Conference Report: Women & the Silent Screen, Amsterdam (May 2019)

Christine Gledhill looks back on last year’s Women & The Silent Screen conference held at the Eye Film Museum in Amsterdam in May 2019.

Holed up in my attic during the current pandemic gives me time to look back over notes taken at last May’s Women and the Silent Screen conference, hosted by the Eye Film Museum in Amsterdam, in a stunning building on the banks of the IJ waterfront. The Conference took place in the Museum’s capacious and comfortable film theatre, with coffee on tap throughout the day, and tasty buffet lunches provided. With only one meeting venue, the number of papers that could be accepted was reduced, but this did mean we could all participate in every panel session, to enjoy highly stimulating papers. A warning, however: what follows is not comprehensive and represents my interpretation of notes written at speed, which will inevitably contain some inaccuracies and maybe readings that the paper-givers would not recognise.

The Conference’s theme, “Sisters” proved a versatile organising concept, expanding the reach of women’s film history in different directions, with a consequent broadening of film historiography more generally. As a concept, “sisterhood” brought a feminist lens to bear on the concept of creativity, till recently largely captured by the image of the singular, generally male, artist-director, as source of original creative vision. “Sisters” however, demands reconceptualising the nature of creativity to embrace potentially multiple creators through collaborative production, participation in cultural networks, and the intricate processes of co-creation. This opens up recognition of the creative input of a much wider range of roles and arenas for women’s agency than the prized position of “film director.”

Beyond its implications for film history, “sisterhood” also functions as a powerful social and feminist metaphor, which was explored in a panel devoted to the nineteenth-century French play, The Two Orphans (1874) and its many film versions, including D. W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm (1921). This highly popular story–centring on the bonding of adopted sisters across classed gender divisions, who, after brutally enforced separation, struggle to re-find each other–works, as Victoria Duckett argued, “to redefine the concept of the social as social care in a deracinating world.” Developing this argument further, David Mayer and Helen Day-Mayer argued that Griffith’s use of the real-life Gish sisters in the roles of Louise and Henriette, while setting the trauma of their separation in the French Revolution, served to emphasise the significance of metaphorical  sisterhood as a cultural-political image for a modernising society in the process of losing its traditions of social interdependency.

At the same time, for the Conference, the concept of “Sisters” was itself complicated through “intersectional analysis” of the complex tensions for a sisterhood claimed across the socio-cultural boundaries of gender as it intersects with positions of class, race and religion. For example:

  • in the case of African-American filmmaking discussed by Jacqueline Stewart;
  • or as exemplified in Yiman Yang’s discussion of the problem of hybridised racial identity confronted by American-Chinese Anna May Wong, for whom “sisterhood” was out of reach;

Anna May Wong being prepared for her role in Chu-Chin-Chow (1934)

  • or, more positively, in the collaboration across national and religious identities by German Jewish and French Catholic sisters-in-law, Gertrude Grünspan and Suzanne Pathé working as distributors of French films to German audiences;
  • or where “sisterhood” acts as cover of respectability or obscurity for unacknowledged lesbian sexuality, producing, as Kiki Loveday argued, a “lesbian incest effect” or “pornographic imaginary for women.”

Performers & Audiences

Employing “sisterhood” as a key to women’s creative use of cinema, Annette Förster‘s keynote examined the practices of stars such as Rosa Porten, Musidora and Asta Nielsen, who not only were intensely involved in the production of their films, but used performance to ironise their scripts and invite a knowing female audience into collaboration with them, throwing off-screen glances across the actions or dialogue given to male characters that implicitly ask, “Did you notice what just happened?”

Rosa Porten (1884-1972)

Such interventional possibility was taken up and complicated in Jacqueline Stewart’s keynote discussing Black actresses working for African-American companies, focusing in particular on Geraldine Brock in Spencer Williams’s The Girl in Room 20 (1946). Stewart noted the tension for African-American actresses, poised between their function for Black uplift culture as signs of a respectability conformable to white middle-class expectations, and as performers in an entertainment industry. Using the “affective gestures” and performative vernacular of Black body language, they exhibited a “surplus of being” not written into the script, but generating a “cheekiness” that contradicted both “uplift” culture and male chauvinism. Here, gender intersects with race, generating dissonances as these modes of being clash. “Their performances,” argued Stewart, “were not fully absorbed by their roles” but cued into the everyday gestural practices of their audiences, while foregrounding the “pretence” of acting.

