Archives: Pioneers

Madge Tyrone

by Marsha Gordon

Madge Tyrone is co-credited with Bess Meredyth for adapting Rose o’ the Sea (1922),  Motion Picture News, July 26, 1922.

In the early 1920s, Madge Tyrone was classed with Anita Loos, Jeanie MacPherson, and Frances Marion as a scenarist at the top of her game. She worked closely with Louis B. Mayer, who personally wrote a letter of support for her first U.S. passport application. Her death, in 1955, occasioned notice in The New York Times. Despite Tyrone’s reputation and contributions to the industry—as an actress, writer, and editor—her career was, for reasons we will likely never know, relatively short-lived; she has also been completely erased from film history.

As Madge Tyrone’s theatrical career ascended, her picture often appeared in the press. For example, The Post-Star of Glens Falls, New York, promoted her role in “The Common Law” on September 7, 1912.

Born Margaret Elizabeth Towle in Boston on January 5, 1884, to Irish Catholic parents, Dr. Henry Towle and Elizabeth Mooney, Margaret attended Radcliffe College from 1901 to 1904, though she did not graduate (“Margaret Elizabeth Towle”). Instead, she cast off her birth name to become stage actress Madge Towle before renaming herself Madge Tyrone (Blake; “At the Grand”). In 1909, she performed in San Francisco and Los Angeles in “Pals” with Edwin Carewe, with whom she would reunite when she eventually started making movies. In 1910, Tyrone traveled the country with the singing Irish comedian Fiske O’Hara. Appearing in a bit part as Kitty Adair in the musical “The Wearing of the Green” at Pittsburgh’s Lyceum Theater in February of that year, Tyrone performed alongside “real old-time Irish character players” who sang and danced “with unction and merriment.” This was ethnic, working-class entertainment, exemplifying “the joys and sorrows, the songs and poetry, the sentiment and pathos of Irish character” (“In the Theaters Last Evening”).

On October 9, 1913, The New York Times published Tyrone’s photograph from “In Old Dublin” while it was being staged at the Montauk Theater in Brooklyn.

In 1911, Tyrone nabbed the female lead in the Western love tragedy “Boots and Saddles,” deemed “one of the best attractions of the current season” at the Academy theater in Washington D.C. (“Academy—‘Boots and Saddles’”). She reunited with O’Hara’s troupe in 1913 as “an Irish lassie” in the play “In Old Dublin” on the vaudeville circuit. By then, Tyrone had become “the leading woman of the company,” described as “a gem” who was “handsome and statuesque” and who “[knew] how to act” (“Theatrical”).

In the summer of 1913, Tyrone traveled to England for several months, perhaps touring with O’Hara’s troupe. When she returned to New York in July 1913 on the S.S. Minnewasha, she headed to her apartment on 160 Claremont Avenue, not far from Columbia University (“Madge Tyrone”). Around this time, Tyrone transitioned from stage to screen and began acting in films made at New York City-area studios. She had a recurring role as Madge Travis in Reliance Motion Picture Corp.’s weekly serial Our Mutual Girl, released in installments over the course of 1914, and was described as one of the “well known players” in the 1915 divorce trial melodrama The House of Tears, directed by her old stage friend Edwin Carewe for Rolfe Photoplays (“The House of Tears”).

During this time, Tyrone was also an ardent suffragist. The New York City Woman Suffrage Party had a banner year in 1915, organizing over 5,000 outdoor meetings and almost thirty parades as part of a push to pass a state initiative for a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote (Schaffer 280-1). In mid-October of that year, Tyrone was one of a group of activists who made the rounds to banks, trust companies, and department stores in flamboyantly decorated automobiles to garner support for an October 23 suffragist parade across the city, convincing such major retail concerns as Bonwit Teller & Co., Bloomingdale Brothers, and John Wanamaker to allow their female clerks to skip work on October 23 without being “docked for their time.” Tyrone also camped out on Wall Street to recruit parade marchers (Brace).

On October 23, 1915, over 25,000 women marched from Washington Square Park to 59th Street to draw attention to New York’s Suffrage Amendment ballot initiative (Schaffer 281). The following week, Tyrone was one of a group of “lapboard ladies” who took to the elevated trains and the subway carrying placards announcing that “Woman Suffrage is Coming” and that “One Million Women of this State Want the Vote.” The lapboard campaign was front page news, described as “an inconspicuous and everyday way of arguing votes for women,” ensuring that “in thousands of homes…the lapboards and their plea for suffrage came on with the dinner.” According to a reporter, one passerby proclaimed, “We’re with you, sister!” to the sign-yielding suffragists, while a naysayer asserted that “women’s laps were made for holding babies, not lapboards” (Brace). On November 2, 553,345 men voted for the suffrage amendment and 748,332 voted against it (Schaffer 281-2). It took another two years before New York successfully passed a suffrage amendment in 1917, and an additional three years, until 1920, for women across the country to earn the ability to cast a vote for such matters themselves.

Tyrone’s last appearance on the screen was in the 1916 film One Day, directed by Hal Clarendon and adapted from a novel written by popular British writer Elinor Glyn. Her departure from film acting marked a new chapter: Margaret Towle, now aged thirty-two with an upper Manhattan address on West 142nd Street, married Pennsylvania-born Edwin Van Dusan Paul, aged forty-six, in Spokane, Washington, on September 21, 1916. It was time for Madge Tyrone to change her name again, this time to Margaret Towle Paul (“Margaret E. Towle”)

This marriage between a northeastern woman who had marched for women’s rights and acted on stage and screen and a once-divorced, Washington State farmer lasted less than three years, during which Margaret was mostly AWOL. Margaret Paul is listed as the defendant in divorce court records from Klickitat County, Washington, in which Edwin accused his wife of “cruel treatment” ranging from throwing “books, dishes and pans at plaintiff” to repeatedly striking him in the face and refusing to “sleep in the same room.” Margaret allegedly “refused to perform any of the ordinary household duties, and owing to the indolence and lazy-iness [sic] of defendant, plaintiff was forced to hire outside help for the ordinary household duties.”

Edwin further accused his wife of pressuring him to sell his ranch to support her “living in a manner beyond plaintiff’s means.” Margaret had “from the day of the marriage…demanded money with which to redeem her effects from pawn,” had brought “a maid from New York, at great expense,” and had insisted upon extravagant travel that they could not afford. Averring that Edwin “endeavored to be a kind and considerate husband,” his counsel argued that the betrothed had “natures so incompatible that it is impossible to harmonize them.” Despite attempts in March, April, and May of 1919 to summon Margaret to appear in court, she could not be located. The case before the judge went uncontested, with witnesses testifying only on behalf of the plaintiff. The judge issued a Decree of Divorce on July 28, 1919.

Madge Tyrone is credited with the adaptation of Habit (1920), which was directed by her friend Edwin Carewe. Motion Picture News, Nov. 27, 1920.

The adaptation of Eleanor Hallowell Abbott’s story was credited to J. Grubb Alexander and Madge Tyrone.

Around the time of her divorce, Tyrone returned to the motion picture industry. Her discoverable credits as a scenarist and title writer begin in 1920, when she started working with Louis B. Mayer, first in New York and then in Los Angeles. Mayer, who went on to found Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in 1924, had an up-and-coming studio in Los Angeles at 3800 Mission Road, where he produced features and short films, with business offices on West 48th Street in New York. A press announcement regarding her return to Hollywood referred to Tyrone as a “former newspaper woman and magazine writer,” suggesting that at some point she worked as a journalist as well (“Madge Tyrone Returning”). In 1920, Margaret Towle (as she recorded her name in the census) was living at 1854 N. Vermont Avenue, just a few blocks from Barnsdall Park, where Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House was under construction. Towle, who identified herself in the Federal Census that year as a thirty-six-year-old “scenario writer,” lodged with three other single women in their thirties and forties, two divorcées who performed as vocalists and one widow with no listed occupation (“Margaret E. Towle”).

Tyrone wrote dialogue and narration that would appear on screen; she also adapted previously published stories and novels. She was soon being described in the press as “one of filmdom’s cleverest subtitlers” (“‘Old Dad’ at the Rex”). At a time when on-screen credits for writing and titling were spotty, it is notable that at least ten films can today be definitively credited to Madge Tyrone. Tyrone’s work, however, was interrupted by an automobile accident in January 1921, in which she sustained “a severe injury” when her “automobile skidded and turned turtle in an attempt to avoid collision with another car” (The Los Angeles Evening Express). Tyrone was “rapidly recovering” at the Clara Barton Hospital until, a month later, she went home to recuperate (“Stage and Screen”). In mid-March, she had recovered enough to return to work as a “member of the scenario staff” with Louis B. Mayer (“Scenarioist at Work”).

An ad mentioning Madge Tyrone’s “technical assistance” on The Invisible Fear (1921), Motion Picture News, Oct. 22, 1921.

A review of Rio Grande (1920) crediting the scenario to Madge Tyrone and Edwin Carewe. The Film Daily, April 18, 1920.

Reviews for the pictures Tyrone worked on, such as The Invisible Fear (1921), fashioned her as a significant contributor. “In his treatment of Madge Tyrone’s scenario,” wrote one reviewer, “Director Edwin Carewe has succeeded in keeping up the suspense of the plot” (“The ‘Invisible Fear’”). Although Tyrone wrote the scenario for this film, advertisements for The Invisible Fear also touted her unspecified “technical assistance,” suggesting that she may have done additional work on the film’s production, perhaps in the editing room given her later work in this capacity.

In a 1922 article, Carewe praised Tyrone along with scenario writers June Mathis, Jeanie MacPherson, and Frances Marion for having “at their command that most important thing, visualization. The action moves through their minds in the form of pictures and from the action arises the fit title to each scene.” He described the photoplay script as “the blue print from which the builder works” and touted the importance of the “continuity writer” (“Writer Makes or Mars Pictures”). Carewe was not alone in his high estimation of Tyrone’s talents. Along with Anita Loos, Lucita Squier, and Dorothy Farnum, she was singled out as one of “the most important women playwrights” working with Louis B. Mayer (“Gossip Street” 34). This observer also perceived that the “long list of women who have contributed to the success of [the studio’s] photoplays reveals that there are hundreds of America women gaining fame as authors and scenarists.” In fact, one might say that women’s work in this area of the industry was in the process of being normalized.

Screenshot of digitized credit sequence for The Song of Life (1922). Courtesy of the Library of Congress National Audio-Visual Conservation Center.

Tyrone also earned at least three screen credits for editing, on The Child Thou Gavest Me (1921), One Clear Call (1922), and The Song of Life (1922), all directed by John M. Stahl. From contemporary press mentions, we also know that she served as editor on Stahl’s presumed lost The Woman in His House (1920), for which she also wrote the scenario from a story by Frances Irene Reels (“Here and Expected”; “The Woman in His House”). It is unclear how she transitioned between writing and editing, or why. Was this was an exploration of a possible new line of work for a woman who had boundless curiosity and enjoyed learning new things? Was this work she only did for Stahl? Unfortunately, there is no extant documentation relating to her professional life or career decisions. At minimum, however, we know that she was good at the job: The Child Thou Gavest Me was a hit, inspiring H.B. Wright, manager of the Strand Theater in Seattle, Washington, to call it “the best picture I have played this season, both from a box-office angle and satisfied audiences” (“The Child Thou Gavest Me”).

A Letter from Louis B. Mayer to the Department of State, April 20, 1922. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Madge Tyrone’s photograph submitted with her passport application, on which her birth name is scratched out. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

In the early 1920s, Tyrone continued working steadily for Mayer, whose future studio, MGM, would produce her younger half-sister Ursula Parrott’s (née Katherine Towle) first novel-to-film adaptation, The Divorcee (1930), several years later. The Film Yearbook, 1922-1923 lists Tyrone as the Scenario Editor for Louis B. Mayer productions on West 48th Street in New York City, indicating that she had returned east. On April 29, 1922, Mayer wrote to the Department of State to support Tyrone’s passport application. (When she went abroad in 1913, there was no enforcement of travel documentation.) Mayer vouched that Tyrone had been working with him as a “writer and editor” for the past two years. “It is necessary that Miss Tyrone go to Europe in the interests of her work,” Mayer explained, “and in order that she may secure the motion picture material which she is seeking, she will be obliged to go to Paris, Berlin, London, and Vienna, and possibly other countries, depending on the literary market” (“Margaret Towle”). Abroad she went, returning to New York in February 1923 and then heading west again to Los Angeles, where she kept writing until she earned her final writing credit (with Lois Zellner) in 1925 for The Lady Who Lied, an adaptation of Robert Hitchens’ novel Snake-Bite (1919).

After abandoning her motion picture career for reasons unknown, Tyrone returned east to New York and Massachusetts. She took to the stage again, performing a singing role in March 1926 at the annual Irish night celebration of the St. Alphonsus Association of Roxbury, Massachusetts, in a vaudeville act that included Gaelic singers, step dancers, and a playlet called “The Irish Millionaire” (“St. Alphonsus Ass’n”). In May, she played the role of Ada May in “Easy Come, Easy Go,” a three-act farce at the Park Theater in Boston (“Mirthful Farce”). In April 1928, she appeared in “Marriage on Approval” in New York, which on Thursday afternoons admitted only women. This was not a play, but rather a grouping of speakers discussing the subject of marriage (“For Women Only”). If a transcript of this performance survived, we might know much more about the sole marriage and divorce of Margaret Towle.

When her father, Dr. Henry Towle, died in the fall of 1930, Margaret was at his bedside (“Death of Dr. Henry. C. Towle”). A decade later, in 1940, fifty-six-year-old Margaret Towle was living in Greenwich Village at 52 Barrow Street between Bedford and Bleecker. She identified herself in the Federal Census as single instead of divorced, and as a writer (of what, she did not indicate) with a modest income of $1,000 a year (“Margaret Towle”). When she died on April 13, 1955, her death notice in The New York Times used an aptly hybrid name, Madge Tyrone Towle, to announce her requiem mass and interment at the Catholic Gate of Heaven Cemetery in New York (“Deaths”).

It is certain that Tyrone wrote, and perhaps edited, much more than I could identify here. In this early 1920s period, her contributions were far from novel or unique; being a woman writer or editor was, for the most part, uncommented upon in the advertising campaigns for, or the press coverage of, the films she worked on. Instead, Tyrone was part of a valued, well-known, and sizable female cohort of industry workers, respected by their colleagues and bosses for the quality work they produced. That Tyrone transitioned between acting, writing, and editing indicates a kind of fluidity in the industry that would disappear over the course of the 1920s, especially for women whose options behind the camera were in the process of greatly diminishing.

Screenshot of digitized credit sequence for Husbands and Lovers (1924). Courtesy of the Library of Congress National Audio-Visual Conservation Center.


“Academy—‘Boots and Saddles.’” The Washington Post (9 May 1911): 4.

“At the Grand.” The Des Moines Register (14 April 1910): 6.

Blake, W. Herbert. “Art is Shown in Contortion Act.” The Los Angeles Herald (6 October 1909): 10.

Brace, Blanche. “Suffrage Lapboards Make Subway Grin, Then Think.” The New York Tribune (31 October 1915): 1.

“The Child Thou Gavest Me.” Exhibitors Herald (19 July 2022): 33.

“Death of Dr. Henry C. Towle.” The Boston Globe (5 September 1930): 15.

“Deaths.” The New York Times (15 April 1955): 25.

“For Women Only.” The New York Daily News (9 April 1928): 21.

“Gossip Street: From Hollywood Boulevard to Times Square.” The Photodramatist (September 1921): 31-4.

“Here and Expected.” The Film Daily (1 September 1920): 1.

“The House of Tears.” Middletown Daily Times-Press (26 February 1916): 5.

“In the Theaters Last Evening.” The Pittsburgh Post (1 February 1910): 7.

“The ‘Invisible Fear’ on Screen at the Princess.” Sioux City Journal (23 October 1921): 30.

“‘The Lady Who Lied’ is Fascinating Tale.” The Morning Call (26 November 1925): 10.

The Los Angeles Evening Express (21 January 1921): 29.

“Madge Tyrone.” S.S. Minnewasha. July 21, 1913. New York, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957.

“Madge Tyrone Returning.” Camera! (4 December 1920): 17.

“Margaret Towle.” U.S., Passport Applications, 1795-1927. May 26, 1922.

“Margaret Towle.” 1940 United States Federal Census.

“Margaret E. Towle.” Washington, U.S., Marriage Records, 1854-2013. September 21, 1916.

“Margaret E. Towle.” 1920 United States Federal Census.

“Margaret Elizabeth Towle.” Radcliffe Transcript, 1901-1904. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

“Matters of General Interest to Playgoers.” The New York Times (19 October 1913): X7.

“Mirthful Farce at the New Park.” The Boston Globe (13 April 1926): 21.

“Miss Madge Towle, Who Pleases in an Old Corbett Play.” The San Francisco Examiner (12 September 1909): 5.

“‘Old Dad’ at the Rex Today and Wednesday.” The Pioneer [Bemidji, Minnesota] (15 February 1921): 4.

“Renco to Produce Reed Novel at Mayer's Studio.” Camera! (21 August 1920): 4.

“Scenario Editors.” The Film Yearbook, 1922-1923.  New York: Wid's Films and Film Folk, Inc., 1923. 22.

“Scenarioist at Work.” The Los Angeles Herald (14 March 1921): B5.

Schaffer, Ronald. “The New York Woman Suffrage Party, 1909-1919.” New York History vol. 42, no. 2 (July 1962): 269-287.

“Stage and Screen.” The Los Angeles Evening Express (24 February 1921), 23.

“St. Alphonsus Ass’n Irish Celebration on Two Evenings.” The Boston Globe (12 March 1926): 16.

“Theatrical.” The Anaconda Standard (9 November 1913): 3.

“Tiger Love.” Exhibitors Herald (28 June 1924): 41.

“The Woman in His House.” Camera! (15 January 1921): 5.

“Writer Makes or Mars Pictures, Claim.” The Oakland Tribune (22 October 1922): 4-W.

Archival Paper Collections

Divorce court records pertaining to complaint no. 2685, Superior Court of the State of Washington, Klickitat County. Washington State Archives.


Gordon, Marsha. "Madge Tyrone." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2022.  <>

Sabahat Filmer

by Canan Balan

Sabahat Filmer’s name remains largely unknown today, despite her dedication to the early film industry, women’s movement, and the nationalistic struggle in Turkey as well as her important role as one of the founders of an early film company there. According to Sabahat’s own words, her involvement with cinema began in 1918 during the occupation of Istanbul by the British, French, Italian, and Greek armies after the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I (S. Filmer, Atatürk 34). The late 1910s was also the period in which the women’s movement became largely Muslim and Turkish, compared to earlier decades, in the Ottoman lands (Özdemir 291-325). Accordingly, Filmer identified herself as a Turkish secular nationalist and an active member of the Society of Modern Women, which was established in the 1910s (S. Filmer, Atatürk 44). Given all this, it is not surprising that her pioneering work in the early film industry in Istanbul is bound up with her efforts in the women’s liberation movement as well as the nationalist struggle for independence.  

Sabahat and Cemil Filmer at the time of their marriage in 1919. Private Collection.

The Ottoman Archives have a record of Sabahat Filmer first studying literature and then switching to science in 1916 (Başbakanlık Devlet Arşivleri [1916]). Perhaps this change in focus was due to her developing an interest in the technology of cinema: during her time at university, she started an internship at the Army Film Center, where soldiers with backgrounds in photography were trained as camera operators and many early propaganda films, as well as early feature-length dramas, were made. Sabahat’s duties at the Center included organizing the screenings of the propaganda and feature films. She also most likely worked as an assistant director and collaborated with a team of screenwriters at the Center. During this period, she was also an assistant to a prominent female novelist, Halide Edip Adıvar, who occasionally wrote about cinema for the newspaper and used it in her novels as an analogy to depict her characters’ mental states and changing consciousnesses. (In the 1920s, Halide Edip Adıvar also worked on the cinematic adaptations of her novels.)

Owing to Sabahat’s connections with the Army Film Center, it became the meeting place for the Society of Modern Women (S. Filmer, Atatürk 34), which was not only working to support women’s rights, but also assisting war veterans at that time. Some of the organization’s meetings were attended by the future founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, when he was a high-ranking army commander before the start of the National War of Independence (1919-1922). According to Sabahat, the Center was then run by Ottoman soldiers who also worked on German propaganda films during World War I (Atatürk 34). Around this time, Atatürk was gathering troops to prepare for Turkey’s War of Independence, and he, along with other Ottoman generals, frequented the Center to see war newsreels (S. Filmer, Atatürk 35). As a result of her proximity  to Atatürk at the Center, Sabahat became an active participant in the independence movement (S. Filmer, Atatürk 88-89). In May 1919, for example, Sabahat and other members of the Society of Modern Women began organizing rallies that called upon the people of Istanbul to take action against the Entente armies that had occupied another major Ottoman city, namely İzmir. Sabahat was among the public speakers at one of these meetings. The rallies reportedly gathered approximately 200,000 women and were rigidly controlled by the occupying armies (S. Filmer, Atatürk 49). Her soon-to-be husband and the camera operator filming these rallies, Cemil Filmer, recalls that he had to be very careful and hide the equipment during the filming (C. Filmer 107). In later years, the couple reused the footage Cemil had captured at the rallies for a costume drama they produced entitled Allaha İsmarladık (Sami Ayanoğlu, 1951). This recycling of these early war images can be seen as closely connected to the couple’s active participation in the nation-making cultural revolution.

Sabahat and Cemil Filmer in 1934. Private Collection.

By 1919, Sabahat called the Army Film Center her workplace, a workplace where she had a “good time,” where she loved her job as well as her co-workers, but also where she felt “dependent on others” (S. Filmer, Atatürk 83). That same year, while enduring the pressures and threats of the occupying army, Sabahat was invited to work on the production of two feature-length films made by the Center (Çalıkışu 47). Both films featured female protagonists who could be classified somewhere between vamps and divas. It is unclear to what extent Sabahat, possibly the only woman working in the Center, influenced the development of these plots. However, it is evident from both her memoirs and the literary stories she published that year that she had a self-professed tendency to create abstract and stereotypical female characters (S. Filmer, Atatürk 54; Hüsameddin, “Kadın Kalbi”; Hüsameddin, “Zehirli Kudret”). The titles of these two films, both directed by Ahmet Fehim, were eponymous with their heroines: Binnaz (1919) and Mürebbiye/The Governess (1919). Of these two films, only parts of Binnaz seem to have survived today. It is difficult to determine Sabahat’s responsibilities during the production of both films, as the only knowledge we currently have is that she worked for the Center during the writing, production, and release of these films. Considering that she was also publishing short stories at the time and mentions working closely with the director of these films in an unpublished letter to a Turkish film historian, I believe she was involved in the team of screenwriters and assistant directors (S. Filmer, Letter to Burçak Evren).

Binnaz, a costume drama about two men’s quarrel over a woman and the tragic death of one of them, was allegedly a rewriting of Victor Hugo’s play “Marion de Lorme” (And 12-15). Set in the 1770s, a period known in Ottoman history as one filled with debauchery and corruption, its depiction of a glorious past during a time of war and poverty could be considered a form of nationalistic nostalgia. As a historical drama, Binnaz was successful at the box office both in Turkey and in the United Kingdom, but it was still deemed a failure by a popular journal on stage arts (KR, “Temaşa Muhasebesi”). In reviews of the film, the character of Binnaz was depicted as a “yosma” (a Turkish pejorative word that refers to the beauty and low virtues of a woman) and she has been defined as a “vamp” more recently (Özgüç 25) since the source text was about a courtesan. According to a review written in 1920, the body language and movements of the main actress were “unpleasant” as the male reviewer found her seemingly “hysterical and ambivalent” gestures toward her lovers “immoral and tasteless” (Arcan 2).

Still from Binnaz (1919). Courtesy of Türk Sineması Araştırmaları.

The current version of Binnaz, found in the national archive, is fragmented and re-edited. This sole remaining copy is half the length of the original release. Having only seen this version, I am reminded of certain Italian diva films; Binnaz shares formal and narrative features with these melodramatic and emotionally excessive stories, such as a hedonistic mise-en-scene, close-ups on women’s faces and figures, and the incorporation of music, dance, prostitution, a love triangle, jealousy, and a femme fatale. Binnaz, as a courtesan, plays the mandolin, dances for men, wears luxurious costumes and mingles with pashas and high-ranking officers. However, her heart belongs to an ordinary private soldier who is later sentenced to prison. It is also noteworthy that the film was made during a period in which Italian diva films were very popular among the Istanbulite audiences (Balan 55). Additionally, in the current version of the film, perhaps similar to the Italian divas, Binnaz is ultimately a victim of her own making. However, it is difficult to ascertain whether her character was deliberately modeled after the diva or vamp type. As much as Binnaz offers more visibility to women compared to the other extant Turkish silent films, its subtle misogyny is not less problematic.

Still from Mürebbiye/The Governess (1919). Courtesy of Türk Sineması Araştırmaları.

The Governess, the second feature that Sabahat worked on, was also an adaptation, this time of a novel about a French governess who corrupts and has affairs with the men in the Turkish family for which she works. Having been produced under dire conditions due to the war and the occupation, the film was disdained by contemporary Turkish critics for its technical inadequacies (Arcan 1-2). Moreover, the film encountered resistance as a result of the growing scope of the occupying countries’ methods of surveillance, which began including the inspection of local film shows in November 1918. The Governess was banned by the French army for misrepresenting French women (Özuyar 28). It is noteworthy that Sabahat does not mention the occupying forces’ involvement in the film inspections in her memoirs, nor have I seen her name in relation to the ban of The Governess in the press.

Unfortunately, Sabahat’s name was almost never mentioned in newspaper reports about Binnaz and The Governess. While searching for her name, I came across a mention of a “lady” clerk during the press screening of The Governess (Arcan 1-2). This anonymous “lady,” most likely Sabahat, was presented to the press by Sabahat’s future husband as the assistant of the Army Film Center. She not only introduced the film to the press, but also outlined the Center’s vision and its new film projects. The reporter describes her as “a serious and well-educated woman” with “a delicate voice and decent manners” (1-2). Decades later, it turns out that Sabahat’s nickname in the film industry was “the lady,” according to both a famous Turkish auteur (Akad 235) and a dubbing manager trained by Sabahat herself (Sarıcı, “Kendi Sesinden Sinemanın Sesi”).

The Filmer family in 1926. Private Collection.

After the war for national independence began in 1919, Sabahat and Cemil started working on processing and screening propaganda films at the Center, where Atatürk was again in the audience, along with the members of the Society of Modern Women (S. Filmer, Atatürk 88). One of the popular newsreels shown was Atatürk’s Inspection of the Izmit Front (88). Sabahat recalls that these screenings made them all feel “peaceful as if their hearts attended a religious service” (S. Filmer, Atatürk 90). She deemed these screenings very important for the national struggle as they imparted a sense of mission and purpose to people. (She does not mention if they showed images of the earlier rallies as well.) During the War of Independence, Filmer also worked as a nurse for the newly-founded Turkish Red Crescent, which was affiliated with the International Red Cross (Ömer and Hacıfettahoğlu 157).

After her marriage to Cemil in 1919, the couple moved to İzmir and opened up a movie theater (S. Filmer, Atatürk 90-91). In 1923, the year the Turkish Republic was founded, Sabahat organized a special film show for Atatürk. According to her memoirs, this was the first show where a mixed-gender Muslim audience sat together in the theater (134). The accuracy of this statement is speculative as there were different practices regarding gender segregation in the movie theaters of the Ottoman state. However, archival documents show us that as early as 1908, Muslim women and men were seated together, but that was soon strictly banned. Other official documents highlight certain patriarchal reservations regarding women’s attendance in movie theaters in general (Başbakanlık Devlet Arşivleri [1908]; Başbakanlık Devlet Arşivleri [1913]). It seems, then, that when Sabahat and her husband organized their show in the newly-founded Republic and the curtain separating men and women was removed, it was one of the first instances of a mixed gender audience in some time. Furthermore, according to Sabahat, this particular audience witnessed another “revolution” in show business: it was also the first time that Muslim actresses appeared on stage in Turkey (141).

That same year, the couple opened a second cinema hall in İzmir (S. Filmer, Atatürk 139). This time it was an open-air theater called Lale Bahçesi. Sabahat began bringing nitrate films from İstanbul to İzmir, putting her life at risk as she had to travel on and among battleships with easily flammable films through navel minefields. She was still working with the Army Film Center and preparing new film programs for İzmir with some of the films still produced by the army (S. Filmer, Atatürk 140). By the time Sabahat and her husband began running several movie theaters around İstanbul and İzmir in the 1930s, Sabahat had already been asked to be a member of Parliament and had become closer to her former mentor Halide Edip Adıvar (C. Filmer 153). In her husband’s words, she declined the offer to join Parliament “for the sake of the marriage” (153). Sabahat’s memoirs never mention any considerations of becoming a member of Parliament and her husband only mentions it in the one sentence. Sabahat was already the head of their film company by then, and perhaps joining Parliament would have been perceived as a threat by her husband both to their family business and her domestic duties.

The Filmer family in 1921. Private Collection.

Interested in the work of film studios abroad, Sabahat and her husband visited Egypt. After they came back to Istanbul, they founded a film studio, Lale Film, in the 1950s. Sabahat owned a 51% share of the company, while her husband and children owned the rest of the shares (Akçura 65). Lale Film is referred to as “the studio managed by ladies” in the title of an interview with Sabahat in 1954 (Gürcan 14). At the end of the interview, when Sabahat was told that the studio was managed very well and the employees seemed dedicated to their work, she underlines that the head of the studio, dubbing manager, translator, editor, and the cleaner were all women (14).

At her studio, Sabahat’s educational background allowed her to work in English and French dubbing. Film dubbing was a common practice in this period in the cinema of Turkey, and Lale Film was among the first dubbing studios in the country (Çalışkaner 16). In her husband’s words: “Thanks to her foreign language skills and having studied literature, Sabahat had great success in dubbing films” (C. Filmer 197). In the following years, Sabahat continued working as the head of the company and dubbing manager while also producing films. In an interview carried out in 1954, she claims that Atatürk used to call her “young poetess” since she had also written poems (“Sabahat Filmer”). In the same interview, she mentions having recently written two film scripts, one of which was approved while the other was under review. I have yet to discover whether these films were ever realized. In the interview, Sabahat also remarks that “the best film of that year was Cahide Sonku’s Beklenen Şarkı (1953).” This film was made by Turkey’s first woman film director, Cahide Sonku, whose own studio–a competitor of Lale Film–produced it. Around a decade later, in 1964, Sabahat began acting as a representative of the union of film studios in Turkey (Özön). After fifty years in the film industry, the Filmers sold Lale Film to another dubbing manager, Necip Sarıcı, in 1979 (Sarıcı, “İlham kaynağı daima sinema”).

Sabahat Filmer’s long career in film is extremely significant, yet we must rely on alternative sources to fully understand her life and work. Even looking into the reviews of the films she worked on does not prove fruitful. It is mainly through personal accounts, such as her own and her husband’s memoirs, that we can trace her work in film. Her grandchild provided me with the years of her birth and death in a private conversation. Her work in other areas, such as her stories (published under the name Sabahat Hüsameddin) like “Kadın Kalbi” (“Woman’s Heart,” 1919) and “Zehirli Kudret” (“Poisonous Power,” 1919), as well as the records of the Red Crescent, provide basic insights into her life and creative development. The main resource for this profile is Sabahat’s memoirs, entitled Great Steps on the Path to Atatürk. As this title suggests, it is filled with a sense of patriotic duty and passion in service to secular nation-building under the rule of Atatürk. Her devotion to a one-party state is also to be further investigated and critiqued. Although there may not be records of Filmer’s life and early work in the official accounts of film history, she nevertheless remains the first woman behind the camera in Turkey, who worked extensively in the development of cinema.


Akad, Lütfi O. Işıkla Karanlık Arasında: Anı. İstanbul: Türkiye İş Bankası Kültür Yayınları, 2004.

Akçura, Gökhan. Aile Boyu Sinema. İstanbul: İthaki, 2004.

And, Metin. “Yusuf Ziya Ortaç ve Tiyatro.” Hisar (1967): 12-15.

Arcan, Galip. “Mürebbiye Filmi.” Temaşa 17 (1919): 1-2.

Balan, Canan. “Imagining Women at the Movies: Male Writers and Early Film Culture in Istanbul.” In Doing Women’s Film History: Reframing Cinemas, Past and Future. Eds. Christine Gledhill, Julia Knight. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015. 53-65.

Başbakanlık Devlet Arşivleri (Prime Ministry Archives), Zabtiye Nezareti, 621/109, 20 August 1908.

Başbakanlık Devlet Arşivleri (Prime Ministry Archives), Dahiliye Nezareti, 65/27, 12. 6 January 1913

Başbakanlık Devlet Arşivleri (Prime Ministry Archives MF. MKT. 1916), Mektubî Kalemi Defterleri, 1221/86 15 December 1916.

Çalıkışu, Nevzat. “Bilge Olgaç Sinemasına Bir Bakış.” Ihlamur 52 (2017): 46-54.

Çalışkaner, Mine. “Türkiye’de Seslendirme ve Sözlendirme Sorunu.” Unpublished MA Thesis, Istanbul University, 1987.

Filmer, Cemil. Hatıralar: Türk Sinemasında 65 Yıl. İstanbul: [publisher unknown], 1984.

Filmer, Sabahat. Atatürk Yolunda Büyük Adımlar. İstanbul: Gül Matbaası, 1983.

---.  Letter to Burçak Evren. Private Collection.

Gürcan, Tarık. “Hanımların İdare Ettiği Stüdyo.” Resimli Yirminci Asır (1954) 14-15.

Hüsameddin, Sabahat. “Kadın Kalbi.” Edebiyat-ı Umumiye Mecmuası 5 no. 104 (1919): 1308-1312.

---. “Zehirli Kudret.” Edebiyat-ı Umumiye Mecmuası 5, no. 110 (1919): 1401-1406.

KR. “Temaşa Muhasebesi.” Temaşa 18 (1920): 5.

Ömer, Besin, and İsmail Hacıfettahoğlu. Hanımefendilere Hilâl-i Ahmer'e dair konferans. Türkiye Kızılay Derneği Yayınları, 2009.

Özdemir, Esen. “Türkiye Feminist Hareket/Örgütlenme Tarihi.” Toplumsal Cinsiyet Tartışmaları. Ankara: Dipnot Yayınları, 2016. 291-325.

Özgüç, Agah. Ansiklopedik Türk Filmleri Sözlüğü. İstanbul: Horizon, 2012.

Özön, Nijat. “Birinci Sinema Şurası: Bir Şuranın Öyküsü.” Yeni Film (24 December 2000).

Özuyar, Ali. Devlet-i Aliyye'de Sinema. Ankara: De Ki Basım Yayım Ltd. Şti, 2007.

“Sabahat Filmer.” Yelpaze (7 July 1954): 18.

Sarıcı, Necip. “İlham kaynağı daima sinema.” [interview] Dünya (22 August 2011).

---. “Kendi Sesinden Sinemanın Sesi: Necip Sarıcı.” [interview] Evrensel (17 July 2021)

Archival Paper Collections:

Başbakanlık Devlet Arşivleri (Prime Ministry Archives), Istanbul, Turkey.


Balan, Canan. "Sabahat Filmer." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2022.

Elizaveta Thiemann

by Peter Bagrov, Anna Kovalova

Elizaveta Thiemann is the first credited female film director in Russia, which is a substantial accomplishment in and of itself. But she is best known for her work as a producer. Together with her husband Paul Ernst Julius (Pavel Gustavovich) Thiemann (1881-1954), she managed one of the most successful film companies in pre-revolutionary Russia, known, at different times, as Thiemann and Rheinhardt Trading House, Russian Golden Series [Russkaia zolotaia seriia], and Era. In his memoirs, director Viacheslav Viskovskii writes about the “missises” [“khoziaiki”] who were often in charge of film company affairs no less than their producer husbands. Apart from “madame Thiemann,” he mentions “madame Khanzhonkova” (Antonina Khanzhonkova, the wife of legendary film producer Alexander Khanzhonkov), who he describes as “a very business-like lady, yet ignorant in literature and art” (Viskovskii 4-5). While most characterizations of Khanzhonkova in memoirs are similar to Viskovskii’s, or even more negative, Thiemann is usually described more positively: director Vladimir Gardin mentions “Thiemann, with his wife who knew the film industry quite well and took part in directing films” (Gardin 116); and cinematographer Alexander Levitskii recollects the Thiemanns very favorably, writing that, “Thiemann was set apart [from other producers] due to his high level of culture as well as decency. His wife Elizaveta Vladimirovna was also a great admirer and expert of art. Their house was often packed with Moscow writers, artists, and actors” (Levitskii 67). While the prominent role played by Elizaveta Thiemann in Russian film history was emphasized by memoirists, as well as later film scholars like Neia Zorkaia, Vladimir Mikhailov, and Denise J. Youngblood, it is hard to determine the extent of her contributions; her name was rarely mentioned in the trade press, and there are few surviving documents from the time.

We cannot even be sure about the spelling of Elizaveta’s maiden name, which she returned to at the end of her life (it seems to have been “von Mickwitz” in Russia and “von Minckwitz” in emigration), nor about her birthdate (1889 in the official family documents, 1885 in one of the earlier papers). Either way, she seems to have started her career in literature and arts quite early. In 1902, she corresponded with the famous Russian and Ukrainian writer Vladimir Korolenko whose short stories she translated into German, to his satisfaction (Korolenko 331). His daughters and biographers, Sofia Korolenko and Natalia Korolenko-Liakhovich, also note that Elizaveta Mickwitz had published several translations under the pseudonym Heinrich Harff (Korolenko 331). Between 1900-1905, several more translations of Russian prose into German were signed by this name: among them, the works of Maxim Gorky, Aleksandr Kuprin, and Vikenty Veresaev. These were probably done by Elizaveta as well—which makes 1885 a much more realistic birth year than 1889, unless she was a child prodigy. It is also likely that she herself wrote fiction. In 1931, a short story entitled “She Remembered” by a certain E.V. Mickwitz was awarded the second prize at a small literary contest in Tartu (at that time, Elizaveta had already emigrated from Russia and indeed spent some years in Estonia) (Shor et al. 340-341).

In 1909, Elizaveta married Paul Thiemann, who soon afterwards established a film production and distribution company together with Friedrikh Rheinhardt. As Ivan Kavaleridze, sculptor and film director, recalls:

The company belonged to Pavel Gustavovich Thiemann, a German born in Moscow, on Kuznetskii Most. At the age of twenty-eight, he married Elizaveta Grigorievna [sic] von Mickwitz; he used to work under the supervision of her father at some enterprise and proved himself a man of business. The daughter received five thousand rubles as a dowry. The sensible and practical newlyweds decided to invest this money into a film. Death of Ivan the Terrible, the first film of their studio, was scandalous but commercially successful. (Kavaleridze 47)

Portrait of Paul Thiemann, Sine-Fono no. 1 (1912): 15.

Paul was born in 1881; if Kavaleridze is accurate, the wedding indeed coincided with the foundation of P. Thiemann and F. Rheinhardt Trading House. The beginnings of this successful enterprise were described in the trade press frequently, but Elizaveta’s name was never mentioned (“Za piat’ let”; “Pavel Gustavovich Thiemann”). However, according to various memoirs, her role in Paul’s business was evident (in fact, it is the extent of Rheinhardt’s participation that still remains unclear to film scholars). It is difficult to say which of her father’s enterprises Kavaleridze had in mind, but we know that before 1909 Paul was employed by the Russian office of Gaumont (“Za piat’ let”), whereas Vladimir Mickwitz made a career as an engineer and, for his services in that field, was granted a barony. Later, however, Vladimir was actively engaged in the family film business and even became the director of his son-in-law’s trading house (“Khronika” [May 31, 1916]).

One of the most significant films of the new trading house was The Passing of the Great Old Man (1912), a chronicle of the last days of Leo Tolstoy during which he left his home and family and, after a day’s train journey, died at a rural railway station. The film was directed by Elizaveta Thiemann and Yakov Protazanov, who later became one of Russia’s most prominent film directors (and who made his screen debut, as an actor, in Thiemann’s first blockbuster, Death of Ivan the Terrible [1909]). The events depicted in the film took place only two years earlier, and the memory of Tolstoy’s death was still fresh and scandalous. This, along with the fact that the film shows Tolstoy’s wife Sophia Andreevna, still very much alive in 1912, in a rather unfavorable light, earned it severe criticism. Yet some reviewers gave it considerable credit and argued that it would play an important role in film history. For example, one critic wrote: “In this picture, you will find neither trendy tricks, nor a plot that would affect your nerves. The simplicity of the plot itself, of the acting, and everything revealed on the screen is where the world tragedy lies. That is what causes silent but scalding tears. That is what fills the viewer’s soul with something hard but also mild and clear. Aside from the plot, this film is marked by detailed staging and profoundly vivid performance” (“40.000 za negativ”).

The portraits of Elizaveta Thiemann and Yakov Protazanov, Sine-Fono no. 2 (1912): 26-7.

The Passing of the Great Old Man is the only official directorial credit in Elizaveta’s filmography, whereas Protazanov enjoyed thirty plus years of a distinguished film career in Russia, France, and Germany. It is no wonder that at some point this early motion picture became associated with Protazanov alone, while Thiemann’s contribution is usually overlooked or misrepresented. For instance, Mikhail Arlazorov, the author of an essential biography of Protazanov, notes that Thiemann was “assisting” Protazanov (Arlazorov 165). If he had any evidence for this assumption, he did not cite it in his book. Surviving contemporary sources suggest nothing of the kind; as the aforementioned critic wrote: “We cannot help expressing our amazement and admiration for Ms. Thiemann and Mr. Protazanov who directed the film. One should have enormous love and self-hearted devotion to the cinema to direct a film in the way they did it. Hats off to them!” (“40.000 za negativ”). Additionally, portraits of Thiemann and Protazanov were published next to each other. One may argue that Elizaveta received equal billing because the producer wanted to promote his wife, but, in pre-1914 Russia, directors were neither mentioned in the credits nor on posters, and their names were rarely discussed outside of the trade press.

Elizaveta Thiemann as Alexandra Tolstaya in The Passing of the Great Old Man (1912),  Sine-Fono no. 2 (1912).

Advertisement for The Nailed One (1912) starring Elizaveta Thiemann, Sine-Fono no. 6 (1912).

Elizaveta also made her debut as an actress in The Passing of the Great Old Man, playing Tolstoy’s youngest daughter Alexandra. Her manner onscreen seems to meet the average level of Russian screen acting for 1912, which, we must admit, was not particularly high. She acted in four more films: The Nailed One (1912), For the Honor of the Russian Banner (1913), How the Child’s Soul Cried (1913), and Fleeting Dreams, Carefree Dreams Are Dreamed Only Once (1913). In the early 1910s, Russian film reviews were often laconic, and acting was rarely discussed. However, Thiemann’s performances received noticeable praise. For example, a review of The Nailed One stated: “Ms. Thiemann, who played Dima, acted very successfully” (“Sredi novinok” [1912]). Elizaveta’s work in Fleeting Dreams also received favorable criticism: “Ms. Thiemann and Mr. Volkov, who played the leading parts, are excellent. Their performance breathes with poetry and lyricism” (“Sredi novinok” [1913]). After 1913, following the rise of the first Russian film stars—the so-called “Kings” and “Queens” of the screen—Elizaveta refrained from acting. She was wise enough to perform only while there were still no specific requirements for film acting and gave up her screen career when such requirements were established. The success of her company must have been more critical for her than her acting career. By late 1913, Thiemann and Rheinhardt had its own set of film stars—including such major names in the history of Russia cinema as Vladimir Maksimov and Olga Preobrazhenskaia—most of whom had proper theatrical training.

Photo of Paul Thiemann’s pavilion with the the cast and crew of The Love of a Japanese Woman (1913), Kino-gazeta no. 27 (1918).

According to the most fundamental filmography of early Russian films, compiled by Veniamin Vishnevskii, The Passing of the Great Old Man was the only film directed by Elizaveta Thiemann. However, Vladimir Gardin recalls that she “took part in directing films” (Gardin 116; emphasis added). We do know that she was frequently on set. One of the rare surviving behind-the-scenes photos for Russian Golden Series, as the company was known by 1913, depicts the cast and crew of The Love of a Japanese Woman (1913). While Elizaveta is not mentioned in the credits for this film, which was a Russian production with a partially Japanese cast released in the summer of 1913, she is at the very center of the picture (“V pavilione P. G. Timana”). Does her presence mean that she participated in the filming, or was she just curious to meet actors from an exotic country (including the legendary Hanako)? She certainly contributed to the studio planning as much as her husband. According to Levitskii’s memoirs, it was Elizaveta and Levitskii himself (but not Paul) who suggested one of the most ambitious projects of early Russian cinema, an adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1915) in two parts (Levitskii 64-65).

The logo for Russian Golden Series. Reproduced in Rannii russkkii kinoplakat, 1908-1919 (2019), p. 73.

Russian Golden Series was an outstanding cinema enterprise. Being active in both production and distribution, it gained a reputation for adaptations of classical and contemporary literature, the most notable of them directed by Protazanov and Gardin. Many of these films played a significant role in the the history of Russian cinema, including: Protazanov’s Anfisa (1912), which was based on Leonid Andreyev’s play, and Plebei (1915), based on Strindberg’s “Fröken Julie”; Gardin’s Anna Karenina, A Nest of Gentlefolk, and The Kreuzer Sonata (all 1914); and The Keys to Happiness (1913), an adaptation of Anastasiya Verbitskaya’s scandalous bestseller, and War and Peace (1915), directed by both. However, soon after the start of World War I, the company faced a severe crisis.

Symbolist writer Aleksandr Kursinskii, the studio’s principal screenwriter who also served as its literary director, left his job to join the army field forces (Kovalova and Ranneva 366-388). Vladimir Shaternikov, one of the company’s best actors (he played Tolstoy in The Passing of the Great Old Man) also left to fight, and was killed in action. Several months later, in April 1915, unsatisfied with their inadequate compensation, Gardin and Protazanov turned in their resignations (“Khronika” [April 4, 1915]). One month later, Paul Thiemann, who was a German subject, was exiled to Ufa, a small city in the Asian part of Russia (Deriabin et al. 178). He continued to work remotely while the Moscow office was run by Elizaveta, with certain assistance from her father Vladimir Mickwitz. It seemed that the whole business was falling apart. It was then that Elizaveta started negotiations with the director Vsevolod Meyerhold, a key figure in the history of twentieth-century theater. The outcome of these negotiations was The Picture of Dorian Gray (1915), based on Oscar Wilde’s novel, which not only helped to save the company, but also became one of the most significant films in the history of pre-revolutionary Russian cinema.

Advertisement for The Picture of Dorian Gray (1915) directed by Vsevolod Meyerhold, Sine-Fono no. 18 (1915).

The film is considered lost, but reviews and memoirs show that it was a unique example of a literary adaptation that truly interpreted the original text rather than just illustrating it. Particular attention was paid to the film’s visual style, which belonged to a symbolic rather than realistic mode (Kovalova 69-74). Elizaveta’s involvement in this project is extensively described in Levitskii’s memoirs. Among other things, he mentions that it was she who came up with the idea of having a woman play Dorian Gray and suggested Varvara Yanova for the part (Levitskii 87).

At the end of 1915, the company announced a particularly challenging project of adapting two canonical texts of Russian literature (both in verse): Alexander Griboedov’s comedy Woe from Wit and Alexander Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin (“Khronika” [December 19, 1915]; “Khronika” [January 15, 1916]). Both productions were highly anticipated; however, they were “frozen” in the summer of 1916. One possible explanation for this can be found in the memoirs of cinematographer Yuri Zheliabuzhskii. According to him:

In the summer of 1916, there was a falling out between E. V. Thiemann and the leading staff of the atelier. Thiemann himself was in exile, as a German subject. His wife was a rather quarrelsome woman and, besides, had a lack of taste. In reality, business was run by the five consisting of the leading director and manager [Aleksandr] Volkov, director [Aleksandr] Uralskii, head of the screenwriting department [Vitold] Akhramovich, actress and administrator [Evgeniia] Uvarova. E. V. Thiemann started writing to her husband that she is being pushed into the background, people are pressing their tastes upon her. In response to this, not seeing the actual state of affairs from his exile, Thiemann decided to manage blindly. As a result, all of us, except for Uralskii, left Thiemann. (Zheliabuzhskii 182)

Advertisement for the never-produced Eugene Onegin, Sine-Fono no. 7 (1916).

This recollection cannot be completely accurate. Elizaveta could not have sent Paul such a letter in the summer of 1916 because she herself was forced to leave Moscow on May 23 of that year to join him in Ufa (Deriabin et al. 202). In the following two years, Thiemann’s company (which changed its name to Era) was able to produce a number of aesthetically challenging films (including Meyerhold’s The Strong Man [1917]). However, this new “poetic” period for the company (and, more generally, in Russian film adaptations) fell victim to either these disagreements within the studio or simply to Elizaveta’s forced departure.

The Thiemanns must have returned to Moscow after the February Revolution of 1917. Half a year later, soon after the October Revolution, Paul Thiemann announced his decision to leave Russia and set up a film company abroad (“Khronika” [1918]). He did produce a number of films in France in the early 1920s before settling down in Germany. While researching his émigré career, film scholar Rashit Yangirov came across what he thought was an obituary of Elizaveta’s younger sister Lydia, published in March 1926 (Yangirov 282). In reality, the obituary referred to Elizaveta’s mother, whose name was also Lydia. But somehow the confusion spread even further, and now, in a number of sources, such as Viktor Korotkii’s fine guide to early Russian film directors and cameramen, 1926 is wrongly provided as the date of Elizaveta’s death (Korotkii 364).

Yet the fact that, in the 1920s, Elizaveta was quite alive is confirmed by Natalia Noussinova’s important book on the history of the Russian émigré cinema. Noussinova cites a business letter from the cameraman Nikolai Rudakov to the producer Alexandre Kamenka, dated November 14, 1931, in which a new cinema enterprise organized by Elizaveta Thiemann is discussed (Noussinova 89-90). This venture most likely failed, otherwise we would know more about it. Life in Europe for the Thiemanns was rather chaotic, and full of financial problems, bumps in the road, and twists of various kinds. Both Thiemanns and Vladimir Mickwitz continued to associate themselves with cinema as long as they could. When Meyerhold visited France in 1928, he received several letters from Mickwitz, who tried to persuade him to renew his cooperation with Thiemann (Minckwitz). In 1941, Elizaveta and Paul divorced, but they had separated long before that, around 1933 (G. Thiemann 2).

The Thiemann family in October 1917. Courtesy of the Thiemann Family Archive.

It was because of Lydia the younger that we were able to track the later years of Elizaveta’s life. Lydia was married to Jimmy Winkfield, a legendary Thoroughbred jockey and horse trainer. In Winkfield’s biography, written by Ed Hotaling, Elizaveta is described in a somewhat ironical manner: “Beautiful and more than a bit eccentric, Elizabeth costarred at the Thiemann’s large estate, with fourteen servants, a monkey who had the run of the mansion, and a snake, a literal, living boa that Elizabeth wore around her neck at parties. She and Paul had a son and a daughter, who were apparently considered less amusing than the pets” (Hotaling 148-149). Hotaling was mainly relying upon the recollections of Elizaveta’s son Yuri (later George) Thiemann (1925-2018).

Jeannette Thiemann, George’s widow, generously shared with us a collection of family photos, letters, and stories. Unfortunately, there is practically nothing about Elizaveta’s work in cinema and not much about her later years. She was rather detached from her family. Soon after the separation with Paul, she sent both of her children away to be cared for by their aunt Lydia. “In 1941,” George recalls in an unpublished text, “my mother lived in Turin, Italy. One day she ‘remembered’ she had a son in France and sent for me. […] I was a minor and I had to follow my mother’s wishes. My mother and I lived there for a few months. Since it was too cold in Turin, she decided to move to San Remo, in the Italian Riviera. I started to work to support the two of us. My mother refused to work because it was too humiliating for her” (G. Thiemann 2). George worked as a waiter and bartender in a hotel, and later as an interpreter for the American troops with a side job as a night watchman (2-3). In 1954, he got married and two years later moved to the United States. Soon his first child was born, and he was no longer able to support his mother. Enraged, she tried to sue him. This did not improve their relationship, which was already somewhat tense (J. Thiemann).

Elizaveta Thiemann in Italy in 1950. Courtesy of the Thiemann Family Archive.

Elizaveta stayed in San Remo until the end of her life. Some of her letters to George from the 1950s and 1960s survive. They are full of ellipses and exclamation marks and mainly consist of complaints and accusations: “I have to save my life from this barracks at any cost. Another winter like this—I’d rather die” (E. Thiemann [June 14, 1951]); “I want to scream till death like an abandoned dog” (E. Thiemann [December 18, 1956]); and “The solitude kills me: weeks without exchanging a word” (E. Thiemann [June 27, 1964]). Time and again, she wrote about suicide. She did not kill herself, however. She died sometime in the late 1970s, approaching the age of ninety. The family was informed of her death via a letter from a local priest. Now that letter is lost, and the exact date of Elizaveta’s death remains unknown (J. Thiemann).

Elizaveta Thiemann’s letter to George Thiemann from August 20, 1964 (in French). Courtesy of the Thiemann Family Archive.

“She never worked a day in her life,” her son repeated on multiple occasions. And it looks like she did not—in his lifetime. Was it the misfortunes of a nomad life, isolation from the culture she knew, vain attempts to relaunch her film business in Europe, or simply the approaching old age that changed one of the most active people in the Russian film industry into a permanently discontent hysterical woman? Hopefully, now we can understand better that Elizaveta’s short filmography does not at all reflect her true participation in pre-revolutionary Russian film culture. As we continue to unearth more about early Russian cinema, the significance of Elizaveta Thiemann’s contributions as a director and producer will likely only grow.

See also: Natalia Bakhareva

The authors would like to express heartfelt gratitude to Arina Ranneva and Aleksandr Sobolev for their kind and open-handed help in this research. They authors are also deeply indebted to Jeanette Thiemann and Cynthia Stegman for the priceless family documents and photos that they have generously shared as well as for their support.


“40.000 za negativ”/“40.000 for the negative.” Sine-Fono no. 2 (1912): 27.

Arlazorov, Mikhail. Protazanov. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1973.

Barkhatova, E.V. Rannii russkkii kinoplakat, 1908-1919/The Early Russian Film Poster, 1908-1919. Saint Petersburg: RNB, 2019.

Deriabin, A., V. Fomin, V. Mikhailov, V. Vishnevskii, R. Yangirov, V. Vatolin, eds. Letopis’ rossiiskogo kino 1863-1929. Moscow: Materik, 2004.

Gardin, Vladimir. Zhizn’ i trud artista/The Life and the Labour of an Artist. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1960.

Hotaling, Ed. Wink: The Incredible Life and Epic Journey of Jimmy Winkfield. Camden, ME: International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press, 2006.

Kavaleridze, Ivan. “Teni bystro plyvushchikh oblakov”/“The Shadows of the Clouds That Are Swimming Quickly.” In Ivan Kavaleridze. Sbornik statei i vospominanii/Ivan Kavaleridze. A Collection of Articles and Memoirs. Kiev: Mistetstvo, 1988. 46-53.

“Khronika”/“The Chronicle.” Kine-zhurnal no. 23-24 (19 December 1915): 97-98.

“Khronika”/“The Chronicle.”  Sine-Fono no. 11-12 (4 April 1915): 75.

“Khronika”/“The Chronicle.”  Sine-Fono no. 5-6 (15 January 1916): 76.

“Khronika”/“The Chronicle.” Sine-Fono no. 13-14 (31 May 1916): 46.

“Khronika”/“The Chronicle.” Niemoe iskusstvo no. 1 (1918): 18.

Korolenko, Vladimir. “Pis’mo E. V. Mikvits ot 4 marta 1902”/“A letter to E.V. Mikvitz, 4 March 1902.” In Sobranie sochinenii v 10 tomakh/Complete Works in 10 vol.  vol. 10. Eds. S.V. Korolenko and N.V. Korolenko-Liakhovich. Introduction by A. Kotov. Moscow: Goslitizdat, 1956. 331.

Korotkii, Viktor. Operatory i rezhissery russkogo igrovogo kino 1897-1921. Biofil’mograficheskii spravochik/Cameramen and Directors of the Russian Feature Films 1897-1921. Moscow: NII Kinoiskusstva, 2009.

Kovalova, Anna. “The Picture of Dorian Gray Painted by Meyerhold.” Trans. Richard Taylor. Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema vol. 13, no. 1 (2019): 59-90.

Kovalova, Anna, and Arina Ranneva. “Symbolism in Early Russian Cinema and the Ghostwriter Aleksandr Kursinskii.” Trans. Tomi Haxhi. The Russian Review vol. 79, no. 3 (2020): 366-388.

Levitskii, Aleksandr. Rasskazy o kinematografe/Stories About Cinema. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1964.

Mikhailov, Vladimir. Rasskazy o kinematografe staroi Moskvy/Stories of the Old Moscow’s Cinema. Moscow: Materik, 2003.

Noussinova, Natalia. “Kogda my v Rossiu vernemsia…”: Russkoe kinematograficheskoe zarubezhie, 1918-1949/“When we are back to Russia…”: Russian Émigré Cinema, 1918-1949. Moscow: NIIK, Eisenstein-tsentr, 2003.

“The Passing of the Great Old Man.” Gosfilmofond of Russia [catalog].

“Pavel Gustavovich Thiemann.” Kine-zhurnal no. 17 (1912): 33.

“Russkaia Zolotaia seriia”/“Russian Golden Series.” [advertisement]. Teatral’naia gazeta no. 51 (1915): 20.

Shor, T., R. Abisogomian, E. Shuvalova, G. Ponomareva. “Khronika literaturnoi zhizni russkogo zarubezhia. Estonia (1925-1940)”/“Chronicle of the Russian Émigré Literary Life. Estonia (1925-1940).” Literaturovedcheskii zhurnal no. 21 (2007): 265-436.

“Sredi novinok”/“Among the New Films.” Zhivoi ekran no. 9 (1912): 20.

“Sredi novinok”/“Among the New Films.” Sine-Fono no. 5 (1913): 27.

Thiemann, Jeannette. Skype Interview with the authors. October 7, 2020.

“V pavilione P. G. Timana”/“In P. G. Thiemann’s pavilion.” Kino-gazeta no. 27 (1918): 31.

Vishnevskii, V. “Katalog fil’mov chastnogo proizvodstva 1917-1921”/“Catalogue of Privately Produced Films.” In Sovetskie khudozhestvennye fil’my: annotirovannyi katalog. Vol. 3. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1961. 248-306.

Yangirov, Rashit. Khronika kinematograficheskoi zhizni russkogo zarubezhia/Chronicles of the Russian Emigre Cinema Life. Vol. 1. Moscow: Knizhitsa, Russkii put’, 2010.

Youngblood, Denise J. The Magic Mirror: Moviemaking in Russia, 1908-1918. Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.

“Za piat’ let”/“For Five Years.” Sine-Fono no. 1 (1912): 14.

Zheliabuzhskii, Yuri. “Avtobiografiia”/“Autobiography.” Kino i vremia vol. 4 (1965): 178-182.

Zorkaia, Neia. Istoriia otechestvennogo kino/A History of Russian Cinema. Moscow: Belyi gorod, 2014.

Archival Paper Collections:

Minckwitz, Vladimir. Letter to Vsevolod Meyerhold. Fond 998, Opis’ 1, Ed. khr. 2008, L. 1. Russian State Archive of Literature and Arts.

Thiemann, Elizaveta. Letters to George Thiemann. Thiemann Family Archive.

Thiemann, George. An Ever Changing Life. [unpublished text]. Thiemann Family Archive.

Viskovskii, Viacheslav. “Moi dvadtsat’ let v kino” (Vospominania)/“My Twenty Years in Cinema (Memoirs).” Fond 2410, Opis’ 1, Ed. khr. 17. Russian State Archive of Literature and Arts.


Bagrov, Peter; Anna Kovalova. "Elizaveta Thiemann." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2021.  <>

Ruth Harriet Louise

by Mary Mallory

A gifted and sensitive photographer, Ruth Harriet Louise worked for less than ten years in her chosen profession, running her own studio for three years in New Jersey before serving as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s head portrait photographer from 1925-1929. Today, photographers and scholars alike study her work, which skillfully captured the character as well as the beauty of her famous clients, encapsulating her theory “that every portrait should just as a motion picture does, tell a story, reveal a character or interpret a mood” (Tildesley). Attention to Louise’s career, however, is a fairly recent phenomenon; at the time of her death in 1940, Louise and her work were largely forgotten.

Ruth Harriet Louise portrait of Renée Adorée, Photoplay (November 1927).

Born Ruth Harriet Louise Goldstein on January 13, 1903, to Rabbi Jacob Goldstein and his wife Klara Jacobsen Goldstein, Louise grew up in New Jersey in the shadow of her older brother Mark, who would later achieve Hollywood fame under the name Mark Sandrich as the director of many Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals. According to The Dayton Herald, her mother pushed Ruth into portrait painting as a substitute for pursuing her own dreams in the discipline. Louise reportedly studied painting and drawing with artist Miles Evergood while also attending art schools. Talented in composition, she, however, discerned no great visionary skills in her painting (“Girl Turns Early Failure to Success”).

Recognizing her composition skills were better suited for the creation of photographs from light and shadow rather than the painting of landscapes or still lifes, Louise switched her ambitions to the new field after meeting and studying with renowned New York portrait photographer Nickolas Muray. As the same Dayton Herald article recounted, she dedicated herself to this new subject, studying at the Wolf-Miller School in New York before apprenticing with Muray. She quickly realized that, ‘To be successful in anything, a woman must give herself to it completely” (“Girl Turns Early Failure to Success”).

Self portrait, Ruth Harriet Louise, Picture Play (December 1927).

Ambitious and driven, Louise opened her own studio in Montalvo’s Temple of Music at 101 Albany Street in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in November 1922. She advertised the studio in The Central New Jersey Home News, promising “Photographs That Are Different.” Fighting for respect and attention in a male-dominated field, Louise heavily promoted herself in newspaper blurbs and through word-of-mouth, shooting portraits of local citizens that sometimes appeared in newspaper society columns. It was also at this time that she began using the name “Ruth Harriet Louise” professionally.

Ruth Harriet Louise with brother Mark Sandrich (l) and husband Leigh Jason (r), Photoplay (May 1928).

Louise focused her attention on Hollywood as early as 1923. Her cousin, motion picture actress Carmel Myers, offered a boost to her career, allowing Louise to shoot portraits of her in New York that spring. Louise ventured West in the fall of 1924, spending several months with her mother visiting her brother in Hollywood. At the end of that trip, The Central New Jersey Home News reported that Louise remained behind “for an extended stay to do special photographing…” (“Personals”).

The twenty-two-year-old officially moved to California in 1925 to focus on portraiture. One source reported that Louise rented a studio on Vine Street in Hollywood in which to work (Dance and Robertson 66) while The Central New Jersey Home News announced that she was “engaged in portrait photography at the Hollywood studio of the Fox Film Corporation, where her brother Mark Rex Sandrich… is director” (“Dr. Goldstein”). Given that Louise herself was probably giving the New Jersey paper its information, it is very likely correct; however, I have not yet found any other evidence to support either source’s claim. While it remains unclear whether or not Louise worked at Fox, we do know that she was soon employed at MGM after cousin Myers presented some of her portraits to studio head Louis B. Mayer. Impressed with her work, Mayer set up a test, which led to an interview, with the studio ultimately hiring Louise in the summer of 1925 (Dance and Robertson 67). With this hire, Louise became the first full-time female portrait photographer at any Hollywood studio. That September, Louise’s first Hollywood portraits—images of Hungarian actress Vilma Bánky in the Samuel Goldwyn picture Dark Angel (1925)—appeared in Photoplay.

Ruth Harriet Louise portrait of John Gilbert, Photoplay (February 1928).

Portraiture played a critical part in the film publicity ecosystem, selling films and stars to the general public. Portraits served as key art, newspaper and magazine illustrations, and fan give-aways. They shaped star images and personas, crafting an iconography of sensuality and glamour associated with the motion picture medium. Studios produced millions of photographs each year, sending them en masse to hundreds of magazines and newspapers desperate for illustrative product in a quid pro quo system of free usage in exchange for credit. Though a vital component of Hollywood public relations, still photographers received little to no recognition or publicity for their own work. Some earned occasional mentions in trade journals or magazines, but most simply saw their last names appear in print as a credit alongside their photographic work.

She Bosses the Stars: The Story of Ruth Harriet Louise,” Screenland (September 1928).

Ruth Harriet Louise portrait of Greta Garbo, Motion Picture Magazine (October 1926). For virtually her entire MGM career, Louise was the exclusive portrait photographer of the Swedish actress.

Louise, however, received credit for all her work, stamping “Ruth Harriet Louise” on the back of each print. As MGM’s head portrait photographer, she scheduled five to six sessions a day, six days a week. From her private studio atop the editing building on the MGM lot, Louise created indelible images of the studio’s stable of stars, including John Gilbert, Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, and many others.

MGM stars loved the friendly, energetic Louise, who engaged her subjects in discussions regarding art, music, and books in order to put them at ease. According to The Washington D.C. Standard, music played a major role in her work:

Miss Louise is unique among motion picture portrait photographers not only because she is a woman, but also because of her methods and the results she has achieved with them. She leans heavily on music in photographing screen celebrities, choosing phonograph records for each sitting as gracefully as she changes her lights and shadows. Intelligently selected music, she explains, helps the subject to relax and drift into a mood that will make the portrait more interesting. (“Schwab Hard Movie Subject”)

Louise mainly employed diffused lighting for her portraits, giving them a romantic sheen that added a sense of beauty and glamour. Unlike most studio photographers, she shot full body portraits with her large format camera, working with her assistant, Al St. Hilaire, to blow them up and then crop them to close-ups before careful retouching was done by Andrew Korf (Dance and Robertson 81-82).

Ruth Harriet Louise portrait of James Murray and Eleanor Boardman for The Crowd (1928), Picture Play Magazine (June 1927).

Louise’s departure from the film industry in 1929 reflected a broader phenomenon taking place in the 1920s as the American film industry moved to more controlled assembly line systems of production and then to the corporate studio system. Thanks to Wall Street money, management and work structures became strictly centralized with hierarchies of authority that were “characterized by a massive vertical and horizontal integration for economy of scale… ” (Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson 309). While, earlier, studios had welcomed women’s contributions throughout the entire creative and production process, these new monopolies forced many women out as businessmen took even more control.

Ruth Harriet Louise portrait of Lon Chaney, Photoplay (May 1928).

Ruth Harriet Louise portrait of Norma Shearer, The New Movie Magazine (1929).

In Louise’s case, the changing work environment proved difficult. On the one hand, calls to form unions grew louder in the late 1920s as corporations muzzled employees to maintain discipline, control, and salaries. Specialized workers organized to demand more rights, higher wages, and better working conditions for their members (Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson 311). Studio photographers themselves formed Local 659 in August 1928 to protect their work (Dance and Robertson 221). However, Louise chose to remain independent and refused to join. At the same time, work relationships began changing, as studios evolved from a tight, family-like atmosphere into that of a more impersonal factory and conglomerate. Growing hostility towards female employees and Louise’s refusal to join the union led to further challenges for the photographer, especially as actors began to seek out new opportunities. For example, Norma Shearer, one of MGM’s top stars and the wife of studio production chief Irving Thalberg, recognized that the coming of sound films offered the chance for her to play more challenging parts. On the advice of colleague Ramon Novarro, she visited the personal studio of photographer George Hurrell, who captured a sexy, uninhibited side of the star that was absent in Louise’s portraits of her (Dance and Robertson 219). When Variety reported Louise’s resignation from MGM, in December 1929, Hurrell was named as her replacement (“Hollywood and Los Angeles”).

Ruth Harriet Louise portrait of Joan Crawford, Screenland (September 1929).

