The Stuntwomen of the Silent Era

Gibson Stunt (The New Republic)
Stuntwoman Helen Gibson Credit: The New Republic

In its infancy, Hollywood employed roughly 50% women and 50% men. Everyone worked extremely hard and created 10,919 silent films between 1912 and 1929, of which approximately 14% still exist. Women acted, wrote, directed, produced and, in many cases, performed their own stunts. The work was dangerous and safety was not taken into consideration; it was a pioneering time and the risks had not yet occurred to people. Some of the stunts were performed over multiple takes and sometimes they resulted in death.

The first stuntwomen came from theatre, dance and vaudeville backgrounds. Some had to jump into freezing cold water, some hung from buildings and others crashed cars, repeatedly. It was reported that during 1918 and 1919, between 37 Hollywood companies, 1,052 women and men were hurt performing stunts on set, 18 were seriously injured and three had died. Stuntwomen used to joke that pants were a luxury when they typically had to work in dresses.

Helen Holmes (Silent Hall of Fame)
Holmes Publicity Photo Credit: Silent Hall of Fame

Helen Holmes dreamed of being a race car driver when she was young. And she also had a natural talent for it. The problem was racing was a male-only sport. She looked elsewhere and turned to Hollywood. She impressed a number of industry heads on one of her first films, The Railroad Raiders (1917). Holmes drove a car at full speed off a nine-meter-high (30 feet) bridge onto a moving barge. It took four tries but she succeeded in the end. Journalists were on set during the shoot and were blown away by her fearlessness.

Helen Holmes and Leo D. Maloney in A Lass of the Lumberlands (1916)
Holmes and Leo D. Maloney in A Lass of the Lumberlands (1916) Credit: iMDB

Holmes was also known at the time as the titular character in The Hazards of Helen (1914-1917) serial. She made nearly 50 episodes of it before moving onto other projects.

At age 18, Rose August Wenger was entranced by her first Wild West Show. With no prior experience, she set out and learnt to ride a horse. In a short period of time, she mastered picking a handkerchief up off the ground with one hand while riding a horse at a full galop, an achievement only a small number could do. She worked for a rodeo company for a period before setting her sights on Hollywood. Skilled female riders were utilised as extras in Westerns, sometimes doubling for men. She got a part in Ranch Girls on the Rampage (1912) making $15 a week (no figures in this article have been adjusted for inflation).

Her next break came playing Helen Holmes’s stunt double in The Hazards of Helen. After Holmes left, she became the new lead. The studio changed her screenname to Helen Gibson.

Helen Gibson - 1920
Gibson in 1920 Credit: Wikipedia

In one of her most daring stunts, she had to jump off a platform and onto a moving train. Gibson performed the stunt several times with a stationary train. The stunt was accurately measured by professionals but with a moving train the chances of failure increased and so did the danger. She jumped onto the moving train perfectly, but fell backwards and lost her balance. She landed on the carriage roof and nearly toppled off. She was okay and the footage was used in the short.

Gibson starred in 70 episodes of The Hazards of Helen before it ended in 1917. She is regarded as the first official Hollywood stuntwoman.

Gibson leaps onto a train in The Governor's Special (1916) (Silent Hall of Fame)
Gibson leaps onto a train in The Govenor’s Special (1916) Credit: Silent Hall of Fame

Holmes and Gibson retired from stunts and moved into producing and directing for the rest of their careers.

Stunt work didn’t always go according to plan.

In 1916, actress Mary MacLaren had to drive a car 40 kilometres per hour (25 miles per hour) in reverse down a hill and lost control. She sued the studio wanting to be released from her contract.

Ann Little (iMDB)
Ann Little in Nan of the North (1922) Credit: iMDB

Ann Little had to sneak out a house window and onto a horse to escape her character’s kidnappers in a scene in The Valley Feud (1915). Director Frank Cooley had real bullets fired at her and the horse. He wanted the effect of splitting wood to show up on camera. Little was unharmed but the horse was injured and had to be put down.

Gish in Way Down East (1920) (Pinterest)
Gish in Way Down East (1920) Credit: Pinterest

Way Down East (1920) is regarded as an early Hollywood masterpiece. The film’s climax takes place on a snow-covered river and filming required star Lillian Gish to dangle her limbs and hair in freezing cold water for hours. She was happy with the movie’s end result, though she lost partial feeling in her hand and would have health issues with it for the rest of her life.

Pearl White had performed all her own stunts but refused to for one in a scene in Plunder (1922). She felt the situation was too dangerous to perform. A stuntman, John Stevenson, volunteered to double for her but, while filming, fell at a crucial point and went under the wheels of a car. He was killed instantly.

By 1927, the film business was the fifth biggest industry in America. Talkies (films with sound) had been introduced that same year and it was the beginning of the end for silent movies. Women also had less opportunities open to them as men predominately ran production companies. Stuntwomen are still around today but it seems, for now, that their heyday was the Silent Era. It was reported that in the 1980s there were a total of five working stuntwomen in Los Angeles all up.

Gibson in The Wrong Train Order (1915) (Silent Hall of Fame)
Gibson in The Wrong Train Order (1915) Credit: Silent Hall of Fame

This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on August 22nd, 2018. (


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Irene Bedard and Pocahontas

irene-bedard (Rezinate)
Credit: Rezinate

Irene Bedard is one of the most famous and respected Native Americans working in Hollywood today. Her career spans nearly twenty-five years and ranges from acting to producing credits. She is probably best known as the voice behind the title character of Disney’s 1995 animation Pocahontas. The movie broke new ground for the studio but was also not received well for its representation of Native Americans and its historical inaccuracies. Bedard also heads a production company dedicated to “bringing positive, inspirational stories from Indian Country to the world”.

