No, I’m not talking about this era of the new millennium — when women movie stars are only superstars in magazines. I’m defining the era of more freedom in the media for women from the time commercial movies began. Men from all over the world had contributed to the invention and technical development of filmmaking apparatus, only for women to grab a bigger and bigger slice of the cake once it was obvious “The Movies” were turning into big business.
From the start, some of the most admired and successful screenwriters — Frances Marion, Jeanie Mcpherson, Anita Loos — and particularly starring actors, were female. In America, from 1910, Florence Turner and Florence Lawrence were as popular as any male star of the day, and from 1914-15, Mary Pickford, Pearl White and Theda Bara more so. Their equivalents in Europe were international superstars the androgynous, “mannish” looking Asta Nielsen who would play Hamlet, and Francesca Bertini, so seductively feminine she had perfume and fashions named after her from Paris to Tokyo. In 1913 a film starring 60-year-old French stage veteran and one-legged amputee “The Divine” Sarah Bernhardt, circulating the United States, made so much money it allowed distributor Adolph Zukor to found Paramount Pictures — proving it was not just the “cheesecake” angle that was successful.
At that period too, beginning before the First World War, Gene Gauntier of the Kalem studio was a combination of highly paid star and screenwriter, while Lois Weber at Universal was among the highest paid directors and producers — and usually starred in her films — moreover specialising in ‘modern’ women’s issues such as abortion and white slavery as her subjects. Alice Guy, head of production at France’s highly prolific and prestigious Gaumont, had formed the template at the turn of the century for such ‘behind the scenes’ women. Later in the US she started the Solax production company, admired for its high standards. But somehow, apart from directing the whole scenario as a screenwriter, not being able to show off in front of the camera didn’t appeal to most women attracted to showbiz.
The popularity of women on screen overtook that of men in the late Twenties and peaked through the Thirties. By the mid-Twenties, Mary Pickford, Norma Talmadge and Gloria Swanson were all on contracts guaranteeing them a million dollars a year; Barbara LaMarr and Colleen Moore similarly averaging $250,000 a film — equivalent to a great deal more than Elizabeth Taylor’s million-dollar fee in 1962, and considering there was then virtually no income tax to pay, probably more than Julia Roberts got at her peak.
Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich were the only stars to sustain these rewards into the Depression years, when austerity measures were introduced and even screen stars were taxed much more. The biggest box-office draw of the early Thirties, bar none, was the extremely homely, elderly Marie Dressler — a union activist in the movie industry and boasting a great comedic talent: everything but cheesecake. Behind her was sweet’n’wholesome Janet Gaynor, who necessarily adopted a policy of tight secrecy about her sexuality, succeeded by Shirley Temple at the very top through the rest of the Thirties. Other top female stars made appearances at the top of the pay heap through the decade: staunch capitalist Corinne Griffith, socialite Constance Bennett, Mae West, Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, and into the Forties, Bette Davis, Deanna Durbin, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and Ginger Rogers.
Money is power, and I needn’t belabor the point here that women have always been at least as adept as men at wielding any power that comes their way. Unfortunately, beginning around 1938, certain powers in the movie industry made sure that particularly independent-minded female stars like Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Mae West, Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn were tarred and feathered as “box-office poison”. All were ‘run out of town’, dead or drastically demoted in the industry. Only Hepburn, Crawford and Dietrich survived at all — because able to reinvent themselves at other studios. And it has never been remotely the same ever since for Hollywood women as far as the power game goes. Sure, more women are directors these days but that isn’t where the power lies.