has largely been forgotten. Part of the reason is that almost all her films -- and she directed more than 400 -- have been lost. She also had the misfortune of being female in a profession that, when it came to working behind the camera, was to become increasingly male oriented.

At least 12 female directors were working steadily in Hollywood in 1916. In 1920, an influential book, "Careers for Women," included a chapter on film directing. But when the book was updated seven years later, that chapter was dropped. The ranks of female directors had shrunken to one. And it wasn't Guy, who made her last film in 1920.

Tonight on AMC, the careers of Guy and three other pioneering filmmakers who also happened to be women are examined in "Reel Models: The First Women of Film" (8 p.m.-9 p.m., repeats 2 a.m.-3 a.m.). Besides Guy, whose career began in her native France in 1896, the documentary spotlights Lois Weber, whose socially conscious films made her, at one point, the highest-paid director on the Universal lot; Frances Marion, a screenwriter who won two Oscars and helped make enduring stars of Mary Pickford and Greta Garbo; and Dorothy Arzner, who directed Paramount's first talking picture and who was, as early as 1927, the only female director left in Hollywood.

Besides the special, AMC is showing examples of the women's work, including some rarely seen and long-thought-lost silent films. Guy's 1912 comedy, "Algie the Miner" (12: 30 a.m.-1 a.m.), in which a prospective bridegroom goes West to prove his manhood, was one of the first films to have an obviously gay central character (although why a gay man wanted to get married is left unresolved).

"Pollyanna" (1 a.m.-2 a.m.), written by Marion and released in 1920, was one of Pickford's biggest hits and helped revive interest in her career. And Weber's "The Hypocrites" (4: 45 a.m.-5: 30 a.m.), in which a priest forlornly assesses the hypocrisy of modern society, features a fully nude woman in the role of Naked Truth -- provocative stuff for 1915. The film is far too melodramatic for modern sensibilities, but Weber's camera work -- including several long panning shots, rare in silent films -- mark it as the work of a cinematic innovator.

"Reel Models" includes some unsettling revelations. For instance, when Barbra Streisand (who provides a brief intro for tonight's show) produced, wrote and directed "Yentl" in 1983, she was the first woman to fill those three roles on the same picture since Weber, whose last film, "White Heat," was released in 1934. And when Arzner made her final film in 1943, it would be seven years before another film was released with a woman director -- Ida Lupino's "Never Fear."

Each women certainly deserves better than to be relegated to a footnote in film history.

Guy, who was working as a secretary at Gaumont, a French film studio, persuaded the boss to let her make movies in her spare time. An early effort, "La Fee aux Choux" ("The Cabbage Fairy"), is included tonight; the one-minute film doesn't seem like much today, but turn-of-the-century audiences loved it, and it helped start Guy on a filmmaking career that would make her not only the first female director, but also the first woman put in charge of a studio.

In 1907, Guy married Herbert Blache, and the two set sail for the United States to run Gaumont's studios here. Among the talent they recruited was Weber, who started as an actress. But Weber, who saw herself as something of a missionary, decided to make her own films. They almost always promoted social concerns dear to her heart -- 1916's "Where Are My Children?" dealt with the then-taboo subject of birth control -- and they almost always made money. In 1916, she was listed by Photoplay magazine as the top director in Hollywood (ahead of Griffith); four years later, she signed with Famous Players-Lasky studios for an extraordinary $50,000 a picture, plus half the profits.

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