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9 Women Who Were Motion Picture Pioneers

In the early years of movies, women were major contributors to the motion picture industry. Here are some women who were pioneers in film.

For much of its history, Hollywood has been something of a boy’s club, but that wasn’t always the case. In the early years, women were major contributors to the motion picture industry, and not just onscreen. Here’s your chance to meet, among others, the first woman to direct a movie, the first woman to own a movie studio and the woman who was the recipient of the first cinematic pie in the face.

Alice Guy-Blaché

1 of 9 Alice Guy-Blaché

Guy, who served many roles in the movie business—director, screenwriter, producer, actress—began her career in the late 19th century in France, and it’s been suggested that for a 10-year period, 1896-1906, she was the only woman filmmaker in the world. She began working as a secretary to industry pioneer Léon Gaumont, and in 1896 she directed her first film, La Fée aux Choux (The Fairy of the Cabbages), which some observers claim is the world’s first narrative motion picture. In any case, Guy-Blaché was one of the true pioneers in the use of narrative in film.

In 1908, Guy founded and served as artistic director for Solax Studios in Flushing, New York; four years later, Solax relocated to Fort Lee, New Jersey, which for some years in the early 20th century was one of the centers of American movie-making. In 1912, Guy-Blaché directed A Fool and his Money, a comedy short in which every role was played by an African-American actor.

Guy’s last film was made in 1919. Over 25 years, she had been involved in the making of more than 700 films, but in 1921, she went bankrupt and was forced to sell her film studio. She lived until 1964, but never made another movie.

Lois Weber

2 of 9 Lois Weber

Weber was one of the most influential filmmakers of the silent era. She is credited with directing more than 130 motion pictures, writing more 110 films, and acting in approximately 100 movies.

Weber explored sometimes controversial social issues of the day in her films and pioneered a number of cinematic techniques, including a split-screen technique that allowed action set in more than one location to appear onscreen simultaneously. Weber was also one of the first directors to dabble in sound pictures, the first American woman to direct a feature-length film and the first woman to own a film studio, Lois Weber Productions.

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Frances Marion

3 of 9 Frances Marion

Marion was one of the most acclaimed woman screenwriters of the 20th century. She began her career as a photographer’s assistant and a commercial artist, but in 1914, she was hired as an assistant writer by Lois Weber Productions before working as a combat correspondent during World War I, writing about women’s contributions on the front lines.

After the war, Marion began to work closely with Mary Pickford, writing many of her pictures (and acting in more than a few of them). Marion, credited with writing the scripts for more than 130 produced films, was nominated for three Best Writing Oscars, winning in 1930 and ’32 for The Big House and The Champ, respectively.

Mary Pickford

4 of 9 Mary Pickford

It’s hard to overstate Pickford’s importance to and impact on the early motion picture industry. An enormously popular actress, the Canadian-born Pickford was one of the earliest stars to be receive billing under her own name, as studio owners in the early days of cinema preferred the actors in their films remain anonymous (they saved on salaries that way).

Known as “America’s Sweetheart” and “Queen of the Movies,” Pickford received the second-ever Academy Award for Best Actress for her work in Coquette (1929), her first talkie. Pickford was a co-owner of the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio and was one of four co-founders of the United Artists studio. She also was one of the original 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, the organization that presents the Oscars every year.

Mabel Normand

5 of 9 Mabel Normand

Many male comedians of the silent era—Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy—are still familiar names today, but their female counterparts have too often been given short shrift. One such performer is Mabel Normand, who appeared in more than 200 shorts in her too-brief career.

Normand was comedy director Mack Sennett’s first big star, and her films boasted the first filmed appearance of Chaplin’s Little Tramp (in Mabel’s Strange Predicament [1914], though it would be the second of Chaplin’s Tramp shorts to be released), the first cinematic pie in the face (she was on the receiving end), and an early appearance by the Keystone Cops. That troupe’s first appearance with Normand, in 1913’s The Bangville Police, proved to be a breakout film for the Kops, and it is their earliest extant short.

Normand did 12 pictures with Chaplin and 17 with Roscoe Arbuckle, often serving as screenwriter and director in addition to acting in the films. In 1916, she became owner of her own company in partnership with Sennett. In 1926, Normand signed with legendary comedy director Hal Roach’s studio, where Stan Laurel served as her screenwriter, but she soon contracted tuberculosis and her health began to decline. Normand died in 1930 at the too-young age of 37.