Born in Anchorage, Alaska, on July 22nd, 1967, Bedard had her film acting debut in the mid-1990s. Besides Pocahontas, she has featured in Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee (1994), Into the West (2005) and small parts in other films and television series. Bedard regularly plays Native American characters. She received a Golden Globe nomination in 1995. She reprised her Disney Princess in its direct-to-video sequel, Pocahontas 2: Journey to the New World (1998), and the character’s mother in The New World (2005). She was also the physical model for Pocahontas. In the early 2010s, she started the company Sleeping Lady Films Waking Giant Productions. It’s based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Grant, Michael Giaimo and Gabriel (Mike Gabriel Art)
Grant, Production Designer Michael Giaimo and Gabriel Credit: Mike Gabriel Art

Coming off The Rescuers Down Under (1990), director Mike Gabriel was looking for something completely different for his next film. He teamed up with legendary Disney story artist and character designer Joe Grant. Grant is responsible for a lot of the work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940) and many other Disney classics. The duo worked on an outline to adapt Swan Lake for the big screen. It was rejected by Disney executives as they felt it had no story. Gabriel and Grant went looking for inspiration in old cowboy films and American folklore. At the next meeting, they produced a picture of the Peter Pan character Tiger Lily with the title ‘Walt Disney’s Pocahontas’ and the pitch ‘an Indian princess who is torn between her father’s wishes to destroy the English settlers and her wishes to help them—a girl caught between her father and her people, and her love for the enemy’ written on it. Executives were enthusiastic about the concept and Pocahontas was greenlit.

Tiger Lily (Disney Wiki)
Tiger Lily from Peter Pan (1953) Credit: Disney Wiki

Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture at the 1992 Academy Awards but lost to The Silence of the Lambs. Disney decided to take another shot for the award. Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994) were too close to completion, but Pocahontas had everything they needed: an epic romance story. To make it Oscar worthy and more serious, the secondary animal characters were changed to non-speaking roles. Tom Sito was the film’s story supervisor. He decided to loosely base the story on past events and embrace myth. He felt this approach wouldn’t hinder creativity. Though this was the direction Pocahontas headed in, Disney wanted to keep everything as authentic as possible and hired Native American voice actors and elders. Once learning the film wasn’t following true history, Shirley “Little Dove” Custalow-McGowan—a decedent from the real Pocahontas’s tribe—left the project. She had served as a consultant.

Bedard learnt she was cast as Pocahontas while on the set of Lakota Woman.

irene_bedard_pochahontas (Sac-Con)
Pocahontas and Bedard Credit: Sac-Con

Pocahontas was in production for five years. It was the first Disney film to have an interracial relationship and the only Disney Princess, to date, based on a historical figure. It had a budget of $55 million (no figures in this article have been adjusted for inflation) and was released on the real Pocahontas’s 400th birthday. It debuted in Central Park, New York, on four 80-foot high screens to 100,000 people, making it the biggest premiere turnout of all time. It was also the first Disney movie censored. Its racial slurs were removed in post-production. The film wasn’t nominated for Best Picture but won the Academy Awards for Best Original Score and Best Original Song, for ‘Colors of the Wind’.

Pocahontas and Tattoo (CinemaBlend)
Pocahontas singing ‘Colors of the Wind’ Credit: CinemaBlend

It had an average box office run and is noted as the beginning of the Disney Renaissance decline. The studio’s popularity wouldn’t return until the Revival era with Tangled (2010) and Frozen (2013). Pocahontas was heavily criticised by activists and scholars for its Native American representation and stereotyping.

The real Pocahontas shared similarities with her Disney counterpart but lived a vastly different life in other areas. She was born Amonute and her nickname was Pocahontas, meaning ‘Little Mischief’, ‘Playful One’ and ‘Ill-Behaved Child’. She was a member of the Pamunkey tribe and was really twelve years old—not in her early twenties as depicted in the film. Pocahontas and John Smith didn’t have a romantic relationship. She befriended him while he was being held captive. The two taught each other the basics of their languages. Pocahontas was pivotal in freeing Smith. Her story has been told from one generation to the next becoming the myth it is today. In her own strong, smart and independent way she became an ambassador and translator for both nations. While in England, she became very sick and died in 1617.

To this day, Pocahontas remains the only Disney Princess to have a visible tattoo and—besides Tiana from The Princess and the Frog (2009)—is the only one to be born in America. People still have mixed feelings about the film; some see it as groundbreaking for its time whilst many others, particularly among the Native American community, see it as deeply problematic. As for Bedard, she and her production company recently bought the rights to the classic Alaskan novel Two Old Women, by Velma Wallis, and are adapting it into a film. She currently resides in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

12th Annual NAMIC Vision Awards - Show
Credit: iMDB

This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on June 20th, 2018. (


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Pocahontas – iMDB (

Pocahontas – The Disney Wiki (

Pocahontas (film) – The Disney Wiki (

The True Story of Pocahontas (
Sleeping Lady Films, Waking Giant Productions  – Facebook page (

Louise Lovely: The First Australian to Make it in Hollywood

Lovely (Women Film Pioneers Project)
Credit: Women Film Pioneers Project

In the early 1900s, Australia had a well-established film industry while Hollywood was still in its infancy. Most early American silent films were made in New York by companies such as Biograph and Edison Productions. Hollywood began to be a popular production location in the early 1910s. It didn’t take long for it to become the world’s leading film capital. Australia had made the first feature-length film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, in 1906 but was soon lagging behind. Early Australian actors and actresses made the move across the ocean to try their luck in American movies. Louise Lovely was among the first to have a successful career. She appeared in a handful of films at home before gracing the silver screen alongside other big names of the silent era. She was frequently compared to Mary Pickford, the most famous and highest paid actress at the time. She was even considered a rival.

Lovely was born on the 28th February, 1895, in Paddington, a suburb close to Sydney’s CBD. Her parents were of Italian and Swiss descent. She was named Nellie Louise Carbasse. Lovely’s father is unknown; she was raised by her mother. Lovely was more fluent in French than English as a child. This helped her to get her first part, as Little Eva, in the stage play Uncle Tom’s Cabin at age nine. She was noticed by Nellie Stewart, a popular stage actress and singer of the era. In her teens, Lovely joined Stewart’s theatre company and travelled around Australia and New Zealand. The two became close and Stewart took Lovely under her wing. This is where she learnt about acting properly and honed her skills.