While Louise found occasional freelance work shooting portraits after leaving MGM, her career slowly petered out. She devoted herself to caring for her husband and family. Married to film director Leigh Jason (Leon Jacobson) in 1927, she gave birth to two children: a son, who died in 1938 of leukemia; and a daughter, born in 1936. Louise died from complications of childbirth on October 12, 1940. She was listed as Mrs. Ruth Jason in most obituaries. When her brother donated two bungalows to the Motion Picture Country Home in 1942 in honor of his sister, The Film Daily called her “one of the country’s foremost portrait photographers…” (Wilk).


Albert, Katherine. “She Bosses the Stars: The Story of Ruth Harriet Louise.” Screenland, Vol. 17. No 5 (September 1928): 32, 94-95.

Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960. New York, Columbia University Press, 1985.

Dance, Robert and Bruce Robertson. Ruth Harriet Louise and Hollywood Glamour Photography. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2002.

“Dr. Goldstein To Make His Future Home In California.” The Central New Jersey Home News (14 March 1925): 2.

Fahey, David and Linda Rich. Masters of Starlight: Photographers in Hollywood. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1987.

Finler, Joel W. Hollywood Movie Stills: Art and Technique in the Golden Age of the Studios. London: Reynolds & Hearn Ltd., 2008.

“Girl Turns Early Failure to Success by Quick Wit.” The Dayton Herald (31 July 1928): 2.

“Goldstein Family Has Wide Range of Talent.” The Central New Jersey Daily Home News (27 March 1924): 7.

“Hollywood and Los Angeles.” Variety (11 Dec. 1929): 73.

Kobal, John. The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers. New York: Harrison House, 1987.

“One of Hollywood’s Most Useful Families.” Photoplay vol. 33, no. 6 (May 1928): 104.

“Personal Notes.” The Central New Jersey Home News (5 Jan. 1923): 9.

“Personals.” The Central New Jersey Home News (29 Nov. 1924): 7.

“Photographs That Are Different.” [Advertisement]. The Central New Jersey Home News (15 Nov. 1922): 5.

“Schwab Hard Movie Subject, Says Woman Photographer.” The Washington D.C. Evening Standard (3 May 1927): 17.

Shields, David S. Still: American Silent Motion Picture Photography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Tildesley, Alice. “Secrets About Famous: Inside Facts About the Personalities of Cinema Favorites Revealed by One in a Position to Observe Them at Close Range and to Reveal Intimately the Side of Their Natures Not Disclosed on Screen.” The Miami Herald (25 July 1926): 56.

Wilk, Ralph. “Hollywood Speaking.” The Film Daily (3 Sept. 1942): 20.

Archival Paper Collections:

Ruth Harriet Louise production clipping files (scrapbooks & photographs, etc.). Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Margaret Herrick Library. [Biographical clipping files are not listed in online catalog].


Mallory, Mary. "Ruth Harriet Louise." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2021.  <>

Natalia Bakhareva

by Anna Kovalova

Natalia Bakhareva was the first self-sufficient female film producer in Russia. Unlike Antonina Khanzhonkova and Elizaveta Thiemann, who produced films for studios officially owned by their husbands, Bakhareva opened her own film company and became its official head. In the 1916 reference guide Vsia Kinematographia/All the Cinematography, there are two titles for her company: “The Artistic Film” [“Khudozhestvennaia lenta”] and “N. D. Bakhareva and K” (31). In the trade press, Bakhareva’s studio was later called “The Russian Film Business” [“Rossiiskoe Kino-delo”] and “The Film Business” [“Kino-delo”] (“Novye lenty” [1917]; “Khronika” [1916]). Sometimes films produced by her studio were associated with a company called Prodalent, which distributed them.

In her studio, Bakhareva worked not only as a producer but also as a screenwriter. She wrote scripts for six films, but none of her screenplays have been preserved. Moreover, all the films released by The Artistic Film (and later The Russian Film Business) are lost, and it is hard to judge their aesthetic value. We are fortunate to have Bakhareva’s memoirs today, which are held at the Bakhmeteff Archive of Russian and East European Culture at Columbia University, but these papers are dedicated to the writer Nikolai Leskov, Bakhareva’s famous grandfather, and, unfortunately, provide very little information about her work in cinema and the films she made.

In fact, Bakhareva’s grandfather was a presence throughout much of her career. When the news about The Artistic Film first appeared in the trade press in 1915, journalists emphasized that the new company was founded by Leskov’s granddaughter (“Khronika” [1915]). Some readers could guess that “Bakhareva” was a pseudonym borrowed from Leskov’s novel No Way Out (1864); her real name was Natalia Dmitrievna Noga.

Bakhareva was the daughter of Leskov’s daughter Vera and Ukrainian landowner Dmitrii Noga. In her unpublished memoirs, she puts 1887 as her date of birth, but the evidence and documents collected by Andrei Leskov, who has written the fundamental book Nikolai Leskov’s Life, suggest that she was born earlier, between 1880 and 1885 (Leskov 109-130). She spent her childhood at her father’s estate named Burty. As Bakhareva recalls in her memoirs, in the mid-1890s, the family grew poor, sold the estate, and, soon after that, her parents separated. Natalia and her mother moved to Kyiv (Bakhareva 11). There, Natalia was a student at the Fundukleev gymnasium, the first and one of the most famous girl’s grammar schools in Russia, and then studied acting at the Kyiv drama school (I.T.).

In 1904, Natalia and her mother moved to St. Petersburg, and the family faced new financial problems. In her memoirs, Bakhareva mentions that she had to work for the Ministry of Public Instruction for five years (Bakhareva 12). However, she also continued with her theatrical career. In a letter to the famous publisher Alexei Suvorin, she wrote that she had been accepted to the troupe of the People’s House theatre [Narodnyi Dom] (Noga). It has also been reported that she acted in Lydia Yavorskaia’s New Theater [Novyi teatr] during this period (I.T.). In 1909, Bakhareva made her debut as playwright, adapting her grandfather’s story Skomorokh Pamphalon/Buffoon Pamphalon for the stage. The State Theater Library of St. Petersburg holds six plays written by Bakhareva between 1909 and 1917.

In the late 1900s, Bakhareva also became a journalist when the influential critic Aleksandr Izmailov got her a job at Peterburgskii listok, one of the major Russian newspapers (Leskov 129). She was the head of the theater department and acted as the newspaper correspondent in Europe: Bakhareva represented Peterburgskii listok in Venice when Countess Maria Tarnovksaia was involved in a scandalous murder trial (Orem 2-3). Due to her work in the theater and newspaper industries, Bakhareva gained many connections, which probably helped her as she set up her film business. In her memoirs, she does not mention why she turned from theater to cinema, but she likely considered the film business, which was still new in Russia, an easier and faster route to success.

The logo for The Artistic Film in Vsia Kinematografia.

In the trade press, the foundation of Bakahreva’s studio The Artistic Film was reported in June 1915 (“Khronika” [1915]), but the company’s first films were released earlier; Bakhareva recalls in her memoirs that she started the business in 1914 when she left Peterburgskii listok (Bakhareva 12). The chief film director of the new studio was Aleksander Panteleev who had worked in cinema since 1909. Bakhareva was fortunate to hire such an experienced film director as very few of them lived in St. Petersburg (the center of the Russian film industry was in Moscow at that time).

Vo Im’a Proshlogo/For the Sake of the Past (1915) is probably the most notable of the company’s early productions. Its plot is focused on Zakrevskii, an old land-steward who desperately loves his secret illegitimate son and steals the will that would disinherit him. However, it turns out that this young man was not Zakrevskii’s son, and his schemes ruined the life of the old man’s true daughter, who was to inherit the estate initially (“Novye lenty” [1916]). Bakhareva wrote the screenplay, drawing heavily on cinematic clichés; the majority of early Russian dramas were stories about illegitimate children, destroyed wills, and other melodramatic plots. For the Sake of the Past is significant, not due to its plot, but due to the casting: Zarkevskii’s part was played by the famous Russian theater actor Vladimir Davydov. His screen appearance was repeatedly highlighted in advertisements for the film and reviews (“Sredi novinok” [1916]).

Advertisement for For the Sake of the Past (1915) with the portrait of the “luminary of the Russian stage, honored artist of the Imperial theaters” Vladimir Davydov. Published in Sine-Fono no. 3 (1915).

Promotional photograph, For the Sake of the Past (1915) in Kinematograph no. 3 (1916).

It appears that Bakhareva placed a premium on famous names like many other film producers at the time. Aside from Davydov, she hired Lydia Yavorskaia who was very popular in the theater world (she starred in Bakhareva’s 1915 film Uragan strastei/The Hurricane of Passions). However, not all well-known people in St. Petersburg wanted to be involved in Bakhareva’s business. For example, in October 1916, the artist Aleksandr Benois wrote in his diary: “Miss Bakhareva called me and invited me to join some film enterprise that has pure artistic goals. I sympathize, but thanks to her amateur tone, I know for sure that it’s no God-damn use…” (Benois 28).

Overall, Bakhareva does not seem to have been an innovative or inventive screenwriter. Another film by her studio that attracted attention was Na nozhakh/At Daggers Drawn (1915), an adaptation of her grandfather’s novel of the same name. Bakhareva tailored Leskov’s book according to the period’s typical cinematic preoccupations. The socio-political and philosophical context was omitted, whereas the love affairs, rebuilt beyond recognition, became the basis of the picture. As a result, the titles of the film’s parts, indicated in the libretto (synopsis), had nothing to do with Leskov’s poetics and language: The Abyss Calls the Abyss, Fatal Encounters, Dark Force, The First Victim, and Down the Drain (“Novye lenty” [1915]).

Poster for At Daggers Drawn (1915).

One of the films written by Bakhareva, however, seems to have been rather uncommon in terms of its plot. A contemporary critic noted that Taina velikosvetskogo romana/The Mystery of the High Society Romance (1915) depicted “one of the recent criminal cases that had been investigated in Petrograd [that] made a lot of noise all over Russia” (“Sredi novinok” [1915]). Bakhareva likely relied on her past experience as a journalist while developing this script.

While Bakhareva did not give up writing scripts, she also began to hire professional writers such as Arkadii Bukhov, among others. Her main task as producer was likely “coordinating the shooting process” (“Khronika” [1917]), and that speaks well of her film producing skills. She could write herself and economize on the screenwriter’s salary, but she preferred to invest in the quality of the production. Moreover, she seems to have been generous in terms of business trips: the newspapers reported that, in the summer of 1917, her crew was spending time in the Caucasus shooting different picturesque places (“Erkan”; “Khronika” [1917]). She could have used her pavilion in St. Petersburg or done the shooting in the suburbs, but she organized this expensive trip in order to have on-location footage.

Advertisement for The Russian Film Business, which emphasizes that the films include “the marvellous [sic] views of the Caucasus.” Published in Teatr i iskusstvo no. 26 (1917).

Influential film studios usually had stars who represented them in the commercial marketplace. Bakhareva understood this and invited Kleo Karini to play the leading parts in her films. While many Russian film stars came from the theater, Karini was famous as a pianist and singer (an opera singer in particular). She was also the wife of Alexander Mozzhukhin, the brother of Ivan Mozzhukhin, who is considered to be the greatest Russian actor of the silent era. In this sense, Karini was probably a good choice to be the hallmark of the company, and her photos were printed on the studio’s advertisements and in the trade press. However, Bakhareva likely did not have enough time, skills, or finances to make Karini a major film star, and she, ultimately, never became a big name in the cinema.

Poster for Cobra Kapella (1917) referencing Kleo Karini by name alongside her image. Reproduced in The Silent Film Poster in the State Museum of the History of Saint Petersburg Collection 1914-1919 (2018), p. 93.

There were no absolute hits among the pictures released by Bakhareva’s studio in 1916-1918. But the reviews prove that some of the films could be compared with films shot in Moscow by the major film studios. The film journal Proektor, which often published smashing reviews, tolerated Bakhareva’s productions. For instance, in the review of The Hurricane of Passions, a critic wrote: “This drama’s plot is typical and is not above the established cinema pattern. The film is directed fairly well and adequately shot. Yavorskaia’s acting is rather impressive…” (“Kriticheskoe obozrenie”). The review ends on a negative note about the actress’s make-up, but, for Proektor, it was very common to analyze every single one of a film’s weak spots in detail. The key point here is that Proektor chose The Hurricane of Passions for serious discussion.

It might well be that, in time, Bakhareva’s studio could have developed and produced films that would be better appreciated by such demanding journals as Proektor. But soon after the October revolution Bakhareva was forced to close her business. She recalls in her memoirs: “The Bolsheviks, upon coming to power, took my studio away from me and did not even allow me to keep the portraits of the artists I had filmed. The day of the atelier’s requisition coincided with the day of my mother’s burial; she had died of cancer” (Bakhareva 12). According to Andrei Leskov, Vera Noga, Bakhareva’s mother, died around March 18, 1918 (Leskov 130). Bakhareva moved to Ukraine and worked for the newspaper Iuzhnyi golos/The Southern Voice, which supported the White Russians (Bakhareva 46). In Kyiv, some of The Russian Film Business’s films, as the studio was then called, were produced: Taina Vysokoi Damy/The Mystery of a Tall Lady (1917), I snova zasvetilo solntse/And the Sun Became to Shine Again (1918), Ona/She (1918). Very little is known about these films, but according to Veniamin Vishnevskii’s filmography, The Russian Film Business started to shoot in Kyiv in 1917 (Vishnevskii 297). Bakhareva probably continued her film work there when her studio in St. Petersburg was closed in the spring of 1918. In any case, after 1918, Bakhareva did not have anything to do with the film industry.

Bakhareva spent many of the following years in Yugoslavia, but in 1945, the pro-Soviet Social Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was declared. Josip Broz Tito’s followers shot Bakhareva’s husband, Vasilii Poliushkin, and she had to leave the country. Soon after that, she moved to Argentina, where she died in 1958.

Bakhareva’s name is sometimes mentioned in reports on the émigré cultural life. For instance, a newspaper announced in 1930: “In Belgrade, a meeting in memory of Leskov, organized by the Union of Poets at the university, was very successful. […] Nikolai Leskov’s granddaughter, N. D. Bakhareva-Poliushkina, and his grandson, Colonel Ya. D. Noga, were present” (“Za rubezhom”). According to Bakhareva’s recollections, she cooperated with different newspapers and journals, such as Literaturno-Khudozhestvennyi Al’manakh/Literary and Artistic Almanac (based in Salzburg), Za Pravdu/For the Truth (in Buenos Aires), and Russkaia zhizn’/The Russian Life (in San Francisco) (Bakhareva 46). Additionally, the author of her necrology noted that, “N. D. Bakhareva has written a number of short stories, novellas, plays, and memoirs. Of these, the most famous are: The Sister Varvara (Sestra Varvara), The Unknown Paths (Puti Nevedomyie), The Surf (Priboi), and On the Big Road (Na Bol’shoi Doroge), which were published in the émigré press” (I.T.). However, during these years, literature and journalism were not Bakhareva’s primary occupations, and she did not become a genuinely notable figure in the Russian émigré culture. In Belgrade, she worked as the head of a boarding house for Russian female students and unemployed intelligent women (Burnakin 21-22).

This profile and a more detailed paper written in Russian (Kovalova 2011) rely heavily on Bakhareva’s papers held in the aforementioned Bakhmeteff Archive of Russian and East European Culture. These papers include her memoirs and correspondence with the Slavic scholar William B. Edgerton. In the early 1950s, he found Bakhareva’s address and asked her to write memoirs about her famous grandfather. Bakhareva agreed to do so, but since she scarcely knew Leskov, she could not provide many new facts about his biography. Yet this manuscript and Bakhareva’s correspondence with Edgerton are impressive as documents representing her own biography and some details of the Russian émigré life. For example, in her letter to Edgerton from September 1953, Bakhareva wrote: “After the last illness, I have become completely incapacitated, I am about 70 years old. I have no funds. In these recent times, I have been leading [a] wretched existence. In other words, I cannot live without outside help” (Bakhareva 95). She was suffering from arthritis and had to dictate her manuscripts and letters. Edgerton managed to find some funding that would support Bakhareva in her financial difficulties; they exchanged letters for several years, and the correspondence became more and more affable and openhearted.

We still know very little of Bakhareva’s personality. Andrei Leskov had a low opinion of her, writing in his unpublished manuscript (held at The Institute of Russian Literature): “[She was] extremely ignorant (close to crudity), dissolute, very confident and creepy. She liked to drink, to borrow money (without return), knew how to flatter and please.” In the necrology published in Novoe Russkoe Slovo, the most influential Russian émigré newspaper in America, she is described very differently: “Having inherited from her grandfather a literary talent and being attracted to literature, she soon left the stage for writing. The genres of her works are diverse and rich: fiction, dramatic works, theater criticism. […] With her death, the Russian colony in Buenos Aires has lost a major cultural power” (I.T.). This necrology probably exaggerates Bakhareva’s literary achievements, but it does not even mention her work in cinema, where she has genuinely placed herself on record. Very few people in the émigré community knew that aside from being Nikolai Leskov’s granddaughter, Bakhareva was the first female film producer in Russia.

The author wishes to thank Maya Kucherskaya for generously sharing her notes taken at the Manuscript Department of the Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House).

This profile is dedicated to the blessed memory of the outstanding Slavic scholar Hugh McLean (1925-2017), who, with all possible care and generosity, helped the author to carry out her research on Bakhareva and shared copies of her manuscripts, without which this work would have been impossible.


Bakhareva, N.D. “Nikolai Semenovich Leskov. Semeinaia khronika. Nravstvennye cherty kharaktera. Obshchestvennye idealy. Religioznye ubezhdeniia. (Memuary vnuchki N.S.Leskova pisatelnitsy Natalii Dmiitrievny Bakharevoi).” Bakhmeteff Archive of Russian and East European Culture, Columbia University.

Benois, A. N. Moi Dnevnik 1916-1917-1918/My Diary: 1916-1917-1918. Moscow: Russkii put’, 2003.

Burnakin, A. “Leskov i ego vnuki.” Moskovskii zhurnal no. 4 (1995): 21-23.

“Erkan”/“The Screen.” Teatral’naia gazeta no. 13-14 (1917): 19.

I.T. “Vnuchka N. S. Leskova (Pamiati N. D. Bakharevoi)”/“N. S. Leskov’s Granddaughter (In memory of N. D. Bakhareva.” Novoe Russkoe Slovo no. 16551 (13 July 1958): 8.

“Khronika”/“The Chronicle.” Kine-zhurnal no. 11-12 (1915): 114.

“Khronika”/“The Chronicle.” Kine-zhurnal no. 5-6 (1916): 82.

“Khronika”/“The Chronicle.” Teatral’naia gazeta no. 31 (1917): 13.

Kine-zhurnal no. 5-6 (1917): 82. [Kleo Karini’s portrait].

Kovalova, Anna. “Vnuchka Leskova i dorevoliutsionnoe kino”/“Leskov’s Granddaughter and Pre-revolutionary Cinema.” Kinovedcheskie zapiski no. 98 (2011): 41-51.

“Kriticheskoe obozrenie”/“The Critics’ Reviews.” Proektor no. 9 (1916): 13.

Leskov, A. N. Zhizn’ Nikolaia Leskova/The Life of Nikolai Leskov. Vol. 2. Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1984.

“Novye lenty”/“The New Films.” Sine-Fono no. 1 (1915): 136.

“Novye lenty”/“The New Films.” Sine-Fono no. 5-6 (1916): 134.

“Novye lenty”/“The New Films.” Proektor no. 19-20 (1917): 17.

Orem, S. “Zolotaia pyl’”/“The Golden Dust.” Novoe Russkoe Slovo no. 15398 (24 June 1954): 2-3.

Sine-Fono no. 17-20 (1917): 34. [Advertisement for films starring Kleo Karini].

“Sredi novinok”/“The New Films.” Sine-Fono no. 11-12 (1915): 73.

“Sredi novinok”/“The New Films.” Sine-Fono no. 5-6 (1916): 76.

Terekhova, Maria. The Silent Film Poster in the State Museum of the History of Saint Petersburg Collection 1914-1919. Saint Petersburg: GMI SPb, 2018.

Vishnevskii, V. “Katalog fil’mov chastnogo proizvodstva 1917-1921”/“Catalogue of Privately Produced Films.” In Sovetskie khudozhestvennye fil’my: annotirovannyi katalog. Vol. 3. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1961. 248-306.

Vsia kinematografiia/All the Cinematography. Moscow: Zh. Chibrario de Goden, 1916.

“Za rubezhom”/“Abroad.” Vozrozhdenie [Paris] no. 1862 (8 July 1930): 4.

Archival Paper Collections:

Andrei Leskov’s manuscripts. Fond 612, Ed. khr. 384, L. 2792. The Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House).

Natalia Dmitrievna Bakhareva Papers, 1952-1955. Bakhmeteff Archive of Russian and East European Culture, Columbia University Libraries, Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Noga, N. Letter to A. S. Suvorin. Fond 459, Opis’ 1, Ed. khr. 3016, L. 1. Russian State Archive of Literature and Arts.


Kovalova, Anna. "Natalia Bakhareva." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2021.  <>

Hu Ping

by Qin Xiqing

From 1931 to 1937, Hu Ping was a well-known left-wing film star and film critic (“Progressive Star”). Her abrupt withdrawal from the film industry in 1937, after the Chinese-Japanese War in Shanghai (also known as the “8.13 Incident”), led to repeated mentions in the wartime and post-war press about her, most of which portrayed her as a “fallen” actress. Among various queries about her possible whereabouts was one brief, positive review entitled “Thinking of Hu Ping,” which recalled her as a talented young actress active before the war, and noted that “since the anti-Japanese war ended successfully, most of the actors and actresses returned except the versatile Hu Ping. It’s so puzzling why nothing is heard about her” (Xiangshui). As a film star with a close connection to the Chinese left-wing cinema movement, Hu Ping is not completely forgotten today and is mentioned several times in Chinese Film Development History, the most widely read film history textbook in China, first published in 1963. The book credits her as an actress in more than a dozen silent and sound films and as the scenario writer of A Tragic Tale About My Sister/姊妹的悲剧 (1933), and notes her involvement with the League of Chinese Left-Wing Dramatists (Cheng et al. 185, 244, 272, 297). However, at the same time, Hu remains an obscure figure who, due to a lack of information about her, rarely attracts focused or in-depth scholarly attention today, except for the occasional journalistic interest in her (e.g., Ge 2007). Thus, in order to trace the contours of Hu’s film and journalistic career, this profile uses Chinese periodicals from the 1930s and 1940s, memoirs by contemporary playwrights and writers, Chinese Film Development History, and online sources as its main references.

Hu Ping in Ling Long/玲珑 no. 78 (December 14, 1932).

Hu Ping was born Hu Ying in either 1910 or 1913 in Changsha, Hunan Province, China. Her father, Hu Yinglin, was a proofreader for the New Hunan Newspaper (湖南新报) and was able to provide financial support for her education, though presumably with some difficulty (“Brief Autobiography”). After primary school, Hu attended either Changsha Provincial Girls School, Changsha Zhounan High School, or Ri Xin Women’s Fine Arts School, depending on different sources (Qi Ni; “Stars and Talented Women”; “Brief Autobiography”), and worked as a part-time waitress at the Far East Café Shop. In 1929, while still a student, she was asked by Zuo Tianxi (左天锡), co-founder of a school theatrical troupe called Frozen Rain Drama Troupe, to play a role in “Suzhou Night Talk” (“苏州夜话”) by the progressive playwright Tian Han (田汉). This experience aroused her interest in stage acting. She joined the troupe and appeared in other plays, such as Tian’s “Death of A Famous Actress” (“名优之死”),Trash Can” (垃圾桶”), and “Will to Life” (“生之意志”), as well as two Japanese plays, Eros,” by Mushanokoji Saneatsu, and “Father Returns,” by Kikuchi Kan, in December 1929 and February 1930, respectively.

Hoping to have an acting career, Hu moved to Shanghai in the summer of 1930 accompanied by Xiang Peiliang (向培良), a dramatist and friend of Tian Han. There, Hu attended Shanghai Art School and joined the South China Society (1927-1930), which was led by Tian. However, due to the group’s call for a people’s revolution during their staging of Tian’s adaptation of “Carmen,” the troupe was banned by the authorities. Hu then joined the Purple Song Drama Troupe and traveled to the city of Xiamen to stage “Nora” there for three days, playing the role of Kristine Lind (“Brief Autobiography”). After coming back to Shanghai, she and two friends founded their own theater troupe and staged the musical “Wang Zhaojun” (“王昭君”), in which she played a supporting role. Unfortunately, audiences were unfamiliar with the new musical theater art form and the production was a failure. The troupe dissolved soon after (Ma). Hu continued her stage career, however. In the early spring of 1931, she joined Big Road Drama Troupe. According to the 1935 article “Hu Ping’s Stage Life” in Qing Qing Cinema, she co-starred with Zheng Jun (郑君里), a well-known Chinese stage and film actor and director, in the play “The Men on the Kenk” by Alfred Sutro, and the “audience [was] deeply moved and even shed tears” (Fusheng). Through roles like this, Hu started to build a reputation in Shanghai, becoming known as an excellent actress. In this period, she also joined the League of Chinese Left-Wing Dramatists, which operated from 1931-1936, and became closely connected to a group of talented and pro-proletariat playwrights and dramatists.

Hu Ping on the cover of The Young Companion/Liangyou Magazine (February 1935).

In 1931, Hu transitioned into film acting with a starring role in Hero on the Sea/海上英雄 (1931) for Youlian Film Studio, a company famous for its martial arts films in the late 1920s and early 1930s. She then starred in Love Story of Forest Outlaws/绿林艳史 (1932) for Bai Hong Film Studio, but neither the name of the studio nor the title were included in her filmography in Chinese Film Development History. I also came across a very brief news item stating that she was going to play a seductive vamp in Three Riders/三骑士 for Fudan Film Studio (Niu), but I have not been able to find any further information about this project.

In 1932, Hu joined Star Film Company. There, she played supporting roles in Revival of National Spirit/国魂的复活 (1932), Adventures on Battle Ground/战地历险记 (1932), Cosmetics Market/脂粉市场 (1933), Prospects/前程 (1933), and Romance in Spring/春水情波 (1933), and starred in Love and Life/恋爱与生命 (1932) and A Tragic Tale About My Sister/姊妹的悲剧. As Chinese cinema went through the slow transition from silent to sound filmmaking, these films were all still silent except for Cosmetics Market. Heavily influenced by the guiding tenets of the League of Chinese Left-Wing Dramatists and other pro-Communist writers, most of these films were concerned with the suffering and pain of ordinary people. Consciousness-raising around women’s issues was also a repeated theme, and these films often focused on women’s struggles for independence.

In was within this context that Hu wrote her only film script: A Tragic Tale About My Sister. According to the original scenario, published in Star in 1933, this now lost film tells the story of Yu Ying, a poor village girl whose older brother and father, suffering from the hardships of rural life, die at the hand of the bullying landlord Wang Ruilin. Yu Ying and her younger brother, Ying Sheng, then flee to Shanghai to make a living working in a factory. While Ying Sheng gets involved in a worker’s strike and is put into prison, Yu Ying is dismissed from the factory and has to support herself, first as a housemaid and then as a dancer. She falls in love with a rich young man named Youlin who ultimately betrays her and even plans to give her away as a gift to a warlord. Miserable, Yu Ying then finds out that Youlin is the son of the landlord Wang Ruilin. Recalling the death of her older brother and father, she is furious and seeks revenge. She consequently attempts to murder Youlin while he is drunk one night, but, ultimately, gets arrested for attempted murder (Hu, “Script Story,” 3-4).

In this melodramatic story, Hu shows sympathy for the poor and tries to portray the cruel side of rural life in China in the early 1930s: the high price of land leasing, the low price of silk, vexatious taxing, and natural disasters like floods or drought. A Tragic Tale About My Sister echoes another film produced that year, Spring Silkworm (1933), made by the same studio, which tells the story of the hardships faced by a family of silk growers. While there is no information regarding how Hu came up with the story for A Tragic Tale About My Sister, she was publicly credited as the scenario writer of this film (Hu, “Script Story,” 3; Tu 22), and she was praised as a female screenwriter on par with Ai Xia (艾霞), who wrote and starred in A Modern Woman that same year (“Passionate and Bold Hu Ping”). The fact that this was Hu’s only script led to some doubt about her authorship, and a later news article even claimed that the script was written by Hu’s lover, Hou Feng, since Hu did not come up with any scripts after they split up (“Old Stories of Screen Stars”). However, Hu is not alone in creating only one piece of work; numerous Chinese women filmmakers in the 1920s and 1930s produced only one film. For instance, China’s first woman screenwriter Pu Shunqing (濮舜卿) only wrote Cupid’s Puppet/爱神的玩偶 (1925), director Xie Caizhen (謝采貞) only made Orphan’s Cries/孤雏悲声 (1925), and Ai Xia only wrote A Modern Woman, which perhaps suggests how challenging it was for Chinese women to maintain behind-the-scenes roles in the film industry at that time.

Hu Ping in Film Weekly/电影周刊 no. 22.

Interestingly, Hu was reportedly planning to direct A Tragic Tale About My Sister herself, but her proposal was rejected by Star Film Company. According to a 1933 article in Ling Long, Wang Jiting, an actor at the studio, was appointed to be the director, which angered Hu, who announced her plan to leave the company when shooting was complete (“Anecdotes About Chinese Film”). Another news report stated that the company was carefully searching for a qualified director for the film and that Hu was going to be the assistant director (Suzhoulao). Based on these different versions of the story, it could be inferred that there was some sort of negotiation between Hu and the studio concerning the position of director. According to Chinese Film Development History, the film was co-directed by Gao Lihen, one of the studio’s important directors, and Wang Jiting (Cheng et al. 244, 542). No official record confirms Hu’s credit of assistant director on this project, and there is no indication that she tried to direct another film. Soon after production completed, she left the Star Film Company for the newly established Yi Hua Film Company.

Portrait of Hu Ping. Date unknown.

At Yi Hua, Hu starred or co-starred in Flames/烈焰 (1933), Women/女人 (1934), and The Golden Times/黄金时代 (1934), her last three silent films. In these, she played women who were charming, daring, and strong-minded—character types that are more often than not considered to be “fallen” women. In Flames, she played a woman named Ah Zhen who abandons her boyfriend for a rich man (Zheng and Guiqing 2659-60). In The Golden Times, she played Tao Li, a beautiful and vain young woman who ends up becoming a warlord’s concubine (Zheng and Guiqing 2955-56). In Women, however, she played Jin Ling, a strong-willed and independent young woman who is expelled from school for fighting against an injustice toward her female classmate,  eventually becoming a gynecologist (Zheng and Guiqing 2957-58). In 1933, the Yi Hua Film Company was attacked by the “Blueshirts,” a political organization supported by the Kuomintang (the Chinese Nationalist Party), for its pro-Communist films that advocated for a class struggle between the rich and the poor. It became increasingly difficult for the left-wing filmmakers to work at the company. However, Hu stayed and acted in four more sound productions. She then moved to the Xinhua Film Company and was cast in four more talkies, among which The Phantom Lover/夜半歌声 (1937) and Youth on the March/青年进行曲 (1937) were the most successful and mark the peak of her stardom.

As a well-known writer, Hu regularly published articles in newspapers and magazines over the course of her film career. In these articles, she told stories about the struggles she faced in her acting career and expressed her tender feelings about the world and her life in a fresh and natural style. She also wrote about the cinema, arguing that it was an art form that should reflect the reality of life rather than avoid it. Unsurprisingly, her ideas about cinema were in line with Marxist-oriented left-wing thinking. For example, in “The Task of Cinema in My Point of View,” she wrote:

[I]n the contemporary society which is so chaotic and disconcerting, cinema shouldn’t be an entertainment for the leisured class, but should be an instrument for [the] masses to cry out. Therefore, the stories and descriptions of cinema should go deep into the life of the people, delicately and accurately represent their situation, point out a correct way-out for them. And this is exactly the mission for the modern cinema. (4)

Similarly, in “Chinese Cinema From Now ON,” she reiterated this belief that film should not only be entertainment but also an instrument for educating people: “Standing in the position of revolution, we naturally take film as the phonograph for the oppressed. It can be used as an instrument to inspire and awaken people and teach the oppressed to rebel against their enemy” (46). Seeing the rapidly developing economic crises around the world and the ways that imperialist countries exploited their colonies, Hu worried that China, a semi-colonial country and a potentially large market, was also in danger of being exploited. She wrote, “Undoubtedly, we are going to take film as an anti-imperialist weapon. We are going guide the people to be aware of the ugliness of the imperialism, to fight against the carving up China by imperialists by exposing their conspiracy” (46). For her, film was the best weapon for a developing nation to fight against imperialism and feudalism.

In an article entitled “About National Defense Movies,” Hu supported the 1936 call, made by leading left-wing writers and artists, for an anti-Japanese national defense film (国防电影). She agreed with many that the cinema could be used as a weapon for national liberation. (In answer to this call, a few anti-Japanese war films were produced, such as Blood on Wolf Mountain [狼山喋血记, 1936] and Soaring Aspiration [壮志凌云, 1936].) In her article, Hu also pointed out the importance of creating appealing cinematic products since the Chinese film industry was still subject to market and commercial forces at that time (14).

Hu Ping in Ling Long/玲珑 no. 160 (November 14, 1934).

What happened to Hu Ping after the “8.13 Incident” remains a mystery today. She stayed for a short time in Wuhan and then disappeared from public view after the city was occupied by the Japanese army in October 1938 (“Progressive Star”). There are numerous and contradictory descriptions of her later life. She reportedly either married a Hong Kong merchant (“Film Star Hu Ping ”) or a professor at Hu Nan University (“Hu Ping Becomes a Professor’s Wife”). Other sources suggested she either became the mistress of a military officer in Yunnan (Huang 285-56) or a Buddhist nun (Qing). Pan Jienong, a famous screenwriter, recalled seeing Hu in the arms of Xu Kan, the Minister of Food of the Kuomintang government, on the street in Chengdu in 1942 (189-91). And Fei Ge reported in 2007 that Hu lived anonymously until the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s in her hometown of Changsha (D2).

Hu Ping in Ling Long/玲珑 no. 251 (August 26, 1936).

While we do not know what happened to Hu, it is clear that she was a product of a particular moment in Chinese history, when there was a move for women’s liberation in education, the economy, and the arts in the 1920s and 1930s, which made it possible for her to pursue a theater and performance career. Actively involved in left-wing politics in the 1930s, she was an independent and bold figure on screen and on the page with her critical writing. Known as the “Red Girl” because she often dressed in red from head to toe, she was also a fashion icon, embodying with her chosen color both the revolution and urban modernity. In this way, as in her short but prolific film career, Hu epitomized the complex economic, political, and cultural forces that shaped mainstream Chinese cinema during both the late silent and early sound eras.


“Anecdotes About Chinese Film: Hu Ping Is Leaving the Star Film Company. ” Ling Long/玲珑 vol. 13, no. 14 (1933): 628.

“Brief Autobiography of Hu Ping”/ “圈外胡萍小传.” Cinema News/电影新闻 vol. 2, no. 1 (1935): 7.

Cheng, Jihua, Shaobai Li, and Zuwen Xing. Chinese Film Development History/中国电影发展史. Beijing: China Film Press, 1981.

“A Dozen Facts about Hu Ping”/ “关于胡萍一打.” Shadow Picture/影画 vol.1, no. 13 (1934): 17.

“Film Star Hu Ping, Temporarily Living in HK, Married to Sheng Laoqi”/“旅港明星胡萍,下嫁盛老七.” Electric Sound/电声 vol. 8,  no. 12 (1939): 565.

Fusheng. “Hu Ping’s Stage Life”/“胡萍的演剧生活.” Qing Qing Cinema/青青电影  vol. 11 (1935): 2.

Ge, Fei. “Red Girl Hu Ping”/“红姑娘胡萍.” Beijing Youth Newspaper/北京青年报 (14 May 2007): D2.

Hu, Ping. “About National Defense Movies”/“关于国防电影.” Xin Hua Pictorial/新华画报 vol. 1, no. 2 (1936): 14.

---. “Chinese Cinema From Now ON”/“今后的中国电影.” Cultural Circle/文化圈 vol. 1, no. 2 (1933): 45-6.

---. “A Fragment of Life”/“生活的片断.” Movie Fan Monthly/影迷月报 vol. 1, no. 9 (1934): 6.

---. “From Stage to Screen”/ “从舞台到银幕.” Drama/vol. 2 (1933): 15.

---. “How I Started Stage Playing (cont’d)”/ “我怎么演起戏来(续).” Modern News/现代新闻 vol. 1, no. 2 (1934): 38.

---. “On Peach Blossom Fan”/“关于桃花扇.” Xin Hua Special Peach Blossom Fan/新华特刊桃花扇 (1 Nov. 1935): Rpt. in Selected Historical Materials of Chinese Cinema: Movie Reviews (1921-1949). Ed. Duofei Chen. Beijing: China Film Press, 2014. 548.

---. Script Story of A Tragic Tale About My Sister.” Star/明星 vol. 1, no. 3 (1933): 3-4.

---. “Starvation”/“饿.” Oriental Magazine/东方杂志 vol. 32, no. 1 (1935): 48-9.

---. “The Task of Cinema in My Point of View”/ “电影任务的我见.” Star/明星 vol. 1, no. 3 (1933):1-4.

---. “Under the Mercury Lamp”/ “水银灯下.” Cinema of the Times/时代电影 no. 6 (1934): 23.

“Hu Ping Becomes a Professor’s Wife: Once A Coquettish Girl, Now Turning a New Leaf”/“胡萍作了敎授太太:當年風騷一時, 現在改過自新.” Drama World/戏世界 vol. 385 (1948): 7.

“Hu Ping: Red Girl with Red Passion”/“胡萍:红色的姑娘有着红色的热情.” Star/明星 vol. 3 (1938): 7.

Huang, Miaozi. “The Woman Who Loves Hot Pepper”/“爱吃辣椒的女人.” In A New Version of the Tales of the World/世说新篇. Beijing: SDX Joint Publishing Company, 2006. 285-6.

Ma, Jun. “A Wondering Girl: Hu Ping”/“一个流浪的姑娘胡萍. Chinese Cinema/中国电影 vol. 1, no. 4 (1937): 18.

Mingda. “Hu Ping, the Mystery of Disappearance: A Mysterious Legendary Life of a Woman Film Star ”/ “胡萍: 失踪之谜: 女明星的神秘传奇生活.” Film Drama/影剧 vol. 8 (1946): 1.

Niu, Si. “Stars News”/ “星訊.” Screen Weekly/银幕周报 vol. 3 (1931): 5.

“Old Stories of Screen Stars.” Star/明星 [Shanghai] vol. 8 (1939): 10.

Pan, Jienong. “Shining Hu Yin, Fallen Hu Ping”/“ 闪光的英茵殒落的胡萍.” In Sixty Years of Stage and Screen: Memoir of Pan Jienong/舞台银幕六十年. Nanjing: Jiangsu Ancient Works Publisher, 1994. 189-91.

“Passionate and Bold Hu Ping”/ “热情而勇毅的胡萍.” Star/明星 [Shanghai] vol. 4 (1938): 4.

“Progressive Star: Hu Ping’s Recent Developments”/“前进明星:胡萍的近况. Metropolis/都会 vol. 8 (1939): 136.

Qi Ni, Jiaying.  “Hu Ping, A Writer & Star in the Republic of China: ‘Red Girl’ with Multiple Skills”/ “民国 ‘作家明星’胡萍——‘红姑娘’一身本领.” (30 August 2017).

Qing, Qing. “Hu Ping Becomes a Buddhist Nun”/“胡萍做了尼姑.” Southeast Wind/东南风 vol. 15 (1946): 6.

“Stars and Talented Women Connected with Changsha In the Republic of China”/“民国时期与长沙结缘的明星与才女. CNXXPL/新湘评论 (28 May 2018).

Suzhoulao. Brief News from the Film Circle: Hu Ping Is Going to be Assistant Director”/ “银坛屑闻: 胡萍将做副导演.” Modern Life/现代生活 vol. 3 (1933): 13.

Tu, Nan. “Hu Ping Is Both a Writer and Artist”/“胡萍是文学家又艺术家. Silver Picture/银画 vol. 3 (1933): 7, 22.

Xiangshui. “Thinking of Hu Ping”/“怀念胡萍.” New Light/新光 vol. 6 (1947): 1.

Zheng, Peiwei and Liu Guiqing, eds. Chinese Silent Films Scripts/中国无声电影剧本. Beijing: China Film Press, 1996.


Xiqing, Qin. "Hu Ping." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2021.  <>

Anna Mar

by Anna Andreeva

According to the list of films in Veniamin Vishnevskii’s 1945 catalogue of early Russian feature films, the first Russian female screenwriters started working in 1910. Based on my analysis of the catalogue, approximately 7% of feature film production in imperial Russia was written by thirty-seven different female authors. Anna Mar, a famous Russian novelist who began her screenwriting career in 1914 for film producer Alexandr Khanzhonkov, was the second most productive of these female screenwriters. (The first one was Olga Blazhevich, a translator who wrote fifteen screenplays.) From 1914 to 1917, Mar wrote, according to Vishnevskii’s catalogue, eleven scripts for different Russian film studios: Lyulya Bek (1914), Stupefaction/Durman (1915), Three Kings’ Day/Den’ trekh koroley (1916), Mask of a Soul/Maska dushi (1916), Light-Blue Irises/Golubye irisy (1916), Storm of Love/Smerch l’ubovny (1916), Wild Force/Dikaya sila (1916), Aphrodite’s Taunt/Nasmeshka Afrodity (1916), Dominator/Vlastelin (1917), Heart Thrown to Wolves/Serdtse broshennoe volkam (1917), and Saving the Neighbor/Spasenie blizhnego (1917). In 1918, after Mar’s death, her last films, Bewitched Circle/Zakoldovannyi krug (1918) and Jellyfish’s Smile/Ulybka meduzy (1918), were released.

Screenshot. The entry for Wild Force (1916) on the Early Russian Film Prose project website.

Unfortunately, much of Mar’s film work is lost; only fragments of two films, Lyulya Bek and Wild Force, are preserved at Gosfilmofond. Moreover, all of her manuscripts are lost. Some of her letters to literary critics are preserved in the Russian State Archive of Literature and Arts (RGALI), but, in them, Mar makes no mention of her film career. Fortunately, however, some information about her film work can still be found today. Two of her thirteen scripts, Stupefaction and Storm of Love, were published in a pre-revolutionary journal called Pegas (Mar, “Durman” 7-22; Mar, “Smerch l’ubonyi” 3-24). There are also lists of intertitles from some of Mar’s films in the archive of the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK). Brief descriptions of film plots (librettos), including nine librettos for Mar’s films, were published in the pre-revolutionary press and are digitally available on the Early Russian Film Prose project website. Although librettos, used for film promotion in the press, were rarely written by the screenwriters themselves, these materials give us vital access to Mar’s lost work. A great deal of information on the screenwriter’s output is still missing, however. For example, while we have the credit information for her film Jellyfish’s Smile, the plot remains unknown.

Film poster for Light-Blue Irises (1916) in The Silent Film Poster in the State Museum of the History of Saint Petersburg Collection 1914-1919 (2018).

Before Mar became one of the most well-known Russian screenwriters in the mid-1910s, she was a recognized writer. Born Anna Brovar in Saint Petersburg, she ran away from her parents’ home at the age of fifteen and got married in the city of Kharkov in the south of the Russian Empire (now Ukraine) (Reitblat 514-15). In Kharkov, she worked as an obituary writer for the newspaper Southern Edge/Yuzhnyi krai where her pseudonym “Anna Mar” appeared for the first time. In 1906, Mar published her first collection of short stories, or so-called “cartes postales,” entitled Miniatures/Miniat’ury.

In 1910, Mar began to write short stories for various journals and newspapers based in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. In 1912, she moved to Moscow where her short story, The Impossible/Nevozmozhnoe, was published. The story, about a married woman’s love for a Catholic priest, was highly praised by literary critics and has resulted in the widespread belief that Mar was in love with a monk herself. From then on, critics tended to read Mar’s literary texts as autobiographical. For example, an unnamed reviewer in Moscow Newspaper/Moskovskaya gazeta wrote: “In the short story, the undeniable writer’s talent was revealed […] there is the truth and a vital, perhaps even subjectively experienced, private drama” (Moscow Newspaper). Even today, some scholars suggest that “real feelings became a base for Anna Mar’s esthetic self-expression” (Gracheva 60).

Portrait of Anna Mar. Courtesy of the Russian State Library.

The theme of religion was also central in Mar’s next three short stories, God/Bog, Unlit Icon-lamps/Lampady nezzazhennye, and The Passing By/Idushhie mimo, all published in 1913. Her next publication, the novel I Have Sinned Only for You/Tebe edinomy sogreshila (1914), which, like The Impossible was about a woman’s love for a priest, was seen as further evidence of Mar’s private affairs. Therefore, the private love life of this young Russian writer was already in the limelight during the first half of the 1910s.

In the mid-1910s, Russian film producers, following the example of foreign film companies, invited famous poets and authors to write screenplays for them. For example,  Alexandr Khanzhonkov signed contracts with writers like Fyodor Sologub, Leonid Andreev, Alexandr Kuprin, Anna Mar, and others (Kushnirovich 136). The writers (for example, Kuprin) usually worked on screen adaptations of their literary texts. Mar was no exception, and her first film, Lyulya Bek, was a screen adaptation of her short story of the same name. All other film scripts written by Mar, however, were original stories for the screen.

The preserved fragment of Lyulya Bek is too short to tell us much about the film: in it, the café-chantant singer named Lyulya is holding a letter from her lover Vitold. The figure of the performing woman in early Russian cinema has been discussed by Rachel Morley in her book Performing Femininity: Woman as Performer in Early Russian Cinema (2017). As Morley points out, early Russian filmmakers were focused on the “typical gender roles of woman as performer and man as observer” (217), and female protagonists of early Russian films were often performers, like Lyulya. However, unlike other instances of this pattern, Lyulya seems conscious of her position. According to the digitized libretto, she leaves Vitold to give him a chance at happiness with another woman because, as Lyulya believes, her reputation and social status as a performer cannot let them be happy together. After she announces her decision to him, Vitold shoots himself at Lyulya’s performance in the café-chantant.

It seems that Mar shunned the typical pre-revolutionary Russian film plot described by film historian Neia Zorkaia in her monograph At the Turn of the Centuries: At the Origins of Mass Art in Russia in 1900-1910 (1976). According to Zorkaia, who followed folklorist Vladimir Propp’s ideas, the typical protagonist (both male and female) of early Russian cinema was always a victim or a seducer (245). Yet Mar’s characters are often more complicated than this simple binary.

A scene from Three Kings’ Day (1916) published in Proektor no. 3 (1916).

For example, Jutta, the female protagonist of Three Kings’ Day is married but also has a lover. According to the libretto, on Three Kings’ Day (Polish Christmas), a second suitor—a count—promises to take Jutta to Paris. In order to unite with this new, second lover, she sets her husband and her first lover against each other and they both die in a shootout. Thus, she behaves like a seductress in a typical early Russian film plot. However, feeling guilty, Jutta soon reveals her involvement in the crime and the disappointed count leaves her. In an anonymous review, one critic drew attention to the final moments of the film when Jutta is suffering: “When the corpse of her husband is brought into a room full of guests, the heroine, addressing the count, immediately asks him to take her away…This action is not in the spirit of a sly, clever and careful woman” (“Den’ trekh korolei”). Jutta is no longer the seducer and transforms into the victim. This is likely why the critic, who was used to the typical binary in the film plots that Zorkaia described, was not satisfied with the final act of the film.

A scene from Mask of a Soul (1916) published in Proektor no. 5 (1916).

Additionally, in some of the films written by Mar, a woman is often a victim and a seducer at the same time. In Stupefaction, teenager Fanny dreams of becoming a model like her older sister Clara. She soon seduces the artist Mayevsky, who is also Clara’s lover. Learning the truth about her sister and Mayevsky, Clara throws herself out of the window, killing herself because she could not protect Fanny from working as a painter’s model (Mar, “Stupefaction” 7-22). From Clara’s point of view, the seductress Fanny is also the victim of Mayevsky. In Mask of a Soul, the main character, Irena Rembovskaya, is engaged to a count but is intrigued by the wealthy owner of an antique store, an Italian named Cesare Scabbi. She goes to visit and to seduce Cesare, but accidentally kills him “during lovemaking” (“Novye lenty”). She soon regrets betraying the count and punishes herself by committing suicide, blurring the line between seducer and sufferer.

Film poster for Wild Force with Anna Mar’s name referenced.

This is not to say that Mar’s films always complicated the victim/seducer binary. Wild Force seems to follow the typical Russian film plot. As Zorkaia noted, if there is a female protagonist, she is likely to repeat the life of Liza, the character of Nikolay Karamzin’s short story Poor Liza/Bednaya Liza (1792) who drowns herself after her lover abandons her (Zorkaia 245). In Mar’s film, Edda likewise ends up committing suicide after a homeless man breaks into her bedroom and rapes her. The preserved fragment of the film represents the scene of Edda’s suicide. In it, she is standing on a cliff, hesitating, looking back and forth. The landscape plays an important role in this scene; Edda looks small and helpless among the thick trees and against the fast-flowing river in the background. In this film, the woman faces both the brutality of humanity and the power of nature. A critic in Vestnik kinematografii praised the story, seeing Edda as an unconventional character for Mar: “The script […] is not one of the most vivid screenplays written by Anna Mar but at the same time the theme and its representation on the screen are unconventional for the writer who often repeats her templates in her best works for the screen” (“Dikaya sila”). Thus, what was seen as rare in Mar’s work was an acceptance of traditional, static victim/seducer characterizations. By following these conventions, Mar ultimately satisfied the critics.

Mar’s focus, in both her literary prose and her screenplays, was ultimately on the female condition and the challenges that women faced in society. This interest in women’s everyday experiences in Russia stemmed from a particular journalistic endeavor that put her in direct communication with them. From 1914 until her death, under the pseudonym “La princesse Lointaine,” Mar wrote short articles on women’s everyday life and answered readers’ letters in a column called “Private Talks” [“Intimnye besedy”] in the Journal for Women. Women wrote to La princesse Lointaine about their private lives, relationships, marriages, and loves. As she once noted, her column, “supported women who were left alone, who were afraid to keep a child, who did not know another way to get financial independence but prostitution and those who were about to commit suicide” (“Intimnye besedy” [1917]). Mar ultimately took part in the editing of seventy-four issues of the Journal for Women and answered hundreds of letters. Not only did this experience give Mar access to different women’s perspectives over the course of her career,  but she also seemed to consider these readers an important audience for her work. Addressing female readers of the Journal for Women, Mar claimed that, “All my stories and novels, from the first to the last, I dedicated only to you. […] Do you remember how often you wrote to me after reading my novels?” (“Intimnye besedy” [1914]).

Over the course of her film career, Mar wrote scripts for film studios like Akz. o-vo A. Khanzhonkov, T/d Perskii, T-vo Kinoiskusstvo, Argo, Biofilm, and Ekran. Looking at the film posters for many of her films, it is apparent that Mar was a recognizable entity in the film industry. Her name is often more noticeable than the actors’ names, and the critics often paid attention to her work even though it was more common to ignore the screenwriter altogether and comment on the director and the actors instead. Such attention to her work from the critics was likely due to her unconventional film plots and atypical female protagonists. In 1916, Mar also won the first competition for screenwriters in Russia with her script for Heart Thrown to Wolves (Korolevich 13). As Vladimir Korolevich noted, her win was unexpected because many popular and experienced male authors took part in this competition (13). Unfortunately, her winning script is lost and the plot of the film, which was released in 1917, can only be reconstructed thanks to a review of the film. According to the unnamed critic, the film involved, “an affair, exile from home, the rapprochement with a new lover, the murder of the previous lover, the suicide of the husband, regrets and horrors of the ‘bottom’ because of the return to the first lover” (Proektor).

In 1917, a few months after the release of her novel Woman on the Cross/Zhenschina na kreste, Mar poisoned herself in her rented apartment on Tverskaya Street in Moscow. She had been working on Woman on the Cross from 1914 until 1916 while she was writing screenplays and contributing to “Private Talks.” The controversial novel followed Alina Rushits, a rich twenty-eight-year-old woman who dreams of physical punishment at the hands of the book’s sadistic male character, fifty-four-year-old Heinrich Shemiot. The story covers their relationship and ends with the full and voluntary subordination of the woman to the man. The book was not well received, and the criticism of it affected Mar. In her obituary, Mar’s close friend Lidia Pisarzhevskaya wrote:

A criticism? It contributed to the sea of bitterness that had accumulated in Mar’s wounded, humble heart. ‘‘Woman On The Cross! I don’t know,” she said to me this summer with her voice broken with desperation. And with a nervous gesture, she threw out a whole pile of newspaper clippings, ‘‘Forty-nine negative reviews! Too much for one woman!” (Pisarzhevskaya)

The cover of the third edition of Anna Mar’s book Woman on the Cross (published in 1918). Private Collection.

Woman on the Cross was sold out within two weeks of its publication and was adapted for the screen that same year but without the permission of Mar, who was still alive at the time. Directed by Viacheslav Viskovskii, the film was released with the title Offended Venera/Oskorblyonnaya Venera. Viskovskii changed the main premise of Mar’s story, and had the female character kill the sadistic male protagonist in the end. Unhappy, Mar wrote to the anonymous screenwriter of Offended Venera: “I express to Mr. Anonymous not only my timid censure, I also dare remind him that I still have four books not stolen yet” (Mar, “Pis’mo v redaktsiyu” 126).

The lists of authors whose books were to be excluded, Red Librarian no. 1 (1924): 137-38.

After Mar’s suicide, her legacy began to fade. In 1924, the process of collectivization of Russian libraries led to the exclusion of Mar’s short stories and novels from libraries. The first lists of authors, whose books were supposed to be banned, were published in a journal called Red Librarian/Krasnyi bibliotekar.’ Mar’s name, with the indication “(all)” next to it, was included in the first part of the list entitled “Mass Literature” (“Primernye spiski” 138). Thus, Mar’s literary texts were difficult to access for Soviet readers. It was only in the 1990s that Woman on the Cross and some of Mar’s short stories were republished. Fortunately, there appears to be growing scholarly interest today in Mar’s literary prose, as well as in the work of her coevals, the other female writers who were also actively forgotten during the Soviet era. The newest collection of Mar’s literary texts, Woman on the Cross, was released by the publishing initiative “Common place” in Moscow in 2020. At the same time, the lack of filmic materials and the inaccessibility of sources make it difficult to reconstruct Mar’s screenwriting career, as well as the history of pre-revolutionary Russian cinema more broadly, which still seems more attractive to archivists rather than to film scholars. Therefore, Mar’s work for the screen remains under-explored today even though she was one of the most productive female screenwriters of her period.

The author wishes to thank Maria Nesternko and Maria Mikhaylova for the portraits of Anna Mar; Anna Kovalova for her advice and support; the archivists at VGIK for access to the preserved intertitles; and the archivists at Gosfilmofond for the opportunity to see the fragments of Mar’s films.


“Den’ trekh korolei”/“Three Kings’ Day.” Proektor no. 3 (1916): 11

“Dikaya sila”/“Wild Force.” Vestnik kinematografii no. 118 (1916): 8.

Gracheva, Alla.‘Zhiznetvorchestvo’ Anny Mar”/“Anna Mar’s ‘Life creating.’” Litsa: Biograficheskii alʹmanah, 1996. 56-76.

“Intimnye besedy”/“Private Talks.” Journal for Women no. 1 (1914): 9.

“Intimnye besedy”/“Private Talks.” Journal for Women no. 14 (1915): 11.

“Intimnye besedy”/“Private Talks.” Journal for Women no. 1 (1917): 12.

Ivanova, V., Mylnikova, V., Skovorodnikova, S., Tsivian, Y., Yangirov, R. Velikij Kinemo: Katalog sohranivšichsya filmov v Rossii/The Great Cinema: Catalogue of Preserved Feature Films in Russia. 1908-1919. Moscow: NLO, 2002.

Korolevich, Vladimir. Zhenshhina v kino/A Woman in Cinema. Moscow: Teakinopechat’, 1928.

Kushnirovich, Michail. “Russkij stsenarij: detstvo, ortochestvo, yunost'”/“Russian Screenplay: Childhood, Boyhood, Youth.” Ekrannye iskusstva i literatura. Nemoe kino (1911): 130-155.

Mar A. “Pis’mo v redaktsiyu”/“A Letter To an Editorial Board.” Pegas no. 11 (1916): 126-28.

Mar, Anna. “Durman”/“Stupefaction.” Pegas no. 2 (1915): 7-22.

---. “Smerch l’ubonyi/“Storm of Love.” Pegas no. 3 (1916): 3-24.

---. Zhenschina na kreste/Woman On the Cross. Moscow: Sovremennye problemy, 1916.

---. Zhenschina na kreste/Woman On the Cross. Moscow: Common Place, 2020.

Mikhaylova, Maria. “Anna Mar, pervaya zhenschina v professii”/“Anna Mar, the first woman in the profession.” Iskusstvo kino no. 1 (2015).

Morley, Rachel. Performing Femininity: Woman as Performer in Early Russian Cinema. London: I.B. Taurus, 2017.

Moscow Newspaper (13 February 1912): 5.

“Novye lenty”/“New films.” Sine-Fono no. 19-20 (1916): 155.

Pisarzhevskaya, Lidia. “Tragicheskaya smert’ A. Y. Mar”/“A Tragic Death of A. Y. Mar.” Journal for Women no. 8 (1917): 14.

“Primernye spiski k instruktsii po ochistke bibliotek”/“The Preliminary Lists to the Instruction for 'Cleanings' in Libraries.”  Red Librarian no. 1 (1924): 137-38.

Proektor no. 11-12 (1916): 9.

Reitblat, Abram. “Anna Mar.” In Russkie pisateli 1800-1917. vol. 3. Ed. Peter Nikolaev. Moscow: Bolshaya Rossiiskaya Enciclopediya, 1994. 514-15.

Terekhova, Maria. The Silent Film Poster in the State Museum of the History of Saint Petersburg Collection 1914-1919. Saint Petersburg, 2018.

Vishnevskii, Veniamin. Khudozhestvennye filʹmy dorevol’utsionnoi Rossii/Feature films of pre-revolutionary Russia. Moscow: Goskinoizdat, 1945.

Zorkaia, Neia. Na rubezhe stoletii: u isotkov massovogo iskusstva v Rossii 1900-1910 godov/At the Turn of the Century: The Origins of Mass Art in Russia 1900–1910. Moscow: Nauka, 1976.

Archival Paper Collections:

“A note about the woman.” [“Zapis' o zhenshhine”] Box 421, Folder 10. Archive and collection of N.V. Rykovskii. The Manuscript Department, Russian State Library.

Digitized librettos. Film Texts Database [part of the Early Russian Film Prose research project].

Intertitle lists at Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK):

Letters written by Anna Mar. Russian State Archive of Literature and Arts.


Andreeva, Anna. "Anna Mar." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2020.  <>

Virginia Dale

by Richard Abel

Little is known about Virginia Dale before she began reviewing films for the Chicago Journal. One further complication is that no copies of the Journal seem to survive before 1921, although she did begin writing a column at least two years earlier. In October 1919, the Fort Wayne Sunday News, for instance, reprinted her review of Broken Blossoms (1919) in full (“New Picture Adds to Fame”). By 1921, the Journal considered Dale important enough for its readers to post a series of small advertisements repeatedly promoting her film reviews.

As other women columnists had before her, in late 1921 Dale toured a film studio, visiting the Fox Film Corporation in Fort Lee, New Jersey. What particularly struck her was not only the music performed for the actors to “work in rhythm” in a scene but also all the people walking around in costumes from every age of history, in a kind of “Alice’s Wonderland” (“Fox Studios Hive”). She was one of the few newspaper columnists to make note of the yellow make-up on actors’ faces, which, when recorded on orthochromatic film stock, ensured audiences that their characters were perceived as “properly” white.

Although Dale praised films such as Robin Hood (1922) unequivocally (“Time Can Not Tarnish This Film”), she quibbled about others like Flaming Youth (1923), warning Colleen Moore to avoid becoming “too cute” (“News of the Motion Picture World” [30 October 1923]). Dale’s frustration with Cecil B. DeMille’s upper-class melodramas, however, was more than a quibble: in the case of Saturday Night (1922), she found the director once again dazzled by money, concocting the opulent display of yet another infamous bathroom scene (“At the Theaters”). But Dale also devoted columns to less expected subjects: from the career of June Mathis, a model scenario writer (“News of the Motion Picture World” [25 October 1923]), to the Rothacker Film company, Chicago’s major manufacturer of advertising films and the laboratory responsible for developing the negatives and making positive prints of feature films from First National and other producers (“Moving Pictures: Chicago Movie Makers”). In a clever strategy to fulfill her readers’ demand for gossip, Dale also created the foil of a “Chatty Caller,” who, as if sitting beside her, kept serving up tasty tidbits in column after column (“Moving Pictures: Chatty Caller”).

Ad for Virginia Dale’s reviews in the Chicago Journal (18 June 1921): 8.

Through the 1920s, Dale served as both the motion picture and drama editor for the Chicago Journal. Theater advertisements often used quotes from her reviews to promote individual films, and not only in Chicago. By the late 1920s, she was known as a magazine writer of short stories and as the author of an entry summarizing the Chicago season for Burns Mantle’s annual theater volume (Donaghey). Whatever career she had after the Journal ceased publication in 1930 is unclear.

See also: “Newspaperwomen and the Movies in the USA, 1914-1925,” Special Dossier on Early US Newspaperwomen


Abel, Richard. Movie Mavens: Early US Newspaper Women Take on the Movies, 1914-1923. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, forthcoming.

Dale, Virginia. “At the Theaters: Saturday Night.” Chicago Journal (21 January 1922): 9.

---. “Fox Studios Hive of Industry.” Chicago Journal (17 December 1919): 7.

---. “Moving Pictures: Chatty Caller Brings News of Filmdom.” Chicago Journal (10 February 1922): 13.

---. “Moving Pictures: Chicago Movie Makers Celebrate Anniversary.” Chicago Journal (5 May 1922): 14.

---. “New Picture Adds to Fame of Griffith.” Fort Wayne Sunday News and Sentinel (18 October 1919): 3.12.

---. “News of the Motion Picture World.” Chicago Journal (25 October 1923): 11.

---. “News of the Motion Picture World.” Chicago Journal (30 October 1923): 17.

---. “Time Can Not Tarnish This Film.” Chicago Journal (27 January 1923): 8.

Donaghey, Frederick. “Mr. Mantle’s Volume Dated 1928-’28.” Chicago Sunday Tribune (16 December 1928): 7.1.

State-Lake Theater advertisement. Chicago Tribune (7 March 1927): 18.


Abel, Richard. "Virginia Dale." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2020.  <>

Harriette Underhill

by Richard Abel

Born in Troy, New York, Harriette Underhill came to New York City, fleeing a brief marriage, at age sixteen, and became interested in the theater. After touring with several companies (including as part of the chorus in the original “Floradora” company), she returned to New York in 1908 after the death of her father, Lorenzo Underhill, a “horse breeder and turf man” (“Harriette Underhill Dies”), and took over his sports column at the New York Tribune. “A rare beauty” with “flaming orange” hair often framed by “a large black picture hat,” in the words of Ishbel Ross, “she was cynical to the core, scorned sentiment, had a sophisticated wit, [and] was generous and courageous” (412-413). In 1916, for a weekly column in the Tribune, Underhill began interviewing stage actors who had turned to performing in the movies at the New York studios. A fluid, articulate writer, she let her interviewees speak as they wished, rarely calling attention to herself. Her profile of Olga Petrova, for example, concentrated on the star’s face, her “alabaster skin,” “red hair,” “sad, almost tragic eyes,” and “the wonderful piquancy” of her voice (“Petrova of the Pictures”). In late 1919, Underhill was hit by a car and severely crippled, but she continued to write, taking over the Tribune’s film review column from Virginia Tracy.

Underhill was a perceptive, intelligent film critic and a compelling stylist, whose “cleverness with her typewriter was never to be doubted” (Perrill). In her review of Madame Peacock (1920), starring Alla Nazimova, she was so taken with the dialogue, adapted from the play, that she reproduced some of the telling exchanges that the theater star in the film has with an author, producer, and adoring audience member (“On the Screen” [26 October 1920]). Unlike fellow critic Mae Tinée, she found Frances Marion’s The Love Light (1921) “a fascinating story beautifully produced and marvelously well acted,” with a “gorgeous performance” by Mary Pickford in an exceptionally sustained war story (“On the Screen” [10 January 1921]). She also made an observant remark on Lois Weber’s directorial style in The Blot and What Do Men Want? (both 1921): “She never has any ‘big moments’ in her pictures, and her people act as they do in real life” (“On the Screen” [15 November 1921]).

Unusually attentive as well to the experience of watching a film in a theater, Underhill included a description of Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel’s epilogue of three candles being snuffed out on stage at the end of Ernst Lubitsch’s Passion (1921)—to symbolize the death of Pola Negri’s Madame Du Barry—in her review (“On the Screen” [13 December 1920]). Similarly, she praised his “elaborate program surrounding” The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1921) that amplified yet also softened an audience’s response to the puzzling German feature (“On the Screen” [4 April 1921]). But she wished that, rather than flash those unconvincing zigzag letters on the screen, a member of the theater’s chorus would simply shout “Caligari” several times at the end. A second viewing of Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1921/1922), which she loved, revealed telling differences between the fourteen-reel print at the premiere and the ten-reel version on its re-release. She missed the full length of the “dual [sic] scenes” but not the part coming after the death of the villainous count; overall, however, she could not help feeling as when she was given “a school edition of Shakespeare,” in which “scenes which some people considered objectionable have been cut” (“On the Screen” [27 January 1922]).

June 1924 ad in Film Daily for The Reckless Age (1924) that reproduces part of Harriette Underhill’s review (and a small photo of her).

In 1923, Underhill contracted tuberculosis, but she kept writing for the Tribune. Although invited to Hollywood and feted with parties, she hated the place and returned to New York (Ross 413). According to advertisements in Film Daily, she was still reviewing films and writing up chatty interviews with stars such as Negri and Rudolph Valentino for the New York Herald and Herald-Tribune until shortly before her death from tuberculosis (“Harriette Underhill Dies”). In fact, on the day she died in May 1928, she sent her last column, written by dictation, to the Herald-Tribune (Ross 412).

See also: “Newspaperwomen and the Movies in the USA, 1914-1925,” Special Dossier on Early US Newspaperwomen


Abel, Richard. Movie Mavens: Early US Newspaper Women Take on the Movies, 1914-1923. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, forthcoming.

Advertisement [Reckless Age]. Film Daily (15 June 1924): 1.

“Harriette Underhill Dies.” Brooklyn Times Union (19 May 1928): 16.

Perrill, Penelope. “From the Window.” Dayton Daily News (24 May 1928): 19.

Ross, Ishbel. Ladies of the Press: The Story of Women in Journalism by an Insider. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1936.

Underhill, Harriette. “On the Screen.” New York Tribune (26 October 1920): 8.

---. “On the Screen.” New York Tribune (13 December 1920): 8.

---. “On the Screen.” New York Tribune (10 January 1921): 8.

---. “On the Screen.” New York Tribune (4 April 1921): 6.

---. “On the Screen.” New York Tribune (15 November 1921): 8.

---. “On the Screen.” New York Tribune (27 January 1922): 8.

---. “Petrova of the Pictures.” New York Tribune (19 November 1916): 4.4.

Archival Paper Collections:

Digitized New York Tribune (1886-1922). Chronicling America database, Library of Congress.


