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Moving Image Section--Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division



Motion Pictures
The Silent Era
arrow graphicWomen on Screen

Women Behind the Camera
The Studio Era
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The Silent Era: Women on Screen

Paper Print Collection

The Paper Print Collection (3,000 films, 1894-1915) is the cornerstone of the historic film holdings available in the Motion Picture and Television Reading Room, providing an excellent overview of the development of both American actuality and narrative films. Images range from Girls taking time checks [moving image] or Taping coils [moving image] in the Westinghouse Works factory in East Pittsburgh (Westinghouse Works, 1904) to girls at play (Girls' Acrobatic Feats, 1898?, FLA 3506). They show the fashions of 1903 as worn by middle-class women on the bustling streets of New York in At the Foot of the Flatiron [moving image], as well as the attire of newly arrived immigrants in Emigrants [i.e., immigrants] Landing at Ellis Island [moving image].

Melodramas depicted the fate of young women who succumbed to temptation. In The Downward Path (1900, FLA 4010-4014), a girl who runs away from home ends up dancing in a disreputable saloon and finally commits suicide. The Fate of the Artist's Model (1903, FLA 4614-4618) shows a young woman and her baby who are abandoned by her artist lover. There are numerous voyeuristic films in which the camera is set as if in the audience of a vaudeville theater. In Peeping Tom in the Dressing Room (1905, FLA 3917), a man watches through a keyhole as a buxom woman dresses. Discovered, the Peeping Tom is brought into the dressing room, where chorus girls beat him with powder puffs. In Pouting Model (1901, FLA 3797), curtains open to disclose an aged man sitting on a chair and a nude young girl with her head turned toward the wall as if crying. Early examples of several genre films with a feminine twist can also be found in the Paper Print Collection. A female police operative attempts to save a girl kidnapped by Chinese “white slavers” in the crime film The Fatal Hour (1908, FLA 5373), and a horsewoman saves her lover from being hanged in the western The Girl from Montana (1907, FLA 5046).

Motion picture performers who acted in story films were originally anonymous. Because of the popularity of certain players, however, producers began to identify them in newspaper articles, in advertising, and finally, in on-screen credits, thus giving birth to the movie star. Among the paper prints are films of the very first movie stars, including Florence Lawrence (1886-1938), Lillian Gish (1896-1993), Mabel Normand (1894-1930), Mae Marsh (1895-1968), Blanche Sweet (1895-1986), and Mary Pickford (1892-1979).

The book catalog Early Motion Pictures: The Paper Print Collection in the Library of Congress is arranged alphabetically by title with an index including subject categories, place-names, personal names, genres, and company names. Films related to women can be found under headings such as “Socially significant themes,” “Peep show,” and “Dance.”

George Kleine Collection

Purchased from the estate of a film industry entrepreneur, the 456 films in the George Kleine Collection span the years from 1896 to 1926, and include dramas, comedies, actualities, and educational films. Public events staged by American suffragists and captured by newsreel cameras are presented in such films as Franchise Parade, Tarrytown, N. Y. (1915) [catalog record], and Suffrage Parade, New York City (1915) [catalog record]. Narrative films in the collection include Deliverance (1919) [catalog record], starring Helen Keller (1880-1968) in a dramatization of her life; the melodrama Heart of a Waif (1915) [catalog record], featuring twelve-year-old Clare Boothe Luce (1903-1987); and The Tiger's Coat (1920) [catalog record], with photographer Tina Modotti (1896-1942).

A genre of particular interest to historians is the social-problem film of the silent era. These films dramatized societal ills and concerns such as prostitution, women's suffrage, and birth control. Children of Eve (1915) [catalog record] is a child labor melodrama that calls for improved working conditions after a factory fire. Comedy was used both to support and lampoon social causes. In The Politicians (1915) [catalog record], a female detective and a suffragette chief of police thwart the schemes of two dishonest politicians, whereas The Sufferin Baby (1915) [catalog record] shows the comic misadventures of a suffragist's husband who is left to mind their child. Ten comedy shorts in the James Montgomery Flagg's Girls You Know series (1918) present various popular images of young women, such as The Bride [catalog record], The Good Sport [catalog record], The Man-Eater [catalog record], The Spoiled Girl [catalog record], and The Stenog [catalog record]. These films can be found by searching the subject index provided in The George Kleine Collection of Early Motion Pictures in the Library of Congress and in the online catalog, by searching under headings such as
Child labor—Drama

Theodore Roosevelt Collection

The 318 films released between 1897 and 1934 that make up the Theodore Roosevelt Collection focus on Roosevelt and his life and times but also include many prominent women, especially those in the suffrage movement. The index to the Roosevelt catalog lists Margaret Hill McCarter, Sarah Bernhardt, Helen Rogers Reid, Harriet B. Laidlaw, Elizabeth Ogden Brower Wood, Cornelia Bryce Pinchot, Florence Kling Harding, Edith Wilson, Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, Elizabeth A. Bryce, Geraldine Farrar, Sallie White Bolling, and Helen Herron Taft.