Writing Script, through the Actress, into Film

In this vein several papers pointed to the necessarily collaborative nature of work on the studio floor, opening up space for input from the actors as part of the process of “co-creation.” Papers by Liz Clarke and Gabriel Paletz respectively looked at the processes involved in writing and transforming script into film, for example Clara Beringer’s role as scriptwriter, working with her husband, William de Mille, or Anita Loos’s shaping her writing to the qualities of particular stars such as Douglas Fairbanks and the Talmadges.

Paletz’s approach provoked some controversy because, following the conventional paradigm of authorship, he sought to establish Loos’s authorial voice as scriptwriter, at odds with the concept of collaborative creation implied by “sisterhood.” On the other hand, he identified as distinctive source of creativity her sympathetic understanding of star quality and how to use it, an intuitive sensitivity which women are trained to exercise and which arguably contributes hugely to the production process. In this regard, Daniela Currò’s paper on the Italian film-company founder, Elvira Notari–who variously wrote its scripts, directed and acted–argued that her creation of characters observed from local life rather than as performative “divas,” along with her use of existing locations, called on the recognition and sympathy of the female audience in a kind of proto-feminist sisterhood, with which we can still identify today.

Business Nous, Distribution and Understanding Audiences

Several papers focused on the business acumen of  women working in distribution and exhibition. Frank Kessler and Sabine Lenk found that the competence of youthful sisters-in-law, German Jewish Gertrud Grünspan and French Catholic Suzanne Pathé was much admired by their respective film industries. Their work is absent from film history partly because women are not expected to have a facility for business (a failure to understand the social insight needed to develop and reach audiences); partly because their companies did not survive the Great War between their respective countries; and partly because distribution is neglected in film history, while border crossing defies the neat encapsulation of national categorisation deployed in film studies.

A’lelia Walker (1885-1931)

Developing the theme of women’s business agency, Aimee Dixon Anthony presented research on African-American women entrepreneurs who built cinemas and became exhibitors in order to counter the racial stereotypes of mainstream Hollywood. Cinema ownership meant power to draw and shape specific audiences and so to influence production as well as reception. In 1927, when A’Lelia Walker, the celebrated business woman, Harlem Renaissance patron, and daughter of the first African-American millionairess, was refused a ticket at a white-owned cinema, she simply went ahead and built the Walker theatre in Indianapolis. Aimee Dixon Anthony pointed out the paradox of segregation in enabling a certain independence for Black-only production and exhibition, and cited nine African-American women who owned and programmed such cinemas in this period.

Shelley Stamp, continuing the theme of exhibition, showed how practices of film screening and promotion could work more broadly to create a sense of female solidarity, as cinema managers sought to attract middle-class women to their cinemas. While many Progressive Era films dramatised, albeit in conservative fashion, controversial issues such as divorce, abortion and prostitution, “imaginary conversations” among women viewers were encouraged by press reporting and film presentation, for example, adding at the end of a film or review the tag, “what do you think?,” implying there might be other questions or conclusions than those posed by the film.

Women’s Cultural Activism

Beyond the film studio or picture house, women were culturally active in defining and developing the possibilities of cinema both as aesthetic form and social communicator. For example, Martin Johnson discussed the work of Ruth Ellen Gould Dolese, who was employed by the American General Film Company as arts education advisor and was a member of the National Board of Review. Against a largely disinterested industry, she worked with Edith Dunham Foster, a member of the Community Motion Picture Bureau, to create an Educational Film Catalogue, preserving and making available film programmes suitable for schools, churches, civic organisations, prisons. Edith Dunham Foster also created programmes for rehabilitating soldiers returned from the war. Martin Johnson stressed the radical nature of their enterprise that sought to create a systematised catalogue for an as yet ephemeral medium.

Equally ambitious and more diverse was the work of Germaine Dulac (1882-1942), both as filmmaker, cultural activist and theorist of cinema. While Dulac explored the aesthetic reaches of cinema as art, she also campaigned for its social significance, working across avant-garde, fictional, documentary and newsreel genres. As Tammi Williams and Clement Lafite explained, Dulac “believed in cinema in the service of history.” She was involved in the founding of the Cinémathèque Française and FIAF (International Federation of Film Archives), making a documentary for the League of Nations promoting cross-national archiving and distribution.