Abel, Richard. "Harriette Underhill." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, .  <>

Gertrude Price

by Richard Abel

To date, nothing has been found concerning Gertrude Price before she began working for the Midwestern newspaper chain Scripps-McRae. In November 1912, an announcement appeared in the Scripps’s weekly Chicago Day Book as well as in numerous other daily papers: as “a moving picture expert,” Price would be writing “The Movies” column of “personality sketches” of actors and actresses because the movies now were “the biggest, most popular amusement in the world” (“The Movies”). Apparently, she lived in Chicago as the 1912-1914 city directories listed her as a reporter there (Olsson 347).

From the beginning, Price focused her columns on screen personalities, addressing a new public interest the industry was exploiting to its advantage. All were illustrated with one or more halftone sketches drawn from publicity photos (sometimes copyrighted by the film companies). At first, the personalities she wrote about were associated with the licensed manufacturers, but gradually she included those working for the “Independents.” There are several striking patterns in her choice of players. One is the dozen or more columns on child actors, which paralleled several children’s stories she signed as “Aunt Gertie.” Another is the frequency—one out of every four or five performers—of those acting in westerns. Most striking, however, are the number of columns—at least two thirds in all—devoted to women. Overall, Price tended to focus on active young women, carefree but committed to their work, frank and fearless in the face of physical danger; tellingly, nearly all seemed unattached and without children. Kalem’s Ruth Roland, for instance, was “an athletic girl” who “runs, rides and rows with the freedom and agility of a boy” (“Runs, Rides, Rows”). Anna Q. Nilsson was another “movie beauty [who] risks [her] life to put thrill in the pictures for Kalem” (“Movie Beauty”). Jessylyn Von Trump, likewise, was “a capital rider” at American Film, who “likes herself in a cowgirl costume very much, indeed” (“She Reads Balzac”). And that “tall woman of the picture players,” Ann Schaefer, enjoyed acting lead roles for Vitagraph’s western production unit (“Face Is Fortune”).

Complementing these profiles were columns on women who had become successful filmmakers and/or scenario writers. For example, Price wrote about Nell Shipman (“Lucky Thirteen Word”), Lois Weber (“Sad Endings Are All Right”), and the pioneering Alice Guy Blaché, who now headed her own company, Solax (“Charming Little Woman Runs ‘Movie’ Business”). In one of her last columns, Price even described the “wonderful field which the moving picture has opened” as a “great new field for women folk,” where a woman’s “originality […] her perseverance and her brains are coming to be recognized on the same plane as [a] man’s” (“Sees the Movies”).

From November 1912 through June 1914, newspaper readers may have read Price’s column, syndicated through the United Press Association, more than any of the few others on the movies. So, why did she stop? Were changes in the movie industry, Scripps-McRae readers, and film audiences partly responsible? In 1914, feature films were beginning to attain prominence, and Price seemed less interested in them than in shorter films, especially cowboy and cowgirl westerns. At the same time, readers and fans were becoming more middle-class, with women aligned more closely with consumption and domesticity. In April 1913, Price had described Essanay’s multi-talented Beverly Bayne as a “clever horsewoman” (“Movie Girl in Social Whirl” ); by July 1914, the “Beautiful, Graceful Beverly Bayne, Society Actress of the Movies” was the subject of a series of newspaper articles Price wrote on proper feminine appearance and behavior (Gibson). By then, too, there was more competition, with Mae Tinée and Kitty Kelly introducing movie pages and film reviews in the Chicago Tribune.

According to Jan Olsson, by 1914 Price was living in Los Angeles, where the Los Angles Record was publishing her column as well as a few short pieces about her novice work as a movie extra in late 1914 and early 1915. By then, she had accepted a permanent position at the Record and soon became editor of the paper’s daily “Women’s Page,” answering readers’ questions as Cynthia. Later she was in charge of the newspaper’s “Club” page (346-348). Price remained a member of the Record’s staff until at least the 1930s.

See also: “Newspaperwomen and the Movies in the USA, 1914-1925,” Special Dossier on Early US Newspaperwomen


Abel, Richard. Menus for Movieland: Newspapers and the Emergence of American Film  Culture, 1913-1916. Oakland: University of California Press, 2015.

---. Movie Mavens: Early US Newspaper Women Take on the Movies, 1914-1923. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, forthcoming.

Gibson, Idah M’Glone. “Beverly Bayne Dispels Beauty Beliefs.” Des Moines News (16 July 1914): 5.

“The Movies.” Des Moines News (11 November 1912): 2.

Olsson, Jan. Los Angeles Before Hollywood: Journalism and American Film Culture, 1905- 1915. Stockholm: National Library of Sweden, 2008.

Price, Gertrude M. “Charming Little Woman Runs ‘Movie’ Business by Herself and Makes Big Success.” Des Moines News (9 February 1913): 2.

---. “Face Is Fortune of Tallest Picture Player Who Sheds Real Tears for Sake of Art.” Des Moines  News (25 March 1913): 4.

---. “Lucky Thirteen Word Proves to Be a New Money Making Position.” Des Moines News (15 May 1913): 8.

---. “Movie Beauty Risks Life to Put Thrill in the Pictures.” Des Moines News (7 February 1913): 1.

---. “Movie Girl in Social Whirl Is Artist-Horsewoman-Wit.” Des Moines News (8 April 1913): 4.

---. “Runs, Rides, Rows.” Des Moines News (16 April 1913): 6.

---. “Sad Endings Are All Right, Says This Woman Director.” Des Moines News (27 September 1913): 5.

---. “Sees the Movies as Great New Field for Women Folk.” Toledo New Bee (30 March 1914): 14.

---. “She Reads Balzac, Likes Baseball, and is Pretty.” Des Moines News (9 April 1913): 4.

[Occasionally, there was no byline for Price in some of the columns, but these articles most likely belong to her given the textual style and captions. As such, this profile lists all articles attributed to Price, either directly or inferred, under her name in the bibliography—Eds.].


Abel, Richard. "Gertrude Price." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, .  <>

Genevieve Harris

by Richard Abel

Genevieve Harris was rather unique among women newspaper writers. In early 1916, she became a film reviewer for Motography (published in Chicago), a position she held until July 1918, just before the trade journal merged with Exhibitors Herald. Although several men also wrote reviews, Harris was the most constant, regular film critic. Her weekly reviews covered not only features but also serial episodes and short comedies, westerns, and other genres. She also conducted a few interviews with stars such as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and her last columns were notable for unusual interviews with local theater managers. This experience and her knowledge of the industry proved invaluable when, in August 1918, she took over reviewing films from Oma Moody Lawrence for the Chicago Post and, in November, began editing the weekly “Photoplay News and Comment” page. Nothing is known about her life prior, but she likely was no more than twenty-five years old at the time.

A Genevieve Harris quote about Blind Husbands (1920) in Moving Picture World (17 Jan. 1920): 24-5.

Despite the Post’s low circulation, Harris soon became an influential columnist, rivaling even Kitty Kelly and Mae Tinée. Early on, she took readers on a surprising tour of the new Famous Players-Lasky rental exchange in the city, and the one department she highlighted was where many young women inspected and repaired film prints (“A Visit to the Film Exchange”). At the same time, she drew on local luncheon talks by Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel and Samuel Goldfish to ask what moviegoers found most important: “the artistic presentation” of a theater’s program or “the picture itself” (“Two Views on Film Problems”). She was an astute reviewer and, unlike Mae Tinée, rarely mocked a film or star. She was much impressed, for instance, with the acting, camerawork, and sets of London’s Limehouse district in Broken Blossoms (1919) (“Griffith Play Returns”). She recommended a second viewing of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), which confirmed its success, especially in the amazing Argentine section and in the moving scene between Julio, now in the uniform of France, and his father (“Second Thots on ‘Four Horseman’”). In response to the question “what makes a great picture?” she wrote: “the perfect melding of story and star, that is, one in which the story provides a consistent, vivid characterization which the right player not only plays but rather brings to life” so that the picture gets “under your skin” (“What Makes a Great Picture”). Yet Harris’s interests ranged far beyond film reviewing. She was an early advocate of Mrs. Sidney Drew, not merely as a comedienne, but as a filmmaker in her own right (“Mrs. Sidney Drew as Film Director”). She wrote columns on the career of Jeanie Macpherson, Cecil B. DeMille’s chief scenario writer (“Screen Writing Distinct Craft”), as well as on Hettie Gray Baker, Fox’s managing editor responsible for the release print of a film (“Woman Editor of Film Plays”). She also took the unusual position of promoting the Society for Visual Education and its creation of “complete picture courses” as “a new and vital force” for teaching school children (“Motion Pictures in Education”).

Harris also had an unusual fascination with French films. In late 1922, she devoted a whole column to the current state of French film art, summarizing the dozen film fragments shown at the second annual “Salon du cinéma” in Paris and reprinting (in translation) a lengthy quote from a Mercure de France article written by critic Léon Moussinac (“A French View of Film Art”). A year later, reporting directly from Paris, she quickly dispelled the myth that American films dominated the city’s screens and noted how French cinema was different. French movie stars did not receive a great deal of attention, and French audiences loved historical subjects, especially in lengthy serials, released weekly in “eight chapters of about four reels each,” with an emphasis on “picturesque backgrounds […] human interest and emotional appeal” (“French Films Show Artistry”).

In late 1923, a story syndicated by NEA Services described Harris as a short story writer and the “author of a course on scenario writing” in addition to being a movie reviewer (“Short Story Writer”). It also claimed that she was “the only American woman who wrote her criticisms of American films in French for publication in the Parisian movie magazine, ‘Le Courier.’” Whether she had a newspaper career after the Post folded in 1929 remains unclear. Harris’s obituary, however, named her not only as the “motion picture and drama critic for the old Chicago Evening Post” but also later as “a woman’s page editor of the Eau Claire [Wisconsin] Leader” and a publicist “for the National Livestock and Meat Board” (“Obituaries”).

See also: “Newspaperwomen and the Movies in the USA, 1914-1925,” Special Dossier on Early US Newspaperwomen


Abel, Richard. Movie Mavens: Early US Newspaper Women Take on the Movies, 1914-1923. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, forthcoming.

Harris, Genevieve. “French Films Show Artistry.” Chicago Post (29 December 1923): 2.8.

---. “A French View of Film Art.” Chicago Post (16 December 1922), 2.9.

---.“Griffith Play Returns,” Chicago Post (18 October 1919): 8.

---. “Motion Pictures in Education.” Chicago Post (22 May 1920): 8.

---. “Mrs. Sidney Drew as Film Director.” Chicago Post (1 February 1919): 4.

---. “Second Thots on ‘Four Horsemen.’” Chicago Post (10 September 1921): 2.4.

---. “Screen Writing Distinct Craft.” Chicago Post (11 February 1922): 2.10.

---. “Two Views on Film Problems.” Chicago Post (7 December 1918): 9.

---. “Woman Editor of Film Plays.” Chicago Post (18 March 1922): 2.8.

---. “What Makes a Great Picture.” Chicago Post (7 October 1922): 2.7.

---. “A Visit to a Film Exchange.” Chicago Post (26 October 1918): 4.

“Obituaries, Genevieve Harris.” Chicago Sunday Tribune (10 August 1973): 3.14.

“Short Story Writer Studies to Review Pictures in French.” Abilene [Texas] Reporter (4 November 1923): 5.


Abel, Richard. "Genevieve Harris." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, .  <>

Frances Peck

by Richard Abel

Born and raised in Colorado, Frances Peck worked briefly as a reporter for the Denver Republican and then the Denver Times. After a divorce, she moved to Chicago and, in 1911, joined the staff of the Chicago Tribune, writing features and other articles (Ross 411-12). In early March 1914, adopting the nom de plume of Mae Tinee, she introduced a Sunday page devoted to motion pictures, “Right Off the Reel.” Syndicated and much imitated by other newspapers, this page had a centered feature, “In the Frame of Public Favor,” with an exceptionally large publicity halftone (sometimes in a gilded frame) and a short profile of a current movie star supposedly chosen each week by readers. In early January 1915, in a publicity stunt, the Sunday Tribune editor put Mae Tinee in “The Frame of Public Favor” as that week’s most “popular player” (“Miss Mae Tinee”). Initially an editor and gossip columnist (and a recognized asset to the paper), she took over Kitty Kelly’s film review column in October 1916, retitling it “Right Off the Reel.”

“’Her Greatest Love’ Her Worst Film,” Chicago Tribune (5 April 1917): 10.

Mae Tinée’s review of The Romance of Tarzan (1918).

From early on, Mae Tinee cultivated a snappy, idiomatic writing style that could be controversial. She scorned stars such as Theda Bara and Francis X. Bushman (“Right Off the Reel” [8 November 1916]), satirically retold the story of William S. Hart’s The Devil’s Double (1916) as if concocted by a “bunch of youngsters” playing in a barn (“Right Off the Reel” [25 November 1916]), and tartly described Lois Weber’s Idle Wives (1916) as “pictorial goulash” (“Idle Wives”). But she also praised Alla Nazimova’s screen debut in the “tragic, tender probing of motherhood” that was War Brides (1916) (“Nazimova Makes Her Screen Debut”). It was likely her praise of Mothers of France (1917), which starred the aged and ailing Sarah Bernhardt as a mother who loses her husband and only son in the Great War (“The Divine Sarah”) that led Peck to place a French accent on her name, becoming Mae Tinée. By then, some industry figures took exception to her frequently sarcastic reviews, and even the Chicago Motion Picture Owners’ Association protested her “frivolous treatment” of the movies (“Latest News of Chicago”). Her review of The Romance of Tarzan (1918), for instance, opened with her breathing a sigh of relief that there would be no more sequels (“Being Final”).

After the war, Mae Tinée was impressed by the imported German films, especially those directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring Pola Negri. An exception was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), whose diabolical tale and “queer, futuristic-cubic” set gave her “the willies” (“Whoops, My Dear!”). While praising masterful American films such as The Miracle Man (1919), The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), The Affairs of Anatol (1921), and even Weber’s The Blot (1921), Mae Tinée could not resist writing a frank pseudo-letter that took Mary Pickford to task for accepting the leading role in Frances Marion’s “mess” of a story, The Love Light (1921) (“O, Mary, Mary”).

In early 1922, she introduced a weekly column titled “Kick Korner,” asking readers to write to her with complaints, or “kicks,” about producers, exhibitors, or specific films in order to improve the movies (“Kick Korner”). Those “kicks” came in droves and occasionally called the critic herself to task. Two letters were especially vehement: “you seem to have a pretty good opinion of yourself and your column and I think that is all rot” (“Movie Fans’ Kick Korner”) and “when I saw your picture in the W.G.N. some months ago, I never could have believed that so cruel a nature could hide behind such a kindly face” (“Movie Fans’ Letter Box”). By late 1923, Mae Tinée seemed to be toning down her language. Beginning with an unexpected rave of The Merry Go Round (1923), she now opened her columns with a “Good Morning!”—sounding like a friend or neighbor sitting at a reader’s breakfast table—and left with a cheery “See you tomorrow.”

As a sign of her continuing influence, in early 1924, one column closed with the following: “Reprints of any review by Mae Tinée printed in the last thirty days may be obtained by mailing a stamped, addressed, return envelope to (or by calling at) The Tribune’s Public Service Bureau, 11 South Dearborn Street” (“Fiddlers Get Their Pay”). Long before Mae Tinée retired from the Tribune in early January 1945, another woman had taken over as the newspaper’s film critic and under the same name (“Obituaries”). Little is known of Peck’s personal life, but she did have a second and third husband as well as a daughter with a nursing career (Ross 412). When Peck died in an Evanston hospital in May 1961, the New York Daily News named her “one of the nation’s early full-time motion picture critics” (“Obituary”).

See also: “Newspaperwomen and the Movies in the USA, 1914-1925,” Special Dossier on Early US Newspaperwomen


Abel, Richard. Menus for Movieland: Newspapers and the Emergence of American Film  Culture, 1913-1916. Oakland: University of California Press, 2015.

---. Movie Mavens: Early US Newspaper Women Take on the Movies, 1914-1923. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, forthcoming.

“Kick Korner.” Chicago Sunday Tribune (26 February 1922): 7.9, 7.11.

“Latest News of Chicago.” Motography (16 February 1918): 328.

Mae Tinée. “Being Final Chronicles of a Monkey Man.” Chicago Tribune (3 October 1918): 10.

---.“‘The Divine Sarah’ Divine Still in Tale of War and Woe.” Chicago Tribune (11 April 1917): 14.

---. “Fiddlers Get Their Pay in ‘After the Ball.’” Chicago Tribune (16 February 1924): 15.

---. “‘Idle Wives’—A Pictorial Goulash.” Chicago Tribune (7 December 1916): 14.

---. “Nazimova Makes Her Screen Debut.” Chicago Tribune (6 December 1916): 18.

---. “O, Mary, Mary, and We Held Our Breath for This.” Chicago Tribune (25 January 1921): 14.

---. “Right Off the Reel.” Chicago Tribune (8 November 1916): 15.

---. “Right Off the Reel.” Chicago Tribune (25 November 1916): 14.

---. “Whoops, My Dear! Do Bring on the Strait Jacket.” Chicago Sunday Tribune (15 May 1921): 8.3.

“Miss Mae Tinee.” Chicago Sunday Tribune (3 January 1915): 8.7.

“Movie Fans’ Kick Korner.” Chicago Sunday Tribune (10 September 1922): 7.12.

“Movie Fans’ Letter Box.” Chicago Sunday Tribune (12 November 1922): 7.19.

“Obituaries.” Chicago Tribune (10 May 1961): 36.

“Obituary.” New York Daily News (9 May 1961): 33.

Ross, Ishbel. Ladies of the Press: The Story of Women in Journalism by an Insider. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1936.


Abel, Richard. "Frances Peck." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, .  <>

Dorothy Gottlieb

by Richard Abel

Born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa, Dorothy Gottlieb was a family friend of A.H. Blank, who owned the largest circuit of movie theaters in the city and elsewhere in the state. In 1914, she and Mrs. Blank won top prizes in a card game involving forty paired players (“This Page”). In August 1915, she began writing a “News of the Movies” column for the Des Moines Tribune. As the newspaper’s coverage expanded, she eventually was identified as the editor/writer of all the material printed under the “News of the Movies” banner and assumed the nom de plume of Dorothy Day.

Often chatty and colloquial in her communications with readers, Day also could concisely summarize the essential elements she looked for when judging a movie. In praising The Golden Chance (1915), for example, she focused on the “uncommonly strong” story, with its “well constructed introduction” and unexpected twists that—in a domestic metaphor shared with several other women writers—so neatly wove together the plot’s three “threads” into the film’s “exquisite texture” (“News of the Movies” [28 January 1916]).

Image of Dorothy Day, “News of the Movies.” Des Moines Tribune (21 August 1917): 3.

In September 1918, a Tribune advertisement promoted Day as such “an authority on photo plays” that “her name is a household word in nearly every home in Des Moines and Iowa” (Advertisement). She continued to be as chatty as before, directly addressing her readers as “girls—gurls—girruls!” when claiming that they might prefer a more ordinary player like Herbert Rawlinson to familiar stars like William S. Hart and Douglas Fairbanks (“News of the Movies” [8 January 1918]). Similarly, in watching Cecil B. DeMille’s Don’t Change Your Husband (1919), neither she nor the “girls” in an afternoon audience could resist the “he-vamping” of Lew Cody, and they “giggled and laughed  […] at the typical ‘husbandish’ details” (“News of the Movies: Don’t Change Your Husband”). While fans “stormed the Rialto” to see Salomé (1918) one Sunday, Day seemed unsure if what appealed was the horror of the story, Theda Bara as “a creature of evil,” or her plentiful costumes—even more than she had worn in Cleopatra (1917) (“News of the Movies” [4 March 1919]).

Day’s film reviews continued to appear until the summer of 1920, but, with few exceptions during the last year, they became shorter and less trenchant, perhaps because, from April through November 1919, she also penned a column in the Des Moines Sunday News that drew on publicity materials to summarize the new feature film releases of the coming week. She already may have been transitioning to a new position, for Dorothy Day disappeared around the time that Dorothy Gottlieb became head of the public relations department first for Blank’s circuit of cinemas and eventually for the Central States Theater Corporation, aligned with Paramount, from 1933 to 1965.

See also: “Newspaperwomen and the Movies in the USA, 1914-1925,” Special Dossier on Early US Newspaperwomen


Abel, Richard. Menus for Movieland: Newspapers and the Emergence of American Film Culture, 1913-1916. Oakland: University of California Press, 2015.

---. Movie Mavens: Early US Newspaper Women Take on the Movies, 1914-1923. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, forthcoming.

Advertisement. Des Moines Tribune (17 September 1918): n.p.

Day, Dorothy. “News of the Movies.” Des Moines Tribune (28 January 1916): 11.

---. “News of the Movies.” Des Moines Tribune (8 January 1918): 5.

---. “News of the Movies.” Des Moines Tribune (4 March 1919): 7.

---. “News of the Movies: Don’t Change Your Husband.Des Moines Tribune (18 February 1919): 10.

“This Page of Special Interest to Women.” Des Moines Capital (14 September 1914): 8.

Variety Obituaries. vol. 6, 1964-1968. New York: Garland, 1988.


Abel, Richard. "Dorothy Gottlieb." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, .  <>

Beulah Livingstone

by Richard Abel

Born and initially educated in Atlanta, Georgia, Beulah Livingstone moved to New York City with her Jewish parents, Harry and Lucy Frank, and graduated from Ethical Culture Normal School (“Jewess Is Highest Salaried Publicity Director”). For a few years she taught kindergarten and also wrote newspaper articles for the New York Sun and the New York American as well as sold short stories to the New York Tribune. With savings, she took a trip to Europe, where she conducted celebrity interviews and met Sarah Bernhardt’s leading man, Lou Tellegen, who hired her as his press agent (“Woman’s World”). Soon after opening her own office for freelance publicity work in New York, Livingstone counted Anna Pavlova, Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Castle, David Belasco, F. Ray Comstock, and other high-profile theatrical figures as clients.

In 1916, she was lured into the movie industry, joining the Thomas Ince company to head its New York publicity department and to promote the release of Civilization (“Larger Offices for ‘Civilization’ Staff”). A year later, Olga Petrova engaged Livingstone as her personal representative in charge of special publicity work for her feature films (“Petrova Organization Completed”). While serving Petrova Pictures, which included publishing the sheet music for the “Petrova Waltz” that accompanied Daughter of Destiny (1918) and writing a story version of The Light Within (1918) for Photoplay, Livingstone organized the star’s 1918 touring appearances in support of the War Savings Stamp Drive (“Petrova Starts on Nation-Wide Tour”). After briefly handling the publicity for En L’Air Cinema’s Romance of the Air (1918), on January 1, 1919, Joseph Schenck hired her as publicity director for the Norma Talmadge Film Company, headquartered in New York (“Miss Talmadge Gets New Press Agent”). A few months later, Livingstone also took on a similar role for the Constance Talmadge Film Company (“Representing Both Talmadges”).

As publicity director for two of the biggest Hollywood stars of the time, Livingstone now ranked at the top of her profession. In 1921, she accompanied Norma on a tour of First National’s foreign exchanges in England, France, and Italy. While in Europe, one task was to contract newspapers to publish “The Life Story of the Talmadges” in twenty installments (“Talmadge Press Agent to Europe”). While in Europe, Livingstone observed the local film output, and, in an article published in Filmplay entitled “Trailing the Movies Thru Europe,” she compared ordinary Germany productions to the high-quality imports such as Passion (1920), Deception (1920), and Gypsy Blood (1920) that had won such praise in the United States. Her appraisal was devastating but also wittily snobby:

The heroines of these average German pictures are fat, ponderous and dowdy. They wear cotton stockings and their gowns would be scoffed at by Elsie Ferguson’s maid. They saunter into obviously painted drawing rooms where the sets fairly reek of cheap, second-hand furniture. The stories are often disgustingly vulgar or lurid and tawdry. The clean, domestic melodramas, the healthy boy and girl love stories which are so dear to the Americans, are considered sentimental piffle by our German and French cousins. (qtd. in “German Motion Pictures”)

Returning to New York, Livingstone mounted special campaigns for each Talmadge sister in 1922. For Smilin’ Through (1922), she had the Fair Department Store in Chicago put up a prominent window display of “the 1869 bridal gown and the quaint traveling costume worn by Norma in the picture” (“Putting It Over”). A few months later, for Constance’s East is West, she urged Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel to decorate the lobby of his New York Rivoli Theatre to create a Chinese atmosphere for the film’s premiere (“Grand Premiere for ‘East Is West’). At the same time, Livingstone did far less lucrative gigs, organizing a visit to Sing Sing prison to screen Norma’s film Within the Law (1923) for the enthusiastic inmates (G. Hall). By then, Livingstone’s position also encompassed the Buster Keaton productions. By 1925, all three companies were part of Joseph M. Schenck Productions, which became affiliated with United Artists (Schenck was chairman of the Board of Directors), although contractual arrangements allowed First National to release Norma and Constance’s features for another year. The following year, Schenck made Livingstone director of United Artists’ editorial department for the Talmadge sisters, Mark Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, John Barrymore, and Buster Keaton. In this role, among other tasks, she supervised the selection of stories for all of these stars (“Beulah Livingstone Is in New U.A. Position).

In October 1926, the Associated Motion Picture Advertisers chose a dozen women “who had accomplished the most for the industry” (Spargo, “Pickford, Talmadge, and Mathis”). Seven were famous stars (the Talmadge sisters, Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Corinne Griffith, Lillian Gish, and Colleen Moore); four were major scenario writers (June Mathis, Anita Loos, Frances Marion, and Jeanie Macpherson); the only other influential figure was Beulah Livingstone. In a telegram, she wrote: “I deeply appreciate the Associated Motion Picture Advertisers’ kindness in placing me in such distinguished company and trust” (qtd. in Spargo, “Eberhardt Gets Telegrams”). After Schenck made her the “publicity director of all the West Coast feature productions” released through United Artists in 1927 (Starr), numerous newspaper stories described her as “the highest paid publicity woman in the United States” (“Her Publicity Pays Her”). Livingstone served in that position for the next ten years, reserving her barbed wit for the competition: when, at a party, Jesse Lasky boasted that “in some ten years Hollywood would be the center of culture,” she “remarked mildly‘Oh, yes—of horti-culture’” (Herzog). In 1936, she moved to Universal Pictures, taking charge of its feature publicity department, and one of her first coups was get New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to grant an interview with starlet Deanna Durbin (Martin). In 1939, after publishing Remembering Valentino: Reminiscences of the World’s Greatest Lover (1938), Livingstone also became the publicity director of the Film Alliance of the U.S. Inc., which planned to release a dozen British and French films annually in the United States (“Beulah Livingstone Obtains New Post”). When she died in New York City in January 1975, the Detroit Free Press named her the “agent for film stars Rudolph Valentino, Lupe Velez, Bela Lugosi and many others” (“Deaths Elsewhere”).

Throughout her career, Livingstone showed a great interest in contemporary social and political issues. In 1921, she was vice president of the Lucy Stone League, which sought “to assure to married women the legal right to retain their maiden names” and, consequently, to change laws that forced them to use their husbands’ names for legal documents (M. Hall). With other industry women, she also founded a “Woman Pays” club that met weekly to interview celebrities. By 1948, the club had 200 members (Livingstone was honorary president) and was inviting important figures such as Dr. Kinsey to give talks to the group (Grether).

Livingstone also actively encouraged young women to try their hand at publicity work in the film industry. Unsurprisingly, given her own beginnings, she saw a connection between the profession and other journalistic endeavors, suggesting in 1922 that:

A good way to break into motion picture publicity is to cultivate a snappy idiomatic style and start in via the motion picture magazine route. They will always take interesting articles about stars, and as the “fan” magazines are taken by the publicity departments of all motion picture companies, your stuff will come beneath the eye of the director. Then, when you apply for a job your name will not be quite unknown. (qtd. in Talmadge)

“I think publicity is the coming game for women,” she added, and “I call it a ‘game’ because it is a fascinating one.”

See also: Mabel Condon, Leila Lewis


“Beulah Livingstone Dies.” New York Times (14 January 1975): 35.

“Beulah Livingstone Is in New U.A. Position. Exhibitors Herald (17 April 1926): 22.

“Beulah Livingstone Obtains New Post.” Brooklyn Eagle (24 March 1939): 11.

“Deaths Elsewhere.” Detroit Free Press (15 January 1975): 10.

“German Motion Pictures.” Nebraska State Journal (29 January 1922): 21.

“Grand Premiere for ‘East Is West.’” Motion Picture News (9 September 1922): 1250.

Grether, Grace. “Club Women Talk to Dr. Kinsey.” Salt Lake Tribune (11 November 1948): 14.

Hall, Gladys. “The Diary of a Professional Movie Fan.” Washington Star (31 May 1923): 44.

Hall, Marian. “Wives Battle for Maiden Name.” Bismarck Tribune (2 June 1921): 1.

“Her Publicity Pays Her.” Rochester Sunday Democrat and Chronicle (15 April 1928): 3.10.

Herzog, Dorothy. “Backstage at Hollywood.” Waterloo Courier (16 March 1929): 12.

“Jewess Is Highest Salaried Publicity Director.” American Israelite [Cincinnati] (12 July 1923): 4.

“Larger Offices for ‘Civilization’ Staff in New York.” Motion Picture News (1 July 1916): 4040.

Martin, Mildred. “Camera Angles on Film Folk.” Philadelphia Inquirer (29 December 1936): 6.

“Miss Talmadge Gets New Press Agent.” Motion Picture News (11 January 1919): 250.

“Petrova Organization Completed.” Moving Picture World (15 September 1917): 1721.

“Petrova Starts on Nation-Wide Tour Selling W.S. Stamps.” Exhibitors Herald (6 July 1918): 20.

“Putting It Over.” Film Daily (14 June 1922): 2.

“Representing Both Talmadges in New York.” Exhibitors Herald and Motography (17 May 1919): 35.

Spargo, John S. “Eberhardt Gets Telegrams and Letters from 12 Immortals.” Exhibitors Herald (13 November 1926): 38.

---.  “Pickford, Talmadge, and Mathis Head New A.M.P.A. List.” Exhibitors Herald (16 October 1926): 44.

Starr, Jimmy. “cinematters.” Los Angeles Record (27 May 1927): 19.

Talmadge, Constance. “Film Professions: Publicity Writer.” Oakland Tribune (9 July 1922): W3.

“Talmadge Press Agent to Europe.” Oklahoma City Times (29 June 1921): 36.

“Woman’s World: A Young Pioneer in a New Field for Women.” Greenwood [South Carolina] Journal (2 December 1914): 6.


Abel, Richard. "Beulah Livingstone." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2020.  <>

Audrie Alspaugh

by Richard Abel

Born and raised in “a small Iowa town” (Chase), Audrie Alspaugh graduated from the University of Iowa with an English degree in 1909 and two years later was hired as a book reviewer at the Chicago Tribune. In July 1914, she began signing a daily film review column, “Today’s Best Photo Play Stories,” with the nom de plume of Kitty Kelly. Soon after, she retitled the column “Flickerings from Filmland.”

Kelly exhibited an exuberant writing style, spinning out tongue-in-cheek metaphors, neologisms, and syntactic tangles, and her evident love of language sometimes verged on showboating. In early March 1915, for example, she invited female readers to share her tongue-in-cheek delight with a press release puffing Francis X. Bushman’s addition of “an amethyst colored automobile to his collection of ‘jewels’” with: “My Goodness Gracious Girls! Isn’t He Lovely!” (“Flickerings from Filmland” [4 March 1915]). Yet her own sense of judgment and taste was always so perceptive that her criticism often served to “train” fans in what to look for while watching movies. In May 1915, she summed up her critical principles in a review of Stolen Goods (1915): what mattered was not only the quality of acting and characterization in the leading roles (here, Blanche Sweet) but also a film’s narrative construction, atmosphere, and editing—attributed in this case to the scenario writer Margaret Turnbull and director George Melford (“Flickerings from Filmland: STOLEN GOODS”). A year later, she defended Lois Weber’s Where Are My Children? (1916), a “problem play” about contraception and abortion that was implicitly about class and gender relations and revealed the unstated assumptions of the eugenics movement (“Flickerings from Filmland: Where Are My Children?”). One of Kelly’s more intriguing columns was an unexpected, intelligent review of Hugo Münsterberg’s 1916 book The Photoplay. She highlighted his defense of motion pictures as a new medium of art that not only could achieve a harmonious form in and of itself but one that also created an immersive psychological parallel to human consciousness (“Flickerings from Filmland: Handing One to the High Brows”).

For more than a year, Kelly closed her Tribune columns with a wittily captioned list—i.e., “Zowie” and “Why Exhibitors Go Insane”—of what the Chicago censors ordered to be cut or banned from the films soon due for release. These lists constitute a rare treasure trove of censorship data. Presumably, they can be accepted as accurate; otherwise, the censors would have forced her to discontinue them.

The Tribune thought so highly of Kelly that it took the unusual opportunity, in late April 1916, to promote her columns with a rare half-page advertisement (Advertisement). However, several months later, in October 1916, Kitty Kelly’s name disappeared from the Chicago Tribune altogether. Her daily “Flickerings from Filmland” column reappeared the following year in the Chicago Examiner. For a year or so, she stuck to reviewing new films, but by mid-1918, after William Randolph Hearst merged the Examiner with the Herald, she also was editing a page titled “The Screen” in the new Sunday edition, which had the largest circulation in the city. One of her Sunday columns appealed directly to movie fans by inviting them to submit short reviews of the film she had chosen for the week; each of the winning reviews would be printed in the weekly “Lay Critics’ Corner,” and the writers paid a dollar (“Be Your Own Critic”).

The Herald and Examiner is not digitized beyond April 1918, so it is difficult to research Kelly’s work beyond that date. Quotes from her reviews in Tribune theater ads, however, reveal that her columns continued at least through April 1919. Although I recently discovered that the University of Illinois Library holds microfilm of the Chicago Herald and Examiner, from May 1918 into the 1930s, the Covid-19 pandemic has kept me from consulting that microfilm. Whether Kelly continued to write regularly for Chicago newspapers, on the movies or other subjects, is unclear.

In October 1915, Alspaugh had married the Tribune’s features page editor, Al Chase, and they announced their wedding in a comic film script dubbed a “reel romance” (McQuade 1286; “It Can Be Done”). Chase later served as the Tribune’s financial and then real estate editor; once he retired, they moved to Willow Brook farm near Glen Ellyn, Illinois. In 1956, either before or shortly after Chase died, perhaps as a tribute to her long love of American wildlife, Alspaugh bequeathed their 43-acre farm to the DuPage county forest preserve, which converted the tract into a wild animal refuge. When she herself died in November 1965, she had been living with friends, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Julius, northwest of San Antonio, Texas. In a brief obituary, the Pittsburgh Press referred to her as “the nation’s first movie critic […] under the pen name of ‘Kitty Kelly’” (“Obituaries”).

See also: “Newspaperwomen and the Movies in the USA, 1914-1925,” Special Dossier on Early US Newspaperwomen


Abel, Richard. Menus for Movieland: Newspapers and the Emergence of American Film Culture, 1913-1916. Oakland: University of California Press, 2015.

---. Movie Mavens: Early US Newspaper Women Take on the Movies, 1914-1923. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, forthcoming.

Advertisement. Chicago Sunday Tribune (30 April 1916): 7.4.

“Audrie Chase, Once Tribune Writer, Dies.” Chicago Tribune (21 November 1965): IB.16.

Chase, Audrie Alspaugh. “In Memoryland.” Chicago Tribune (16 March 1961): 16.

“It Can Be Done: A Reel Romance.” Chicago Sunday Tribune (31 October 1915): 2.3.

Kelly, Kitty. “Be Your Own Critic.” Chicago Herald and Examiner (17 September 1918): 5.6.

---. “Flickerings from Filmland.” Chicago Tribune (4 March 1915): 8.

---. “Flickerings from Filmland: Handing One to the High Brows.” Chicago Tribune (29 April 1916): 16.

---. “Flickerings from Filmland: STOLEN GOODS.” Chicago Tribune (25 May 1915): 18.

---. “Flickerings from Filmland: Where Are My Children?Chicago Tribune (31 July 1916): 11.

---. “Flickerings from Filmland: WILD LIFE.” Chicago Tribune (2 March 1915): 10.

McQuade, Jas S. “Chicago Film Brevities.” Moving Picture World (13 November 1915): 1285-7.

“Obituaries.” Pittsburgh Press (22 November 1965): 53.


Abel, Richard. "Audrie Alspaugh." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, .  <>

Stefania Zahorska

by Agata Frymus

Stefania Zahorska was one of the most respected Polish film critics of the interwar period. Her pioneering approach toward moving pictures, which she considered to be a new artistic form, arose from her background as an art scholar. Fascinated by Impressionism and painting that moved away from literal representation toward abstraction, she saw a similar potential in avant-garde filmmaking. For Zahorska, an ideal film formula would arise from a “mixture of poetics, montage and documentary” (Rees 12).

Zahorska was born Stefania Ernestyna Leser in Cracow to a middle-class family of assimilated Polish Jews. At the time, the city was part of Austro-Hungary. After the death of her mother, presumably when she was still a teenager (no death records survive), Zahorska relocated to Budapest where she lived with her older sister Helena. Her years in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire proved to be formative; Zahorska mastered the Hungarian language—later in life, she also became fluent in English, German, and French—and, after seeing the works of Cezanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh, discovered her passion for painting. After spending two or three years as a medical student, she enrolled in the department of Art History at Jagiellonian University, back in her hometown of Cracow. Zahorska’s dissertation, which examined the aesthetics of the early Enlightenment in Poland, was defended sometime between 1917 and 1919, just over twenty years after the University opened its gates to female students. A doctorate was, as Anna Clarke notes, still “a rather unusual distinction for women” at that time (419). Looking back, Zahorska explained that her decision to study art was influenced by the urban landscape of Cracow, especially the awe-inspiring beauty of Wawel Royal Castle, and the city’s old townhouses (Zahorska, “Przełomy mego pokolenia”).

Sometime after completing her PhD, Zahorska moved to Warsaw, the capital of the newly-independent Republic of Poland, where her career as a writer and a columnist flourished. In 1924 and 1925, Zahorska worked as the editor of the art section of Przegląd Warszawski [Warsaw’s Review]. In the following year, as she started writing for Wiadomości Literackie [Literary News], Zahorska began to extend her critical focus to the possibilities and limitations of the cinematic medium. Even though the magazine had a rather limited circulation, hardly exceeding 15,000 copies per week, its cultural impact was significant (Zawiszewska 131). Wiadomości Literackie published works by leading writers and intellectuals of the era. While the levels of illiteracy were relatively high at the time—with almost 38% of Polish women unable to read or write in 1921 (Paczkowski 17)—the magazine’s readership consisted almost entirely of Warsaw cultural elite, and the reviews pertaining to film, theater, and art exhibitions rarely included events held beyond the Polish capital.

One of Stefania Zahorska’s articles, titled “Film and Poetry” (1928), in KinoTeatr.

This high-brow status enjoyed by Wiadomości Literackie points to the sophisticated nature of Zahorska’s writings, which did not focus simply on plot synopses, but often interrogated the issues inherent to art theory and the capacities of the cinematic medium. She was a proponent of photogénie, a film theory developed in France by Man Ray, Henri Chomette, and, most importantly, Jean Epstein, himself a Polish émigre. A complex concept, photogénie related to the very essence of film art, which could not simply be captured by the analysis of the visual layer of the film. Mary Ann Doane affirms that “photogénie is designed to account for that which is inarticulable, that which exceeds language and hence points to the very essence of cinematic specificity” (89).

The titles of Zahorska’s articles, which furnished the pages of various magazines, are in themselves a good indication of her intellectual ambition. Headlines such as “Experimental Film,” “Film and Poetry,” “Film of Abstraction,” “Formal Issues of Film,” and “Narrative or Abstraction?” reveal the ideas about cinema’s specific nature that inspired her the most. The ideal cinema that emerged from Zahorska’s essays disposed of narrative structures in favor of experimentation with movement, tempo, and rhythm; she considered moving pictures to have more in common with music than the visual arts, due to the fact that film could engage with varying speeds and temporal durations:

After all, film is a thing similar to a musical composition. […] What is unfortunate is that directors, most often then not, do not have a feel for the musical composition of the whole. They are not aware of the compositional importance of the of lyrical moments; they cannot measure the doses; they cannot contrast. Fascinated by the situations they put their characters in, and seduced by the charms of their primadonnas, they keep on grueling in the bland expansiveness. They are stuck in the sticky, slimy smudge of sentiments. IF Greta Grabo can perversely pout her lips, then they ask her to do it fifteen times per hour. (Zahorska, “Film i liryka”)

The covers of magazines that published Stefania Zahorska’s columns. Courtesy of Wielkopolska Biblioteka Cyfrowa [Digital Library of Greater Poland] and Digital Library of Małopolska, respectively.

Zahorska also found the works of Francis Picabia and René Clair particularly inspiring, admiring their abstract, stylistic innovations and the ways in which they portrayed the play between light and shadow (Zahorska, “Kubizm i jego pochodne”; Kuc 109). In other words, Zahorska saw cinema as a groundbreaking medium that, through experimentation in form, structure, and montage, was capable of much more than serving as means for narrative storytelling (Zahorska, “Treść czy abstrakcja?”).

Undated personal document. The photograph is used as the cover of Maja Elżbieta Cybulska’s Potwierdzone istnienie. Archiwum Stefanii Zahorskiej (1988).

While Zahorska’s professional life blossomed, her personal life was teeming with turmoil. Sometime in her early thirties—in the beginning of the 1920s—the journalist married an officer of the First Brigade, Bohdan Zahorski. (In the Polish language, family names change their endings depending if the first name is male [-i or -y] or female [-a]. So, the last name “Zahorska” is a female variant of “Zahorski.”) Very little is known of Zahorska’s private matters, and most of the existing information about this relationship is extrapolated from surviving correspondence. According to letters to Leonia Jabłonkówna, Zahorska’s long-term editorial assistant and friend, her marriage was dictated by a passionate, yet very short-lived love. Soon after leaving Zahorska for another woman, Zahorski developed a serious health condition, probably Parkinson’s disease. In Jabłonkówna’s account, the rapid deterioration of her ex-husband’s health was, to Zahorska, a tragedy greater than his betrayal, which is evidenced by the fact she maintained regular correspondence with the woman who took her place beside Zahorski (Cybulska 20). The women discussed possible treatments, hoping to save Zahorski from falling into a depression and taking his own life, which, unfortunately, he ultimately did. Zahorska’s tragic romantic involvement with Zahorski served as the basis for the fictionalized relationship portrayed in her debut novel Korzenie [Roots], which was published in 1937.

Stefania Zahorska at a conference in June 1930. Courtesy of the Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe [National Digital Archive] of Poland.

Throughout the 1920s, Zahorska often expressed her disappointment in the national film product and worked to legitimize both filmmaking and film analysis as worthy of study. As a critic, she reasoned that the poor quality of Polish films could be blamed on low standards of scriptwriting and a lack of talented professionals within the young industry (Zahorska, “Film w naftalinie”). She lamented the fact that no educational institutions in the country taught filmmaking as a subject (a situation that remained unchanged until 1948). Zahorska was also involved in popularizing film analysis as an academic discipline in its own right. For instance, she gave a presentation on aesthetic and formal properties of cinema at the Philosophy Conference in 1927 in Warsaw.

Stefania Zahorska in 1934. Courtesy of the Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe [National Digital Archive] of Poland.

In the 1930s, Zahorska concentrated her intellectual efforts primarily on film criticism, and she continued to challenge the national industry. At the time, the notion of nationhood resonated particularly loudly in Poland, which had gained independence from German, Austrian, and Russian empires only twelve years earlier. She often criticized Polish film productions for their triviality and sentimentalism, deeming the vision of the nation they propagated as problematic. “When the wars end, and when the map of Poland placed itself on the screens, in all its glory, the director looks around, anxiously, at the Polish reality, and all he can see is military parades. Where is the Poland that lives, works and progresses after wars, and independently from military parades?” she asked in a 1935 article in Wiadomości Literackie (Zahorska [title unknown]).

Initially, Zahorska was somewhat skeptical about the popularization of talkies, which occurred a few years later in Poland than in the United States (Hendrykowska 121). In her writing, she framed sound as a potential distraction from the moving image. “Cinema,” she suggested in an article from 1930, “requires more variety, as well as more limitations of its separate elements” (qtd. in Radkiewicz 340). Soon, however, she changed her mind, believing that this added dimension could be incorporated into the plot with productive results, creating a more authentic diegesis (Zahorska, “Sprawy i sprawki XI muzy”).

Fully aware of the dangers she faced as a woman of Jewish heritage, Zahorska left Warsaw for Paris at the outbreak of the Second World War. After spending a year in France, she then went to London, where she resided for the remaining twenty years of her life. An emigrant status never stopped her from engaging with the cultural life of her home country. She was a founder of the Association of Polish Writers in London, and, from 1950 onward, she co-wrote (with Adam Pragier) a regular cultural column titled “Puszka Pandory” [Pandora’s Box] for Wiadomości Literackie. In addition to being a frequent collaborator, Pragier was Zahorska’s longtime partner. To her own disappointment, Zahorska did not live long enough to see the fall of the Communist regime in Poland. Toward the end of her life, she wrote to one of her friends: “What will happen to our homeland, our Europe, our culture, our European tradition? […] All values, it seems to me, are under threat” (qtd. in Lisiewicz).

Stefania Zahorska via Wikimedia Commons (Jszeredi / CC BY-SA).

The sheer volume of Zahorska’s output, combined with her intellectual curiosity, earned her the title of “the most inquisitive observer of Polish silent film” (Lubelski 43-44). Despite being grounded in international, contemporary debates on cinema, and garnering acclaim for her witty, sharp prose, Zahorska is virtually unknown outside of her native country. To date, her rich oeuvre remains accessible only to Polish speakers. Additionally, some issues of the magazines that she wrote for, namely Kino-Teatr and Wiadomośći Literackie, have been digitized, but the vast majority remain unsearchable and difficult to access. This points to the difficulties we must face while trying to insert Zahorska, and other women like her, into a broader history of international film criticism.

See also: Nina Niovilla

The author wishes to thank Monash University, Malaysia.


Clarke, Anna. “Stefania Zahorska and Her World.” The Polish Review vol. 45, no. 4 (2000): 417-433.

Cybulska, Elżbieta Maja. Potwierdzone istnienie: archiwum Stefanii Zahorskiej. London: PFK, 1988.

Doane, Mary Ann. “The Close-Up: Scale and Detail in the Cinema.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies no. 14, vol. 3 (2003): 89-111.

Furgał, Ewa. Krakowski szlak kobiet. Kraków: Fundacje Przestrzeń Kobiet, 2011. [Also available at].

Hendrykowska, Małgorzata. Kronika kinematografii polskiej 1895–1997. Poznań: Ars Nova, 1999.

Kuc, Kamila. Visions of Avant-Garde Film: Polish Cinematic Experiments from Expressionism to Constructivism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016.

Lisiewicz, Piotr. “Pandora w lustrze.” Nowe Państwo no. 5, vol. 51 (2010).

Lubelski, Tadeusz. Historia kina polskiego: Twórcy, filmy, konteksty. Katowice: Videograf II, 2009.

Paczkowski, Andrzej. Prasa polska w latach 19181939. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo PWN, 1980.

Pilch, Anna. Symbolika form i kolorów. O krytyce artystycznej Stefanii Zahorskiej. Warszawa: Księgarnia Akademicka, 2004.

Radkiewicz, Małgorzata. “Galicyjskie kobiety w polskiej kulturze filmowej lat dwudziestych i trzydziestych XX wieku.” Przeglad Kulturoznawczy, no. 3, vol. 21 (2015): 336-352.

Rees, A.L. “The Themersons and the Polish Avant-Garde.” In The Struggle for Form: Perspectives on Polish Avant-Garde Film 1916-1989. Eds. Kamila Kuc and Michael O’Pray. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. 7-30.

Skaff, Sheila. The Law of the Looking Glass: Cinema in Poland, 1896-1939. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008.

Szpakowska, Małgorzata. ‘Wiadomości Literackie’ prawie dla wszystkich. Warszawa: Wydawinctwo W.A.B., 2012.

Zahorska, Stefania. “Drogi rozwojowe filmu.” Miesięcznik Literacki no. 5 (1930).

---. “Film abstrakcyjny.” Wiek XX no. 8 (1928).

---. “Film eksperymetalny.” Kino-Teatr no. 10 (1929).

---. “Film i liryka.” Kino-Teatr no. 3 (1928).

---. “Film w naftalinie.” Wiek XX no. 3 (1928).

---. “Kubizm i jego pochodne.” Południe. Kwartalnik Ilustrowany no. 1, vol. 3 (1924): 31-51.

---. “Przełomy mego pokolenia.” Wiadomości Literackie  no. 35 (1957): 2.

---. “Samoobrona głupoty.” Film i Kino no. 13 [supplement for Głos Prawdy] (1929).

---. “Sprawy i sprawki XI muzy.” Wiadomości Literackie no. 45 (1930).

---. “Treść czy abstrakcja?” Wiek XX no. 13 (1928).

---. “Zagadnienia formalne filmu.” Wiadomościi Literackie no. 52 (1931).

---. [Title Unknown]. Wiadomości Literackie no. 13 (31 March 1935).

Zawiszewska, Agata. “Komunikacja prasowa a komunikacja literacka: na przykładzie Wiadomości Literackich (1924-1939).”  Media–Kultura–Komunikacja Społeczna vol. 1 (2005): 121-136.


Frymus, Agata. "Stefania Zahorska." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2020.  <>

Gemma Bellincioni

by Valeria Festinese

An opera singer turned film actress, screenwriter, director, and producer, Gemma Bellincioni was born in the Italian city of Monza on August 18, 1864. Both of her parents were opera singers, and Bellincioni made her own theatrical debut at age six (Baccioni 4). Her first leading role was in Carlo Pedrotti’s opera “Tutti in maschera,” which opened in Naples in November 1880. Critics were immediately impressed by her stage presence. Following this performance, Bellincioni began touring around Italy and the world, appearing in many different operas.

Gemma Bellincioni as Carmen, photographed by Giacomo Brogi, c. 1894. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Philip Hale Photograph Collection/Digital Commonwealth.

Bellincioni became a world-renowned opera diva who, in addition to performing, composed two opera libretti during her career. Her soprano voice was recorded in the early 1900s, first for the Gramophone & Typewriter Company in Milan in 1903 and then for Pathé in Paris in 1905 (Scott). Bellincioni’s last opera role was the lead in Richard Strauss’s “Salomè” at the Opéra national de Paris in 1911 (D’Amico 201). In her autobiography, she later wrote that “after this creation I realized that I had nothing more to give to art and to the public and that the public had nothing more to expect from me…and, despite the insistent proposals, I said to myself: enough!” (G. Bellincioni 137). She was forty-seven years old. At the end of her musical career, Bellincioni started to teach singing, first in Berlin, until 1914, and then in Rome at the Santa Cecilia Conservatoire.

While there was a close relationship between opera, theater, and early Italian cinema, the presence of female opera singers on screen in the first decades of the twentieth century was not that common. As Elena Mosconi writes, “It is well known that at this time in Italy, many actors made the transition from the theatrical stage to the cinema, in the hope of better financial conditions. Film actresses came mainly from the theatre, where they had done their apprenticeship. But despite the surprising number of theatrical actresses who made their debut on screen between 1910 and 1920… the singers who came from the lyric stage were very few” (340). While we do not know Bellincioni’s reasons for choosing to work in this new field, she appears to have been one of only a handful of female opera singers who made the transition (Mosconi 340-344).

When Bellincioni started to work in film in the late 1910s, she was still quite famous. However, cinema history texts mention her only in passing or, more often, do not mention her at all. One of the reasons for this omission may be that all of the films she wrote, directed, and/or produced are lost and only one film in which she appeared is extant. Contemporary scholars are faced with the difficult task of evaluating and contextualizing Bellincioni’s work as an actress and as a filmmaker using only surviving primary documents, such as film reviews from the period.

Advertisement for Cavalleria rusticana (1916) in Cinemagraf no. 10 (May 28, 1916), p.2.

At the age of fifty-two, Bellincioni appeared for the first time on screen in Cavalleria rusticana (1916) and Suor Teresa (1916). Both were adaptations of operas, and both were directed by Ugo Falena at Tespi Film, a film company in Rome. The opera “Cavalleria Rusticana,” by Pietro Mascagni, had been a major success for Bellincioni as a singer when she performed it with her husband, Roberto Stagno, in 1890. In the film version, Bellincioni played Santuzza, the same character that she embodied on the stage. It is not surprising that she chose to make her cinematic debut with an adaptation of this opera or with this character. As Bellincioni recalled later in her autobiography: “Santuzza was a character that I have long dreamed of…which allowed me to reveal my true ideal of art to the public” (G. Bellincioni 108). Unfortunately, the film could not be advertised as an adaptation of Mascagni’s melodramatic opera because the author had sold the rights to another film company, Flegrea Film. Tespi Film dodged this problem by promoting the film in relation to the author of the opera’s literary source material, Giovanni Verga, who had given permission to use his work (Mosconi 342). Having the famous Bellincioni also helped; as Elena Mosconi notes, “the marketing strategy of Tespi was astute: the name of Gemma Bellincioni, considered to be the ultimate Santuzza, was enough to provide a direct reference to Mascagni’s opera” (342).

Cavalleria rusticana is the only Bellincioni film that partially survives today. The extant material, held at the Cinema Nazionale, in Rome, shows us that her acting style is exaggerated in some scenes, similar to the typical melodramatic style of that period, but more realistic and natural in other moments. At the time of the film’s release, critics praised her performance as Santuzza, but the public was not as enthusiastic, reportedly wanting a different actress in the role. According to one critic in Film: “Bellincioni shows all her magnificent intentions in acting, but the film audience wants younger and more charming actresses. Therefore, we have to note that her interpretation was of no interest to the public” (qtd. in Martinelli, Il cinema muto italiano 1916 87).

Part of a multipage spread on Suor Teresa (1916) in L’ Arte muta no. 6-7 (1916), p. 183.

Reviews for her performance in Suor Teresa, the second film in which she appeared, were more positive, however. For example, one critic wrote that Bellincioni’s appearance on screen “leaves…a deep groove in the soul of every spectator” (“Il lavoro della Tespi Film”). A second unnamed critic, writing a year later, observed that “[another] very important element of this sensational success of this film is the intelligent and suggestive interpretation of Gemma Bellincioni. Sober, elegant, harmonious in the gesture, very effective in the expression of the face” (La Cine-Fono). And a third critic noted that “the aching heroine is played by Mrs. Gemma Bellincioni, whose sublime and powerful dramatic art is very beneficial to the film” (Fasanelli).

Advertisement for Donna Lisa (1917) in Film no. 11 (1918), p. 13.

In March 1917, the film press announced that Bellincioni had created her own film company, called Gemma Film, in Rome (La cinematografia italiana ed estera [1917]). The company’s first film was Donna Lisa (1917), which also marked Bellincioni’s directorial debut. This move to directing did not mean that she stopped acting, and she often appeared in her own films. Between 1917 and 1919, Bellincioni produced four films that she also directed (besides Donna Lisa, she directed Il prezzo della felicità, Vita traviata, and La baronessa Daria, all from 1918), as well as two others—Fiamme avvolgenti (1918) and La leggenda dei tre fiori (1919)—directed by Eduardo Bencivenga. Bellincioni was also the screenwriter for La leggenda dei tre fiori. In 1919, her film company changed its name to Bellincioni Film, and Gemma began directing her own scenarios. The first films she directed, produced, and wrote, advertised as “passional [sic] and dramatic,” were not critically acclaimed, but the public viewed them favorably (Martinelli, “Les metteuses-en-scène” 24).

Portrait of Gemma Bellincioni in Vittorio Martinelli’s Il cinema muto italiano 1920 (1995), p. 159. The caption in the book reads: “Gemma Bellincioni, director and interpreter of Giovanna I d’Angiò, regina di Napoli.”

The most popular at the time of its release was Giovanna I d’Angiò, regina di Napoli (1920), which also starred Bellincioni. The scenario for this film is located in the Luigi Chiarini Library at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, in Rome, and this remarkable document includes numerous photographs and text in French, English, and German. The narrative focuses on a woman who was once a queen. What emerges from reading the scenario is a complex female character, with fears and weaknesses, who must deal with the passage of time, and, consequently, with her decaying beauty and desire to be a mother. Giovanna I d’Angiò, regina di Napoli is the only film of Bellincioni’s that received all positive reviews, and, three years after its premiere, it was reportedly still playing in some Italian cinemas, such as Cinema Edison in Parma (Gianni). The film was appreciated for its thorough historical details and, above all, for Bellincioni’s ability to play the role of the queen from youth—even though she was fifty-six years old at the time—to old age. There were problems with the Italian censors, however, and a scene in which the queen is assassinated by suffocation was ultimately cut, according to the Italia Taglia project database of censorship information (“Giovanna Iª d’Angiò”), although a still from the scene remains in the archived scenario.

In September 1920, Gemma Film was sold (La cinematografia italiana ed estera [1920]), and, in 1921, Bellincioni created another film company called BiancaGemma Film. Like fellow Italian Elvira Notari did with Dora Film, Bellincioni used her daughter’s name for her company. At BiancaGemma Film, Bellincioni produced and directed six films starring her daughter, Bianca Stagno Bellincioni, who was a famous actress after a short career as an opera singer. At BiancaGemma Film, Bellincioni was also responsible for the commercial distribution of the films, selling the rights to Aurea Film, who exported them all over the world. She also acquired the literary rights to the work of the writer Maurizio Nordak (Martinelli, “Les metteuses-en-scène” 24).

Advertisement for Tatiana, la danzatrice polacca (1921) in Corriere del cinematografo no. 2 (February 1921), p. 5.

Reviews of these mother-daughter collaborations often focused positively on Bianca’s beauty while criticizing the narrative or technical aspects of these films. Writing about Tatiana, la danzatrice polacca (1921) in La rivista cinematografica, Aldo Gabrielli disliked the subject matter, but seemed to like Bianca’s beauty and Bellincioni’s direction and photography:

This is one of those films that say[s] nothing from the point of view of the subject, but that say[s], as they are [directed], what Italian artistic taste can also be in the cinema. […] The subject says nothing: it creates nothing, concludes nothing, and demonstrates less than nothing, [and] in reality demonstrates something: the cerebral anemia of cinematographic writers. I’m talking about the film only because Gemma Bellincioni has spread such beauty in every shot that I have rarely been able to praise so much in other films. […] [A] film destined to be nothing [became] something thanks to Gemma Bellincioni. (18-19, emphasis in original)

La principessa d’azzurro (1922), adapted by Bellincioni from a novel by Nordak, also received negative reviews (Scipio).

Bellincioni’s directing career effectively ended in 1923 with the Naples-set drama Satanica, which follows a tormented love affair between a poor, young couple. This film also had some trouble with the censors, and two scenes—one depicting seduction and one showing a stabbing—were cut, according to the Italia Taglia project database of censorship information (“Satanica”). After her film career ended, Bellincioni went back to teaching singing, opening a school in Vienna in 1930. She remained there for two years before returning to Italy, first to Siena and then to Naples, where she taught singing at the Conservatoire. Bellincioni’s return to musical education is not surprising given her pre-World War I teaching work (during which time she also wrote an instructional manual for singers that was published in 1912). She died in Naples on April 24, 1950, and is buried in the cemetery of Montenero in Livorno.

Despite the difficulty of reconstructing the plots of Bellincioni’s lost films, it appears that overall, out of the twelve films she directed at her three different companies, at least eight have a female character as the central protagonist. Some of these women show some shades of independence, but others follow the traditional model of womanhood set by the patriarchal society of the time. For example, in Papillon (1921), a frivolous woman is punished with death, and in Liana spezzata (1922), a poor girl cannot marry the man she loves because she does not belong to his social class. The most interesting and complex female character is certainly the protagonist of Giovanna I d’Angiò, regina di Napoli, who was based on the real-life Giovanna I d’Angiò, the queen of Naples from 1343 to 1381 and one of the first European women to reign by hereditary right. That Bellincioni chose to make a film about this revolutionary woman, who became queen at age sixteen, married her lover after killing her husband, and resisted the invasion of her kingdom, is telling. Although the queen was ultimately excommunicated and killed in prison, the archival film script shows us how Bellincioni tried to present a fascinatingly complex woman who faced numerous challenges and adversities.

Portrait of Gemma Bellincioni by Giacomo Brogi, date unknown. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

It is interesting to note that, in 1920, when Bellincioni published her autobiography, Io e il palcoscenico, about her life as an opera singer, she was still involved in the cinema industry. Yet despite this, she did not mention her film work at all. Perhaps she viewed opera as her “real” career and filmmaking as secondary, or maybe she was not fully satisfied with her productions. While her successful opera career seems to have eclipsed Bellincioni’s often poorly-received work as a film actress, director, producer, and screenwriter, her presence in the early Italian cinema industry should be valued because it demonstrates the enterprising spirit of a woman who was not afraid to experiment with a new art form and the different behind-the-scenes responsibilities it offered her.


Baccioni, Giovan Battista. Gemma Bellincioni. Biografia aneddotica. Palermo: Salvatore Biondo, 1902.

Bellincioni, Bianca Stagno. Roberto Stagno e Gemma Bellincioni intimi. Firenze: Monsalvato, 1943.

Bellincioni, Gemma. Io e il palcoscenico: trenta e un anno di vita artistica. Milano: Società Anonima Editoriale Dott. R. Quintieri, 1920.

D’Amico, Silvio. “Gemma Bellincioni.”  Enciclopedia dello Spettacolo. Vol. II. Rome: Le maschere, 1954. 199-202.

Fasanelli, Pio. “Suor Teresa.” La Cine-Fono no. 356 (1916): 124.

Gabrielli, Aldo. “Da Verona. Cinema Calzoni.” La rivista cinematografica no. 4 (25 February 1922): 18-19.

“Giovanna Iª d'Angiò, regina di Napoli.” Italia Taglia database [Bianca dati della Revisione Cinematografica/The Database of Cinematographic Review].

“Il lavoro della Tespi Film.” La Cine-Fono no. 334 (1916): 110.

La Cine-Fono no. 345 (1917): 98.

La cinematografia italiana ed estera (15 March 1917): 60.

La cinematografia italiana ed estera (20 September 1920): VI.

Gianni. “De Parma.” La rivista cinematografica no. 13 (10 July 1924): 40.

Martinelli, Vittorio. Il cinema muto italiano 1916I film della Grande Guerra. 1916. Vol. 1. Rome: Nuova ERI Edizioni RAI, 1992.

---. Il cinema muto italiano 1918. I film della Grande Guerra. 1918. Rome: Nuova ERI Edizioni RAI, 1991.

---. Il cinema muto italiano 1920. I film del dopoguerra. 1920. Rome: Nuova ERI Edizioni RAI, 1995.

---. “Les metteuses-en-scène.” In Cinema 60: mensile di cultura cinematografica no. 141 (September-October 1981): 20-25.

Mosconi, Elena. “Silent Singers: The Legacy of Opera and Female Stars and Early Italian Cinema.” In Researching Women in Silent Cinema: New Findings and Perspectives. Eds. Monica Dall’Asta, Victoria Duckett, and Lucia Tralli. Bologna: University of Bologna and University of Melbourne, 2013. 334-352.

“Satanica.” Italia Taglia database [Banca dati della Revisione Cinematografica/The Database of Cinematographic Review].

Scipio. “Da Bologna. Cinema Modernissimo.” La rivista cinematografica vol. IV, no. 4 (25 February 1923): 31.

Scott, Michael. The Record of Singing, vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1977. [See also: The Record of Singing, 1899-1952: The Very Best of Vols. 1–4. CD. EMI Classics, 2009.]

Archival Paper Collections: 

Scenario, Giovanna I d'Angiò, regina di Napoli (1920). Luigi Chiarini Library, Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia.

Advertisements used to illustrate this profile were accessed from the Museo Nazionale del Cinema's digitized “Riviste e monografie del cinema muto italiano” collection.


Festinese, Valeria. "Gemma Bellincioni." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2020.  <>

Ruth Gould Dolesé

by Martin L. Johnson

One of the sharpest critiques of the cinema in the late aughts and early 1910s came from Progressive reformers, who sought to regulate both the spaces where movies were seen, particularly the “nickel” shows in poor, urban areas, and the stories and images presented in the cinema. But in addition to pushing for commercial regulation of the picture show, reformers also dreamed of an “educational cinema,” which would take the most edifying films screened in theaters and bring them to other sites, including schools. Ruth Gould Dolesé, trained as an arts educator, and one of the early members of the New York Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures (later the National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures and then the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures), was one of the key players in the creation of an educational motion picture sector in the United States. In particular, her establishment of the Educational Department at the General Film Company in 1911, and, that same year, her publication of the Catalogue of Educational Motion Pictures made her a widely celebrated figure in the educational film movement, even though her early death in 1913 cut short a promising second career.

Ruth Ellen Gould was born in Delhi, New York, in 1868. The granddaughter and great-granddaughter of two United States congressmen (Herman D. Gould and Samuel Sherwood, respectively), Gould was a member of a prominent family in Delhi, a town of 3,000 people in upstate New York, ninety miles southeast of Albany. Her father, a railroad station agent, died in 1892. A few years later, Gould went to Chicago to study at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she began her career as an arts educator.

By 1898, Gould was working for the largest publisher of arts curricula in the United States, the Louis Prang Company. Although Prang got his start as a producer of commercial art, including some of the first Christmas cards, in the 1880s he began to move into the field of education. In Massachusetts, where Prang’s company was based, educational reformers had successfully pushed a new approach to art instruction in primary and secondary schools, including an 1870 state law that required school systems to teach drawing. In 1882, seeking to capitalize on the growing trend of arts instruction, Prang hired Mary Dana Hicks, author of successful curricula, and began pushing her manual under the Prang brand (Stankiewicz 145).

For five years, between 1898 and 1903, Gould was an energetic promoter of the Prang curricula, giving talks at teacher’s institutes, conferences, and club events across the country, including in cities and towns in Iowa, Montana, California, and, most frequently, Pennsylvania. While it is not clear whether Gould was paid for these speeches, it appears that her primary objective was to convince school boards to adopt Prang materials and to hire her as their district’s “supervisor of drawing” (“Artist To Be Wedded”), a role she could take on as an occasional consultant rather than as a permanent, full-time position. During this period, she also studied with Denman Ross, the most prominent design theorist of the early twentieth century, at Harvard, taking a summer course with him that he created specifically for arts educators (Frank 218).

Logo for Ruth Gould’s advertising firm, printed in The Week in New York.

By 1904, Gould appears to have quit working for Prang in order to explore other opportunities. Now living in New York, she established several businesses, including, with her close friend and business associate Laura Skinner, a magazine titled The Week in New York that was published between 1904 and 1906, and the R.E. Gould Company, a printshop and advertising firm. Advertisements for the latter appeared in the pages of The Week in New York, which provided event listings for busy New Yorkers. While neither of these businesses experienced long-term success, they established Gould as an important figure in the city’s art scene, which likely made her an attractive candidate for inclusion in other local organizations. In 1907, Gould married Henry Dolesé, vice president of a stone manufacturing company in Chicago. While a wedding announcement suggested that the new couple was planning to travel to Europe, and then move to Chicago, there is no evidence that either occurred (“Miss Ruth E. Gould Weds”). Instead, Dolesé—she now used her husband’s last name—remained in New York City, traveling alone to London in 1909, and staying active in the arts in New York while Henry lived in Chicago. In February 1910, Dolesé signed a new will, leaving her jewelry and businesses to her friend, Laura Skinner, and any remaining property to her sister, Katherine Gleason (“Ruth Gould Dolese” 83).

In early 1909, Dolesé became active in the nascent motion picture reform movement, which was centered in New York City. In what is now seen as a seminal event in American cinema history, in late December 1908, New York City’s mayor, George B. McClellan Jr., ordered the shuttering of all the city’s movie theaters, joining a swelling campaign by New York Progressives to regulate the production and exhibition of motion pictures. Four months later, in March 1909, the People’s Institute—one of the leading social work organizations in the city—established a new organization, the New York Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures, which would be the de facto censor for New York City and, because many film manufacturers were based in the city, the United States. From the start, the Board of Censorship relied on financing from the motion picture industry, particularly the newly established Motion Picture Patents Company (MPCC), an effort by Thomas Edison to use patent law to secure control of the motion picture industry. While this financing tied the Board of Censorship to the film companies, particularly those in the MPPC, its members were also interested in using their political power to force the industry to make films appropriate for children, and to encourage exhibitors to improve conditions in their storefront theaters.

