Women in Hollywood have made major gains in recent years, from directors like Ava DuVernay helming major blockbusters to cinematographer Rachel Morrison’s groundbreaking Oscar nomination. But there’s still a way to go to achieve the kind of equality that existed in Hollywood in the 1920s.

Yes, you read that correctly. I said the 1920s.

It’s hard to believe but Hollywood was much more hospitable to women in its earliest days than it has been recently. In addition to starlets of the era, women worked in every position in the industry from screenwriter to studio owner. In fact, in the year 1923, more women-owned production companies than men. Women wrote, directed, and starred in the movies that inspired future generations of filmmakers — and sometimes even taught the classes where those filmmakers learned everything they know.

Surely, then, if we say that movies wouldn’t exist without the contributions of revered men of early Hollywood like D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, and studio moguls like Louis B. Mayer, then we should also be thanking the pioneering women that history has not been so kind to.

Alice Guy Blaché: Pre-Hollywood Pioneer

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Men like Thomas Edison and the Lumiere Brothers are typically considered the “inventors” of cinema, which is true technology-wise. But if we’re talking about movies as we know them today, we have Alice Guy Blaché to thank.

Blaché was arguably the first director of a narrative film (depending on your definition of “narrative”), as opposed to the attraction or actuality films that dominated early filmmaking. Her “La Fée Aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy)” was released in 1896, putting her in the same category as the Lumieres and George Melies when it comes to pioneering film as storytelling. As head of production for the Gaumont studio, she continued to further film as a narrative medium, becoming the first person to make films on a regular basis. She also headed up projects using Leon Gaumont’s Chronophone system, making her the first-ever director of sound pictures.

It’s also important to note that while working at Gaumont — and later as the co-owner of the Solax Company in the United States — Blaché focused her work on artistic direction rather than the technical ins-and-outs of cinematography. She basically invented the role of “director” as separate from other technicians in the filmmaking process. Without that distinction, it’s hard to even imagine what the film business would be like today.

Frances Marion: Screenwriter to the Stars

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Marion, right, with Mary Pickford

The story of many Hollywood pioneers is often that of chance encounters, and it took quite a few to make Frances Marion one of the most influential screenwriters of the era. A newspaper reporter covering theater, Marion had such encounters with movie megastar Mary Pickford before Hollywood was even a twinkle in her eye. It was during a lunch between Marion’s friend Adela Rogers St. Johns and director Lois Weber that Marion was more or less plucked from obscurity.

Thinking she was brought to Weber’s studio to be a costume designer, Marion ended up doing a little bit of everything. Mostly through observation, she got a taste of what it meant to be a writer, an actor, a director. When Weber moved on to Universal Pictures, it was Marion’s earlier meeting with Mary Pickford that launched her career. Pickford insisted Marion write her next picture, THE POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL, which spawned an ongoing partnership.

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Pickford wasn’t the only actress with whom she seemed to have a special connection. Marion became known for writing star-making scripts for young actresses, including Greta Garbo and Marion Davies, while more than holding her own with big names like Lillian Gish and Spencer Tracy.

Her career spanned silent and sound pictures, which demonstrates an innate skill for screenwriting given how different the two media were. She wrote nearly 400 screenplays, was the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood and was the first person to win two Academy Awards in the same field. As such a successful writer during both of these eras, she pioneered some of the conventions that have lasted until today, like mixing comedy and melodrama. She even literally wrote the book on the subject: How to Write and Sell Film Stories, the first of its kind.

Dorothy Arzner: Intersectional Innovator

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For a while in the 1930s and ‘40s, there was only one female director working in Hollywood: a charismatic lesbian named Dorothy Arzner.

Arzner is a fascinating figure because she defied so many norms while seemingly conforming to them at the same time. An editor-turned-director, she worked on iconic silent films like BLOOD AND SAND and directed starlets like Clara Bow. Plus, she was one of the few women to survive the transition to the studio system in the 1930s. Later, she was the only woman to direct for most of the 1940s.

She was also openly gay. And by “openly” I don’t just mean out. I mean flirting with actresses on set openly. She wore suits and kept a short haircut. These choices were all atypical for the time, but only for women. They were common for men and male directors. The intersection of being a woman and being gay would seemingly be to her detriment in 1940s society. But perhaps her more masculine presentation explains her success in the male- and masculinity-dominated industry. Once she had proven herself, her executives at Paramount tolerated her behavior and trusted her to work with their biggest stars and even their first sound picture, THE WILD PARTY.

She shepherded classic Hollywood fare through most major studios, even launching the careers of some of the biggest stars we know and love today, including Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, and Lucille Ball. Some of her movies had a feminist perspective, like DANCE, GIRL, DANCE, which featured this iconic (and relatable) scene:

Even with her directing days behind her, she continued to leave her mark on Hollywood. For several years, she taught at UCLA’s film school, where her students included Francis Ford Coppola. Oh yeah, and she invented the boom mic.

