Narrator: Jane Wyatt. Featuring: Simone Blache, Priscilla Bonner, Ruth Clifford, Henry Hathaway, Esther Ralston, Margery Wilson.
SANTA BARBARA — Simply for broaching the subject of women directors in the early days of film, the documentary “The Silent Feminists” merits attention on the festival circuit and maybe public television.
Title is somewhat misleading, as it implies a political subtext that is contradicted by the film, which makes a strong case for the fact that women directors were well integrated into the system during the silent era. These women weren’t struggling for recognition or acceptance. They were working professionals behind the camera, and sometimes in front of the camera as well.
The point of this is that a number of women directed films as a matter of course and that resistance only came later with the solidification of the studio system and the onset of sound, although that is not satisfyingly explained.
But however well-intentioned filmmakers Anthony Slide and Jeffrey Goodman are , their research is about all that keeps this short film afloat. Docu discusses better known women filmmakers like Lois Weber, Frances Marion and Dorothy Arzner , as well as more obscure ladies such as Alice Guy Blache and Margery Wilson. Also glimpsed are directorial outings by silent screen superstars Mabel Normand and Lillian Gish. Slide and Goodman have unearthed a small treasure trove of historical information that is interesting and compelling. Their interpretive skills, however, are woefully lacking, making a rather weighty subject seem almost flimsy. And their interviews with the few living men and women from the era are repetitive and almost singularly lacking in insight. The one standout is a discursive, amusing anecdote from silent actress Esther Ralston on Arzner’s formidable working style.
Additionally, there are occasional factual gaffes in the narration (by actress Jane Wyatt) and the clips often lack a suitable context. The filmmakers obviously had to make do with what was available, as many of the pertinent silent films have vanished. But more could have been done with the material that does exist.
For instance, the film implies that women directors often chose timely sociological subjects (prostitution, aging, marital discord), but never contrast their approach to these subject with the work done by male directors, many of whom also dipped into the same ripe-for-melodrama material.
The quality of the prints, as well as still photos from the period, is outstanding, and the musical underscoring for the silent segments from Capitol Production Music/Ole Georg is well-chosen and dramatically pleasing.