In addition to setting up facilities to review motion pictures, the reformers behind the Board of Censorship were also interested in continuing work on another front, the establishment of an educational motion picture industry. In June 1909, board members voted for salaried positions for secretaries to direct its film censorship operations as well as its educational, national, and local and civic outreach work. In that same meeting, the board proposed sending a representative to London to acquire a “set of Urban educational pictures,” referring to the catalog created by the British traveling exhibitor and distributor Charles Urban in 1906 (Meeting Notes).

A month earlier, in May 1909, Dolesé was in attendance at a meeting of the Board of Censorship, evidence that supports her later claims that she was one of the founding members of the organization (“Mayor Finds No Law”). While it is unclear why Dolesé was selected to be on the board, her membership in the National Arts Club, which had been established almost a decade earlier, might have been a factor. Concerned that its reliance on film manufacturers for financing would damage its reputation, the Board of Censorship sought out members from a cross-section of New York society, provided, of course, that these individuals believed in its platform of voluntary censorship, not state action. While the educational activities of the Board of Censorship were less prominent than the “seal of approval” title cards that were soon inserted before the start of many films, board members appeared to be concerned with defining a role for the group that went beyond doing damage control for the industry.

Although it is not known when Dolesé was named to the Board’s Censoring Committee, newspapers articles from 1910 list her as a member, and her membership is noted in meeting notes and letterhead several times in 1911. That same year, Dolesé gave interviews and made public appearances on behalf of the Board of Censorship. For example, in March 1911, Dolesé argued in a newspaper interview published in the New York Evening Telegram that motion pictures held “moral and intellectual value” for education as well as the home life of children (Bean).

Title page, Catalogue of Educational Motion Pictures.

Later in 1911, Dolesé joined the General Film Company, the distribution arm of the MPCC, working as the head of the newly established Educational Department. While the Edison Film Company had long been interested in selling projectors and films to nontheatrical audiences, a broad category that included, per a 1906 ad, “fairs, schools, Y.M.C.A.’s, churches, [and] lodges,” it did not invest in making educational films until the early 1910s (Advertisement [Red Book Magazine]). At the same time, once Edison turned to educational cinema, it did so with fervor, claiming in a nationally circulated advertising campaign that the company was investing $3 million ($78 million adjusted for inflation) into the field (Advertisement [Seattle Star]). In September 1911, Dolesé published an editorial in the exhibitor trade publication Moving Picture World, which had started a column on educational film earlier that year. In her piece, Dolesé discussed the Educational Department and argued for the experiential value of motion pictures in the classroom:

Do you recall, as a child, the doubts that were foremost in your mind when you were told about some great natural phenomenon you had never seen? What does a mountain mean to a child who has never traveled beyond the boundary of the plains? What does the ocean mean to a child who dwells in the interior? A name only. And so we use pictures, photographs, drawings and paintings and they are helpful. But think what it means to see a motion picture! (Dolesé, “The Moving Picture as an Educator”)

One of Dolesé’s first, and most consequential, achievements in her new position was her creation of a film catalog, titled Catalogue of Educational Motion Pictures, which was published at the end of 1911.

In effect, this catalog can be seen as an effort to reposition the MPPC’s films as educational, thus creating a market that Edison would go on to dominate. Dolesé claimed that she viewed 300,000 films in order to select the 684 titles that ultimately appeared in the catalog, an unlikely feat, but evidence of the task at hand (“Death of Mrs. Dolese”). While the subjects of the films listed in the Catalogue of Educational Motion Pictures are similar to those in Charles Urban’s catalog, published five years earlier, Dolesé put considerable effort into making the catalog orderly, and designed it to be adapted to school curricula. The films are classified according to the Dewey Decimal System, featuring selections in seven of the ten classes outlined by Dewey: religion, sociology, natural science, useful arts, fine arts, literature, and history. Instead of giving the number of reels or feet of film, the catalog simply lists how many minutes it takes to view the film, which assumes that the operator is showing it at a standardized speed. All the films have short, descriptive titles, and are summarized in one sentence, giving it a certain economic poetry, as evinced by the following descriptions:

From the Field to the Cradle
Milk industry traced from farmer’s field and barn to the ultimate consumer—our baby (20);

Otter Hunt
Story of the pursuit and final capture of creatures whose fur we covet (29);

North Sea
In tempestuous mood, showing a wild sea with great foam covered waves. (15)

Sample pages from the religion and sociology film programs in the Catalogue of Educational Motion Pictures.

The catalog’s most novel feature are its film programs, designed either for an evening’s entertainment for particular audiences, such as churches and schools, or for integration in school curricula. In these film programs, Dolesé reconceived the use of motion pictures by focusing on their quality as representations of “objects” to be studied beyond entertainment. For example, she listed films to supplement a forty-week course titled “‘A Progressive Road to Reading’ by Motion Pictures,” modeled after a popular curriculum, offering titles within general subjects such as “Toys,” “Animals,” “Birds,” and “Flowers” (62). Dolesé also created film programs for the audiences who might be interested in educational films, including programs on religion, sociology, and one that was just for “general entertainment” (63).

Most importantly, however, Dolesé’s catalog was backed by the General Film Company, which committed to keeping the films she selected in circulation. In a 1912 letter, she assured one concerned exhibitor that “the subjects in our library are sometimes a year or two old, but we have only new prints” (Dolesé [Letter to J. Pelzer]). As a result, Dolesé managed to take an industry that was based on novelty—new titles, constantly—and ensure that one small piece of it would instead be based on permanence.

Dolesé died in September 1913, and the Educational Department of the General Film Company closed soon after. The films she collected were eventually sold to the Beseler Film Company, and, through the 1920s, it was considered to be one of the largest collections of educational films. In Arthur Edwin Krows’s serialized history of educational film, published in Educational Screen in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he credits Dolesé with the “reclamation idea,” the notion that a business could be founded on the “salvage of theatrical films for non-theatrical exhibition” (154). Although short-lived, Dolesé’s work as an editor and catalog writer casts a considerable shadow, as many educators, film distributors, and exhibitors continued to speak fondly of her, and the catalog that became her legacy.

See also: Anita Maris Boggs


Advertisement. Red Book Magazine (November 1906): 150.

Advertisement. The Seattle Star (24 May 1912): 8.

“Artist To Be Wedded.” The Morning Call [Allentown, PA] (12 September 1907): 1.

Bean, Theodora. “Expects to See Moving Pictures Soon In Schools.” New York Evening Telegram (24 March 1911): 4.

Burchill, Georgine, William L. Ettinger, and Edgar Dubs Shimer. Progressive Road to Reading. Book One. New York: Silver, Burdett and Company, 1909.

Catalogue of Educational Motion Pictures. New York: General Film Company, 1911.

“Death of Mrs. Dolese.” Schools (9 October 1913): 53.

Dewey, Melvil. Decimal Classification and Relative Index for Libraries, Clippings, Notes., etc. Sixth edition. Boston: Library Bureau, 1899.

Dolesé, R.G. Letter to J. Pelzer. September 7, 1912. Thomas A. Edison Papers, Rutgers University.

---. “The Moving Picture as an Educator: Its Possibilities at Last to be Realized.” [“Education and Science” column]. The Moving Picture World (9 September 1911): 707.

Frank, Marie Ann. Denman Ross and American Design Theory. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2011.

Gaycken, Oliver. “‘A Casual Glance Reveals a Perfect Mine of Treasures’: George Kleine’s Catalogue of Educational Motion Pictures (1910).” In The Institutionalization of Educational Cinema: North America and Europe in the 1910s and 1920s. Eds. Marina Dahlquist and Joel Frykholm. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019. 147-163.

Keeler, Amanda R. “John Collier, Thomas Edison and the Educational Promotion of Moving Pictures.” In Beyond the Screen: Institutions, Networks and Publics of Early Cinema. Eds. Marta Braun, Charles Keil, Rob King, Paul Moore, and Louis Pelletier. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012. 117-125.

Krows, Arthur Edwin. “Motion Pictures—Not for Exhibition.” Educational Screen (May 1939): 153-56.

“Mayor Finds No Law To Stop Fight Pictures.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle (9 July 1910): 1.

Meeting Notes. June 8, 1909, National Board of Review Collection, New York Public Library.

“Miss Ruth E. Gould Weds.” The New York Times (5 October 1907): 11.

Monaghan, E. Jennifer. “Gender and Textbooks: Women Writers of Elementary Readers, 1880-1950.” Publishing Research Quarterly 10 (1994): 28-46.

Rosenbloom, Nancy J. “Between Reform and Regulation: The Struggle over Film Censorship in Progressive America, 1909-1922.” Film History vol. 1, no. 4 (1987): 307–325.

“Ruth Gould Dolese.” Record of Wills, 1665-1916; Index to Wills, 1662-1923. [online database] #0989-0991, 1913-14. pp. 79-84.

Stankiewicz, Mary Ann. Developing Visual Arts Education in the United States: Massachusetts Normal Art School and the Normalization of Creativity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Archival Collections:

National Board of Review of Motion Pictures Records, Manuscripts and Archives Division,  New York Public Library.

Thomas A. Edison Papers, Rutgers University.


Johnson, Martin L . "Ruth Gould Dolesé." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2020.  <>

Nina Niovilla

by Agata Frymus

Very little is known about Nina Niovilla, who is considered to be Poland’s first female director, and possibly the only woman in the country who worked behind the camera during the silent film era. Even the roots of her last name—most likely a pseudonym—remain unknown. (Nina is a common diminutive form of the Polish name Antonina.) While we do know her family name, it is spelled multiple ways, most commonly as Petrykiewicz, but also as Petekiewicz or Petykiewicz; none of these variants appear in the country’s census or other legal documentation that could help us learn more about her background. A newspaper column from 1972 reasoned that Niovilla changed her original name to brand herself as a foreign film professional, and perhaps to boost her status while establishing her popular acting schools in the 1920s (Szletyński 5). While a reasonable assumption to make, it seems that she was using the name “Nina Niovilla” professionally since 1908, at least ten years before promoting herself as an educator.

Promotional photograph of the director in Ekran i Scena no. 18-19, 1923. The same picture was used in the advertising for Youth Triumphs/Młodość Zwycięża (1923).

Like many other film pioneers, Niovilla entered the movie business from theater, where she worked adapting stage plays from French and English to Polish. Film historians Janina Falkowska and Marek Haltof both suggest that the filmmaker started her directing career in 1918 in the Weimar Republic, where she took on the nom-de-plume of Nina Von Petry (Falkowska and Haltof 99; Haltof 259), but I have found no further evidence to support that claim. However, between 1919 and 1923, Niovilla directed four screen dramas: Tamara (1919), The Guards/Czaty (1920), We Are Coming to Thee, Poland, Our Mother/Idziem do Ciebie, Polsko, Matko Nasza (1921), and Youth Triumphs/Młodość Zwycięża (1923). For Youth Triumphs, Niovilla also acted as a producer and a screenwriter, and it is entirely possible that her creative control extended beyond directing in the other productions as well. Interestingly, Niovilla’s curiosity with the cinematic medium developed relatively late in life, as she was in her early forties at the time of her directorial debut.

Although Youth Triumphs was ultimately her last film project, in 1926, a fan weekly reported that Niovilla was working on a “monumental” film titled In the Claws of Jackals/W Szponach Szakali, which would be based on a screenplay written by a professor specializing in Russian culture, presumably to maintain historical accuracy (Kinematograf). The following year, an article from the French press referred to the same production, calling Niovilla the “Polish Germaine Dulac” (“Cinémagazîne en Province”). It seems that the film never saw the light of day, and if it did, I have been unable to locate any other press mentions referring to it.

While Niovilla’s entire cinematic oeuvre is considered lost today, existing plot synopses indicate that her first three films were highly reliant on ideas of Polish patriotism and local folklore. The Guards was, in fact, an adaptation of a ballad by a renowned romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz. The choice of this source material worked to propagate cinema as a respectable, high-brow medium. In many ways, it was also reflective of wider trends in Polish filmmaking at the time: Poland gained independence from Russia, Germany, and Austro-Hungary in 1918, which had a decisive impact on the types of stories that made it to the screen. The country’s cinematic culture was invested in promoting stories of Polish identity, national struggle, and eventual victory against the odds. Many contemporaries, including film critic Stefania Zahorska, viewed such narratives as stifling and overall damaging to the quality of the nation’s creative output, but Niovilla continued to develop these themes in her work. We Are Coming to Thee, Poland, Our Mother was set in the Podhale region of the Tatra Mountains, and followed the life of the Gorals, its indigenous inhabitants. Little else is known about the film, except for the fact that it featured a Romanian woman in one of the leading roles.

Apart from patriotic themes, Niovilla’s work drew on established modes like the melodrama. The plot of Youth Triumphs, for instance, tells the story of a dramatic love-triangle between a young sculptor Jan (Michał Halicz), who returns to Poland after studying abroad, and two women, Irena and Lena. Throughout the film, Jan is torn between their affections. A series of tragedies ensue after, finally, he separates from Lena to be reunited with Irena. Halicz was a successful stage actor, known to moviegoers from his performances in Niovilla’s two previous films.

1923 advertisement in Film Polski for Youth Triumphs/Młodość Zwycięża (1923). Note the photograph of the director, and the spelling of her name with a single “L.”

While a reviewer for Film Polski [Polish Film] spoke highly of Niovilla’s sensibility as the director of Youth Triumphs, he was less impressed with her skill as a storyteller:

While Mrs. N. Niovilla’s screenplay does not have a deeper ideological underpinning, it does not differ vastly from the standard template we encounter in the majority of foreign films […]. The subject is filled with hopeless sadness—pessimism. If the world is not so gay, shouldn’t we choose subjects that are more light-hearted? Truth be told, the author of the screenplay ends the film joyfully and happily, but five and a half acts [out of six] are not lightened up by a single bright ray. Mrs. Niovilla is rehabilitated by her directing. The work is conscientious, meticulous, not inventive, with no directing ideas, on the whole is well-grounded and polished in every detail. And the most important: the film has no cardinal directing errors. There is a familiarity with the craft, a conscious method (Russian and Italian influences): the director knows what they want. They are not distracted, walking on the trodden path, not confused—not lost in the labyrinth of chaos. (Trystan)

It is worth noting that this critic saw the aesthetics of Youth Triumphs as equal to those of higher budget, foreign pictures. We can speculate that, as a multi-linguist, Niovilla kept up to date with the most recent developments in the global film industry, perhaps reading French or English trade magazines.

Senatorska street in Warsaw, where Nina Niovilla lived in the 1920s.

Tenement house at Senatorska 6, Warsaw, where Niovilla resided, as seen today.

Surviving documents indicate that Niovilla also had some experience in front of the camera, although we do not know which films, if any, she may have appeared in. A compendium of Polish screen actors compiled in 1928 lists her name and address at Senatorska 6, a rather up-scale location in the middle of the historical center of Warsaw (Malczewski 145). Remarkably, the famous Hollywood actress Pola Negri lived at the same address in the 1910s (Kotowski 12).

Niovilla’s involvement in the burgeoning movie industry was not limited to film production. According to Rewia Filmowa [Film Revue], she was the founder and director of a network of acting schools based in the country’s key cultural centers, from Warsaw, through Cracow, to Łódź, Poznań, and Lwów (Banaszkiewicz and Witczak 206). It seems that these institutions were established sometime in the 1920s. Although the column refers to them as “film schools,” instruction focused solely on screen acting rather than any other occupation within the industry.

Wiesława Czapińska has argued that institutions of this kind became particularly popular in the 1920s, and that their founders often had few ethical concerns, and were interested in capitalizing on the ambitions of young, sometime gullible actors, above all else (115). Indeed, by the end of the decade, Niovilla’s enterprises attracted a lot of negative attention, as one of her co-directors—Jan Czesław Sikorowicz—was prosecuted for fraud. This is the context in which, unfortunately, this pioneering woman is most remembered today. Sikorowicz used his association with Niovilla to advertise his own, non-existent school for screen performers in Cracow. After collecting a hefty advance payment from each prospective student, Sikorowicz left town for good (Włodek 78). Niovilla testified at Sikorowicz’s trial, and ultimately never faced legal charges herself. The journalist Marek Sołtysik maintains that as a creative director permanently based in Warsaw, she had no involvement in the scam, and that her only fault was to trust such a skilled manipulator (256). Still, Niovilla’s activities as a businesswoman raised some concerns.

After the scandal, which culminated in 1934 with five years of imprisonment for her former employee, Niovilla started to move away from the public eye. Her acting schools closed down in the same decade, and very little is known about their founder’s career after that, except for the fact that she went back to translating plays by the end of the decade. We know that at some point—probably before the outbreak of the Second World War—Niovilla migrated to France. Her tombstone in the Batignolles cemetery, in Paris, lists 1966 as the year of her death.

See also: Stefania Zahorska

The author wishes to thank Monash University, Malaysia.


Banaszkiewicz, Władysław and Witold Witczak. Historia filmu polskiego, 1985-1929. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Artystyczne i Filmowe, 1966.

“Cinémagazîne en Province et à l'Étranger.” Cinémagazîne no. 4 (January 1927): 199.

Czapińska, Wiesława. Pola Negri – polska królowa Hollywood. Warszawa: Philip Wilson, 1996.

Falkowska, Janina and Marek Haltof, eds. The New Polish Cinema. London: Flicks Books, 1999.

Haltof, Marek. Historical Dictionary of Polish Cinema. Lanham and London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

Kinematograf no. 75/35 (10 August 1926): 6.

Kotowski, Mariusz. Pola Negri: Hollywood's First Femme Fatale. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2014.

Malczewski, Wacław. Polscy aktorzy filmowi. Książka-spis. Warszawa: Polska Biblioteka Filmowa, 1928.

Skaff, Sheila. The Law of the Looking Glass: Cinema in Poland, 1896-1939. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008.

Sołtysik, Marcin. “Szumowiny polskiej kinematografii. O człowieku przepełnionym bezczelnością.” Palestra. Pismo Adwokatury Polskiej vol. 5-6 (2014): 254-259.

Szletyński, Henryk. “W szkole teatralnej.” Stolica: Warszawski tygodnik ilustrowany no. 29 (1972): 5.

Trystan, Leon. “Przegląd ekranów stołecznych. Wytwórczość polska.” Film Polsk (April-May 1923): 29.

Włodek, Roman. 100 lat Marzenia. Historia kina w Tarnowie. Tarnów: Tarnowskie Centrum Kultury, 2013.


Frymus, Agata. "Nina Niovilla." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2020.  <>

Betty Burbridge

by Katherine A. Johnson

In 1941, publications like Life and The Saturday Evening Post featured an advertisement for Smith-Corona typewriters. Presenting an image of screenwriter Betty Burbridge at work, the advertisement described her as “Gene Autry’s script writer,” having “typed her way to the top” (117). Although she did, indeed, work with Autry on many films for Republic Pictures during the 1930s and 1940s, becoming a prominent screenwriter for B-movie Westerns in particular, Burbridge’s career in Hollywood started long before that.

1941 advertisement in Life for Smith-Corona typewriters that features Betty Burbridge as “Gene Autry’s script writer.”

While many recognize her success within the field of screenwriting—particularly as a woman writing Westerns—they simultaneously fail to acknowledge the length of her career and the breadth of her work in the American movie industry. In fact, a 1942 article based on an interview with Burbridge suggests the writer’s career in Westerns, and film in general, only truly began in the 1930s:

Masculinity-Plus—that’s the movie cowpuncher-hero. And, of course, you reason all these good swashbuckling, hard-riding, hard-hitting yarns must be written by a man. But that’s where you’re wrong! Some of the most popular Western stories today are written by a red-headed gal who, until she began writing them, didn’t know the front from the hind-end of a saddle and had never ridden a horse in her life. Her name is Betty Burbridge and she writes stories for Gene Autry…She packs more wallop and masculinity into her Western yarns than most men and expertly captures the tone and pattern of Western screen stories […]

Who is this Western-writing gal…and how did she get that way?

Betty is the daughter of a New York newspaper woman—one of the many “Prudence Pennys.” She attended a smart finishing school and then began her writing career by editing her mother’s cooking page. She didn’t know beans about cooking but she made good. Then a family friend who was making Western pictures invited her to come to Hollywood and try her hand at writing Western scripts. Betty didn’t know beans about the West either—she’d never been farther West than Detroit and the only horse she knew by sight was the traffic cop’s. She bought herself a ticket to Hollywood and an armload of Western pulps. All the way across the continent she read Westerns. When she arrived in Hollywood she could talk of “honkey-tonks” and “bangtails.” The producer bought her first script for fifty dollars—not because he felt obliged to but because it was the best, swiftest-moving script submitted to him.

That was ten years ago [emphasis added]. Betty has been writing and selling Western scripts ever since…She spends her week-ends on a dude ranch; she can ride; and she knows all the Western lingo. (Poole 9)

In its focus on the exceptionality of Burbridge’s career in Westerns, this article reveals the general belief that the genre was a masculine one, even though several women contributed to the form in the silent and sound eras, including Adele Buffington, Bertha M. Bower, and Grace Cunard. Additionally, although Poole’s piece provides readers with the idea that Burbridge was writing before she was in Hollywood, it disregards her experience as an actress in the early industry, and upholds the notion that persists today: that what made the writer was her work with Autry.

While offering some additional details about Burbridge’s early film career, historian Lizzie Francke outlines a similar narrative in her book on women screenwriters:

[Burbridge] started her career as an actress but soon switched to journalism, becoming a syndicated columnist specializing in the traditional woman’s page subjects of home economics, etiquette and child training. From this to Westerns seems a bit of a leap, but Burbridge made the transition in the early 1930s when she was asked by a producer friend at Republic to work as a story doctor on a “cow epic.” The producer liked her ideas and hired her to work on subsequent projects. Unsurprisingly, she decided that Westerns would be more fun to write about than “cheese soufflés and chintz curtains.” (Francke 74, emphasis added)

As in Poole’s article, Francke presents Burbridge’s move into the Western genre as a dramatic shift. Here, Burbridge’s experience as actress and writer is foregrounded; however, certain important details are missing. According to a 1948 New York Times article about women who wrote Westerns, Burbridge was not a stranger to the genre in the early 1930s. As the author writes, “Betty Burbridge, whose mother was Prudence Penny, a home economics columnist for the now defunct New York American, wrote a column herself as Prudence Penny Jr. before she became an ingenue in silent Westerns under the name of Elizabeth Burbridge” (Colton). While this article recognizes her long relationship to the Western genre that I found in my own research, it still glosses over this early period and fails to acknowledge her potential career agency.

In fact, Burbridge’s early work as an actress and screenwriter during the silent era set the stage, so to speak, for her career as a Western screenwriter during Hollywood’s studio era. Not unlike many screenwriters in early Hollywood, she began her career as an actress in the 1910s. She worked with the Biograph Company, Thomas Ince, and the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, among others. According to fellow B-Western writer C. Jack Lewis, Burbridge acted in eight films over the span of two years before she moved on to writing (173). However, the trade press and other sources credit her for over several dozen roles in other films between 1913 and 1916. For the most part, she was well received as an actress, referred to as “little,” or “dainty,” Elizabeth Burbridge in some cases (Melbourne 11; “The White Alley”). Fan magazines often listed her alongside popular stars like Cunard, Mae Marsh, Norma Talmadge, and Helen Holmes (Coward 131); and she often received positive reviews in the trade press. For example, a writer for Reel Life noted that, “Elizabeth Burbridge, leading woman of the New York Motion Picture studios, has been coming rapidly forward in her art during the last few weeks. As Ella Wheeler in the ‘Shorty’ series, she has done some remarkably clever Western character work” (“Real Tales” [1914]). During her acting days, Burbridge worked on numerous Westerns, often with Ince, and established herself as capable of depicting the “Western character,” or what Reel Life, at different times, described as presenting “a vivacious heroine, with a great deal of the ‘snap and go’ quality,” with a tendency to “rarely [betray] timidity, no matter what dangerous stunt she may be asked to do” (“Real Tales” [1914]; “Real Tales” [1915]). The list of her films featuring this type of character includes, according to the trade press, Richard V. Spencer and Ince’s The Fires of Ambition, Ince and C. Gardner Sullivan’s One of the Discard, and The Word of His People, all from 1914, and Ince and Sullivan’s “Shorty” series mentioned above. One could argue then that these acting experiences influenced Burbridge’s later status as “typical of the women [writers] who ended up in the B-Western stable” (Francke 74).

Betty Burbridge in Raymond B. West’s Rumpelstiltskin (1915) pictured on the cover of Reel Life (May 1, 1915).

While it can prove difficult to accurately track Burbridge’s film writing credits released before the emergence of the Writers Guild of America in 1933 and the implementation of more systematized accreditation and archiving—the Writers Guild Foundation only has records of Burbridge’s credits from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s and Francke’s filmography for her only lists work from 1931 to 1949—credits listed in the trade press and multiple, international film collections and databases suggest that Burbridge did more than write for “traditional woman’s page subjects” between the time that she was acting and when she became a full-time writer in the 1930s. In 1916, The Moving Picture World wrote of Burbridge: “In addition to her activities before the camera Miss Burbridge has written and, more important, seen produced several scenarios” (“Elizabeth Burbridge with Powell”). In 1917, three years after she is said to have started acting for the screen, the trade press began to credit Burbridge as a writer of film stories. For instance, Moving Picture World reported her work on Captain Kiddo (1917) and The Film Daily and Motion Picture News her work on Milady o’ the Beanstalk (1918) (“Second Series”; “Baby Marie”; “Pathe Names Eight”).

Lantern slide, The Cowboy Cavalier (1928). Courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery, W. Ward Marsh collection.

Although there appears to be a gap between 1918 and 1922 when the trade press was not reporting Burbridge’s work in Hollywood, in the mid-1920s sources began regularly crediting her for work on stories and scenarios. For example, The Film Daily credited her with the story and scenario for Battling Buddy (1924), Exhibitor’s Trade Review with the story for Rough Ridin’ (1924), and Exhibitor’s Herald with the scenario for Reckless Courage (1925) (as Betty Burbridge) (“Battling Buddy”; Cruikshank; “New Pictures”). In the case of Battling Buddy, The Film Daily stated of the story: “Western comedy-drama. ‘Battling Buddy’ certainly runs away with itself toward the last couple of reels. The action gets wilder and wilder and reaches its greatest heights when Buddy [Roosevelt], on horseback, takes a nose dive off a cliff and lands right in the burning cabin in time to save the girl” (“Battling Buddy”). And although Burbridge wrote dramas, comedies, and action adventure films—sometimes even hybrids of these—her action-adventure films, like Tearin’ Into Trouble (1927), were often described as fitting a certain story pattern:

“Tearin’ Into Trouble” contains one of the popular formula type western stories wherein the hero is suspected of pulling off all the crimes in the west and even the girl believes him guilty. Wally [Wales] manages to evade capture and thus provides five reels of good action until he is ready to pull off the mask and disclose his true identity…Good action is derived from the pursuit in which the posse hits the trail. (“Wally Wales”)

Such evidence suggests Burbridge was, in fact, known to work on less-than “feminine” subjects before the early 1930s.

As an actress, and in her early years as a scenario writer, Burbridge was credited as Elizabeth, but around 1925 her credits began to read as Betty Burbridge. One can argue this switch in professional name coincided with a switch in professional capacity, from actress and storywriter to full-blown scenario and continuity writer. Very generally, this move from actress to writer was not uncommon for women in Hollywood at this time; in fact, it “was considered a good career move,” allowing them longevity in the industry after their onscreen appeal faded (Francke 12). In Burbridge’s case, she moved rather quickly from story writer to scenario and continuity writer, laying the groundwork for a career that lasted into the early-1950s. Although definitions vary, both scenarios and continuity scripts take into account much more than story. Janet Staiger claims scenario scripts are more focused on shooting order and arrangement than a story from which a film is shot (126); and Kevin Brownlow describes the scenario script as “the sequence of scenes, the story told in visual terms…From this scenario was written the continuity, or ‘shooting script,’ as it is known today” (270-272). In this sense, the scenario writer was less a storyteller than a translator, making a story comprehensible to those who make films. The continuity script, in comparison, was more about the production process and the creation of scenes. A practice that came about in the early to mid-1910s when a more complex and specialized “central producer system” of production required a more detailed script (Staiger 138), the scenario became an industry standard and “scenario writing was regarded as a more specialized and ‘professional’ craft,” by the early 1920s (Francke 18). As Francke says of Burbridge, “she proved to be dependable at her swiftly learnt craft, adhering to the formula and notching up during her career nearly a hundred film credits” (75). Moving quickly from story writer to scenario/continuity/screenplay writer, Burbridge therefore became more immersed in the movie-making process, gaining success as a screenwriter on her own merit as the industry itself grew more organized along the lines of big business.

Given her career trajectory, one can imagine that Burbridge fell into writing for B-Westerns less through default than through previous experience, both in the film industry and out. C. Jack Lewis also numbers Burbridge’s total writing credits at around one hundred, and states that seventy-seven of them were for Westerns alone (173). Burbridge may not have been born a “Western” gal—as Poole’s article points out—but her success was certainly not coincidental. As I have already shown, Burbridge not only starred in early Westerns, but many of her first writing credits were for action-adventure and Western films for companies like Action Pictures, Inc. and for early Western series stars like Buddy Roosevelt and Buffalo Bill Jr. These films often received positive feedback in the press. Presumably, then, Burbridge had gained quite a bit of experience, both as a writer and a figure in the Western production arena, before the 1930s Westerns for which she is continually credited.

Burbridge did establish a formula for writing Westerns that fit Autry’s 1930s style; but it also fit that of earlier silent Westerns—the 1927 Film Daily review of Tearin’ Into Trouble featured above certainly recognized as much. In 1939, in a New York World Telegraph article titled “She Writes Westerns for Films,” Burbridge said:

I read pulp Westerns until I was bored to tears. But that’s how I learned the story racket–that and talking to the movie cowboys on the set. When I began doing these things I’d take my plots from New York stage plays that I had seen. I’d simply change the setting to the wide-open spaces, put the characters on horses, work in a couple of chases with a sheriff and a posse–and there would be a screen story. (qtd. in Francke 75)

Here, Burbridge suggests that not only did pulp Westerns—a source previously recognized as important for her education in the genre—bore her, but most of what she learned, she learned on the set, on the fly. It is a story similar to that in other sources. Yet no specific time frame is given here. The formulaic nature of what she describes, and which Francke recognized, could just as easily have been established during the silent and serial Western period of early American cinema as it could have been well honed during the 1930s B-Westerns. In her 1942 interview with Poole, Burbridge outlined a handful of features particular to her Westerns:

The hero must never smoke or drink—and tobacco chewing is out!…no intoxicants”; “The hero may go into a saloon to rescue someone, to consult someone, to meet someone or to beat up someone—but not to drink”; “The hero never kisses the girl if he can help it but he always wins her in the end”; “Keep gunplay at a minimum, and let the hero outwit the heavies rather than mow them down with a blitzkrieg of lead”; “If the villain must die…let it be accidentally.” (9)

These may be familiar traits of the genre for anyone who has seen numerous silent and B-Westerns; and they would have easily transferred from one era to the next as Burbridge moved from the silent to the sound period.

Elizabeth Burbridge’s signed portrait in Filmland Favorites (1915), p. 47.

One reason that Burbridge’s early cinematic contributions are given little attention may be that many of her films are no longer extant—at least as far as we know now. Additionally, information on Burbridge’s career, as well as her personal life, is full of inconsistencies. Sources even appear to be torn about her actual birthdate—some, such as Western aficionado Boyd Magers, claim Burbridge was born on December 7, 1895 (44), but Filmland Favorites states she was “[b]orn in San Francisco” on December 12, 1894 (47). While you can find Burbridge’s name in the contemporary trade press for being a writer of numerous films, and you can track her contributions there and in catalogs like the AFI’s—even these sources often miss numerous credits in their reports—not much beyond this can be found regarding her career in early American cinema. Few academic sources focus on Burbridge’s work, and although there is one archive—the American Heritage Center in Laramie, Wyoming—that holds material dated from 1918-1938, providing details of at least part of her early career, I have yet to find any other collections with more evidence. Nor have I, at the time of this writing, successfully identified any relations who can share memories of Burbridge or her career. All of this makes concrete knowledge of her early contributions even more unlikely than other historical subjects. For instance, any jobs for which she went uncredited during this time will most certainly be difficult to track without further information about the writer. Interestingly, IMDb claims that Burbridge also wrote under the names of Barr Cross, Bessie Burbridge, and Robert Bridgewood, but I have found no evidence of this in the rest of my research. However, if this is the case, then the list of early contributions, both credited and uncredited, made by Burbridge may be longer than the research here suggests. With the discovery of more historical evidence we may one day get closer to the full picture of Burbridge’s role in early Hollywood history. That said, the material I have found does point to the fact that she was an important player in early as well as studio-era Hollywood, particularly in the realm of B-Westerns, in which she was already well established as a writer before she began working for the renowned cowboy and media mogul, Gene Autry.

See also: “Shaping the Craft of Screenwriting: Women Screen Writers in Silent Era Hollywood


Advertisement [Smith-Corona typewriter]. Life (27 Oct. 1941): 117.

“Baby Marie and Pickanniny Get More Chance In This.” The Film Daily (24 Nov. 1918): 23.

“‘Battling Buddy.’” The Film Daily (14 Sept. 1924): 6.

Brownlow, Kevin. The Parade’s Gone By… New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968.

Colton, Helen. “Meet the Gals Who Write ‘Em, Not Ride ‘Em.” New York Times (31 Oct. 1948): X5.

Coward, Neil G. “Screen Gossip.” Picture-Play Magazine 4 (March-Aug. 1916): 125-131.

Cruikshank, Herbert K. “‘Rough Ridin’’ is Right,” under “Box Office Reviews.” Exhibitor’s Trade Review (5 April 1924): 25.

“Elizabeth Burbridge.” Filmland Favorites: Being the Autographed Photographs with Biographical Sketches of the Leading Photo Play Stars. Los Angeles: American Publishing Co., 1915. 47.

“Elizabeth Burbridge with Powell.” The Moving Picture World 29 (16 Sept. 1916): 1806.

“‘Fire of Youth’ Heads Universal: Butterfly Five-Reeler Starts Off a Week Containing a Wide Variety of Subjects.” The Moving Picture World (23 June 1917): 1963.

Francke, Lizzie. Script Girls: Women Screenwriters in Hollywood. London: British Film Institute, 1994.

Lewis, C. Jack. White Horse, Black Hat: A Quarter Century on Hollywood’s Poverty Row. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2002.

Magers, Boyd. Gene Autry Westerns. Madison, NC: Empire Publishing, Inc., 2007.

Melbourne, Dick. “Inceville.” Movie Pictorial (Sept. 1915): 10-11.

“New Pictures.” Exhibitor’s Herald (16 May 1925): 85.

“Pathe Names Eight Months Releases.” Motion Picture News (28 Dec. 1918): 3905.

Poole, Oliver. “Betty Burbridge on Western Technique.” The Author & journalist vol 27, no. 7 (1 July 1942): 9-10.

“Real Tales About Reel Folk.” Reel Life: A Magazine of Moving Pictures vol. 5, no. 4 (10 Oct. 1914): 19.

“Real Tales About Reel Folk.” Reel Life: A Magazine of Moving Pictures vol. 5, no. 25 (6 March 1915): 20.

“Second Series of 15 Pathe Playlets Ready for Release Beginning May 14.” Moving Picture World (22 April 1922): 847.

“She Writes Westerns for Films.” New York World Telegraph (27 July 1939): n.p.

Staiger, Janet. “The Hollywood Mode of Production to 1930.” In David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. 85-153.

“Wally Wales in ‘Tearin’ Into Trouble’.” The Film Daily (13 March 1927): 8.

“The White Alley.” Motography vol. 15, no. 1 (3 Feb. 1916): 315.

Archival Paper Collections:

Elizabeth Burbridge papers, 1913-1938. The American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.


Johnson, Katherine A. "Betty Burbridge." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2020.  <>

Eva Nil

by Luciana Corrêa de Araújo

A delicate hand-colored photograph of Eva Nil’s face graces the cover of 50 Years of Film Archives, 1938-1988, edited by the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) in 1989. The caption inside the book reads: “Eva Nil, one of the most famous Brazilian stars of the 20’s. […] All films she has starred in are lost” (1). Nil’s stardom, carefully built up in the late 1920s, certainly remains alluring today. Her star persona, though, has somehow eclipsed other dimensions of her brief film career that deserve to be brought to the foreground, such as her activities as a producer, her keen sense of publicity, her technical skills and, in a broader sense, the professional attitude she adopted toward her career.

Letter from Eva Nil to Pedro Lima. Cataguases, 19 August 1928. Courtesy of Acervo Cinemateca Brasileira.

Mining archival sources proves fundamental to shedding light on Nil’s many activities. Her correspondence with journalist Pedro Lima—unfortunately divided between two archives, Cinemateca Brasileira, in São Paulo, and Arquivo Geral da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro, in Rio—provides detailed information while also giving us access to Nil’s thoughts and opinions. Other letters, received from journalists and fans, are found at Cinemateca Brasileira in the artist’s personal archive, which also holds many press clippings and some movie theater programs. Rich material on Nil can also be found in newspapers and magazines, particularly in the Rio-based film magazine Cinearte. Engaged in a campaign to promote Brazilian cinema and to create its own star system, Cinearte journalists Adhemar Gonzaga and Pedro Lima gave Nil wide publicity through numerous articles and photographs. When Gonzaga directed his first feature, Barro humano/Human Clay (1929), which had Lima on the production team, Nil was even cast in a supporting role. That same year, however, when Nil was only twenty years old, she decided to withdraw from cinema, never working in film again (Ramos 514-516). Sadly, none of her films are preserved today, except for very short fragments of Barro humano and Senhorita Agora Mesmo/Miss Right Now (1927), the two-reel film she produced and starred in, which was directed by her father, Pedro Comello.

Nil’s connection with the early works of Humberto Mauro, who was to become one of the most acclaimed Brazilian film directors, along with the magnetism that her exquisite face and figure never fail to exert, has fueled a constant interest in her. Another decisive contribution to her long-lasting appeal was the essential book on Mauro’s early career, Humberto Mauro, Cataguases, Cinearte, published in 1974 by film historian Paulo Emilio Salles Gomes, which provides invaluable information on and insightful analysis of Nil’s films and personality.

Portrait of Eva Nil. Courtesy of Acervo Cinemateca Brasileira.

Born in Egypt, where her father, the Italian Pedro Comello, served in the military and married Ida Tonetti, Eva Comello moved to Brazil with her family in 1914, settling in Cataguases, a town in Minas Gerais state. At the age of thirteen, Nil started helping her father in the photography studio he had opened in the early 1920s, an unusual job for a young woman in the eyes of the locals. There, she learned the craft and was in charge of the business during her father’s travels and after his death.

Nil’s first film role is usually considered to be the heroine kidnapped by the villain in Valadião, o cratera/Valadião, the Crater (1925), the first attempt at filmmaking by Humberto Mauro and Comello. In a letter to Cinearte journalist Pedro Lima, however, Nil claimed that she was filmed for the first time when working on the unfinished Três irmãos/Three Brothers, directed by her father in 1925 (Nil 1928). This information raises some questions, considering that Valadião, o cratera, shot with a Pathé-Baby 9.5mm camera, certainly preceded Três irmãos, a more professional project, in which an Ernemann 35mm camera was used. Perhaps Nil did not work on Valadião, o cratera, or she may have considered this amateur experience not worth reporting. Or it could be that declaring Três irmãos as her film debut was a way to reinforce her father’s importance in her career. A photograph published in Cinearte magazine a few years later shows Comello shooting a scene of Três irmãos. Interestingly, rather than being part of the scene, Nil stands at her father’s side, close to the camera, looking at the set, suggesting her concern with the technical aspects of production (Vidal 7).

In 1926, Nil starred in the feature Na primavera da vida/In the Spring of Life, directed by Mauro, with Comello operating the camera, and worked on Os mistérios de São Mateus/The Mysteries of São Mateus, another unfinished film directed by her father. She was to be the leading actress in Mauro’s following feature, Tesouro perdido/Lost Treasure (1927), but, after disagreements between her and the director, she refused to take part in it. This conflict with Mauro would last for years, which certainly explains Nil’s insistence in affirming, in her correspondence with Lima, that she was always directed by her father, even when he was credited only as the cameraman. The precise reasons she left Tesouro perdido remain unclear, but do seem to be related to a combination of financial, personal, and professional issues. Having already worked on the previous film, Nil did not accept being paid the same amount as the other unexperienced actors. Moreover, considering the story very uninteresting, she asked Mauro to make some changes; when he refused to do so, she quit the production (Nil 1928). Another reason may have been her refusal to be carried in the arms of an actor, in a scene that Mauro would not change (Schvarzman 154). This episode may reveal Nil’s conservative values, not unlike those of other young women of the time, as well as her professionalism. Right from the beginning of her career, she strove not only to make a creative contribution in shaping the roles according to her artistic—and moral—views, but also to be properly paid. As she had once declared to her mother, her goal was to earn a living working in cinema and photography (Estanislau 1).

Founding a production company seems to have been Nil’s way to pursue the professional standards she desired and to gain autonomy to develop more suitable projects. After Tesouro perdido, when Comello left Phebo Sul América, the production company he had founded with Mauro, he planned to produce non-fiction films (Gomes 179). Nonetheless, Nil convinced him to stay in fiction filmmaking and they both founded the production company Atlas-Film. In a 1927 letter to Lima, Comello reported that he decided to set up Atlas-Film “to satisfy my daughter’s aspirations,” adding that he also longed to make fiction films, “but the lack of capital is a big thing!” (Comello; emphasis in original).

Atlas-Film’s only production was the two-reel adventure film Senhorita Agora Mesmo, whose costs were limited to the purchase of film stock, according to a 1929 interview with Nil (“Ouvindo ‘estrelas’”). Although released at Cinema Glória, a first-run movie theater in downtown Rio, the film did not enjoy other commercial exhibitions, except for a couple of screenings in Cataguases and a nearby town, Miraí. Despite all the difficulties, which were far from unusual in Brazilian cinema at the time, owning a production company allowed Nil to develop a personal project in which she took on a variety of responsibilities. In Senhorita Agora Mesmo, not only did she play a strong female protagonist, but she also worked as a camera and laboratory assistant to her father alongside her activities as a producer and publicist.

Eva Nil in Senhorita Agora Mesmo (1927). Courtesy of Acervo Cinemateca Brasileira.

In the film, Nil plays the fearless farm owner who, threatened by bandits, fights them to protect her mother and their property. The protagonist’s “energetic temper, always ready and determined” (“Senhorita Agora Mesmo”), earned her the nickname “Miss Right Now,” and mirrors the actress’s own personality. Instead of playing a romantic, fragile leading lady, Nil is an action heroine who, wearing masculine attire characteristic of the western genre, handles a gun and ties up the villains on her own—although in the end, imprisoned by the bandits, she is rescued by the young neighbor whose love advances she once rejected.

Modeled after the popular American serial queens from the 1910s, her character contradicted the dominant image of Nil built up by both the press and herself, through the pictures she regularly sent to journalists and fans. Nil was seen as “insinuating, gorgeous, gracious, natural in gestures, always with delicate expressions” (Folha Comercial), and as the “ethereal type of a Griffith ingénue” (IGO). For Atlas-Film’s follow-up film, Canção das ruas/Song of the Streets, which never came to fruition, she may have wanted to avoid a similar mismatch between her part and her star persona, announcing she would play “an interesting sentimental role” (Cinéfilo) this time.

While most references to Senhorita Agora Mesmo in the Brazilian press highlighted Nil as the film’s protagonist, sometimes also mentioning Atlas-Film as her production company, more detailed information on the technical work she performed was provided by the Portuguese film magazine Cine. Illustrated with a photograph of Nil with a dedication to the magazine, the piece, published in November 1928, presented information about her life and work, adding that in Senhorita Agora Mesmo she “held the megaphone and operated the camera’s hand crank. She also helped her father in film developing, cutting, editing and adapting the film according to her own artistic taste” (Cine). In Brazil, Nil’s camerawork was reported by Pedro Lima in Cinearte, who remarked that Pedro Comello was “substituted many times by the star of Cataguases [Nil], in the absence of anyone else who could replace him efficiently” (Lima [5 Oct. 1927]). Nil herself was the probable source of the information reported by both Cine and Cinearte, given her correspondence with Lima and the Portuguese journalist Mário D’Almeida, and it could be read as part of her effort to be regarded for other abilities, beyond acting.

Eva Nil and Pedro Lima. Dedication: “For Eva Nil, so that you never forget the one who most trusts in your success, here is Pedro Lima 12/5/1928. Courtesy of Acervo Cinemateca Brasileira.

Lima also stressed Nil’s work in production, writing the following month that she was “the only independent female producer in our country, even though she is so young” (Lima [2 Nov. 1927]). Throughout their correspondence, it is clear how she was personally engaged in creating the production company Atlas-Film and in promoting Senhorita Agora Mesmo, in tandem with the promotion of her own star persona. Working in a photography studio gave Nil both the practical conditions and the technical skills to provide the press and her fans with a wealth of photographic material. Her portraits, some of them developed and printed herself, certainly benefited from her father’s basic knowledge of painting and visual arts.

Nil’s keen sense of publicity was soon spotted and praised by Cinearte as one of her most remarkable features. According to a brief note published in 1927, she was the only female artist who regularly sent them her most recent pictures; rarely a week passed without her writing to them. Likewise, her fans’ requests never went unanswered. The note, along with the three pictures published on the same page, is a striking example of Nil’s promotional abilities. Not only was she the only actress to congratulate the magazine on its first anniversary, but she also presented the publication “with each photo a treat”: one of them holds a dedication to Cinearte and, in the other two, Nil stands in a carefully arranged setting, flipping through the pages of Cinearte, while sitting next to a pile of what seems to be all the magazine’s previous issues (“Eva Nil”).

Nil’s professional attitude toward her career is also reflected in the way she faced her work in Barro humano, the only one of her films to enjoy distribution in several Brazilian states. In a letter to director Adhemar Gonzaga before shooting began, she expressed her excitement with the film. She looked forward to receiving his instructions, in order to study her part, which she wanted to be a sensation (Nil [2 Oct. 1927]). To Pedro Lima, she admitted that she desired a role “in which the work is not completely passive, but rather presents some challenges” (Nil [5 Sept. 1927]). Her critical concern about the role and her commitment to carefully prepare for it were not usual attitudes among Brazilian actresses and actors of the time. Nil’s work on the set was praised by Gonzaga in a letter to Humberto Mauro: “Eva Nil did very well. A sensation indeed” (Gonzaga).

Portrait of Eva Nil. Courtesy of Acervo Cinemateca Brasileira.

The release of Barro humano in June 1929 to both public and critical acclaim encouraged Nil and her father to continue with their production company. A new project for Atlas-Film was announced, Canção das ruas, a feature film whose main scenes would be shot in Rio, and investments were made to remodel the studio and improve its technical resources. In a letter to Lima, Nil reported the acquisition of a new camera (“our Ernemann has already become a Debrie”) as well as professional printer and projection machines (Nil [29 June 1929]). Surprisingly, however, only a month after this letter, loaded with enthusiasm and promising news, Nil communicated to Lima her “complete withdrawal from working for the current national cinema” (Nil [20 Nov. 1929]). In stark contrast to her previous letter, Nil expressed her disappointment with Brazilian cinema. In doing so, she directly confronted Cinearte‘s discursive and promotional strategies, laying bare its false premises. “You say it [Brazilian cinema] does exist,” she wrote to Lima on November 20, 1929, “but you know very well it does not.” Her letter exposed “the awareness of an actress in the face of the economic and cultural limitations to which film activity in the country was imprisoned” (Melo 107). Although personal reasons cannot be discounted, the difficulties of making a living as a film professional in Cataguases certainly contributed a great deal to Nil’s decision. Nil and her father’s plan to pursue a film career in Rio, as Humberto Mauro would do soon afterwards, did not come to fruition. Nil stayed in Cataguases, working in the photographic studio until the 1970s, when it closed (Ramos 515).

See also: “Writing the History of Latin American Women Working in the Silent Film Industry

The author would like to thank the Cinemateca Brasileira for kindly providing the photographs and the permission to use them and David Rushton for his collaboration with the translations.


Araújo, Luciana Corrêa de. “‘A Role in Which the Work Is Not Completely Passive’–Eva Nil, Miss Right Now (1927), and Women’s Work in Brazilian Silent Cinema.” Feminist Media Histories, vol. 3, no 4, 2017. 102-125.

Cine (November 1928): n.p. Eva Nil Archive, Cinemateca Brasileira.

Cinéfilo, undated press clipping. Eva Nil Archive, Cinemateca Brasileira.

Comello, Pedro. Letter to Pedro Lima. 3 June 1927. Pedro Lima Archive, Arquivo Geral da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro.

Estanislau, Lidia Avelar. “Transcrição da entrevista concedida pela Sra. Eva Comello”/“Transcript of the interview given by Ms. Eva Comello.” Cataguases, 25 April 1988; 14 July 1988. Cinemateca Brasileira.

“Eva Nil.” Cinearte (2 March 1927): 10. Biblioteca Nacional – Hemeroteca Digital.

Folha Comercial (5 July 1927): n.p. Eva Nil Archive, Cinemateca Brasileira.

Futemma, Olga Toshiko and José Francisco de Oliveira Mattos. Reconstituição com adaptação livre de enredo do filme, a partir de sinopse publicada na revista Cinearte, n.81. São Paulo: Cinemateca Brasileira, n.d.

Gomes, Paulo Emilio Salles. Humberto Mauro, Cataguases, Cinearte. São Paulo: Perspectiva/Editora da Universidade de São Paulo, 1974.

Gonzaga, Adhemar. Letter to Humberto Mauro. August 1928. Pedro Lima Archive, Cinemateca Brasileira.

IGO. “Registro cinematográfico.” Estado do Rio Grande (11 March 1930): n.p. Eva Nil Archive, Cinemateca Brasileira.

The International Federation of Film Archives. 50 Years of Film Archives/50 ans d’archives du film, 1938-1988. Brussels: FIAF, 1989.

Lima, Pedro. “Filmagem brasileira.” Cinearte (5 October 1927): 4. Biblioteca Nacional – Hemeroteca Digital.

---. “Filmagem brasileira.” Cinearte (2 November 1927): 4. Biblioteca Nacional – Hemeroteca Digital.

Melo, Luís Alberto Rocha. “O discurso historiográfico em Mulheres de cinema.” In Feminino e plural: Mulheres no cinema brasileiro. Eds. Karla Holanda, Marina Cavalcanti Tedesco. Campinas: Papirus, 2017. 101-113.

Nil, Eva. Letter to Pedro Lima. 5 September 1927. Pedro Lima Archive, Arquivo Geral da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro.

---. Letter to Adhemar Gonzaga. 2 October 1927. Pedro Lima Archive, Arquivo Geral da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro.

---. Letter to Pedro Lima. 17 May 1928. Pedro Lima Archive, Cinemateca Brasileira.

---. Letter to Pedro Lima. 29 June 1929. Pedro Lima Archive, Cinemateca Brasileira.

---. Letter to Pedro Lima. 20 November 1929. Pedro Lima Archive, Cinemateca Brasileira.

“Ouvindo ‘estrelas.’” Cataguases (25 June 1929): n.p. Eva Nil Archive, Cinemateca Brasileira.

Ramos, Lécio Augusto. “Eva Nil.” In Enciclopédia do cinema brasileiro. Eds. Fernão Ramos, Luiz Felipe Miranda. São Paulo: Editora do Senac/Edições Sesc SP, 2012. 514-516.

Schvarzman, Sheila. “O cinema silencioso em Minas Gerais (1907-1930).” In Nova história do cinema brasileiro. Eds. Sheila Schvarzman, Fernão Pessoa Ramos. São Paulo: Edições Sesc, 2018. 124-173.

Senhorita Agora Mesmo.Cinearte (14 September 1927): 6. Biblioteca Nacional – Hemeroteca Digital.

Vidal, Barros. “Humberto Mauro.” Cinearte (11 December 1929): 6-7. Biblioteca Nacional – Hemeroteca Digital.

Archival Paper Collections:

Biblioteca Nacional, Hemeroteca Digital [database].

Eva Nil Archive. Cinemateca Brasileira.

Pedro Lima Archive. Cinemateca Brasileira.

Pedro Lima Archive. Arquivo Geral da Cidade do Rio de Janeiro.


Araújo, Luciana Corrêa de. "Eva Nil." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2020.  <>

Anita Maris Boggs

by Laura Isabel Serna

Anita Maris Boggs was the co-founder of the Bureau of Commercial Economics, a Washington D.C.-based distributor of industrial and educational films that was founded in 1913 and dissolved sometime in the 1930s. Despite its official sounding name, the Bureau was not a government agency. Rather, it was a charitable institution supported by sponsors, donors, and the modest fees it charged for the shipping of film prints. International in scope, the organization described itself as “an association of the governments, institutions, manufacturers, producers and transportation lines of America and other countries,” whose goal was “to engage in disseminating geographical, commercial, industrial, and vocational information by the graphic method of motography” (Bureau of Commercial Economics 2). Its films, distributed via a network of university extension services and other partners, were screened free of charge to audiences in universities, high schools, convention halls, community centers, prisons, and even on screens set up outdoors. In 1920, the Bureau claimed to be reaching two million viewers a month (Publicity with Moving Pictures 1).

A drawing of Anita Maris Boggs in Educational Screen, April 1939.

Because the Bureau left no consolidated archive, its activities and Boggs’ career must be pieced together through scattered sources. Indeed, I was first alerted to Boggs via correspondence between the Bureau and Universal Film Manufacturing Company in the Harry and Roy Aitken Papers at the Wisconsin Historical Society, a collection I was exploring for a completely different purpose. Piecing together Boggs’ role at the Bureau, as much as I have been able to, required mining the press, alumni association publications, government reports, and scattered archival documents held at various institutional repositories, including the New York Public Library.

Boggs was born into a comfortable Pennsylvania family. After attending a school for girls in her hometown of Harrisburg, she enrolled at Bryn Mawr College and subsequently was granted a scholarship to study at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business for the academic year 1910-1911 (“Pleasant Features”; “Personal and Social News”; “Leave for School Monday”; “Scholarships”). Although we do not know the details of her course of study either at Bryn Mawr or the Wharton School, those experiences seemed to have shaped how she thought about media and its role in society.

Two essays published around the time of the Bureau’s founding, which Boggs wrote a year apart for Pedagogical Seminary, a journal edited by psychologist and eugenics advocate G. Stanley Hall, suggest as much. In the first essay, “Cultural Schools or Continuation Schools,” Boggs makes the case for educating American workers via continuation schools. In the second, “Visualized Opportunity,” she argues forcefully for the potential role of motion pictures in vocational education. In this essay, she explicitly invokes the work of the Bureau, emphasizing that its goal was to “depict fully and accurately the industrial processes and to illustrate how things in common use are made and produced” (449). She argues that these films, which she refers to as “films of opportunity,” will open the world of industry and commerce and thus of employment to their viewers (448). She also describes the audiences the Bureau hoped to serve: university students and subsequently high school students, clients served by settlement homes and missions, members of commercial clubs, and attendees at trade conventions. Although Boggs gestures toward serving other populations —“negroes of the South” and “illiterates of the back country of the United States”—those projects never seem to have materialized (451-452). These two essays suggest that Boggs may well have been the intellectual architect of the Bureau’s mission, or was at least as important to its conception as her co-founder Francis Holley.

Over the course of the Bureau’s first ten years, Holley, who had a compelling backstory that involved being cured of sudden blindness (“Once Blind”), became the organization’s public face and mouthpiece, traveling around the country to promote its work to university leaders, members of industrial associations and corporations, and veterans’ groups. Boggs, however, was deeply involved in the Bureau’s everyday operations and strategic initiatives. The daily work of the Bureau involved corresponding with organizations at home and abroad about film prints, putting together the organization’s catalogues, which went from simple listings of subjects to fairly detailed synopses, and editing the Bureau’s quarterly house organ, Vision. And, when Holley entered into a contract with Universal in 1918 to solicit business for the firm’s industrial film production division, Boggs took on the lion’s share of Holley’s work at the Bureau (Francis Holley to Pat Powers; Francis Holley vs. Universal Film Manufacturing Company). Some evidence suggests that she provided funds for the Bureau’s work and that she leveraged the organization’s connections with Universal to help the budding female filmmakers Adriana and Dolores Ehlers who came from Mexico to study at the company’s various labs and studios (Sherman; A. Maris Boggs to P.A. Powers).

Boggs, her face obscured, with an actress next to one of the Bureau’s projection trucks, Photoplay, July 1921.

In a 1916 speech to the Second Pan American Scientific Conference, Holley talked at length about the work of the Bureau and its advisory council “composed of college presidents and men of international distinction in science and letters,” but made no mention of twenty-eight-year-old Boggs (“The Bureau of Commercial Economics” 86). Some four years later, in a profile written after Oklahoma Senator Robert Owen had advocated for giving the Bureau a federal charter on the floor of Congress, the author noted that Holley seemed to have a “sincere admiration for the talents and activities” of his young collaborator (Sherman). Indeed, Boggs seems to have been engaged in a wide array of professional activities; she was the president of the League of American Pen Women, a literary society, and a member of the Royal Geographic Society, the Academy of World Economics, and the Academy of Political and Social Sciences.

When Holley died in 1923, Boggs became the director of the Bureau and her younger brother, Randolph, its Dean. It appears that under their direction the focus of the Bureau’s work shifted from vocational education to intercultural understanding. In 1933, Frances Mangum profiled Boggs in The Washington Post in an article titled “Dr. A. Maris Boggs Heads Enterprise for World Amity.” The piece, as far as I have been able to ascertain, is the only profile of Boggs that was ever published. Mangum observed that Boggs—“a very tiny, feminine person”—was doing the important work of “introducing the peoples of this old world to one another” by means of “films and lectures distributed to 54 major nations” (Mangum). Boggs offered the example of Syrian audiences whose encounter with the U.S., Germany, or Britain in the form of industrial or educational films might “derive new ideas both for themselves and their community.”

While this aspect of the Bureau’s work focused on, in Boggs’s words, “working people,” she also used Mangum’s profile to highlight the Bureau’s program of “diplomatic salons.” That program gathered U.S. diplomats, military officials, and government workers to hear lectures and watch films about other countries, in an effort to counter what Boggs called “false propaganda.” Surviving evidence of those events indicates that these screenings also promoted the U.S. military and even, sometimes, showed foreign feature films years after their release (“Romantic Uses of Our Movies”;“Navy Night”). This heterogeneity suggests the ways that the Bureau’s activities might have fostered intercultural understanding while also providing opportunities to promote the U.S. military and other institutions.

Sometime in the next few years, the precise date unknown, the Bureau closed after Boggs was forced to retire because of health issues. She died of brain cancer in July 1937 in Jerusalem, where she had been living with the explorer Dorothy Quincy Smith. Obituaries published in major U.S. and international newspapers described her as a “widely known economist and educator” (“Dr. Maris Boggs”) and noted her work at the Bureau, which was described by The Washington Post as a “philanthropic institution designed to promote international understanding” (“Dr. Boggs Dies in Jerusalem”).

Although Arthur Edwin Krows mentions Boggs in one of the series of articles he wrote about the history of nontheatrical film for Educational Screen in 1939 (as does Sean Savage in his 2006 master’s thesis), her role in promoting industrial films as a tool for education and intercultural understanding through the mundane work of connecting interested parties with prints, which had, in turn, been collected from businesses, trade associations, and foreign governments, remained unexcavated until quite recently (Serna 2015). The contours of Boggs’ career suggest the ways in which women’s involvement in the field of nontheatrical film overlapped with other early twentieth-century reformist projects, such as vocational education, Americanization, and Pan-American unity, among others. Research into a figure such as Boggs, who worked for half of her career in the shadow of a male business partner, requires patient multi-archival investigation, allowing us to piece together her contributions while placing nontheatrical film distribution in the wider social, political, and cultural contexts that shaped its aims.

See also: Cora Johnstone Best and Audrey Forfar Shippam, Ruth Gould Dolesé


“American Legion: Nation-Wide News.” The Bristol Daily Courier (1 March 1921): 2.

“Anita M. Boggs.” Who’s Who in the Nation’s Capital 1921-1922. Washington, D.C.: Consolidated Publishing Company, 1922. 38.

“Boggs, Anita Uarda Maris.” Bryn Mawr Calendar: Register of Alumnae and Former Students. Bryn Mawr, PA: Bryn Mawr College, 1922. 22.

Boggs, Anita U. M. “Cultural Schools or Continuation Schools.” Pedagogical Seminary vol. 20 (January 1913): 71-77.

---. “Visualized Opportunity.” Pedagogical Seminary vol. 21 (January 1914): 445-53.

Boggs, A. Maris. Letter to P.A. Powers. Triangle Film Corporation papers. US MSS 9AF Box 18, Folder 4. Harry and Roy Aitken Papers 1909-1940, Wisconsin Historical Society.

Bureau of Commercial Economics. Bureau of Commercial Economics: Department of Public Instruction. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Commercial Economics, Inc., 1915.

---. Publicity with Moving Pictures. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Commercial Economics, 1920.

“Dr. Boggs Dies in Jerusalem; D.C. Educator: Woman Economist Worked Here, in Japan and South Africa.” The Washington Post (14 July 1937): 22.

“Dr. Maris Boggs.” New York Times (14 July 1937): 21.

Holley, Francis. “The Bureau of Commercial Economics.” Commercial Education: A Report on the Subsection of the Second Pan American Scientific Congress December 1915-January 1916. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Interior, Bureau of Education, 1916. 85-86.

---. Letter to Pat Powers. February 16, 1920. Triangle Film Corporation papers. US MSS 9AF Box 21, Folder 1. Harry and Roy Aitken Papers 1909-1940, Wisconsin Historical Society.

Holley, Francis. vs. Universal Film Manufacturing Company, ca. June 1920. Triangle Film Corporation papers. US MSS 9AF Box 21, Folder 4. Harry and Roy Aitken Papers 1909-1940, Wisconsin Historical Society.

Krows, Arthur Edwin. “Motion Pictures: Not for Theaters.” Educational Screen (April 1939): 121-124.

“Leave for School Monday.” Harrisburg Telegraph (28 September 1906): n.p.

Mangum, Frances. “Dr. A. Maris Boggs Heads Enterprise for World Amity.” The Washington Post (20 December 1933): 13.

“Navy Night.” Screening Ticket. National Board of Review Motion Pictures records. Box 18. Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library.

“Once Blind, He Now Helps Others to See.” American Magazine (October 1921): 55.

“Personal and Social News.” Harrisburg Daily Independent (20 September 1906): 7.

“Pleasant Features of Closing of the Misses Sergeant and Bent School.” Harrisburg Telegraph, (16 June 1904): 1.

“Romantic Uses of Our Movies.” Screening Ticket. National Board of Review Motion Pictures records. Box 18. Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library.

Savage, Sean. “The Eye Beholds: Silent Era Industrial Film and the Bureau of Commercial Economics.” MA thesis. New York University, 2006.

“Scholarships.” Harrisburg Daily Independent (12 April 1910): n.p.

Serna, Laura Isabel. “Anita Maris Boggs: Historical Invisibility and Gender in the History of Sponsored and Educational Film.” Feminist Media Histories vol. 1, no. 2 (2015): 135-143.

“A Service You Ought to Know About.” The Interstate Film News vol. 5, no. 31 (1925): 1.

Sherman, John Dickson. “Pictures without Money and without Price.” The Muldrow Sun [Muldrow, OK] (1 June 1923): 5.

“Showing Them to the Indians.” Photoplay 20, no. 2 (July 1921): 86.

Archival Paper Collections:

Correspondence. 1920 February - August. Harry and Roy Aitken Papers 1909-1940, US MSS 9AF. Wisconsin Historical Society.

Subjects Correspondence, Bretinger - Campfire Girls. National Board of Review Motion Pictures records. Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library.


Serna, Laura Isabel. "Anita Maris Boggs." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2020.  <>

Élisabeth and Berthe Thuillier

by Stéphanie Salmon, Jacques Malthête

Élisabeth Thuillier is best known by film historians for having colored Georges Méliès’s films and films produced by Pathé. In his overview essay on “French Film Colorists” written for this publication, Joshua Yumibe notes that Méliès “outsourced his hand-coloring work from 1897 to 1912 to a Vincennes firm in Paris run by Elisabeth Thuillier who managed a workforce of over 200 female colorists.” Like other film historians before him, Yumibe relies on the journalist François Mazeline’s interview with “Mme Thuillier,” which took place just a few days before a gala organized in honor of Méliès at the Salle Pleyel in Paris in 1929. In that interview, “Mme Thuillier” told Mazeline:

I did the coloring for all of M. Méliès’s films (…). That type of coloring was entirely done by hand. I employed two hundred and twenty women in my workshop. I spent my nights selecting and sampling the colors, and during the day, my workers applied the color according to my instructions. Each specialized worker applied only one color, and there were often more than twenty colors to apply on one film. We used very fine aniline dyes. They were then successively dissolved in water and alcohol. The tone obtained was transparent and luminous. The false tints were not neglected. (…) M. Dufayel was my last client. He always demanded that the films be hand-colored. The cost was higher, six to seven thousand Francs per copy, for a 300-meter film, and that was before the war. We made an average of sixty copies for each film. So, hand-coloring was a fairly heavy burden on producers’ budgets. (Mazeline 4)

Georges Méliès’s notebook, ca. 1930. Courtesy of the Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée and the Cinémathèque française.

But contrary to what we thought for so long, the woman cited above was not Élisabeth Thuillier but her daughter Marie-Berthe Thuillier, known as Berthe Thuillier, who probably worked with Élisabeth and then took over the workshop after her death in either 1904 or 1907. Only recently did we find out about Berthe Thuillier thanks to Georges Méliès’s address book from the 1930s, which indicates the city where “Mrs. Thuillier” lived. The address book reads as follows: “Mrs. Thuillier—Film colorist in Forceville-en-Vimeu near Oisemont (Somme)” (Fonds Méliès 55-B5). We then followed this first lead to various private, national, regional, and local archives, where we uncovered information about Berthe, her mother Élisabeth, and their career as film colorists during the early days of cinema.

Élisabeth Thuillier (née Aléné) was born in 1841 in the town of Guénange in Moselle (near the French border with Luxembourg and Prussia) to a family of Catholic farmers. After the Franco-Prussian War, the Moselle region was annexed by Prussia, but in 1872, Élisabeth chose to keep the French nationality. She had six siblings and her father lived in Paris where he made a modest living as an unskilled worker. Around 1848-1850, when social upheavals and cholera epidemics forced populations in France to migrate from rural to urban areas, Élisabeth left her village and moved to Paris with three of her older siblings. In Paris, she was apparently under the responsibility of her brothers and sisters, with whom she maintained a close relationship for many years. According to official documents from the État civil de Paris at the Archives de Paris, her siblings were with her in 1864 and 1865, when she gave birth to two children “of unknown father,” and when they both died in infancy. In 1867, Élisabeth’s third child, Marie-Berthe, was born and recognized legally by her father, Jules Arthur Thuillier (1846-1875), the son of a landowner from Forceville-en-Vimeu (Somme), even though Élisabeth and Jules were not officially married until 1874.