Ida Lupino: Triple Threat

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When Arzner retired in 1943, a full six years went by without a woman directing Hollywood movies. Ida Lupino broke that streak in 1949 when she filled in for a male director on NOT WANTED. Lupino had been a successful actress a while, but she was frequently put on suspension from Warner Bros.

This time off allowed her to get a taste of life behind the scenes, eventually leading her to form a production company with her husband. The focus of the company was realistic movies, like those being made in France and Italy at the time. This put Lupino in a small group of filmmakers in Hollywood that brought about the realist movement that would play a huge role in the coming New Hollywood generation, which includes famous auteurs like Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas.  

Lupino’s early films were focused on taboo issues like rape and unwed pregnancy, but it was a male-driven movie that made her famous as a director: THE HITCH-HIKER, the first film noir directed by a woman. Her company produced 12 feature films, of which Lupino directed or co-directed six and wrote or co-wrote five.

Unlike some of the other pioneering women in her position, Lupino was not quick to masculinize herself. In securing funding for movies, she described herself as a “bulldozer,” but she called herself “mother” on set. Her director’s chair even said “Mother of Us All” in what seems to be equal parts nurturing and threatening.

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Leaving Her Legacy

Though her company closed in 1955, Lupino continued directing for television, particularly in genres often considered off-limits to women. She directed episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, BONANZA, and others, sometimes acting in her episodes as well.

As the only woman director in Hollywood during the 1950s and one who had to break a six-year-long drought, it’s easy to see how Lupino’s presence inspired and paved the way for women after her. Her handling of traditionally masculine genres like noir and westerns has the feel of Kathryn Bigelow. Her approach to taboo topics and female characters, in particular, calls to mind modern directors like Sofia Coppola.

Even in Post-War culture of strict gender roles, she proved that women could find success while finding strength in femininity. The way she describes her foray into directing, the feeling of “being bored to tears standing around the set while someone else seemed to do all the interesting work,” even mirrors the way housewives across America were silently feeling. And it all came from refusing to dutifully follow orders at Warner Bros. The saying “well-behaved women rarely make history” rings true once again.

Margaret Booth: Cinema’s Secret Savior

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Film editing is an inherently invisible job; throughout most of cinematic history, good editing was that which no one noticed. It’s interesting, then, that the role women most thrived in during the classical Hollywood era was that of editor. Several rose to the head of their division in their studios, but none were more powerful than MGM’s Margaret Booth.

Like Arzner, Booth was a rare successful case of women transitioning to the studio system in the 1930s. She had proven herself to be a skilled editor and a trusted confidant to Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg at Mayer’s pre-MGM studio, so when the big merger came, she remained at their side. Before long, she became supervising editor and gave her stamp of approval to every film that left the studio.

She developed a reputation for being ruthless when it came to her cuts and critiques — one writer described her as “a terror to directors throughout the industry, pouncing on weakly edited scenes like a ravenous jungle cat”– but with the caveat that she was always right in the end. To be blunt, she didn’t take crap from anybody, including such revered directors as Sidney Lumet and George Roy Hill. I have many favorite stories of her interactions with powerful men, but perhaps the most succinct is an exchange with Hill during a screening of one of his films:

“Mr. Hill, are you telling me you want that on a 60-foot screen?” she demanded.

“I guess I don’t, do I?” Hill replied.

“No, you don’t.”

MGM’s Saving Grace

During MGM’s turbulent post-Mayer years, Booth was essentially the only one who knew what was going on. She made sure everything flowed smoothly through the pipeline even when the higher-ups were none the wiser. In his memoir Making Movies, Lumet recounts her describing her dismay to him:

“I’m so tired. All those people… fighting over the bones of this studio. None of them know anything or care about pictures… I’m the only one who knows what’s being shot and what will be ready for release at Easter or Christmas. And everybody lies to me while dumping more and more decisions on me. And I have no help.”

Despite her clear frustration over the situation, her dedication to the studio and to her craft gave us such films as MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, BEN-HUR, and NORTH BY NORTHWEST.

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Since the supervising editor was not a credited position, it’s hard to know which films Margaret Booth worked on herself. Yet her power in the studio and her influence on some of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers is undeniable.

An Uphill Battle

Despite the indelible effect it’s had on human culture, Hollywood is a young industry with (hopefully) a long future ahead. Rather than getting bogged down in how terrible the state of equality has been for the latter half of its history so far, I hope we can look to the past to see that such equality is possible. Part of that is shining light on forgotten stories like those of the women above — and so many others that have yet to be unearthed — to remind us what we are capable of.

(A note on those unearthed stories: I am very aware that the women I wrote about are all white, and that I am somewhat contributing to the very phenomenon I am critiquing by not writing about PoC. That is a huge hole in film history, even in circles that aim to remember forgotten people. It’s telling that I couldn’t find much information about women of color the way I could about white women. It is both a personal goal and a public call to action to seek out more stories about other marginalized people in Hollywood, not just women.)

The popular stories about Hollywood’s history are so predominately white male-led that they make us think that anything to the contrary can’t exist. But it can, because it has. And it will again. With some rewriting of the past and including these silenced voices, we can rewrite our future to make it a more welcoming place for everyone.

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