Lovely made her first films with the Australian Life Biograph Company. Between 1911 and 1912, she made a handful including One Hundred Years Ago, A Tale of the Australian Bush, A Daughter of Australia and The Ticket of Leave Man. By mid-1912, the Australian Life Biograph Company was bought by Universal Pictures Ltd. Universal was a local company and had no affiliation with the American production entity. Lovely made one film with them, The Wreck of the Dunbar. She was credited as Louise Carbasse on all her Australian movies.

Radio (National Portrait Gallery)
Lovely during a radio interview Credit: National Portrait Gallery

She moved to Hollywood with her husband, William Welch, in 1914. Welch was a comedian, writer and actor. Lovely was noticed by Carl Laemmle and he invited her to make a screen test. Laemmle was an influential producer during the silent era. On the strength of her screen test alone, Lovely was offered a contract with Universal Studios and she accepted. Laemmle was the one who coined her Hollywood screen name: Louise Lovely.

Lovely had a very successful career. She was one of Universal’s most popular stars. She appeared in films such as Father and the Boys (1915), Dolly’s Scoop (1916), Bobbie of the Ballet (1916), The Diamonds of Destiny (1917) and The Girl Who Wouldn’t Quit (1918).

Bobbie of the Ballet (iMDB)
Bobbie of the Ballet (1916) Poster Credit: iMDB

As her contract was coming to an end, Lovely received an offer to work in France by the production company Pathé Frères. She was excited by the idea and its increased pay. Universal wouldn’t match the price with Lovely’s new contract and threatened legal action if she used the name ‘Lovely’ in other productions. Apparently, they held the copyright. Lovely refused to sign the contract and was blacklisted. Over the next year, she acted in a handful of independent films until being picked up by Fox Film Corporation. She appeared in some well received movies—such as The Last of the Duanes and Wings of the Morning—but her career never recovered. Lovely and Welch returned to Australia in 1924.

Johnny-on-the-Spot (1919) (iMDB)
Lovely in Jonny-on-the-Spot (1919) Credit: iMDB

Lovely and her husband toured the country with their A Day at the Studio show. They travelled to small country towns and set up a make-shift film studio in the local theatre. The show included a real motion picture camera and professional lighting. They filmed people and then screened the footage the following week. In an entertaining way, the show explained to an audience how a film set operated. It relied heavily on the ‘magic of the movies’ craze and also doubled as a talent search.

While touring Hobart, Lovely was visited by author Marie Bjelke Petersen. She hoped Lovely would adapt her novel Jewelled Nights into a movie. Lovely was intrigued by the idea and bought the rights. She formed Louise Lovely Productions with Welch and raised most of the budget herself. Filming began six days before the company was legally allowed to operate. All outside locations for Jewelled Nights were filmed near Waratah, Tasmania. The area was hot and dangerous. Lovely killed five snakes during the four week schedule. The rest of the filming took place on sound stages in Melbourne. The production was supposed to last four months but took nine. It also ran over budget. Lovely was responsible for producing, acting, editing, co-directing and co-writing. Besides her star billing, she received no other credits.

Jewelled Nights debuted in Hobart. The event included the then Tasmanian Premier, Attorney General and Petersen as special guests. Audience reaction for the film was positive but the opposite with critics. It faded from Australian cinemas and didn’t recoup its budget. Rumours have it that Jewelled Nights was shown as far as New Zealand but never made it to America. In 1927, Lovely stressed to the Royal Commission that Australia needed a better distribution system for local content or the market would be dominated by import films. She blamed this as part of her film’s failure at the box office. They rejected Lovely’s suggestion.

Lovely and Dog in Jewlled Nights (National Portrait Gallery)
Lovely in Jewelled Nights (1925) Credit: National Portrait Gallery

Lovely left the film industry disillusioned by the experience. She had made near 50 films during her career. Her marriage with Welch also broke down and ended in divorce. She remarried and stayed in Tasmania. In 1946, Lovely and her second husband bought the Prince of Wales theatre in Hobart. She was manager until her death on the March 18th, 1980. Locals affectionately remember her as the little old lady who ran the theatre’s lolly shop. No footage exists of Jewelled Nights except two minutes of footage, which is believed to be out takes. In 2000, The Australian Film Institute named their equivalent of the Academy Awards after her.

Louise Lovely Autograph (Star Struck)
Lovely publicity photo with autograph Credit: Star Struck

This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on April 12th, 2018. (


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Louise Lovely – Australian Silent Film Festival (

Hattie McDaniel and Gone with the Wind

hattie-mcdaniel-1 (Famous People)
Credit: Famous People

1939 is regarded as one of the greatest years in Hollywood’s history. Some classic films released include The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights and Gone with the Wind. Based on the novel by Margret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind follows the relationship of Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) during the American Civil War. The film would go on to break many box office records and win countless awards, including the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for Hattie McDaniel. This is special because it was the first Oscar won by a black American.

Hattie McDaniel was born on June 10, 1895. She was the thirteenth child born to Henry McDaniel and Susan Holbert. Her father fought in the Civil War and had major psychological issues later in life, while McDaniel’s mother was a domestic worker. McDaniel was born in Wichita, Kansas, before moving with her family to Denver, Colorado, when she was five. In school she was naturally drawn to music and performance. Even in a school of only two black students, McDaniel’s natural talent gained her classmates’ admiration. Close to the end of her studies, she dropped out of school in favour of pursuing a performance career.

McDaniel travelled with vaudeville acts on the road for a number of years. She gained a reputation for her singing and dancing and was nicknamed “Hi-Hat-Hattie.” She wrote and performed her own Blues songs. In 1930, McDaniel’s siblings, Sam and Etta, invited her to come to Hollywood. They had had minor success getting small parts in films. McDaniel packed her bags and followed suit. By the late 1920s, McDaniel also had a string of successful radio work, most notably The Optimistic Donuts.