Maria P. Williams

6 of 9 Maria P. Williams and Tressie Souders

Williams and Souders, who both hailed from Kansas City, Missouri, were each credited by the press in their day as the first African American woman to produce a motion picture in the United States. Souders was credited with directing, producing, and writing A Woman’s Error (1922) while Williams was credited as producer (a somewhat nebulous term in the silent era) and writer of The Flames of Wrath (1923). Like so many motion pictures produced during the silent era, both films are considered lost.

Prior to making The Flames of Wrath, Williams (pictured) had been a social activist, lecturer and author, but she and her husband, Jesse L. Williams, also worked together as managers of a local movie theatre. Mr. Williams also served as president of The Western Film Producing Company and Booking Exchange, and Ms. Williams was secretary and treasurer of that organization, so they were clearly influential figures in the movie industry in the Midwest.

Less is known about Souders. She grew up in Frankfort, Kansas, and moved to Kansas City after graduating high school. For much of her adult life, she was employed as a maid, and it’s not known how she came to produce A Woman’s Error, which was distributed by the Afro-American Film Exhibitors Company, a Kansas City concern that also had offices in Baltimore and Dallas. Souders moved to California in 1926, perhaps in the hopes of working in the movie industry, but she is listed in the 1930 census as a domestic worker. By 1940, she was living in San Francisco, where she died at age 97 in 1995.

June Mathis

7 of 9 June Mathis

Mathis’ first foray into show business was as a child dancer who did impressions in vaudeville. At 17, she joined a traveling theatrical company and later she appeared in a number of Broadway shows.

But her long-held dream was to be a screenwriter. She moved to New York City to study writing and went to the movies frequently. She entered a screenwriting contest, and though she didn’t win, her entry was good enough that job offers started to come her way. Her first produced script, House of Tears, was directed by Edwin Carewe in 1915 and in 1918, she signed a contract with Metro studios, a precursor of MGM. She relocated to Hollywood and in 1920 was named the head of Metro’s screenwriting department. She was the only female executive at Metro at the time.

Mathis discovered Rudolph Valentino and campaigned for him to play the lead in Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, for which she’d written the script based on the Vicente Blasco Ibáñez novel. The movie was a great success and served as a launching pad for Valentino’s meteoric career. She and Valentino would be linked for the remainder of their career. Mathis doted on Valentino, and he called her “Little Mother.”

By 1922, when she was just 35, Mathis was the highest paid executive in Hollywood; in 1926 she was named the third most influential woman in Hollywood; only Mary Pickford and Norma Talmadge ranked ahead of her. Sadly, her career was cut short when she suffered a fatal heart attack in 1927.

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Anita Loos

8 of 9 Anita Loos

Loos was born in Sisson, California, to parents who were in the newspaper business. In 1903, her father took a job managing a theater company in San Diego, and Loos became a, actress, appearing in plays put on by her father’s company and by other troupes around the city. Loos longed to be a writer, though, and after graduating high school wrote some one-act plays for her father’s stock company.

Loos sold her first screenplay, He Was A College Boy, to Biograph Pictures. The screenplay was never produced, but her third screenplay, The New York Hat (1912) starred Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore and was directed by D. W. Griffith. Over the next four years, Loos wrote dozens of screenplays, virtually all of which were made into films. 

In 1915, Griffith offered Loos a contract with his Triangle Film Corporation, paying her a salary plus $75 for every one of her scripts that was produced. That contract was an historic one, making Loos Hollywood’s first staff writer. Loos was later the screenwriter for a series of Douglas Fairbanks pictures, the movies that made the swashbuckler a star, and while she also had great success as a novelist (she wrote Gentleman Prefer Blondes) and wrote some stage plays, she remained in demand as a screenwriter well into the era of talking pictures.

Dorothy Arzner

9 of 9 Dorothy Arzner

Arzner grew up in Hollywood, and in 1919, she took the first of many jobs she would hold in the movie industry—script typist, film editor, scriptwriter—but it was as a director that she forged her greatest legacy. Having achieved success and acclaim as an editor at Paramount Pictures in the 1920s, Arzner threatened to move to Columbia Studios unless she was allowed to direct, and Paramount agreed. Arzner went on to direct nearly 20 pictures from 1927 to 1943; it’s said she was the only woman film director working in the United States in the 1930s.

Arzner’s array of film-industry firsts was impressive, indeed: She was the first woman to direct a talking picture (Manhattan Cocktail, 1928) and she directed Paramount’s first sound film, The Wild Party (1929). In 1936, she became the first woman to be accepted as a member of the Director Guild of America. She cobbled together the first boom mic when she hung a microphone from a fishing pole. She was the first film editor to receive a screen credit. After retiring from the movies in 1943, she went on to direct more than 50 Pepsi commercials on the recommendation of her friend, Joan Crawford, whose husband was the chairman of the board for that company.

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