When Kino-Lorber producer Bret Wood first approached me about curating the multi-disc collection PIONEERS: FIRST WOMEN FILMMAKERS, he said, “Do you think there are enough surviving prints?” “YES,” I replied. But even I was unaware of just how many films survived, how varied and fabulous they were, and how few of them had circulated previously. We ended up bumping the collection from five discs to six so that we could include over 50 films—and even then we couldn’t include all of the material we wanted.
What kinds of films did women make 100 years ago? Every kind! Our aim from the beginning was to capture the full breadth and scope of women’s work in the early years of movie-making. So the collection includes a range of genres (comedies, westerns, adventure films, melodramas, social problem films) and a range of film types (shorts and features, of course, but also professional films and amateur films, fiction films and ethnographic films, popular films and avant-garde films).
We worked with archival partners to restore the films, as much as possible, to their original condition. Archivists like George Willeman and Lynnanne Scheighofer at the Library of Congress worked tirelessly. Scheighofer recently described seeing a hint of pink in the corner of the print of Lule Warrenton’s When Little Lindy Sang in the Library’s nitrate vault. From there she and Willeman were able to determine that portions of the film had originally been tinted red—now the film’s climactic fire scene includes its original color. Some of these films don’t survive in their entirety, so we included some film fragments and films with missing reels because we wanted to document the full scope of women’s early movie-making.
To bring the films to life we commissioned many new musical scores. Some scores, like those performed by Maude Nillssen and Ben Model, model the kind of accompaniment the films would have had when they were originally screened—improvised piano scores that develop themes and motifs associated with individual characters, situations and settings. Other newly-commissioned orchestral scores, like Skyler Nam’s score for Lois Weber’s Suspense and Aleksandra Vrebalov’s score for Alla Nazimova’s Salomé helped me see these films in a whole new light. The collection also features expert audio commentary from film historians and eight short documentaries that include interviews with leading experts on early filmmaking. These resources provide a rich background for those interested in learning more about how and why the early film industry was so open to women—and why opportunities for female filmmakers were sharply curtailed at the end of the silent era.
Yes, this is a massive collection, and yes I’m incredibly proud to have been involved in the project, and yes I’m hoping it puts an end to the myth that movie-making has always been a man’s game, but I also want to stress that the films collected here represent just the tip of the iceberg. There’s lots more work out there by early female filmmakers: films that already circulate on disc that we didn’t want to duplicate in our collection, films we simply couldn’t fit onto this collection, and—I hope—films considered lost that simply remain to be found!
Shelley Stamp is the award-winning author of Lois Weber in Early Hollywood and Movie-Struck Girls. She teaches film history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she currently holds the Presidential Chair. Follow her on Twitter @StampShelley.