Posted by Susan Doll on August 25, 2008
This past summer I have become increasingly annoyed at the lack of interesting female characters in Hollywood movies. I have endured embarrassingly shallow cardboard cut-outs in superhero films (Gwenyth Paltrow in Iron Man), long-suffering former lovers who are then killed off for the sake of the franchise (Maggie Gyllanhall in The Dark Knight), and women characters who are really male archetypes in female form (Angelina Jolie in Wanted). I did see Sex in the City, and while I am delighted that a film starring women shocked the male executives in Hollywood by becoming a box-office success, the women were all exaggerated in the way that television-based characters generally are, and some were simply too over-the-top for me. The most compelling female characters that I have seen all summer are in Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona; while Vicky and Christina are flawed protagonists who are not good material for role models, they are smart, independent, articulate, and relatable.
And, it’s not that I don’t like formulaic genre films, in which all characters are familiar archetypes that are sometimes two-dimensional. I actually prefer genre films to serious films or social dramas with “important” subject matter. I just watched Diane Lane in the detective thriller Untraceable, and I liked her character quite a bit. First, she was the protagonist in what has become a male-dominated genre. Second, she was beautiful and feminine but also admirable, tough, and respected by her male peers. However, the film did not get much support when it was released, either by the industry, which did not market its strengths, or by reviewers, who are rarely able to see beyond the surface to understand how a genre film works.
Part of the problem is obviously the lack of women behind the scenes in positions as writers, directors, and producers—a situation often discussed but never addressed. And the few that do exist have no clout in a male-centric Hollywood where the corporate mentality has strangled creativity. My thoughts about this have been stirred this summer because I have been reading a great deal about the film industry during the Golden Age and the silent era. I am as pleasantly surprised by new discoveries and revelations about Hollywood back in the day as I am profoundly disappointed in Hollywood now.
One of my favorite discoveries has been writer, director, star, and producer Gene Gauntier. Don’t let the first name fool you. “Gene” Gauntier was born Genevieve Liggett in 1885 in Missouri, and during the pioneering days of the American cinema, she made her mark on the screen and behind the scenes. During the earliest days of the silent cinema, and before the industry was based in Hollywood, many women were actively involved behind the camera. In those days, movie production companies tended to consist of several troupes, each with its own actors, directors, and crew. The troupes were small, and members bonded in a family-like atmosphere. Women pitched in to help out in whatever capacity was needed. The informality of the early days resulted in an egalitarianism in which actresses learned to write, direct, and even manage the details of production. Like Gauntier, many actresses turned to writing scenarios—to the point where women scenarists outnumbered men ten to one during the silent era.
Gauntier joined the Kalem Company in 1906 as an actress, but the following year Kalem cofounder Frank Marion asked her to write an original story for a romantic melodrama. Though her first effort turned out to be “not filmable,” in her words, she decided to try again by adapting Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer into a one-reel adventure. From that point on, Gauntier became Kalem’s premiere writer, eventually penning over 300 scenarios for one-reelers, sometimes at a rate of three per day. In addition, she continued to appear in films, often writing and starring in action-packed adventures based on stories she found in books, magazines, or poems.
Gauntier’s entry into the movies came at a very early moment in film history, and her career made an impact on the emerging industry in more ways than one. She preceded D.W. Griffith—“the father of American film”—into the business, and according to Gaunier, it was she who recommended to American Biograph that they use Griffith as a director. According to her autobiography, Blazing the Trail, she gave Griffith his first directorial assignment, The Adventures of Dollie, during a brief stint as a scenarist for Biograph. She supposedly assigned legendary cameraman Billy Bitzer to help him. If this is true, she unwittingly brought together the most famous director-cinematographer team in history. Whether the story is true or not, it points to Gauntier as a seasoned veteran in the “picture business” when Griffith was still a struggling actor-playwright.
Gauntier also wrote the scenario that sparked the test case responsible for amending American copyright laws to include movies. In the early days, scenario writers freely borrowed from novels, plays, poems, short stories, and even other movies without acknowledging the original author or source. After Gauntier’s adaptation of Ben-Hur was released by Kalem in 1907, the estate of author Lew Wallace sued the film company for copyright infringement. The case was eventually settled in 1912 with Kalem paying the Wallace estate $25,000. From that point forward, all films had to be registered for copyright, and movie companies had to submit material related to their movies at the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress. Adapting scenarios from outside sources became a more structured and accountable enterprise.
My favorite Gauntier films to read about are the Girl Spy adventures (1909-1912), which turned into the American cinema’s first true series, at least according to Gauntier. As she proudly notes in her autobiography, “I wrote a picture called The Adventures of the Girl Spy, which embodied all the difficult and sometimes dangerous stunts I could conjure up…It made a tremendous hit and exhibitors wrote in for more. Thus began the first series made in films….” Series are not to be confused with serials; in the former, each entry is complete in itself but the characters are the same from film to film, while the latter consists of a continuing story told in several episodes. During the silent era, both series and serials stressed action, adventure, and stunts, while many featured female characters in the role of the heroic protagonist.
