This summer marks an important milestone: the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the U.S. So we're taking this momentous occasion to celebrate female trailblazers, especially those in the film world. I love movies, but I’ve always been aware that I have a blind spot when it comes to movies from early cinema. So that’s why I teamed up with Senior Producer Andrea Wolanin to revisit seven significant early films made by women.

I knew Andrea’s deep knowledge of film history would help provide a roadmap for getting to know these prolific filmmakers. For each of these seven films, Andrea provides important context about the film’s impact on the world of cinema and society at large, and I’ll share my reactions from watching them for the first time. Let’s go!

Falling Leaves by Alice Guy-Blanché, 1912

Andrea: Alice Guy-Blanché is the first known female filmmaker and believed to have been the inventor of the narrative film — which basically makes her the patron saint of female filmmakers everywhere. Though her first narrative film was lost, we know a fair bit about it: The Fairy of Cabbages was originally filmed in 1896, and featured a fairy walking through a garden and discovering babies in her cabbages. (So, I guess we could also say Guy-Blanché invented Cabbage Patch Kids? You’re welcome, 80s children.)

While a second version of the short, also filmed by Guy-Blanché, is available, her career didn’t stop there. She is estimated to have made more than 1,000 films during her career. To commemorate the French filmmaker, today we’re taking a look at Falling Leaves (1912), one of her later films, which was shot in the U.S. where she and her husband started their film studio, Solax.

Meghan: This was a beautiful short film and Guy-Blanché has complete control of this narrative. It felt eerily poignant to watch someone suffering through a sickness during our pandemic, but luckily this one had a happy ending. One thing I noticed throughout was the blocking of the actors: the actors had to be very aware of what they were doing with their whole bodies, and make sure not to block anyone, almost like a play on stage.

The framing was beautiful and I liked how the busy scenes with a lot of characters moving around contrasted with scenes with just the child. The child actor playing Trixie was charismatic and heartwarming. My favorite shot was when Trixie opens the framed door to go outside and see the trees. It reminded me of the scene in Wizard of Oz when Dorothy steps outside into colorful Munchkinland for the first time.

Suspense by Lois Weber, 1913

Andrea: Often called “America’s first female filmmaker,” Weber was the first woman to direct a feature length film: a retelling of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Throughout her career, she created between 200 and 400 films, though only 20 remain today. Like many of the women involved in pre-Hays-code Hollywood, her work showed a concern with humanity, social justice and women’s issues. And like many early women involved in filmmaking, she was innovative — using split screen effects, not shying away from nudity, and even using sound in her films.

Suspense (1913) was the film of Weber’s that introduced the idea of utilizing split screens in film. It’s superbly filmed, with creative angles, modern pacing, the relatable theme of sexual harassment, and the ever-popular horror film theme of home invasion. And not only did Weber direct in it, she stars in it — a challenge in any cinematic age!

Meghan: You’re so right about Suspense being superbly filmed. There are some incredibly framed shots, like seeing the rocking baby through the keyhole, looking down through the wooden roof, and seeing the reflection of action in a side-view mirror. Not to mention when the “tramp” looks directly into the camera above him. And the use of split screens is seamless.

This film made me anxious in the best possible way, as Weber masterfully created *suspense* with her pacing. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time wondering what was going to happen with that baby. The lurking man enters the frames so effectively — and, cleverly, Weber lets the audience see the man before the woman does, creating that classic horror movie experience of yelling at a character not to do something. I totally see how this created a blueprint for future horror filmmakers.

Mabel at the Wheel by Mabel Norman, 1914

Andrea: Okay, so this list is about female filmmakers, which Mabel Normand was — but her biggest claim to fame is possibly her mentorship of a male filmmaker: Charlie Chaplin. A champion of the icon, she actually directed him in three of his earliest films. However, Normand was a total rockstar in her own right. She wrote six films, directed ten, and starred in an astonishing 200 films between 1914 and 1927. What’s more? She invented the pie-in-the-face gag, when she threw a pie at a co-worker to try and get him to laugh. It worked so well, they kept it in the film.

The majority of Normand’s films were comedies, usually starring her as a slyly innocent girl who just happens to get in a pickle. Her film Mabel at the Wheel (1914), which she directs and stars in, is Chaplin’s third recorded appearance on the big screen, and one where he improbably plays a villain. But Mabel is the one with the last laugh.

Meghan: This was a joy to watch and did genuinely make me laugh. In modern movies, I don’t usually like slapstick comedy, but this feels fresh and lighthearted. It shows that without dialogue, actors need to use their whole bodies to effectively tell the story and entertain the audience. And Charlie Chaplin is obviously a master at that.

There were some really impressive tracking shots of bike riding at the beginning; I imagine that was a challenge to shoot given what equipment must have been like. I also noticed a lot of clever editing to move the story along, especially in the shoe fight sequence and the car racing at the end. Also, I love that Normand named this film after herself — she was the true driver of the story!

Cinderella and Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed by Lotte Reiniger, 1922 and 1926

Andrea: One of the earliest animators, the German Reiniger is famous for her silhouette animations, absolutely stunning creations that blended the German art of scherenschnitte (literally “scissor cuts”) with the moving image. She devised the first multiplane camera to film her creations, an invention that was later used to animate everything from Snow White to Betty Boop (take that, old boys club!). Her film The Adventures of Prince Ahmed is one of the oldest surviving feature-length animations, and still in distribution today, close to 100 years later.