Arriving in California, McDaniel took up residence in a middle-class black American area of Los Angeles affectionately known as “Sugar Hill”. She appeared in popular movies, such as Judge Priest (1934) and Show Boat (1936), but still had to keep a second job in order to support herself and her family. Auditioning alongside fellow black American actresses Louise Beavers, Etta McDaniel, Ruby Dandridge and Hattie Noel, McDaniel was cast in the biggest role of her career as Mammy in Gone with the Wind.

Hattie-McDaniel-650x369 (Tribute.Ca)
Vivien Leigh and McDaniel in Gone with the Wind Credit: Tribute.Ca

McDaniel was so determined to get the part that she dressed in full costume when meeting with producer David O. Selznick for the first time. McDaniel made an impression. Mammy was the O’Hara family’s maid and helped raise and look after Scarlett from a child. Mammy was originally bought as a slave by Scarlett’s grandmother, but the character was a cherished member of the family.

Clark Gable played a joke on the set. In the scene where they toast to the safe arrival of baby Bonnie, Gable put real brandy in McDaniel’s glass without her knowing. The two were good friends. Learning that the black American cast members were banned from the film’s Atlanta premier, Gable wanted to boycott the entire event. Atlanta was still a racially segregated state in 1939. McDaniel convinced Gable to attend. She was absent.

carter450 (A Trip Down Memory Lane)
McDaniel and Gable in Gone with the Wind Credit: A Tripe Down Memory Lane

Gone with the Wind was nominated for thirteen categories at the 12th Academy Awards. The film won eight, including Best Picture and Best Director for Victor Fleming. That same year Fleming also directed The Wizard of Oz. McDaniel’s award was presented to her by actress Fay Bainter and she gave a short acceptance speech. She was the first black American to attend the ceremony as a guest and not a servant. As of 2018, McDaniel is one of only six black American women to win an Oscar. In 1964, Sidney Poitier became the second black American to win an Academy Award.

Opinion of Gone with the Wind was divided among the black community. Some felt Mammy was yet another stereotyped, black maid, while others saw her as a ground breaking, witty and resourceful character. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) criticized McDaniel publicly for her continued portrayal of maid characters. In response, she said “I’d rather play a maid than be one.” McDaniel was proud of her work and felt she was a role model for future generations of black Americans. If any black actors were struggling in Hollywood, and needed a place to stay, she would happily open her doors to them every time.

After Gone with the Wind, McDaniel enjoyed a brief stint of successful work. She had parts in The Great Lie (1941) and Disney’s controversial Song of the South (1946). McDaniel also entertained soldiers during World War II and promoted war bonds. By the mid-1940s, her career was slowing down and she focused more on radio work. She sadly passed away from Breast Cancer on October 26, 1952. McDaniel continued to work until her final days.

hattie (Hollywood Reporter)
McDaniel accepting her Oscar from Fay Bainter Credit: Hollywood Reporter

McDaniel loaned her Oscar to Howard University but it went missing during the Race Riots of the 1960s. It hasn’t been seen in the years since. She has two stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and was inducted into the Black Film Makers Hall of Fame in 1975. As part of the Black Heritage series, McDaniel’s likeness was featured on a stamp in 2006. Producers Aaron Magnani and Alysia Allen purchased the rights to Jill Watt’s book, Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood. They plan to make a McDaniel biopic film in the near future.

hattie-mcdaniel-1 (Black Doctor)
Credit: Black Doctor

This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on February 14th, 2018. (


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Hattie McDaniel – (

Hattie McDaniel – iMDB (

Hattie McDaniel winning Best Supporting Actress (

Lillian Gish: The First Lady of American Cinema

Credit: Los Angeles Times

Lillian Gish was one of the most influential and famous actors in Hollywood’s history. Her first film was in 1912 and a career spanning seventy-five years followed. Gish’s partnership with pioneering director D. W. Griffith is regarded as one of the greatest collaborative relationships of all time. Some of their films include Way Down East (1920), Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919) and the controversial, and highest grossing film of the silent era, The Birth of a Nation (1915). Not only having a successful acting career, Gish was also a writer, director and producer. She received an honorary Academy Award in 1971. As the years passed, the media dubbed Gish “The First Lady of American Cinema.”

Lillian Diana Gish was born on the 14th of October, 1893, in Springfield, Ohio. Her father left when she was young. Running low on money and with nowhere else to turn, Gish’s mother, Mary, and her daughters joined a group of traveling actors. Gish and her sister, Dorothy, made their stage debuts in 1902. They proved to be extremely popular in melodramas, making $10 a week for their efforts. (No figures in this article have been adjusted for inflation.) The three women travelled all over America, taking any roles they could and saving every cent possible. It was during this period Gish met future silent screen legend Mary Pickford and the two became lifelong friends.

In 1912, Gish and Dorothy appeared before a camera for the first time in An Unseen Enemy. Pickford had previously introduced Griffith to the sisters and he decided to give them a go. On set, Griffith thought the two women were twins and found it hard to distinguish them apart at a distance. He gave them different coloured hair ribbons; blue for Gish and red for Dorothy. Griffith very much enjoyed working with the two, especially Gish. He cast them often in his one- and two-reel shorts. Gish appeared in near forty silent shorts between 1912 and 1914. She received universal acclaim for her performance as The Young Wife in The Mothering Heart (1913).

Dorothy and Gish in An Unseen Enemy (1912) Credit: Movies Silently

As silent films became more sophisticated and had longer run times, Gish starred in many of Griffith’s signature feature films. In 1915, she was cast as Elise Stoneman in The Birth of a Nation. The film was a critical success, but drew a lot of controversy for its negative depictions of African-Americans. It had white people dressed up in blackface. Gish stayed clear from commenting on the issues, but always defended that it was never Griffith’s intention to be racist.

