Let’s have a look at silent cinema again; in this case at the role of women in silent cinema.
If you glance at the earliest motion picture shorts and features, a lot of men immediately come up: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Georges Méliès, and D.W. Griffith all come up a lot. The names that generally don’t come up are those of women. Alice Guy-Blaché was one of the very first narrative feature directors, for example; to learn more about her I refer you to Pamela B. Green’s fine documentary Be Natural. Other prominent early figures like Lillian Gish, Anna Hofman-Uddgren, Dorothy Davenport, and Dorothy Arzner – who is credited as the inventor of the boom microphone – languish in obscurity.
Prior to 1925, it is estimated that roughly half of American films had been written by women. Estimates seem to vary, but it is believed that women comprised the majority of moviegoers during that time as well – as much as 83 per cent some years. Of course once audiences grew familiar with the motion picture medium, and improved technology allowed for talking pictures, a once-derided and experimental industry became commercially profitable and the patriarchy effectively took over and pushed most of the women aside.
Another early female director, and one of the most famous at the time, was the American filmmaker Lois Weber. She was the first director to establish their own studio, so that she could distribute the films that she made. In 1917 she was the highest-paid director in the world. A year earlier, in 1916, she and her husband Phillips Smalley directed The Dumb Girl of Portici. It was an expensive historical drama, inspired by D.F.E. Auber’s 1829 opera and starring famed ballerina Anna Pavlova in her first and only feature film role.
Fenella (Pavlova) is a non-verbal Italian peasant living with her brother Masaniello (Rupert Julian) in a beachside hut. Naples has been conquered by the Spanish, and is governed by a high-taxing and inconsiderate Duke d’Arcos (Wadsworth Harris). When the Duke’s son Alphonso (Douglas Gerrard) romances and then abandons Fenella, the Duke has her kidnapped and imprisoned to preserve Alphonso’s reputation. Fenella’s disappearance inspires Masaniello into action, and he spearheads a popular revolution against the Spanish occupation.
There is a popular conception of silent films as comparatively primitive things, using fixed cameras, modest sets, and theatrical ‘dumb-show’ acting. A lot of this attitude stems from comedy shorts, which are probably the best-preserved and most widely distributed silent films among 21st century audiences. That in mind, The Dumb Girl of Portici is a surprise. It is a full-length dramatic feature of some 112 minutes, combining location and studio photography, moving cameras and well-choreographed action. It is even technically in colour, with scenes individually tinted a variety of colours to enhance and inform the action on screen. A climactic storming of the Spanish fortress is an absolute highlight, with dozens of actors fighting one another as a long tracking shot takes the viewer from left to right and which then backs up to reveal the full scale of the combat. It is a shot that honestly would not look out of place in a modern-day action film, save for the lack of diegetic sound, and it is a valuable reminder that some of the visual techniques employed by fan-favourite action directors today were effectively invented by the likes of Lois Weber more than a century ago.
The level of violence may surprise modern-day viewers as well. People are beaten, wounded, and stabbed. Riots end with dead bodies littering the streets. When one particular fiery conflict is resolved, slow tracking shots across the smoking ruins reveal severed heads on spikes. There is a risk of thinking of the past as invariably conservative and restrained; it is easy to forget that prior to the 1930s Hollywood suffered next to no censorship at all.
Pavlova’s ballet skills are well-suited to the acting style of silent film. She moves her body with purpose and grace, and is wonderfully expressive. Cinema was never really part of Pavlova’s agenda, but she was stuck in the USA due to the First World War and the $50,000 salary offered to her by Universal Pictures allowed her to buy an entire Boston opera and ballet company. While the likes of Rupert Julian and Wadsworth Harris are entertaining enough, it is Douglas Gerrard that stands out as the prince Alphonso. He demonstrates a full range of emotion, along with a character arc that runs through the entire film.
After its theatrical run was complete, The Dumb Girl of Portici was essentially lost for several decades. The currently available restoration, funded by the Library of Congress and released by Kino Lorber, combines a sole surviving 35mm print from the British Film Institute and a 16mm copy found at the New York Public Library. With the release of this, and other rarely seen silent films, I hope it enables us to restore and celebrate the immense success and reputation once afforded to Lois Weber. This is not simply a historical curiosity; The Dumb Girl of Portici is genuinely masterful cinema.