Following Dulac’s death in 1942, her collaborator and partner, Marie-Anne Colson-Malleville painstakingly organised into a coherent volume Dulac’s lectures and nine notebooks, which together make up her theory of film. What is Cinema? (Light Cone Editions, February 2020). Dulac’s writings are not only a precursor to Bazin’s later work, but in her concept of “constructive realism” chime with the better known writings of Eisenstein and Kracauer. As Williams and Lafite argued, it is time that women’s theoretical work was integrated into the history of film theory, with all the amendments that would necessitate.

Further afield, Emma Sandon explored British women’s use of filmmaking as a tool of social intervention in the colonies as means of fundraising and recruitment for missionary work that, extending beyond religious teaching, promoted public health and educational practices. Such documentary work indicates both women’s diversification of cinema’s uses and its marginalisation in the construction of film history. All the above instances demand broadening our conception of creativity to include a far wider range of activities and practices than currently admitted.

Rethinking Creativity

Thus, in arguing the broadening of roles contributing to the making of films and cinema cultures, a number of papers sought to widen conceptions of creativity not as the production of original ideas or artworks, but as processes emerging from the complexity of human expressive and communicative faculties. Thus Karen Pearlman theorised the relation between creativity and knowing, doing and thinking, inner and social worlds. Her argument began with the embodiment of thinking as it propels action into the social world: “through embodied and embedded thinking, ideas are distributed to others in a shared context.” Taking as example, the Soviet editor Esfir Shub’s (1894-1959) development of the art of montage, Pearlman suggests hers was a kinaesthetic response to the tools and materials in her hands.

Esfir Shub (1894-1959)

Thinking about how to cut and join pieces of moving film constitutes a mode of creation in which bodily doing, intellectual perception, and imaginative response are integrated in a process of creation that involves “reading between the lines” of the material and trying out possibilities to see what works. Shub’s case, working with pre-existing material, meant re-purposing what was already stored in the archive to create new works. Editing is thus crucial to the outcome of a film; it is a creative act, not just helping the birth of a director’s personal vision. With a dig at standard film histories, Pearlman suggested we should speak of the “editor’s effect” not the “Kuleshov effect”! In other words, ideas always start from bodily, perceptual and emotional interactions with the materials as well as the others embedded in our given cultural and professional spaces and practices.

Through such revision of the way we understand creativity, Karen Pearlman lays the groundwork for a concept of “co-creation.” Since women were always there in the production offices, on the studio floor, in the cutting rooms and film labs, as well as amongst audiences, they have always been present in the emerging development of cinematic creativity, despite the material domination of men or of the idea of “genius” inventors and artists that has occluded their presence in film histories.

Hell’s Crater (poster, 1918)

Jennifer Bean also sought to break the binary between thinking and feeling, cognition and affect, in an exploration of the relation between curiosity–the desire to know, to interrogate–and the sense of wonder or marvel–an affective pleasure. Curiosity, however, is drawn to the forbidden, its insatiability underpinning the popular serial queen movies of the 1910s and 20s, with their masked and hooded figures, and their action heroines’ hair-raising if improbable adventures that throw into question conventions of gender and sexual identity. “Wonder,” in Bean’s argument, is a kind of circuit-breaker:  “it works against elite culture” and so “challenges ways of perceiving the world.” The playful universe of the serials, which “refuse to be bound by space or time,” also challenge “the conventions of young womanhood.”

Research Sources & Methodologies

Expanding film history to include little regarded or unrecognised roles, practices and collaborative networks–in which women are most likely to work–raises the question of research sources: where are such women and practices to be found? As many papers showed, names and fragmentary details appear scattered in family histories, geneologies and archives; or as incidental anecdotes in memoirs of more prominent public figures; or in personal correspondence, for example the long exchange of letters between historian of German Expressionism, Lotte Eisner, and Louise Brooks, American film actress and star of German director, Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929) and Diary of a Lost Girl (1929).

