Washed away: lost films by female directors

Our October 2015 issue explores 100 instances of underrated female filmmaking, but what about the movies that never even made it to an archive? Sadly history has hidden too many of the works of cinema’s least segregated era – its beginnings. Here are eight treasures we hope might one day return to view.

Part of our Female Gaze special coverage.

Jasper Sharp , Kim Morgan , Louisa Wei

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The poster for Lois Weber’s lost 1934 film White Heat – the only sound film she directed

The poster for Lois Weber’s lost 1934 film White Heat – the only sound film she directed

The October 2015 issue of Sight & Sound resurrects and celebrates 100 overlooked films directed by women, and includes contributions by many filmmakers, Agnès Varda, Claire Denis and Jane Campion among them. It was born from the desire to show the diverse range of great films made by women through history, so many of which are unduly obscured and under-seen. But what about completely lost films made by women? The most famous and yearned-for lost films are those directed by men – films like Hitchcock’s The Mountain Eagle (1926) or the full version of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Michael Powell’s directorial debut Two Crowded Hours (1931), John Ford’s early silents…

Most films from the silent era are lost. Statistics estimate that 75-90 per cent of films produced before 1930 have vanished. As the talkies took over, no one imagined silent films would be of interest anymore. Reels of footage were missplaced, destroyed or junked due to neglect, fires or simply a lack of funds, as production companies went bust or couldn’t afford to maintain their unprofitable archives – or burnt down cellulose nitrate prints to mine the small amounts of silver they contained.

Sadly, the silent period was a time when more women were involved in the craft of films. (See Pamela Hutchinson’s Primal Screen column in our October issue.) Cinema was yet to be heralded as an art form. Before the hierarchy of the studios was constructed, filmmaking was a cottage industry where job roles were fluid and it was far easier for women to find work in various positions behind the camera. Thinking about the number of lost films directed by women makes you wonder: if more silent films by female filmmakers had survived, would our impression of film history be different?

Proof that these lost films may still be out there: in 2010, Won in a Cupboard (1914), the earliest-surviving film directed by the great comedienne and writer-director Mabel Normand, was discovered in New Zealand. Nominated here are just a few of the lost films that we hope may be out there in dusty, forgotten archives. There are of course so many more, from Alice Guy-Blaché’s 1912 sci-fi tale In the Year 2000 (about a future in which a woman rules the world!) to Dinah Shurey’s 1929 directorial debut The Last Post – the only feature Shurey ever got to direct, and indeed the only feature directed by a British woman throughout the 1920s.

— Isabel Stevens


Remodeling Her Husband

Lillian Gish (US, 1920)

Dorothy Gish in a surviving still from Remodeling Her Husband (1920), directed by Dorothy’s sister Lillian

Dorothy Gish in a surviving still from Remodeling Her Husband (1920), directed by Dorothy’s sister Lillian

Lillian Gish’s accounts of directing her only film are marked by her customary deference to D.W. Griffith, who gave her the opportunity. But she did venture in a 1970 interview that “I felt that women would make as good directors [as men]”. Remodeling Her Husband, which starred her younger sister Dorothy, was to be as near as possible “an all-woman picture”, with Gish writing (under a pseudonym) as well as directing, and hiring Dorothy Parker to make her film debut by scripting the intertitles.

While her younger sister was rebellious on set, Gish’s biggest personnel problem was her shell-shocked cameraman George W Hill, who had recently returned from the war. Daringly, Gish took her crew on to the streets of New York for some unauthorised filming, and she got away with it because the police officer who spied them was a besotted fan.

Based on a cartoon in which a woman stages a face-pulling stunt in the street, the film was to be a showcase for the younger Gish’s “gaiety and humour”. Contemporary reviews suggest that aim was achieved, with the jokes almost saving the film from its “moth-eaten” premise. “Mr Griffith was later generous enough to say that the first two reels were as good as anything he had ever done,” recorded Gish. “But I knew he was only being kind.”

— Pamela Hutchinson


A Woman’s Error

Tressie Souders (US, 1922)

The Flames of Wrath

Maria P. Williams (US, 1923)

Pioneering African American director Maria P. Williams

Pioneering African American director Maria P. Williams
Credit: Women Film Pioneers Project

Even in the restrictive, repressive and dangerous climate of Jim Crow-era America, black women took positive strides in the arena of filmmaking. In January 1922, entertainment magazine Billboard published an announcement by the independent Afro-American Film Exhibitors’ Company that A Woman’s Error, written, produced and directed by Kansas-born Tressie Souders (sometimes incorrectly listed as Saunders), “was the first of its kind to be produced by a young woman of our race, and has been passed on by the critics as a picture true to Negro life.” Precious little is known of Souders’ artistic life – there are no readily available images of her, and no prints of her film have ever been found – but it seems she was central to a burgeoning independent black film scene in Kansas that also included social activist Maria P. Williams, who produced, distributed, and acted in her own film, The Flames of Wrath, a year later (of which no surviving prints exist either).