Reiniger belonged to Germany’s vibrant avant-garde scene, working alongside and collaborating with artists like Bertolt Brecht, Paul Wegener, Fritz Lang and her future husband, Carl Koch. During this period, she made a series of animations based on fairytales, including this one based on Cinderella (1922).

Meghan: These animations are stunning. I am in awe of how visually magnificent each frame is — every single one looks like it could be its own painting. And I can’t even imagine the patience it took for her to perfectly place every silhouette. She plays with scale so well, using negative space wisely and paying close attention to small details like each person’s outfit or the lush setting. These films combine fantasy, whimsy, adventure and drama perfectly.

The Seashell and the Clergyman by Germaine Dulac, 1928

[Warning: Contains nudity]

Andrea: Although she began her working life as a feminist writer, it didn’t take long for Germaine Dulac to find her way into film. In 1914, when an actress friend was offered a role that required her to travel to Italy, Dulac tagged along — and discovered her new passion. She’s believed to be the first surrealist filmmaker, even though her work is often overshadowed by that of Luis Buñel and Salvador Dalí. Her belief that cinema should be without influence from literature or stage plays inspired the Cinema Pur movement later followed by Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Rene Clair.

Dulac’s film The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928) intimates the tale of a priest falling in love with a visiting woman, his passion leading to lustful hallucinations. Naturally, this plot line ruffled a few feathers; the British Censorship Board went so far as to say it was "so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable." Yassss, Queen.

Meghan: My guess is that the British Censorship Board is made up of men? Because I can totally see how Dulac is telling this story with a firmly feminist perspective; surrealism without the male gaze. There’s something really interesting about the way she examines masculinity. She chooses to feature two men in morally respectable professions — a military officer and a priest — who are nonetheless driven to act hysterical by physical attraction. And I can feel her frustration at how women are constantly only seen as objects of desire.

Maybe I’ve seen Fleabag too many times, but when watching this film I often thought of the show’s second season, in which the main character embarks on a forbidden and tumultuous romance with a priest (if you’re a woman on social media these days, you’ve no doubt heard the term “hot priest.”) The scene in the confessional was very reminiscent of the famous “kneel” scene in Fleabag. I’d be curious if Phoebe Waller-Bridge had this film in mind when she wrote the show's second season.

Mädchen in Uniform by Leontine Sagan, 1931

Andrea: While not as prolific as many of the women on this list, having directed only three films, Sagan is incredibly significant for the unique feminist perspective she brought to her films. Her short film, Men of Tomorrow, outlines what might happen in a relationship where the woman takes on traditionally male gender-roles, while her feature, Mädchen in Uniform, was an early film to showcase a story of queer youth.

Mädchen in Uniform is notable because it showcases a queer storyline, as well as an all-female cast. Filmed in 1930, Sagan’s movie was popular across Berlin until the Nazi’s banned it as “decadent” when they rose to power. (Sagan’s Jewish ethnicity likely didn’t help either.) Thankfully, the film was not lost; a favorite of (OG boss) Eleanor Roosevelt, she managed to finagle it past the Hays code, and secure a limited release in the U.S.

Meghan: I love when movies ask the question: How do women act when there are no men around? And this film certainly does that. Too few films, even today, set themselves in female-centered spaces away from the male gaze. This film feels like a distant cousin of last year's Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

I went to an all-girls high school, and I appreciated the way this film portrays the silliness of school girls. I don’t understand German, but the visuals were striking enough to tell an engaging story. It also reminds me that generally, I wish we could see more coming-of-age stories featuring young girls. I’m surprised a story like this could have been made at that time. Even if it were made today, I wonder if that teacher-student romance would be controversial.

Dance, Girl Dance by Dorothy Arzner, 1940

Andrea: Quick fact: the Motion Picture Production Code, or “The Hays Code” was a set of morality guidelines in place for censoring film content from 1934 to 1968, put into place after a series of scandals rocked young Hollywood. The code ruled out many things as unseemly — most notably women’s issues like birth control, abortion, and prostitution. Because of this, and the growth of Hollywood as an industry, the “Golden Age” of Hollywood saw very few female filmmakers.

One of the best-known women from this era was Dorothy Arzner, who was the first woman to direct a sound film, the first woman to join the Director’s Guild of America, and the person who launched the careers of Lucille Ball, Rosalind Russell and Katherine Hepburn (#squadgoals).

While the code required Arzner to play ball with the studios, she still managed to get her point made. One of her final films, and her best known, is Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), a feature that squarely takes on the male gaze and women’s freedom to support themselves in any way they choose — not to mention a young Lucille Ball dancing burlesque!

Meghan: This film was dazzling and fun to watch. The costumes are killer and there is some very neat use of lighting. How cool was it to see Lucille Ball in a story so different from her famous role in I Love Lucy? She delivered a great line: “We’re not leaving until we get paid!” You go, girl. I always enjoy stories about empowered women working in jobs that are often seen as objectifying. It reminded me of last year’s Hustlers, a feminist perspective on a group of strippers who devise a brilliant scheme to make money. The women say, if the system is already corrupt and patriarchal, why not profit from it? That film was also directed by a woman. See what happens when women are behind the camera?