Adelheid Heftberger, used anecdotes, opinion pieces and personal writings to trace the active presence of Lilja Brik within a network of female Soviet filmmakers, including Esfir Shub and Elizaveta Svilova. Brik is known to have contributed to three films in different capacities, contributions that escape analysis based on singular authorship and that demand attention to the kind of embodied interactive collaborations discussed by Karen Pearlman. Lilja Brik’s career history points to the significance of work on films or projects that may remain unrealised as sources indicating processes of creativity at work.

Liz Clarke, citing the resource represented by the Media History Digital Library, described digital tools in development that will enable researchers to flip through trade press pages for film credits and studio notices that can be used to trace collaborative networks and career developments. Digital topic modelling and appropriate algorithms may change the questions that can be asked as new patterns emerge. For example, by analysing through such means studio structures and film credits, the researcher can follow the different roles and capacities of women scriptwriters, quite frequently as heads of scenario departments, controlling the projects that get developed.

But more traditional research routes remain: as Liz Clarke pointed out, university archives are full of boxes of as yet unexamined materials: the University of Southern California, for example, holds collections of women’s scripts, including those of Clara Beringer, mentioned above. Kate Saccone, confronted by the anonymity of women working in the film labs, sought to overcome the limitations of the WFPP “career profile, that depends on the known, the creditable and verifiable.” Combining the traditional collection and digital tools, she examined boxes of laboratory photographs stored in New York Public Library’s Billy Rose Collection. Seeking to reveal the collective skills these photographs make visible, she suggested that digital tools such as the annotated image gallery or video essay offer a way to recognise and analyse their anonymous work within historical scholarship.

Feminism and Women’s Film History

Opening a round table on “Female Writers of Silent Cinema,” Jay Weissberg questioned how far feminist historiography is true to the woman filmmaker’s intentions. This raises the issue of our relationship now to women in the past. We cannot know what the intentions were of the women we research, nor can we be sure that they espoused feminism, in whatever “wave” it may have appeared through history. They worked within the mental and institutional constraints of their times and respective cultures and film industries. If we cannot bring them back, they have, as Monica Dall’Asta and Jane Gaines argued in Doing Women’s Film History[1], left us their works, writings, photographs, memorabilia. In the light of our current questions, the traces they have left behind reveal the tensions and contradictions at work, as gender, race and class were subjected to pressures of social and economic change, which with hindsight become legible for us now.

Cinema, in particular, opened up new spaces for women’s imagination, new ways of enacting familiar forms, new modes of perception. As Jacqueline Stewart argued of African-American filmmaking, comic performance offered a tool to counter the pathos of the victimised heroine, made respectable in certain forms of sentimental Victorian melodrama. As she suggested, comedy plays on ambiguity and innuendo, against the clarity of the polarised oppositions sought by melodrama. However, melodrama is quite capable both of adapting its embodiments of virtue and villainy to emerging new gender and racial identities and to new cinematic forms.

Shelley Stamp suggested that anxious press responses to the “curiosity seekers” who patronised progresssive era melodramas focusing controversial issues–divorce, abortion, white slavery–was countered by exhibitors who ran all-women screenings or encouraged female audiences to participate in public debate. In a parallel vein, Susan Potter argued that the highly popular serial-queen melodramas took the resistance of the Victorian heroine to villainy into new territory, when, by virtue of serial adventure form, she has both to be detached from family in order to engage in her exploits and to survive hair-raising threats and dangers if she is to appear in the next episode. Frequently figured as orphans, the serial queens, Potter argued, represent the “modern individual endangered in an atomised society.”

Thus from our position looking back, the works and practices of women filmmakers reveal the processes by which new ways of thinking, seeing and imagining emerge, through mixtures of resistance, negotiation and compliance, enabling us to see social and cultural change at work: not ideological reproduction but transformations in the making.

[1] ‘Prologue, Constellations: Past Meets Present in Feminist Film History’ (2015): 13-25

Christine Gledhill is a Visiting Professor, Cinema Studies, at University of Leeds, and co-founder with Julia Knight of the Women’s Film and Television Network, UK/Ireland. She has published many articles and edited collections on feminism and film, British cinema, genre cinema, and the relationship between theatrical and cinematic melodrama. She is co-editor with Julia Knight of Doing Women’s Film History (2015).