Some historians have suggested that the first black American female director was in fact the fabulously-named Madame E. Touissant Welcome (born Jennie Louise Van Der Zee), who made a film about black soldiers in World War I sometime between 1919 and 1922. Sadly, as with Souders’ and Williams’ films, no prints exist, and there is no concrete release information. Whoever really got there first seems rather immaterial today: these women are united by their artistic boldness and trailblazing qualities.

— Ashley Clark


Human Wreckage

Dorothy Davenport (US, 1923)

A newspaper ad for Human Wreckage, by Dorothy Davenport aka ‘Mrs Wallace Reid’ 

A newspaper ad for Human Wreckage, by Dorothy Davenport aka ‘Mrs Wallace Reid’ 

Actress and wife to matinee idol and early drug casualty Wallace Reid, Dorothy Davenport went from grieving widow to message filmmaker to exploitation merchant to forgotten. After Reid’s death in 1923, she directed (that same year) the now lost but well-received and reportedly well-acted and -directed Human Wreckage, crediting herself as ‘Mrs. Wallace Reid’. She also starred (alongside Bessie Love) as wife to an attorney (James Kirkwood) who helps a junkie (George Hackathorne), only to become ensnared in morphine use and addiction themselves.

Davenport produced and directed more pictures, transferring from propaganda to exploitation (is there much difference?) through the 20s and 30s. In 1930, she owned and ran a Los Angeles apartment building, ‘Mrs. Wallace Reid’s Casa de Contenta Apartments’; one of her tenants was Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. Davenport’s a fascinating figure in early cinema, working from its pioneering days through early tabloid sensationalism, then making a career out of filmmaking, presumably to survive, perhaps (it’s not clear) also for the art. At any rate, there’s an art to the very idea of Davenport, her output both mysterious and sad.

— Kim Morgan


Manhattan Cocktail

Dorothy Arzner (US, 1928)

The poster for Dorothy Arzner's lost 1928 film Manhattan Cocktail

The poster for Dorothy Arzner's lost 1928 film Manhattan Cocktail

On Manhattan Cocktail’s release in 1928 it did not pass unnoticed that Arzner was “one of the very few women directors”, as the New York Times put it. The film is a silent feature apart from two musical numbers and was Arzner’s first experiment with sound. Sadly only a silent one-minute montage, Skyline Dance, survives of her melodrama (viewable on the DVD Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant Garde Film 1894–1941, although that itself is now out of print). Famously, Arzner was the only female director in Hollywood to survive the transition to talkies and sustain a career in the sound era. Indeed, she was to invent the first boom mike, attaching a microphone to a fishing pole for her first full talkie, The Wild Party, in 1929.

Manhattan Cocktail is one of many films in the late 20s equally enthralled and perturbed by city life: a young small-town couple (played by Nancy Carroll and Richard Arlen) move to New York, dreaming of making it big on Broadway, but are preyed upon by a cruel theatre producer. Some reviews took issue with the crude plotting but all unanimously praise Arzner’s visual panache. “There are some outstanding photographic feats,” said the NYT. “New York night life is splendidly portrayed in unique shots of busy streets, ablaze with dazzling lights,” found the Film Spectator.

My favourite quote though comes later in that review: “The two kiss but once, and then their lips barely touch, and only for a brief moment. I recommend this treatment to those directors who make their kiss scenes disgusting”. At the end, the writer implores Hollywood to see Manhattan Cocktail “not because it was directed by a woman, but because it was directed so well.”

— Isabel Stevens


Men of Tomorrow

Leontine Sagan (UK, 1932)

Robert Donat and Joan Gardner in Leontine Sagan’s lost 1932 film Men of Tomorrow

Robert Donat and Joan Gardner in Leontine Sagan’s lost 1932 film Men of Tomorrow
Credit: BFI National Archive

One of very few female directors working in Germany in the 1930s, Sagan is known for her pioneering 1931 boarding-school-set talkie Mädchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform), one of the first films ever to depict lesbian love. A year later, due to the rise of Nazism, Sagan came to Britain where she directed the melodrama Men of Tomorrow for producer Alexander Korda, focusing on another cloistered environment – Oxford University – but keeping her debut’s feminist perspective too. The film centres on a supposedly enlightened novelist (Maurice Braddell) who resents his wife (Joan Gardner) taking a job teaching chemistry at the university. The couple split, but are reunited when he changes his chauvinist views. The film also stars Robert Donat (The 39 Steps, Goodbye, Mr Chips) in his first acting role, and provided an early part for Merle Oberon, who must have made an impression on Korda, as he cast her as Anne Boylen in his next film, The Private Life of Henry VIII.

Men of Tomorrow is currently on the BFI’s Most Wanted list of lost British films. It was a modest success on its release, praised by Cinema Quarterly who said it “ranks highly among British films. Leontine Sagan’s direction has a rare quality of sympathetic understanding.” Afterwards, there were reports of a contract at MGM and an imminent move to Hollywood for Sagan, but nothing came of it and she returned to where she had started out, directing theatre.