Mary Pickford Collection

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Little Lord Fauntleroy. Directors: Alfred E. Green and Jack Pickford; Camera: Charles Rosher; Scenario: Bernard McConville. Cast: Mary Pickford, Claude Gillingwater, Joseph Dowling, Francis Marion; Lobby card, Mary Pickford Co. 1921. Dwight Cleveland Lobby Card Collection (unprocessed), Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USZC4-8145.

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There is no better example of the silent-movie star than Mary Pickford. An internationally renowned actress, Pickford was also one of the world's most successful businesswomen and a motion picture producer who achieved control over all aspects of her films. The Mary Pickford Collection (100 films) consists of print and preprint materials sampling her entire film career, beginning with Her First Biscuits in 1909 (FLA 5434) and ending with her last film, Secrets (preprint), in 1933. Several movies in which Pickford collaborated with one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood, Frances Marion (1888-1973), are also part of this collection, including a film Marion directed, Love Light (1921) [catalog record].

Raymond Rohauer Collection

The films of other popular female silent stars are found in the Raymond Rohauer Collection (350 films), including Norma and Constance Talmadge. Norma (1893-1957) specialized in melodrama, and Constance (1898-1973) carved out a distinguished career in sophisticated comedy. Talmadge films in the Rohauer Collection include Sawdust and Salome (1914, FEA 5091), Heart of Wetona (1918, FEC 1680-1685), A Daughter of Two Worlds (1920) [catalog record], The Woman Gives (1920, FGE 9134-9136), and Her Sister from Paris (1925, FGE 7281-7284). Also in the Rohauer Collection are rare silent feature films and early sound shorts with performers such as Fanny Brice (1891-1951), Anna Pavlova (1881-1931), and Agnes de Mille (1905-1993).

Public Archives of Canada/Dawson City Collection

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The Timber Queen: Episode No. 11, The Runaway Engine. Director: Fred Jackson; Screenplay: Bertram Millhauser; Cast: Ruth Roland, Bruce Gordon, Val Paul, Leo Willis; Lobby card, Ruth Roland Serials/Pathé 1922. Dwight Cleveland Lobby Card Collection (unprocessed), Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USZ62-126851.

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The motion picture serial—action melodramas that were presented one chapter at a time in weekly installments over the course of several months, each episode ending with a cliffhanger—was introduced to American audiences in 1912. Female performers dominated the genre throughout the silent era. Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline (1914) set the pattern, as serial heroines leaped onto speeding trains, raced through flames, dived off bridges, and faced threatening buzz saws, all without stunt doubles. The Public Archives of Canada/Dawson City Collection has an extensive array of serials that feature women as spies, Robin Hood figures, telegraph operators, railroad professionals, and master thieves, played by such actresses as Pearl White in Pearl of the Army (1916-17), Helen Holmes in Hazards of Helen (1915), and Marie Walcamp in The Red Ace (1917-18). Also included are Lucille Love (1914) and The Girl of Mystery (1914), starring and written by Grace Cunard, and The Purple Mask (1917), which Cunard also directed. Cataloging records are available in the Library's online catalog.

Ephemeral Films

Ephemeral films encompass a wide range of commercial and amateur motion pictures, including advertising and promotional films, educational films, and home movies. The division has examples of early advertising films hawking products for women or using women's sex appeal to sell products to men. Warner's Corsets (191-?) [moving image] is a fictionalized story of “Warner's fashionable rust-proof corsets, guaranteed not to rust, break or tear.” Buy an Electric Refrigerator (1926?) [moving image] is a product commercial and Admiral Cigarette (1897) [moving image] features an attractive girl in a striking costume who hands cigarettes to a group of men. From Cabin to Castle (ca. 1930, FEB 4440-4442) is believed to be a promotional piece with still shots and footage of African American entrepreneur Madame C. J. Walker (1867-1919), her daughter A'lelia Walker, and employees at work in her cosmetics manufacturing company.

Educational films were intended primarily to instruct and inform and were shown in nontheatrical settings, mainly classrooms. The Truth about the Liberty Motor (1919, nitrate), produced by Ford Motor Company, combines promotional and educational functions in a film about women war workers during the First World War. This picture demonstrates that “after a few lessons, she is just as capable a mechanic as her brother who has gone to France.” Social Hygiene for Women (FEB 4183), produced by the American Social Hygiene Association in 1920, was used to illustrate lectures to women regarding reproductive organs and covering facts about gonorrhea and syphilis.

Family, friends, and vacation locales are the typical subjects found in home movies. The division's amateur film collections include those of prominent American women, such as celebrated poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), Evalyn Walsh McLean (1886-1947), a leader in the social life of Washington, D.C., from the 1910s to her death, and Agnes E. Meyer (1887-1970), author and social reformer, and her husband Eugene Meyer, editor and publisher of the Washington Post. The Meyer films, shot in the 1920s, include footage of two of their children, Katharine Meyer Graham (Mrs. Philip L. Graham) and Elizabeth Meyer Lorentz (Mrs. Pare Lorentz).

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