Dorothy, Griffith and Gish Credit: Library of Congress

In the climax of Way Down East, Gish, Griffith and the film crew shot on a real frozen river during a blizzard. Gish had to dangle her hand and hair in freezing cold water for hours at a time. She never once complained and crew members noticed how dedicated to the role she was. Though the scene is now regarded as one of the greatest in Hollywood’s history, Gish would experience health concerns for the rest of her life. She lost partial feeling in her hand. Gish’s last film with Griffith was Orphans of the Storm in 1922.

Gish on the ice in Way Down East (1920) Credit: Pinterest

Gish directed her first and only movie in 1920. The film, Remodelling Her Husband, starred her sister Dorothy. With no known footage existing today, it is now considered a lost film. Around this period, Gish supervised the construction of a new film studio for Griffith too.

Photoplay Magazine (December, 1921) Credit: Famous Fix

In 1924, Gish signed a $800,000 picture deal with MGM. This made her one of the highest paid and sought after actors in Hollywood at the time. Under MGM, Gish appeared in classics such as The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928). She made her “talkie” film debut in One Romantic Night in 1930.

By the early 1930s, Gish and MGM’s relationship had broken down and they parted ways. She returned to the theatre and focused her attention there. Gish also had her radio debut in the early 1930s. She scarcely acted in films during this period. In 1948, Gish appeared on television for the first time. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in Duel in the Sun (1946). Gish also received critical praise for The Night of the Hunter (1955).

Gish accepting her Oscar in 1971
Credit: University of California

Gish was active in films throughout the 1960s to 1980s. She received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960. As part of the pre-production for the western The Unforgiven (1960), director John Huston and star Bert Lancaster intended to teach Gish how to shoot. They were shocked to discover she already knew and was quicker and more accurate than them both.

Gish and Davis in The Whales of August (1987)
Credit: IMDb

In 1987, Gish starred along side Bette Davis in The Whales of August. At 93-years-old, this made Gish the oldest actress ever to star in a leading role. She passed away peacefully in her sleep on February 27, 1993. Every year on Gish’s birthday, the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, show at least one of her films as a tribute.

Credit: IMDb

This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on December 6th, 2017. (


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Stella Adler on Method Acting

Credit: The Famous People

A big influence on the modern Hollywood acting style comes from Stella Adler. She had done away with the earlier big gestures used in silent film acting, such as an actor placing both hands on their heart to indicate sorrow. She bridged the gap between early twentieth-century Russian theatre and what was becoming popular in film at the time. Adler drew from the imagination rather than personal experience. She had a name in American theatre, appeared in a handful of films and has taught some of the greatest actors of all time. She was known for her harsh, but fair analysis of student’s skills. Some included Marlon Brando and James Dean. Even after her passing, the likes of Mark Ruffalo and Angelina Jolie have studied at her acting schools.

Stella Adler was born on the 10th of February, 1901. Her father, Jacob P. Adler, was a famous actor on the Yiddish Theatre circuit. She was only four-years-old when he had her star in one of his productions, Broken Hearts. Adler had no formal acting training, but instead learnt from her father and by watching others. By her late-teens, she had been in over one hundred plays either in the Yiddish Theatre or as part of a vaudeville act. Adler’s performances took her all over the United States, Europe and South America.

In 1931, she was invited to join the Group Theatre in New York City. Adler accepted the offer but never felt fully welcome. Many agree this is where she achieved her best work as Sarah Grassman in Success Story, Adah Menken in Gold Eagle Guy, Bessie Berger in Awake and Sing and Clara in Paradise Lost. The Group Theatre was formed by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg; themselves experimental actors focusing on cutting edge techniques and deeply influenced by Russian theorist Konstantin Stanislavski. Adler and Strasberg frequently clashed over the interpretation of Stanislavski’s work.

Credit: Stella Adler: A Life in Art

Having a break, Adler headed to Europe in 1934. On a chance encounter in Paris, she met Stanislavski and was not only able to speak with him, but was instructed and taught by him for the next five weeks. Stanislavski was born in Moscow in 1863, was an actor himself and brought new psychological and emotional aspects to the craft. His theories were big in the United States in the 1930s. Adler was the first and only American to study directly under him. Returning home with new insight, Adler and Strasberg still couldn’t find a common ground so she decided to leave the Group Theatre.

In 1937, Adler gave Hollywood a shot. She appeared in three films: Love on Toast (1937), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) and My Girl Tisa (1948). Adler spent six years as an associate producer at MGM. She taught acting at the New School for Social Research around this time. Adler also directed commercial theatre in the 1940s and 1950s.

The Stella Adler School of Acting first opened its doors in New York in 1949. She could finally teach acting her own way. Where Lee Strasberg highlighted an actor’s need to draw upon personal experience to envision a character, Adler focused and honed the imagination. She was against the idea of using past traumas as a way to achieve an emotion, especially a negative one. In her own words: “drawing on emotions I experienced – for example, when my mother died – to create a role is sick and schizophrenic, I don’t want to do that.” Adler instead focused on spiritual realism, emotional memory, dramatic and self-analysis, and disciplined practise. Adler received critical acclaim for her work with Marlon Brando and his performance in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). He was nominated for Best Actor at the 1952 Academy Awards.

Credit: Los Angeles Times

Today, Adler’s school is known as the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. It is a not-for-profit organisation; an LA branch opened in 1984. Both run weekly acting classes. Some actors to come through Adler’s schools include Robert De Niro, Paul Newman, Marilyn Monroe, Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin, Dustin Hoffman, Salma Hayek, Steve Buscemi and Scarlett Johansson.

Credit: John Kehoe Bookseller

Adler officially retired from acting in 1961. In the later part of the decade, Adler juggled her time between her acting school and teaching at Yale University’s School of Drama. She was head of drama at New York University in the 1980s. Adler released a book in 1988, The Technique of Acting. The book is still widely taught and referenced. She continued to teach until her death from a heart attack on December 21, 1992.

