I enjoy educating others about film history and the early years of cinema.
The early years of the film industry had more women working in it than you might imagine. Many roles had not yet received any gender restrictions. There were many women working behind the camera as directors and editors. Here are some of the most influential women from the silent film era.
10. Lillian Gish
After the release of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), its lead actress, Lillian Gish, was considered the First Lady of the Silver Screen. She raised film acting to an art form in a time when actors were scorned by society.
Following that success, Gish became Griffith’s close friend, colleague, and protégé. She acted in several more of his films and co-wrote the screenplay for The Greatest Thing in Life (1918). He taught her filming, editing, lighting, and costume production. He gave her the job of directing screen tests for auditioning actresses. She also oversaw the construction of his studio, which would later become Paramount.
In 1920, Gish directed the comedy Remodeling Her Husband. It starred her sister, Dorothy Gish, and was based on a screenplay they wrote together. Gish never directed another film. She and Griffith stopped working together a year later and she signed a contract with MGM.
In the contract, Gish stipulated that she would choose the films she would appear in as well as the directors and co-stars she would work with. This was unheard of at the time. After her death, her money was donated to preserve Griffith’s work in the Museum of Modern Art, as she specified in her will.
9. Anna Hofman-Uddgren
Sweden’s first female director, Anna Hofman-Uddgren, started her career as a stage actress and cabaret singer in Stockholm in the late nineteenth century. She would later make a name for herself not only as a director but also as a shrewd businesswoman, and one of the first investors in the film industry.
This was a time when businesses hesitated to invest in film, as it was a relatively new field and they doubted it would turn a profit. Hofman-Uddgren, however, bought a music hall theater, where she screened some of the first films ever made. As a result, she turned a profit, gained an audience, and paved the way for her directing career.
In 1911, she became one of the first-ever directors of an advertisement: a travelogue called The Temptations of Stockholm. Later that year, she wrote and directed the film Only a Dream.
Staying true to her theater roots, Hofman-Uddgren went on to direct Miss Julie (1912) and The Father (1912), both of which are adaptations of plays written by August Strindberg. Though most of her work is lost, The Father remains preserved in the archives of the Swedish Film Institute.
8. Dorothy Davenport
Dorothy Davenport was the daughter of famed Broadway and film actors Harry and Alice Davenport, as well as the niece of Fanny Davenport, who was considered one of the greatest stage actresses of her time.
Davenport joined the family business and was acting in Universal films by the time she was 17. She married director Wallace Reid in 1913, and in 1917 quit acting to be a stay-at-home mother.
Sadly, Reid succumbed to morphine addiction and died in a sanitarium in 1923. Davenport returned to the industry to direct Human Wreckage (1923), a film about the illegal narcotics trade, in which she also played an addict’s wife.
That was just the beginning of Davenport’s controversial directing career. The Red Kimona (1925), for example, took on the issue of prostitution; The Road to Ruin (1928) was about a promiscuous teenager who has an illegal abortion; and Linda (1929) centered on a young woman protecting her mother from domestic violence.
Each film began with a short prologue about its message and the social issues it presented. Though she went largely uncredited for her work during her lifetime, Davenport has had lasting influence as an activist, having raised awareness and advocated for better social policies.
7. Elvira Notari
The Italian Neorealism Movement, also known as the Golden Age of Italian Cinema, was made possible by Elvira Notari, Italy’s first and most prolific female filmmaker.
After finishing school—a rare accomplishment for a working-class woman at the time—Elvira married Nicola Notari, and together they began making short documentaries that portrayed the gritty realities of urban life. In 1909, the pair founded their own production company, Dora Film, and started making full-length feature films that were distributed worldwide.
Nicola usually worked as a cinematographer, while Elvira directed most of their films. Their son, Eduardo, acted in several of the films and went on to direct a few of his own.
Critics praised the way Elvira used panorama shots of Naples to portray the harsh living conditions of the city’s poor and homeless, with a focus on women who defied social expectations, committed crimes, and either seduced gullible men or were seduced by dangerous men.
Unfortunately, in the 1920s, their films were heavily censored under Italy’s fascist regime, while the invention of talking pictures put a damper on ticket sales. The Notaris’ careers were over by 1929.
6. Tressie Souders
During the silent film era, it was incredibly rare for an African-American of either gender to have any sort of career in the industry. Tressie Souders, however, defied these cultural barriers by becoming the first African-American female director in recorded history.
Souders wrote, produced, and directed A Woman’s Error (1922), which was distributed by the African-American Film Exhibitors’ Company in Kansas City, Missouri and the Afro-American Film Exhibitors Company of Baltimore and Dallas.
Billboard Magazine praised A Woman’s Error as “the first of its kind to be produced by a young woman of our race” and “a picture true to Negro life.”
Due to lack of employment opportunities, Souders never directed again. She spent most of her life as a domestic worker, died in San Francisco at age 95, and was buried in her home state of Kansas.
Her film, as well as her name, would have been entirely forgotten by history if not for the book Blacks in Black and White (1977) by Henry T. Sampson, which chronicles the work of African-American filmmakers from 1910 to 1950. She is also mentioned in the 2003 documentary Sisters in Cinema, directed by Yvonne Welbon.
5. Dorothy Arzner
Though she began her career in the silent era of the 20s, Dorothy Arzner became the first woman to direct a talking picture, and the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America.
Arzner spent two years as a pre-med student before deciding she wanted to direct films. After working her way up from typist to film editor to screenwriter, she made her directorial debut with Fashions for Women (1927).
