I’m a nut for L.A. history, and when that history melds with the early days of Hollywood, I’m in 100%. So I was very excited to screen LOST LA: The Dream Factory. Most confounding, was my discovery of just how progressive Hollywood was when filmmaking first set up shop in Southern California. At least when it came to women.
Host Nathan Masters recounts the wild west atmosphere that permeated early Hollywood when it really was a haven for cowboys and orange groves.
It’s surprising when considering that film’s early days had almost none of the prejudices regarding gender as today. If you’re looking for a plethora of female filmmakers, look no further than the dawn of the silver screen.
Director Logan Kibens does a thorough job in a short amount of time with the “Women in Early Hollywood” Segment; charting the course from Hollywood’s nascent embrace of female filmmakers to the continual struggle with telling women’s stories today. Author Shirley Stamp sets the scene for a time when moviemaking was not considered a classy affair. But author Hilary Hallett admits that it was in the popular world of 19th Century theater that women’s involvement was more than in some of the other arts. In the 1910s, with the huge success of movies going from the nickelodeon to the theater screen, moviemakers wanted to cement this legitimacy by woo-ing a female audience. Even in fan literature (PR to you and me) moviemakers trumpeted the fact that women were in charge of the stories they were anxious to see.
While there were several women filmmakers, Kibens focuses on Lois Weber. Movie buffs know her well, but the general population is more than likely unaware. She was the first woman accepted into the precursor to the Director’s Guild, the first woman in the Academy, and one of the highest paid directors in Hollywood , as well as the first to start her own studio. In fact, her peers at the time were none other than D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. Demille!
Fantastic staging, cinematography, shot composition – Weber had an eye for storytelling that shocks even the modern viewer. Director, producer, writer; her films tackled social injustice and cultural mores deeper than any Hollywood filmmakers would be allowed to tackle just ten years later.
Excerpted scenes and stills illuminate the thrust of Lost LA: The Dream Factory which only further whets the viewer’s appetite to seek out some of these hard-to-find classics. In 1917, at the height of her power, Weber left Universal to start her own production company, overseeing a startling amount of product in just four years.
However, by the early 1920s, the industry shifted, as a reaction to womens suffrage, altering the course for (can we say?) almost 100 years. This was not just impacting women, but minority writers, directors and actors. And as the inflexible attitudes of a “business” took over, so did racial and gender insensitivity and inequality.
Actor Sinclair Yip ushers in the stories of Central Casting and the whitewashing of early sound films, with white men and women playing Asians, Native Americans, Latinos and even African Americans.
After World War I, the expansion of the nation’s understanding of global economics and themes meant Americans hungered for exotic locations. In stepped good ol’ William Hayes, author of the Hayes code, who helped establish Central Casting and the ability to standardize the casting of extras. Here was how stereo-typed characterizations were created, putting Chinese actors in “coolie’ hats, and African Americans in “native attire.” While minorities blanketed the background, it was white actors who received center screen. From Paul Muni in The Good Earth to John Wayne in The Conquerer, caucasian actors would have their eyelids stretched in hideous exaggeration. The reasoning is murky, but some deep seated racism may have to do with a fear of leading white actors having to interact (read “touch”) with other ethnicities on camera.
In just its short half hour running time, LOST LA always has the ability to pull the viewer in and create a desire for greater research and exploration, and The Dream Factory is definitely no exception. Southern California residents can check it out on local KCET tonight at 8:30PM, but can be enjoyed anywhere on LinkTV.org.
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