When she first arrived in Paris, Élisabeth lived in a working-class neighborhood bordered by the Canal Saint-Martin on one side and gypsum quarries on the other, on the site of the Octroi Wall and on the edge of La Villette and Belleville, two villages in the North of Paris that were incorporated into the capital in 1860. Because of the Falloux Law of 1850, which required that every commune of more than 500 inhabitants have a public school for boys and girls, both Élisabeth and Berthe were able to go to public school and to receive a good education. Berthe’s education was probably better than her mother’s since the Falloux Law had been in place for about twenty years when she lived with her paternal aunt in Quevauvillers, a town of about 1000 people in the Somme. Yet Élisabeth still benefitted from the development of new economic opportunities during the Second Empire (1852-1870). As suggested by the address listed on Berthe’s birth certificate from 1867, Élisabeth, who had been a cook and a house servant before, was now working as an “employee” at A. Binant’s shop (5-7 rue de Cléry, 2nd arrondissement). Binant, whose successor would be E. Souchard, was an art dealer who sold “all sorts of watercolors, gouache colors, miniature paints, oil colors, and paint tubes” (Annuaire-almanach du commerce 758), as well as restored paintings, specialized in marouflage on canvas, and published Gustave le Gray’s Nouveau traité théorique et pratique de la photographie sur papier et sur verre [New theoretical and practical treatise on photography, upon paper and glass] (1851). Little information remains about the following years of Élisabeth’s career, when she started her own business as a colorist of photographs and positive plates. Yet it was most likely after she became a widow in 1875 that she started practicing coloring on her own. Although Jules Arthur Thuillier had become a lawyer after having been a shopkeeper, he died without leaving Élisabeth anything, which means that she might have opened her own business out of financial necessity after he died. Under the Napoleonic Code, her status as a widow allowed her to earn a living and support her family on her own.

As for Berthe, she might have started working with her mother around 1886, when she was nineteen years old. Or Berthe might have been employed by Albert Saulieu, a photographer who was a witness at her wedding in 1888. Official documents issued by the État Civil around that time indicate that Berthe was herself a photographer, which was still a very rare profession for a woman, and that she remained a photographer until at least 1889, when her only daughter, Georgette, was born. Berthe might have signed her photographs with the name of her husband Eugène Boutier, a sculptor who attended the École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs starting in 1885 and who displayed a bust of “Mlle B.T.” (probably Berthe Thuillier) at the Salon of 1887 (Exposition des Beaux-Arts 47). Berthe and her husband belonged to the thriving community of Parisian artists and lived on the rue André-del-Sarte in Montmartre, near the Grands Magasins Dufayel, which would later show some films that would have been colored by the Thuilliers (Mazeline 4). Berthe and Eugène’s separation in 1902, followed by their divorce upon Berthe’s request in 1906, might be the reason why she then used Thuillier as her professional name.

With the emergence of cinema in 1895, Élisabeth and Berthe started specializing in the coloring of films using the same aniline dyes that were already employed for photographs and stereoscopic glass prints. Yet their business is not listed in the extant professional directories of the time that we consulted. Because the Thuilliers specialized in coloring, their business might have been quite modest at first, or they might have done subcontracted work for a photographer. In any case, the Thuilliers might have started working for Méliès as early as 1897 since Méliès considered colors essential to the visual spectacle that his féeries and trick films offered to audiences already used to colorful magic lantern shows (Malthête 1987, 6). Méliès probably designed the sets, costumes, and tricks in most of his films knowing what colors he would instruct the Thuilliers to apply later (3). But at the same time, the Thuilliers might have had some control over the coloring process since “colors often varied from one print to the next based on the head colorist’s taste and skillfulness” (3). During her interview with Mazeline in 1929, Berthe also stated that, “I spent my nights selecting and sampling the colors” (4), which certainly suggests that she made at least some of the decisions about the coloring of Méliès’s films.

Frame enlargement, Monsieur et Madame sont pressés (colored nitrate, Pathé frères, 1902). Courtesy of Filmoteca Vasca and Filmoteca de Catalunya.

Embossed stamp, “Coloriste Vve Thuillier” at the end of Monsieur et Madame sont pressés. Courtesy of Filmoteca Vasca and Filmoteca de Catalunya.

At Pathé, the first mentions of “Thuillier, Coloriste” and “Vve Thuillier” [Widow Thuillier] in the bookkeeping records date back to January 4, 1898, and February 12, 1898, respectively (Journaux comptables de Pathé 8, 115). Yet the Thuilliers might have worked for Pathé frères before that, when the firm had not yet been formed as a limited company. At any rate, the Filmoteca de Catalunya recently restored a fragment from the hand-colored nitrate print of a film released by the company in 1902 entitled Monsieur et Madame sont pressés/In A Hurry to Catch A Train, which bears the following mention (in French): “COLORISTE/Vve THUILLIER /7 MEDAILLES/OR ARGENT BRONZE/PARIS 1886 A 1900” [Colorist/Widow Thuillier/7 medals/gold silver bronze/Paris 1886-1900]. According to archivists Nere Pagola and Joxean Fernández, this fragment is “particularly interesting since there is apparently no other film whose coloring can be attributed directly to the famous colorist’s workshop” (97). But if we are unable to establish the Thuilliers’ filmography, then we can say that they most likely worked on a large number of Pathé films from at least 1898 until around 1912. Based on Pathé’s bookkeeping records, by November 1903, Pathé was working with three different workshops: Verdier, Vallouy, and Thuillier. At that point, the firm was just a few months away from its first trials for mechanized coloring. During the second half of 1905, Pathé placed orders mostly from the Thuilliers, who would deliver up to 3,800 meters of film every month for the price of 1.25 Francs per meter, even though stencils had just been introduced at Vincennes. At the Archives départementales du Finistère in Brittany, letters dated 1908 and 1909 and written from Bermuda by film exhibitor Marie de Kerstrat to Francis Gaouyer, her law clerk, and two letters from Berthe to Gaouyer, suggest that Berthe (and perhaps her mother before her) worked with at least one other film organization besides Méliès and Pathé around the same time (Fonds Pouliquen).

L’Exposition internationale du théâtre et de la musique (1896), p. 132.

Annuaire du commerce et de l’industrie photographiques (1902), p. 118.

Berthe Thuillier’s writing paper, 1909. Courtesy of Archives départementales du Finistère (Fonds Pouliquen).

Today there is still very little published scholarship about Élisabeth and Berthe. Yet official records, directories, and the Thuilliers’ administrative papers from the beginning of the twentieth century show that their contributions to photography (and possibly film) were acknowledged by their peers. For example, Élisabeth was awarded a bronze medal at the 1900 Paris Exposition (L’Exposition universelle 163; “1° Liste” 149), where she competed as an expert in “albumen colors,” which she had used since at least 1896, probably because they allowed for precise and transparent corrections on photographic prints (Exposition internationale du théâtre et de la musique 132). The Annuaire du commerce et de l’industrie photographiques from 1902 also mentions that “Mme Vve Thuillier” [Élisabeth Thuillier] specialized in the application of “colors for painting photographs, positives on glass, opals, and silks, etc.,” and that she “colored any film and photograph” (118), which no other listed professional seems to have offered. Based on the Annuaire-almanach du commerce, where the Thuillier name was listed between 1903 and 1909, the Thuillier workshop received three gold medals, one vermeil medal, one silver medal, and one bronze medal (abbreviated as “OOO, V, A, B” in French). The heading on Berthe’s writing paper from around 1908-1909 also includes two gold medals, four silver medals, and one bronze medal, which we have been unable to trace in newspapers and catalogues. Still, that writing paper makes it clear that the Thuilliers regarded the coloring of film prints as one of their principal activities at the time.

Together with the honors mentioned above, the workshop’s various locations over the years might be evidence of the Thuilliers’ success. In 1907, the Thuilliers’ workshop was located on a coveted street in the 7th arrondissement (40 rue de Varenne, upper floors), before moving just down the street (87 rue du Bac), where they stayed at least until 1909. Berthe probably described the workshop on the rue du Bac to Mazeline in 1929 and said that she would have employed up to 220 female workers (4), but these statements cannot be verified today. According to the prenuptial agreement for Berthe’s second marriage, she then lived in a bourgeois apartment on the rue du Four in the 6th arrondissement and earned more money than her husband Eugène Beaupuy, a lawyer and the main editor of the Contentieux des Chemins de fer de l’État, which compiled claims involving the State Railways.

Berthe Thuillier’s signature. Courtesy of the Archives départementales du Finistère (Fonds Pouliquen).

During the industrialization of the coloring process at the Pathé studios in Vincennes, which allowed them to lower the price down to 0.5 Francs per meter of film, Pathé even considered taking control of the Thuillier workshop. Berthe (most likely) was also approached to take over the new workshop in Vincennes and she might have helped train the women working there. But Pathé’s takeover of the Thuillier workshop in Paris never happened. This may have been due to Élisabeth’s poor health and subsequent death on July 7, 1907; or because of the increased use of the coloring machines of Mr. Florimond, chief colorist at Pathé; or because of a disagreement between Mrs. Thuillier and Mrs. Florimond, who was also asked to manage the company’s workshop (Salmon 188; Livre du conseil d’administration de Pathé n°1 1906, 288-289). In any case, Berthe took over her mother’s workshop, remained independent from Pathé, and continued working as a film colorist for Pathé until 1911 and for others until around 1912. Between 1922 and 1924, Berthe, now known as the Veuve Beaupuy [Widow Beaupuy], moved to her father’s village, Forceville-en-Vimeu in the Somme, where she still owned a house and where her parents and husband were buried. She died there in 1947.

We can only speculate about the reasons behind the closing down of the Thuillier workshop, whose artisanal methods for hand-coloring might have been made obsolete by new mechanized coloring processes. Many questions about the Thuilliers’ work for Méliès, Pathé, and others, and about their business practices also remain unanswered. But we have come a long way since Georges Méliès’s address book first pointed us to Berthe Thuillier. Our trips to the various archives where materials about the Thuillier family are scattered allowed us to establish that there was not one but two women working as film colorists in France at the turn of the century, and that the Thuilliers ran a family business that adapted to and thrived with the emergence of cinema. Even though the Thuilliers had different careers from other film colorists, these new discoveries shed light not only on Élisabeth and Berthe Thuillier, but also on the work of film colorists, who were mostly women in the early days of cinema.

Translated by Aurore Spiers

The authors would like to thank Simon Bohbot, Maître Marie Brunet, Rosa Cardona, Giulia Cucinella, Lorenza Fenzi, Anne-Sophie Godin, Germain Lacasse, Bernard Lécrivain, Jérôme Legrand, Nere Pagola, and Isabelle Parizet, who provided access to rare archival materials.


“1° Liste alphabétique des Exposants. Constructeurs, Opticiens, Produits chimiques, Etc.” In Photo-Gazette. Eds. Georges Carré and C. Naud. Paris, 1899-1900. 149-151.

Annuaire-almanach du commerce, de l'industrie, de la magistrature et de l'administration: ou almanach des 500.000 adresses de Paris, des départements et des pays étrangers: Firmin Didot et Bottin réunis. Paris, 1870-1914.

Annuaire du commerce et de l’industrie photographiques. Paris: Charles Mendel, 1902.

Archives municipales de Guénange. “Construction d'une maison école à Guénange en 1826.” Chroniques d’histoire locale 9 (1987): 1-10.

Davron, Édouard. “Les enseignements d'un recensement à Guénange en 1841.” Chroniques d’histoire locale 10 (1987): 2-11.

Exposition des Beaux-Arts. Salon de 1887. Catalogue illustré. Peinture et Sculpture. Paris: L. Baschet, 1887.

Grimoin-Sanson, Raoul. Le Film de ma vie. Paris: Henry Parville, 1926.

“L’Activité cinégraphique. En France. En Allemagne. En Angleterre.” Cinéa 146 (15 December 1929): 26-7.

L’Exposition internationale du théâtre et de la musique. Paris. 1896. Catalogue officiel de l’Exposition. Paris, 1896.

L'Exposition universelle de 1900 à Paris. Liste des récompenses. Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1901.

Malthête, Jacques. “Les bandes cinématographiques en couleurs artificielles. Un exemple: les films de Georges Méliès coloriés à la main.” 1895. Mille huit cent quatre-vingt-quinze 2 (1987): 3-10.

---. “Un nitrate composite en couleurs: le Voyage dans la lune de Georges Méliès, reconstitué en 1929.” In 1895. Mille huit cent quatre-vingt-quinze no. 71 (Winter 2013): 163-181.

Mazeline, François. “Mme Thuillier nous rappelle…Le temps où le cinéma ne manquait pas de couleurs.” L’Ami du Peuple (13 December 1929): 4.

Pagola, Nere and Joxean Fernández. “Tesoros del cine a ras de suelo.” Journal of Film Preservation 90 (April 2014): 91-99.

Salmon, Stéphanie. Pathé, à la conquête du cinéma, 1896-1929. Paris: Tallandier, 2014.

Yumibe, Joshua. “French Film Colorists.” In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2013.

Archival Paper Collections:

Archives notariales d'Oisemont, France.

Archives paroissiales de Guénange + Chroniques d’histoire locale [journal published by the association Vie et Culture]. Association Vie et Culture, Guénange, France.

Catalogues du Salon. Société des Artistes Français.

Contribution foncière des propriétés privées. État des changements constatés pour l'année 1940, Forceville-en-Vimeu, France. Archives départementales de la Somme, France.

État civil de Forceville-en-Vimeu et recensements de cette commune. Archives départementales de la Somme, France.

État civil de Paris. Archives de Paris.

État civil, Fonds généalogique Coutot. Geneaservice.

Fonds de l’étude Cotelle. Paris, France. Archives Nationales.

Fonds de l'étude Pouliquen 60 J 67, Quimper, France. Archives départementales du Finistère.

Fonds Georges Méliès. Centre national du cinéma et de l'image animée (CNC). Cinémathèque Française.

Journaux comptables de Pathé, 1898-1912. [HIS-F-579 à 598]. Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé.

Livre du conseil d'administration de Pathé n°1, 1896-1907. [HIST-F-214]. Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé.


Salmon, Stéphanie; Jacques Malthête. "Élisabeth and Berthe Thuillier." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2020.  <>

Suzanne Marwille

by Martin Šrajer

To date, there are only about ten women screenwriters known to have worked in the Czech silent film industry. Some of them are more famous today as actresses, directors, or entrepreneurs. This is certainly true of Suzanne Marwille, who is considered to be the first Czech female film star. Less known is the fact that she also had a talent for writing, as well as dramaturgy and casting. Between 1918 and 1937, she appeared in at least forty films and wrote the screenplay for eight of them.

Suzanne Marwille in Láska slečny Věry/The Love of Miss Věra (1922). Courtesy of Národní filmový archiv.

Born Marta Schölerová in Prague on July 11, 1895, she was the second of four daughters of postal clerk Emerich Schöler and his wife Bedřiška Peceltová (née Nováková). There is a scarcity of information about Marta’s early life, but we know that in June 1914, at the age of eighteen, she married Gustav Schullenbauer. According to the marriage registry held at the Prague City Archives, he was then a twenty-year-old volunteer soldier one year into his service in the Austrian-Hungarian army (Matrika oddaných 74). Four months later, their daughter—the future actress and dancer Marta Fričová—was born. The marriage lasted ten years, which coincided with the peak years of Marwille’s career.

As was common at the time, Marwille was discovered in the theater, although probably not as a stage actress. While many unknowns still remain about this occasion, it was reported that film industry professionals first saw her sitting in the audience of a Viennese theater at the end of World War I (“Suzanne Marwille” 2). Not long after, she was cast, together with the popular Czech singer and cabaret performer Ferenc Futurista, in the comedy Ošálená komtesa Zuzana/The Fooled Comtesse Zuzana (1918) and then in the romance Démon rodu Halkenů/The Demon of the Halken Family (1918), which was written by Czech actress Hana Temná.

Marwille’s first two films were directed by Václav Binovec, the founder and main director of the newly-created Wetebfilm, a Czech production company that enjoyed several years of success during the silent era. It was Binovec who shaped Marwille’s star image early on, and came up with her professional name, which was used in the press from the very start of her film career. Binovec had a taste for creating cosmopolitan names; the name of his company was a combination of the letters W (for his Americanized name, Willy, during a trip to the United States), T (for his confirmation name, Tomáš), and B (for his surname) (Bartošek 70). For Marta, he paternalistically gave her part of his own name as “Marwille” is a combination of “Marta” and “Willy.” He complemented this surname with an exotic first name—the French version of the Czech “Zuzana.” The fact that he co-authored her professional name at the very beginning of her career later led to Binovec’s self-confident, albeit partially justified, claims that it was he who made Marwille a star.

Marwille starred in the third film she made for Binovec, the two-reel romantic drama A vášeň vítězí/And Passion Triumphs (1918). In this film, for which Hana Temná also wrote the libretto, Marwille plays the wife of an ignorant banker who chooses a passionate relationship with a man from the Prague underworld over her wifely duties. Initially, the film was banned in Austria for romanticizing Prague criminals (Bartošek 71). It only appeared in the cinemas after World War I when Czechoslovakia gained independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The film uses narrative tropes that would become typical of Marwille’s filmography, as well as other melodramatic films of the time, such as a love triangle, conflict between reason and passion, and stolen identity.

In fact, there is a certain consistency in the types of characters Marwille initially played, which is due, in part, to her constant collaborations with Binovec, who truly shaped her star image and his company around it. She frequently appeared as the femme fatale or vamp whose passionate relationships usually had tragic consequences. Based on the reports and advertising of the time, Marwille became one of the main attractions of Wetebfilm, and Binovec visibly promoted his films in relation to her popular star image, pushing her name to the forefront of all her films and “drumming it […] into the audiences in all [the] free spaces in Prague streets” (Dr. B. R. 132-133). As a key person within the company, Marwille even lent her name to the title of Marwille detektivem/Detective Marwille (1922), a parody of American detective films.

In its search for suitable stories that would resonate with audiences, Wetebfilm focused on light melodramas and adventure narratives. Books by famous authors, both domestic and international, were adapted to increase the company’s prestige and the attractiveness of its productions. For example, the company’s Sivooký demon/The Grey-Eyed Demon (1919) is considered to be one of the very first cinematic adaptations of a classic work of Czech literature. In this lost film, Marwille played a young mother mourning the death of her child. Also considered lost is the adventure drama/spy film Bogra (1919). In the role of a dancer forced to marry a high-ranking official, Marwille continued to develop her acting skills, “which already appeared very promising in The Grey-Eyed Demon,” according to a review in Československý film (“Posudky předváděných filmů” 5). The author of the review elaborated further on his interest in the emerging Czech film star: “Her suggestive appearance is most remarkable in close-ups. The play of her face is so poignant that the subtitles, which are scarce anyway, become completely pointless […] With her perfect acting, elegance and beauty—at times demonic, at other times angelically simple—she has attracted the attention of foreign countries. It would be an irretrievable loss for Czech film had Miss Marwille accepted one of the several tempting offers she received from abroad.”

According to film historian Karel Smrž, Wetebfilm was the only film production company “overcoming the critical period of distrust of Czech film while enhancing its quality to be able to compete with foreign films both in technical and artistic terms” (Film 284-285). Binovec, Smrž argued, was the first “to understand that if we wanted to produce films actively, we had to get them abroad as well. And if we wanted to get them abroad, they had to be international like most films on the global market.” The fear that Marwille’s fame would grow and that Czechoslovakia would soon be too small for her, expressed in the review of Bogra, was a symptom of a relatively early and successful, albeit incomplete, fulfillment of this ambition for Binovec. Thanks to the company’s high-quality films, “his” actress with an exotic-sounding name was soon seen as a world-class star.

The early 1920s saw the biggest boom for Wetebfilm with the commercial success of its most ambitious films. It was also during this time that Marwille exerted more official control in shaping her star image and film roles as a screenwriter, although she was likely involved in writing librettos for and consulting on earlier films without ever receiving credit. Having made Wetebfilm famous with her acting, her need for greater authorial control might have been related to her inability to identify with the heroines of her films, or the types of stories (Hrbas, “Svět Martina Friče” 5). She was not alone in this opinion; in the spring of 1920, an article in Kinopublikum stated: “We know that miracles do not exist, but we do not understand why Miss Marwille cannot find a competent author who would be not only able to write a leading role for the main actress, but also an actual film story, i.e., a dramatic one” (“Suzanne Marville” 3). Marwille ultimately found a competent author in herself.

Suzanne Marwille in Irčin románek I/Irča’s Little Romance I (1921). Courtesy of Národní filmový archiv.

Suzanne Marwille in Irčin románek I/Irča’s Little Romance I (1921). Courtesy of Národní filmový archiv.

The actress, who had originally wanted to devote herself solely to a career in literature, grew up admiring feminist writer Růžena Svobodová, the founder of the magazine Lípa, whose work often focused on modern women who did not submit to men (Hrbas, “Svět Martina Friče” 4-5). As a child, Marwille wrote letters to the magazine, and so it is not surprising that, in 1921, she made her screenwriting debut with Černí myslivci/Gamekeepers in Black, an adaptation of an anthology of short stories by Svobodová. Marwille was reportedly very well-read in world literature, and her other early attempts at screenwriting reflect this. For example, she also wrote the screenplay for the drama Román boxera/Boxer’s Novel (1921), an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s nineteenth-century novel Cashel Byron’s Profession, and the screenplay for Poslední radost/Last Joy (1921), which was based on a novel of the same name by Knut Hamsun. In addition to providing the script for the latter, it is likely that she was the one who initially encouraged Binovec to adapt Hamsun’s story (Dr. B. R. 133).

Suzanne Marwille in Irčin románek I/Irča’s Little Romance I (1921). Courtesy of Národní filmový archiv.

Marwell also wrote the screenplay for the popular Irčin románek I/Irča’s Little Romance I (1921), adapting the story from a book of the same name by Josef Roden, a popular author of stories for young adults. The character of sweet high school student Irča represented Marwille’s attempt to play a new type of heroine and added the role of a charming young girl to the actress’s portfolio. The Czech publisher and writer Otakar Štorch-Marien, a great admirer of Marwille, later speculated that with her independent, sweet, and cheeky manner, Irča appealed to girls of the same age, presenting an alternative role model not common at the time (126). This role seems to be much more in line with Marwelle’s off-screen personality, which sources have characterized as, among other qualities, independent, intelligent, witty, and athletic (Smrž, Dějiny filmu 28; Hrbas, “Martin Frič. Lidový vypravěč IV” 184), with the “agility and boldness of a true Amazon” (ský 7). Unfortunately, Marwille’s follow-up to Irča’s story, Irčin románek II/Irča’s Romance II (1921), is considered lost.

Suzanne Marwille as Eve in Adam a Eva/Adam and Eve (1922). Courtesy of Národní filmový archiv.

As individuals who knew Marwille recollected, she resisted the conventional idea of “womanhood” (Štorch-Marien 126), and her creative interest in challenging gender roles is evident in the subversive 1922 cross-dressing comedy Adam a Eva/Adam and Eve. Marwille based her screenplay on a story by Jarmila Hašková, and the film follows two identical twins who play pranks on each other by pretending to be one another in order to get away with something, eventually sabotaging each other’s efforts to establish a romantic relationship. The twins as children are played by Marwille’s daughter Marta. Their sixteen-year-old teenage versions are played by Marwille, who switches between female and male poses, gestures, and costumes with extraordinary vigor. The film boldly plays with gender stereotypes, raising the question of whether the male and female identities are derived from clothes and behavior rather than any biological predispositions. By playfully amplifying the attributes commonly associated with each gender, the film reveals their artificiality. In addition to the frequent changing of clothes and hairstyles, the performative nature of gender is emphasized with Marwille, as both Adam and Eve, breaking the fourth wall several times, looking directly into the camera to find reassurance about her identity.

In November 1922, Binovec announced to the film press that he was leaving for Berlin to meet contractual obligations (Bartošek 77). At the same time, due to economic hardship, he decided to voluntarily liquidate Wetebfilm. (He gradually abandoned film production and ran only a rental company specializing in the import of Soviet films.) Faced with a lack of film roles, other actors and actresses at the company returned to the stage. However, this was not an option for Marwille, who likely had no experience with theater acting. Having rejected an offer from Pathé frères to make films in Paris (Svoboda 25), she accompanied Binovec to Germany.

As early as December 1922, Marwille was at work in Germany, making a film based on Friedrich Schiller’s unfinished eighteenth-century novel Der Geisterseher. It was Binovec who got her the role, and later she made more films with him at the Berlin Kinegrafia Atelier, such as the romantic drama Madame Golvery (1923), a Czech-funded film based on an original libretto by Otakar Štorch-Marien. Marwille worked as a film actress in Germany for three years, and appears to not have written any scripts while there. However, during this period, Czechoslovakian audiences saw the premiere of Láska slečny Věry/Miss Vera’s Love (1922), which was made before Marwille left the country. In this now lost film, which Marwille wrote, she played the lead, a young village girl sent by her parents to study in Prague. With the character of Vera, like her playful and wild portrayal of Irča, Marwille had the chance to “show all the varieties of her acting nuances, smiles and movements, letting out a geyser of youthful freshness” (F. L. M. 14).

Marwille’s return to Czechoslovakia in 1925 marked the end of her fruitful partnership with Binovec. Unfortunately, there was a legal epilogue to their long collaboration with Marwille seeking to recover unpaid fees from her former business partner (Bartošek 71). Although little is known about the nature of their dispute, it is possible that Marwille felt her contributions to Wetebfilm were not (financially) valued enough.

Suzanne Marwille in Láska slečny Věry/The Love of Miss Věra (1922). Courtesy of Národní filmový archiv.

Around 1926, Marwille married for the second time. Her husband, and the father of her daughter Eva, was the civil engineer František Hess. In the years following the end of her partnership with Binovec, Marwille’s screen appearances began to decrease. She no longer had a permanent contract at a single company, instead working with different ones. This period also seems to mark the end of any official behind-the-scenes involvement as a writer; she is not directly credited as a screenwriter on any film not made by Binovec.

Suzanne Marwille in Láska slečny Věry/The Love of Miss Věra (1922). Courtesy of Národní filmový archiv.

In 1928, Marwille married again, this time to the director and screenwriter Martin Frič, who would make some of the most critically- acclaimed films of her late career. The first to premiere was one he wrote, Dům ztraceného štěstí /The House of Lost Happiness (1927), which was well received by critics. Marwille then appeared in the melodrama Životem vedla je láska/Love Led Them Through Life (1928), also scripted by Frič. In this film, she plays one of two friends who leave their home in the village together in the hopes of finding love and happiness in the city. Instead, they face several problems with lovers, children, and jobs.

In 1929, Frič directed two more films featuring his wife, starting with Varhaník u sv. Víta/The Organist at St. Vitus’ Cathedral. With her hair cut short, reminiscent of Louise Brooks, Marwille plays the foster child Klára. Her face, often intently looking directly at the camera, is frequently captured in close-up, perhaps in an attempt to remind audiences of her presence after many years out of the spotlight. However, it was Frič whose fame and career grew as a result of The Organist, and he eventually proved himself to be one of the great filmmakers of Czechoslovak cinema. The second film the couple made that year was Chudá holka/Poor Girl, an expressive melodrama in which Marwille again plays a village girl who tries to make it in the city but who ultimately falls prey to several men.

With the advent of sound, Marwille’s career basically came to an end. She only appeared in three more films by Frič: Sestra Angelika/Sister Angelika (1932), Pobočník jeho výsosti/Adjutant to His Highness (1933), and Hordubalové/The Hordubals (1937). Even though she did not appear in many films, she remained active in the film industry during this period. For instance, in 1931, she became a member of the ČEFID, a Czech film co-operative that was founded by screenwriter Václav Wassermann and chaired by Frič. The co-operative worked with local production and rental companies, as well as cinemas, to ensure capital for domestic productions (Zdražilová v).

Suzanne Marwille in Láska slečny Věry/The Love of Miss Věra (1922). Courtesy of Národní filmový archiv.

Marwille’s artistic contributions to her husband’s sound films remain an under-explored part of her career. In his series of essays about Frič, Jiří Hrbas called Marwille a “special engine of Martin’s life” and his “wife, friend, colleague, inspirer and creative partner” (“Svět Martina Friče”4). Another of Hrbas’s written recollections, speaking to the fact that casting was very important to the filmmaker, admitted that Frič often followed the recommendations of his wife, who “had a very strong instinct when it came to different types of people” (“Martin Frič. Lidový vypravěč” 16), and was “very sensible and capable in assessing the character and artistic talents of people” (“Martin Frič. Lidový vypravěč II” 69). Additionally, according to Hrbas, Marwille not only advised Frič in casting, but also in film dramaturgy. Writing about her behind-the-scenes contribution to the popular comedy Škola, základ života/School is the Foundation of Life (1938), Hrbas explained, “Suzanne Marwille kept reminding them that the plot had to be structured in a closer, more compact and more robust way” (“Martin Frič. Lidový vypravěč II” 75). Frič continued to work as a director until his death in 1968. Considering that they were partners both in their personal and professional lives, one can assume that Marwille, who passed away in 1962, also remained active in the Czechoslovak cinema industry, albeit no longer as one of its brightest film stars and screenwriters, but as one of the many women in the background who have yet to be fully appreciated.


Bartošek, Luboš. Dějiny československé kinematografie I. Praha: Státní pedagogické nakladatelství, 1979.

Branald, Adolf. My od filmu. Praha: Mladá fronta, 1988.

Dr. B. R. “Návrat první filmové star: Suzanne Marville.” Kinorevue (7 June 1937): 132-133.

F. L. M. “Láska slečny Věry v českém filmu.” Český filmový svět no. 2 (1922): 14.

Hrbas, Jiří. “Kapitoly o našem a světovém filmu III.” Film a doba no. 4 (1971): 178–179.

------. “Martin Frič. Lidový vypravěč.” Film a doba no. 1 (1972): 12-20.

------. “Martin Frič. Lidový vypravěč II.” Film a doba no.  2 (1972): 68-76.

------. “Martin Frič. Lidový vypravěč IV.” Film a doba no. 4 (1972): 178-187.

------. “Svět Martina Friče.” Záběr (18 Feb. 1971): 4-5.

k. “Irčin románek.” Československý film no. 8 (1 May 1921): 6.

Kokeš, Radomír D. “Filmové herectví, česká němá kinematografie a otázky studia stylu.” Iluminace, no. 2 (2018): 21-57.

ksž. “Chudá holka.” Studio: měsíční revue pro filmové umění, no. 1 (1930): 28.

Matrika oddaných, Nusle, 1913-1918, Matriční záznam o sňatku s pozn. o rozvodu. Unpublished registry. Archiv hlavního města Prahy [Prague City Archives].

“Naše kinohvězdy.” Pražský ilustrovaný zpravodaj (16 Feb. 1923): 4.

“Nové české filmy. WETEB-Film. Adam a Eva.” Film, no. 11 (16 Aug. 1922): 11.

“Posudky předváděných filmů.” Československý film no. 26–27 (23 Oct.1919): 5.

ský. “Chudá holka.” Studio: měsíční revue pro filmové umění no. 1 (1930): 28. 

Smrž, Karel. Dějiny filmu. Praha: Dužstevní práce, 1933.

------. Film: podstata, historický vývoj, technika, možnosti a cíle kinematografu. Praha: Prometheus, 1924.

Štorch-Marien, Otakar. Sladko je žít. Praha: Československý spisovatel, 1966.

“Suzanne Marville.” Kinopublikum (30 April - 6 May 1920): 3.

“Suzanne Marwille.” Hollywood no. 1 (1928): 2.

Svoboda, Jan. “Úspěch české filmové herečky v Berlíně.” Film no. 17 (31 December 1922): 25.

Tabery, Karel. Filmová publicistika Otakara Štorcha-Mariena. Olomouc: Univerzita Palackého, 2004.

Zdražilová, Milica. Český filmař Václav Wasserman. M.A. Thesis. 1971. FAMU, Prague.

Archival Paper Collections:

All contemporary newspaper and trade press articles used for this profile are from the collections of the Národní filmový archiv.


Šrajer, Martin. "Suzanne Marwille." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2020.  <>

Margaret J. Winkler

by Malcolm Cook

As the leading distributor of animated cartoons in the 1920s, Margaret J. Winkler played a pivotal role in the professionalization of the animation industry. Her company, M. J. Winkler, distributed and financed several of the most significant animated series of the period, including Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat, the Fleischer brothers’ Out of the Inkwell, and Disney’s Alice Comedies. (“Disney” here and throughout refers to the Disney Brothers Studio. Walt Disney as an individual will be referred to by first and last name.) Winkler’s management of these series shaped their development in both economic and aesthetic terms. Unfortunately, after her marriage to Charles Mintz at the end of 1923, her involvement in the business declined, and by 1926 she had retired from the film industry following the birth of their two children.

Winkler was born in Hungary in 1895 and moved to the United States as a child (Kaufman 2009, 105). She established her career in the film industry working for Harry Warner as a private secretary in the 1910s (“Distributor As A Woman Proves Surprise” 90). Working with Warner and attending conventions gave Winkler considerable knowledge of and experience in film distribution through the nationwide network of film exchanges and the process of selling state rights (“The Felix Vogue” 16). Winkler chose to leave Warner Bros. in late 1921 to establish her own company to distribute the Felix the Cat series (“M. J. Winkler to Release State Right Product” 1249). Warner later praised Winkler in a letter to Walt Disney, stating that “she has done very well, and I believe she is responsible for anything she may undertake…I don’t think you need any hesitancy in having her handle your merchandise” (qtd. in Johnson 2017, 40).

Announcement in Film Daily, August 6, 1922.

Felix had already established a reputation as one of the most popular features of the Paramount Magazine reel (“Cartoonist Pat Sullivan” 1927). Pat Sullivan’s agreement with Winkler in late 1921 to distribute a stand-alone series would expand that fame, making Felix the most famous cartoon character of the 1920s, not only in America but also worldwide. Winkler clearly recognized the imagination and skill of these cartoons and the abilities of Otto Messmer, who was the creative force behind them, despite producer Sullivan taking public credit. Yet Winkler’s most significant contribution was her talent for identifying and building a market for these short films.

Within months of the availability of the first installment in Felix the Cat, Winkler had sold the series on a state rights basis across much of the United States. Exhibitors Trade Review noted that sales in March 1922 for Greater New York, northern New Jersey, Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin followed “close upon the heels” of the initial agreement between Winkler and Sullivan (“‘Felix’ Bought By Joe Friedman” 972). Further large deals ensued, and within five weeks, sixty percent of the domestic territories had been sold, with Motion Picture News hailing Winkler’s achievement as “unprecedented in state rights marketing” (“60 Per Cent of ‘Felix’ Territory Sold” 1962).

Screenshot, Felix Comes Back (1922).

Winkler was equally successful in securing overseas sales for Felix the Cat, building an international audience that would be crucial to the series later in the decade. Canadian rights were secured by the end of March 1922 (“‘Felix’ Cartoons Sold for Canada” 1778), and by July the series was being distributed in Brazil and Czechoslovakia (“Charnas Buys ‘Felix’ Cartoons” 3). British audiences also started seeing the films in July 1922, where they would grow in popularity (“Eve’s Film Review” 31).

These accomplishments were a reflection of a number of business practices that Winkler implemented. For example, she consistently reported these successful sales to the trade press, not only self-promoting and marketing herself to exhibitors, but also ensuring the popularity of the series was known and implying a scarcity. Winkler placed a large number of trade press advertisements illustrated with comic drawings of Felix, which were used to generate further demand. These explicitly targeted “Mr. State Rights Buyer” (“Mr. State Rights Buyer-Listen!” 1116), highlighting the world rights that were available (“Felix Comics” 93) and emphasizing that sales were “Going Fast!” (“Felix Cat Comics” 2564).

Ensuring Felix played in prestigious first run venues allowed Winkler to bring the series to the attention of industry figures in the major cities and then to publicize this to exhibitors around the United States. The first film under Winkler’s agreement with Sullivan premiered at the notable Rivoli Theatre in New York in January 1922, before being distributed on a state rights basis (“Felix Saves the Day” 1056). Later trade press advertisements emphasized that Felix played in venues such as the Strand Theatre in New York, the Chicago Theatre (“Read it and Reap!” 414), and Grauman’s Million Dollar Theatre in Los Angeles (“‘Felix’ Cartoons are Booked” 1186).

In addition to promoting films within the industry, Winkler oversaw the marketing of the series to the public, arranging with Sullivan that he would provide the illustrations for advertising posters (“Cartoonist to Draw Posters” 1332). This decision was in response to market research conducted by Winkler, via a questionnaire she sent to exhibitors and state rights buyers, which was seen by Motion Picture News as “but another bit of evidence of the desire of Miss Winkler to make ‘Felix’ a national figure” (“Cartoonist Plans ‘Felix’ Poster Illustrations” 2082). In 1924, Winkler added “new and beautiful accessories together with an up to date press book,” which were also produced with “no expense spared in making Felix a necessity to the exhibitor” (“Sullivan Comedies Remain” 52). Similarly, Winkler arranged for Al Feinman, an independent publicity agent, to handle advertising for the series, further indicating her understanding of the connection between distribution and marketing (“Gossip of the Trade” 274).

Felix was also promoted and exploited through other tie-in arrangements, including the production of Felix soft toy dolls (“‘Felix’” 850; “‘Felix,’ in Toy Form” 1960), a syndicated “full page colored comic supplement” for newspapers arranged in conjunction with King Features Syndicate (“‘Felix, the Cat,’ to be Syndicated” 653), and “novelties of all sorts” produced by George Borgfelt’s company (“Sullivan Comedies Remain” 52). Reports in the trade press credited Winkler for these initiatives, even while some of the contracts may have been directly with Sullivan as the rights holder. However, Winkler’s close attention to these advertising and marketing activities undoubtedly contributed to the huge success of the Felix the Cat series and differentiated it from the other cartoon series being released in this period.

Distributor As A Woman Proves Surprise. ”Exhibitors Herald, 1922.

That Winkler obscured her gender by naming her company “M. J. Winkler” can be understood as another important professional tactic, especially at a time when discrimination could lead partners to disregard or underestimate her ability to conduct business. While a number of trade press articles did refer to her as “Miss Winkler” (“M. J. Winkler to Release State Right Product” 1249), her directly-placed advertisements typically only referred to the non-gendered company name, as did the title cards of the animated cartoons themselves. After Winkler had successfully established her business, a number of trade press articles addressed her unusual status as a female distributor. One article recounted the confusion of Joseph Plunkett, managing director of the Strand Theatre in New York, who had assumed Winkler must be a man until he met her in person (“Distributor As A Woman Proves Surprise” 90). This is revealing of the prejudice and inequality that was already deeply rooted in the film industry, which Winkler had to overcome. Nevertheless, the article ended on a positive note, with a statement from Winkler: “I think the film industry is full of wonderful possibilities for an ambitious woman, and there is no reason why she shouldn’t be able to conduct business as well as the men.” Yet the need to state this indicated implicitly that there were barriers that could thwart those possibilities.

Both Winkler’s importance as a female pioneer and her responsibility for the commercial success of Felix were sometimes acknowledged in the trade press. In 1924, Film Daily stated “few know Sullivan but there is hardly anyone who doesn’t know Margaret J. Winkler, the only woman distributor of short subjects in the business…her success has been most unusual” (“The Felix Vogue” 16). Additionally, Winkler was the only female businessperson included in a list of “Prominent Film Folk” attending a Chicago convention in 1923, alongside figures such as Marcus Loew and Lewis J. Selznick  (“Prominent Film Folk” 2633).

Winkler’s reputation made her a leading figure in the nascent animation industry she was helping to build and a natural contact for animation studios looking for financing and distribution. It is important to note that roles and titles within the animation industry were at an embryonic stage at this time and distinctions between “distributor” and “producer” were fluid and do not necessarily reflect our present day understanding of these positions. Winkler was consistently referred to in the trade press as a distributor; however, this does not fully communicate the central role she had in instituting production and underwriting the financial expenditure of production, responsibilities more typically associated with a producer. There is good evidence that Walt Disney would not have been able to make the Alice films if he did not have a contract with Winkler, as it guaranteed a financial return.

Following the commercial success of Felix, M. J. Winkler would add two very significant cartoon series to its roster: the Fleischer brothers’ Out of the Inkwell in 1922 and Disney’s Alice Comedies in 1924. At this stage, Walt Disney and his studio was an unknown and unproven quantity in the animation industry. In contrast, his correspondence at the time shows his deep respect for Winkler and her high standing in the industry. Writing to the parents of child actor Virginia Davis who would star in the Alice Comedies, Walt Disney described Winkler as “very reliable” and emphasized that she “believes in advertising.” As an example of her “speed and pep,” he further recalled that Winkler had arranged the Sunday newspaper Felix the Cat comic strip and that “she is always doing publicity stunts like this” (Letter to Margaret Davis). After the contract with Winkler for the Alice Comedies was signed, Walt Disney wrote several letters to his Kansas friend and future Mickey Mouse animator Ubbe Iwerks that show his continued respect for Winkler’s important role. He called her the “big boss” and revealed he was eager to receive “high praise” for the quality of the series (Letter [1 June 1924]; Letter [10 June 1924]).

Screenshot, Alice in the Jungle (1925).

Screenshot, Alice’s Wild West Show (1924).

In addition to the important business leadership Winkler provided for Disney, there is also evidence that she shaped the aesthetic development of the Alice Comedies. Her contract with Disney stated that the cartoons needed to be produced in a “high-class manner…and satisfactory to the Distributor” (“Contract” 2). Winkler pushed Disney to generally improve the quality and timeliness of their films, such as, the under- or over-exposure of the combination scenes in which a live-action Alice interacted with cartoon characters (Merritt and Kaufman 1993, 63). In 1924, she wrote to Walt Disney: “I might suggest that in your cartoon stuff you use a cat wherever possible and don’t be afraid to let him do ridiculous things” (qtd. in Merritt and Kaufman 63). Equally, Winkler promoted the use of humor and gags in these films. In another 1924 letter, she wrote: “I would suggest you inject as much humour as you possibly can. Humour is the first requisite of short subjects such as Felix, Out of the Inkwell, and Alice” (qtd. in Merritt and Kaufman 57). Disney was clearly taking heed of this advice, with Walt Disney noting in a letter to Iwerks after a visit from Winkler that “we are trying in every way to improve” (Letter [10 June 1924]).

Trade press advertisement, Film Year Book (1923).

The business practices Winkler implemented for the Felix the Cat series were also evident in the distribution of the Disney and Fleischer cartoons. The cartoons were placed in first run theaters and this was publicized to attract further sales (“Yea Bo!” 3077). Rapid state rights sales were made and announced (“Territories Sold on ‘Out of the Inkwell’ Series” 3025; “State Rights Sales” 220). The contract for the Alice Comedies included a provision for Disney to provide “a sketch from which a one-sheet poster can be made,” ensuring the publicity artwork maintained quality and character consistency (“Contract” 2). Winkler published regular trade press advertisements featuring these new animated characters and suggesting scarcity with only “a few territories still open” (“Out of the Inkwell” 3077). A number of these trade advertisements placed the hugely popular Felix the Cat alongside the newer characters, indicating the economies of scale that Winkler could achieve by distributing these major cartoon series together, rather than placing them in direct competition (Film Year Book 1923, 200; “Newer Bigger Better” 1786).

A consistent and frequent release schedule was a feature of the Felix the Cat series, and Winkler implemented a similar pattern for her later short film series, which was crucial to their success. For instance, the Fleischers had initially produced the Out of the Inkwell films in 1918 for inclusion in the Paramount-Bray Pictograph, later named the Goldwyn-Bray Pictograph, an arrangement that continued into 1921 (“Progress in Animated Drawing” 1707). While receiving positive reviews, the Fleischers’ films appeared only intermittently in this regular magazine series. The magazine format of Pictograph was a way to provide reliable and frequent releases to theaters when labor-intensive animation production typically could not sustain the dependable release schedule needed by exhibitors (“Goldwyn Pictures Has Control” 43). It was only when M. J. Winkler started distributing Out of the Inkwell that they adopted a monthly release schedule and publicized this in resources like the 1923 Film Year Book (200). Similarly, the contract with Disney for the Alice Comedies explicitly called for them to be delivered “one (1) each following month and not later than the first of the month” (“Contract” 1). Walt Disney’s letters to Iwerks also indicate that Winkler visited the Los Angeles studio in June 1924 after six films had been produced to arrange a “twice a month” schedule (Letter [1 June 1924]). Thus, Winkler’s understanding of the needs of exhibitors shaped the production practices of animation studios.

As an independent distributor, Winkler’s awareness of exhibitors’ needs is further reflected in her membership to the Independent Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (IMPPDA), an industry coalition that offered exhibitors “A Complete Year’s Program for Your Theatre” (“To the Exhibitors” 20). This arrangement gave exhibitors the opportunity to build a “combination” program from a range of independent distributors like M. J. Winkler. Not only did this allow for more freedom and choice than would be available from large providers, but it also gave exhibitors the assurance of a regular slate of films and “Big Stars–Big Stories–Big Authors” (“Mr. Exhibitor” 4; “To the Exhibitors” 20). Winkler’s involvement in the leadership of this organization points to the fact that it was a challenging climate for independent distribution at the time, as she was clearly attempting to support exhibitors’ needs to secure her own success.

The challenges of independent distribution were evident for Winkler as early as 1923 when Pat Sullivan started to look for another distributor for the Felix the Cat series. Winkler had exercised an option to continue the series under an existing contract, but Sullivan disputed that she had any rights once the remaining episodes were delivered (“In The Courts” 5). To protect her business interests, Winkler threatened “extreme legal measures” in a full-page trade press advertisement and court proceedings were initiated (“Warning 19 December 1923” 4). Winkler asserted that “after two years of building up the Felix cartoons, she did not intend relinquishing her rights” (“In The Courts” 5). This dispute was settled out of court as “the difficulties between her [Winkler] and Pat Sullivan the producer have been straightened out” (“Acquires New Holmes Series” 1), and, in May 1924, Winkler placed full-page advertisements announcing twenty-four new Felix subjects (“The Life of the Program” 28). Winkler’s adherence to standard business practice and the rule of law was in sharp contrast to Sullivan’s reputation for personal volatility and unconventional negotiating tactics (Canemaker 1996, 59), further demonstrating Winkler’s efforts to professionalize the animation industry.

Winkler’s warning in Film Daily, June 21, 1925.

Sullivan and Winkler came into conflict again in 1925 over release scheduling. The rights to the Felix the Cat films in Britain had been sold to British Pathé for inclusion in their Eve’s (and Everybody’s) Film Review. Whereas Felix was produced on a bi-weekly basis at this time, the British magazine reel had a weekly release schedule. As a result, the Felix cartoons were divided into two parts and included alongside other fashion, travel, and topical segments. While this decision had a clear rationale—to allow exhibitors to change their program each week and thus attract a regular audience—Sullivan publicly stated that this “mutilated” the cartoons (“Uncorked” 34). He subsequently started negotiations with other distributors to finance future episodes of Felix the Cat, finally signing an agreement with the British company Ideal, which resulted in considerable legal conflict between British Pathé and Ideal (“Buys Up Shorts” 1). Winkler again posted warnings of legal action in the trade press, promising to “prosecute the action vigorously and protect all my rights” and to “use legal measures wherever necessary” (“Warning 21 June 1925” 34; “Warning 5 July 1925” 3). On this occasion, the New York Supreme Court ruled in Sullivan’s favor, with the 1924 agreement superseding any earlier contracts, leaving Sullivan free to negotiate with other partners. While she lost this case, the conflict nevertheless demonstrated the extent to which, thanks to Winkler’s work, animated cartoons had become an important business, with parties willing to undertake costly legal battles with large sums of money at stake.

M. J. Winkler advertisement with Charles Mintz featured as manager. Exhibitors Herald, June 1925.

By the time of this second dispute, Winkler was already withdrawing from the film industry following her marriage to Charles Mintz in November 1923 (Kaufman 109). Mintz had already begun to play a role in her business before this, serving as the witness, for example, when her contract with Disney was signed the month prior (“Contract” 4). The incorporation of M. J. Winkler Productions in 1923 with a capitalization of $20,000 demonstrated the credentials of Winkler and her organization (“Incorporations” 2). However, coming soon after her marriage, it also instated Mintz and Margaret’s brother, George Winkler, as company directors alongside its female founder (“The Week’s Record of Albany Incorporations” 260), showing their increasing control. By 1925, Mintz was being listed as the manager of the M. J. Winkler organization in advertisements (“Krazy Kat” 2; “Krazy Kat” 135). Winkler’s withdrawal from the industry reflected contemporary social conventions; while women were gaining greater involvement in the paid workforce at this time, it was still common that “white women overall tended to stop working after they married” (Patterson 2008, 12).

Motion Pictures News, April 1924.

Winker’s career trajectory in the animation sector mirrors what was occurring more broadly in the American film industry. As Jane Gaines and others have observed, early cinema was an area of such rich activity by women precisely because it was not yet fully defined either industrially or aesthetically— “with so little at stake (so little power, so little capital) much more could be entrusted to women” (Gaines 2002, 105). As an independent distributor with savvy marketing know-how and an understanding of exhibitors’ needs, Winkler demonstrated the economic viability and potential of animated cartoons, but this would ironically exclude her from the industry, as her husband took control of a now-established enterprise. Ultimately, Mintz would suffer the same fate, as the Hollywood studios replaced independent production when they recognized the economic value of animated cartoons. While the technical or aesthetic innovations of animated cartoons can be credited to others, Winkler founded animation as a profitable business and established it as a vital part of film programs worldwide.


“60 Per Cent of ‘Felix’ Territory Sold.” Motion Picture News (1 April 1922): 1962.

“Acquires New Holmes Series.” Film Daily (25 May 1924): 1.

“Buys Up Shorts.” Film Daily (15 March 1925): 1.

Canemaker, John. Felix: The Twisted Tale of the World's Most Famous Cat. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996.

“Cartoonist Pat Sullivan Signs Contract With Famous Players.” Moving Picture World (20 March 1920): 1927.

“Cartoonist Plans ‘Felix’ Poster Illustrations.” Motion Picture News (8 April 1922): 2082.

“Cartoonist to Draw Posters.” Exhibitors Trade Review (8 April 1922): 1332.

“Charnas Buys ‘Felix’ Cartoons.” Film Daily (22 July 1922): 3.

“Contract Between Margaret J. Winkler and Walt Disney.” Dated 16 October 1923. The Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives. Oct. 16, 2013-Jan. 4, 2015. Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, IL.

Disney, Walt. Letter to Margaret Davis. 16 October 1923. The Walt Disney Family Museum.

------. Letter to Ubbe Iwerks. 1 June 1924. The Walt Disney Family Museum.

------. Letter to Ubbe Iwerks. 10 June 1924. The Walt Disney Family Museum.

“Distributor As A Woman Proves Surprise.” Exhibitors Herald (30 December 1922): 90.

“Eve's Film Review (57).” The Bioscope (13 July 1922): 31.

“‘Felix.’” Moving Picture World (22 April 1922): 850.

“‘Felix’ Bought By Joe Friedman and the Elk Photoplays.” Exhibitors Trade Review (4 March 1922): 972.

“‘Felix’ Cartoons are Booked in Many First Run Houses.” Exhibitors Trade Review (25 March 1922): 1186.

“‘Felix’ Cartoons Sold for Canada.” Motion Picture News (25 March 1922): 1778.

“Felix Cat Comics.” Motion Picture News (18 November 1922): 2564.

“Felix Comics.” Motion Picture News Booking Guide (October 1922): 93.

“‘Felix,’ in Toy Form, to Be Sold to Public.” Motion Picture News (1 April 1922): 1960.

“Felix Saves the Day.” Motion Picture News (11 February 1922): 1056.

“‘Felix, the Cat,’ to be Syndicated by Newspapers.” Motion Picture News (11 August 1923): 653.

“The Felix Vogue.” Film Daily (11 May 1924): 16.

Film Year Book 1922-23. New York: Wid's Films and Film Folks Inc., 1923.

Gaines, Jane. “Of Cabbages and Authors.” In A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema. Eds. Jennifer M. Bean and Diane Negra. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002. 88-118.

“Goldwyn Pictures Has Control of Bray Pictures Corporation.” Exhibitors Herald (7 February 1920): 43.

“Gossip of the Trade.” Moving Picture World (18 March 1922): 274.

“In The Courts.” Film Daily (20 February 1924): 5.

“Incorporations.” Film Daily (8 November 1923): 2.

Johnson, Mindy. Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney's Animation. Glendale, CA: Disney Editions, 2017.

Kaufman, J. B. “The Live Wire: Margaret J. Winkler and Animation History.” In Animation: Art and Industry. Ed. Maureen Furniss. New Barnet: John Libbey, 2009. 105-110.

“Krazy Kat.” Film Daily (14 June 1925): 2.

“Krazy Kat.” Exhibitors Herald (27 June 1925): 135.

“The Life of the Program.” Film Daily (11 May 1924): 28.

“M. J. Winkler to Release State Right Product.” Motion Picture News (25 February 1922): 1249.

Merritt, Russell, and J. B. Kaufman. Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney. Pordenone, Italy: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, 1993.

“Mr. Exhibitor Build Your Own Combination.” Film Daily (29 May 1924): 4.

“Mr. State Rights Buyer - Listen!” Exhibitors Trade Review (18 March 1922): 1116.

“Newer Bigger Better.” Motion Picture News (19 April 1924): 1786.

“Out of the Inkwell.” Motion Picture News (16 December 1922): 3077.

Patterson, Martha H. “Introduction.” The American New Woman Revisited: A Reader, 1894-1930. Ed. Martha H. Patterson. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008. 1-26.

“Progress in Animated Drawing.” Moving Picture World (22 June 1918): 1707.

“Prominent Film Folk.” Motion Picture News (2 June 1923): 2633.

“Read it and Reap!” Exhibitors Trade Review (8 July 1922): 414.

“State Rights Sales.” Moving Picture World (15 November 1924): 220.

“Sullivan Comedies Remain in State Rights Market.” Exhibitor Herald (31 May 1924): 52.

“Territories Sold on 'Out of the Inkwell' Series.” Motion Picture New (16 December 1922): 3025.

“To the Exhibitors of the MPTOA.” Film Daily (27 May 1924): 20.

“Uncorked.” The Bioscope (1 October 1925): 34.

“Warning 5 July 1925.” Film Daily (5 July 1925): 3.

“Warning 19 December 1923.” Film Daily (19 December 1923): 4.

“Warning 21 June 1925.” Film Daily (21 June 1925): 34.

“The Week’s Record of Albany Incorporations.” Moving Picture World (10 November 1923): 260.

“Yea Bo!” Motion Picture News (16 December 1922): 3077.

Archival Paper Collections:

Exhibition materials. The Walt Disney Family Museum.


Cook, Malcolm. "Margaret J. Winkler." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2020.  <>

May Watkis

by Mark Terry
A previous version of this material can be accessed at

One of the early women pioneers in the Canadian film industry was May Watkis, a determined individual who never performed in front of the camera, but who had a long and fascinating career in the government. Having always wanted to work in show business, Watkis began exploring other career possibilities when she soon learned she was not “a type, and would have little chance as an actress,” according to a later interview with Edith M. Cuppage in Maclean’s Magazine (1921, 64). Government records, as well as newspaper articles and secondary sources, paint a contradictory and fascinating picture of Watkis, whose career behind the scenes generates just as many questions as answers.

Watkis was born Hilda May Gowen on July 22, 1879, in Victoria, British Columbia, and spent her early years living there. In 1901, she married Frank T. Watkis (“News of the City” 5) with whom she would go on to have one daughter (“Mrs. M.G. Watkis Dies” 26). According to a 1933 profile in The Vancouver Province, for the first five years of her marriage, Watkis traveled around Europe with her husband, “an accompanist to some of the leading singers of his day” (Marion 38). The couple met when he was on tour in Victoria, when she was about twenty years old, and, according to the article, just out of a “Toronto boarding school.” It seems that Watkis was from a well-to-do family and throughout her life, she regularly appeared in various society columns of the local newspapers.

When the province of British Columbia established a film censorship office in Vancouver in 1913, Watkis reportedly applied for the position of film censor. However, the attorney-general gave the job to a man. Undeterred, she went to the new censor and offered her services as his assistant. He hired her conditionally. The catch was she had to work as his projectionist (Morris 1978, 149). While this sounds like a modest learning assignment by today’s standards, it was virtually impossible to do in 1913 when the projectionists’ union in British Columbia and the nearby US state of Washington was entirely male and refused to teach her. At a time when women did not have the right to vote in British Columbia, learning a skill generally considered to be exclusively “men’s work” was going to be a tall order. Watkis told Maclean’s Magazine in 1921, “having tried to learn by fair means, I was now determined to learn by any means at all” (Cuppage 64). The Maclean’s article reports that Watkis made friends with a local projectionist and asked him to show her the ropes without explaining her motives. Watkis recalled: “he really became quite interested in me, and under his tutelage I projected successfully for several shows…” (64). The new censor was suitably impressed and gave her the job of his assistant. The male union members were reportedly quite upset at the prospect of losing one of “their” jobs to a woman and protested against Watkis’s appointment for more than a month, all to no avail (Morris 150).

An order in council dated May 15, 1914, officially appointed May G. Watkis to be an “Operator” within the “office of the Censor of Moving Pictures,” in Vancouver, at a rate of $100 a month (in effect as of April 1, 1914). Her salary was $10 more than the other appointee in the letter, a male clerk. Digitized public salary records indicate that Watkis continued to work in this capacity for the next few years.

On September 26, 1917, another order in council appointed Mrs. May G. Watkis “of the city of Vancouver” to be an “Inspector” under the Amusements Tax Act, with the same salary of $100 a month (in effect as of October 1, 1917). The Amusement Tax Act, approved in May 1917, imposed a tax on ticket prices at “places of amusements” (theaters,  music halls, athletic parks, and more)(“Taxation-Amusements” 331). An article published on September 27 in the Vancouver Daily World also announced Watkis’s appointment to inspector, explaining that the office of the censor, where she had been working, was in charge of enforcing the tax (“New Tax Inspector” 10). According to the article, Watkis’s duties as inspector included “to watch the working of the act and be on a sharp lookout for possible infractions.”

Two years later, in 1919, the provincial film office in British Columbia adopted a mandate to foster economic development for Canadian industry and trade in addition to education. According to Mike Gasher, “an amendment to the Moving Pictures Act in 1920 created the British Columbia Patriotic and Educational Picture Service under the Department of the Attorney-General and introduced a quota provision that required British Columbia movie theatres to introduce each film program with fifteen minutes of films either produced by, or approved by, the Picture Service” (2002, 32). BCPEPS was quite clear about the kinds of films it was to provide: “films…of a patriotic, instructive, educative, or entertaining nature; and, in particular…films…depicting the natural, industrial, agricultural or commercial resources, wealth, activities, development, and possibilities of the Dominion…” (qtd. in Gasher 32-33). The quota also represented “the first government film unit in North America with statutory authority to compel the screening of its productions” (Duffy and Mattison 1989, 32). According to Gasher, however, corporate opposition was incessant and it even became a political issue in the 1920 provincial election. As a result, the fifteen-minute quota was no longer enforced by 1924 (33).

May Watkis, Maclean’s Magazine, 1921.

Historian Peter Morris states that BCPEPS was “headed by a woman [Watkis]” (149), but this statement is likely based on the 1921 Maclean’s article, which calls her a “directress” of the organization. Morris claims that when BCPEPS came into existence, “[Watkis] applied for, and got, the job of ‘directress’” (150). Yet official government records contradict this statement and there is no archival evidence that she applied for the “Director” job. In fact, Albert Richard Baker was appointed Director of BCPEPS (Order in Council #0677-1920) with a salary of $300 a month (Order in Council #1429-1920). Instead, on July 7, 1920, Mrs. M.G. Watkis was appointed to the position of “Clerk in the Office of the Director of the British Columbia Patriotic and Educational Picture Service.” Her salary is listed as $125 per month (in effect as of July 1, 1920). While in her own research Juliet Thelma Pollard acknowledges that all government records contrast Morris’s statement (58), she claims that the “bureau was directed from Victoria by Richard Baker with the assistance of May Watkis who ran the Vancouver office and operated as an adjunct to the Game Conservation Board of which Baker was chairman” (43), although she provides no supporting evidence. The 1921 Maclean’s article also indicates that Watkis was working separately in the Vancouver office.

Order in Council appointing May Watkis to position of clerk at BCPEPS, July 1920. Courtesy of the BC Laws website (reproduced under the Queen’s Printer License—British Columbia).

Since no official job descriptions exist, we cannot know for certain what Watkis’s actual daily tasks and responsibilities were. A February 1921 news item (also written by Edith M. Cuppage, who calls her “Mary Watkis”) broadly outlines that Watkis “takes a responsible part in selecting suitable subjects for filming industries and travel scenes which go to all parts of Canada, to the United Kingdom and other parts of the world” (“Woman Film Service Director” 14). While Cuppage calls her the assistant director rather than a clerk, it may be that, as the latter, Watkis acted as an assistant to Baker, and because she was in the Vancouver office while he was in Victoria, she essentially was running the former on an administrative level, although she was not an official “Director” of the organization. It would not be surprising that, as a female clerk, she was in charge of most of the administrative work and taking on more than her official title indicated. While Cuppage and others calling her the “directress” of the organization is erroneous, it is possible that Cuppage was slightly more correct in describing Watkis as the “assistant directress upon whom most of the practical work of the department falls” (64).

The questions concerning Watkis’s role at BCPEPS remain complicated even when more official credits exist. She is credited as a producer, along with BCPEPS, of the travelogue Beautiful Ocean Falls (1920). This title, part of a larger Pacific Coast Scenics series, is, according to Gasher (who gives an incorrect release date of 1926), the only “government-initiated film” to survive (32). According to the entry on the film in The Canadian Educational, Sponsored and Industrial Film Archive database, Library and Archives Canada—which holds a 35mm print of the film—describes it as “a promotional film which stresses the industrial possibilities, the beauties, and the opportunities for enjoyment and recreation of this area” (“Beautiful Ocean Falls” n.p.), with scenes showing power dams, lumber camps, beaches, and mountains, among other locations and subjects. Watkis’s “producer” credit in the database comes from Morris, who likely came to this conclusion based on his belief that she was the “directress” of BCPEPS. The opening credits on the film print only say it was “produced by Pathescope of Canada Ltd. for the British Columbia Patriotic and Educational Picture Service” and make no mention of Watkis (or Baker for that matter) (Todd 2019, n.p.). In reality, if Watkis was involved with this film at all, it was more likely in an administrative capacity in relation to the selection or approval of this film for exhibition.

Copy of the 1921 Census. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada. May Gowen Watkis appears on line no. 16.

The confusion around Watkis’s role at BCPEPS is further complicated given the inconsistency between official government records and Watkis herself. In a 1921 census, digitized by Library and Archives Canada, she is listed as divorced, the head of the household, and living in Vancouver. (Her recorded age in the census would have her born in 1883.) She gives her occupation as “Director” of the “Picture Service.” Was this her simply exaggerating her role at BCPEPS? Or was this a self-assigned or unofficial indication that she was doing more than her title of “clerk” encompassed, and perhaps running the Vancouver office?

Either way, Watkis’s time at BCPEPS was short-lived. A July 1921 order in council referred to “May G. Watkis, of Victoria,” as an “Inspector of Moving Pictures” who “had made an application for her appointment as a Commissioner for taking affidavits within the Province.” Furthermore, on August 16, 1921, another order in council appointed a Miss H.A. Johnston to be “Clerk” in the office of the Director of BCPEPS, replacing Watkis, who was to be “transferred” (this was all in effect as of July 18, 1921). Moreover, a few months later, in a December 1921 article in the Victoria Times, it was announced that the Vancouver office was being closed to save money: “The work of the office has been transferred to Walter Hepburn, censor of moving pictures” (“Cut Down Film Service” 13). The article noted that this was supposed to be temporary, but was most likely permanent, and that it had to do with the resignation of Dr. A.R. Baker, the director.

Watkis continued to work as an inspector for the rest of her life. According to the BC government’s public accounts from the years 1910 to 1945 (digitized via the University of British Columbia), Watkis received an annual salary (and various traveling expenses) as an inspector under the Amusements Tax Act continuously from 1921 until her death on December 6, 1940, at the Craigflower Hotel in Esquimalt, near Victoria. Her death certificate, held in the BC Archives at the Royal BC Museum, lists the cause of death as suicide by gas poisoning. Watkis is listed as widowed and her occupation is given as “Assistant Inspector, Amusement Tax.” The certificate states that her last day of work was the day before and that she had worked in the industry for about twenty-four years. Her residency is listed as Vancouver. Watkis is buried in the Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria, British Columbia.

Over the course of her career, Watkis was profiled in the press several times. In addition to the 1921 Maclean’s article, she was interviewed by the Vancouver Daily World in September 1920, in a similarly hyperbolic article that raises more questions about her career. Titled “Provincial Film Exchange Representative Sees Studios and Recounts Experiences,” the piece explains that Watkis spent six months prior to her appointment to her current position (clerk at BCPEPS) in Los Angeles, learning more about film production and studio infrastructure (7). Cuppage’s 1921 Maclean’s interview also connects Watkis to Hollywood, describing it as a “sojourn in California, where she was engaged in the scenario departments of leading producing companies” (64). Watkis’s father was born in California, according to her death certificate, which could account for a trip there, and passenger records show that Watkis arrived in Victoria, via the steamship S.S. President, from San Francisco on July 1, 1920 (mere days before she was appointed clerk) (“May Watkis”). While the aforementioned salary records indicate that she was employed consistently, which raise questions about the actual duration of her stay (to date, no passenger records show when she left Canada), it may be that she went to California on research or business as an inspector. While we cannot be certain that this was the discussed Hollywood trip, in the manifest for the S.S. President, her occupation is listed as inspector in both the “occupation in country from which you came” column and the “what is your intended occupation in Canada” column (“May Watkis”). Since the only primary sources that mention a trip to Hollywood are the Vancouver Daily World piece and the two articles by Cuppage, further research is required to understand the exact dimensions of this reported trip.

Watkis was profiled again in August 1933 in the Vancouver Province. The article repeats her origin story of how she got into the industry, with some colorful details about her projecting her first film upside down (Marion 38). The article calls her the “first woman moving-picture operator in Canada,” and states that in 1916 “when the amusement tax was first imposed she became Vancouver’s first inspector of amusement tax.” Interestingly, the article makes no mention of her involvement with BCPEPS or the organization itself. Instead, it states that after working as an inspector in Vancouver for six years, she was “transferred to her home town, Victoria, and for five years there was inspector of amusement tax for Vancouver Island. She liked this, being her own boss, working by herself, making her own returns.” Starting in 1927, the article continues, “she has been back in Vancouver assisting Mr. Wm. H. Kelly, still in the same office” (38).

As a participant in the emerging Canadian film industry and its affiliated government agencies, Watkis’s career warrants further research, especially given the contradictory nature of many of the sources used to update this profile. However, as a government official and not a filmmaker like fellow Canadian Nell Shipman, for example, Watkis offers a productive way of expanding our notions of women’s “behind-the-scenes” labor during the early years of film. Moving between Victoria and Vancouver, Watkis, working as a projectionist, assistant, clerk, and inspector, actively participated in film exhibition in British Columbia.

With additional research by Dennis J. Duffy, Chantaal Ryane, and Kate Saccone.


“Beautiful Ocean Falls.” The Canadian Educational, Sponsored and Industrial Film Archive [online database].

Cuppage, Edith M.” She Wasn't a 'Type,' so She Became a Directress." Maclean’s Magazine (1 May 1921): 64.

------. “Woman Film Service Director Aids Industrial Progress In Province.” The Vancouver Sun (20 February 1921): 13-14.

“Cut Down Film Service.” Victoria Times (19 December 1921): 13.

Duffy, Dennis J., and David Mattison. “A.D. Kean: Canada's Cowboy Movie-Maker.” The Beaver (February - March 1989): 28-41.

“Hilda May Gowen.” British Columbia, Canada, Birth Indexes, 1851-1903.

“Hilda May Gowen.”  British Columbia, Canada, Marriage Index, 1872-1935.

Gasher, Mike. Hollywood North: The Feature Film Industry in British Columbia. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002.