Credit: Pinterest

This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on November 21st, 2017. (


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Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland: Two Women Who Defied Hollywood

Credit: Olivia de Havilland Online

Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland are two of the most famous actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Besides talent, they stand out from their contemporaries because they filed lawsuits against Warner Bros. Pictures. Both were contracted to the studio in the 1930s and were unhappy. Among many other actors of the time, Davis and de Havilland were exploited by the studio but chose to take a stand in hopes of voiding their contracts. In a Hollywood contract, actors were expected to follow a strict set of rules – on a film set and in life – and had to make any movie they were given whether they wanted to or not. A studio essentially owned an actor.

Bette Davis was born on April 5, 1908, in Lowell, Massachusetts. Her father left when she was young and she, and her sister Barbara, were raised by their mother. Davis showed an interest in acting from an early age and starred in High School plays. She had a successful Broadway career before making the transition to Hollywood. In 1931, Davis signed a contract with Universal Pictures before switching to Warner Bros. the following year. She performed bit parts in a handful of movies before being loaned to RKO for Of Human Bondage (1934). This was Davis’ first Academy Award nomination. People in and out of the American film industry began to take notice. Over the next few years, Davis received Best Actress Academy Awards for Dangerous (1935) and Jezebel (1938).

Credit: Pinterest

By the mid-1930s, Davis was beginning to get fed up with Warner Bros. She was unhappy with the roles she was getting and became disillusioned with the studio. She felt that the average parts were damaging to her career. As a way of rebelling, in 1937, Davis headed to England. Warner Bros. placed an injunction on Davis as they saw this move as a breach of contract. Davis sued hoping to get out of her contract and evidently lost. Though it was a failure, the incident did lead to better roles and a higher salary for Davis. She led the way for her friend Olivia de Havilland.

de Havilland started her life – July 1, 1916 – in Tokyo, Japan, before moving to the United States with her family when she was young. She signed a seven year contract with Warner Bros. in 1935. She made an impact early on in her career starring in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and was frequently featured with actor Errol Flynn as an onscreen couple. de Havilland is best known for playing Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind (1939), and – as of 2017 – is the only surviving cast member. She won an Academy Award for To Each His Own (1946) and was nominated for Best Actress for her work on Gone with the Wind. She lost to Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American woman to win the award. She has also been critically praised for her performance in The Snake Pit (1948). She played a woman with a mental illness.


Like Davis, de Havilland was unhappy with Warner Bros. and frequently clashed with them. She kept being cast as a one-dimensional, objectified love interest for the male protagonist. As time went on, de Havilland refused to act in assigned films and was suspended without pay for a period of time. This happened on and off throughout the years. de Havilland’s contract came to an end in 1943. She was shocked to discover she owed Warner Bros. work for the time she was suspended. A total of six months had accumulated. She filed a lawsuit and the case went to court in 1945. This was unheard of at the time as stars never challenged the big studios. de Havilland won and was released from her Warner Bros. commitments. The landmark ruling became known as The De Havilland Law. It states that an actor is contracted to a studio for exactly a seven year calendar period. The case is still regularly referenced in American entertainment lawsuits.

de Havilland’s career soared in the 1940s but slowed down by the 1950s. She appeared alongside Bette Davis in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). de Havilland was also nominated for Academy Awards for The Heiress (1949) and My Cousin Rachel (1952), winning the former. She received a Nation Medal of Arts award from President Bush for her life’s work in 2008.

Credit: TCM

Bette Davis had a long and critically acclaimed acting career before her passing in 1989. The story of her fallout with Joan Crawford was turned into a television series, Feud (2017). It stars Susan Sarandon (Davis) and Jessica Lange (Crawford). The two’s bitter relationship started on the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). They did not get along at all. Davis was nominated for Best Actress at the 1962 Academy Awards. Crawford was not and felt the nomination should’ve been hers. Crawford took their rivalry to the next level. Davis eventually lost to Anne Bancroft. Instead of Bancroft, Crawford headed to the stage and accepted the award in her place. Prior to the event, she had contacted all the other nominees and offered to accept on their behalf. Davis was at a loss for words.

de Havilland is suing the producers of Feud for using her likeness without permission. She retired from acting in 1988 and currently resides in France.

Credit: Classic Movie Favorites

This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on October 17th, 2017. (


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Women and the Hollywood Star System

Credit: Photo Collection – Los Angeles Public Library

Hollywood quickly adapted once it realised the power A-list stars held over box office revenue. Within the first two decades of American cinema, a well-oiled machine known as the Star System had been created. Producers and Hollywood Executives would find an actor and mould their personality and talent into a product that could be sold and marketed. If someone wanted to “make it big”, they needed to adhere to a strict set of rules and guidelines. The stress took its toll on many. Some turned to drugs, some turned to wild partying and others became self-destructive. Studios put up huge sums of money to pay off journalists and media outlets not to run stories that could be damaging to their star’s image, such as Rock Hudson’s coming out as a homosexual. Women had little control over their personal lives and their bodies were forever the subject of scrutiny.

The Early Years

The first silent films had no credits and the public didn’t know actors’ names. Audiences started noticing the familiar faces of actors in short films and nicknamed them. Florence Lawrence was “The Biograph Girl” and Florence Turner was “The Vitagraph Girl”. The early studios – The Biograph Company, Edison Studios and Vitagraph Studios – started receiving fan mail and autograph requests. At first, they were reluctant to divulge who their stars were. It wasn’t long before studios started advertising stars in films and ticket sales skyrocketed. An actor became a brand.

The first studio to do this was the Independent Moving Picture Company (IMP) in 1910. Producer Carl Laemmle paid Florence Lawrence an undisclosed amount for her to come work at IMP. In a scripted turn of events, Laemmle leaked to newspapers that Lawrence had been killed in a car accident. He waited for the news to have its effect and then announced that she was well and was now employed at his studio. This was one of the first movie marketing and exposure ploys.

