For the next several weeks here at Primal Scenes I’ll be looking at twenty or so films by women directors from the silent era to the present, beginning with Alice Guy-Blaché’s The Ocean Waif (1916, pictured above). My approaches to these films will likely be scattershot, my hypothesis being that the only essential thing that all films by women can be said to have in common is that they are made by women, and that this in itself is no guarantee of any other aspect of the film. This is just to say that it’s been my experience that films by women (as distinct from “chick flicks,” “women’s films,” or “feminist cinema”) are as diverse and scattershot as the spectrum of cinema itself. The films I’ll be examining not only engage with issues of feminism, gender, and representation, but also dip into unlikely genres and subgenres (horror, exploitation), take up a wide range of political positions, and employ a variety of styles and tones. To refer to “films by women directors,” then, is really to say almost nothing, not even that they’re likely to take female characters as their subjects, as the recent work of Kathryn Bigelow proves: Bigelow’s films are (gasp) often heavily male-driven, a fact that caused some consternation even among her supporters during the lead-up to her Best Director Oscar win back in 2010.
Bigelow’s record as the first woman to win an Oscar in that category in some ways completes a circle begun over a century earlier, when Alice Guy-Blaché (born in France, later an emigrant to the U.S.) directed the fifty-five-second The Cabbage Fairy (1896), considered by some film historians to be the first narrative film ever made. While that record may be debated, Guy-Blaché is almost certainly the first female director in the history of the medium, and she continued working on into the twentieth century. The Ocean Waif, roughly forty minutes of which survive (it’s available on DVD from Kino), is a melodrama of the kind that D. W. Griffith would later apotheosize, hinging on a damsel in distress, good and bad suitors, a wrongful conviction, etc. (There are shades of both Broken Blossoms and The Wind here, as Our Heroine [Doris Kenyon] struggles to defend herself against the advances of her leering adopted father [William Morris].) All told, aside from the significance of its being attached to Guy-Blaché, The Ocean Waif is a fairly unremarkable picture, the kind of cliché romance that American filmmakers churned out ceaselessly during the 1910s and 1920s. It suggests that for Guy-Blaché—as opposed, say, to Lois Weber, who pointedly took up women’s issues in her films—making films largely meant doing the same work as the men alongside whom she shot.