One year later, Arzner directed her first talking picture, Manhattan Cocktail (1928), and went on to direct Clara Bow in her first speaking role in The Wild Party (1929). To help Bow with the role, Arzner strapped a microphone to a rod and hung it above her, allowing her dialogue to be recorded while she moved around on set. And thus the boom microphone was invented.
Throughout the 30s, she was Hollywood’s only female director, working with big names like Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and William Powell.
During WWII, Arzner left Hollywood and began making training films for the Women’s Army Corps. Afterward she became a film professor at the University of California in Los Angeles, where she taught a young Francis Ford Coppola.
4. Germaine Dulac
After years of studying music and photography and writing for feminist journals, Germane Dulac turned to surrealist filmmaking. Historian Charles Ford would later declare her the “heart” of the avant-garde movement in France, as she was a highly influential director, theorist, critic, and organizer of French film unions.
Dulac made her directing debut in 1915, while the men of the country were off in the army, leaving women to explore their career options. After making a series of mainstream short films, she was introduced to the avant-garde movement by her friend Louis Delluc, with whom she collaborated on the film Spanish Fiesta (1920).
Though it was well-received and hailed as the first impressionist film ever made, critics largely ignored Dulac’s role as director and attributed the film’s success to Delluc’s screenwriting. Delluc said of his friend, “[The] cinema is full of people…who cannot forgive her for being an educated woman…or for being a woman at all.”
Today Dulac’s best-known work is The Smiling Madame Beudot (1922), now considered one of the first feminist films. The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928) was another highly experimental film, and focused on a priest’s erotic hallucinations involving a woman he lusts after.
3. Fatma Begum
There is little record of the silent film era in India, as its National Film Archives were not established until 1964. Luckily, records of Fatma Begum tell us she was not only India’s first female director, but also a pioneer of special effects and the fantasy genre.
Begum began her career as a stage actress and made her film debut in 1922, becoming one of India’s first movie stars. In 1925, she started her own production company, now known as Victoria-Fatma Films.
Her directing debut, Bulbule Parisetan (1926), was a big-budget fantasy with special effects that were considered highly innovative at the time, not unlike Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (1902). This places Begum among the first filmmakers to experiment with such effects.
Following Begum’s example, a small wave of Indian actresses joined Victoria-Fatma Films and became directors so they could manage their own careers, rather than being obedient to male employers.
Even as she wrote, produced, and directed her own films, Begum did not give up acting, as she continued starring in films made by Kohinoor Studios and Imperial Studios. She was also a single mother to three daughters, all of whom became actresses.
2. Lois Weber
At the peak of her career, Lois Weber was one of the most popular, prolific, and highest-paid directors in the industry, specializing in controversial subject matter. After a few years making films collaboratively with her husband, she began directing full-time in 1913.
One of her most controversial films was Hypocrites (1914), which depicted a priest stoned to death for displaying a statue of a naked woman. The resulting scandal attracted audiences, making the film a success.
Weber also directed Where Are My Children? (1916), which took on abortion and birth control, and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917), a tribute to Planned Parenthood. Shoes (1916) took on child labor, while The People vs. John Doe (1916) addressed capital punishment.
Although censors condemned her for indecency and police shut down showings of her films, Universal financed a private studio for Weber in 1915, and a year later she was their highest-paid director. Over her lifetime she made over 400 films.
But there came a time when her films weren’t scandalous anymore, so Weber lost her audience. In an attempt to stay relevant, she made White Heat (1934), a talking picture about interracial marriage. The film was unsuccessful, and Weber spent the rest of her career as a script doctor for Universal.
1. Alice Guy
Alice Guy was not only the first female director in recorded history—she was one of the first directors, period, and the first woman to own a film studio.
When she was 21, Guy worked for a photography company ran by Léon Gaumont in France. She assisted photographers and attended motion picture demonstrations, including screenings by the Lumière brothers.
Guy borrowed Gaumont’s camera to make her first film, The Cabbage Fairy (1896), on the back of the company patio, using special-effects techniques learned from the photographers she worked with. She used the chronophone, invented by Gaumont, to experiment with color tinting and sound syncing. Soon she was making so many films that Gaumont made her head of production.
Guy became one of the first directors to shoot on location, while most were shooting in studios. In 1906, she married English cameraman Herbert Blaché and moved to the US with him. By then she had made over 1,000 films.
In New York, Guy founded her own studio, Solax, and produced one film a week. She continued to experiment with innovative techniques and even worked with interracial casts. When she moved to New Jersey, she relocated the studio and continued working.
In 1920, she made her last film, divorced Blaché, and moved back to France with her children. In 1953, the French government awarded her the Legion of Honor. She died in 1968 at age 94.
Iris M. Rosenberg-Cooper on April 15, 2020:
I have been interested in the Silent era for a very long time; the article on famous female directors surely perked my interest even more. Thank you Reel Rundown for sharing this awesome information.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on October 20, 2018:
This was very interesting to read. I had never thought there were so many female directors around at the time. I guess it's always been considered a male occupation, so this has taught me a lot!
Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on June 20, 2018:
You wrote an incredible rare article, Sarah. The historical backgrounds of the female directors you listed is fascinating. And it's amazing many of the female directors worked in different counties. It's wonderful you focused on the early origin of female directors of silent film.
Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on May 27, 2018:
Everyone of these women were excellent in their chosen trade, but Lillian Gish, got my attention as well in this hub as well as the books she penned after Hollywood.
I appreciate this hub so much. In fact, my opinion was that it was twice as hard for a woman to direct/produce in the Silent Era as it was when sound came to the forefront.
Of all of the women that you wrote about, Gish is my favorite.
Nice job. Keep in touch.
Darla Sue Dollman from Coolidge, Arizona on February 15, 2018:
A fascinating article. I wonder how they "broke in" to the business? It must have been difficult!