Turner Classic Movies is shining a light on the historical contributions of women in the film industry, and if you're doing that it just makes sense to include Cari Beauchamp. The LA Observed contributor has written six books on film history, including "Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood" and most recently, "My First Time in Hollywood." She's also the resident scholar for the Mary Pickford Foundation. This month Cari is co-hosting, with Illeana Douglas, a series on Turner Classic Movies of films directed by women, dating back to the earliest years of Hollywood. The shows air Tuesdays and Thursdays; some of the movies have not been on network TV before. She is on next on Tuesday, Oct. 27, when the theme is international breakthroughs. The films that night include "Gigi," directed by Jacqueline Audry and "Salaam Bombay" by Mira Nair.
Several months ago, Vanity Fair ran an article claiming Ida Lupino was the first woman director. That is an oft-repeated mistake for there were dozens of women who preceded her in that role, but most have been erased from history. TCM is doing their part to correct those misconceptions and set the record straight by creating a month-long festival in October entitled “Trailblazing Women: Behind the Movies, Ahead of Their Time.”
In point of fact, Alice Guy was the first woman director, and one of the very first film directors period. In 1895, she was the secretary to camera maker Léon Gaumont and together in Paris they attended the first ever public screening of a movie, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory. Inspired, Alice asked if she could try her hand at making films and Gaumant agreed, as long as her clerical duties didn’t suffer. Her after-hours creations became the first narrative films and they were so successful she was made the head of Gaumont’s newly formed production company in 1897. Over the next decade she directed more than 1000 short films. When she moved to America in 1910 with her husband, the cameraman Herbert Blaché, she formed Solax in Fort Lee, New Jersey. In spite of having two children, she kept pace with the output of D.W. Griffith, who was directing his films nearby in lower Manhattan.
Because of the collaborative and fast moving nature of filmmaking in the teens—so different than today—it is easy to get caught up in the question of who directed, who wrote or who “first” did what. In reality, women wore many hats and the bottom line is that for a brief but amazing time, they were encouraged to join a business where they were professionally nurtured by their bosses and each other. As Frances Marion noted at the end of her life, “I have found that it has always been one of my own sex who had given me a helping hand when I needed it.” They supported each other personally and professionally; many of the friendships lasted throughout their lives, long after they had left the business.
Frances Marion directed several films, including The Love Light (1921) starring her husband Fred Thomson and her best friend, Mary Pickford, but she chose to concentrate on writing, becoming known as the highest paid screenwriter—male or female—for over twenty years. She remains the only woman to twice win Academy Awards for original stories. (Hers were for The Big House (1930) and The Champ (1931), a prison picture and a boxing film, underscoring the fact that these women wrote and directed every genre of film.)