Florence Lawrence in The Players (1912) Credit: Pinterest

Studios were still careful not to give their stars too much freedom. Feeling constricted and unable to express creativity, Mary Pickford and a number of others formed United Artists in 1919. Their goal was to create a studio where they, and other independent filmmakers, could make films without the restrictions of the big Hollywood studios.

Mary Pickford in a United Artists Publicity Photo Credit:

The Rise of the Star System

By the early 1920s, Hollywood was dominated by five major film studios (Fox Film Corporation, MGM, Paramount, RKO and Warner Bros.). Each invested in talent scouts who would go to theatres, nightclubs and vaudeville acts searching for potential stars. Lana Turner was signed on the strength of a screen test alone. Contracts were offered to up and coming actors, with it only to be taken away at the last moment because the studio lost interest or got cold feet. If an actor was lucky enough to obtain a contract, the process had them under go further training in acting, voice coaching, singing and dancing. They were moulded into what the studio wanted. Studios placed greater priority on appearance than actual talent. Many had their names altered. Lauren Bacall was screen credited as Lauren Bacall, but was born Betty Joan Perske.

Lana Turner Credit: YouTube

A standard contract lasted seven years with reviews every six months. If a film performed poorly at the box office, studios had the ability to release actors prematurely. Studios regularly leased stars out to other studios with the individuals having little say in what projects they were in. The 1930s saw many actors being typecast into certain roles.

Responsible for introducing the Production Code censorship, Will H. Hays also had studios build morality clauses into actor contracts. Women could not be seen in public without makeup on. They were also continually sexualised, objectified and controlled. Jean Harlow had a section in her contract forbidding her to marry.

Jean Harlow Credit: Alchetron

The Hollywood Star System life took its toll on many. Elizabeth Taylor, who was signed at nine-years-old, detested it. Clara Bow argued that she had no private life. Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis even took Warner Bros. to court on separate occasions to void their contracts. Many women traded sexual favours for advancement within the industry. It is rumoured that Joan Crawford and Judy Garland had abortions at the studio’s request. Garland already suffered from body image issues and this only added to her trauma. Loretta Young refused to have an abortion and secretly gave birth to Judy Lewis. The child was put up for adoption, but Young, having a change of heart, opted to raise her daughter instead.

Loretta Young Credit: imdb

The End

The Star System had dissolved by the mid-1960s, the same time as the end of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Audiences were becoming more sophisticated and wanted greater realism and grittier substance in their films. Actors are still contracted by studios today, but have more freedom in the roles they choose to pursue. Hollywood has come a long way since its early years but still has further to go for total equality. Bette Davis campaigned for equal pay rights for women in the 1930s and Jennifer Lawrence (among others) is still fighting for that today.


Jennifer Lawrence in Serena (2014) Credit: Pinterest

This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on September 18th, 2017. (


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Frances Marion: One of the First Hollywood Screenwriters

Credit: Columbia University

Over half the scripts written during Hollywood’s silent era were written by women. The women came from a variety of backgrounds when they entered the industry. Some were actors, some came from Broadway and others started off as journalists, to name a few professions. Largely unknown to a modern film audience, Frances Marion was one of the first well established and sought-after screenwriters in American cinema. During the 1910s to late 1930s, she penned many scripts for films that are now considered classics. She wrote across many genres and even received academy awards for The Big House (1930) and The Champ (1931).

Born on the 18th of November 1888, in San Francisco, her parents named her Marion Benson Owens. She would later be inspired and take her screen credit from famous American Civil War soldier Frances Marion. She started out as a journalist, model, career artist and World War I correspondent before eventually moving to Los Angeles.

Marion’s Hollywood career began in the early 1910s when she was hired as a writing and general assistant at Lois Weber Productions. The company was started by Florence Lois Weber, herself a pioneering film director. It was here that Marion learnt about the film industry and honed her script writing skills.

Written with Anita Loos, her first screenplay was The New York Hat (1912). It was directed by the legendary D. W. Griffith and starred the day’s most well-known actress Mary Pickford. The experience was great exposure for Marion and started a powerhouse partnership (and friendship) with Pickford.

Credit: Time Magazine

Marion and Pickford had similar mindsets and worked extremely well together. Director and acquaintance Clarence Brown noted their strong chemistry and compared their ability to create new material together as being “spontaneously combustible”. It wasn’t long before they became close friends and regularly spent time together outside of work. Pickford soon hired Marion as her exclusive writer. Some of their greatest collaborations include The Little Princess (1917), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), Stella Maris (1918) and Pollyanna (1920).

On the production of The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), Marion and Pickford were creating comedy material that clashed with director Maurice Tourneur’s vision. He felt the subject material was too dark in nature to make funny. But because Pickford was the star and had creative authority, Tourneur’s objections were overruled. Based on a play by Eleanor Gates, the story follows a young girl – Gwen (played by Pickford) – in a middle-class family who is lonely and unwanted. Her parents make no time for her and the housing staff, who are responsible for Gwen’s wellbeing, push her around and abuse her. Producers were also not happy with the film’s final cut and thought it was in their best interests not to release it. Marion was distraught that she had possibly destroyed Pickford’s career. The two campaigned, the producers gave in and the film was distributed. It was a success and was responsible for Pickford’s trend of playing young children in comedy roles. She was twenty-four when she played 11-year-old Gwen.

Credit: IMDb

By the 1920s, Marion was one of the most popular Hollywood screenwriters with a string of hits to her name. She was the highest paid screenwriter earning $3000 a week (no figures in this article have been adjusted for inflation), an astronomical amount never heard of before in the industry at the time. Marion gained critical acclaim for Stella Dallas (1925) and The Son of the Sheik (1926). She even had a hand in directing with Just Around the Corner (1921), The Love Light (1921) and The Song of Love (1923).