Marion. “She Taxes Our Laughs.” The Vancouver Province (19 August 1933): 38.

“May Gowen Watkis.” 1921 Census. Genealogy, Library and Archives Canada.

“May Gowen Watkis.” Death Certificate. Genealogy Records,  BC Archives, Royal BC Museum.

“May Watkis.” Canadian Passenger Lists, 1865-1935. Library and Archives Canada, RG 76-C; Roll: T-14875.

Morris, Peter. Embattled Shadows: A History of Canadian Cinema, 1895–1939. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1978.

“Mrs. M.G. Watkis Dies in Victoria.” The Vancouver Sun (7 December 1940): 26.

“New Tax Inspector.” Vancouver Daily World (27 September 1917): 10.

“News of the City.” Calgary Herald (1 August 1901): 5.

Order in Council #0637-1914. May 15, 1914. BC Laws [database].

Order in Council #1017-1917. September 26, 1917. BC Laws [database].

Order in Council #0677-1920. April 23, 1920. BC Laws [database].

Order in Council #1214-1920. July 7, 1920. BC Laws [database].

Order in Council #1429-1920. July 30, 1920. BC Laws [database].

Order in Council #1012-1921. July 25, 1921. BC Laws [database].

Order in Council #1113-1921. August 16, 1921. BC Laws [database].

Pollard, Juliet Thelma. “Government Bureaucracy in Action: A History of Cinema in Canada 1896-1941.” The University of British Columbia, M.A. Thesis, 1979.

“Provincial Film Exchange Representative Sees Studios and Recounts Experiences.” Vancouver Daily World (13 September 1920): 7.

“Taxation-Amusements.” Chapter 63 [orig. pp. 331-333]. Historical Annual Statutes Collection. BC Laws [database].

Todd, Eveline [BAC archivist]. Email correspondence. September 2019.

“Mrs. M. G. Watkis Dies in Victoria.” The Vancouver Sun (7 December 1940): 26.

Archival Paper Collections:

Attorney-General Files. British Columbia Archives, Royal BC Museum.

May Watkis’s annual salary records and employment history. Public Accounts. BC Sessional Papers 1865-1982. Available online via The University of British Columbia.


Terry, Mark. "May Watkis." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2020.  <>

Abby Meehan

by Luke McKernan

Abby Meehan was a British fashion journalist, whose brief but distinctive engagement with film arguably gave birth to a new genre, the cinemagazine (McKernan 2008, ix-x). Her father, Bartholomew Meehan, was an antiquarian bookseller originally from Cork, who moved from Ireland to Liverpool, then Swansea in Wales, where Abby, the eldest of four children, was born in 1853. The Irish Catholic family finally settled in Bath, England. The family business was located at 1 Henrietta Street, from where Meehan and her sister Catherine established a millinery shop around 1880 (Advertisement [Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette] 5).

Meehan had an earlier engagement with motion pictures than most. She was acquainted with Bath resident John Arthur Roebuck Rudge, a scientific instrument maker and magic lanternist. In the 1880s, he experimented with photographic sequences that could give the illusion of movement, and also collaborated with another Bath resident who dreamed of moving pictures, William Friese Greene (Carpenter 1996, 125-126). Meehan recalled, with some inaccuracy:

I have been deeply interested in cinematography in all its branches since I was a girl. I knew the late Mr. Henry [sic] Rudge, of Bath, the first inventor of moving pictures, very well. As a special treat he used to allow me to penetrate into the mysteries of his studio and workshop, and I soon learned much of interest concerning the wonders of the cinematograph. The first moving picture—one of a horse—was taken at Bath at that time (“Fashions on the Film” 211).

These were not true motion pictures, but Rudge’s experiments were a stepping stone toward the medium that would emerge a decade later. Henry Rudge was John Rudge’s father, and the so-called moving picture of a horse likely refers to the work of Eadweard Muybridge. Although Meehan probably never met Friese Greene, he would later play a part in ending her short film career.

It was after the death of her father in 1892, when she was thirty-nine years old, that Meehan (who never married, and had no children) broke free. She moved to London, where she established herself as a fashion journalist. Meehan seems to have written for many newspapers and magazines, becoming a familiar figure in an industry where women writers still struggled for recognition. She launched and edited her own journal, The Millinery Record, in 1896, following this up with The New Album in 1905 and The Sportswoman in 1908. Three years after its creation, however, The New Album went into voluntary liquidation. Meehan was bankrupt the following year (“Court of Bankruptcy” 5).

Undaunted, Meehan revitalized her career through a combination of vision, patriotic appeal, and abundant energy. In a 1911 article for the Daily Mail on “An All-British Dress,” she championed British costumery and design over the common practice of deferring to Paris (Meehan 9). Meehan was instrumental in setting up the Ladies All-British Fabric and Fashion Association (for which she became organizing secretary), whose inaugural fashion show was held at London’s Claridge’s Hotel in March 1911. The event was marked by the publication of a souvenir book edited by Meehan: The Ladies All-British Fabric and Fashion Book. The Official Organ of the Ladies’ All-British Fabric & Fashion Association, a copy of which was received by Buckingham Palace (“All-British Shopping” 13). This proselytizing work was followed up by an All-British Fabric and Fashion Association event in June 1911, in Kensington Gore at the home of Mrs. Robert Yerburgh. The affair attracted the interest of Anglo-American film producer Charles Urban, whose Kinemacolor natural color film process was enjoying great success at the time. While ordinary monochrome films were shown in cinemas, Urban’s Kinemacolor films appeared more often in theaters. With higher ticket prices, these spaces marketed themselves to upper class audiences who might shrink from cinemas but who found Kinemacolor, with its focus on exotic travel, royalty, and fine society, appealing (McKernan 2013, 93-99).

Urban’s Natural Color Kinematograph Company filmed the Kensington Gore event on June 10, 1911, releasing it as a 410-foot film entitled All-British Fashions Exhibition at Kensington Gore. Urban was to have filmed a second All-British Fabric and Fashion exhibition held at the Royal Botanic Gardens in July 1912, but poor weather halted the plans (“A Lady’s London Letter” 2). For both ventures, Meehan’s role appears to have been that of contact and organizer, rather than film director, but she made a strong enough impact on Urban to persuade him to let her make a more ambitious fashion film. The Kinemacolor Fashion Gazette was designed as the film equivalent of the kind of magazines Meehan edited, just as the newly-invented newsreels were an extension of newspapers. It was to be a series, issued at least four times a year, in keeping with seasonal changes in fashion (“Editor’s Dream Come True” 1).

Fashion films had become a regular part of cinema programs by this time. The latest trends from the Paris fashion houses were featured items in the newsreel films produced by Gaumont and Pathé. These often utilized stencil color (that is, color artificially applied frame-by-frame to black-and-white film via a stencilling process typically performed by women) to enhance the spectacle. The French branch of Kinemacolor had produced a film of Parisian models in 1912 (Cher 1912, 741), while its American counterpart produced a number of films of New York models that same year, which were billed as the “Kinemacolor Fashion Service” (“Kinemacolor for Ladies Only” 414). Meehan’s vision for the Kinemacolor Fashion Gazette was for it to be a regular, practical series of fashion films, as opposed to one-offs or a supply service. Such a series, if only seasonal, was an innovation, not just for fashion but for any non-fiction subject that did not fit exclusively into the category of news. It was planned as a magazine film, in form and content, a genre that was to enjoy a long life in the cinemas and remains a staple of television programming to this day.

The Kinemacolor Fashion Gazette was first exhibited publicly on October 13, 1913, at the Scala Theatre, in London, which was used by Urban as a showcase venue for his Kinemacolor productions before they were exhibited more widely. The film featured the models (most of whom were better known as actresses or singers) Lydia Yavorska (Princess Bariatinsky), Joy Chetwyn, Madame Bonita, Dorothy Minto, Sybil de Bray, Violet Essex, Nora Charsley, Elsa Collins, Renée Winter, and Clarissa Selwynne, with June Ford giving a demonstration of tango dancing with Ian Holt. The clothes came from a number of London and Paris fashion houses, among them Peter Robinson and Thomas & Sons (“Fashions on the Films” 213). It is likely that the now-lost Kinemacolor Fashion Gazette was a single reel film, running nine or ten minutes. The models were posed at relevant locations, including at a golf links, a tennis court, a hunt, the Hendon Aerodrome, and outside of Urban’s London home (Bushey Lodge) (“Editor’s Dream Come True” 2).

Press coverage of the film was extensive, in the national and regional press, as well as in film journals. The reports were generally laudatory: the Pall Mall Gazette noted that it was drawing crowds into the Scala (“On the Film” 14), and The Globe called it “a delightful living fashion plate…exceedingly well produced” (“The Scala Theatre” 6). However, the Daily Telegraph was less impressed. Its reporter admired the clothes, but added “from the point of view of entertainment and spectacle it must be pronounced exceedingly tedious” (“Scala Theatre” 7). The reporter also found the succession of tableaux too repetitive and the film likely to prove a “severe strain” upon the patience of younger members of the audience.

The film continued to be a part of the Scala program, and was shown in several cities across the country, until at least January 1914 (“Snippets from Southport” 148). It also formed part of a prestige “world’s fashion revue” film show for dressmakers and milliners that Meehan organized at the West End Cinema, on Coventry Street, on November 18, 1913. This event was organized in collaboration with The Evening News newspaper, which was celebrating its 10,000th issue. The program was a combination of the Kinemacolor Fashion Gazette and scenic items from the Kinemacolor library, featuring views from Switzerland, Egypt, Italy, and India, as well as scenes from historic homes and gardens (“The Fashion Revue” 7). A number of the latter had been taken under Meehan’s direction, including Claremont, Clarence House, Knole Park, Strawberry Hill, and Holly Lodge, and were part of planned series on the stately homes of England (“Fashions on the Film” 213).

Unfortunately for Meehan’s cinematic aspirations, this was to be her final film venture. Urban’s Natural Color Kinematograph Company became embroiled in a court battle over the Kinemacolor patent, brought on by rival color film inventor, and former Bath resident, William Friese Greene. The case reached the courts at the end of 1913, and although the original verdict was in Urban’s favor, it was overturned on appeal and the patent was declared invalid. Urban put his company into liquidation, and all of his grand plans for Kinemacolor—including any hopes of further editions of the Kinemacolor Fashion Gazette—came crashing down (McKernan 2013, 118-122).

Meehan remained active in promoting British fashion, however. Notably, at the start of the First World War, she formed the British Women’s Workers organization at 200 Marylebone Road, London, later Dorset Square, which mobilized women to produce objects to sell in support of the war effort, in particular flags, but also bags, toys, and lampshades (“New Opportunities for Women” n.p.). The goal was to find work for unemployed women, and it was organized as a profit-sharing exercise, for which Meehan gained the written support of Queen Alexandra (who purchased twenty-four flags) (“Our London Letter” 4). There were British Women’s Workers exhibitions, the last of which was held in Knightsbridge in May 1916 (“British Women-Workers Exhibition” 6). However, Meehan seems to no longer have been involved by then (although one of the women who did take part was the pioneer war cinematographer Jessica Borthwick, exhibiting sculptures under the name of Nell Foy).

Meehan is last recorded as a journalist in 1920, presumably retiring thereafter. Most likely, she pursued the antiquarian interests that she had long shared with her brother John Francis Meehan, a noted Bath historian and bookseller. She died in St. George Hanover Square parish, London, in 1931, at the age of seventy-eight. Although her film career was brief, and the cinemagazine film that she arguably pioneered never expanded into the series she envisaged, Meehan’s enterprise and vision are worthy of notice. Sadly, very few Kinemacolor films survive today, and none of the films with which she was associated are known to exist.

See also: Ada Aline Urban


“About Women’s Sphere and Interest.” The Sphere (24 June 1911): iv.

Advertisement. Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette (20 February 1884): 5.

Advertisement. The Bioscope (16 October 1913): lii [supplement].

“All-British Fashions Exhibition at Kensington Gore.” Catalogue of Kinemacolor Film Subjects. London: The Natural Color Kinematograph Co. Ltd., 1912. 282.

“All-British Shopping.” The Daily Telegraph (1 April 1911): 13.

“A Boom in Kinemacolor: Big Changes and Additional Attractions.” Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly (9 October 1913): 2556.

“British Women-Workers Exhibition.” The Globe (2 May 1916): 6.

Carpenter, Peter. “John Arthur Roebuck Rudge.” In Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema: A Worldwide Survey. Eds. Stephen Herbert and Luke McKernan. London: British Film Institute, 1996. 125-126.

Cher, John. “Parisian Notes.” The Bioscope (6 June 1912): 741.

“Court of Bankruptcy.” The Daily Telegraph (4 December 1909): 5.

“Editor’s Dream Comes True.” Pall Mall Gazette (19 August 1913): 1-2.

Evans, Caroline. “The Walkies: Early French Fashion Shows as a Cinema of Attractions.” In Fashion in Film. Ed. Adrienne Munich. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011. 119-122.

“The Fashion Revue.” The Evening News (17 November 1913): 7.

“Fashions in Kinemacolor.” The Times [London] (19 November 1913): 10.

“Fashions on the Film: A Chat with the Creator of the ‘Kinemacolor Fashion Gazette.’” Picturegoer (22 November 1913): 211-213.

“A Kinemacolor Fashion Gazette.” Pall Mall Gazette (8 October 1913): 7.

“Kinemacolor for Ladies Only.” Motography (31 May 1913): 414.

“Ladies Page.” Illustrated London News (24 June 1911): 1032.

“A Lady’s London Letter.” Cheltenham Examiner (25 July 1912): 2.

“London as a Fashion Centre.” Daily Express (27 March 1911): 3.

“London Fashion Tableaux in British Fabrics at the Scala Theatre.” Preston Herald (22 June 1912): 10.

McKernan, Luke. Charles Urban: Pioneering the Non-Fiction Film in Britain and America, 1897-1925. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2013.

---. “Introduction: Cinemagazines – The Lost Genre.” In Projecting Britain: The Guide to British Cinemagazines. Eds. Emily Crosby and Linda Kaye. London: British Universities Film & Video Council, 2008. ix-x.

Meehan, Abby. “An All-British Dress: A New Chapter in the Story of Fashion.” Daily Mail (4 February 1911): 9.

“New Opportunities for Women.” Marylebone Remembered 1914-1918.

“On the Film.” Pall Mall Gazette (21 October 1913): 14.

“Our London Letter.” The Manchester Courier (5 October 1914): 4.

“Scala Theatre.” The Daily Telegraph (4 October 1913): 7.

“The Scala Theatre.” The Globe (14 October 1913): 6.

“The Scala Theatre.” The Westminster Gazette (16 October 1913): 11.

“Snippets from Southport.” The Bioscope (8 January 1914): 148.

“Trade Topics.” The Bioscope (9 October 1913): 91.


McKernan, Luke. "Abby Meehan." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2020.  <>

Elizaveta Svilova

by Eva Molcard

A film editor, director, writer, and archivist, Elizaveta Svilova was an intellectual and creative force in early Soviet montage. She is best known for her extensive collaborations with her husband, Dziga Vertov, on seminal early documentary films, and especially for instances when she appeared on camera demonstrating the act of editing itself. The fact that Vertov’s filmic theory and practice focused on montage as the fundamental guiding force of cinema confirms the crucial role Svilova’s groundbreaking experimentation played in early Soviet film and global film history. Her career, which spanned far beyond her collaborations with her husband, significantly advanced the early principles of cinematic montage.

Svilova was born Elizaveta Schnitt in Moscow on September 5, 1900, to a railway worker and a housewife. She began working in the cinema industry at age twelve, apprenticing in a film laboratory where she cleaned, sorted, and selected film and negatives (Kaganovsky 2018). This sort of work, seen as akin to domestic chores like sewing, weaving, and other “feminine” activities, was often the domain of women in film industries worldwide. At age fourteen, Svilova was hired as an assistant editor at Pathé’s Moscow studio, where she cut and photo-printed film until 1918. She worked as an editor for Vladimir Gardin while at Pathé, and edited iconic early films such as Vsevolod Meyerhold’s 1915 adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. In 1918, like many of her colleagues, she joined the film department of Narkompros, the People’s Commissariat of Education, where she worked as an editor for four years. She then joined Goskino, the centralized, state-run production and distribution company, in 1922 (Kaganovsky). There, she managed the editing workshop populated by women editors and laboratory workers known as montazhnitsy (Gadassik 2018). These rooms, full of boisterous activity at places like Narkompros and Goskino, are important to study further; while scholarship has illuminated the work of figures like Svilova and director/editor Esfir Shub, there is more to learn about lesser-known women editors, including Klaudia Ivanovna Kulagina, Katerina Nikolaevna Kozina, and Vera Kimitrovna Plotnikova (Shub 1927), as well as the many unknown female workers from this period.

Elizaveta Svilova with cinema colleagues, date unknown. Private Collection.

In 1919, Svilova met Vertov, a documentary filmmaker who was working on newsreels at Narkompros and later Goskino, whom she would marry in 1923 and with whom she would collaborate throughout their marriage. Vertov was an eccentric figure and a militant documentarian. The pair famously became involved after Vertov left a basket of one-frame shots in the editing room, only to become dejected when the editors discarded the shots in the garbage thinking they were scraps. Svilova reportedly took pity on Vertov’s disappointment and edited a short film together with the segments (Pearlman, MacKay, and Sutton 2018). While the veracity of the interaction is uncertain, it reflects Svilova’s innovative understanding of editing and her willingness to engage with Vertov’s antics. Artistic montage was reserved for feature-length films in the late teens and early twenties, but through Vertov and Svilova’s collaborations, the newsreel became a significant element of early avant-garde montage theory and practice.

Svilova took a leading role in Vertov’s Kinoki group, which argued for documentary film that would capture the reality of everyday life in the nascent Soviet Union. The Kinoki collective centered around the Council of Three: Vertov, the director of the group’s projects; Svilova, the chief editor; and Vertov’s brother Mikhail Kaufman, the principal cameraman. Svilova’s role as the group’s editor has, in general scholarly memory, cemented her place at the post-production montage table. However, she consistently worked on site at the group’s film shoots, as Vertov relied on her editorial eye to choose locations and subjects to be filmed (Kaganovsky). The Kinoki considered every portion of the filming process to be part of montage, and Svilova’s work and decisions went far beyond the cutting together of film fragments.

In the early 1920s, the group published significant articles that established their working theories of film in Lef and Kino-fot, the critical Soviet journals that featured debates surrounding early Soviet cinema. These articles ardently called for a cinema without scripts, stage sets, actors, or costumes, and linked the cinematic apparatus to the factory machine and the filmmaker to the Soviet laborer. In “We: Variant of a Manifesto,” from 1922, the group announced:

WE proclaim the old films, based on the romance, theatrical films and the like, to be leprous.
—Keep away from them!
—Keep your eyes off them!
—They’re mortally dangerous!
(…) Openly recognizing the rhythm of machines, the delight of mechanical labor, the perception of the beauty of chemical processes, WE sing of earthquakes, we compose film epics of electric power plants and flame, we delight in the movements of comets and meteors and the gestures of searchlights that dazzle the stars. (qtd. in Michelson 1984, 7-8)

The language of these manifestos signaled the marriage between documentary cinema and the Communist Revolution. In “To the Council of Three: An Application,” an article likely written to bring visibility to the group (Kaganovsky), Svilova explained: “I understand that doing fascinating things without actors is difficult…nevertheless I will go hand in hand with you. It could lead to a distant but sure victory” (Svilova 1923, 221).

The group’s Kino-Pravda newsreel series, which ran from 1922 to 1924, presented documentary fragments of the everyday experiences of Soviet workers, and introduced the notion that the camera could produce a deeper understanding of the truth than the human eye. Svilova appears in Kino Pravda No. 19 (1924), seated at the editing table, sorting through negatives of images the audience has just seen. The intertitle captions the scene with “selection of negatives for Kino-Pravda N. 19” as Svilova appears in quickening succession alongside the fragments she cuts, which appear again in negative black (Kaganovsky). The groundbreaking sequence presents a self-referential explanation of the task of editing, as Svilova literally highlights her own activity as a force and producer of filmic vision.

Screenshot, Elizaveta Svilova in Man with a Movie Camera (1929).

With each new project, the Kinoki established increasingly radical montage techniques, thanks to Svilova’s experimental editing practices. With Kino-Glaz/Film Eye (1924), the group’s first major feature-length film, Svilova intensified the complexity of her editing, with superimposition and repeated frames, proving the Kinoki tenet that film could present reality more accurately than what was possible within the scope of human perception. Using reverse playback of a cow’s death at a slaughterhouse, Svilova’s editing reanimates the animal, securing its position at the public cooperative rather than at a private vendor, allowing for film itself to save Soviet consumers from capitalism. Another sequence in the film presents divers jumping in slow and reverse motion, highlighting that Soviet audiences could learn to perform impressive physical feats—a crucial concept in the Soviet propagandistic conceptualization of the human body—through film itself (Tsivian 2011). Svilova reappeared on camera in the group’s 1929 silent cinematic masterpiece Man with a Movie Camera, seated again at her editing table, splicing images together immediately following the images themselves. In this now highly-celebrated reflexive sequence, she demonstrates the act of editing and showcases her own contribution to early cinema.

Using reworked footage from her and Vertov’s One Sixth of the World (1926), Svilova directed and edited Bukhara, her first solo project, in 1927. A travelogue film capturing daily urban life, Bukhara presents the ethnographic and cultural diversity of the far reaches of the Soviet Union. Following Svilova and Vertov’s Enthusiasm (1930), the Soviet Union’s first documentary sound film, Vertov’s career began to decline, and Svilova took on independent projects in addition to her continued collaborations with her husband. In 1930, like many of her avant-garde colleagues who faced increased suspicion and difficulty securing work, she began teaching montage at the Lenin Institute while simultaneously researching her and Vertov’s films at night. She progressed to co-director on their projects of the late 1930s, with films like Glory to Soviet Heroines (1938) and Three Heroines (1939). Although Vertov avoided the purges of the 1930s, he struggled to obtain work, and Svilova supported them both for the remainder of his life, teaching as well as editing and directing over one hundred films and newsreel episodes between 1939 and 1956.

Svilova’s work during the 1940s is often overlooked despite its crucial role in twentieth-century history. She completed For You at the Front (1942) from Alma Ata (now Almaty, in present day Kazakhstan), where the Soviet film industry had been displaced during World War II. Fall of Berlin (1945), co-directed with Yuli Raizman, won Svilova the Stalin Prize the following year. Her documentary Auschwitz (1946) presented the opening of the death camp by the Red Army alongside reenactments directed by Svilova, and premiered at the “Filming the War: Soviets and the Holocaust 1941-1946” exhibit at the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris. For Fascist Atrocities (1946), Svilova edited together documentary material of Auschwitz and Majdanek, including images of mass graves, piles of human remains, and camp barracks, alongside intimate footage of individual victims, such as stolen belongings, survivors’ tattoo numbers, and women weeping. Significantly, the film was included as documentary evidence in the Nuremberg Trials, which were themselves the subject of Svilova’s eponymous 1946 documentary (Penfold 2013, 10).

Following Vertov’s death in 1954, Svilova changed her name to Elizaveta Vertova-Svilova, tying their legacies together and their identities to film. She also left the film industry, and, until her death in 1975, she promoted the Kinoki’s early work and championed her husband’s legacy within and outside of the Soviet Union. She traveled across Western Europe showcasing their feature-length films and preserving Vertov’s archives in Austria, which cemented his fame in the West, as most Soviet archives would remain trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Svilova’s groundbreaking and controlled command of the editing table established the heyday of the Soviet avant-garde. As more film scholars begin to examine her rich career, Svilova’s legacy will be that of a committed filmmaker and documentarian, whose intellectual and creative approach to film editing continues to reach audiences today.

See also: “After the Facts – These Edits Are My Thoughts


Ahwesh, Peggy, and Keith Sanborn. Vertov from Z to A. New York: Ediciones La Calavera, 2007.

Attwood, Lynne. Red Women on the Silver Screen: Soviet Women and Cinema from the Beginning to the End of the Communist Era. London: Pandora, 1993.

Christie, Ian, and Richard Taylor, eds. The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

------, eds. Inside the Film Factory: New Approaches to Russian and Soviet Cinema. London: Routledge, 1991.

Drubek-Meyer, Natascha, John MacKay, et al. “Fragments of Vertov.” In Dziga Vertov: The Vertov Collection at the Austrian Film Museum. Eds. Thomas Tode and Barbara Wurm. Vienna: SYNEMA, 2006. 7-32.

Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. Women Film Directors: An International Bio-critical Dictionary. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1995.

Gadassik, Alla. “Esfir Shub on Women in the Editing Room: ‘The Work of Montazhnitsy’ (1927).” Apparatus: Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 6 (2018): n.p.

Hicks, Jeremy. Dziga Vertov: Defining Documentary Film. London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2007.

Hutchings, Stephen. “Introduction.” In Russia and its Other(s) on Film: Screening Intercultural Dialogue. Ed. Stephen Hutchings. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 1-24.

Kaganovsky, Lilya. “Film Editing as Women’s Work: Esfir Shub, Elizaveta Svilova, and the Culture of Soviet Montage.” Apparatus: Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 6 (2018): n.p.

Lambert, Anthony, and Karen Pearlman. “Editing (for) Elizaveta: Talking Svilova, Vertov and ‘Responsive Creativity’ with Karen Pearlman.” Studies in Australasian Cinema (2017): 157-160.

Lawton, Anna. “Rhythmic Montage in the Films of Dziga Vertov: A Poetic Use of the Language of Cinema.” Pacific Coast Philology 13 (1978): 44-50.

Michelson, Annette, ed. Kino-eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov. Trans. Kevin O'Brien. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Michelson, Annette, and Malcolm Turvey, eds. “New Vertov Studies.” Special Issue of October vol. 121 (Summer 2007).

Pearlman, Karen, John MacKay, and John Sutton. “Creative Editing: Svilova and Vertov’s Distributed Cognition.” Apparatus: Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 6 (2018): n.p.

Penfold, Christopher. “Elizaveta Svilova and Soviet Documentary Film.” University of Southampton, England, PhD dissertation, 2013.

Petrić, Vlada. Constructivism in Film: The Man with the Movie Camera, A Cinematic Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Roberts, Graham. The Man with the Movie Camera. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd., 2000.

Romberg, Kristin. “Labor Demonstrations: Aleksei Gan’s Island of the Young Pioneers, Dziga Vertov’s Kino-Eye, and the Rationalization of Artistic Labor.” October 145 (Summer 2013): 38-66.

Romberg, Kristin, and Anna L. Vinogradova. Dziga Vertov as Remembered by His Contemporaries. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1976.

Shub, Esfir. “Women Editors.” Fund 3035, no. 1, file 44. Russian State Archive of Literature and Arts.

Svilova, Elizaveta. “V sovet troikh. Zaiavlenie.” LEF 4 (1923): 220-221.

Tode, Thomas, and Barbara Wurm, eds. Dziga Vertov: The Vertov Collection at the Austrian Film Museum. Vienna: Synema, 2006.

Tsivian, Yuri, ed. Lines of Resistance: Dziga Vertov and the Twenties. Udine, Italy: La Cineteca del Friuli-Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, 2004.

------. “Introduction to KinoPravda Screenings.” Dziga Vertov Retrospective, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. April 16, 2011.

Archival Paper Collections:

Collection Dziga Vertov. Austrian Film Museum.

Dziga Vertov Fund (no. 2091). Russian State Archive of Literature and Arts.

Esfir Ilyinichna Shub Fund (no. 3035). Russian State Archive of Literature and Arts.


Molcard, Eva. "Elizaveta Svilova." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2020.  <>

Yan Shanshan

by Xin Peng

Wedding photos of Yan Shanshan and Li Minwei in Women’s Times in 1914.

While existing scholarly and documentary efforts are obsessed with naming Li Minwei (黎民偉) as the founding father of Hong Kong cinema, the contributions of female figures like his wife Yan Shanshan—except for being fetishized as the legendary first Chinese film actress—have been largely overlooked. On the other hand, while contemporary feminist film scholarship strives to recover the history of women working behind the scenes, the act of being in front of the camera in the particular historical and cultural context of early twentieth-century China cannot afford to be ignored. Yan’s role as a pioneer in Chinese film history thus not only derives from her involvement in business matters at her husband’s film companies, but also from the mere fact that she displayed her body, with an uncertain degree of willingness, in a new, and public, medium.

Photos from Yan Shanshan and Li Minwei’s wedding and honeymoon in Women’s Times in 1914.

Photos from Yan Shanshan and Li Minwei’s honeymoon in Women’s Times in 1914.

Born Yan Shuji (嚴淑姬) in Nanhai County, Guangdong Province, at the end of nineteenth century and the twilight of the Qing dynasty, Yan was among the first generation of Chinese women to obtain a modern education. The earliest public information about Yan that I am able to locate under her birth name Shuji (lit. virtuous/fair lady) appears in Women’s Times/婦女時報 in 1914. A photo insert features images from Yan and Li’s wedding and honeymoon, showcasing her Western-style wedding dress and their modern lifestyle with honeymoon travel. A caption also references Yan’s status as a student at the Hong Kong Overseas Vernacular Yide Normal School for Women (香港懿德女子師範學校). Before her marriage, in March 1912, the then fifteen-year old Yan joined the first-aid team of Guangdong’s North Expedition army at the dawn of the Xinhai Revolution and did rescue work in Nanjing and Xuzhou for several months (Li 2003, 4). In 1926, Zou Lu (aka Zou Haibin), the leader of the revolutionary army and later a Guomindang high official, wrote a short piece for Minxin Special/民新特刊 in memory of Yan’s bravery, agility, and youth, recalling how she was adept at horsemanship, a skill that came in handy when she played Mulan in The God of Peace/和平之神/heping zhi shen (1926) (38). Yan’s remarkable horsemanship was also a valuable asset behind the scenes. On July 22, 1926, Shen Bao/申報 published an article about how, during the production of The God of Peace, a horse-riding Yan rescued a friend who fell from a startled horse right in front of an approaching car (23).

In either 1913 or 1914, Yan became the first woman in China to perform onscreen when she played the servant girl in Zhuangzi Tests His Wife/莊子試妻/zhuangzi shiqi. (Scholars have not reached a consensus on the year of the film’s production and release.) She appeared alongside Li, the writer of the film, who cross-dressed as the wife. Female impersonators were the common practice in Imperial China since actresses were viewed by the public as comparable to prostitutes. The stigmatization of the actress’s body did not dissipate with women’s increased public visibility onscreen as China transformed into the Republican era. Consequently, as Yiman Wang powerfully argues, contrary to the conventional argument that writing—an assumed sign of female authorship—entails more agency than performing, in Republican China, acting proved to be a more politically provocative and precarious profession for women like Yan (2011, 244). The suicides of Ai Xia (艾霞) and Ruan Lingyu (阮玲玉) in the 1930s testify to the precarity of acting as a profession for women, which may help, in retrospect, to explain the phenomenon of Chinese actresses retiring from film en masse in the late 1920s. Yan was but one of them.

Portrait of Yan Shanshan in Minxin Special in 1926.

Apart from acting, Yan was involved in the financial matters of her husband’s film companies, though this often took the form of domestic labor. According to film director Ouyang Yuqian (歐陽予倩), Li Minwei’s Minxin Company (民新公司) was a family business created by two friends, Li and Li Yingsheng (李應生), whose wives, it seems, were also involved in company business. According to Ouyang’s memoir, “[There are] two bosses, three official boss ladies—Li Yingsheng’s wife, Li Minwei’s wives Yan Shanshan and Lin Chuchu (林楚楚)—and another intimate lady friend of Li Yingsheng, Xu Yingying (許盈盈). They are all bosses” (1984, 2). Little else is known about Yan’s role as “boss” here. In the context of Ouyang’s memoir, the term “boss” (老板/laoban) may have meant business owner, especially considering the nature of family business in which everyone was involved, and private funds were often used for the sake of the public entity.

After the founding of Minxin Film Company in 1925, Yan retreated off-camera, while Li’s second wife Lin Chuchu became one of the main actresses for the company. Entries in Li’s diary document how Yan took charge of financial matters in Hong Kong on behalf of her husband. In 1926, she dealt with a debt crisis while Li and Lin were shooting in Shanghai. For example: “27/3/1926 – Lily [Yan] goes back to Hong Kong by sea to handle the problems of World Theatre shareholding and a bank overdraft of 27,000 dollars [yuan] to first brother Hoi-shan” (10). Yan again oversaw financial matters for the film company in 1930 when she had to cable Li saying that “the money is barely enough for the [Lunar] New Year expenses” (13). Yan was, at that time, facing the Hong Kong creditors’ pressure for repayment alone in Shanghai while Li was shooting He’s Back from the Jailhouse/故都春夢/gudu chunmeng (1930) in Beijing. She acted as mediator between Li and his business partner Li Yingsheng, who refused to help them out with the crisis initially, but eventually lent them 2000 yuan after negotiations (12). Given Yan’s experience with financial matters, it is not surprising that after the destruction of another of Li’s film companies, Qiming (啟明) Studio, by Japanese bombardment in 1942, she accompanied Li to visit the director Chen Junchao (陳君超) with a request to “solve the livelihood of Qiming employees” (24). Yan’s financial and social activities remain sparse in the published diary, but we are still able to trace the important role she played to keep these film companies running.

In addition to her pioneering status as an early actress and her involvement behind the scenes in financial matters, I contend that Yan is also important through her relationship to actress Lin Chuchu. In a still-polygamous society, a man like Li Minwei was expected to have more than one wife, and his diary details how proactive Yan was in picking Lin as his future wife, inviting her to stay over when he was away, negotiating with Lin’s parents, and arranging the bride-price with his father (6). With Yan’s matchmaking, Li and Lin were married in 1920, and a few years later, Yan and Lin appeared together in several films produced by Li’s company, such as Rouge/胭脂/yanzhi (1925), The God of Peace, and Five Revengeful Girls/五女復仇/wunü fuchou (1928). Given the blurred boundary between family life and business, as well as domestic and public labor, it is important to challenge the view of Yan’s matchmaking as merely a residue of the premodern, polygamous culture. In fact, this personal relationship could invite a speculative reading that sees Yan as Lin’s scout and an unofficial agent for both Li and Lin. That is to say, in bringing Lin into the family, Yan discovered and nurtured a major star in the Chinese film industry and, in so doing, managed to extricate herself from appearing onscreen after 1928.

The elliptical evidence of Yan as an influence behind the camera speaks to the complexity of understanding domestic labor in both the archive and traditional historiography. Breaking the taboo of women performing in public onscreen, handling financial crises for her husband, and potentially fostering a young actress to become a star, Yan presents challenges to a woman pioneer model that privileges creative labor behind the scenes in the traditional sense. Her life and career call for a more contextualized way of thinking about female agency in early cinema in relationship to specific national industries and cultural formations.


“The Horsemanship of Minxin Actress Yan Shanshan”/“民新女演員嚴珊珊之馬術.” Shen Bao/申報 (22 July 1926): 23.

Li, Minwei. The Diary of Lai Man-wai /黎民偉日記. Collated by Lai Shek; translated by Ma Sun. Hong Kong Film Archive, 2003. [Ed. note: the page numbers quoted in the text refer to the English translation.]

Ouyang, Yuqian. A Memoir of My Film Career/電影半路出家記. Beijing: Zhongguo dianying chubanshe, 1984.

Wang, Yiman. “To Write or To Act, That is the Question.” Chinese Women’s Cinema: Transnational Contexts. Ed. Lingzhen Wang. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. 235-254.

Women’s Times /婦女時報 no. 13 (1914): n.p.

Zou, Haibin. “A Profile of Yan Shanshan”/“嚴珊珊小傳.” Minxin Special /民新特刊 no. 2 (1926): 38.

Archival Paper Collections:

Digitized newspapers, including the ones used to illustrate this profile, can be accessed online in the Chinese Periodicals Database for the Republican Period 1911-1949 (民国时期期刊全文数据库) and Shenbao Database (申報數據庫). [Note: databases may require a login/university subscription.]


Peng, Xin. "Yan Shanshan." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2020.  <>

Dorothea Donn-Byrne

by Donna Casella

Silent films in Ireland from 1914 to 1935 focused on Irish rural life, the long struggle for independence from Great Britain, and the civil war that raged from 1922-1923 over the formation of the Irish Free State. Films like those from producers Ellen O’Mara and James Mark Sullivan’s indigenous Film Company of Ireland (1916-1920) specialized in romantic comedies/dramas of Irish life and historical melodramas on the Protestant Ascendency and its exploitation of Irish Catholic tenants. Screenwriter Mary Manning’s Guests of the Nation (1935) explored the Anglo/Irish War (1919-1921) and its devastating impact on the Irish countryside and its people. English-Irish author Dorothea Donn-Byrne worked in and outside this nationalist tradition. As Dolly Byrne, she provided the source material for Enter Madame (US 1922), a drawing room comedy about a self-absorbed opera singer and her troubled marriage, and, as Dorothea Donn Byrne, she wrote the original story for Land of Her Fathers (IE/US 1925), a romantic drama set against the backdrop of the Anglo/Irish War. In her prolific career, Donn-Byrne wrote for the stage and screen, and penned essays and short stories on a variety of topics that reflected the political and popular culture of the Anglo/Irish/American societies in which she lived. Her work in cinema points to the early dependence on source authors and story writers—particularly women—the nature of their contribution as cinematic authors, and the uncertainty surrounding their involvement in production.

Despite Donn-Byrne’s productive writing career, very little has been written about her life and work. With a scarcity of biographical information, the following digitized records have proven invaluable in piecing together her early life and career as a teacher and writer: England & Wales, Civil Registration Birth Index, 1837-1915; National Archives: Census of Ireland 1901/1911; UK, Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960; and New York, Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden & Ellis Island), 1820-1957. These databases indicate that Donn-Byrne was born to Irish parents in Seacombe, Cheshire, near Liverpool where her father, a merchant naval officer for Lamport & Holt, was based. Her mother died in childbirth as did Donn-Byrne’s twin (“Dorothy Mary Cadogan” n.p.). Since her father was frequently at sea, sailing from ports in the UK and New York, she was raised mainly by her grandfather in various locations throughout Dublin and Waterford counties, though passenger records indicate she also lived with relatives in Liverpool and the surrounding areas (“Dorothy Cadogan” [National Archives] n.p.; “Dorothy M. Cadogan” 1903, 1908, n.p.). She frequently visited her father in New York both as a child and an adult. Later passenger records note her living in Dublin first as a teacher and then as a student (“Dorothy M. Cadogan” 1903, 1908, 1910, 1911, n.p.; “D. Cadogan” 1904, n.p.).

Dorothea Donn-Byrne with her husband. Courtesy of the Armagh Diocesan Historical Society.

Donn-Byrne exhibited an early interest in the arts, reading literature at University College, Dublin, according to her friend, writer Margaret Widdemer’s 1964 memoir Golden Friends I Had (177). There, she met her first husband, Irish-American author Bryan Oswald Donn-Byrne (hyphen and prenames were dropped as an adult). Her husband always considered himself an Irish writer, though born in New York to Irish parents, according to John Bradley in “The Donn Byrne Story” (187, 189). When he was six, Donn Byrne, his sister, and mother (father’s whereabouts remain unknown) returned to the family home in County Armagh in Northern Ireland, where his education was shaped by cultural nationalism, something he shared with Dorothea (190-97). After university, the couple briefly parted ways, meeting up again in New York where they were married in 1911 (198). They first took up residence in Columbia Heights, Brooklyn, quickly found literary success, and started moving in the New York literary, theatrical, and visual artist communities, according to Thurston Macauley in Donn Byrne, Bard of Armagh (26-36).

While her husband wrote poetry, short stories, and novels steeped in Irish culture, Dorothea launched her literary career co-authoring (with Gilda Varesi) the 1920 play “Enter Madame,” a romantic comedy set in Boston’s opera scene. “Enter Madame” was one of only two works by Donn-Byrne (the other a scenario: A Heart Between Two Rugs, year unknown) that did not focus on Irish life and culture. Proceeds from the play’s successful run and her husband’s writing allowed them to purchase a home in Riverside, Connecticut (Macauley 59). The couple, however, spent money as quickly as they made it. After eleven years in the US, financial difficulties forced them to foreclose on this home and, according to Stanley J. Kunitz, return to England and Ireland (“Authors Home Attached” 21; Kunitz 122, 123). The couple’s combined literary earnings and her husband’s gambling allowed them to lease and eventually buy Coolmain Castle, Co. Cork, in 1926 (Macauley 147, 156). They divided their time between England and Ireland with occasional trips to the US; however, they often lived, wrote, and traveled apart, something common in the early years of their marriage. Widdemer’s memoir and Mary E. Keller’s study of Bryan’s life and work both attribute this arrangement to Donn-Byrne’s frustration with her husband’s drinking and gambling (Widdemer 164, 178, 183, 185; Keller 28). Two years after buying the castle, he tragically died in a car accident (“Swerving Car’s Fall Into the Sea” 5).

By the time of her husband’s death, Donn-Byrne already had made a name for herself in theatrical and cinematic circles. She was busy raising twins when she collaborated with lead actor Varesi on “Enter Madame,” which was influenced by Varesi’s own stage career (Patterson 360). The hugely successful romantic comedy follows a self-centered opera singer and her troubled marriage. The play opened on August 16, 1920, at New York’s Garrick Theatre and, according to Thomas S. Hischak’s Broadway Plays and Musicals, ran for 350 performances (“‘Enter Madame’ Fills the Garrick” 8; Hischak 529). The play’s popularity and critical reception led New York Times drama critic Alexander Woollcott to include it in his top ten list of the 1920-1921 season (1). “Enter Madame” also had runs in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Chicago, as well as London (“Important Plays Among Offerings” 1; “Enter Madame” [Evening Public Ledger] 16; “The Theaters” 7; “Enter Madame” [Chicago Tribune] 21; “Enter Madame” [The Times] 8). As “Enter Madame” was closing in New York, Donn-Byrne also had a small role in the musical revue “Some Party” (as Dolly Byrne), which opened on April 15, 1922, at Jolson’s 59th Street Theatre and promptly closed after seventeen performances (“Some Party” n.p.). Donn-Byrne showed no further interest in acting, instead devoting her career to writing.

Donn-Byrne began exploring Irish themes in her second play, the less successful “The Land of the Stranger” (1924), which follows the difficulties of Irish expatriates in the US who return to Ireland. Loosely based on her husband’s experience moving between New York and Northern Ireland, the play focuses on Pat McCann, a Brooklyn-based Irishman, who returns to his homeland in County Armagh only to find that he has become more like the stereotyped Irish featured in American theater. According to studies by Margaret McHenry and Robert Goode Hogan and Richard Burnham, “The Land of the Stranger” featured the Belfast Players and opened on December 8, 1924, at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin and on December 15, 1924, at the Opera House in Belfast (McHenry 53, 55; Hogan and Burnham 231-32). Early reviews were poor, but the play underwent considerable revisions with more successful runs at the Belfast Empire Theatre in 1929 and Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1931 (“The Land of the Stranger” 4; Programme 1931, n.p.). The Irish Times reported that after a weak showing in Dublin in 1924, the revised play was later “received with complete approval by a large audience” (Quidnunc 4). The reviewer praised Donn-Byrne’s cultural authenticity and called the rewrite a “shrewdly ironic commentary upon those sentimental ‘exiles,’ whose dream is now so far from reality” (4). This proved to be Donn-Byrne’s final play. According to McHenry, she quickly lost interest in the art form (68).

Clara Kimball Young in Enter Madame (1922). Courtesy of Metro/Photofest.

Donn-Byrne’s writing career, however, was not over; it just took another turn. By the 1920s, she joined the ranks of the many women writers who contributed to early cinema in a variety of capacities. While still in repertoire, “Enter Madame” was adapted for the screen by Frank Beresford who stayed faithful to the original material. Directed by Wallace Worsley, the film starred Clara Kimball Young in the Gilda Varesi role. Enter Madame played in small and large cities in the US, including New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Tulsa, Annapolis, Washington D.C., Lima (Ohio), and Elwood (Indiana), as well as abroad in places like Nottingham and Derby in England (“Enter Madame” [The Evening World] 16; “Boston’s Capitol Will Open” 534; “Enter Madame” [Evening Public Ledger] 15; “Something about ‘Enter Madame’” 16; “Enter Madame” [The Evening Capital] 4; “Photoplays” 24; “‘Enter Madame’ Pleases Quilna Audiences” 19; “Enter Madame” [The Call-Leader] 6; “Local Amusements” 5; “Amusements in Derby” 2). Available research provides no information as to whether Donn-Byrne was involved in other aspects of this production or what she thought of the film.

Still from Enter Madame (1922). Courtesy of Metro/Photofest.

Reviews were generally positive, highlighting the film’s production value, the narrative’s cleverness, and the impact on Young’s struggling career, rarely crediting or commenting on Varesi and Donn-Byrne as source authors. Photoplay selected the film as one of the seven best films of the month, noting “this picture is entertaining, splendidly directed and has an amazing subtlety” (“The Shadow Stage” 63; “The National Guide to Motion Pictures” 64). In Moving Picture World, C.S. Sewell called Enter Madame a “clever and unusually subtle comedy” (182). Abroad, the film was credited as having a “novel finish” by the Nottingham Evening Post, which also noted that “Miss Young, as usual, wears some wonderful dresses” (“Local Amusements” 5). The Derby Daily Telegraph addressed the film’s narrative, observing that “The story is told in an interesting manner, with touches of humour, and makes quite a good picture” (“Amusements in Derby” 2). A number of reviewers focused on how the film gave Young’s career a much-needed boost. Variety’s “Fred” argued that the film resurrected Young’s failing career: “In this picture Miss Young is giving a performance better than most she has done in the past two or three years” (33). The Lima News believed this was Young’s best work to date. This review was one of the few to acknowledge source authors Varesi and Donn-Byrne, adding that the film was “winning as much favor on the silver screen as did the original production” (“‘Enter Madame’ Pleases Quilna Audiences” 19). Similarly, the aforementioned Photoplay review attributed the film’s success to Varesi’s and Donn-Byrne’s “excellent basic material” (63). Such reviews, however, were uncommon. The article by “Fred” in Variety ignored the source authors completely, crediting “Adaptation of the play of the same title by Frank Beresford” (33). With few exceptions—for example The Evening Capitol and The Evening Public Ledger—advertisements also failed to mention the source authors, even though the play’s success could have been used as a marketing tool (“Enter Madame” 4; “Enter Madame” 15). One explanation for this absence is that by the 1920s writing in Hollywood had become an assembly line of production with the last hand on the script often receiving the credit.

Donn-Byrne’s contribution to the film Land of Her Fathers points to crediting problems faced by women writers who wrote original stories for the cinema. It is unclear whether Donn-Byrne sent Irish producer Séan Hurley an unsolicited manuscript or if he requested she submit a story for his film. The story was never published and there is no record of any correspondence between Donn-Byrne and Hurley, though she made frequent trips to New York in the 1920s when Hurley was gathering his American crew for filming in Ireland. A 2004 letter and attached film notes from Maureen Hurley, the producer’s daughter, to Sunniva O’Flynn, head of Irish programming at the Irish Film Institute, does refer to “Dorothea Donn Byrne” as the scriptwriter (Hurley n.p.). However, Maureen may have confused “original story” and “script.” Furthermore, the shot list for the fragments held at the RTÉ identify director Herbert Hall Winslow as the writer with no mention of Donn-Byrne, though this credit probably refers to his adaptation (Chatterjee n.p.). Irish film scholar Kevin Rockett in Cinema and Ireland notes only that “Dorothea Donn Byrne…provided the story” (57).

Still from Land of Her Fathers (1924). Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Donn-Byrne’s authorship here is complicated further by reviews that do not give her writing credit and a screening history shrouded in mystery. Reviews of the “rough cut” shown at the Grafton Cinema in Dublin on October 1, 1925, praised the indigenous qualities of the film and the strength of its narrative, never mentioning Donn-Byrne. F.S. in the Evening Herald found “a complete absence of any of the stage Irishness common to all previous attempts at native picture-making” (6). And the Irish Independent believed “The story of the film has much in it that will make a universal appeal” (“A New Irish Film” 8). The British trade paper The Bioscope also gave it a positive review, calling the film “a brave attempt to start a film industry in this country,” suggesting there were plans for public screenings in Ireland and possibly England (“Land of Her Fathers” 75). However, there is no record that the film was screened in Ireland or England, and complete prints, which might shed light on writing credits, have disappeared. Soon after the Grafton showing, according to both Hugh Oram and Hurley’s daughter, the producer gave a copy of the completed film to the American distributors with the intent that they would work together on the US screenings. The distributors, however, disappeared with the print and screened the film in several US cities (Oram 13; Hurley n.p.). Research thus far, however, has uncovered no details on screening locations or dates. Hurley’s copy of the film also has disappeared. Maureen notes that her father presented his print to the National Library in Dublin, but film historian Liam Ó Laoghaire (O’Leary) could not find that print for his 1976 “Exhibition of Irish Cinema” at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Trinity College Dublin (Hurley n.p.). Correspondences between Herbert Hall Winslow and James Wingate, Director of the Motion Picture Division of New York’s State Education Department at the New York State Archives, point to the existence of a third copy of the film, but this too has been lost. Per the Certificate of License held in the New York State Archives, Winslow was granted the license to screen the film in the State of New York after the requested eliminations were made. He even reserved a projection room, but again there is no evidence of screenings and the New York State Archives has no copy of the film (“Order on Projection Room” n.p.). Furthermore, there is no print of the film in the Winslow holdings at the Hasting’s Historical Society in Westchester, New York, according to its president Natalie Barry (Barry n.p.), even though correspondences between Wingate and Transatlantic Film Co. indicate that Winslow’s home at 587 Broadway, Hastings-on-the-Hudson, served as the production company office. The whereabouts of Donn-Byrne’s only Irish film of the silent era remain unknown.

Though Land of Her Fathers is lost, fragments, newspaper reviews, stills and correspondence in the O’Leary Archive, and eliminations Winslow made for a US screening license provide enough information to determine the film’s plot, which clearly bears the imprint of Donn-Byrne’s interest in Irish history and culture and the US involvement in both. The film tells of a romance between an Irish woman and an Irish revolutionary during the Anglo/Irish War, a political theme common in early Irish cinema. There is also a villain, according to critic F.S. in an Evening Herald review (6). Eliminations indicate that the villain turns the hero over to the Black and Tans: “I was a political prisoner and you know it, it was you who betrayed me to the Black and Tans” [Reel 4] (Winslow [March 19, 1928]). The eliminations further reveal an ideological conflict between Americans and Irish: “We in America do know what it means to fight for a principle” [Reel 2]; “You are an American and cannot understand” [Reel 4]; “I am Irish you are not, that is why you cannot understand” [Reel 6]. These Anglo/Irish/American influences on Donn-Byrne’s work are not surprising given her and her husband’s backgrounds. Though they were born outside of Ireland and lived in America, they grew up in Ireland and lived in the Irish Free State when it formed in 1922. As a result, they self-identified as Irish (Bradley 220, 197-98). The Anglo/Irish War had just concluded when Donn-Byrne crafted her story of the Irish struggle for independence from Britain and America’s view of that fight. Producer Hurley, a political activist, shared Donn-Byrne’s interests. After traveling extensively in China and the US, he returned to Ireland in 1915 and was close political friends with Michael Collins, a leading figure in Ireland’s struggle for independence (Oram 13). Hurley produced Land of Her Fathers for the American company Transatlantic Pictures, founded by Irish-born American James Sullivan. Intrigued by the idea of an Irish/American co-production, Hurley brought US distributors and crew (director Winslow and cameraman Walter Pritchard) to Ireland and drew his cast predominantly from Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, which supplied actors for many of Ireland’s indigenous silent films (Slide 18; Oram 13).

Still from Land of Her Fathers (1924). Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Donn-Byrne departed sharply from her interest in Anglo/Irish affairs with her only film adaptation, A Heart Between Two Rugs, housed in the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library. The date of the adaptation remains a mystery and there is no evidence it was ever produced. However, a stamp on the first page indicates it was the property of Dr. Edmond Pauker, a literary agent who worked in New York in the 1920s and 1930s primarily with European authors. The 52-page adaptation is structured more like a scenario with its chapter summaries, and is identified as such in the library catalogue. A Heart Between Two Rugs is a comedy of errors following the romantic trials of Toto Sugarbean who inherited his father’s wealth after a tragic accident in a sugar refinery. The scenario’s whimsical tone is more in keeping with Donn-Byrne’s first play, “Enter Madame,” than her later more serious Irish-themed writings.

Donn-Byrne’s writing continued to influence cinema in 1930s. While still in repertoire, “Enter Madame” was adapted for the radio and remade as the musical Enter Madame! (US 1934) starring Cary Grant and Elissa Landi (“Ft. Humphreys” A-6; “Local Drama Guild” C-2). Elliott Nugent directed the film from an adaptation by Gladys Lehman and Charles Brackett. Enter Madame! suffered from mediocre reviews that often praised the stars and director, but found the story hackneyed. F.S.N. in “A Farce with Music” called the cast “hard-working,” but found the ending “contrived” and “the theme, not exactly novel” (12). H.M. in “Grand Opera in the Making of this Film” wrote that “Elissa Landi’s charm and beauty, Cary Grant’s likeable nature, Lynn Overman’s amusing comedy relief, a fine musical score, and Elliot Nugent’s light treatment, make of ‘Enter Madame,’ now at Columbia, an entertaining film.” The reviewer added, however, “there is nothing to be excited about in the story” (B-12). Once again, Donn-Byrne and Varesi are rarely mentioned in reviews, though Variety’s “Chic” managed to correct the trade’s earlier confusing statement regarding authorship, noting that this later version is based on the stage play by “Dorothea Donn Byrne” and Varesi (Chic 63).

Donn-Byrne returned to her interest in Irish culture with the original story for her next film, Irish and Proud of It (NIR/UK/IE 1936), which had a mixed reception in the US, but fared better in Ireland where her authorship was frequently acknowledged in previews and reviews. Richard Hayward, whose Belfast Repertory Theatre Company brought her earlier play, “The Land of the Stranger,” to Belfast and Dublin, stars as an Irishman in London who returns to his native Ireland, falls for a young “Colleen,” and struggles with a mob of Chicago gangsters. B.C. in The New York Times gave the film an unflattering review, noting that this Irish-made film is more Hollywood than indigenously Irish with its “Irish ballading and some pretty scenes of Irish countryside” (12). In sharp contrast, The Irish Press, found “no touch of the stage-Irishman that has condemned so many films presuming to represent Ireland (“‘Irish and Proud of It’” 7). However, what is significant here is that The Irish Press perceived Donn-Byrne’s contribution as a selling point. The newspaper extensively covered the production in the months leading up to its release, frequently mentioning Donn-Byrne’s authorship. In July, “Another Irish Film” noted that “the story for the film has been written specially by Mrs. Dorothea Donn Byrne” (2). And in August, “Films of the Week” announced the film’s production, calling it “Mrs. Dorothea Donn Byrne’s ‘Irish and Proud of It” (MacG 5). Reviews like “‘Irish and Proud of It’” also acknowledged Donn-Byrne’s authorship: “…screened from a story by Dorothea Donn Byrne” (7). Donn-Byrne’s visibility in the industry was growing.

Irish and Proud of It, however, proved to be Donn-Byrne’s final contribution to cinema, though her interest in Irish arts never faltered. Throughout the 1930s, she served as an editor, arts manager, essayist, and short story writer. After her first husband’s death, she traveled between New York and Coolmain Castle overseeing reprints of his Irish works, according to newspaper reports (“Widow of Donn Byrne Here” 34; “Tea for Mrs. Dorothea Donn-Byrne” 20), and, in 1934, she edited Poems by Donn Byrne. According to Irish and US newspapers, Donn-Byrne also served as general chair of the art rooms at New York’s Irish Theatre in the late 1920s and early 1930s (Quidnunc 4; “Irish Theatre Asks Shaw” 2). Furthermore, in 1929 and 1930, Donn-Byrne wrote articles on Ireland, an Irish woman’s view of American fashion, and British horse racing for the American Vogue (“Ireland in 1929,” “An Irishwoman Looks at the Mode,” and “The Grand National”). She also wrote short stories on Irish life that were published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1933 (“The Turn of the Wheel” and “Eliza, Soldier of Fortune”) and Redbook Magazine in 1935 (“Bad Beginnings”).

By the early 1940s, however, Donn-Byrne had lost all interest in writing. After the death of her second husband, Willoughby Craig, whom she married in 1929, she moved to London with her daughter Jane (“Mrs. Donn Byrne Wed to Willoughby Craig” 19; “Fatally Injured at Work” 6). She worked for Lutterworth Press, a publishing company outside the city, and became part of the Chelsea artist community, socializing in a film and literary circle that included Welsh writer Dylan Thomas and his wife Caitlin and Irish food writer and film/theater actress Theodora FitzGibbon who later married Irish filmmaker George Morrison (FitzGibbon 153-54). FitzGibbon’s memoir notes that in their Chelsea gatherings “there was always a drink, endless cigarettes…and stories from Dolly” (154). Little is known of Donn-Byrne’s life after the war, except that her daughter Jane tragically died (153). This may have prompted her to move from London to Brighton where she died in 1963 (“Dorothea Mary Elizabeth Antonia Craig” 716).

Information on Donn-Byrne’s life and work is scarce. Her husband’s prolific and public writing career often overshadowed her own literary and film successes. In search of a more complete understanding of Donn-Byrne’s contribution to early cinema, researchers struggle to piece together material from friends’ memoirs and books, a few scholarly references, and newspaper coverage of her husband’s life and literary output. Future research needs to determine the full creative output of a woman who worked in an industry heavily reliant on source authors and original story writers. Donn-Byrne is part of a larger untold story, that of the female author in early cinema, their writing, authorship, and participation in film production.


“Amusements in Derby.” The Derby Daily Telegraph (31 July 1923): 2.

“Another Irish Film.” The Irish Press (7 July 1936): 2.

“Authors’ Home Attached.” The New York Times (2 Mar. 1922): 21.

Barry, Natalie. E-Mail Correspondence. December 27, 2018.

Barton, Ruth. Irish National Cinema. New York: Routledge, 2004.

B.C. “At the Belmont.” The New York Times (31 Oct. 1938): 12.

“Boston’s Capitol Will Open December 4, Gordon Reports.” Moving Picture World vol. 59, no. 6 (9 Dec. 1922): 534.

Bradley, John. “The Donn Byrne Story.” Seanchas Ardmhacha: Journal of the Armagh Diocesan Historical Society. vol. 24, no. 1 (2012): 183-239.

Certificate of License. Mar. 12, 1928. “Land of Her Fathers.” Motion Picture Division, New York State Archives.

Chatterjee, Razib (RTÉ Library Sales). E-Mail Correspondence. November 15, 1918; July 3, 2019; July 4, 2019.

Chic. “Enter Madame” (15 Jan. 1935): 63.

“D. Cadogan” and “Dorothy Cadogan.” UK, Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960.

Director (James Wingate). Letter to Transatlantic Film Co. Mar. 12, 1928. “Land of Her Fathers.” Motion Picture Division, New York State Archives.

------. Letter to Transatlantic Film Co. Mar. 17, 1928. “Land of Her Fathers.” Motion Picture Division, New York State Archives.

Donn-Byrne, Dorothea. “Bad Beginnings,” Redbook Magazine vol. 65, no. 2 (June 1935): 36-38, 39, 93-94.

------. “Eliza, Soldier of Fortune.” The Saturday Evening Post (6 May 1933): 12-13, 59-60, 62.

------. “The Grand National. Vogue (15 Mar. 1930): 60-63.

------. A Heart Between Two Rugs. London: Elkan Services, 19--.

------. “Ireland in 1929.” Vogue (9 Nov. 1929): 94, 156, 158.

------.“An Irishwoman Looks at the Mode.” Vogue (15 Feb. 1930): 69, 134.

------. The Land of the Stranger: A Kindly Comedy. London: Samson Low, Marston, 1931.

------. “The Turn of the Wheel.” The Saturday Evening Post (14 Oct. 1933): 14-15, 82-83, 85-86.

------, ed. Poems by Donn Byrne. London: Samson Low, Marston, 1934.

“Dorothea Mary Elizabeth Antonia Craig.” Wills and Probate, 1958-1966. The National Archives. 716.

“Dorothy Cadogan.” National Archives: Census of Ireland 1901/1911.

“Dorothy M. Cadogan,” “Dorothy Cadogan.” New York, Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden & Ellis Island), 1820-1957.

“Dorothy Mary Cadogan.” England & Wales, Civil Registration Birth Index, 1837-1915.

“Enter Madame.” Advertisement. The Call Leader (13 June 1923): 6.

“Enter Madame.” Advertisement. The Evening Capital (1 May 1923): 4.

“Enter Madame.” Advertisement. Evening Public Ledger (5 Nov. 1921): 16.

“Enter Madame.” Advertisement. Evening Public Ledger (2 Dec. 1922): 15.

“Enter Madame.” Advertisement. The Evening World (14 Dec. 1922): 16.

“Enter Madame.” Advertisement. The Times (13 Feb. 1922): 8.

“Enter Madame.” Chicago Tribune (21 Nov. 1921): 21.

“‘Enter Madame’ Fills the Garrick with Applause.” The New York Tribune (17 Aug. 1920): 8.

“‘Enter Madame’ Pleases Quilna Audiences.” The Lima News (19 Jan. 1923): 19.

“Fatally Injured at Work.” Gloucester Citizen (29 Mar. 1941): 6.

FitzGibbon, Theodora. A Taste of Love. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2015.

Fred. “Enter Madam (1922).” Variety (22 Dec. 1922): 33.

F.S. “Land of Her Fathers.” Evening Herald (3 Oct. 1925): 6.

F.S.N. “A Farce with Music.” The New York Times (12 Jan. 1935): 12.

“Ft. Humphrey’s Club Will Present Play.” The Sunday Star (13 May 1934): A-6.

Hischak, Thomas S. Broadway Plays and Musicals. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009.

H.M. “Grand Opera in the Making of this Film.” The Evening Star (2 Feb. 1935): B-12.

Hogan, Robert Goode and Richard Burnham. The Years of O’Casey, 1921-1926: A Documentary History. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992.

Hurley, Maureen. Letter to Sunniva O’Flynn. May 2o, 2004. Irish Film Institute, Tiernan MacBride Library.

“Important Plays Among Offerings of the New Week.” The Washington Herald (8 Jan. 1922): sec. 4, 1.

“‘Irish and Proud of It’ Well Received.” The Irish Press (18 Nov. 1936): 7.

“Irish Theatre Asks Shaw to Come Here.” The New York Times (12 Jan. 1931): 2.

Keller, Mary E. “A Critical Study of the Live & Novels of Donn Byrne.” M.A. Thesis, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 1948.

Kunitz, Stanley J. “Donn Byrne 1889-1928.” In Authors Today and Yesterday. New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1934. 121-24.

“Land of Her Fathers.” The Bioscope (8 Oct. 1925): 75.

“The Land of the Stranger.” The Irish Times (1 Dec. 1931): 4.

“Local Amusements.” The Nottingham Evening Post (10 July 1923): 5.

“Local Drama Guild Announces Its Plans.” The Evening Star (11 Oct. 1934): C-2.

Macauley, Thurston. Donn Byrne, Bard of Armagh. London: Samson Low, Marston, 1929.

MacG, L. “Films of the Week.” The Irish Press (18 Aug. 1936): 5.

McHenry, Margaret. “The Ulster Theatre in Ireland.” PhD dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1931.

“Mrs. Donn Byrne Wed to Willoughby Craig.” New York Times (11 Nov. 1929): 19.

“The National Guide to Motion Pictures Saves Your Picture Time and Money.” Photoplay vol. XXIII, no. 2 (Jan. 1923): 64-67.

“A New Irish Film” Irish Independent (6 Oct. 1925): 8.

Oram, Hugh. “An Irishman’s Diary.” Irish Times (20 Aug. 2005): 13.

“Order on Projecting Room.” Mar. 12, 1928. “Land of Her Fathers.” Motion Picture Division, New York State Archives.

Patterson, Ada. “ Gilda Varesi–Star and Playwright.” Theatre Magazine vol. 32 (Dec. 1920): 360.

“Photoplays.” The Evening Star (28 Mar. 1923): 23-24.

Programme. “The Land of the Stranger.” Belfast Empire Theatre. 1929. Mageean Collection. MG-0021. Digital Theatre Archive, Linen Hall Library.

Programme. “The Land of the Stranger.” Abbey Theatre. Nov. 30, 1931, Mageean Collection. MG-0026. Digital Theatre Archive, Linen Hall Library.

Quidnunc. “Irish Theatre in New York.” The Irishman’s Diary. The Irish Times (2 May 1931): 4.

Rockett, Kevin. “Part One: History, Politics and Irish Cinema.” In Kevin Rockett, Luke Gibbons and John Hill, Cinema and Ireland. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1988. 1-144.

Sewell, C.S. “Enter Madame.” Moving Picture World. vol. 59, no. 2 (11 Nov. 1922): 182.

“The Shadow Stage.” Photoplay vol. XXIII, no. 2 (Jan. 1923): 63.

Slide, Anthony. The Cinema and Ireland. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1988.

“Some Party.” Playbill (1 Mar. 2019): n.p.

“Something about ‘Enter Madame.’” Tulsa Daily World (30 Nov. 1922): 16.

“Swerving Car’s Fall Into the Sea.” The Derby Daily Telegraph (20 June 1928): 5.

“Tea for Mrs. Dorothea Donn-Byrne.” The New York Times (6 June 1929): 20.

“The Theatres.” Minnesota Daily Star (9 Oct. 1922): 7.

Varesi, Gilda, and Dolly Byrne. Enter Madame. New York: Putnam, 1921.

Widdemer, Margaret. Golden Friends I Had, Unrevised Memories of Margaret Widdemer. New York: Doubleday, 1964.

“Widow of Donn Byrne Here With Her Father.” The New York Times (28 May 1929): 34.

Winslow, Herbert Hall. Letter to Mr. James Wingate. Mar. 15, 1928. “Land of Her Fathers.” Motion Picture Division, New York State Archives.

------. Letter to Mr. James Wingate. Mar. 19, 1928. “Land of Her Fathers.” Motion Picture Division, New York State Archives.

Woollcott, Alexander. “Second Thoughts on First Nights.” The New York Times (15 May 1921): sec. 6, 1.

Archival Paper Collections:

Billy Rose Theatre Division (A Heart Between Two Rugs scenario). New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Correspondence, Research Notes, Articles and Production Stills of the Film “Land of Her Fathers,” 1925-1987. Early Films and Filmmakers, 1896-1992. Liam Ó Laoghaire (Liam O’Leary) Archive. MS 50,000/284. National Library of Ireland.

Donn Byrne Papers, 1915-1932. Boston Public Library. [currently closed].

Liam Ó Laoghaire (Liam O’Leary) Collection. AD 142. Irish Film Institute, Tiernan MacBride Library.

Mageean Collection. Digital Theatre Archive. Linen Hall Library

Margaret McHenry Papers, 1930-1948. First Series, Box 1. MS 244. Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. University of Pennsylvania.

Motion Picture Collection, M2939. UCLA Film and Television Archive.

Motion Picture Division, State of New York Education Department. Series A1418, Box 2678. New York State Archives.

Paper Collections. Box 107. SOF05/90. Irish Film Institute, Tiernan MacBride Library.

Special Collections. British Film Institute (Enter Madame [1922] stills; Enter Madame! [1934] pressbook; Irish and Proud of It stills and pressbook).

Various promotional materials: an Enter Madame (1922) pressbook is held at the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique; and Enter Madame! (1934) stills are held at the Cinémathèque de Toulouse.


