In the Silent-Film Era, Hollywood’s Power Players Were Women

Female writers, directors, and producers were pioneers of the silent-film era—but were pushed out of the industry as its influence grew.

By Naomi McDougall Jones

Given the dearth of women among this year’s Oscar nominees for writing and directing, not to mention behind the camera in Hollywood at all, you may be surprised to learn that before 1925, during the silent-film era, women wrote the outlines for roughly half of all films. In fact, a great many women were behind the camera in those days—producing and directing films, and running studios. Women also pioneered much of the film technology that still exists today—only to be pushed out of the burgeoning industry once its influence and moneymaking potential had become more widely recognized.

When the writer and satirist Dorothy Parker and her writer husband, Alan Campbell, moved to Hollywood and signed contracts with Paramount, she was paid four times as much as he was. Frances Marion, who would go on to become the founding vice president of the Screen Writers Guild, was the country’s highest-paid screenwriter in the 1920s and ’30s; more than 100 of her scripts were made into films, and in 1930, she became the first woman to win an Oscar for writing. Lois Weber, a prolific screenwriter and director, in 1917 became the first woman to establish and run her own film studio. The year before, her wage as a director was the highest in Hollywood.

Predictably, most of these women were white, as people of color were largely kept out of even this nascent art form. Even so, the early period of cinema was rich with opportunity for what critics would now call independent film, and opportunities at the grassroots level and on the fringes provided fertile ground for different types of voices to emerge. Although fewer than 10 black women were known to be part of the film industry during this period, several—including the producers Eloyce King Patrick Gist and Alice B. Russell and the filmmakers Tressie Souders and Maria P. Williams—held positions of creative control. Others, such as Eslanda Goode Robeson, the wife of the actor Paul Robeson, gained power through managing their husbands’ careers.

The Chinese American artist Marion Wong acted in, produced, and directed her own films during this era, starting when she was barely out of her teens. Her 1916 debut, The Curse of Quon Gwon: When The Far East Mingles With the West, is considered by some to be the first authentic depiction of the Chinese American experience on film. As her grand-nephew later marveled, “How did this 20-year-old woman get this idea? … She wrote the script, directed the film, played the villainess and she was the producer. She raised the money!”

In fact, the greater abundance of female creators and power players during this time made a great deal of sense since, in pre-1930s America, women made up 60–83 percent of the cinema audience—higher even than the 51 percent of moviegoers that women accounted for in 2018, the most recent year measured by the Motion Picture Association of America. Before behind-the-camera roles were as firmly defined as they are now, there was a strong tradition of actor-producers. Many female actors who were dissatisfied with the roles being written for them by men became writers and directors themselves, and began production companies to make their own films.

During the silent era, cinema was generally viewed as a fringe medium, an eccentric hobby, not something meant to last or make any real money. In such a context, and given that a lot of men were away fighting in World War I during this period, women had the space and freedom to express themselves through this new art form.

Within a decade after the end of the war, however, “talkies” were coming about, in part through the technology of the “boom microphone” (invented, not incidentally, by a woman, Dorothy Arzner). Wall Street caught the whiff of money and began investing, consolidating the studios into fewer and more powerful structures. It was during this transition that women were ousted from positions of power in production and behind the camera—as is still the case now, investors were interested primarily in backing companies controlled by men.

At this point, the supposed danger of women in Hollywood was not just that they were seen as ignorant about how to run a business but also that many of the works they produced had radical, feminist themes that, as the media scholar Patricia Di Risio writes in the anthology Silent Women, “question[ed] and expand[ed] cultural understandings of gender.”  In the same anthology, the director and screenwriter Melody Bridges notes that scripts from this period, particularly those by women, “were much more permissive and liberal than [contemporary viewers] might imagine. There were films that explored sexual orientation, cross dressing, birth control, abortion, and even nudity.” In 1915 Lois Weber produced, wrote, and directed Hypocrites, which, in the screenwriter and director Pieter Aquilia’s words, “brazenly” presented “female nudity on celluloid.” As a result, it “sparked riots in New York and … was banned in some parts of the United States.”

The fact that these films were being seen by ever greater audiences led to what the media scholar Bridget Conor describes as “fears about female contamination” of culture and about the oft-cited “tyranny of the women writer” in Hollywood studios of the 1930s. Contemporaneous documents illustrate the widespread concern that these radically feminist films would fuel popular demand for more of the same subject matter.

Thus began a systematic elimination of women from positions of influence within the very film industry that they had helped to birth—all in the name of capitalism, progress, and keeping the broader female population from getting wild ideas in their heads. By the 1940s, the white male’s experience had been firmly centered in cinema to the broad exclusion of everyone else. Films like Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon, great though they may be, relegate female characters mostly to the role of tantalizing set dressing—both onscreen and in the movies’ posters.

As the maverick operations of the silent-film era turned into male-dominated, vertically integrated studios that controlled films’ development, production, and distribution, many women were squeezed out or left behind by an industrialized system that did not mesh with their more individualized approach to filmmaking. The growth spurt of ever-more-specialized technologies engendered by talkies pushed women out further, as these innovations came to require the kind of training unavailable to women back then. Only recent scholarship is bringing the innovations of the silent-era women back into the light.