In the popular imagination, frontiers are uniquely male places. Whether it’s the physical frontiers of the American West, the digital frontiers of the internet, or the metaphorical frontiers of early literature, film, or, more recently, video game production, these spaces are remembered as being inhabited almost exclusively by men. Male pioneers conquered the Wild West, tamed the early internet, and established rules modern creatives still follow today. Only a select handful of women were allowed a place on the frontier, those who already existed on the fringes of ‘civilised’ society: sex workers, queer women, and others who rejected, or who were rejected by, polite society. The arrival of more acceptable women signified that a frontier had been tamed. This view of the past couldn’t be more incorrect.
We remember the women of the silent age as damsels in distress, objects waiting to be saved by male heroes, as epitomised by the image of a woman tied to railway tracks. That idea, however, was comedic even then. The most famous example comes from Race for a Life (1913), a comedy playing on the lack of subtlety in melodramas, where comedienne Mabel Normand was tied to the tracks. One of the most famous comedy actresses of the silent age, Normand, was huge. When producers were doubting whether it was worth taking a risk on Charlie Chaplin, a stage comedian who was struggling to make the leap to the silver screen, it was Normand who convinced them he was worth it, even going on to help Chaplin develop his ‘Tramp’ character. Female stars were some of the biggest of that early age. Florence Lawrence and Florence Turner, were two of the first American film stars, drawing in the biggest audiences of those early days and earning far more than their contemporaries for it. The brightest star of all was Mary Pickford, the first star to earn over $500 a week and to have full creative control of her productions.
Even behind the camera, women dominated early Hollywood. In 1917, Universal Studios credited eight different women as directors on their films, a great deal more than the one they credited a century later. Writers like Dorothy Parker and Frances Marion were making far more than their male counterparts. Even when it came to directing, Lois Weber was considered one of the top talents of that era, named in contemporary accounts alongside names we remember, like D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. Indeed, she was paid more than them.
So, what happened? If women were so prominent in those early days, then why do we only remember men? Simply put, film became respectable. With the advent of talkies, studios began to consolidate, and Wall Street’s money began to pour into the industry. As the film industry truly came into being, women were sidelined, and their earlier works turned into objects of ridicule in an effort to encourage cinemas and audiences to make the costly leap to sound. By the time the Golden Age of Hollywood had begun in earnest, women’s roles had been pushed to the side. Contrary to our imagined version of a frontier, the lack of respectability and control made early cinema the perfect place for women who wanted to make something of themselves.
Image: “No Known Restrictions: Mary Pickford on Beach with Camera, ca. 1916 (LOC)” by pingnews.com is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.