Forgotten Feminists in film: The women who transformed Hollywood

Graphic by Kelsey Mason

To say that the film industry would be nothing without women is an understatement. From Chloe Zhao, who became the first woman of Asian descent to win an Oscar for “Best Director,” to Greta Gerwig and her success with “Barbie,” which became the first female-directed movie to reach $1 billion at the box office, women finally have the opportunity to show the world their phenomenal storytelling; largely thanks to those who came before them. Meet these trailblazing women who forged their way into Hollywood — whether or not they were welcome. 

Alice Guy-Blache

Alice Guy-Blache was born in Paris, France in 1873. Blache was hired as the secretary of French inventor and engineer, Leon Gaumont. Gaumont’s company created short films as part of their marketing campaigns for the camera equipment and film they produced. Bored with movies only created as promotional material for film equipment, Blache asked Gaumont if she could make her own narrative movie; he granted her permission. 

In 1896, Blache made her first film, “The Cabbage Fairy,” making her the first woman to direct a film and one of the first filmmakers to make a narrative film. In 1907, Blache moved to the United States and became the first woman to own a film studio, opening Solax Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey. As the president of Solax, Blache directed over 40 films and supervised the productions of about 300 more. 

Blache’s vision inspired Gaumont’s company to start creating films that had storylines, which would in turn revolutionize the film industry and help give us the movies we have today. Blache’s accomplishments have been overlooked, but it was her influence that had a lasting impact on filmmaking.

“If we learn about women, like Alice Guy-Blache, having an impact from the beginning of film, more women would feel as though they have the ability to pave a path in film themselves,” said Shannon Kelly, a junior studying film at BSU and the president of the Cinema Club. 

Kelly aspires to become a screenwriter and director, and her ultimate goal is to make a living through filmmaking, even if she has to work twice as hard. 

“It’s not as bad as it used to be, but [the film industry] is still a heavily male-dominated industry. I do think women will always have to prove ourselves,” said Kelly. “There are more hoops for us to jump through. We’re just learning how to jump through them.” 

Mary Pickford

Nicknamed “America’s Sweetheart” of the silent film era, Mary Pickford, a Canadian-born actress, was one of the first movie stars. After the death of her father, Pickford began acting to help her family make ends meet. Her determination and ambition would send her into stardom. 

After starring in “Tess of the Storm Country,” Pickford became an international star and negotiated a $10,000 weekly salary and 50% of her film profits, giving her financial freedom many women did not have at the time. At 27, she co-founded United Artists, the first independent film company, allowing her to produce and distribute her films. She won the Oscar for Best Actress in 1930 for “Coquette” while continuing to be a successful businesswoman in the film industry. 

After retiring from acting, Pickford continued to produce films with her production company and co-founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. At the height of her career, Pickford was one of the richest and most influential women in America. 

Ella Jacobson is a junior at BSU getting her BFA in film and television arts. She intends to work in visual effects and art production for films. 

Jacobson is inspired by Greta Gerwig, Margot Robbie and recently, Sydney Sweeny. 

“Sydney Sweeny started producing her own stuff and acting in it too. She auditioned for ‘Immaculate’ 10 years ago. And then she got it off the ground and produced it herself,” said Jacobson. 

 Greta Gerwig is an inspiration for Kelly as well. “I’ve seen her films before, but after ‘Barbie’ there was just something about the woman power behind the whole film that was so inspiring. It makes me excited to do something even half as great as that.” 

On the topic of Greta Gerwig, Jacobson referred to the director’s controversial 2024 Oscar Snub for “Barbie” as a sign of the ongoing struggle women face to gain recognition in the film industry. 

“Greta Gerwig did not get nominated for Best Director, and it’s just insane how causing all that stir did nothing for her, but it did for Oppenheimer, a man-led production,” said Jacobson. “I feel like women directors don’t get a lot of praise.” 

Jacobson wants to see better treatment for women in film, such as scholarships that are targeted toward aspiring female filmmakers. 

Hattie McDaniel

From a young age, Hattie McDaniel showed exceptional talent for acting. Leaving school in 1910 to pursue her career, McDaniel would perform in traveling minstrel shows until she got her first big movie role in 1934 starring alongside Will Rogers in “Judge Priest.” As a Black woman, McDaniel appeared in over 40 films in the role of a maid or cook during a time when Hollywood would often typecast Black Americans. 

However, she still managed to show her extraordinary talent and make the most out of the roles given to her. For her role as “Mammy” in the 1939 film, “Gone with the Wind,” McDaniel became the first Black actress to win an Oscar, winning for “Best Supporting Actress.” Her win was a monumental moment in film and Oscar history, inspiring many other Black actresses and actors to achieve their dreams in the entertainment industry. 

McDaniel also became the first Black American to appear in a weekly radio show, when she starred in “The Beulah Show” in 1947. McDaniels Oscar win and her many other achievements showed women, especially Black women, that they could succeed in an industry that refused to embrace them. 

Shelby Mann, a Film and Television Major at BSU, has various ambitions for her film career. “I have changed my mind several times as to what I specifically want to do in film, but right now it is art direction,” said Mann. “Overall though, I want to be happy and create cool things that have a positive effect on people.” 

Mann believes it is steadily becoming easier for women to establish themselves in film. 

“With this new wave of extremely talented women getting recognized in the field, on and off the screen, I think the conversation is getting bigger. That being said, there is still a long way to go.” 

Alice Guy-Blache, Mary Pickford and Hattie McDaniel motivate and lead aspiring female filmmakers with their example of unwavering perseverance and genius. Women, past and present, with their passion and talent, drive the film industry forward. 

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