Combustible Celluloid
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With: Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin, Maureen O'Hara, Lois Weber, Maya Deren, Blanche Cornwall, Andrée Brabant, Germaine Dermoz
Written by: Lois Weber, Henry Lehrman, Madeline Brandeis, Jacques de Baroncelli, Germaine Dulac, Boris Altshuler, Olga Vishnevskaya, Peter Paul Brauer, Marie-Louise Iribe, Pierre Lestringuez, Emanuel Schikaneder, Tess Slesinger, Frank Davis, Maya Deren
Directed by: Alice Guy-Blaché, Lois Weber, Mabel Normand, Madeline Brandeis, Germaine Dulac, Olga Preobrazhenskaia, Marie-Louise Iribe, Lotte Reiniger, Claire Parker, Mrs. Wallace Reid, Leni Riefenstahl, Mary Ellen Bute, Dorothy Arzner, Maya Deren
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 652
Date: 05/26/2017

Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology (2017)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Ladies' Night

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Women directors have been discussed more and more frequently and with more passion in the media lately. Even in today's civilized, enlightened world, they still struggle to work in what is essentially a boys' club; they are continually marginalized and sidelined, and even when they prove themselves worthy, it can still be a fight for acceptance. The fight goes on. And it's a perfect time for Flicker Alley to have released this extraordinary collection of films by women directors. The women are from around the world, the films range from shorts, animation, documentary, and experimental, to features and entertainments. The films were made between 1902 and 1943, at a time when women must have had it even harder than they do today.

The set begins with four short films by pioneer Alice Guy Blaché, who began working at Gaumont Studios as a secretary and is now recognized as the first film director of any kind, male or female. Her shorts show a range of comedy and drama, as well as some sophisticated invention. Next we have American Lois Weber, with two short films and her feature, The Blot. Here's what I wrote about that film when it was first released on DVD in 2004:

Though writer/director Lois Weber was one of the most successful filmmakers of the 1920s, her reputation faded quickly as the silent era came to an end, and today she's almost unknown. Fortunately, this superb movie helps restore her reputation. Weber believed in saying a little something extra with her pictures, and it took her until The Blot (1921) to learn how to do it subtly, without preaching. In the film, an underpaid professor lives with his wife and grown daughter (Claire Windsor) in wretched poverty, made worse by the success of the shoemaker and his family next door. A poor preacher falls in love with the daughter, as does a wealthy playboy, as does the son of the shoemaker.

Weber paints all three men as compassionate, sympathetic characters, making them all worthy suitors and thereby building the suspense. She occasionally dips into melodramatic moments, such as the scene in which the professor's wife steals a chicken from next door, but she always smoothes them out before they become too lumpy. The movie wonders why professors should be paid less than ordinary laborers, and it's a problem that still stands today. (The title refers to the subsequent "blot" on society.) Yet it doesn't end with a simple solution or a happy ending, just a promise.

This title also includes a commentary track recorded in 2004 by Shelley Stamp, a Weber scholar and an associate professor at the University of Santa Cruz.

Next comes Mabel Normand, who is best known as a collaborator of Charlie Chaplin's at Keystone Studios. But lo and behold, here is a short comedy she wrote and directed, Mabel's Strange Predicament (1914), with a still-developing Chaplin in a small role.

Four more features follow. There is an American fantasy-romance, Madeline Brandeis' The Star Prince (1918), two French dramas, Germaine Dulac's La Cigarette (1919) and La Souriante Mme. Beudet (1922), and Olga Preobrazhenskaia's The Peasant Women of Ryazan (1927), from the Soviet Union.

Marie-Louise Iribe's Le Roi des Aulnes (1929) is an early French-language talkie (with English subtitles), a 45-minute wonder based on a poem by Goethe, about an imagined incarnation of death, with some haunting superimposed effects.

I love Lotte Reiniger's shadow-puppet animations, though I'd only seen her most famous film, the feature-length The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926). The set includes three sound-era shorts by the German-born artist, Harlequin (1931), The Stolen Heart (1934), and Papageno (1935), all real beauties. I confess, I got lost following the plot of Harlequin, the longest of the trio, but I was never less than enchanted by the images.

Another animated short follows, A Night on Bald Mountain (1933), by American Claire Parker and her Russian husband Alexandre Alexeieff, using her patented "pinscreen" technique. This is a beautiful, haunting work. Parker went on to design the title sequence for Orson Welles' The Trial (1962).

The Woman Condemned (1934) is an American "B" movie, full of crime and intrigue, running only 64 minutes. Dorothy Davenport was an actress in the silent era and became a director at the end of the 1920s, but using the official credit "Mrs. Wallace Reid," another indicator of the double-standards women face.

The notorious Leni Riefenstahl is represented here, with a short documentary filmed at a Nuremberg Rally, Day of Freedom (1935), released the same year as her infamous Triumph of the Will. This short represents her incredible skill, and her poetic ways of capturing order, formation, and routine, but also the deadly power these things had.

We also get two films from experimental filmmaker and animator Mary Ellen Bute. Parabola (1937) is a lovely experimental short about curves and movement, all set to music, and appropriately described as "seeing sound." Spook Sport (1939) is a color animation that is meant to suggest ghosts and spooks, represented by certain shapes and colors, playing in a graveyard at midnight. Norman McLaren worked on this one.

Dorothy Arzner is one of the few directors that had some mainstream Hollywood success, notably with her Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), a musical comedy made for RKO with a top cast: Maureen O'Hara, Louis Hayward, Lucille Ball, Virginia Field, Ralph Bellamy, and Maria Ouspenskaya. I had been wanting to see this film for ages (and it is finally available elsewhere on DVD and digital), but Flicker Alley has only provided a short, 4-minute excerpt here; it's the only quibble I have with this set.

Finally, the best for last: Maya Deren's 14-minute Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) is considered one of the great shorts of all time, not to mention one of the best experimental films and a pioneering film by a female director. (It's also considered, in some circles, a film noir.) Though plotless, the beautiful Deren appears as a woman who falls asleep and then (possibly?) dreams about a cloaked figure, a key, a knife, and a flower. Though it has been analyzed and discussed at great length over the years, it's very simply one of the best — and trippiest — cinematic representations of dream logic, and the way dreams move, as experienced from a single point of view.

Flicker Alley's box set retails for $69.95, but can be found cheaper. It includes all these films on three DVDs or two Blu-ray discs, plus a 28-page booklet packed with info. The silent-era titles include new scores by Sergei Dreznin, Frederick Hodges, Tamar Muskal, Judith Rosenberg, Rodney Sauer, and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. It is most highly recommended for both men and women who love the cinema.

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