— Isabel Stevens


White Heat

Lois Weber (US, 1934)

Lois Weber (bottom right) filming her 1934 film White Heat

Lois Weber (bottom right) filming her 1934 film White Heat

Despite the indifferent reception of White Heat it would be fascinating to see Lois Weber’s only sound film. The final film of one of America’s finest female directors was by all accounts a bit of a potboiler, made by a second-rank studio (Seven Seas Corporation) and on a difficult subject, interracial relationships between white colonists and non-white ‘natives’ (Weber often chose ‘problem’ subjects). It would have been a miracle if a film on this theme had been a success and although critics found the storyline a bit creaky and stereotyped (a submissive and faithful native girl, a faithless and headstrong white woman, a conflicted white man), they also found some things to admire in the film: notably great Hawaiian location work, and a good study of the wife, played by Virginia Cherrill, as she fails to adjust to life on a tropical plantation.

No one questioned at any time the gender of the director as a factor in the success or failure of the film. Weber apparently had a humdinger of a script up her sleeve after White Heat, which she never got into production. It probably would have made a better film to wind up an exceptional filmmaking career.

— Bryony Dixon


New Year’s Finery

Sakane Tazuko (Japan, 1936)

Actress Yoko Umemura (left) and Sakane Tazuko; the script for Sakane’s 1936 film New Year’s Finery

Actress Yoko Umemura (left) and Sakane Tazuko; the script for Sakane’s 1936 film New Year’s Finery
Credit: Keiko McDonald

Considering how marginal a presence Japanese women were even onscreen in their national cinema’s earliest decades (prior to 1921, in line with stage traditions, female roles were predominantly played by specialist male performers known as oyama, or onnagata), it is somewhat surprising how soon several individual trailblazers moved behind the camera.

As genuine actresses became a powerful box-office draw across the next decade, one in particular, Irie Takako, took her fate in her hands: following the lead of the era’s top male stars, in 1932 she broke free from her studio to form an independent production company, with several of her earliest productions directed by Mizoguchi Kenji.

However, it is Sakane Tazuko (1904-75), an editor and assistant director to Mizoguchi at Irie Productions during this period, who bears the distinction of being Japan’s first female director. Alas her sole feature, New Year’s Finery (Hatsusugata), like so much of Japan’s prewar output, no longer survives. It was based on Kosugi Tengai’s debut novel of the same name – the naturalistic style and subject matter of which were heavily influence by the works of Emile Zola – and focused on a lowly geisha, the illegitimate child of a promiscuous aristocrat, and her relationships with several men of various different classes and professions.

Sakane’s film was not a success and she subsequently moved into documentary, a fertile field for a number of pioneering women filmmakers during the 1950s (namely Atsugi Taka, Tokieda Toshie and Haneda Sumiko). Meanwhile the actress Tanaka Kinuyo, another associate of Mizoguchi, became the first Japanese woman to amass a significant body of work, making six features between 1953 and 1962.

— Jasper Sharp


Back Street

Esther Eng (US/China, 1947)

A poster for Esther Eng’s Back Street (1947)

A poster for Esther Eng’s Back Street (1947)
Credit: Louisa Wei

Only 30 stills, a poster and a few lobby cards survive of Esther Eng’s adaptation of American novelist Fannie Hurst’s 1932 bestseller – a Cincinnati-set romance about a young woman who puts her life on hold to become a man’s ‘back street’ mistress.

Popular with readers but disdained by literary critics, Hurst’s stories were often adapted as films – indeed, Hollywood adapted Back Street three times (in 1932, 1941 and 1961) – but Eng’s version, which transposes the story to Chinese-American San Francisco, is little-known and little-referenced, even though it asserts Hurst’s sensitivity in dealing with race and gender issues and of problems women face when playing the role of ‘the other woman’. 

San Francisco-born Eng was South China’s first female director, directing five Cantonese talkies in Hong Kong in the 1930s and another five films in the US. She wrote, produced and edited Back Street for her company Silver Light, and distributed the film to Hong Kong, Singapore and other countries in Southeast Asia. Most of her 11 feature films focused on unfulfilled love and rejected conventional roles of mothers, wives and daughters.

— Louisa Wei


In the November 2015 issue of Sight & Sound

Militant tendencies

In Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette Carey Mulligan plays an ordinary Victorian woman awakened to the cause of women’s rights. The actress talks to Isabel Stevens about the dearth of quality female film roles, the joys of watching blockbusters on the big screen and why Hollywood is a bizarre construction.

+ First among equals

An anthology of films documenting the rise of the women’s suffrage movement in the UK offers a fascinating portrait of shifting gender roles in the early years of the 20th century. By Pamela Hutchinson.


In the October 2015 issue of Sight & Sound

Primal screen: the world of silent cinema

Whether adding colour or whitewashing scandal, the feminine touch was essential to early Hollywood. By Pamela Hutchinson.

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