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Moving Image Section--Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division



Motion Pictures
The Silent Era
The Studio Era
Women on Screen

arrow graphicWomen Behind the Camera
The Post-Studio Era
Readings, Lectures, and the Performing Arts
PATHFINDER: Barbara Jordan




The Studio Era: Women Behind the Camera
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The Scarlet Streak. Henry McRae; Cast: Jack Daugherty, Lola Todd, Virginia Ainsworth, Albert J. Smith, Al Prisco; Universal Pictures Corporation: Advertising guide (“National Tie-Up and Exploitation Section”), from Exhibitor's Trade Review, p. 29 (PN1993.E85). December 5, 1925. Moving Image Section, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.

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As positions in the film industry became specialized and codified during the studio era, unions were formed, creative decisions were made by production heads, and the women who had flourished behind the camera were shut out of positions of power and prestige. Women remained in lesser capacities, for example as editors, but the ranks of women directors and producers were decimated. The days when a secretary could become a director overnight disappeared forever.

Hollywood Filmmakers

Dorothy Arzner (1900-1979), Ida Lupino (1918-1995), and Virginia Van Upp (1902-1970) were among the handful of women in Hollywood who directed or produced during the decades of the thirties, forties, and fifties.

  • Beginning in 1919, Dorothy Arzner worked her way up the ranks from script department stenographer to script clerk to film cutter to film editor to screenwriter. She directed her first film, Fashions for Women, in 1927 and continued to direct until 1943. The best-known of her films held at the Library are Dance, Girl, Dance (1940, VBG 6839-6840) and Christopher Strong (1933, FEA 4461-4469).
  • Ida Lupino, an actress through the 1930s and 1940s, considered herself “the poor man's Bette Davis” and wanted to expand into other areas. Working as a producer for the first time in 1949 on the film Not Wanted (FBA 3577-3584), Lupino took over directing duties when the original director fell ill. She continued to produce and direct motion pictures and television programs thereafter. Lupino films found at the Library include The Hitch-Hiker (1953, FGF 0256-0258) and The Trouble with Angels (1966) [catalog record].
  • Virginia Van Upp began as a child actress in silent films and also rose through the ranks to become executive producer at Columbia Pictures in 1945. Films she produced include Cover Girl (1944, FCA 1986-1988), Together Again (1944, FCA 3600-3602), Gilda (1946, FGE 5411-5416), and Here Comes the Groom (1951, FGA 4954-4965).

Independent Filmmakers

A few American women filmmakers worked outside the Hollywood system.

  • Maya Deren (1917-1961), “the mother of underground film,” started making experimental shorts, such as Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land, and Meditation on Violence [catalog record], in the 1940s, at a time when there were no channels of distribution and exhibition for avant-garde works. She advertised her work to universities, art schools, and museums and eventually found outlets in some public theaters. Establishing the Creative Film Foundation, Deren helped paved the way for other independent filmmakers.
  • Shirley Clarke (1919-1997), whose films include Skyscraper (1959, FEA 1343-1344) and The Cool World (1963) [catalog record], was one of the first recipients of a grant from Deren's foundation.
Deren and Clarke were in the forefront of independent filmmakers who challenged the restrictions placed on women directors and producers.

Ethnographic Filmmakers

Women professionals from various fields used film in their work. The Margaret Mead Collection consists largely of field footage taken on expeditions in Bali and Papua New Guinea from 1936 to 1965 in which noted anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978) participated. The collection also contains field footage in which Mead was not a participant, including work by Jane Belo, Zora Neale Hurston, and Maya Deren; footage of Mead and her family; footage of Mead lecturing; classroom films taken by Mead's students at Columbia University; and documentaries related to anthropology, some of which included Mead's participation.

The Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) material in the Mead Collection consists of several rolls of film footage. The earliest footage is material shot by Hurston in Florida in 1928 and 1929. There is also ethnographic footage filmed in South Carolina from a project headed by Jane Belo. Although Hurston did not act as cinematographer, she served as on-site project director and at times appears in the footage. There are also a few reels of Haitian footage shot by Maya Deren. These materials can be used in conjunction with the Margaret Mead Papers in the Manuscript Division.

Mary Marvin Breckinridge Patterson (1905-2002) was a photographer, documentary filmmaker, community activist, broadcast journalist, and wife of a career diplomat. The Mrs. Jefferson Patterson Collection of some 200 items comprises films made by Patterson, home movies, and miscellaneous works relating to the Patterson family. After serving as a volunteer courier for the Frontier Nursing Service (FNS) in Appalachian Kentucky in 1928, Patterson made a documentary promoting the work of the service. The Forgotten Frontier (1930, FAA 5886-5890) addresses the problems of the people of Appalachia and highlights the self-reliant women of the nursing service. She went on to make the documentaries The Ruins of Zimbabwe, Rhodesia (1932, VBJ 4851) and A School for Natives, South Africa (1932, VBJ 6149). Patterson's Chichen-Itza, the Ancient Mayan Mecca of Yucatan (1930, VBJ 4850) is the first professional film of that archaeological site and She Goes to Vassar (1931) [catalog record] depicts a student's arrival on campus. A collection-level record can be found in the Library's online catalog and item-level records are in MAVIS. Associated materials can be found in the Manuscript, Prints and Photographs, and Recorded Sound Reading Rooms.

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