The first major name connected with a Western movie is Gilbert M. Anderson (1880-1971), also known as "Broncho Billy". At the age of twenty he was randomly selected to play an outlaw in the first western ever made - The Great Train Robbery. He was asked, "Can you ride?" "I was born in the saddle," Anderson replied. Despite his reply, Anderson could neither ride nor shoot. During the filming, he fell off his horse, and was given a more pedestrian role. The movie was made in 2 days in New Jersey and was an instant hit with audiences.
After founding the Essanay Movie Studio in 1907 with George Spoor, he began the "Broncho Billy" series, a very popular string of movies that were as much domestic comedy as Western. Out of necessity, he invented both the "double" and the "stunt man". He also needed what later came to be called "riding extras", but for these he had to rely on whatever out-of-work cowboys might be drifting through the area. He eventually became a skilled rider and at least an adequate hand with a pistol. Along the way, he also became the first movie actor to be recognized as a "star".
During the first three decades of the American film industry, there were many women movie directors, but hardly anyone is aware of it. It is a great Hollywood secret. Here is a brief history of three women who became successful directors during the early years of the movie industry.
The concept of women as directors beganin France in 1896, when Alice Guy Blache (1873-1968), directed La Fee aux Choux. She directed some 400 films in France and 354 films in the U.S. Most of the films were one-reel comedies. In 1912, she became the first woman to build her own studio.
The first American woman director was Lois Weber (1882-1939). Starting in 1908 she directed at least 40 feature films, often writing and starring in them. An ardent supporter of Margaret Sanger and a fierce opponent of censorship, she used her films to promote her ideals and philosophies. Weber opened her own studio and headed a group of women directors by 1920. Weber became the highest-paid woman director in the world.
Dorothy Arzner (1900-1979) was a pioneer film director. Born in San Francisco, she was the only American woman director to make a successful transition from the silent era to sound. The four silent and 13 sound features that Arzner directed between 1927 and 1943 were creative examples for the women who followed. She was a staunch feminist who showed women in commanding roles. Some of her stars included Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford. She received a 1975 Directors Guild of America tribute.
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page last updated:
September 17, 2001
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