Casella, Donna. "Dorothea Donn-Byrne." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2020.  <>

The Brumberg Sisters

by Maya Balakirsky Katz

Born exactly a year apart, sisters Valentina and Zinaida Brumberg worked together their entire careers in the Soviet animation industry, becoming known as the “grandmothers of Russian animation” for their work in the fairytale genre (Katz 2016, 248n1). The Brumberg sisters are notable in Russian animation because they were among the first generation of animators in the country during the Revolutionary years, a unique environment that allowed women—even Jewish women—to make their way to the top of the industry. Perhaps their presence is more notable in the international arena as animation was dominated by men in the early decades and Valentina and Zinaida were among the first women in world animation, alongside anatomized pockets of female artists, such as Lotte Reiniger in Germany, Helena Smith Dayton in America, and Hermína Týrlová in Czechoslovakia. The Brumberg sisters were also at the forefront of many technical and aesthetic innovations, such as the projection of animated segments on theatrical stages, the use of paper cut-outs, the integration of folk styles for the stylization of indigenous tales, and the introduction of sound to Soviet animation.

The sisters initially aspired for the fine arts, enrolling in the cutting-edge VKhUTEMAS (the Higher Artistic-Technical Workshops) in 1918, which soon merged with the more traditional Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, from where they graduated in 1925. In a short but lucid essay on her career, Zinaida recalled that “we went into animation in the 1920s when Soviet art was boiling, transforming, ventilating, going up and down. Everything was bubbling…” (1979, 4). Indeed, the 1920s were charged with experimentation and the sisters’ teachers were the avant-gardists Ilya Mashkov, Pyotr Konchalovsky, Abram Arkhipov, Robert Falk, and Aleksandr Rodchenko. Zinaida also credited the theatrical director Vsevolod Meyerhold and the young Sergei Eisenstein as the primary influences on their student work (4).

It is a testament to VKhUTEMAS’ pedagogical focus on investigating the unique attributes of artistic form that, even before graduating in painting, the sisters began to work in animation. The Brumbergs joined forces with other young avant-gardists who migrated to animation, such as Leonid Alekseevich Amal’rik, Aleksandr Bushkin, Ivan Ivanov-Vano, the sibling team Nikolai and Olga Khodataev, Yuri Merkulov, and Zenon Komissarenko.

The new medium of animation, especially in the silent era, was well-suited for the many ethnic nationalities that found themselves absorbed into the Soviet Union. In one of their first films, Kitai v ogne/China Aflame (1925), the Brumberg sisters integrated Chinese landscape and topography with paper cutouts and an avant-garde constructivist style. At a running time of over fifty minutes and a length of 1,000 meters of film, China Aflame was one of the first feature films in world animation. The film is an unprecedented amalgam of various techniques, with the use of paper cut-outs alongside classical animation while folk-art styles were used to satirize the caricatured bourgeoisie.

The year 1927 was a busy one for the Brumberg sisters. Out of the twenty or so animated films produced in the Soviet Union that year, they made three: Samoedskii malchik/Eskimo Boy/The Samoyed Boy, Odna iz mnogikh/One of Many, and the now lost Daesh’ khoroshii lavkom!/Give Us a Good Store! All three films were made under the auspices of the workshop All-Union National Institute of Cinema (GTK, later VGIK). In its formative years, GTK sought to produce silent animated films that highlighted the new medium’s potential to create a progressive culture.

Screenshot, Samoedskii malchik/Eskimo Boy/The Samoyed Boy (1928).

Together with the Khodataev siblings, Valentina and Zinaida directed The Samoyed Boy, the first Soviet animated film for children (Margolina and Lozinskaia 2016, 28-33). The film follows the story of a young Eskimo named Chu in the Tundra Nenets language. Chu heroically conquers a bear, skins it, and hangs the hide in his family home. In the meantime, the village Shaman claims the bear for himself and sets Chu to work a mechanical device to animate a statue that the villagers wor­ship. Still bitter from the loss of his bear hide, Chu retaliates against the Shaman’s exploitation of the people by exposing the machinery he uses to evoke the illusion of lifelike movement in a statue. Chu’s act of rebellion picked up on the much-maligned concept of animism, a Marxist term referring to the magic endowment of life to inanimate objects or beings, which, in the 1920s, became a buzzword in the attack on the primitivism of folklore for its inculcation of children to the idea and experience of enchant­ment (Katz 79). Chu’s exposure of the priest’s animism makes Chu a harbinger of enlight­ened atheism within the film’s narrative arc. At the same time, the scene makes a clear distinction between the false animism that backward priests preach and the transparent scientific approach that animation brings to the subject of folklore. After the ruined Shaman lures Chu into the sea, a modern Soviet ship rescues the boy and takes him to Leningrad, where a title card states, “Our Samoyed Boy is no fool / He went to the Workers’ School.” Here, again, the directors mount a defense of folklore by referencing an actual school in Leningrad that catered to “Northern Peoples” by teaching them how to use their artisan skills in the industrialization efforts of the country. The film also makes a more subtle case for the continuum between old and new by rendering the carefree character of Chu in hand-drawn paper cut-outs and then naturalizing this Old World Chu in the village scenes through the adoption of a style reminiscent of the Samoyed art of scrimshaw carvings. The directors then contrasted the elaborate and ter­rifying beauty of the village scenes with the simplified and measured architec­tural draftsmanship of Mstislav Dobuzhinsky for the Leningrad scenes (Bagrov 2013, 130).

Alongside the politically-driven content of The Samoyed Boy, the Brumbergs created more lightweight entertainment with One of Many, which was advertised as a satire ridiculing the popular fascination with American movie stars, but betrayed a real understanding of American films and the star culture of Hollywood. As film scholar Sergei Kapkov observed, One of Many “should probably be viewed as a supplement to [the Soviet film] The Kiss of Mary Pickford (1927), an ‘acted’ comedy about the excesses of fandom and admiration for Hollywood” (2004, 10). In fact, Valentina and Zinaida used the same documentary footage of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks’ 1926 visit to the Soviet Union that was used in The Kiss. They featured it in the live-action sequence of One of Many alongside animated versions of Pickford and Fairbanks. In One of Many, the heroine dreams of going to Hollywood. Her wish comes true, and she arrives to meet Pickford and Fairbanks, as well as other silent stars (who had recently visited Moscow in real life), such as D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin and the Danish comic actors Carl Schenstrøm and Harald Madsen. The film ends, however, with a terrifying sequence where Fairbanks leaves the dreamer to be attacked by lions that descend from the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer logo. In horror, the heroine wakes up, having lost all interest in Hollywood.

Zinaida Brumberg at work in Moscow, 1930. Courtesy of Beit Hatefutsoth/The Museum of Jewish People.

The Brumbergs also animated the Khodataev siblings’ hand-drawn film Groznyi vavila i Tetka Arina/Terrible Vavila and Aunti Arina (1928), the first animated film in the Soviet Union to directly address women’s rights. In the film, the arrival of Women’s Day on March 8 stops the daily grind for two rural women as their pails of water force them to take the day off and reclaim their rights. One woman’s husband complains that he wants supper, but despite his dog-like face contorting in anger and shock and his hanging on to his wife’s apron strings, the two women head off to the collective. All the women from the village fill the school building, discuss the issues that matter to them, and sing national anthems to celebrate the day while the husband and another aggrieved chum are schooled—and beaten up by—implements of labor, the sickle and cane.

Besides their contributions to the GTK workshop films in 1927-8, the Brumbergs and the Khodataevs created animated clips for the theater in collaboration with Natal’ia Sats, the founder of the first children’s theater in the world. Projecting film clips—especially documentary footage—onto the theatrical set was a hallmark of Soviet theater in the 1920s, a practice Sats criticized as devaluing theater, “which has its own truth, for all its conventionality” (1985, 111). Sats felt differently about the projection of animation onto the theater set and she was the first, several years ahead of Erwin Friedrich Piscator in Germany, to specifically incorporate animation into the theatrical action on stage for her 1927 children’s pantomime ballet “Negritenok i obez’iana” (The Little Negro Boy and the Monkey). The performance focused on the friendship of an African boy named Nagua and a monkey in their native land, which the Brumbergs animated as a primitive but idyllic world. The production was an unparalleled hit, and the Moscow Children’s The­ater reportedly performed it one thousand times in its first six years and other Eastern European theaters soon incorporated into their repertoires (Sats 112). The multimedia perfor­mance, which would become the signature performative mode of the Moscow Children’s Theater, brought Sats and the Brumberg sisters wide rec­ognition in both the Soviet and foreign press as the sort of creative artists that Soviet socialism produced.

The animated segments for “The Little Negro Boy and the Monkey” do not seem to have survived, but they were described in some detail by both Zinaida and Sats, as well as in the script, contemporary theatrical reviews, and stage-set photographs (Rozanov and Sats 1930, 30-34, 37). In her memoir, Zinaida described the setup of the stage as containing the actors in the foreground and a big screen in the background, behind which “the actors hid themselves from time to time. The lights went off and drawings and images of those same actors appeared on the lighted screen” (14). The Soviet press singled out the use of silent animation in the achievement of a “synthetic production” that combined dance, pantomime, animation, and music (Water 2019, 133). “Animated cartoons are close to children’s pictures,” wrote Sats in her autobiography Sketches from My Life, “they have the virtue of dispensing with unnecessary detail and conveying the essentials in the most dynamic manner” (112). Sats was especially taken with the theatrical dramatization inherent in the medium of animation and its solution to the sticky problem of “dramatic time,” writing that the animated films made for her theater “would extend the possibilities of theatre without interfering with the overall artistic design, they would help to show rapid sequences of scenes of nature and adventure” (112).

After the initial success of using animation, Sats commissioned stage-specific animations from the Brumberg sisters and the Khodataev siblings for the 1928 children’s play “Pro Dzyubu” (About Dzyuba). The play tells the story of Vasya, a young boy who identifies himself as “Dzyuba” from the fairytale land of Pashukania. No one but a young girl named Nina believes his tales, and she defends him against accusations of lies with the help of animated segments featuring creatures collaged from a variety of different animal bodies. Sats integrated the animated segments “in conjunction with stage action” to support the theme of “the child’s right to creative fantasy” (Sats 117). She projected one animated segment upside down for the scene of Upsidetown, with the roots of the trees in the sky and the houses standing precariously on their roofs, while, for the scene of Backtofrontown, the animation was projected in reverse (Sats 117). Ivan Ivanov-Vano, who would become the official face of Soviet animation for the next fifty years, later observed that years before the advent of sound cinema, the production’s live musical performance kept time with the movements in the film sequences, which “amazed [even] the animators that even before the invention of sound cinema [this] could have such a great emotional impact” on the production (Ivanov-Vano 1980, 45). “This was,” he continued, “in effect, the first experiment in combining synchronized music and cartoon action, though, at that stage, this was only achieved in the theatre rather than the cinema.” Ivanov-Vano concluded his exuberant review by turning to his own contribution to the development of sound: “We realized for the first time what great opportunities lay in the synthesis of music and visual imagery.”

Despite the praise that Ivanov-Vano would later shower onto Sats’ avant-garde use of animation, the Brumbergs forged their directorial identities in reaction to him. While Ivanov-Vano’s group, known as IVVOSTON, an acronym of the surnames of the male directors Aleksandr Ivanov, Nikolai Voinov, and Panteleimon Sazonov, was pushing for technological breakthroughs in synchronized sound, the Brumbergs were producing non-synchronized animated films at a rather astounding rate. Unfortunately, many of these films are now considered lost. For example, in 1930, the Brumbergs made Vesennii Sev’/Spring Sowing, which called for a sowing campaign. The following year, the Brumbergs made agit-prop films like the hand-drawn animation short promoting the activities of “Avtodor,” a motor improvement society in operation between 1927-1935. They also made artistic films, such as Blokha/Flea (1931), a non-synchronized short animating M.P. Mussorgsky’s song “Pesniu o blokhe” (The Song of the Flea). The following year, Zinaida, working alone, made Parovoz, leti vpered/Train, Go Forward (1932), an agit-prop animated short protesting drunkenness and idleness.

While the invention of sound technology inspired Ivanov-Vano’s IVVOSTON group to develop the technical side of sound, the Brumbergs took the opportunity to make a more practical case for a reconceptualization of employees working on a film as a cohesive group. In a 1935 article, Valentina turned to Disney’s Silly Symphonies series (1929-39) to expound on Walt Disney’s successful implementation of stable proj­ect teams as a useable model for Soviet animation (4). Although some animators resisted the use of sound, seeing it as a disruption of their creative autonomy and distribution (because the majority of theaters were not yet equipped for sound), Valentina celebrated the end of silent film if only because the adoption of sound required more crew members and the formation of stable “groups.” In shap­ing the Brumberg group on the pretext of introducing sound to animation, the sisters transformed themselves and their employees into members of a new pro­fessional circle. In her memoir, Zinaida wrote that “in the beginning of our career, we did a lot ourselves. We were at once scriptwriters and artists and directors,” but consistent innovation came about “only through the group” (20).

In 1936, the sisters were among the founding employees of Stalin’s Soyuzmultfilm, where they achieved official director status as state employees. At Soyuzmultfilm, Valentina and Zinaida sheltered and nurtured underemployed artists from Moscow’s avant-garde milieu, including those who had lost traction after the silent era, such as Boris Barnet and Zenaida Naryshkin. Their experience in the silent era was critical to their creation of animated political shorts during World War II, which were, for all intents and purposes, produced as silent films even if music and a soundtrack were later added. This need to return to silent filmmaking was both because of the haste in which wartime shorts needed to be produced and because of the need for national communication that would reach the wide range of ethnic populations in the country. The sisters went on to co-direct more than forty animated films over their long careers until they were pushed out by the studio head, Mikhail Valkov, in the mid-1970s as part of a staff turnover engineered to wrest control from directors. “Older directors were not given scripts,” recalled art director Lana Azarkh, “and if they found them on their own, there was no place in the studio for them to shoot them…The cruel and crude manner in which the directors were treated made it clear to them that it was necessary to retire” (Azarkh, part II 165).

Because they worked in the Soviet Union, everything that was published about Valentina and Zinaida during their lifetimes appeared in state-sponsored publications, such as biographical profiles in state newspapers and reports on their films in official film journals. After the opening up of state archives in the 1990s, the Soyuzmultfilm archive became available, which includes a vast number of materials directly relevant to the Brumberg sisters, such as their story meeting notes, the notes of the Artistic Council that discussed their films and other films for which they served as peer-reviewers, their original scripts and multiple versions of the scripts as they went through production, and the contracts they doled out to freelance artists and writers to work on their films. Furthermore, despite the political overturns of the twentieth century, Russia’s film archive, Gosfilmofond, has preserved many animated Soviet films from the silent era, including those of the Brumberg sisters.


Azarkh, Lana. “Mul’tiplikatory.” Part I. Iskusstvo kino 9 (September 2010): 136-145.

------. “Mul’tiplikatory.” Part II. Iskusstvo kino 10 (October 2010): 155-169.

Bagrov, Peter. “Samoyedskii Malchik.” Pordenone, Italy: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto Catalogue, 2013. 129-30.

Bendazzi, Giannalberto. Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Brumberg, Valentina. “Kak ozvuchivaiutsia fil’my Disneia.” Kino (22 June 1935): 4.

------. “Zvukovaia mul’tiplikatsiia,” Proletarskoe kino 2 (March 1931): 63-64.

Brumberg, Zinaida. “Liubimaia rabota.” In Zhizn’ v kino: Veterany o sebe i svoikh tovarishchakh (part II). Ed. O. T. Nesterovich. Moscow: Isskustvo, 1979. 4-29.

Gamburg, Efim. Tainy risovannogo mira. Moscow: Sov. Khudozhnik, 1966.

Ivanov-Vano, Ivan. Kadr za kadrom. Moscow: Iskussvo, 1980.

------. Risovannyi fil’m – Osobyi vid kinoiskusstra. Moscow: Goskinoizdat, 1956.

Kapkov, Sergei. “Legendy Soiuzmul’tfil’ma: Grymzy iz akademii peda­gogicheskikh nauk govorili, chto deti nashi fil’my ne poimut.” Gazeta 133 (26 July 2004): 10.

Katz, Maya Balakirsky. Drawing the Iron Curtain: Jews and the Golden Age of Soviet Animation. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016.

Khoda­taev, Nikolai. “Iskusstvo mul’tiplikatsii.” In Mul’tiplikatsionnyi fil’m. Ed. Grigorii Roshal. Mos­cow: Kinofotoizdat, 1936. 15-100.

Margolina, Irina, and Natal’ia Lozinskaia, eds. Nashi mul’tfil’my. Litsa, kadry, eskizy, geroi, vospomina­niia, interv’iu, stat’i, esse. Moscow: Interros, 2006.

Merkulov, Yuri. “Sovetskaia mul’tiplikatsiia nachinalas’ tak.” In Zhizn’ v kino: Veterany o sebe i svoikh tovarishchakh. Ed. O. T. Nesterovich. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1971. 126-127.

Migunov, Evgenii. “Iz vospominaniia.” Kinograf 8 (2000): 4.

Rozanov, Sergei Grigotevich, and E.S. Mikulina. The Moscow Theatre for Children. Moscow: Co-operative Publishing Society of Foreign Workers in the USSR, 1934.

Rozanov, Sergei, and Natal’ia Sats. Negritenok i obez'iana. Illustrated by Andrei Andreevich Brei. Moskow: Gosizdat, 1930.

Sats, Natalia. Sketches from My Life. 1934. Trans. Sergei Syrovatkin. Moscow: Raduga Publishers, 1985.

Viktorov, Viktor. The Nataliia Sats Children’s Musical Theatre. Trans. Miriam Morton. Moscow: Raduga Publishers, 1986.

Volkov, Ana­tolii. “Mul’tiplikatsiia.” In Kino: politika i liudi, 30-e gody: K 100-letiiu miro­vogo kino. Ed. L. Kh. Mamatova. Moscow: Materik, 1995. 120-121.

Water, Manon van de. “Natalia Sats: A Soviet Life in the Theatre.” In Russian Theatre in Practice: The Director’s Guide. Ed. Amy Skinner. London: Methuen, 2019. 127-140.

Archival Paper Collections:

Personnel file for Valentina Brumberg. Fund 2469, inventory list 6. Russian State Archive of Literature and Arts.

Personal VKhUTEMAS student file for Valentina Brumberg. Fund 677, inventory list 1. Russian State Archive of Literature and Arts.

Personnel file for Zinaida Brumberg. Fund 2469, inventory list 6. Russian State Archive of Literature and Arts.

Personal VKhUTEMAS student file for Zinaida Brumberg. Fund 677, inventory list 1. Russian State Archive of Literature and Arts.


Katz, Maya Balakirsky. "The Brumberg Sisters." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2019.  <>

Cora Johnstone Best and Audrey Forfar Shippam

by Gregory Waller

Through most of the 1920s, Cora Johnstone Best and Audrey Forfar Shippam engaged in what seems to have been in this period a rare if not unique form of professional collaboration, with Best delivering lectures illustrated with lantern slides and motion pictures that had been shot by Shippam during the pair’s adventures in the remote Canadian Rockies. Best, a medical doctor who became widely known for her mountaineering exploits, had been a public speaker since at least 1918. Her active career as a lecturer lasted from 1922, when she was hired as a representative of the Bureau of Commercial Economics (BCE), until her death in 1930. During these years, the film lecture was a widely popular nontheatrical exhibition format, and Best was possibly the most successful woman in the United States working in what was an overwhelmingly male-dominated field. After Best’s death, there is no record of Shippam (who lived until 1975) continuing to shoot film or to create hand-colored lantern slides. Unfortunately, none of the motion pictures shot by Shippam for use in the lectures seem to have survived.

Virtually the only sources of information about Best and Shippam are the promotional material they generated and the newspaper coverage of Best’s performances. These materials regularly note that both women were married (Best to a doctor, Shippam to an Army officer), but these men never figure in accounts of the women’s challenging treks into the North American wilderness. The press discourse instead highlights that Best and Shippam were “pals” and “companions.” These terms usually appear in quotation marks in the original text, with no other speculation about the relationship between the two women, who, in a widely reprinted publicity photograph, pose dressed alike in stylish trekking attire. Newspaper accounts do not explain how the two women met. Given the focus on Best, the featured performer who was often billed as “the biggest little woman in the out-of-door world” (“Dr. C. J. Best to Lecture in Ju-Co Pay Assembly” 1), it is notable that Shippam is mentioned at all, underscoring the novelty—and likely promotional value—of educated, securely middle-class female pals becoming acclaimed mountaineers and intrepid media-makers.

Cora Johnstone Best in the St. Louis Star and Times, January 1927.

An obituary from her hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota, described Best as an “internationally known lecturer, mountain climber and huntress” and “a conservationist and leading exponent of outdoor life” (“Dr. Cora J. Best, Mountaineer, Dies” 1). Her success as a traveling lecturer during the late silent film era not only stands as a prime example of what a woman could achieve in the expanding world of nontheatrical cinema, but also underscores the significant role of the Bureau of Commercial Economics in that period. Never actually a part of the federal government, the BCE was incorporated in 1914 as a non-profit organization dedicated to distributing sponsored industrial motion pictures for free screenings. It attracted much attention for its investment in truck-mounted projectors, which allowed films to be exhibited in open-air sites. As Laura Isabel Serna has explained, Anita Maris Boggs, another long-overlooked woman film pioneer, played an essential administrative role in the BCE, which, in addition to hundreds of sponsored films, also had a roster of what it called “special lecturers” (2015, 135-43).

Although initially many of these speakers were men affiliated with commercial firms like Standard Oil and General Electric, by the late 1910s the BCE’s roster prominently featured multimedia “travelogues” that pictured remote regions and thrilling outdoor adventures—with Canada and the American West as prime locales. Hence the logic for engaging Best, whose three lectures for the BCE were:

“Unblazed Trails and Shining Peaks,” covering her wilderness adventures in the Canadian Rockies, climbing previously unnamed peaks over ice fields and “labyrinths of crevasses,” and capturing as well images of rare flowers, birds, and animals (Best 1924, 11);

“Hell Roaring Waters,” detailing her 200-mile canoe trip down the dangerous Columbia River in northern British Columbia, home to “rip snorting water” and “death dealing rapids” (Best 7-9);

“Kingdom of the Clouds, recounting her successful effort to be the first [white] person to reach the summit of Mount Pope in the interior of British Columbia (“Speaks to Clubs of Explorations” 2).

Unlike other BCE lecturers, Best was not directly promoting Canada or the American West as a tourist destination or as a repository of potentially lucrative natural resources. She extolled the benefits, more generally, of strenuous outdoor activity, called for an appreciation of North America’s natural splendor, endorsed conservation initiatives, and pitched “visual education” as a valuable pedagogical tool. Without question, when she was making these points her physical presence and gendered self-presentation registered strongly. According to a 1927 feature article, Best was “a short, rather slight woman, who might be a music teacher or a librarian” (Childs 1927, 93). But promotional notices touted her fearless adventuring. This presumably gave her credibility when it came to criticizing the 1920s version of the American male who, in Best’s own words, “looks like a modern Ajax,” but was weak and easily frightened, not least of all because he thought playing nine holes of golf counted for exercise (“Woman Tells of Adventures” 5). Channeling the spirit of Theodore Roosevelt, Best made clear the all-important racial implications of her critique of modern American masculinity: “the whole life of the white race,” she told an audience in Battle Creek, Michigan, “depends on learning how to live, to eat right, exercise properly, to really live” (“Die from Worry, Not Over-Work” 14). And clearly this responsibility was from her perspective equally important for white women. Best insisted “there is no sex in mountain climbing,” which was not her way of demanding that climbers take a vow of celibacy, but rather her oft-stated belief that nothing prevented women from taking on the challenges of the great outdoors (“Mountains No Barrier” 3).

Audrey Forfar Shippam in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 1927.

For all Best’s overt messaging, her presentations were not instructional lectures. Best celebrated her own self-styled unprecedented accomplishments. These included that she and Shippam had brought back still and moving pictures that she claimed were:

taken in territory that has not been photographed by anyone else; they are full of thrills from start to finish—enough to satisfy the reddest blooded adventurer; they are educational and beautiful to a degree not often found in combination (“Free Illustrated Lecture” 3).

Best also asserted that the women produced their own slides, tinting them based on notes taken on-site. Shippam’s film sequences reportedly showed perilous mountaineering, revealing “time and again where a misstep or misjudgment would have sent one of the party catapulting down a steep cliff to certain doom” (“Rotary Goes on Tour” 3). According to the Riverside Daily Press, Shippam captured the experience of running the Columbia River rapids with “every turn in the stream a new picture” (3). She also recorded, the article continued, the details of camp life, including footage of Best “doing apparently with ease the heavy work but few would attempt,” like “felling a large pine tree and then hoisting it onto her shoulder, and tramping with it into camp, crossing a stream on a log on the way.” Best accompanied these stirring, one-of-a kind images, reported the newspaper in Fort Scott, Kansas, with “narratives of personal experiences out in the open, in the wild places,” while also explaining “the techniques of mountain climbing and the compensations…derived from the hard work and the dangers encountered(“Dr. C. J. Best to Lecture in Ju-Co Pay Assembly” 1).

Best’s “motion picture lectures” found success across a range of nontheatrical sites, occasions, and sponsors. Most often, she appeared at high school auditoriums and churches, though she also performed at universities, hotels, and all manner of public halls. (Newspapers generally mentioned that Shippam took the motion pictures during the pair’s treks, but only very rarely noted whether Shippam was present during Best’s lecture tours.) For these bookings, the BCE required at least one local sponsor, including, typically, women’s organizations, service and social clubs, and groups devoted to local boosterism or outdoor recreation. While press materials emphasized Best’s singular accomplishments as a woman and claimed that “women will be especially interested in the record of one of their sex who has done things that would give pause to most men” (“Sportswoman Will Address Ikes” 14), Best’s appeal was never limited to female audiences and her career depended on sponsors well beyond formally organized women’s groups. For example, in February 1926, in Lincoln, Nebraska, Best lectured at a downtown hotel to a joint meeting of the Izaak Walton League (devoted to fishing and preserving outdoor recreational opportunities) and the Knife and Fork Club (a social club for married couples). In the small town of Bend, Oregon, Best’s visit was jointly sponsored by the Kiwanis Club, the Lions Club, the Commercial Club, and the Women’s Civic League. Judging from the sites and sponsors of her varying lectures during the 1920s, all positioned well outside the commercial mainstream cinema, the public that welcomed Best was largely composed of well-to-do, white, and prominently-situated citizens in American towns and mid-sized cities, especially in the upper Midwest, but stretching south into Ohio and westward to California.

For these audiences, Best and Shippam fashioned a product that aimed to be inspirational (yet not overtly religious) and educational (yet not instructional) in its celebration of America’s remaining “virgin country full of adventure, romance and opportunity” (Best 6). Best translated first-hand experiences into uplifting entertainment that attested to the courage and capabilities of women, yet did not advocate for political change that addressed sex and gender inequities. As such, Best and Shippam figure in a much broader history of nontheatrical cinema, sponsored screenings, and multimedia performances. Their transportable, repeatable, and profitable lectures on “Hell Roaring Watersand “Unblazed Trails point to other histories—of, for example, nonfiction cinema put in the service of documenting what would become known as extreme or high-risk sports, of promoting conservation, and of encouraging audiences during the 1920s to appreciate and perhaps venture out to meet the challenges posed by what was assumed to be a still majestic natural world.

As an afterword, it is worth noting in this context that Best and Shippam’s most extraordinary adventure—described in a 1927 Sunday supplement article by M.W. Childs—did not take them into the American wilderness, but rather deep into Manchuria, China, in 1927. Venturing alone, with the aim of hunting exotic snow leopards, the two women found only danger at the hands of menacing bandits. Firing their revolvers to ward off unseen assailants, Best and Shippam managed to escape by traveling on foot and by train, posing as native men or boys, having applied “chrome yellow” paint from Shippam’s artist’s palette to “darken” their faces. Best suffered from dysentery and hid in the bottom of a boat grounded on a mudbank while Shippam nursed her back to health. The women finally escaped from China on a Japanese ship. Once in Japan, they climbed various peaks in Hokkaido, then ascended Mount Fuji (93). This spectacular “Oriental” and Orientalist adventure—which reads like the outline for a movie serial, complete with gender and racial passing—received widespread press coverage in America. While Best seems to have mentioned the China episode in her subsequent appearances, she did not make it the subject of a new lecture, perhaps because the women apparently were not able to bring back moving pictures as nonfiction evidence.


Advertisement. Best Lecture. Bend [Oregon] Bulletin (31 January 1929): 3.

Childs, M. W. “Two Women in the Manchurian Wilds.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (30 October 1927): 93.

“Die from Worry, Not Over-Work.” Battle Creek [Michigan] Enquirer (23 October 1923): 14.

“Dr. C. J. Best to Lecture in Ju-Co Pay Assembly.” Scribbler [Fort Scott, Kansas] (10 January 1927): 1.

“Dr. Cora J. Best, Mountaineer, Dies.” Star Tribune [Minneapolis Minnesota] (20 November 1930): 1.

“Dr. Cora Johnstone Best, Adventurer, To Lecture at Teachers’ College March 6.” La Crosse [Wisconsin] Tribune and Leader Press (21 February 1928): 12.

“Free Illustrated Lecture at High School February 15.” Sheboygan [Wisconsin] Press (8 February 1927): 3.

“Intrepid Woman Makes Friends With the Clouds.” St. Louis Star and Times (11 January 1927): 11.

“Mountains No Barrier--She Just Steps on 'Em.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (8 April 1930): 3.

“Mrs. Bent Tells of Many Trails.” Pantagraph [Bloomington, Illinois] (15 April  1924): 8.

“News of the World Told in Pictures.” The Philadelphia Inquirer (29 August 1924): 15. [Features syndicated photo of Best and Shippam].

“Optimists Hear Noted Woman Explorer Talk.” Daily Illinois State Journal [Springfield, Illinois] (17 March 1925): 10.

“Rotary Goes on Tour of Wilds.” Riverside [California] Daily Press (14 March 1929): 3.

Savage, Sean. “The Eye Beholds: Silent Era Industrial Film and The Bureau of Commercial Economics.” M.A. Thesis, New York University, 2006.

Serna, Laura Isabel. “Anita Maris Boggs: Historical; Invisibility and Gender in the History of Sponsored and Educational Film.” Feminist Media Histories vol. 1, no. 2 (Spring 2015): 135-43.

“Speaks to Clubs of Explorations.” Lincoln [Nebraska] Star (20 February 1926): 2.

“Sportswoman Will Address Ikes on Nov. 4.” Morning Star [Rockford, Illinois] (1 November 1925): 14.

“Woman Tells of Adventures.” Billings [Montana] Gazette (12 March 1927): 5.

Archival Paper Collections:

Best, Cora Johnstone. Hell Roaring Waters and Other Motion Picture Talks (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Commercial Economics, 1924). Margaret P. Hess Pamphlet Collection, University of Calgary.


Waller, Gregory. "Cora Johnstone Best and Audrey Forfar Shippam." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2019.  <>

Ouida Bergère

by Laura Jacquelyn Simmons

Ouida Bergère was perhaps best known in the film industry as Mrs. Basil Rathbone and party hostess extraordinaire. However, before her marriage, to Rathbone, Bergère was a prominent and top paid scenario writer. Bergère was born in Spain, but moved to the US at the age of six. Her father was French-Spanish and her mother, British (Lowrey 1920, 22). There is some conflicting information regarding her birth name; most sources claim she was born Ida Bergère, others Eulalia Bergère. Regardless, upon entering the film industry, she changed her name to Ouida.

Ouida Bergere (w) caption: "Clever scenario writer who has gone abroad for a rest and vacation until September." (1924) NYPL

1924 Ouida Bergère clipping with caption: “Clever scenario writer who has gone abroad for a rest and vacation until September.” Courtesy of the New York Public Library. 

Bergère began her film career by serving as scenario editor and actress for Pathé Freres, eventually writing her own scripts and branching out to other companies, including Vitagraph and Famous Players-Lasky, according to the New York Dramatic Mirror in 1915 (24). Much of Bergère’s screenwriting career coincides with the career of her second husband, George Fitzmaurice, to whom she was married before Rathbone. She met Fitzmaurice after she started her screenwriting career, and after their marriage, he directed almost all of the films she wrote. As is the case with the many Hollywood marriages, Bergère’s relationship to Fitzmaurice must be considered when discussing her career, and, typically, because her career was so closely linked to that of Fitzmaurice, there is confusion about their credits. She very well might have had her hand in directing some of the films that have been credited to him, as was the case with other couples such as actress Alice Terry and director Rex Ingram. Conversely, Ouida Bergère is assumed to have been the screenwriter, simply because Fitzmaurice directed, as in Cytherea (1924), which is credited to her in her New York Times obituary although not elsewhere (83). The exact dynamics of husband-wife teams working in the industry are now difficult to assess, but we now look to clues such as the article on the production of The Cheat (1923)—a remake of DeMille’s 1915 film—in the Morning Telegraph where it is mentioned that, as always, Bergère would be present during shooting (5). In another Morning Telegraph article, Bergère claims to have directed several scenes, explaining to the reporter that “Once when Mr. Fitzmaurice, my husband, was ill, I directed ever so many scenes in a picture on which he was working” (2).

Lantern slide, Our Better Selves (1919), Ouida Bergère (w). Courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery, W. Ward Marsh collection.

We receive some insight into Bergère’s idea of scenario writing in Dorothy Day’s 1924 article, strangely titled “Ouida Bergère Wants to be Barriesque,” perhaps a reference to British writer J. M. Barrie, author of “Peter Pan.” By “Barriesque” is meant working with the director to develop “a simple and life-like story” (2). Bergère’s desire to move in a new direction may reflect the lukewarm reviews that the popular and trade press gave of her stories. Most of her scenarios were adaptations from stage or novel and were generally accepted as standard, but not exceptional film fare. The films for which she wrote story and scenario, such as The Hillcrest Mystery (1918) and The Profiteers (1919), were criticized as unoriginal. By 1924, near the end of a productive career, Bergère was best known for her flamboyant style and exotic stories, as Day argues, rather than for simple stories. Critically, Bergère’s stories succeeded the most when the extravagance of the narrative matched that of the production values for which George Fitzmaurice was known, as in Arms and the Woman (1916), which was referred to as “uncommonly interesting” and a “smashing dramatic” by Variety (29). She wrote mostly dramas, with just two known comedies, More Trouble (1918) and Three Live Ghosts (1922). Her dramas tended to be high in action, centering on war, crime, drugs, and social issues, typically with a romantic subplot. One of her best-known films is a remake of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 film The Cheat (1923), starring Pola Negri in one of her first roles. Some of her extant crime dramas are Idols of Clay (1920), Kick In (1923), and The Man From Home (1922), all collaborations with George Fitzmaurice. The fact that they were all distributed by Famous Players-Lasky–Paramount Pictures, the biggest of the US production-distribution companies in those years, may explain their survival.

Lantern slide, Common Clay (1919), Ouida Bergère (w). Courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery, W. Ward Marsh collection.

Despite her status in the field and the top salary she was receiving as a scenarist, Bergère gave up most of her career ambitions after she divorced Fitzmaurice and, at forty-one, married Rathbone in 1926. An article in the New York Post in 1964, titled “At Home with Mrs. Basil Rathbone,” reports that she stayed “at home” so that she could guide his career as well as raise their family.

See also: Alice Terry, “Shaping the Craft of Screenwriting: Women Screen Writers in Silent Era Hollywood


“Arms and the Woman.” Rev. Variety (10 Nov. 1916): 29.

“The Cheat.” Rev. The New York Times (27 Aug. 1923): 14.

Day, Dorothy. “Ouida Bergère Wants to be Barriesque.” Morning Telegraph (13 July 1924): 2.

“Fitzmaurice to Direct ‘The Cheat.’” Morning Telegraph (24 Dec. 1922): 5.

“George Fitzmaurice-Ouida Bergère Join in New Deal with Famous Players-Lasky.” Moving Picture World (28 Feb. 1920): 1490.

Murphy, Agnes. “At Home With Mrs. Basil Rathbone.” The New York Post (17 May 1964): 45.

“Ouida Bergere Rathbone Dies; Dramatist Was Actor’s Widow.” Obit. The New York Times (1 Dec. 1974): 83.

“Woman Heads Company. Ouida Bergere, Former Pathé Scenario Editor, to Manage Film Company.” The New York Dramatic Mirror (17 Feb. 1915): 24.

“Work on Elsie Ferguson Photoplays Establishes Ouida Bergère as One of Foremost Scenario Writers.” Moving Picture World (13 Sept. 1919): 1652.

Archival Paper Collections:

Essanay Film Manufacturing Company records. Series 5, Box 21, FF 6 “The Love of Jose,” by Ouida Bergère, undated scenario. Chicago History Museum.

Gloria Swanson papers. University of Texas at Austin, Harry Ransom Center.

Ouida Bergère clippings file. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Margaret Herrick Library.

Ouida Bergère clippings file. New York Public Library, Billy Rose Theatre Division.

Reminiscences of Basil Rathbone. February, 1959. Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Research Update

November 2019: Recent information concerning Ouida Bergère's birth location and name has come to our attention, revealing that she was born in the United States and not Spain (a likely self-promotional origin story). Census records and passport applications indicate that she was born Eula Branch, on December 14, 1885, in Little Rock, Arkansas. Furthermore, the adoption of the name Ouida Bergère may have come from the fact that her married name in 1911 was Burgess, which could easily be exoticized to Bergère. According to these documents, her mother's name was Ida, which could have also contributed to the creation of Ouida. For more information, see:

--The Editors


Simmons, Laura Jacquelyn. "Ouida Bergère." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2019.  <>

Clara Beranger

by Lori Rossiter

A gifted and dedicated writer, Clara Beranger managed a career spanning three decades, as a scenarist and screenwriter and, in her later years, as a book writer and lecturer. As a woman who thrived in the fledgling art form, Beranger leaves behind an impressive footprint—credits on eighty silent films of which sixteen are extant and four sound films as well as a handful of published interviews in which she is outspoken and passionate about women working in the industry. Privately, she began an affair with the director and screenwriter William C. deMille that led to years of successful professional collaboration.

Clara Beranger (w). NYPL

Clara Beranger. Courtesy of the New York Public Library. 

As one of the most prolific female pioneer writers, Beranger moved with ease between creating her own stories and adapting novels, plays, and others’ scenarios to the screen. Credited mostly as Clara S. Beranger but once as Charles S. Beranger, a pseudonym, Beranger excelled in dramas of domestic relations and wrote a handful of Baby Marie Osborne comedies. She is noted today for such career highlights as Anna Karenina (1915), an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; and the adaptation of a popular novel and Pulitzer Prize-winning play of its day, Miss Lulu Bett (1921), which was placed on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2001. Beranger remains for us a well-documented but critically overlooked female film industry pioneer.

Lantern slide, The Bluffer (1919), Clara Beranger (w). Courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery, W. Ward Marsh collection.

Having begun her career as a journalist, Beranger jumped into the fledgling moving pictures industry in the 1910s as a freelancer for such notable companies as Edison, Vitagraph, and Kalem. A December 1918 article in the Moving Picture World looked back on Beranger’s earlier career iteration as contributing stories for one-reelers on a weekly basis to Edison, then one of the industry leaders (1324). Later, Beranger was part of the writing staff at both Fox Film Corporation and Pathé.

Lantern slide, Craig’s Wife (1928), Clara Beranger (w). Courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery, W. Ward Marsh collection.

In March 1918, Beranger joined the scenario department of World Film Corporation, which was set to film her first original story as Her Great Moment (1918), starring Kitty Gordon. In articles from these years in the Moving Picture World, one begins to feel the unbridled, ebullient optimism of Beranger for women working in the new industry. In August of 1918, she is quoted as saying:

It needs no cursory glance at the current releases and those of even six months ago to prove that there are more writers among the feminine sex than the male persuasion. The heart throb, the human interest note, child life, domestic scenes and even the eternal triangle is more ably handled by women than men because of the thorough understanding our sex has of these matters (1128).

A year later, in 1919, Beranger gives an even more positive assessment of women’s successes. They have “scored as directors,” she says. But in one particular arena, says Beranger, “women are more than holding their own and in many instances proving that the female angle is worth serious consideration and that is in the contriving of situations in building up a continuity” (662). Beranger herself was “more than holding her own” at work and at home. Journalist Edward Weitzel, visiting Beranger in her family apartment in New York City in June 1920, told readers about a woman who elegantly combined the roles of wife, mother, and “scenario expert” with seeming effortlessness (1445). Thus Beranger also diffused criticism of women in the work force. But her personal life was about to turn around.

Lantern slide, The Love Net (1918), Clara Beranger (w). Courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery, W. Ward Marsh collection.

Zona Gale’s play “Miss Lulu Bett,” adapted for the screen by Beranger and released in 1921, was a best-selling novel that Gale herself had adapted for the theatre. The film is one of the few extant examples not only of Beranger’s work but of director William deMille, and it is the first film on which Beranger and deMille collaborated. The Cinderella-like tale follows an unfortunate single woman who must toil for her unscrupulous sister, Ina, and Ina’s husband, Dwight. When Dwight’s itinerant brother, Ninian, comes to town, Dwight tricks him into marrying Lulu. Lulu Bett reluctantly returns to her sister’s family after this marital disaster, but frees herself at last and marries a local schoolteacher. The novel and play’s original ending gave Lulu the courage to go it alone in the world, despite societal and family disapproval. When stage audiences objected, Gale rewrote her work to reunite Lulu and her brother-in-law Ninian. Thus, Beranger and deMille’s cinematic ending, in which Lulu finds love with a man unconnected to her family, is notable for its diversion from both the novel and the play and is in keeping with the expectations of the period that a woman should find happiness with a man.

Clara Beranger is most remembered for her work, from 1919 to 1926, with the screenwriter-director William deMille at the Famous Players-Lasky company, which would become Paramount Pictures. According to the biography of deMille’s daughter, the dancer and choreographer Agnes deMille, which cites letters from deMille to his wife, Agnes’s parents’ marriage had faltered. In 1921, deMille fathered an out-of-wedlock child by his mistress, the screenwriter Lorna Moon. When the child was adopted by deMille’s brother Cecil and his wife, the secret was kept from nearly everyone. But four months after the birth of his son, deMille became romantically involved with his new collaborator, Clara Beranger. At some point Beranger separated from her husband of thirteen years, Albert B. Berwanger, with whom she had had a daughter, Frances, born in 1909. When deMille’s wife learned that her husband was seeing Beranger, she forced her husband to make a choice. William attempted to have it both ways, but, in 1927, deMille and his first wife divorced. DeMille married Beranger a year later.

Continuing to work as a team, Beranger and deMille are cocredited on at least twenty-three films. In a 1922 interview with columnist Louella Parsons, around the time of the release of The World’s Applause (1923), Beranger describes the advantages of working on fewer scenarios for one director, as well as being part of the process from story to screen. The older brother of producing and directing legend Cecil B. DeMille, William deMille wrote and directed films that were generally thought to be less extravagantly showy than those his brother directed. Beranger’s exit from Famous Players-Lasky in 1926 warranted a Moving Picture World article (316). But she continued as a freelancer and her collaboration with deMille continued through the end of the silent era with Craig’s Wife (1928) and into the Talkies with This Mad World (1930), their last film together.

After Clara Beranger retired from motion picture work, she taught screenwriting at the University of Southern California and, along with deMille, was one of the original faculty of the USC School of Cinema-Television. Beranger continued to promote both the art and technique of motion pictures in Writing for the Screen, published in 1950 when Beranger was sixty-four years old. Only four years later, with World War II in mind, Beranger wrote Peace Begins at Home, a treatise on aggressive nationalism, war, and chaos. Beranger thus left behind a legacy built on both the realities of a century that waged two world wars and the fantasies of the century’s newest art form, moving pictures. William died in 1955, and Clara followed him only a year later.

See alsoLorna Moon, Louella Parsons,“Shaping the Craft of Screenwriting: Women Screen Writers in Silent Era Hollywood


“Are Women the Better Script Writers?” Moving Picture World (24 Aug. 1918): 1128.

“Beranger [sic] Leaves F. P.-L.” Moving Picture World (23 Jan. 1926): 316.

“Clara Beranger to Free Lance.” Moving Picture World (21 Dec. 1918): 1324.

de Mille, Agnes. Portrait Gallery. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.

Easton, Carol. No Intermission: The Life of Agnes de Mille. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996.

“Feminine Sphere in the Field of Movies is Large Indeed, Says Clara S. Beranger.” Moving Picture World (2 Aug. 1919): 662. Rpt. in Red Velvet Seat. Eds. Antonia Lant, and Ingrid Perez. New York and London: Verso, 2006. 654.

Parsons, Louella. “Clara Beranger Comments on The World’s Applause.” The New York Telegraph (7 May 1922): n.p.

Weitzel, Edward. “Clara Beranger Explains How to Combine Duties of Wife, Mother and Scenario Expert.” Moving Picture World (12 June 1920): 1445.

Archival Paper Collections:

Agnes de Mille collection, ca. 1914-1984. New York Public Library, Jerome Robbins Dance Division.

Cecil B. DeMille Archives. Brigham Young University, Harold B. Lee Library.

William C. De Mille papers, 1899-1940. New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division.


Rossiter, Lori. "Clara Beranger." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, .  <>

Helena Smith Dayton

by Jason Cody Douglass

Helena Smith was born in 1883 and appended Dayton to her name upon marrying Fred Erving Dayton on June 26, 1905. Dayton began her career as a reporter at The Hartford Courant and described her transition into sculpting as follows:

Helena Smith Dayton’s work in the New York Sun, 1914.

In one day I did everything there from writing up the latest society scandal to the death of a whole family by gas, with eight hours of ordinary work thrown in. From reporting I went to writing for magazines, and [in early 1914] I was sitting at my typewriter, when my fingers began to itch for something to mould, though I didn’t even know what artists’ clay was, and had never seen an artist or sculptor at work (“Caricatures in Clay Are Her Contribution” B12).

Equipped with nothing more than copious amounts of clay, nimble fingers, a sharpened match, a hairpin, and “an incorrigible sense of humour,” Helena began crafting hundreds of eight- to twelve-inch tall statuettes inspired by “modern city life” (“Cartoons in Clay by a Woman” B7). Lining the many bookshelves of her brownstone residence at 313 East 18th Street in New York City, these water-colored clay figures would ultimately play starring roles in some of the earliest known works of stop-motion clay animation.

Helena Smith Dayton and her work in The Times Dispatch, 1914.

In the second half of 1914, only a few months after the start of Dayton’s foray into sculpting, numerous articles written in celebration of her innovative and “delightfully grotesque” (“Caricatures in Clay Are Her Contribution” B12) figurines began to pop up in the likes of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the New York Tribune, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch. These articles reveal many crucial aspects of Dayton’s creative process, including her extensive background in dance, which endowed her with a trained eye for human anatomy and movement. The numerous photographs and vivid descriptions of Dayton’s sculptures lining the pages of such articles also attest to the breadth of her subject matter: not only did she craft models of “fashionable society leaders” to be showcased in “many of New York’s finest palaces,” but she also parodied classical art with a “pensive salamander” in the style of Rodin’s The Thinker, and exhibited a willingness to forsake realism through creations such as a slack-jawed, anthropomorphized lighthouse (“Fashionable Society Leaders in the New Clay Cartoons” S6).

An announcement dated January 16, 1915 in the popular humor magazine Puck marks the start of what became an extremely lucrative year for Dayton:

Mrs. Helena Smith-Dayton, wonder-worker in clay, carries off Puck’s $250.00 for the best cover submitted before January 1. Her entry in the prize contest [“Tango Party”] is by long odds the quaintest conceit that has come into the Puck sanctum in many moons. So original, so strikingly new in conception is it, that we felt obliged to repress a natural impulse to print a black-and-white reproduction of it on this page. We prefer to let the cover speak for itself upon its appearance February 6, in order that your surprise may be as complete as ours, when the cover was first show to us (“What Fools These Mortals Be!” 3).

Helena Smith Dayton’s prize-winning work in the New York Tribune, 1915.

In the same issue of Puck, Dayton debuted a recurring comedic series, “Mrs. Canary’s Boarding House,” which she wrote and illustrated with photographs of her clay figures. She began copyrighting some of her sculptures (“Works of Art” 450-451),  attracting local artists to her weekly Sunday studio salons, and establishing herself as a frequently reported upon somebody within the flourishing Greenwich Village art scene. By year’s end, Dayton netted more than $12,000, as detailed in a New York Tribune article patronizingly titled, “Woman’s Place, If You Insist, Is in the Home; but Who’s Going to Fuss About It If She Wants to Earn $10,000 Or So a Year Somewhere Else?” As Chairwoman of the Art Committee of the Empire State Woman Suffrage Party, Dayton applied this commercial savvy to organizing fundraisers that featured her artwork before the unsuccessful statewide referendum in November 1915.

With a considerable amount of capital at her disposal, Dayton began developing a photographic means by which to animate her characters of clay. Despite the common misconception that Dayton’s first (or only) film was the one-reel Romeo and Juliet, which was distributed by Educational Films Co. in the fourth quarter of 1917, the earliest documented screening of her shorts actually occurred at the Strand Theater half a year earlier, on March 25, 1917 (“Latest Picture Novelty” 58). It remains unclear exactly when she started to experiment with the technique she called “stop action,” though in the same year Dayton recounted, “the difficult thing at first was to determine just how much to move an arm or a head, to avoid an appearance of jerkiness. I used to make the changes too great, but am learning to overcome that now” (“Romeo and Juliet–In Clay!” 434). The two reviews below, both concerning Dayton’s untitled films shown at the Strand, shed a glimmer of light on the impact of her technique on audiences:

Helena Smith Dayton’s animated sculpture was a weird and amusing picture, quite baffling to the lay mind (“On the Screen” 11).

Animated sculpture is the best novelty in motion pictures. It owes its existence to Helena Smith Dayton, a New York sculptress of note. The method employed in making the Animated Sculpture films is similar to that of animated cartoons. The figures are first modeled in clay, then changed to different poses, photographed one by one and projected upon the screen, showing them jumping about as if they were real. The effect is highly amusing […] (“Sparks from the Reel” C13).

In the months between her theatrical debut at the Strand and the wintertime release of Romeo and Juliet, Dayton juggled her participation in a large independent art exhibition at Grand Central Palace, suffragist parades and fundraisers, and the continued production and release of comic films. The various strands of her professional and personal life appear considerably interwoven during this period. For example, one of Dayton’s films, produced by the S.S. Film Company of New York, seems to have been shown to Governor Whitman at a suffragist fundraising event on August 29 (“Animated Sculpture Appears” 546); Pride Goeth Before a Fall (1917), her short which concluded Pathe’s Argus Pictorial No. 2 program, featured “dances and other stunts” (“Pathe’s Argus Pictorial No 2” 1523); Dayton’s miniature statues of actor George M. Cohan were on display in the Strand lobby during the theatrical run of his film Broadway Jones (1917) (“Statues of Cohan” 175); and a description in Moving Picture World of her contribution to Pathe’s Argus Pictorial No. 3 program–starring “clay figures around the banquet board”–is reminiscent of a banquet scene from Dayton’s aforementioned recurring series in Puck (“Items of Interest” 1774).

“Romeo and Juliet – In Clay!” Film Fun (November 2, 1917): 434.

Much of what is currently known about Romeo and Juliet comes from a full-page review in Film Fun from November 2, 1917. Three stills from the short film are accompanied by the uncredited author’s confession, “when the immensity of the thing had dawned upon us, we hustled over to the studio to find how the wheels went round.” To the interviewer’s surprise, Dayton confesses, “there are no wheels and no strings.” Special attention is drawn to a ballroom scene in Romeo and Juliet containing thirty moving figurines, no small accomplishment for an independent animator even by today’s standards. The image of a bug-eyed moon spying on Romeo beneath Juliet’s vine-covered balcony reveals a busy mise-en-scene and asymmetrical composition. Clay figures are draped in elaborate costumes, and each shot incorporates a belabored use of shadow (“Romeo and Juliet–In Clay!”434).

While various sources suggest that Romeo and Juliet was produced and/or “filmed” (at least in part) by the S.S. Film Company (“Animated Sculpture Appears” 546), distributed by Educational Films, and made “under the guidance of J. Charles Davis, Jr.” (“Prominent Sculptor in Film” 1164), calling into question both the extent of Dayton’s financial investment in Romeo and Juliet and whether or not she operated the camera, a reviewer for Moving Picture World noted that the film actually begins by showcasing Dayton’s authorial role and creative process:

“Statues that Run, Dance, and Fight.” Popular Science Monthly (February 1917): 257.

Little need be said here of the wonderful talent of Helena Smith Dayton: her work speaks for itself. In the introduction to the picture we are privileged to watch her deft fingers fashion the form of Juliet from an apparently soulless lump of clay. This mere lump of clay under her magic touch takes on the responsibilities of life, and love, and sorrow which the play requires, and finally grasps in desperation the dagger with which it ends its sorry life, falling in tragic fashion over the already lifeless form of its Romeo (“Prominent Sculptor in Film” 1164).

In addition to appearing onscreen as herself in Romeo and Juliet, Dayton reportedly also wrote “the clever jingles which sub-title her pictures,” according to the Film Fun coverage of the film (“Romeo and Juliet–In Clay!”434).

Despite being well covered by a variety of media outlets, and despite her ambitious plans to create more shorts for Educational Films at the rate of “one picture a month” (“Romeo and Juliet–In Clay!” 434), Dayton’s career as a stop-motion animator was unfortunately short-lived. A few months after achieving the right to vote in New York, in November 1917, Dayton took up a new cause by relocating to Paris to manage a YMCA canteen for soldiers. Upon her return to America after World War I, Dayton pursued work as a columnist, novelist, playwright, and portrait painter, but never again, it seems, as an animator.

Helena Smith Dayton in the New York Tribune, 1915.

At present, Library of Congress records contain no mention of Dayton’s films or copyrights for those films. Online searches through the websites of several prominent American film archives return no results for her name, the few known names of her shorts, or the Argus Pictorial reels. The apparent absence of her films from the archive–a consequence of, at least in part, her gender, her chosen medium, the brevity of her career, the small scale of her productions, and the limited distribution afforded to her films–may continue to drive Dayton into the margins of early animation history. However, the sheer volume of words penned after screenings of Dayton’s stop-motion animation testifies to the magnitude of her impact on New York City audiences. The absence of Dayton from most influential histories of animation, then, speaks to the need for scholars to look beyond extant films when it comes to writing film history. The rich variety of reviews of–and photographs from–Dayton’s productions can easily serve as a launchpad for further research and analysis, and the timing of Dayton’s career places her contributions in direct dialogue with exalted American contemporaries such as Willie Hopkins and Winsor McCay. With any luck, such research may lead to the identification of one or more of Dayton’s innovative animated works.


“The Alley Fiesta.” Cartoon Magazine vol. 12, no. 2 (1917): 286-287.

“Animated Sculpture Appears.” Motography (15 September 1917): 546.

“Caricatures in Clay Are Her Contribution.” New York Tribune (28 February 1915): B12.

“Cartoons in Clay by a Woman.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (9 August 1914): B7.

“Catalogue of Educational and Selected Pictures.” Moving Picture World (2 February 1918): 659.

“Councilman Dayton Married.” The Hartford Courant (27 June 1905): 7.

Douglass, Jason Cody. “Artist, Author, and Pioneering Motion Picture Animator: The Career of Helena Smith Dayton.” Animation Studies Online Journal (December 2017): n.p.

------. “Helena Smith Dayton: An Early Animation Pioneer Whose Films You Have Never Seen.” Animation Studies 2.0 (September 2018): n.p.

“Fashionable Society Leaders in the New Clay Cartoons.” The Times Dispatch (30 August 1914): S6.

Frierson, Michael. Clay Animation: American Highlights 1908 to the Present. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

Furniss, Maureen. A New History of Animation. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2016.

“Helena Dayton Has New Figure Show.” The Hartford Courant (4 October 1915): 2.

“Helena S. Dayton Back from France.” The Hartford Courant (11 August 1919): 3.

“Independent Artists’ Big Exhibit Opens in Grand Central Palace.” New York Times (11 April 1917): 12.

“Items of Interest.” Moving Picture World (22 December 1917): 1774.

“Latest Picture Novelty.” Billboard (10 March 1917): 58.

“Mrs. Helena Dayton.” New York Times (23 February 1960): 31.

“On the Screen.” New York Tribune (26 March 1917): 11.

“Pathe’s Argus Pictorial No 2.” Moving Picture World (8 December 8 1917): 1523.

“Prominent Sculptor in Film.” Moving Picture World (24 November 1917): 1164.

“Romeo and Juliet – In Clay!” Film Fun (2 November 1917): 434.

“Sparks from the Reel.” Detroit Free Press (25 March 1917): C13.

“Statues of Cohan.” Billboard (24 March 1917): 175.

“Statues that Run, Dance, and Fight.” Popular Science Monthly vol. 90, no. 2 (February 1917): 257-258.

“Statuette Cartoons of Metropolitan Life.” The New York Sun (21 June 1914): 11.

Wells, Paul. Understanding Animation. London: Routledge, 1998.

“What Fools These Mortals Be!” Puck (16 January 1915): 3.

“Woman’s Place, If You Insist, Is in the Home; but Who’s Going to Fuss About It If She Wants to Earn $10,000 Or So a Year Somewhere Else?” New York Tribune (17 December 1916): F5.

“Works of Art.” Catalogue of Copyright Entries Part 4. Washington D.C.: The Library of Congress, 1915. 450-451.


Douglass, Jason Cody. "Helena Smith Dayton." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2019.  <>

Giulia Cassini-Rizzotto

by Alessandro Faccioli, Marzia Maino

One of the most renowned theater actresses, film actresses, and film acting teachers of her time, Giulia Cassini-Rizzotto was also one of the few female film directors it Italy during the silent cinema era. Possessing wide-ranging interests, she was also engaged in other activities, such as screenwriting and producing, as well as teaching nursery school and authoring short stories. Additionally, she was a correspondent for South American newspapers and a French translator (M.P.R. 1916, 19). Like many of her contemporaries who were involved in both theater and film, Cassini-Rizzotto’s cinematic career was shaped by her theatrical endeavors.

A child of artists, Cassini-Rizzotto was born into a family of theater actors on June 15, 1865. Her father, Giuseppe Rizzotto (1828-1895), was a well-known Sicilian dialect actor who was part of Giacinta Pezzana’s troupe during its South American tour in 1873 and 1874. He was then capocomico [director] of his own modest theater company and also ventured into playwriting with plays like “I mafiusi de la Vicaria” (1863). His works garnered interest when they were performed by Giovanni Grasso Sr. and then translated into the Milanese dialect and inserted into the repertoire of Edoardo Ferravilla’s theater company (Becherini 1954, 1035; Pieri 2000, 1099). Cassini-Rizzotto’s brother, Salvatore, who died at age forty-five during World War I, acted in prestigious theater companies and alongside the actress and capocomica Italia Vitaliani, the cousin of Eleonora Duse.

Postcard, Giulia Cassini Rizzotto. Private Collection. 

It was within this stimulating artistic environment that Cassini-Rizzotto grew to adulthood and received her initial theatrical training, making her stage debut in her father’s company. Throughout the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, she worked with some of the greatest actors in Italian theater, including Grasso Sr., Ermete Novelli, Virgilio Talli, Irma Gramatica, Ruggero Ruggeri, Gualtiero Tumiati, and Ermete Zacconi. Her time with Talli is particularly significant because of the influence that he had on her future film work. Wanting to move away from strict textual analysis and rigorous work on performance style common in nineteenth-century theatrical traditions, Talli trained his actors to engage actively with their characters, forcing them to abandon the repetitiveness of superficial performance traits in favor of seeking out a deeper truth (D’Amico 1985, 137; Alonge 1988, 217-218). Cassini-Rizzotto’s apprenticeship with him allowed her to experiment with a comprehensive approach to acting, which combined a highly theatrical/expressive performance style with an experienced attention to staging. This approach would become a rule of thumb in her later film directing.

Giulia met Alfonso Cassini (1851-1921), an esteemed dramatic tragedian, through Ermete Novelli. They were married in 1902, and would go on to have two children together (“La morte di Alfonso Cassini” 58). Alfonso held the role of generico [bit-part] and caratterista [character actor] in the companies belonging to Novelli and Talli. He was also an active film actor with various production houses. Giulia and Alfonso shared numerous professional experiences over the course of their lives, and, consequently, from a historiographic perspective—at least until the end of World War I—it is more effective to think about their theatrical and cinematic work as collaborative.

Cassini-Rizzotto enjoyed a long and noteworthy theatrical career. She was seen as an “esteemed actress” (Savio 1954, 187), and one of her most important stage performances was in “Figlia di Jorio,” the pastoral tragedy in three acts written by Gabriele d’Annunzio in 1903. (Cassini-Rizzotto did not take part in the 1917 cinematic adaptation directed by Edoardo Bencivenga.) The play debuted at the Teatro Lirico, in Milan, on March 2, 1904. It was presented  by the Talli-Gramatica-Calabresi company, which had employed both Giulia and her husband since 1901. Giulia played the part of Splendore in the celebrated play and in its repeat performances (Valentini 1993, 301-334). With Talli-Gramatica-Calabresi, she and Alfonso worked intensively until 1905, as demonstrated by their constant participation in numerous productions carried out by the distinguished company. From 1906 to 1912, the couple acted with the troupe belonging to Tina Di Lorenzo and Armando Falconi. Following these theatrical experiences, they decided to turn their professional interests toward cinema (Ascarelli 1978, 483). Very little is known about their move into the world of film—a move that was quite natural for many theater actors at that time. As far as we know, Giulia’s theatrical career came to an end once she started working in cinema.

We can confirm that Cassini-Rizzotto made her film debut, at the age of forty-seven, in 1912, assuming secondary and maternal roles. Her first films were with Latium Film in Rome, a company that had already hired numerous theater actors. Her early work included Il passato che non perdona, Redde rationem, Capriccio fatale!, and Il segno indelebile, which were all heavily emotive melodramas produced in 1912.

By 1913, the Cassinis were working for Roma Film, where they acted in Il romanzo di Luisa that year. Cassini-Rizzotto had a secondary role, playing Liliana, a beautiful woman who steals the main character’s partner. In 1914, the couple moved to Etna Film in Catania, Sicily, which at the time was considered an excellent production company due to the quality of its equipment and its technical-artistic staff (Bernardini 2015, 301-309). At Etna Film, Cassini-Rizzotto was hired as a leading lady and received acclaim for her portrayal of Xenia in Christus/La sfinge dello Jonio (1914), directed by Giuseppe De Liguoro. In the film, Xenia is a powerful woman from Syracuse, Sicily, who, in the year 1000 A.D., lived despotically in the lap of luxury. A critic for La Cine-Fono wrote that Cassini-Rizzotto “exceeded all expectations in her fantastic interpretation; one that won’t soon be forgotten” (Olleja 1915, n.p.). In La Vita Cinematografica, Pier da Castello stated that the performance of “Mrs. Cassini-Rizzotto has moments of eroticism, inebriation, fury—dangerous manifestations, artistically speaking, which can easily deviate an actor and an actress even more—[and] are treated with great measure” (1915, 63).

The Cassinis continued working at Etna Film for the next few years, appearing in Gian Orlando Vassallo’s Paternità (1914) and Anton Maria Mucchi’s Pulcinella (1915). In the latter, Giulia played the wife of her husband’s character, the honest young puppeteer after whom the film is named. The couple also acted together in De Liguoro’s Patria mia! (1915).

In 1915, when Italy entered World War I, the couple returned to Rome and began collaborating with Tiber Film. Cassini-Rizzotto made a supporting appearance in Baldassarre Negroni’s La signora delle camelie (1915) alongside Hesperia (the pseudonym of actress Olga Mambelli). The film was made at the same time that Gustavo Serena and Francesca Bertini at Caesar Film were producing their own adaptation of the same source material by Alexandre Dumas fils. Tiber Film’s version was deemed an act of unfair competition and this led to one of the first famous legal trials in the cinematic world, paving the way for important debates on intellectual rights in the field (Martinelli 1992, 12:194-197; Soro 1935, 77-95). After this episode, Cassini-Rizzotto continued to work with Tiber Film. Her films there included the aristocratic drama Primo ed ultimo bacio (1916), directed by the promising young Gennaro Righelli, who would also direct her in the carefree comedy Alla Capitale! (1916), and Negroni’s Gli onori della guerra (1917), a love triangle set in France based on the vaudeville by Charles-Maurice Hennequin.

Screenshot, Giulia Cassini-Rizzotto in Malombra (1917).

Following their collaboration with Tiber Film, the Cassinis moved on to work with Società Italiana Cines, an important production company specializing in historical films (Bernardini 2015, 18). Cassini-Rizzotto acted alongside Lyda Borelli in La falena (1916) and Malombra (1917), both directed by Carmine Gallone. She also appeared in La bella salamandra (1917), which was shot in the Roman studios by the young director Amleto Palermi. La falena was only recently restored, in 2017, by the Cineteca Italiana di Milano, while Malombra was restored by the Cineteca di Bologna in 1991. In the latter, Cassini-Rizzotto plays the part of Contessa Salvador with an impressive naturalness. She gracefully assumes the role of the elderly woman, providing a nuanced performance that is entirely devoid of pretense. That Cassini-Rizzotto sought plausibility in her acting set her apart from the highly stylized performances embodied by many of the Italian divas at the time.

In Fabiola (1918), directed by Enrico Guazzoni for Palatino Film, Cassini-Rizzotto played the part of Lucina, the mother of a young Christian named Pancrazio who was persecuted in pagan Rome in 302 A.D. At the start of the film—fortunately, numerous copies have survived and are held in various archives—we can see Giuila’s uncertain gestures, painful and measured, as Lucina gives her son the cruet containing the blood of her husband, who had also died because of his faith. Although limited to just a few  sequences in the film (including the memorable scene where she bids farewell to her son before he is killed by wild beasts in the Roman circus), the actress’s bravura is evident as she balances the impulses of such a melodramatic character with the needs of the script. What emerges is yet another expressive performance striving for believability.

As World War I came to an end, Cassini-Rizzotto took her career in a new direction. In 1918, she dedicated herself to teaching at Ars Film in Rome, one of the first schools of cinematic acting, producing actresses like Irene Saffo Momo, Claretta Rosai, and Lia Formia (Mattozzi 1920, 220; Dall’Asta 2008, 319). The school had likely been established by 1914 (Savio 188; Bernardini 2018, 80). Giulia had opened another school in Florence in 1916, called Artistica Scuola Film, which would become one of the most renowned cinematic acting academies during the 1910s (Alovisio 2005, 204n117). News reports of the time abound with remarks on the quality of the acting training provided, which at the time was defined as “a new art” (M.P.R. 14). The founding of Cassini-Rizzotto’s school in Florence had been considered a daring business venture as there was a high probability of failure, but it enjoyed the support of her friends and colleagues from the outset. Many held Cassini-Rizzotto in high regard for her sweet persuasiveness and artistic skill, which were features that made her a “very earnest teacher” (M.P.R. 20).

The proliferation of film schools in Italy during this period was an important signal of the industrialization of film production, as well as a trend toward professional specialization. It is within this context that Cassini-Rizzotto decided to test her mettle as a director, becoming one of the first Italian women to work behind the camera. She directed five films between the end of World War I and the early 1920s, which was not a favorable period for production in the Italian film industry. Unfortunately, only two films survive (Leonardo da Vinci from 1919 and A mosca cieca from 1921) and there is very little information about this period in her career in the specialized film magazines of the time. As a result, we know very little about the artistic and critical success of her directorial work today.

Her directorial debut was Scugnì (1918), self-produced by Casa Cassini-Rizzotto and written by and co-starring Alfonso. The story involves the misadventures of a poor young man from Naples, whom Cassini-Rizzotto had actually met. The part of the main character was given to Franca Di Leo, one of her students (Dall’Asta 319).

