When asked by interviewer Frances Denton to comment in the pages of Photoplay on the question of whether or not directing was “man’s work,” Elsie Jane Wilson exclaimed, “I should say it is!” (50). Repeating the anecdote in his history of early women directors, Anthony Slide goes on to argue that it has largely been in the shadow of her actor-director husband Rupert Julian that Elsie Jane Wilson’s profile is sketched in existing accounts of early cinema (Slide 1996, 49–51). This much seems fairly accurate, but the degree of Wilson’s sincerity in replying to her female interlocutor remains an open question. In context, the statement can be read as an ironic one, underscoring the very attitude that working in Hollywood caused some women to rethink. The same Photoplay article cites Ida May Park as saying that “It was because directing seemed so utterly unsuited to a woman that I refused the first company offered me” (49), and then it goes on to describe the directing successes of both Park and Wilson. Wilson’s affirmation of directing as “man’s work” also may reveal something about the dynamics of her marriage, as Slide’s reminder of her connection with Julian suggests. At the time, skepticism about women’s professional abilities often indicated nervousness about their supposed abandonment of domestic responsibilities. In any event, the fact that Wilson is credited with writing two and directing perhaps eleven films between 1916 and 1919 makes it impossible to take her answer to Denton’s question at face value.
Elsie Jane Wilson was one of the numerous actresses who began directing at Universal Pictures in the 1910s. The company first credited her with directing a series of films starring child actress Zoe Rae, all in 1917: The Circus of Life, The Little Pirate, The Cricket, The Silent Lady, and My Little Boy. Thereafter, she directed two features each starring Ella Hall, Carmel Myers, and Ruth Clifford. Unfortunately, much of her work has been lost or destroyed over time leaving a fragmentary archive that raises more questions that it answers. In particular, the difficult issue of attribution emerges in attempts to compile an accurate filmography for figures such as Wilson, who was married to a director and, like Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley, Helen Holmes and J. P. McGowan, for instance, collaborated on several films with her husband. Elsie Jane Wilson and Rupert Julian began working for Universal Studios’ newly established Rex Company in Los Angeles in 1914 and made several films together over the following six years. What is one to do, for instance, when Moving Picture World credits Rupert Julian for the direction of The Savage (1917), but actress Ruth Clifford recalls in an interview that it was Elsie Jane Wilson who directed her on the film? Was The Savage a man’s or a woman’s work? The same question might be asked of The Circus of Life (1917), which the American Film Institute database credits to Julian’s direction, but which Universal’s house publication, the Moving Picture Weekly, claimed as Wilson’s first feature in November 1917 (29).
We might begin to answer this question by interpreting a film Wilson certainly directed, The Dream Lady (1918), as showing us, first, that orchestrating dreams is woman’s work, and second, that such dream work entails a playful approach to gender roles. The picture features an orphan, played by Carmel Myers, who spends her inheritance fulfilling other people’s wishes, thereby realizing her own dreams by becoming the Dream Lady. Thanks to the print restored by the French Centre national de la cinématographie, we can understand this title more complexly as an early iteration of what Chris Straayer has called “the temporary transvestite film.” As is typical of the genre, gender visibility emerges as a central theme. Myers’s character grants a young woman’s wish by costuming her as boy, which sets up a series of recognitions and misrecognitions. In one scene, the woman, dressed as a man, kisses Myers’s character in gratitude. The leading man, played by Thomas Holding, happens upon the scene and misunderstands the gesture, but his jealousy ends up clarifying his relationship with Myers’s character. Further complications ensue, but in the end Myers and Holding are united in a rowboat. Just as it seems they might kiss, Wilson denies our look, cutting instead to the shore where a little girl, the Dream Lady’s assistant, covers the eyes of her pet dog.
The Dream Lady (1918) awaits comparison with other extant films that present gender as a kind of performance, such as Alice Guy Blaché ’s Cupid and the Comet (1911), as analyzed by Alison McMahan (2002, 229–233), and The Florida Enchantment (1914), which we now know was written by Marguerite Bertsch. Further research will also need to be done to determine the extent of Wilson’s contribution to many shared projects and, perhaps more importantly, such research may effect the way we think of the nature of such collaborative efforts in the early years of cinema.