Marion retired from screenwriting in the late 1930s. She was disillusioned by the state of Hollywood screenwriting and described it as “like writing on sand with the wind blowing”. She found it very restrictive in its rigid, structured approach. At this stage in her career, she had written over 100 scripts and won countless awards. She wrote Pickford’s last starring film, Secrets (1933), before Pickford retired from acting to focus on producing. Their partnership had lasted nearly twenty years. In 1937, Marion wrote one of the first guides on American screenwriting, How to Write and Sell Film Stories. The book was taught as part of the film curriculum at the University of South California.

Marion spent her later years writing stage plays and novels. She passed away in 1972. Her academy award winning script, The Champ, was remade in 1979 and starred Jon Voight and Faye Dunaway. Marion will be played by Julia Stiles in an upcoming Mary Pickford biopic, The First (2017).

Credit: Wikipedia

This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on August 29th, 2017. (


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Betty Boop Through the Years

Credit: The Cut

Cartoon character Betty Boop took the world by storm upon her debut in 1931. Her unique voice, signature “Boop-Oop-a-Doop” catchphrase and Jazz-age flapper dancer look made her standout from her Disney and Looney Tunes animation contemporaries. She was aimed at an adult audience and was considered one of the first Hollywood sex symbols. Like many other areas of American cinema at the time, when the Production Code was implemented in 1934, Boop saw drastic changes in representation and personality. She went from a carefree, sexually confident independent woman to a conservative fully dressed introvert.

Mae Questel and Max Fleischer Credit: Tech Times

Boop was the brainchild of Max Fleischer. He was born on July 18, 1883, and was also known for bringing the Popeye the Sailor Man comic strip to the silver screen. After completing a commercial art degree, Fleischer worked in various forms in the entertainment industry. He started Inkwell Studios with his brother, Dave, in 1921. Besides Betty Boop and Popeye, Inkwell Studios are also famous for creating the first Superman cartoons. Dave directed all one hundred plus Betty Boop shorts.

Changing the name in 1929, Fleischer Studios pioneered sound in animation. The first series was Song Car-Tunes in 1924. It beat Disney’s Steamboat Willie – Mickey Mouse’s debut – by almost four years. Each Song Car-Tunes entry was approximately three minutes long and also started the “follow the bouncing ball” trend. Audiences could now singalong by following a ball on the screen as it moved to music and subtitles. Talkartoons was another series of short animation films introduced in 1929. This is where Boop first appeared.

Boop as a French Poodle Credit: Fleischer Studios

Betty Boop’s first incarnation was an anthropomorphic French poodle. Within a year of her first short, Dizzy Dishes, Boop’s appearance changed to a woman. Her human form was modelled after Clara Bow, Helen Kane and “Baby” Etsher Jones. Bow was known for her supporting roles in It and Wings. Both films came out in 1927, with Wings winning Best Picture at the first Academy Awards. Kane and Jones were both 1920s Jazz singers. Kane was known as “The Boop Boop a Doop Girl”, eerily similar to the character’s famous catchphrase “Boop-Oop-a-Doop”.

Mae Questel Credit:

A handful of women have voiced Boop, but Mae Questel is by far the most recognised. Born in 1908, her original plan was to become a teacher. Questel got the role after participating in a Helen Kane impersonation contest. She won and received $100 (no figures in this article have been adjusted for inflation). The contest ran yearly from 1928 to 1938 and women aged between six and eighteen could enter. Questel was also famous for voicing Olive Oil in the Popeye cartoons.

Helen Kane Credit: Tralfaz

In 1932, Kane sued Fleischer and his studio for using her likeness as Betty Boop without permission. She demanded $250,000 in compensation and the lawsuit dragged on for a couple of years. Kane said to Fleischer she would drop the case if he fired the other women and made her the sole voice of Boop. He only wanted Questel and the case continued. The lawsuit ended when footage of “Baby” Etsher Jones performing surfaced that proved that she was the real caricature and inspiration for Boop. Jones was unable to be located to testify. It was later believed she had died the year before.

“Baby” Etsher Jones Credit: Betty Boop Wiki

At the height of her popularity, Boop was shown in cinemas all over the world. She was especially well received in Japan. So much so that Boop sings in Japanese in A Language All My Own (1935). Fleischer wanted to make sure the cartoon was as authentic as possible and used Japanese exchange students as a test audience.

Boop in A Language All My Own (1935) Credit: Alchetron

A stricter Motion Picture Production Code was introduced in 1934. It was a way of censoring film content before distribution. It was regulated within the industry itself by the Legion of Decency, a group that had strong ties to the Catholic Church. The doctrine consisted of a list that was thought to be offensive to a film going audience. Some areas that were boycotted included homosexuality, interracial lovers, drug and alcohol use, abortion and nudity. Couples were no longer allowed to be seen in the same bed together on screen. Boop was caught in the crossfire.

Boop after the Production Code Credit: Cartoons of 1935

Her appearance changed drastically and she started wearing long dresses and cardigans. Her hoop earrings and bracelets disappeared. She slowly lost her signature curls and got a boyfriend, Freddie. Her personality changed and she became quieter and less outspoken. Over time, the stories began to focus more on Boop’s supporting cast members – Pudgy the dog, Koko the Clown and the eccentric Grampy – and less on her. The audience began to lose interest and production of new Boop cartoons came to an end in 1939. Questel retired from voice acting to start a family around the same time. Fleischer Studios had financial issues and was defunct by 1942. Boop faded into obscurity.

Betty Boop cartoons were among the first to enter television syndication in the 1970s. She found a new audience and resurgence here. Boop made a cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). She appeared in her original black and white form and was, again, voiced by Mae Questel. Besides some failed TV specials over the last thirty years, no new Betty Boop comeback has occurred. Questel passed away in 1998. Boop’s creator, Max Fleischer, died in 1972. These days Boop exists only in merchandise and for her nostalgia factor.

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Boop in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) Credit: The Billford

Author’s Note: Betty Boop Through the Years is dedicated to my mum, Sherryn Mary Kernaghan, an original Boop revival fan who left this world too soon. Your love and inspiration still guide me, and I still hear your voice in my head telling me off whenever I do something stupid.

This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on July 12th, 2017. (


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