Monday, May 30, 2016

Silent Women: New Books on Pioneers of the Cinema

There are a handful of new books on the silent film era focusing on women. Each are worth a look. Follow the links for more information or to make a purchase.

Silent Women: Pioneers of Cinema (Aurora Metro Press)
edited by Cheryl Robson Melody Bridges 


From the publisher: "It now emerges that more women were working at every level in the first 20 years of the film industry in the USA than at any point since. Early pioneers, such as Alice Guy Blaché, directed hundreds of films, invented techniques, ran businesses and set up distribution but with the rise of the male-dominated studio system, their significant contribution to the dawn of the movies has long been forgotten.

With chapters on the writers, directors, producers, stars, film editors, designers and camera women of the silent era this book acknowledges and celebrates the many talented women who were significantly involved in the rise of the industry and explains why the coming of the talkies and big business led to the inequality which exists today."

I was drawn to this book because it includes Kevin Brownlow's never before published interview with Dorothy Arzner, which is highly recommended. There is also a piece by Shelley Stamp, an academic film historian who I find interesting. Sadly, the short passage on Louise Brooks in "Female Legends of the Silver Screen" contains four factual errors.

Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema, 1908-1934 (Rutgers University Press)
by Laura Horak


From the publisher: "Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Katharine Hepburn all made lasting impressions with the cinematic cross-dressing they performed onscreen. What few modern viewers realize, however, is that these seemingly daring performances of the 1930s actually came at the tail end of a long wave of gender-bending films that included more than 400 movies featuring women dressed as men.

Laura Horak spent a decade scouring film archives worldwide, looking at American films made between 1908 and 1934, and what she discovered could revolutionize our understanding of gender roles in the early twentieth century. Questioning the assumption that cross-dressing women were automatically viewed as transgressive, she finds that these figures were popularly regarded as wholesome and regularly appeared onscreen in the 1910s, thus lending greater respectability to the fledgling film industry. Horak also explores how and why this perception of cross-dressed women began to change in the 1920s and early 1930s, examining how cinema played a pivotal part in the representation of lesbian identity.

Girls Will Be Boys excavates a rich history of gender-bending film roles, enabling readers to appreciate the wide array of masculinities that these actresses performed—from sentimental boyhood to rugged virility to gentlemanly refinement. Taking us on a guided tour through a treasure-trove of vintage images, Girls Will Be Boys helps us view the histories of gender, sexuality, and film through fresh eyes."

I've written about this book elsewhere. Suffice to say, it is a revelation. It's thoroughly researched, well argued, insightful and readable. Anyone interested in LGBT history, film studies, or the early 20th century will appreciate this recommended book.

REELS & RIVALS: Sisters in Silent Films (BearManor Media)
by Jennifer Ann Redmond 


From the publisher: "Female silent film stars possessed beauty, persistence, flair, and probably a sister in the business. You may have seen Mae Marsh in The Birth of a Nation (1915), Constance Talmadge in Intolerance (1916), or Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms (1919), but their sisters also starred in major motion pictures, such as Marguerite Marsh in The Master Mystery (1919), Norma Talmadge in The Battle Cry of Peace (1915), and Dorothy Gish in Orphans of the Storm (1921). These six appeared in countless movies. Most of their films are lost, but their legends remain. Few knew at the time that these extraordinary women were more than just faces on a screen; they were complex and human, with sometimes strange parents, body image issues, and relationship struggles. Their mistakes and triumphs often mirrored our own, though they were miles away in Hollywood. Their stories of violent marriages, heartbreaking tragedies, drastic surgeries, and secret identities are finally revealed in a candid exposé of the truth behind the tinsel.

Sister stars in Reels and Rivals that are profiled include: Norma and Constance Talmadge; Lillian and Dorothy Gish; Edna Flugrath and sisters Shirley Mason and Viola Dana; Helene and Dolores Costello; Poly Ann and Loretta Young with sister Sally Blane; Constance and Faire Binney; Priscilla and Marjorie Bonner; Grace and Mina Cunard; Alice and Marceline Day; Marion and Madeline Fairbanks; Laura and Violet La Plante; Mae and Marguerite Marsh; Ella, Ida Mae, and Fay McKenzie; Beatriz and Vera Michelena; Mary and Florence Nash; Sally O’Neil and sister Molly O’Day; Mabel and Edith Taliaferro; Olive and Alma Tell; and famous Vaudevillians The Duncan Sisters and The Dolly Sisters. Illustrated with 94 studio portraits, film stills, and candid photos that capture the glamour and excitement of Hollywood’s Golden Era. Indexed"

I found this book to be a lot of fun. It is illustrated, well researched, and full of fun facts about silent era personalities both famous and not so famous (though deserving of greater recognition). Heck, there is a whole chapter on Voilet and Laura La Plante.

Theda Bara, My Mentor: Under the Wing of Hollywood's First Femme Fatale (McFarland)
by Joan Craig with Beverly F Stout


From the publisher: "As movie patrons sat in darkened theaters in January 1914, they were mesmerized by an alluring temptress with long sable hair and kohl-rimmed eyes. Theda Bara--"the vamp," as she would come to be known--would soon be one of the highest paid film stars of the 1910s, earning an unheard of $4,000 per week, before retiring from the screen in 1926.

In 1946, at age five, the author met Bara--then 61--at her Beverly Hills home and the actress became her mentor. This memoir is the story of their friendship."

There have been a few biographies of Theda Bara published in the past, each of which I enjoyed. That's why I was drawn to this new title. This book is something different. I found the first half to be an assemblage of memories and anecdotes which together shed a light on the later years of one of the great stars of the early silent era. The second half looks at Bara's films, including A Fool There Was (1914) and Cleopatra (1917). [The latter is the subject of just announced reconstruction.]  There is also a chapter on Charles Bradin, the British-born American film director who Bara married in 1921.

Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap (McFarland)
by Timothy Dean Lefler 


From the publisher: "American silent film star Mabel Normand (1892-1930) appeared in a string of popular movies opposite the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle during the 1910s and 1920s, before dying of tuberculosis at age 37. Her brief but remarkable career, which included director and writer credits as well as heading her own studio and production company, was marred by scandal--police connected her to the unsolved 1922 murder of director William Desmond Taylor--that defined her legacy. This book highlights Normand's substantial yet long overlooked contributions to film history and popular culture, tracing her life from humble beginnings on Staten Island to the heights of world superstardom."

As with Theda Bara, this new book is predated by an earlier biography from 1982 by Betty Fussell as well as the blog by Marilyn Slater. Nevertheless, this book proves its worth by bringing together these sources and others in what is, at this point, the best biography a silent film superstar.

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