Women Comedy Directors
More neglected than onscreen comediennes are the women who worked in silent comedy as directors – the number of whom can practically be counted on the fingers of one hand. Alice Guy-Blache is a bona-fide cinema pioneer, having started her career at France’s Gaumont Company as a secretary in 1895, soon becoming the office manager and producing and directing silent and early sound films (known as Chronophone Films). In 1906 she came to America with her husband Herbert Blache to help introduce the Chronophone system in the U.S., and in 1910 she formed the Solax Film Company. Over four years Solax, based in Fort Lee, New Jersey, turned out all types of films, including a large number of comedies for which Madame Blache had a definite flair.
While in France she had directed some very funny slapstick shorts, and at Solax she directed many situational comedies such as When Mary Was Little (1911), Canned Harmony (1912), and Burstup Holmes’ Murder Case (1913). These were very similar to the comedies coming out of the Vitagraph Studio – in Officer Henderson (1913) two cops dress as women to nab purse snatchers, A House Divided (1913) has a battling husband and wife living in separate parts of their house and only communicating through notes, and His Double (1912) even contains an early version of the “mirror routine” made famous by the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup (1933). After 1914 Guy-Blache moved on to dramatic features and ended her film career in 1920.
The most all-around famous woman in silent comedy is Mabel Normand, but the least known aspect of her career is her work as a film director. Starting in films in 1910, by 1911 Mabel was becoming popular in the comedies made by Mack Sennett for the Biograph Company, and when Sennett set up his Keystone Studio in 1912 she was one of his main stars. Starting in late 1913 Normand began calling the shots for her films:
Mabel Normand, leading woman with the Keystone, will hereafter direct every picture in which she appears. Madame Blache has been the only woman director for some time, but now she will have a rival in Mabel who will both act and direct. (Motion Picture News, December 13, 1913)
Sennett had been getting busier dealing with studio business and administrative duties, so he began curtailing his directing work and started giving his star comics the opportunity to supervise their own films. Mabel was the first, and she began her directorial efforts with The Champion (1913). Unfortunately it’s hard to discern a strong directorial style as more than half of her directed films are missing. The earliest survivor is the recently rediscovered Won in a Closet (1914) where Mabel follows the regular keystone recipe very well – getting in all the required knockabout – but there is one striking sequence that shows unusual directorial imagination. Mabel and her beau spy one another and are drawn to each other like magnets – first in long lingering close-ups, and then finally in a creative double-exposure shot where the pair are on either side of the screen and traveling closer and closer together.
Three others – Mabel’s Strange Predicament, Mabel at the Wheel, and Caught in a Cabaret (all 1914) – survive, most likely thanks to Charlie Chaplin’s presence in the casts. Again they are in the standard Keystone mold, but Mabel slows down the breakneck pace a bit to give the performers more leisure to partake and react to what’s happening around them. All three give a good deal of the focus to the young Chaplin’s antics, and Caught in a Cabaret in particular has a lot of atmosphere in a seedy cabaret with detailed character work coming from Minta Durfee, Hank Mann, Chester Conklin, Phyllis Allen, and Mack Swain as its denizens. Mabel stopped directing after Mabel’s Nerve (1914) and years later in the 1920s she was asked about her directorial work. She responded that filmmaking was so primitive in 1913 and 1914 that you really couldn’t call it directing by modern standards. So with typical modesty she dismissed her work as one of America’s first woman slapstick comedy directors.
In 1914 Lucille McVey was a young actress who had recently joined the Vitagraph Company. McVey had spent six years presenting recitations on the concert stage and was said to have been one of the foremost child dialect readers in America. Appearing in small roles at Vitagraph in the films directed by and starring Sidney Drew, a romance developed between the twenty-four year-old McVey and the forty-nine and recently widowed Drew, which led to their teaming in real life and on the screen. Together the pair found fame as Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew, in a series of comedies that chronicled the misadventures of the average married couple. Surviving examples such as The Professional Scapegoat, Boobley’s Baby (both 1915), and His Wife Knew about It (1916) still delight today, and the Drews were a true team writing and directing their films together. Their success continued unabated until Sidney Drew’s death in 1919.
With a contract to fulfill Mrs. Drew soldiered on herself, writing and directing the shorts Bunkered and A Sisterly Scheme (both 1919). Being forced to branch out on her own she continued turning out material in the “Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew” style. Besides sophisticated scripts like A Gay Old Dog (1919) and The Night of the Dub (1920), in 1920 she launched a series of two-reelers she wrote and directed based on the After Thirty stories of popular writer Julian Street. Four shorts were made – The Charming Mrs. Chase, The Stimulating Mrs. Barton, The Emotional Miss Vaughan, and The Unconventional Mrs. Barton (all 1920) – and were well-received. Following these After Thirty shorts she only had one more project. In 1921 she returned to Vitagraph to direct the screen adaptation of the play Cousin Kate. According to reviews the feature appears to have been gentle and character-driven, with focus given to the small details. Sadly there were no other films, and she died in 1926 at the premature age of thirty-five after a battle with cancer. While many of her films with Sidney Drew survive today, virtually nothing of her solo work is known to exist. In 1926 Motion Picture Magazine reported:
The funeral of Mrs. Sidney Drew was attended by only twenty persons. And yet Mrs. Drew was one of the cleverest and kindest women ever in motion pictures. But apparently, after the death of her husband and her retirement from the screen, the movie colony forgot all about her. As a rule, Hollywood tries to be kind. In this case there’s a black mark against it.
The legacy of the women silent comedy directors has been treated in much the same manner, and it’s hoped that information and the films themselves can be gathered to bring attention to their contribution to film history.
–Steve Massa for Classic Movie Hub
Steve Massa is the author of Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy, Lame Brains and Lunatics: The Good, The Bad, and The Forgotten of Silent Comedy and Marcel Perez: The International Mirth-Maker. He has organized and curated comedy film programs for the Museum of Modern Art, The Library of Congress, The Museum of the Moving Image, The Smithsonian Institution, and The Pordenone Silent Film Festival.
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