By The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) -- The director is an idealist, intent on bettering society with message films that battle hypocrisy and inequality.

The director hires a beautiful woman to pose nude for the cameras to symbolize Truth. Some censors cringe and demand changes.

The year is 1914 -- and the director is a woman.

Lois Weber's film, ``Hypocrites,'' went unseen for decades before being revived as part of a new effort to uncover the feminine contribution to the first few decades of the century-long history of film.

``It has long been a source of wonder to me that many women have not seized upon the wonderful opportunities offered to them by the motion picture art to make their way to fame and fortune as producers of photodramas,'' the first woman director of them all, Alice Guy-Blache, said in a 1914 essay.

Box-office success depended on women buying tickets, she reasoned, and who knew better how to appeal to women than women?

The typical old movie fan might be forgiven for thinking Ida Lupino was the first woman filmmaker in Hollywood, when she added producing and directing to her acting resume back in the 1940s. Film History 101 usually sticks with the tried and true masters of the silent era -- D.W. Griffith, Buster Keaton -- before rushing headlong into the sound era.

But women actually were quite active behind the cameras back in the silent era.

The reason? ``It wasn't big business yet,'' said Jane Gaines, professor at Duke University and head of the Women Film Pioneers Project.

The young industry was hungry for talent -- and there were no veterans or unions to lay claim to all the job slots and plum assignments.

Gaines' group has identified dozens of women filmmakers working during the silent era, which ended in the late '20s -- not just in the United States and Europe but in far-flung places like India, Egypt and Brazil. While much of the output of the silent era is lost, there are still hundreds of films in collections throughout the world, she said.

In April, the American Museum of the Moving Image and Gaines' organization jointly presented a series of screenings and lectures on films directed by women. The programs were presented at the museum, located at the sprawling Kaufman-Astoria complex in the New York City borough of Queens.

While the women directors' story lines aren't always strictly feminist -- a handsome man may be the character's salvation in the end -- the films have interesting female characters and take a look at women's lives and concerns in ways that male directors might not think of doing.

Guy-Blache's comedy, ``Madame Has Her Cravings,'' made in 1906 when she was working in her native France, explores what a very, very pregnant woman will do to get her fix of candy and other treats. Guy-Blache's 1913 Western, ``Two Little Rangers,'' has teen-age girls packing weapons and saving the day.

Weber's 1921 ``The Blot'' catalogs the stresses on the family of an underpaid college professor.

Dorothy Davenport Reid's 1925 film ``The Red Kimono,'' based on a true story of a Los Angeles murder, tackled prostitution and pointedly argued that ``fallen'' women can't escape to respectability unless someone respectable will give them a job. (The director billed herself as Mrs. Wallace Reid in honor of her late husband, an early film star who died in 1923 after becoming hooked on painkillers.)

Gay themes even pop up in some of these pictures. ``Algie the Miner,'' produced at Guy-Blache's studio, is a comedy about a sissy character who seems like a gay stereotype (before he toughens up and winds up with a girl), and the 1920 ``La Belle Dame Sans Merci,'' by the French filmmaker Germaine Dulac, has a nightclub scene with two woman dancing together, one wearing a derby.

While the directors tackled a variety of subjects, Gaines thinks the women of the era particularly excelled at domestic melodrama, in part because of their attention to detail and the handling of performers.

``They were particularly good at working with stars,'' she said. ``They found and discovered many stars.'' Screenwriter and sometime director Frances Marion worked closely with Mary Pickford, while Lillian Gish directed a screen test for future star Mary Astor.

Some of these films make tough going for modern audiences, unused to elaborate allegory, as in ``Hypocrites,'' told almost entirely with pictures, and distant from the religious impulses that motivated someone like Weber.

In a film like ``Madame Has Her Cravings,'' the acting in the closeups is exaggerated, almost like a parody of the excesses of early silent films. But Guy-Blache gets credit for even using closeups at a time when they were rare. And in her films from the teens, when she was working in the United States, the acting is far more like real life. She even stuck a sign, ``Be Natural,'' on the walls of her Fort Lee, N.J., studio.

Both Weber and Guy-Blache were married to men in the film business who were less accomplished; in both cases, their marital difficulties contributed to the downfall of their careers in the '20s. Mrs. Reid got sued by the real-life subject of ``The Red Kimono'' and that hobbled her career.

Even now, three decades into the modern women's movement, Gaines said, the percentage of women in the film industry isn't as high as it was in the silent era.

Aided by New York Women in Film and Television and others, the Women Film Pioneers Project is attempting to raise funds for preserving early films by women.

One of the lecturers at the series, Alison McMahon of the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, described the difficulty of tracking down Guy-Blache's works, many of them uncredited. She recalled that some archives let researchers look at fragile old films only once, so she made a point of watching them being rewound to get in a second, if backward, look. In all, she has found or helped identify nearly 30 Guy-Blache films.

Gaines said the slow process of identifying the films available and figuring out what is most important to restore is still at an early stage. Restoring films that may exist only in pieces in various film archives can cost thousands of dollars, she noted.

A fund-raiser is planned for later this year, and eventually a touring package of women's films will be put together, Gaines said.

``We have a whole lot of work to do,'' she said.


Women Film Pioneers Project



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