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Female legends: the revolutionaries of Old Hollywood

Old Hollywood is so often associated with glamour, beauty, gossip, drama and scandals. A quick google search shows a myriad of titles with “the most glamorous” or “the most beautiful” when referring to women of the period. Although the first wave of feminism within film has been stated by professor of film, Martha M. Lauzen, as occurring during World War 1, the arrival of Golden Age Hollywood and “talking pictures” silenced female filmmakers and saw the rise of male dominated film companies such as Warner Brothers.

It is only when you dig further into the history of Old Hollywood lifestyle, refine your google search and invest in your reading material that you uncover a myriad of women: deeply involved with the politics of filmmaking, fighting for their presence and involvement in the field in Hollywood but also further afield.

Dorothy Arzner

Arzner was a film director whose career spanned from the 1920s to the 1940s; for 16 years she was identified as the only working female director in Hollywood. Arzner’s films focused on gender issues and female sexuality which were portrayed through strong female protagonists. Arzner was an openly queer director and was fascinated by issues of gender, aiming to expose the repressive nature of heterosxual marriage in her films; most starkly seen in her film Craig’s Wife which received remarkable reception and was deemed “intelligent and excellently played”. Arzner was a true trailblazer and pioneer for the industry, creating a legacy that advocated for the inclusion of women in film and strived to broaden the misogynistic boundaries of Old Hollywood.

Tazuko Sakane

Born in Kyoto, Sakane was the first Japanese female director. Whilst making both fictional and educational work, Sakane had a large impact on the distribution of information during the second World War, making several education films. She battled the stringent patriarchal boundaries in Japan and consistently asked to be promoted as director. It was only when Sakane began to make educational films that accurately portrayed the domestic relationship between men and women, highlighting how one gender co-existed with another, that her direction and films began to receive traction from audiences. Sakane leaves behind a legacy that pioneered for the inclusion of women within film in Japan despite being disregarded within the patriarchy of Japan. Her battle tells a story of hope and commitment.

Lois Weber

Similarly to Arzner and Sakane, Weber strived to dismantle boundaries within the film industry, amplifying the inclusion of women and feminie issues in film, including birth control and abortion. Weber has often been classified as “the most important female director the American film industry has known”, with a total of 135 films. Weber also premiered the use of split screen within her films, advancing the portrayal of action on screen. Weber continued to defy boundaries: particularly with her most notable film, Hypocrites, which received tremendous traction with the inclusion of the first full-frontal female nude scene, shown in 1915. Weber also made history when she became the first female director to create her own movie studio and production company. A truly remarkable woman whose influences, amongst other incredible women, are still felt in Hollywood today. The creation of the Lois Weber Award in 2017 by Buffalo Dreams Fantastic Film Festival in New York strives to commemorate and honour her powerful legacy.

Dorothy Dandridge

Dorothy Dandridge, no different to the other women in this article, carved her own history when she was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actress. Dandrige was one of the earliest African-American film stars to be nominated at the Academy awards for her title role in the 1954 film Carmen Jones. Dandridge went on to secure nominations in the BAFTA’s and Golden Globe’s; marking her presence in the film industry. As a woman of colour working in this particular industry, she was an inspiration for later stars such as Halle Berry, Whitney Houston and Cicely Tyson who all acknowledged her instrumental contribution to the image of African Americans within films. Her legacy, talent and sheer brilliance is still admired and honoured today with Laura Harrier’s recent portrayal of Camille Washington in the 2020 Netflix series Hollywood, which is based largely on Dandrige herself.

This has been a small glimpse into the remarkable impact of not just glamorous female film stars and makers, but with that, intelligent, pioneering, powerful artists that used their talent and skill to expand boundaries and diversify the industry. As women in 2021 still battle with issues of diversity and inclusivity, the work of these women feels even more poignant, as their voices have given modern women the confidence to speak up and act, as they once did.

Image: Flickr