The Girl Spy films were produced in Florida by Kalem, which had sent one of their stock companies to Jacksonville in 1908 to make films during the winter months. The company included Gauntier as a leading lady and key writer and Sidney Olcott as the main director. The group headquartered in the Jacksonville suburb of Fairfield at the Roseland Hotel, a large ramshackle establishment on the banks of the St. Johns River. The founders of Kalem had always insisted on location shooting, because it was conducive to action and looked picturesque on the big screen. The area across the St. Johns River from the Roseland was relatively undeveloped and became a major location for Kalem’s one-reelers. Strawberry Creek was particularly useful, because it captured the look and feel of the Deep South, with its swamps, Spanish moss, palmettoes, and water hyacinths. But, the offscreen productions of the Kalem troupe proved to be as adventurous as the onscreen antics of the plucky heroine because of the bugs, poison ivy, and snakes—lots of them! Rattlers, water moccasins, and copperheads abounded. Undeterred, the cast and crew simply carried medicine kits wherever they went.
Nan the Girl Spy was introduced in 1909′s The Adventures of the Girl Spy. Nan was inspired by the famous Confederate spy Belle Boyd, who had disguised herself as a boy to help the South during the Civil War. Adventures became a popular hit, and Gauntier continued Nan’s exploits in such films as The Further Adventures of the Girl Spy and The Girl Spy Before Vicksburg, with Olcott as the director. Long before stunt men, trainers, or action coordinators existed in the business, Gauntier found herself being hurled through the air by exploding ammunition dumps, trapped in burning buildings, and stuck in either snake-infested or shark-infested waters. Eventually the difficult stunt work took its toll, and she decided to end the series by marrying Nan off and ending the war. However, the Girl Spy proved so popular that Gauntier was convinced to resurrect her one more time, despite the fact that the war had ended in the last entry to the series. The clever writer solved this dilemma by titling the new film A Hitherto Unrelated Incident of the Girl Spy, implying the story took place prior to the previous film—a very early example of a prequel. (Later, Reliance produced The Girl Spy’s Atonement, starring Norma Phillips, which was not part of Gauntier’s series.)
Aside from the series format, the stunt work by Gauntier, and the effective use of location, the Girl Spy films are also notable as Civil War narratives. The year 1911 marked the 50th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, and the years surrounding this anniversary saw a proliferation of Civil War movies. At first, most of these films were shot in the North and their stories unfolded from the Northern perspective, but the Girl Spy series countered the trend by using a Southern heroine, a Confederate point of view, and Southern locations. By the end of 1911, the trend had reversed and more Civil War films were presented from the Southern perspective.
If Gauntier is known at all, it is probably for From the Manger to the Cross, her six-reel adaptation of the Christ story shot on location in Egypt and the Holy Land. She conceived of the project while her Kalem troupe was shooting another film in Egypt. During pre-production, director Olcott went to London to get more actors, and Gauntier supervised set construction. At the same time, she hammered out two more scripts for one-reelers, which Kalem produced to raise money for Manger. When the time came to shoot the film, Gauntier stepped in to play the Virgin Mary. In post-production, she assisted with the editing and helped write the intertitles. If there was an auteur on the film, it was Gauntier—not Olcott. An early example of the multi-reel film, Manger preceded any of Griffith’s forays into longer films, a distinction that landed it on the National Film Registry in 1998.
Soon after the Girl Spy series ended, Gauntier formed her own production company in Florida with director Sidney Olcott, the Gene Gauntier Film Players, but the venture was short-lived. By 1915, the film industry was beginning to centralize in Hollywood, and Gauntier and Olcott joined Universal as a director/writing team. As the film industry became more and more systemized, people like Gauntier began to be squeezed out. In 1918, she retired from making films to work as a war correspondent. By the time she penned her memoirs for Woman’s Home Companion in 1928, so much had changed in the film industry that her name was no longer recognized. Afterward, she became a relatively successful novelist, choosing to live outside the United States and preferring not to look back on the industry that had so completely forgotten her.
Fortunately, Gauntier’s autobiographical adventures from the earliest days of cinema are available to read online, and I highly recommend them. I found her memoirs to be a good read, especially the way they offered a window to another era. And, while it is too simplistic to declare one era’s filmmaking to be better than another’s, I wish the Girl Spy would return from her long hiatus and wipe the floor with most of the female characters who currently grace the big screen.
Acker, Ally. Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema 1896 to the Present. New York: Continuum Pub. Co., 1991.
Fristoe, Roger. “From the Manger to the Cross,” Turner Classic Movies website. http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title.jsp?stid=335424&category=Articles
Gauntier, Gene. “Blazing the Trail,” http://www.cinemaweb.com/silentfilm/bookshelf/4_blaze1.htm, reprinted from Woman’s Home Companion, 1928.
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