In 1919, in collaboration with the journalist and film director Mario Corsi, Cassini-Rizzotto directed Leonardo da Vinci. Inspired by the life of the celebrated painter, the film was produced by an obscure production company called Historica Film. The film enjoyed a degree of success and international distribution that included the Scandinavian countries (Dall’Asta 319-320). News reports from the time emphasized Corsi’s grand scenography, along with film’s remarkable historically-accurate set reconstructions. These elements were accentuated in part by an impressive system of stereoscopy designed and created by Lamberto Pineschi that was utilized to increase the 3D effect of the images (Brunetta 2008, 265). Pineschi and his brother, Azeglio, had founded the Società Italiana Pineschi in 1907, which became Latium Film in 1909, where Giulia and her husband had previously worked. The surviving copy of Leonardo da Vinci, held at the Cineteca Nazionale in Rome, offers a chance to witness what a critic at the time deemed rather unrealistic acting (Ruffo-Marra 1923, 61). The actors appear so intent upon representing the characters of the past that they are unable to convey natural sentiments, passions, and actions in a convincing manner. Interest in the film today lies mainly in its set design, the sumptuous costumes, the settings in historical locations, and in the works of art that accompanied the life of Leonardo.

Giulia Cassini-Rizzotto. Courtesy of the Cineteca di Bologna.

In 1920, Cassini-Rizzotto directed two more films, both produced by Perseo Film: Senza sole, in collaboration with Camillo De Rossi, and La piccola Manon, in which she also acted. The latter was well received by critics. For example, in La Rivista cinematografica, Aurelio Spada noted that the film was “conducted with grace […] with a measured calm in its scenes and effects,” that the “quality and intelligence of the artistic direction” emerged, and that the name Cassini was synonymous with “competence” (1921, 31). He also stated how the photography was appropriate, “the set decoration sober and tasteful and the outdoor scenes picturesque and beautiful.” He expressed slight disappointment at the leading actors, Lya Isauro and Alberto Monti, reasoning that if they had been more successful in their performances the film would have certainly acquired more value. In contrast, he praised Cassini-Rizzotto’s performance in the role of Duchessa d’Albenga, which successfully combined “the noble bearing of the matron with the most dramatic expressions of an indignant and sorrowful mother.”

In 1921, Cassini-Rizzotto directed her last production, A mosca cieca, which she also starred in and scripted. The film was a lively comedy produced by San Marco Film in Rome, a production company with hagiographic intentions financed by the Vatican and certain members of the Roman and Neapolitan aristocracy. A mosca cieca was filmed for charitable purposes and involved illustrious members of the city’s aristocracy acting alongside young unknown actors who were most likely students trained at Cassini-Rizzotto’s school. Overall, it is a modest film, although it includes a few enjoyably humorous scenes. Its first screening took place on March 17, 1921, at the Teatro Valle di Roma with an audience made up largely of Roman nobility (Martinelli 1996, 19:26). One of the few writers that reviewed the event stated that the amateur noble performers appeared “as experienced actors of the silent scene” and are “exceedingly charming, especially the two female protagonists” (Ugoletti 1921, n.p.) According to this writer, the set design was comprised of “the beautiful exteriors of Roman villas,” which were normally inaccessible to regular film production companies. However, the film was deemed irreverent by the religious members of the Società San Marco, and was immediately pulled from circulation. A copy of the film is held in the Cineteca Nazionale in Rome, and is available for viewing there.

After her  husband’s death, in 1921, Cassini-Rizzotto continued to work in cinema for only a short time. She appeared in two films in 1923, when Italian film production was well into its period of crisis. Cassini-Rizzotto acted in Germaine, produced by Palatino Film, and Triboulet, the six-part period piece directed by Febo Mari for Società Italiana Cines. Following these productions, her work in European cinema came to an end. She moved to Argentina with a theatrical company run by Maria Melato, an esteemed theater performer, cinematographer, and radio broadcaster. Cassini-Rizzotto continued her work as an acting teacher there, opening a school for stage acting in Buenos Aires, which she would direct until her death on August 24, 1943. Although unlikely, we cannot rule out that Cassini-Rizzotto returned to the cinema in her later years—a hypothesis that would require further research in South American archives to confirm.


Alacci, Tito. Le nostre attrici cinematografiche studiate sullo schermo. Firenze: Bemporad, 1919.

Alovisio, Silvio. Voci del silenzio: la sceneggiatura nel cinema muto italiano. Milano: Il castoro, 2005.

Alonge, Roberto. Teatro e spettacolo nel secondo Ottocento. Roma-Bari: Laterza, 1988.

Ascarelli, Roberta. “Cassini, Alfonso.” In Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani. Vol 21. Roma: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1978. 483-484.

Becherini, Bianca. “Rizzotto, Giuseppe.” In Enciclopedia dello spettacolo. Vol VIII. Ed. Silvio D’Amico. Roma: Le Maschere, 1954. 1035.

Bernardini, Aldo. Cinema muto italiano protagonisti. Bologna: Cineteca di Bologna, 2018.

------. Le imprese di produzione del cinema muto italiano. Bologna: Persiani, 2015.

Brunetta, Gian Piero. Il cinema muto italiano: da “La presa di Roma” a “Sole.” 1905-1929. Roma-Bari: Laterza, 2008.

Chiti, Roberto. Dizionario dei registi del cinema muto italiano. Roma: M.I.C.S., 1997.

Da Castello, Pier. “Christus o la Sfinge dell’Jonio.” La Vita Cinematografica no. 1 (7 January 1915): 63.

Dall’Asta, Monica. “Appendice. Le protagoniste.” In Non Solo Dive. Pioniere del cinema italiano. Ed. Monica Dall’Asta. Bologna: Cineteca di Bologna, 2008. 317-330.

D’Amico, Silvio. Il tramonto del grande attore. Firenze: La Casa Usher, 1985.

Jandelli, Cristina. I ruoli nel teatro italiano tra Otto e Novecento. Firenze: Le Lettere, 2002.

“La morte di Alfonso Cassini.” La rivista cinematografica no. 16 (25 August 1921): 58.

Martinelli, Vittorio. Il cinema muto italiano 1915-1931. 21 vols. Rome: RAI-ERI, 1992-96.

------. Le dive del silenzio. Bologna: Cineteca di Bologna, 2001.

------. “Le metteuses-en-scène.” Cinemasessanta no. 141 (Fall 1981): 20-75.

Mattozzi, Rino. La rassegna generale della cinematografia. Roma: Unione Cinematografica Italiana, Società Editrice Rassegne, 1920.

Meldolesi, Claudio. Fondamenti del teatro italiano. La stagione dei registi. Roma: Bulzoni, 2008.

M.P.R. “Per l’Artistica Scuola ‘Film.’” Film vol. III, no. 30 (10 October 1916): 14-20.

Olleja. La Cine-Fono (16-29 January 1915): n.p.

Pieri, Marzia. “Problemi e metodi di editoria teatrale.” In Storia del teatro moderno e contemporaneo. Vol. II. Eds. Robert Alonge and Guido Davico Bonino. Torino: Einaudi, 2000. 1099.

Ruffo-Marra, Enrico. La rivista cinematografica  (25 July 1923): 61.

Savio, Francesco. “Cassini Rizzotto, Giulia.” In Enciclopedia dello spettacolo. Vol I. Ed. Silvio D’Amico. Roma: Le Maschere, 1954. 187-188.

------. “Cassini, Alfonso.” In Enciclopedia dello spettacolo. Vol. I. Ed. Silvio D’Amico. Roma: Le Maschere, 1954. 187.

Soro, Francesco. Splendori e miserie del cinema: cose viste e vissute da un avvocato. Milano: Consalvo, 1935.

Spada, Aurelio. “Piccola Manon.” La rivista cinematografica (25 August 1921): 31.

Ugoletti, Ugo. Febo (19 March 1921): n.p.

Valentini, Valentina. Il poema visibile: le prime messe in scena delle tragedie di Gabriele D’Annunzio. Roma: Bulzoni, 1993.


Faccioli, Alessandro; Marzia Maino. "Giulia Cassini-Rizzotto." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2019.  <>

Emilie Sannom

by Isak Thorsen

“Frygten for Døden var ikke så stor/Større var Frygten for Livet på Jord” [Trans.: The fear of death was not too great/Larger was the fear of life on earth]. These lines, written on Emilie Sannom’s headstone, are from a commemorative poem composed by the famous Danish author Tom Kristensen at the time of Sannom’s tragic death in 1931. Sannom died in front of an audience of 8,000 people when her parachute did not unfold while performing an aerial show in the Danish town of Grenaa. Her early death–she was only forty-four years old–marked the end of a remarkable life and career.

Sannom was born in 1886, in Copenhagen, to Fritz Emil Sophus Sannom (1854-1935), a first mate and furnace stoker on a ship, and Johanne Kamilla Hansen (1861-1936). In 1887, the entire family immigrated to Florida where they unsuccessfully ran an orange plantation. After seven years abroad, the Sannom family returned to Denmark and settled down in Copenhagen, where Sannom’s mother dreamed of seeing her daughters on the stage. According to Sannom, she made her theatrical debut as an extra at the age of nine, and her sisters, Charlotte (1884-1954), Thora (1893-1954), and Ragnhild (1896-1953), acted on the stage and in films as well (Nielsen 2003, 914). Sannom continued to perform in Copenhagen theaters, and also toured the Nordic countries before making the leap to the new medium of film.

Emilie Sannom as Ophelia in Hamlet (1911). Courtesy of the Danish Film Institute.

According to Sannom, she first appeared onscreen, between 1907 and 1909, in small parts in productions by the leading Danish company of the silent era, Nordisk Films Kompagni (Nørgaard 1992, 116; Nielsen 914). However, the first film that we can be certain that Sannom participated in was Gøngehøvdingen/The Partisan Chieftain (1909), made by Biorama. In the company Kosmorama’s famous Afgrunden/The Abyss (1910), which launched Asta Nielsen’s career, Sannom played a supporting role as the flirtatious Lilly, who tempts Nielsen’s lover and gets into a fight with Nielsen. Nielsen and Sannom also appeared together in Balletdanserinden/The Ballet Dancer (1911), produced by Nordisk. In another of the company’s productions, Hamlet (1910-11), Sannom played Ophelia, Hamlet’s wife-to-be. In a spectacular scene, Sannom throws herself into the castle moat, and thereby became the first stuntwoman in Danish cinema and laid the groundwork for her reputation as a daredevil.

Emilie Sannom fighting in Nattens Datter II (1916). Courtesy of the Danish Film Institute.

It was Sannom’s engagement with the Danish film company Skandinavisk-Russisk Handelshus/Filmfabriken Danmark that led to her fame. The company specialized in the genre known as sensationsfilm–films featuring spectacular action scenes and stunts. Sannom signed her first contract with the company in 1912, at the same time that the French film company Pathé Frères offered her a lucrative contract of 2,000 francs a month. However, Sannom chose to stay in Denmark. From 1912 to 1919, she was part of the company’s core staff and became its main attraction, marketed as “Danmarks Vovehals Nummer Et,” or “The Number One Daredevil of Denmark.” In numerous films, she performed her own dangerous stunts: participating in wild car or motorbike chases, performing balancing acts across a dangerous abyss, or hanging on the rotating blades of a windmill. “I’m born with the conviction that whatever will happen to me, I’ll make it,” Sannom once said about her stunts. “I’m never going into panic, never clueless, never senselessly flustered” (qtd. in Debora 4). Besides doing her own stunts, Sannom also worked as stunt double for the company’s other actors (Nielsen 914). It is unclear if Sannom designed her own stunts, but as Skandinavisk-Russisk Handelshus/Filmfabriken Danmark worked with a small central staff, a plausible assumption would be that she collaborated in the staging of her stunts. Hardly any of Sannom’s films have survived, but a short compilation of her films, Filmens Vovehals/Daredevil of the Movies (1923), gives an impression of Sannom’s spectacular stunt work.

Emilie Sannom in Nattens Datter III (1917). Courtesy of the Danish Film Institute.

Her increasing popularity led to two series of films about bold female detectives with Sannom playing the main character. Four films were made in the Nattens Datter/Daughter of the Night series (1915-1917), and four films were made in the detective serial Panopta (1918-1919). The Panopta episodes were probably the most successful of Sannom’s films, and also the last that she made in Denmark.

As a member of the core staff at Skandinavisk-Russisk Handelshus/Filmfabriken Danmark, Sannom was also involved in the creation of two scripts during her time there. The extent of her contribution is uncertain, but she is credited for the script of For Barnets Skyld (1915), in which she also had a role. It also seems very likely that Sannom came up with the scenario for the film Elskovsbarnet (1916), which is now lost (Nørgaard 73; Nielsen 609). More research is necessary to better understand Sannom’s possible screenwriting endeavors.

Emilie Sannom riding under a stagecoach in Dilligencekusken fra San Hilo (1914). Courtesy of the Danish Film Institute.

In 1919, Skandinavisk-Russisk Handelshus/Filmfabriken Danmark ceased production of fiction films, and Sannom went back to the stage, performing in Denmark, Norway, and Germany. Sannom returned to the screen in the early 1920s, making two films in Germany: Die Frau im Delphin (1920) and Das Land der Finsternis (1921). Additionally, invited by a fellow-countryman, director Alfred Lind, Sannom shot La faniculla dell’aria/Mistress of the Sky (1923) in Italy, which was ultimately her last film. From then onward, she earned her living performing on the stage and in the circus, as well as performing parachute jumps from airplanes, sometimes only wearing a bathing suit and high-heeled shoes. In 1929, she tried in vain to get a pilot certificate, pretending she was six years younger than her actual age. In an interview from 1919, Sannom, unwittingly prefiguring her own untimely death, explained: “Life is not worth living without danger, and if death arrives, well then it arrives…” (qtd. in Nørgaard 107).

Emilie Sannom performing an aerial stunt, c. 1925. Courtesy of the Danish Film Institute.

In her time, Sannom stands out as a modern, emancipated woman. During her career, she supported herself and her family economically. She gave birth to a daughter, Grethe, out of wedlock in 1912, and never hid the identity of the father, the actor Axel Schultz (1890-1974), whom she considered a good friend. Though she had many admirers, Sannom never married. In an interview from 1925 with the headline: “What would you have done if you had been a man?” Sannom replied: “I would have been a really wild cowboy” (“Hvad vilde De gøre” 14).


Debora. “Pigen, der ikke kan Gyse.” Tidens Kvinder [n.d]: 4.

Hending, Arnold. Filmens Vovehalse. København: Urania, 1948.

Hove, Peder. Mille. København: Gyldendal, 1992.

“Hvad vilde De gøre, hvis De var Mand?” Eva (October 1925): 14.

Nielsen, Jan. A/S Filmfabriken Danmark. København: København: Multivers, 2003.

Nørgaard, Erik. Mille–mændenes overmand: Den eventyrlige beretning om skuespillerinden Emilie Sannoms liv. København: Holkenfeldts Forlag, 1992.

Sundholm, John, et al. Historical Dictionary of Scandinavian Cinema. Kanham, Toronto, Plymouth: Scarecrow Press, 2012.

Archival Paper Collections:

Emilie Sannom folder. The Danish Film Institute.


Thorsen, Isak. "Emilie Sannom." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2019.  <>

Marguerite Viel

by Maya Sidhu

Marguerite Viel was a French filmmaker known primarily for her work in the 1930s, when her wide-ranging contributions to the cinema as a pioneering sound editor, dialogue writer, and director were often mentioned in the press. But Viel’s film career started a few years prior, during the silent era, when she collaborated with Jean Epstein. In 1926, Viel became the assistant sales manager and silent partner at Epstein’s independent production company, Les Films Jean Epstein, where he came to rely on Viel’s financial support (Daire 2014, 79-80). After Epstein completed La Glace à trois faces in 1927, Viel came to his aid again and provided him with the funds necessary to finish his celebrated film La Chute de la Maison Usher (1928) (Daire 94). Receipts held at the Cinémathèque française reveal that, instead of giving her any monetary compensation for her investment, Epstein transferred ownership of three of his films to Viel in 1928: Mauprat (1926), La Glace à trois faces, and Six et demi onze (1927). In 1929, Viel worked on Czech director Leo Marten’s film Dzungle velkomesta/La Jungle d’une grande ville (Fronval 1929, 10), either as co-director or artistic consultant, as the credits on the extant print from the National Film Archive in Prague indicate. According to an online synopsis published by the archive, the drama, which was shot silent but was ultimately released with sound in 1930, concerns a young woman who becomes involved with a con man and his partner (“Jungle of the Big City” n.p.). Dzungle velkomesta is the only silent film that we know of today where Viel was directly involved in the production.

Marguerite Viel in Ciné-Comoedia, August 1930.

In the sound era, Viel directed several other films: Terre Farouche (1930), which is considered lost today; two comedies in 1932 with Richard Weisbach, Occupe-toi d’Amélie and Une Petite bonne sérieuse (also considered lost); and her most widely accessible film, La Banque Némo, which was shot in 1933 and released in July 1934. If very little is known about Viel’s silent film work, then the sound films she directed show her interest in comedy, particularly the subgenre of identity swapping, and in the subversion of moral codes and sexual propriety. According to film scholar Colin Crisp, who studied 1,300 films from the period, La Banque Némo uses the comedic mode to present a very cynical take on French society (2002, 81).

Through the first two years of the 1930s, Viel also worked steadily as a sound editor and dialogue writer. As such, she handled sound and/or adapted several early sound films for a French-speaking audience. She was responsible for the dubbing of Erich von Stroheim’s The Great Gabbo (1929), Erich Waschneck’s Passions (1931), and Walter Ruttmann’s Feind im Blut. She was sound editor for the documentary Les Chemins de la renommée (1931) by Claude Lambert and Mon ami Tim (1932) by Jack Forrester. Viel also wrote the dialogue for William Thiele’s L’Amoureuse aventure (1932).

Marguerite Viel portrait. Courtesy of the Cinémathèque Française.

The reasons for Viel’s disappearance from the film industry after 1934 is, at the time of this writing, unknown. Her career, marked by the transition from silent to sound filmmaking, deserves more attention as an example of women’s versatility throughout cinema history. The financial support Viel provided for Epstein and her work at the end of the silent era and on early sound films highlight the more ambiguous ways, beyond the clear-cut categories of “director,” “screenwriter,” or “producer,” that women worked in film throughout the silent period and into the sound era.

With additional research by Aurore Spiers


“Bruits de Studios.” Paris-Soir (13 December 1931): 6.

“Chez Nous.” Figaro Film (24 May 1931): 5.

“Courrier.” Ciné-Comoedia (17 October 1931):  1.

Crisp, Colin. Genre, Myth and Convention in the French Cinema 1929-1939. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.

Daire, Joël. Jean Epstein: Une Vie pour le Cinéma. Grandvilliers: La Tour Verte, 2014.

Fronval, Georges. “La Jungle d’Une Grande Ville.” Bordeaux-Ciné no. 53 (4 October 1929): 10.

“Gabbo, le ventriloque.” Ciné-Comoedia (4 March 1931): 1.

“Jungle of the Big City.” Filmový Přehled [online database]. National Film Archive, Prague.

“Les Présentations.” Hebdo-film (11 June 1932): 14.

“Petites et grandes nouvelles: ‘Erotikon’ sonorisé.” Ciné-Comoedia (22 August 1930): n.p.

R.L. “Du monde entier.” Pour Vous no. 86 (10 July 1930): 10.

Archival Paper Collections:

Photographies de personnalité. “Marguerite Viel.” Bibliothèque du Film, Cinémathèque Française.

“Au pays de Georges Sand.” Fonds Jean et Marie Epstein. Box EPSTEIN 19-B12. Bibliothèque du Film, Cinémathèque Française.


Sidhu, Maya. "Marguerite Viel." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2019.  <>

Mabel Condon

by Carolyn Jacobs

It would have been hard to page through any major trade publication of the 1910s and 1920s without coming across an item about Mabel Condon. During this time, Condon wore many hats in the film industry, working as a journalist, publicist, trade journal editor, and business owner. In 1916, Moving Picture Weekly called her “the best known newspaper woman in the film world to-day [sic]” (“At Work and Play” 25). Her fame was frequently the subject of jokes in the trade press, as when Photoplay columnist Delight Evans expressed her shame at always having to say no when people asked, “Have you met Mabel Condon?” (22). However, by the time of her death in 1965, Condon’s work was largely forgotten.

Mabel Condon in Moving Picture World, July 1918. Media History Digital Library

Condon was born on January 31, 1894, in Chicago, Illinois, to Timothy and Rosa Condon (née McDevitt). In 1912, when she was just eighteen years old, Condon began writing for Motography, a well-known film industry trade journal published in Chicago. In her first few months there, she wrote on a wide variety of topics, from the inner workings of Chicago’s film censorship board to the opening of a new picture palace in Winnipeg to the process of turning a scenario into a film. In the October 26, 1912 issue, Condon was listed for the first time as an associate editor of the journal. She once again moved up the ranks in 1913, when she became Motography’s East Coast representative and took charge of the publication’s new office in New York City. In a short piece announcing the branch’s opening in October 1913, Motography justified the selection of Condon, saying she was “already known personally to most of the trade, and through her departments at Motography, to most of our readers” (“Our New York Office” 228).

During her time at Motography, Condon frequently penned the publication’s “Sans Grease Paint and Wig” feature, which profiled a different celebrity each issue. Condon’s witty, first-person accounts of her encounters with different stars worked to humanize these larger-than-life figures. Rather than focusing on the glamorous nature of their lives, she emphasized the mundane, everyday aspects, such as leading lady Beverly Bayne’s self-professed candy addiction and Adrienne Kroell’s devotion to her pet canary “Billy” (1912, 325; 1912, 403). In these pieces, Condon highlighted the celebrity-fan relationship, frequently noting that stars corresponded personally with their fans and even, in the case of actor Francis Xavier Bushman, proudly displayed photographs sent to them by admirers. Through her writing, Condon emerges as a no-nonsense reporter who asked the right questions and was not afraid to tease and prod her subjects. She also refused to be treated differently because of her gender. She boasted in one essay, for instance, that she refused to sit in the only chair in actor William Russell’s dressing room when it was offered, instead insisting that Russell sit while she perched on the edge of his desk (1913, 159).

Mabel Condon in Picture-Play, June 1921. 

In June 1915, Condon officially left Motography and moved to Los Angeles to write for film magazines on the West Coast, according to an announcement in Motion Picture News (“Changes of the Week” 68). In her early days in LA, according to the trade press, not only did she write film reviews and pieces on stars, but she also worked as a press agent, became the West Coast representative for The Dramatic Mirror, and headed up a committee to represent activities of the Motion Picture Board of Trade in Southern California (“Committee on West Coast to Represent” 64). In 1916, Condon also wrote her first scenario, entitled The Man Who Would Not Die, a now-lost drama directed by and starring Russell. Later that year, she wrote the story for a comedy entitled Cupid Wins the Handicap, also for Russell’s production company, although it does not seem that a film with this title was ever released.

At some point between 1915 and 1916, Condon used her experience and contacts in the film industry to start her own business in Los Angeles. The Mabel Condon Exchange served as both a publicity agency and an employment exchange, and Condon’s responsibilities included finding roles for actors, arranging contracts, managing stars’ publicity and finances, and selling scripts and story rights. Among the earliest to join the Mabel Condon Exchange as executives were Ernest Shipman, a Canadian promoter and producer; Adelaide Woods, a former actress; and Myrtle E. “M.E.M” Gibsone, a well-known businesswoman who previously managed Kalem’s Hollywood studio. That Woods, Gibsone, and a number of other women worked at the company as publicists and agents challenges the notion that Condon was the “one successful woman” working in publicity during this time, an idea often reported in the press (Hoff 321). Though Condon was certainly not the only woman, these statements indicate that she was better known than many others in her field.

Mabel Condon (r) and Vola Smith in front of the visitors’ gallery at Universal City, in Moving Picture Weekly, June 1916.

Throughout the teens, the Mabel Condon Exchange grew in size and reputation. In September 1916, according to Motography, Shipman went to New York City to open an East Coast branch of the firm (“Join Condon Exchange” 619). Condon took a highly publicized, extended trip to New York in 1917 to hire new employees and secure new clients for the East Coast office. It seems likely that she traded on her longstanding relationship with Motography in this new venture, as her office in New York was located just two floors below her former employer. Condon once again became affiliated with the journal when she became its West Coast representative in 1917. The same year, Motion Picture News called the Mabel Condon Exchange “one of the largest publicity and engagement bureaus in Los Angeles” (“Mabel Condon Will Visit” 2889). The firm managed a number of important stars and filmmakers of the day, including Russell, Nell ShipmanAnita Stewart, William Duncan, Maude George, Bessie Love, and Helene Chadwick. A 1921 article in Picture-Play also attributed the success of Gloria Swanson to Condon, suggesting that it was she who introduced Swanson to director Cecil B. De Mille (Brynn 99).

In November 1923, Condon married Russell Juarez Birdwell, an advertising executive and publicist, with whom she later had a son, Russell Jr., and a daughter, Joan. Between the birth of her first child in 1924 and the mid-1930s, it seems that Condon closed her business to raise her children full-time, as there are almost no references to Condon or her exchange in the trade press during that time. In the mid-1930s, Condon used her new identity as a mother and homemaker to re-launch her publicity career. In 1936, she took a four-month long trip to Asia, producing at the end of it a book entitled Housewife Abroad. She timed the release of her book with the opening of a new publicity venture, the Mabel Condon Agency, which was much publicized in trade journals and Los Angeles newspapers. Stationary from 1937 indicates that her new firm had offices in Beverly Hills and Singapore. Whether Condon’s new firm was ultimately successful remains unclear, however. Condon’s name, once ubiquitous in the pages of industry publications, rarely comes up during this period. Instead, it seems that during the 1930s and 1940s, her career was often overshadowed by that of her husband, who became head of publicity for David O. Selznick in the mid-1930s and later opened his own firm, Russell Birdwell and Associates. After her marriage, mentions of Condon often cited her relationship to Birdwell, who was frequently mentioned in the trade press between the 1930s and 1950s, suggesting that he was the better-known half of the couple during this period.

Letters between the two, however, suggest that Birdwell frequently relied on Condon’s connections and advice in his work as a publicist, and that Condon played a crucial role in maintaining professional relationships with clients and the press in California when her husband spent extended periods on the East Coast. In 1944, Condon officially joined her husband’s advertising firm as a public relations executive. A draft of the press release announcing her new position indicates that she had been working for the company on a freelance basis before her official hire. She removed a line identifying her as “Mrs. Russell Birdwell” from the original draft of this release, and exclusively used her maiden name once at the firm, suggesting both that she did not wish to trade on her husband’s reputation and that her own name still had some currency in the 1940s. In a note to Condon on her first day in the 30 Rockefeller Plaza office of his agency, Birdwell acknowledged her contributions to the business that bore his name, welcoming her to the office they “created together” and predicting that it will be “more profitable than ever before” with her there (Birdwell n.p.).

Mabel Condon silhouette in Motography,  July 1914.

It is not clear from Birdwell’s papers or from the press how long Condon worked at the agency, though reports of her death allude to a prolonged struggle with heart disease in her later years that may have removed her from her work. She died from a heart attack in 1965, at the age of seventy-one. Her obituary in the Los Angeles Times identified her only as “wife of publicist Russell Birdwell” and made no mention of her own career achievements (B15). A New York Times obituary also identified her first and foremost as Birdwell’s wife, but at least mentioned that she had been “a former writer and literary agent” (25). The trajectory of Condon’s life from celebrated film industry personality to “wife of publicist” is mirrored in her archival legacy, as much of what we know about Condon’s early career comes from the trade press, while almost all information about her later life comes from a collection of her husband’s papers. In both of these archives, we find evidence of a talented, creative woman who was incredibly passionate about her work and achieved immense success and recognition at a time when the contributions of other women to the field of film publicity were largely overlooked. Though she was not properly recognized by the press at the end of her life, and has so far been ignored by scholars, Mabel Condon and her many contributions to the film industry deserve to now be reinserted into film history.

See also: Gladys Hall, Leila Lewis, Beulah Livingstone, Louella Parsons


“Actress Joins Condon Exchange.” Motography vol. 16, no. 12 (16 Sept. 1916): 679.

“At Work and Play With the Stars In and About Universal City.” Moving Picture Weekly vol. 2, no. 26 (24 June 1916): 24-25.

“Committee on West Coast to Represent Board of Trade.” Motion Picture News vol. 12, no. 25 (25 Dec. 1915): 64.

Birdwell, Russell. Letter to Mabel Condon. July 14, 1944. In “Office Memoranda: Condon, Mabel ca. 1944,” Box 32, Folder 9, Russell Birdwell Papers.

Brynn, Celia. “Ladies’ Day.” Picture-Play vol. 14, no. 4 (June 1921): 73-75, 98-99.

“Changes of the Week.” Motion Picture News vol. 11, no. 22 (5 June 1915): 68.

Condon, Mabel. “Sans Grease Paint and Wig.” [Adrienne Kroell] Motography vol. 8, no. 11 (23 Nov 1912): 403.

------. “Sans Grease Paint and Wig.” [Beverly Bayne] Motography vol. 8, no. 9 (26 Oct. 1912): 325.

------. “Sans Grease Paint and Wig.” [Francis Xavier Bushman] Motography vol. 8, no. 10 (9 Nov. 1912): 351.

------.“Sans Grease Paint and Wig.” [William Russell] Motography vol.10, no. 5 (6 Sept. 1913): 159-60.

Evans, Delight. “Grand Crossing Impressions.” Photoplay vol. 14, no. 1 (June 1918): 22.

The Goat Man. “On the Outside Looking In.” Motography vol. 11, no. 13 (27 July 1914): 465.

Hoff, James L. “Publicity—What is it?” Moving Picture World vol. 37, no. 1 (20 July 1918): 319-21.

“Join Condon Exchange.” Motography vol. 16, no. 11 (9 Sept. 1916): 619.

Longacre. “Just to Make Talk.” Motion Picture News vol. 12, no. 16 (23 Oct. 1915): 71.

“Mabel Condon Exchange Grows.” Motography vol. 17, no. 12 (24 March 1917): 651.

“Mabel Condon in a Nutshell.” Motography vol. 16, no. 2 (8 July 1916): 103.

“Mabel Condon Will Visit New York for Vacation.” Motion Picture News vol. 16, no. 17 (25 Oct 1917): 2889.

“Mrs. Russell Birdwell.” The New York Times (23 Jan. 1965): 25.

“Our New York Office.” Motography vol. 10, no. 7 (4 Oct. 1913): 228.

“Pacific Coast Notes.” Motography vol. 16, no. 3 (15 July 1916): 163.

“Russell Birdwell and Mabel Condon Wed.” Exhibitors Herald (24 Nov. 1923): 24.

“Shipman Establishes Office for Mabel Condon Exchange in New York.” Motion Picture News vol. 14, no. 14 (7 Oct 1916): 2200.

“Wife of Publicist Birdwell Dies.” Los Angeles Times (22 Jan 1965): B15.

Archival Paper Collections:

Russell Birdwell papers, 1915-1951. UCLA, Charles E. Young Research Library, Special Collections.


Jacobs, Carolyn. "Mabel Condon." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2018.  <>

Cleo de Verberena

by Marcella Grecco de Araujo

Cleo de Verberena was the first woman to recognize herself and to be recognized as a film director in Brazil. She was the protagonist and the director of the silent feature film O Mistério do Dominó Preto/The Mystery of the Black Domino (1931), based on the story of the same name by Aristides Rabello. Born Jacyra Martins da Silveira in Amparo, a small city in the state of São Paulo, she moved to the capital after the death of her father to be with some of her eight siblings who already lived there.

Cleo de Verberena in Cinearte in 1931. Courtesy of the Biblioteca Digital das Artes do Espetáculo.

Life in the capital was different than in Amparo, and São Paulo of the 1920s was changing and expanding dramatically. It was the home of the great coffee barons and a rising elite class that benefitted from industrialization, as well as a place of immigrants, especially Italians, and former slaves and their descendants. The center of São Paulo was already full of movie theaters, stores selling musical instruments, bookstores, theaters, haute couture studios, and confectioneries. Planned neighborhoods were built for the wealthy population, automobiles shared the streets with electric trams, and the streets were no longer as dangerous with the full installation of electricity in 1930 (Schpun 1997). Going to the cinema was a common practice for the modern women of São Paulo and Jacyra loved to watch films and think about the person behind the camera. According to an unpublished interview, given by her son, Cesar Augusto Melani, to the journalist José Maria do Prado, she was interested in the “brain” that put everything in order–the individual who oversaw the technicians and crew and made history come alive on the screen (Prado 1981, n.p.).

It was in the city of São Paulo that Jacyra met Cesar Melani, with whom she married and had a single child, around 1925. Melani was born in Franca, a small town in the state of São Paulo on May 28, 1903 and went to the capital to study medicine. When they got married, however, Cesar had already given up on that ambition and was trying to make it, unsuccessfully, as a businessman. According to their son in the aforementioned unpublished interview, the couple shared a common passion for the cinema (Prado n.p.).

1930 Cinearte headline:  “The first Brazilian woman filmmaker.” Courtesy of the Biblioteca Digital das Artes do Espetáculo.

Cesar was from an important family in Franca and after the death of a relative, he inherited a great amount of money. The couple decided to use this inheritance to start making films. Cesar hoped to become a great businessman and Jacyra desired to be a great filmmaker. Together, they opened EPICA-FILM, a production company that had an office in a building in Praça da Sé, one of the most prestigious neighborhoods at the time. They also rented a house in the upscale neighborhood of Santa Cecilia, where they built a small studio in the back and allocated equipment imported from France for the enterprise. In 1930, the couple started the production of O Mistério do Dominó Preto. Thinking about the sound of their names and the names of Hollywood stars, Jacyra adopted the pseudonym of Cleo de Verberena and Cesar became Laes Mac Reni.

There was a lot of publicity during the production of the film, especially in the magazine Cinearte, which was trying to strengthen Brazilian cinema through the consolidation of a star system similar to that of the United States. Between 1930 and 1931, many images of Verberena and stills from the film were published in Cinearte. For example, in May 1930, an article celebrated the pioneering work of Cleo de Verberena as the first Brazilian woman filmmaker (Rosa 1930, 6).

In addition to her role as director, Verberena also played a major role in the now lost O Mistério do Dominó Preto. It is likely that only one copy was made and did not survive the passage of time. Fortunately for contemporary scholars, shortly before its release, a considerable synopsis, as well as images from the film, was published in Cinearte (“O Mistério do Dominó Preto” 8-9, 40-41). The story centers on the murder of a married woman named Cleo, played by Verberena, who is dressed in a black Domino costume during the carnival in São Paulo. This famous character, coming from the tradition of Commedia dell’arteallowed anyone complete anonymity since it was composed of a long tunic that covered the whole body, as well as a mask and gloves. O Mistério do Dominó Preto makes this anonymity part of the plot. On her way to see her lover, Cleo is poisoned by someone pretending to be him, who is also dressed as a Domino. Although killed early, Cleo appears very alive throughout the film through the use of flashbacks, which set up her relationships with various characters in the story, while an ex-lover leads the investigation into her murder.

Cinearte image of Cleo, dressed in the black Domino costume, going to see her lover in O Mistério do Dominó Preto (1931). Courtesy of the Biblioteca Digital das Artes do Espetáculo.

Rabello released three different versions of the film’s source material in magazines and a newspaper between 1912 and 1926. Today, we have access to all three and can compare them to the published film synopsis. Verberena considerably modified the narrative, making it less conservative and moralistic. In the film, after being poisoned while drinking juice with the man she thinks is her lover, Cleo is rescued in the street by an ex-lover, a medical student who takes her home to try to reverse the effects of the poison. In Rabello’s versions, the medical student is not an ex-lover, but rather just someone she knew. Additionally, in Verberena’s film, before running into her killer, Cleo tells her husband that she is going out to enjoy the carnival. In Rabello’s versions, the main character, who does not have a name, secretly goes to the carnival to see her lover. Ultimately, Verberena makes the female character more daring and independent, gives her multiple lovers, and has her go to the carnival alone, without having to lie to her husband about her activities. Verberena also changed the ending of the story. In her version, the murderer is a man and the character of Cleo is properly buried. On the other hand, in Rabello’s versions, the murderer was another woman, the jealous girlfriend of the lover that Cleo was going to meet. Additionally, the victim does not meet the same end in the source material; the police are unaware of the crime, and the body of the “unworthy” woman dressed as the black Domino is quartered, packed, and dumped into a wasteland by the lover, the medical student, and his friend in the first version and, in the other two versions, the body is thrown into the sea.

Cleo de Verberena and Carmen Santos in Cinearte in 1932. Courtesy of the Biblioteca Digital das Artes do Espetáculo.

O Mistério do Dominó Preto debuted in São Paulo on February 9, 1931. It was shown in five theaters in the capital and one in the city of Curitiba, according to the Cinemateca Brasileira’s entry on the film online (“O Mistério do Dominó Preto” n.p.). In order to increase the couple’s income and to cover the expenses of the film, Cleo acted in two theatrical pieces directed by Luiz de Barros in 1931. In the same year, it was announced by the newspaper A Gazeta that she would play the main role in the film Canção do Destino, by Plínio Ferraz (“Cinemas” 6). Unfortunately, this production was never realized. In 1932, the family left for Rio de Janeiro with the intention of having O Mistério do Dominó Preto screened there. They visited the Cinédia studios, the first Brazilian attempt at film industrialization, and Cleo met the producer, actress, and future director Carmen Santos and other big names in Brazilian cinema. However, there is no evidence that the film was shown in Rio de Janeiro.

Like other Brazilian productions of the period, O Mistério do Dominó Preto was more of a financial loss than a profit. The distribution of national films was difficult since exhibitors often gave preference to the titles that generated profit, such as American films. In the aforementioned interview, Cesar Augusto told Prado that in this period his father was suffering from nervousness because he had put his entire inheritance into the production of O Mistério do Dominó Preto. He said that his mother sold everything she had to try to cover the expenses of the film, but the gap was too big (Prado n.p). In 1935, on his son’s birthday, Melani was found dead in an armchair in his living room. He was only thirty-one years old.

Cleo de Verberena and Laes Mac Reni in 1932. Private Collection. 

Her premature widowhood and her financial loss were probably what forced Verberena to abandon the cinema. In the 1940s, she remarried a Chilean diplomat, Francisco Landestoy Saint-Jean, with whom she would live in Rio de Janeiro, England, and Chile. Her daughter-in-law, Judith Haltenhoff Meza, said that Cleo did not talk about her past in film (2017 n.p.). Verberena died at the age of sixty-eight in the city of São Paulo. Her history has never been told and in Brazilian cinema books, when mentioned, only a few lines are reserved for her. Yet, at a time when women did not have the right to make decisions for themselves—the Brazilian Civil Code of 1916, then in force, dictated that they should be treated as minors dependent upon a father or husband—Cleo de Verberena, or Jacyra Martins da Silveira, directed her own film, led a team composed mostly of men, and presented Brazilian audiences with a modern story and female character.

See also: Carmen Santos


Araújo, Luciana Corrêa de. “Cléo de Verberena e o trabalho da mulher no cinema silencioso brasileiro.” In Feminino e plural: mulheres no cinema brasileir. Eds. Karla Holanda and Mariana Cavalcanti Tedesco. Campinas: Papirus, 2017. 15-29.

Camargo, Marcos [grand-nephew]. Email correspondence. March 2018.

“Cinemas.” A Gazeta (23 February 1931): 6.

Galvão, Maria Rita. Crônica do cinema paulistano. São Paulo: Ática, 1975.

Gomes, Paulo Emilio Sales. Humberto Mauro, Cataguases, Cinearte. São Paulo: Ed. Universidade de São Paulo, 1974.

Marins, Paulo César Garcez. “Habitação e vizinhança: limites da privacidade no surgimento das metrópoles brasileiras.” In História da vida privada no Brasil 3. República: da Belle Époque à era do rádio. Ed. Nicolau Sevcenko. São Paulo: Companhia das letras, 1998. 131-214.

Melani, Rodolfo [grandson]. Personal interview. March 16, 2018.

Meza, Judith Adriana Haltenhoff [daughter-in-law]. Personal interview. December 15, 2017.

Noronha, Jurandyr. No tempo da manivela. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Brasil-America; Kinart Cinema e Televisão; Embrafilme, 1987.

“O Mistério do Dominó Preto.” Cinearte vol. 6, no. 256 (1931): 8-9, 40-41.

“O Mistério do Dominó Preto.” Cinemateca Brasileria. Filmografia [online database]. n.d.

Pessoa, Ana. Carmen Santos. O cinema dos anos 20. Rio de Janeiro: Aeroplano, 2002.

Prado, José Maria do. Memórias do cinema paulista: 1896-1981. Unpublished  typed manuscript. 1981. Cinemateca Brasileira.

Ramos, Fernão, ed. História do cinema brasileiro. São Paulo: ArtEditora, 1987.

Rosa, Ary. “A primeira directora do cinema brasileiro.” Cinearte 222 (May 1930): 6.

Schpun, Mônica Raisa. Les années folles à São Paulo: hommes et femmes au temps de l’explosion urbaine (1920-1929). Paris: l’Harmattan/IHEAL, 1997.

Schvarzman, Sheila. “Salas de cinema em São Paulo nos anos 1920: diferenciação social e gênero no imaginário crítico.” Unpublished conference paper, Women and the Silent Screen VI, Bologna, 2010.

Archival Paper Collections:

Pedro Lima archive. Cinemateca Brasileira.

Paulo Emilio Salles Gomes archive. Cinemateca Brasileira

Cinearte magazine collection. [online database]. Biblioteca Digital das Artes do Espetáculo.


Araujo, Marcella Grecco de. "Cleo de Verberena." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2018.  <>

Angela Murray Gibson

by Charles "Buckey" Grimm

Angela Murray Gibson’s versatility allowed her to fill many roles during her time in the film industry, the most important of which was studio head for the Gibson Studios in Casselton, North Dakota. Prior to this, Gibson spent her formative years studying to be a teacher in home economics. However, she always loved performing. According to her 1953 obituary in The Forum, upon graduation from North Dakota Agricultural College, she traveled to the East Coast to further her studies in teaching, where she also continued with her efforts in the entertainment field by studying voice and elocution. Gibson’s performing career took her on a tour of the Canadian northwest (“Miss A. M. Gibson Was Greeted” 5).

Angela Murray Gibson, c. early 1900s. Courtesy of North Dakota State University. 

Mary Pickford, who was about to start production on Pride of the Clan (1917), spotted Gibson while she was performing. Since Gibson’s routine consisted of many of the costumes and songs from her youth in her native Scotland, “She was called upon to aid Mary Pickford in a matter of costuming,” in order to add authenticity to the film, which was set in Scotland (“Producer De Luxe” 13). Gibson became quite interested in the workings of the motion picture industry, and, in 1919, took a course in Photoplay Making at Columbia University, which was taught by pioneering cinematographer Carl Louis Gregory (“Amateur Movies” 108).

According to a later article in The Cass County Reporter, she attempted to break into the film business by going to work for a short time at Famous Players-Lasky in New York (1953, n.p.). However, by the early 1920s, Gibson had moved back to Casselton and went about setting up her own studio. As related in the December 13, 1920 issue of The Pioneer out of Benidji, Minnesota, it was Gibson’s goal to set up a “North Dakota Hollywood” by opening up her own studio there (6). The article went on to state that Gibson’s plan was to make educational films and comedies, and her first film would be scenes of wheat farming in the Red River Valley area. This film, titled The Wheat Industry, was completed in early 1921. Not only was Gibson the writer and director of this production, but she was also the camerawoman, a position she would fill on all of her films.

Frame enlargement, Angela Murray Gibson filming The Wheat Industry (1921). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Paper Print Collection.

She next began work on her first comedy, a one-reeler titled That Ice Ticket, which had one of its first showings, according to The Forum, at the opening of the State Theater in North Dakota on November 28, 1921 (31). In That Ice Ticket, Gibson plays the role of Madge Jaspar, the object of affection of three different suitors. Her brother, Bud, decides to pull a prank and change a free “ice” sign on the outside of their residence to a “smallpox” sign, which causes two potential suitor to quickly drop out of the running for Madge’s hand. The last suitor is not fazed by the potential smallpox outbreak and offers to nurse her back to health. In the end, the joke is discovered and the new couple have a good laugh at Bud’s prank.

Frame enlargement, Angela Murray Gibson, Arrested for Life (1923). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Paper Print Collection. 

Gibson’s productions were uniquely grounded in her community. She had her mother run the camera when she appeared in a scene and she employed local talent in her productions. Following That Ice Ticket, she made the educational film How to Cook an Omelet/A Lesson in Cooking (1922), which was well received and utilized by various schools of domestic science in New York (“Amateur Movies” 108; Wilk 1926, 14). The period from 1921-1923 was a time of maximum film output, and, during these years, Gibson continued her original pattern of alternating between comedies and educational films. After How to Cook an Omelet, Gibson made another comedy titled Arrested for Life (1923), which was her most ambitious film to date. It was her first foray into two-reel pictures and gave her the chance to expand the story and spend more time developing the characters. In Arrested for Life, Gibson portrays her character, Nora Johnson, as a go-getter, someone who may not be too adept at whatever task is at hand, but who continues to keep her perpetually cheery outlook. The film centers around Nora, who arrives in a new town looking for work. The town policeman helps her get a job as a domestic. However, due to her poor cooking skills, Nora is quickly fired. The same policeman then helps her get a job running errands for and cleaning a boarding house. A local gentleman who has been courting a female boarder solicits Nora’s help with his marriage proposal, asking her to deliver a letter along with an engagement ring to his intended. However, Nora inadvertently delivers the ring to the wrong woman and confusion abounds. Upon learning of her mistake, she attempts to retrieve the ring and deliver it to the proper party, resulting in a chase scene and, subsequently, in her arrest. The mix-up is finally rectified and the film closes as the policemen offers her a job cooking for him, at which point she is “Arrested For Life” in marriage.

By the mid-1920s, Gibson’s studio output had slowed considerably. Much of the finances for her studio in Casselton came from her sister Ruby, who owned a successful women’s clothing and novelty shop in town. While Gibson was most likely finding it difficult to afford the rising production costs, there is no definitive mention of her closing the studio. In trade publications such as The Film Daily and The Educational Screen, articles from 1926 indicated that Gibson was still active and making films (“Producer De Luxe” 13; “Notes and News” 46). When her film production eventually stopped, she seemed to focus on a career as a camerawoman. For example, the March 4, 1928 issue of The Film Daily had the headline “First Newsreel Camera Girl Claimed by Kinograms” (7). While Gibson was certainly not the firstpreceded by Dorothy Dunn and Louise Lowellthe brief article explained how she became employed as a newsreel camera “girl”:

January 1925 The Educational Screen ad for “The Gibson Pictures.” 

Rodeo pictures she sent to Kinograms and the nerve she displayed in taking them won her appointment as a news camera women [sic]. She first attracted the attention of H.E. Hancock, associate editor of Kinograms, when she asked him for suggestions on newsreel pictures. She stated she had gained considerable experience in taking pictures, and had several educational, industrial and scenic subjects to her credit (7).

The rodeo footage, filmed in her adopted hometown of Casselton, was of the annual Killdeer rodeo and Screenland described “Miss Gibson’s courageous work in photographing the plunge of the fear-maddened steers, and kicking, bucking bronchos that appeared to be about to topple over on the daring camerawoman…” (“Lot Talk From Hollywood” 74). This is the only substantiated filmed piece she is known to have made for Kinograms. By the end of the 1920s, Gibson’s career in the motion picture industry had certainly concluded. She spent the 1930s teaching drama and elocution in Casselton, and, in the 1940s, she went to work for the WPA in the same capacity. In the latter part of the 1940s her health began to seriously decline, and, initially thought to have contracted tuberculosis, she spent several years receiving treatment in sanatoriums and hospitals. She passed away from cancer on October 22, 1953 in North Dakota (Olsen 1999, 24-3o).

Angela Murray Gibson in Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World, 1928. 

Angela Murray Gibson, like many other women in the early motion picture industry, managed to successfully carve out a niche for herself. Mostly working outside of Hollywood in her local community, Gibson is a fascinating figure. However, due to the brevity of her career and the lack of extant material, considerably more research is necessary to gauge her place as a regional filmmaker and a camerawoman in the history of American film and the history of the industry more broadly.

See also: “Women as Camera Operators or ‘Cranks’


“Amateur Movies.” Photoplay (May 1928): 106-108.

The Bismark Tribune (5 February 1925): 3.

The Cass County Reporter (22 October 1953): n.p.

“First Newsreel Camera Girl Claimed by Kinograms.” The Film Daily (4 March 1928): 7.

The Forum [Fargo, North Dakota] (27 November 1921): 31.

The Forum [Fargo, North Dakota] (23 October 1953): 9.

“The Gibson Pictures.” [Advertisement] The Educational Screen (January 1925): 59.

“Lot Talk From Hollywood.” Screenland (June 1928): 73-78.

“Miss A. M. Gibson Was Greeted by Large Audience.” The Evening Times [Grand Forks, North Dakota] (18 October 1912): 5.

Motion Picture News (3 March 1928): 692.

“Notes and News.” The Educational Screen (January 1925): 44-46.

Olsen, Michael J. “The Five Faces of Angela Gibson.” North Dakota Horizons (Spring 1999): 24-30.

“Pictorial Section.” Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World (10 March 1928): 31.

The Pioneer [Bimedji, Minnesota] (13 December 1920): 6.

“Producer De Luxe.” The Film Daily (16 July 1926): 13.

“Regional News from Correspondents.” Motion Picture News (24 March 1928): 967-970.

Slide, Anthony. Early Women Directors. South Brunswick, N.J: A.S. Barnes, 1977.

Wilk, Ralph. “A Little from ‘Lots.’” The Film Daily (18 July 1926): 14.

Archival Paper Collections:

Angela Murray Gibson Collection (small collection #679). North Dakota State University, Archives.

Angela Murray Gibson (misc. clippings file). Bonanzaville-Cass County Historical Society

Angela Murray Gibson Collection. State Historical Society of North Dakota.

1919 Columbia University Course Bulletin. Columbia University, Rare Book & Manuscript Library.


Grimm, Charles "Buckey". "Angela Murray Gibson." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2018.  <>

Virgínia de Castro e Almeida

by Tiago Baptista

Portuguese film pioneer Virgínia de Castro e Almeida is still better known today for her work as an author of children’s books, travel literature, and digests on the history of Portugal. She was married to João da Mota Prego, an agronomist, and lived in France and Switzerland. She took an interest in cinema during the first half of the 1920s, founding the production company Fortuna Films in 1922. The company released two features: A Sereia de Pedra (1922) and Os Olhos da Alma (1923), both written by Castro e Almeida and directed by the French director Roger Lion. In 1923, she took part in the foundation of another production company, Rosy Film, whose only output was the non-extant commercial O Castelo de Chocolate (1923) for the Portuguese chocolate company Suissa. This was the first film by Portuguese director Arthur Duarte, who began as an actor in Fortuna Films’ two features and also starred in O Castelo de Chocolate as a young man in love with a Suissa factory worker. Castro e Almeida’s Fortuna Films was registered both in Lisbon and in Paris and was likely the earliest Portuguese attempt to establish an international film company. To that end, not only did Castro e Almeida choose a French director, but both films also featured several French actors (including Lion’s wife, Gil Clary) and originally premiered in Paris, and only later in Portugal. Castro e Almeida’s two sons were her right-hand men at Fortuna Films, as was Ayres d’Aguiar, a college friend of the two young men who would later have an important career as a film distributor in France.

Virgínia de Castro e Almeida portrait. 

Castro e Almeida played an important role in defining Portuguese silent cinema and actively worked for the advancement of filmmaking in that country. Working as a producer, screenwriter, and source author, she is, to the best of our knowledge, one of only a few women filmmakers during the silent period in Portugal. Whether her films and screenplays show a different worldview or a different representation of gender roles than her male counterparts would require further research. Based on examinations of the trade press, it seems likely that the reception of her feature films was similar to other Portuguese films from the early 1920s, whose appraisal often depended on how well they adhered to the notion that cinema was an international “calling card,” and a powerful tool to promote Portugal’s natural, built, and cultural heritage. Castro de Almeida also subscribed to this perspective, describing her intentions to “show to other nations, using cinema, the most powerful propaganda tool today, Portugal’s nature, its historical monuments, and the folk traditions of its people, all of which are generally not very well known, and unfortunately often slandered” (Castro e Almeida 1925, n.p.).

Still from A Sereia de Pedra (1922). Courtesy of the Cinemateca Portuguesa.

Still from A Sereia de Pedra (1922). Courtesy of the Cinemateca Portuguesa.

A Sereia de Pedra is unfortunately a lost film. Plot descriptions and contemporary reviews suggest that it was a melodrama with Portuguese star Maria Emília Castelo Branco and the acrobat Nestor Lopes, with sophisticated flashbacks and plenty of shots of the Convento de Cristo, in Tomar, a national monument since 1910, and the true protagonist of the film. In fact, when one reviewer complained that there were too many shots of Lopes climbing up and down the outside walls of the Convento, another quickly replied that it was a small price to pay for the screen time that such an outstanding monument deserved (Carvalho 1923, n.p.).

Frame enlargement, Os Olhos da Alma (1923). Courtesy of the Cinemateca Portuguesa.

Frame enlargement, Os Olhos da Alma (1923). Courtesy of the Cinemateca Portuguesa.

The extant Os Olhos da Alma includes all the tropes considered fundamental to a Portuguese film of that period–the stunning natural scenery of Nazaré, making here its first appearance as one of the most recurrent locations in the history of Portuguese cinema; the folk traditions of the fishermen; and the inevitable visit to Mosteiro da Batalha, another national monument and a key site for Portuguese nationalist historiography across different political regimes. The film mixed these national traditions with some fantasy elements, including a visionary miller, something that gained Castro de Almeida the reputation of “Portuguese Selma Lagerlof” (Nobre 1964, 33). However, Os Olhos da Alma is quite unique in its representation of the turbulent political atmosphere of the young Portuguese republican regime (established after the 1910 revolution that overthrew an eight century-long monarchy). It was the only film of this period to include footage from topical newsreels (showing republican meetings) and to re-enact a coup in the streets of Lisbon, which eventually led to the confiscation of some reels by the police, who also brought in Castro de Almeida and the director for questioning (“Um film indesejável” n.p.). In fact, the film’s villain is a republican politician who engages in audacious plots against the government, embodying a series of clichés about this period, namely the alleged senseless violence and incessant turmoil. But the villain’s greatest sin, for which he will be struck by lightning at the film’s end, is to have brought politics to the utopian community of Nazaré’s fishermen, and worse, to have seduced several Nazaré men to follow him into politics in Lisbon. In other words, Os Olhos da Alma makes it clear that people have predetermined spaces and roles. Terrible consequences, it argues, come to those who turn rural people into political subjects rather than letting them stay passive recipients of the decisions made by urban, republican politicians.

Frame enlargement, Os Olhos da Alma (1923). Courtesy of the Cinemateca Portuguesa.

Frame enlargement,  “Scenario and artistic direction by Virgínia de Castro e Almeida” and “Staging by Robert Lion.” Os Olhos da Alma (1923). Courtesy of the Cinemateca Portuguesa.

The production of the film was no less conflictual than its plot. Disagreeing and violently falling out over the editing of the film, Lion eventually quit and left Castro e Almeida to finish the film with the help of Aguiar. The entire affair was not made public, but, according to archival paper collections such as Aguiar’s memoirs and Castro e Almeida’s correspondences, it is possible to suggest that Lion did not accept Castro e Almeida’s supervision of the entire project, least of all her presence during the editing stage. Her presence throughout was, of course, highly exceptional as far as the gendered division of labor went in Portuguese cinema in the 1920s. Both A Sereia de Pedra and Os Olhos da Alma expressly credit in their opening cards and in the paid trade press advertisements Lion as the director of the films (in charge of “staging”), reserving for Castro e Almeida the more ambiguous credit of “artistic director” (or in some cases “a film by”). Today, we might ask whether Castro e Almeida should not be credited as co-director of the film. Here, we can only hypothesize and remember that terms like “director,” “author,” and “producer” had different meanings in Portugal in the 1920s. At that time, the director was often identified using the French phrase “metteur-en-scène” and often had a rather secondary role compared to the author of the original or adapted screenplay. In this sense, it could be anachronistic to wonder whether or not Castro e Almeida co-directed the films—she was publicly attributed much more importance as their producer and author, probably much to the dismay of Lion’s masculine ego.

Frame enlargement, Os Olhos da Alma (1923). Courtesy of the Cinemateca Portuguesa.

In late 1923, her correspondence shows that she was preparing a new film about the Portuguese aristocrat families of the Douro valley, provisionally titled Nobreza. It was to be directed by the French filmmaker André Hugon. However, Fortuna Films went bankrupt and eventually dissolved in 1925. In a last attempt to prevent the end of the company, Castro e Almeida boldly (and perhaps surprisingly) suggested a merge with Invicta Film, the oldest and most important Portuguese production company of the silent period. She was turned down and abandoned any further production plans, participating, however, in the distribution companies founded by Aguiar in France (Aguiar & Cie in 1925 and Gray Film in 1929). Her participation in the Paris Convention for the Protection of Intellectual Property, in 1925, signaled her definitive return to her literary career.


Baptista, Tiago, ed. Lion, Mariaud, Pallu: franceses tipicamente portugueses. Lisbon: Cinemateca Portuguesa, 2003.

Carvalho, F. de [Felcar]. “Produções portuguesas. A Sereia de Pedra.” Invicta Cine vol. I, no. 2 (27 April 1923): n.p.

Castro e Almeida, Virgínia de. “Introdução.” In Os Olhos da Alma. Rio de Janeiro: Typographia do Annuario do Brasil, 1925. [Eds. page numbers unknown].

Instituto Português do Livro, ed. Dicionário Cronológico de Autores Portugueses, vol. III. Lisbon: Publicações Europa-América, 1990.

Nobre, Roberto. Singularidades do Cinema Português. Portugália Editora, Lisbon, 1964.

Ribeiro, M. Félix. Filmes, figuras e factos da história do cinema português, 1896-1949. Lisbon: Cinemateca Portuguesa, 1983.

“Um film indesejável.” Cine Revista 67 (December 1922): n.p.

Archival Paper Collections

Ayres d'Aguiar. Memórias dos meus tempos de cinema. Primeira parte (de 1923 até 10 de Maio de 1949 e cinco páginas de seguimento até ter deixado o cinema). Typed manuscript. Cinemateca Portuguesa, Centro de Documentação.

Correspondence between Virgínia de Castro e Almeida and her sons. Lisbon, Paris, and Madeira, 1922-1925. Private Collection.


Baptista, Tiago. "Virgínia de Castro e Almeida." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2018.  <>

Aili Kari

by Hannu Salmi

Aili Kari made a career for herself in the early Finnish film industry, but her name is very seldom remembered or mentioned. During the silent era, she worked as a production secretary and as an actress at the major film company Suomi-Filmi, which had been founded in 1919 under the name of Suomen Filmikuvaamo and regularly produced fiction films. Later, Kari was involved in the founding of another major studio, Suomen Filmiteollisuus, and worked there as an office manager and chief accountant.

During her childhood, Kari was surrounded by creative people. Her father was Kaarlo Kari (1872-1941), an artist and a cartoonist, as well as an actor, a stage designer, and a leader of a theater company. Her mother was Naimi/Naëmi Kari (née Kylmänen, 1878-1968), an actress who worked in her husband’s theatrical company and toured around the country. She also appeared in three silent feature films in the 1920s. Kari’s older brother was the cinematographer and editor Eino Kari (1897-1954), who worked in the film business from 1920 to 1952. Her younger brother, Kullervo (1903-1981), was also employed by Suomi-Filmi as a camera assistant. Additionally, Elli Kylmänen, her mother’s sister, was married to Erkki Karu, who became the most productive film director of the silent era. Both Karu and Kylmänen had previously worked in Kaarlo Kari’s ensemble (Uusitalo 1988, 21).

By the time she reached her twenties, Kari was known for her singing and recitation performances. She was used to being on stage having performed with her father’s ensemble during her childhood. In the early 1920s, her parents were most likely very enthusiastic about the possibilities of filmmaking and film acting. Their oldest son Eino was hired as a cinematographer in 1920, and soon after, in November 1921, Aili was recruited by Erkki Karu to be “an officer and an accountant” for Suomi-Filmi (Uusitalo 1988, 90). Soon, other members of the family joined the industry. When Erkki directed his short comedy Kun isällä on hammassärky/When Father Has a Toothache in 1922, he cast Kari’s mother in a small role. The next year, he made the first cinematic adaptation of Aleksis Kivi’s famous play “Nummisuutarit”/“The Village Shoemakers,” a Finnish silent classic, and Kari’s father got the role of Sakeri. In this film, Aili was credited as a production secretary for the first time. From that year on, she worked regularly as a production secretary for Suomi-Filmi. While it is difficult to determine the exact dimensions of the position, as production secretary Kari was most likely an overall secretary at the director’s disposal. The production secretary was probably never on location or in the studio, but was based in the office and helped the director keep the project moving. At that time, Suomi-Filmi produced only one film at a time and there were no parallel productions (Uusitalo 2018). The Finnish National Archive credits Kari with seven feature-length films as production secretary (“Aili Kari” n.p.). Otherwise, as a full-time employee of the company, she was taking care of the financial accounts of the studio.

Aili Kari (left) with Juhani Turunen, Rovastin häämatkat/The Dean’s Honeymoon Travels (1931). Courtesy of the Kansallisen Audiovisuaalisen Instituutin. 

Soon, Kari also got roles in front of the camera. She appeared in the historical drama Rautakylän vanha paroni/The Old Baron of Rautakylä (1923), directed by Carl Fager. Her mother was given the role of the housekeeper, Lisette Hallström, but since the story spanned a long period of time, someone else had to play young Lisette. This part was given to Aili. In 1931, she also appeared in Rovastin häämatkat/The Dean’s Honeymoon Travels, where she was seen as Anni, the daughter of the main character, the Dean. Furthermore, Kari made one uncredited appearance in Meidän poikamme/Our Boys (1929).

It seems that Kari was an all-around worker for Suomi-Filmi throughout the 1920s, and she became a close  confidante of her uncle Erkki. When he decided to leave Suomi-Filmi in the fall of 1933 and establish a new company, Suomen Filmiteollisuus (SF), Kari decided to follow. In fact, she became the first employee of the new company, an office manager, and most likely faced a great deal of work in organizing everyday practices and taking care of financial matters (Uusitalo 1975, 72; Uusitalo 1988, 170; “Pikku paloja elokuvamaailmasta” 14). Kari remained a loyal employee of SF until the company went bankrupt in 1965. She saw the rise of SF into a dominant company in the 1940s and 1950s (“10 vuotta SF:ssä!” 14), but also its downfall in the early 1960s. She was the closest partner of T. J. Särkkä, the producer who led SF after Karu passed away in 1935. After the mid-1930s, Kari’s work was restricted to economic matters, which were crucial to the ever-growing business. In a 1943 interview in the company newsletter SF Uutiset, she concluded: “I couldn’t have imagined a more exciting career than the one that [was] finally realized for me. Film business is really a ‘fairytale land’ where something new and unexpected always happens” (“10 vuotta SF:ssä” 14).


“10 vuotta SF:ssä!” SF-Uutiset 7 (1943): 14.

“Aili Kari.” Elonet Kansallisfilmografia [online database]. National Audiovisual Archive, Finland.

Obit. Helsingin Sanomat (6 August 1994): A6.

“Pikku paloja elokuvamaailmasta.” SF-Uutiset 1 (1938): 14.

Uusitalo, Kari. Lavean tien sankarit: Suomalainen elokuva 1931-1939. Helsinki: Otava, 1975.

------. Meidän poikamme: Suomalaisen elokuvan perustanlaskija Erkki Karu ja hänen aikakautensa. Helsinki: Valtion painatuskeskus, 1988.

------. Personal Interview. October 9, 2018.


Salmi, Hannu . "Aili Kari." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2018.  <>

Frances Baker Farrell, Lettice Ramsey, and Máirín Hayes

by Donna Casella

Indigenous Irish cinema of the silent period (1916-1935) consisted of two waves, 1916-1926 and 1930-1935. Each wave drew filmmakers from both the theatrical and private sectors, with Irish theatre shaping cinematic content and style. The Abbey Theatre artists contributed to the theatrical, highly-charged nationalist films of the first wave, while the Gate Theatre artists strove to experiment in both style and content in the second wave. Formed by Micheál MácLiammóir and Hilton Edwards as an alternative to the Abbey in 1929, the Gate focused on more “modern and progressive plays unfettered by theatrical convention,” according to writer and theatregoer Joseph Holloway (39). This artistic vision carried over into Ireland’s last two silent films of the 1930s, Some Say Chance (1934) and Guests of the Nation (1935), both of which showcased the work of women pioneers. Siblings Frances Baker Farrell and Lettice Ramsey designed the indoor sets and scouted outdoor locations for Some Say Chance, which featured Gate actor Máirín Hayes in a small role. Baker Farrell’s husband, Irish novelist Michael Farrell, wrote, directed, and produced Some Say Chance and served as a cameraman on Guests of the Nation. Hayes edited the latter film with director and Gate playwright Denis Johnston. According to scholars, these three women worked on films that offered a contemporary, more realistic, and less nationalist image of Ireland than the pre-1930 films.

Lettice Ramsey. Private Collection.

Baker Farrell and Ramsey were not theatrical artists, but their interest in filmmaking is not surprising as the sisters grew up in an artistic household. Though born in England, part of their childhood was spent in Ireland, first on an oyster farm outside of Sligo leased by their parents. As noted in the 1985 obituary “Mrs. Lettice Ramsey” in The Times, their mother, Frances, was a photographer and a painter who trained at the Slade School of Fine Arts in London and exhibited her work throughout Great Britain and Ireland (12). When their father died, their mother moved the family to the village of Ballysadare, Co. Sligo where she supported her daughters by selling her artwork. Her artistic interests made an impression on the sisters. According to Martin Lynch in “Michael Farrell Carlowman (1899-1962),” Baker Farrell became a weaver, working with her mother in the family weaving mill and workshop, The Crock of Gold, in Blackrock, Dublin (46). In 1926, she married Peter Trench, then divorced him and married Farrell in 1930. Ramsey read philosophy at the University of Cambridge where she met and married mathematician/philosopher Frank Ramsey who tragically died from liver disease in 1930. She took up photography as a profession, also working with pottery and collages. In 1932, she opened a studio in Cambridge with Helen Muspratt specializing in portrait photography of literary, intellectual, and social figures. Among their clients were Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, C.P. Snow, and Guy Burgess (“Mrs. Lettice Ramsey” 12). When Farrell decided to try his hand at filmmaking, the sisters jumped at the chance to be part of this new creative venture.

Photo of Frances Baker Farrell, taken by sister Lettice. Private Collection.

Some Say Chance, completed in only five months according to J.A.P. in the 1934 Irish Independent, tells the story of Helen, a troubled young woman in a Wicklow boarding school who agonizes over her broken family (5). When she was younger, her father abandoned her and her mother, Irish Moll. Her father leads her to believe her mother is dead. Irish Moll, who turned to prostitution after her husband left, longs to reunite with her daughter. The film cuts between Helen’s days in an oppressive boarding school and her mother’s dangerous lifestyle in London. Scholars agree that in both subject matter and form Some Say Chance marked a new kind of cinema, one that told stories of the present, abandoning the literary forms of the past, particularly the romantic comedies/dramas and historical melodramas. As Ruth Barton notes in the 2004 Irish National Cinema, the earlier films were “regressive discourses,” focusing on stereotypes of Irishness and a history of injustices particularly at the hands of the British (25, 33). Some Say Chance, however, stood out not only in contrast to these earlier films, but also to other films of the 1930s. According to Kevin Rockett, “With the notable exception of Michael Farrell’s Some Say Chance (1934), a story linked to the moral decay of a city…film-makers in the 1930s turned their back on an exploration of contemporary Ireland” (1988, 59). The film’s focus on the subject of broken families and prostitution was groundbreaking.

Wicklow countryside in Some Say Chance (1934). Courtesy of the Irish Film Institute. 

The sisters’ set design reflects the narrative’s dark tone. Constructed and on-location sets contribute to Helen’s unsettling boarding school experience and her mother’