Courtesy of Poster House
Long before there were movie trailers to help people make their viewing decisions, there were these things called “lobby cards.”
Hand-drawn images or photographic stills usually included a “title card” showing the name of the film and the main actors involved, then a number of “scene cards” showing key plot moments.
“Think of it as a static trailer,” said Melissa Walker, curator of Experimental Marriage: Women in Early Hollywood, an exhibition of silent era lobby cards currently underway at Poster House in New York. “These cards would have been displayed in a theater lobby window or…somewhere inside the theater to promote upcoming attractions.”
Experimental marriage brings together around 90 lobby cards from a collection of 7,800 pieces devoted to women in silent film.
The items were collected by Chicago-based collector Dwight Cleveland, who has been collecting vintage movie posters and lobby cards for decades. A few years ago, while looking for a book on movie posters, the collector came across a lobby card ad manhattan coctail, a 1928 Paramount picture by one of the most important filmmakers of early cinema, Dorothy Arzner. The lobby map launched him into an in-depth research project inspired by the COVID-lockdown: he began researching publicity material relating to the long-forgotten contributions of women involved in the American silent film industry.
Courtesy of Poster House
“These women have played such an important role as directors, producers, editors, adaptors, screenwriters and creators. I have a thousand names on my list that make up this filmography and some of them have been involved in 50 or 75 films “Cleveland said. “I was a bit embarrassed after 45 years that I didn’t know more about it.”
The vast majority of films from the silent era are lost today, due to fires, rotting film and other hazards. Thus, the Poster House exhibit offers a rare insight into not only the breadth of female talent in the industry at the time, but also the kinds of stories these women sought to tell on screen.
“The lobby maps and posters are the only surviving artifacts from that era for most of these films,” said Robert Byrne, chairman of the board of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and film restorer who specializes in film. mute era. “They provide the only evidence of the people who made them and what those movies were about.”
Courtesy of the Dwight Cleveland Collection
For example, the 1919 movie lobby map Oh you women is significant for highlighting the names and images of the film’s writer-directors – wife-husband team Anita Loos and John Emerson.
“Their names are bigger than the stars on this map, so that tells you something about the secret of these creators,” curator Walker said.
Loos, a California-born actor and writer, was at the center of a group of women moving and moving in Hollywood’s silent era that included Marion Davies and sisters Norma and Constance Talmadge. Loos is perhaps best known now for her 1925 novel Men prefer blondes. She became one of the first women to earn a living as a screenwriter after being hired by DW Griffith at the Biograph Company in 1912.
“I had been writing for Griffith for two years sending scripts to his company,” Loos said in a 1974 interview for NPR when she was 80. “But the moment he moved to Hollywood, he sent for me. And from then on, I stayed in the field as his staff.”
Like many films of the time, Walker said the plot of Oh you women – which can be gleaned by studying lobby cards – both played with and reinforced gender stereotypes. “A man returned home to his hometown to find it overrun with suffragists wearing slacks,” Walker said. “He falls in love with this woman wearing a dress. He mistakenly believes she is not a suffragette.”
Walker said she doesn’t know how the film ended, as it was lost and the lobby’s card collection was incomplete. But based on other titles aimed at female audiences during the silent film era, she ventures a guess: “They probably end up getting married because that’s a trend with all these movies.”
Courtesy of Poster House
The 1923 movie Adam’s rib, one of the few silent films still in existence (it is accessible on YouTube) was directed by a man – Cecil B. DeMille. But women played other important roles on set. Writer Jeanine MacPherson, whose name appears at the bottom of the card, was a key figure in film history. Besides writing, she has also acted and directed films.
“Jeanie McPherson worked extensively with Cecil B. DeMille. They made 40 films together,” Walker said. “And when he died, it was suddenly revealed that she was not only his colleague, but also his mistress!”
Walker added that the film included costumes from one of the era’s most renowned costume and set designers, Clare West.
“Clare West is a bit of a hybrid,” Walker said. “She had a really interesting job title at Triangle – studio designer.”
The parcel from Adam’s rib follows a wife’s infidelity and a daughter’s attempt to protect her mother’s honor. Order is restored when the wife finally returns to her husband.
Courtesy of Poster House
The exhibit also features scene maps of The Amazons, a lost 1917 film starring Marguerite Clark. The cards are significant both because of what they show of bold history – “It’s about three sisters, and they were raised as men,” Walker said – and as a example of the work of prolific screenwriter Frances Marion, a longtime collaborator and friend of Hollywood icon Mary Pickford. “Marion wrote over 300 screenplays and in 1930 she became the first woman to win an Oscar for writing a screenplay,” Walker said. “And it was the first time a woman won outside of the ‘best actress’ category.”
Marion is also notable as co-author of How to Write and Sell Movie Stories, which Walker says became required reading once universities began introducing film studies programs. “They adopted his book as a textbook,” Walker said. “She was an authority.”
Marion was one of the few women in Hollywood with a lifelong career in the industry; she even has a 1979 posthumous credit for creating the Faye Dunaway-Jon Voight vehicle story Field. But the overwhelming majority of women working in Hollywood at the turn of the last century didn’t have long careers.
“In the early years, women were incredibly important because it was more of a cottage industry, where groups of people contributed to all the different aspects of making a movie informally,” said Radha Vatsal, a New York-based author. film specialist and co-editor of The Women Film Pioneers Project, a digital sourcebook that catalogs women’s contributions to early cinema. “Then the more the system grew and the more professional it became, that’s when the women slowly got pushed out. The bigger the company, the less you’re going to “trust a woman “to make this product.”
Vatsal said women’s contributions to this country’s early films were all the more remarkable as many of them left their mark even before they had the right to vote. She said it took nearly a century for the film industry to gradually and hesitantly bring women back into the leadership roles they once held in greater numbers.
“It’s taken a long time for those numbers to recover, and I’m not sure they’ve fully recovered yet,” Vatsal said. “I think we understand better that progress is not linear. You take a lot of steps forward, but you also take steps backwards.”
Experimental Marriage: Women in Early Hollywood through October 9 at Poster House in New York, NY.