Midway through David Thomson’s meandering and (self-) reflective history of world cinema, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Did to Us, he discusses British director David Lean’s classic film Brief Encounter, a “woman’s film” about an adulterous affair. Thomson is mystified by the film’s “tacit admission of women’s tragic position, whereas in Lean’s best-loved films (The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence Of Arabia), the world is dominated by active men doing big things to change history with hardly a female in sight.” For years I have appreciated Thomson’s film criticism — his book jacket claims he is “the greatest living writer on film” — and I regularly consult his The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. So it was with dismay, indeed horror, that I discovered his new book presents the history of cinema, from its origins to the present, with hardly a female in sight.
I eagerly anticipated reading about some of my favorite bombshells. In early cinema these include Gloria Swanson, Lillian Gish, Louise Brooks, and Mary Pickford.
Thomson describes Pickford as having accrued “perhaps the greatest success and fortune any woman has yet achieved in the movies… the most hardworking and fiscally astute partner in United Artists, the distribution company she formed”; then ignores her, lamenting “she’s been all but forgotten.” If you, renowned and popular film critic and historian, don’t write about her, that becomes one self-fulfilling prophecy.
As Thomson provides profiles of great man upon great man — Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Louis B. Mayer, D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, F.W. Murnau — we hear next to nothing of the era’s female superstars
— Mabel Normand, Norma Talmadge, Pola Negri, Delores Del Rio, Clara Bow, Lillian and Dorothy Gish. Thompson grants several paragraphs to Louise Brooks but primarily to emphasize how she was a “bad girl” on screen and off. Gloria Swanson gets billing only for her role as Norma Desmond, the washed-up diva in Sunset Boulevard.
I expected Thomson to give at least a cameo to some of the pioneering female film directors — Alice Guy Blaché, Ida May Park, and Lois Weber. Nothing. Nor does he mention the well-documented fact that during the silent era, because film was considered a low-class medium and a passing fancy, women controlled the industry. Most of the important stars were women; many of them had their own production companies regularly hiring women as directors, producers, editors, writers, and technicians. (Four excellent books on the subject are: Ally Acker’s Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema, 1896 to the Present; Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood by Karen Ward Mahar; Early Women Directors by Anthony Slide; Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood
by Cari Beauchamp.)
As for the talkies, Thomson omits Dorothy Arzner, who directed a string of bankable movies starring actresses such as Rosalind Russell, Merle Oberon, Claudette Colbert, Joan Crawford, Katherine Hepburn, giving many of them their debuts. Negligible coverage goes to bombshells Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Katherine Hepburn. Mae West? Besides creating one hell of a screen presence and persona, she was a highly successful playwright and screenwriter who brought the subject of sexuality and eroticism to the big screen in a big way. She saved Paramount from financial ruin and launched Cary Grant’s career (Thomson, of course, covers him amply). West’s name appears once in Thomson’s book on a list. Jean Harlow? Nowhere. The phenomenal fast-talking dames of ’30s comedy — Irene Dunne, Myrna Loy, Jean Arthur? Hardly noted. His pages on Ingrid Bergman exist only to describe her as a “compulsive man-izer” and revel in her public downfall following her affair with Roberto Rossellini, whom he lauds as “a collector of spectacular women.” Thomson waxes lyrical about Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, King Vidor, Fritz Lang, Eisenstein, Peter Lorre, and Humphrey Bogart — all of whom are wonderfully worthy subjects but hardly alone in giving birth to the movies. And so it goes on and on and on. Women’s contribution to world cinema is virtually ignored by Thomson right up to the present.
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