Reel Models: The First Women of Film,” is a serious lesson on a part of Hollywood’s long-forgotten history, before the film biz looked like it was ready for the long haul. It was a time when women were calling most of the shots, both technically and creatively.
Docu, by AMC and Barbara Streisand’s Barwood films, profiles the careers of Alice Guy, Lois Weber, Frances Marion and Dorothy Arzner, using rarely seen film clips and archival footage to illustrate a time when creative freedom was the norm and writers were allowed on the set.
Clocking in at a taught one hour, docu is divided into four parts on the four women, hosted by Shirley MacLaine, Susan Sarandon, Hillary Swank and Minnie Driver. Streisand introduces the docu itself.
The period between 1910 and the late 1920s was the golden age for women in film, and former secretary Alice Guy spearheaded it.
It was Guy who first thought of using film to tell stories, the docu says, and produced and directed “La Fee Aux Choux,” one of the first films ever made. History credits D.W. Griffith with inventing the close-up, but archival footage presented here proves that Guy, who became head of production at France’s Gaumont Studio, was actually the first.
MacLaine calls Guy a one-woman film school, considering Guy experimented with both color and sound as well the use of light and shadows some 40 years before it became the norm in Hollywood.
Weber, a former actress for Guy’s Gaumont studios, was once hailed as the greatest woman director for her technical skill and ability to tackle big issues such as birth control, divorce and alcoholism at a time when movies were thought of as a novelty.
Although their fame didn’t endure, their innovations did. The women profiled gave us the fish-pole boom mike, the moving camera, the female action hero and superimposed images. Marion, the only non-director among the bunch, launched the career of Gary Cooper, wrote Greta Garbo’s first speaking part and propelled Mary Pickford to stardom with films such as “Pollyanna.”
But by 1927, when it came apparent that movies were much more than a fad and were in fact big business, Arzner was the only woman director left in Hollywood.
Adding insight to the docu are film historians Anthony Slide, and Alison McMahan as well as filmmaker Frances Ford Coppola, who was a student of Arzner’s at UCLA.
MacLaine and Sarandon seem to have practically lived the stories they’re narrating. Driver is more than capable. Swank, however, is surprisingly stiff in her narration of Marion’s story.
Although “Reel Models” excels as a celebration of achievement, the historical facts presented serve as an indictment of the biz. Some 90 years since Guy first captured her mesmerizing images on film, no woman has ever won the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award or a best director Oscar.
“Reel Models” is flawlessly orchestrated despite the fact that each seg was produced independently. Tech credits are polished, with high marks going to the many writers, researchers and archivists.