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How Women Ran the Silent Film Industry – A guest post by Miranda Atchley

I’m so very excited to have Miranda Atchley as a guest on my blog today.

We met on the 1920s Book Club on Facebook, and I’m surprised we didn’t connect even before because we have so much in common. We both love a good story, we both love history – and especially the 1920s, duh! – and we both write stories set in the 1920s. 

Truth be told, Miranda is a far more prolific author than I am. She has written eleven books, guys! You should definitely check them out. She now has a series in the making set in the 1920s, The Fiona Clery Mystery Series, which is intriguing me no end. It contains all the themes I love connected to the 1920s: flappers, bootlegging, war veterans, and so much more. 

She’s here today to launch her new book in this series, the second, set in Hollywood. 

I haven’t written about the silent film era very often on this blog, which is truly my bad. Hollywood was a fascinating place in the 1920s – especially for a woman! Something not many people know. Miranda will walk us around and point out so many interesting things. 

I loved this article. I don’t know about you, but her 1920s books shot on the top of my TBR pile after reading it!

Enjoy!


Writing Murder at the Picture Show has been such an interesting experience. I’ve long loved the 1920s, and have been fascinated by the silent film era.The beauty of black and white film, those fast moving frames; there’s just something so special about it. The ability to convey stories through film without sound seems so foreign to us now, but it was the modus operandi in the Roaring Twenties and it was executed with style. One of the most amazing parts of writing this book was learning that there are many women we have to thank for making the silent film era what it was.

It has been called a veritable woman’s Garden of Eden. Though it may come as a surprise in this modern age where our film industry is dominated by men, in the 1920s, women practically ran Hollywood. This was due in part to the First World War. While men were overseas fighting, women on the home front stepped into many jobs left in their wake, and not just farming or factory work. In Hollywood, women held a variety of jobs, including producing, directing, writing, artist, set design, costume design, cutter, executive secretary, millinery, stenography, title writer, telephone operator, script girl, scenarist, secretary to the stars, seamstress, reader, film retoucher, film splicer, laboratory worker, set dresser, librarian, film editor, casting director, and department manager.

Frances Marion - The most renowned female screenwriter of the 20th century, and one of the most respected scripters of any gender
Frances Marion

Yet women’s involvement in the 1920s Hollywood also stems from the fact that the film industry was still up-and-coming and actors at the time were often also directors. When women actresses became dissatisfied with the roles being written for them, they took matters into their own hands. In the late 1910s/early 1920s, women counted for the majority of writers, producers, and directors in the film industry, and more than half of the films made at the time were directed by women. And they were quite successful at it. Famous for her satirical writing, Dorothy Parker signed a contract with Paramount worth four times the amount as her husband’s contract. Frances Marion was the highest paid screenwriter in the 1920s and ‘30s and more than 100 of her scripts were made into films. She was also the first woman to win an Oscar for her writing and she went on to become the founding vice president of the Screen Writer’s Guild.

These women were go-getters. Not only were they creative, they were also innovative, developing some of the filmmaking equipment still used today. We’ve all heard of the boom microphone, and we have Dorothy Arzner to thank for its invention. Women involved in the industry in the 1920s were also entrepreneurs. Screenwriter and director Lois Weber was the first woman to establish her own studio in 1917 and she was the highest paid director at the time.

Of course women’s involvement didn’t stop behind the camera; famous names like Mary Pickford and Louise Brooks have left a lasting legacy on Hollywood. They were talented women, possessing the ability to tell stories on film without sound. And like stars today, actresses of the 1920s were fashion icons. Famous for her long golden curls and nicknamed “Blondielocks,” Mary Pickford’s hair consisted of pieces, and during WWI, one of her curls was auctioned off for $15,000 for the war effort. While not the first woman to bob her hair, Louise Brooks’ iconic black bob with fringe (or bangs) inspired many women to sheer their own locks and is perhaps the most remembered hairstyle when the 1920s are mentioned. In fact, she is the visual inspiration for the heroine of my series, Fiona Clery.

Mary Pickford, the Queen of the Silent Film Era

Mary Pickford, original name Gladys Louise Smith, also known as Gladys Marie Smith, Canadian-born American motion-picture actress who was “America’s sweetheart” of the silent screen and one of the first film stars. At the height of her career, she was one of the richest and most famous women in the United States.
Mary Pickford

And speaking of Mary Pickford, the actress known as “America’s Sweetheart” was a major power player, not only on screen, but behind the camera, as well. In 1917, Mary Pickford signed a $1 million contract, and got her siblings, to whom she was very close, their own contracts. By 1919, she was making $250,000 a film. She also co-founded the movie studio United Artists alongside Douglas Fairbanks (who she later married), Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith. While still acting, she became involved in producing for the studio. Their office was located in Los Angeles and Mary Pickford oversaw its design, even insisting the toilets be pink. Before United Artists, there was Pickford-Fairbanks Studios, where all the scripts, directors, writers, cast, and crew had to be approved by Mary. She was also a philanthropist. Post WWI, she helped to found the Motion Picture Relief Fund which benefited needy actors.Later in the 1930s, she started the Payroll Pledge Program. This involved people in the film industry pledging to give half a percent of their earnings to the Motion Picture Relief Fund. She had a truly giving heart, and it has been said that she hung buckets in movie studios, asking those working on set to give whatever they could to be donated to those who were out of work. Though she was obviously passionate about the film industry in the 1920s, Mary Pickford wasn’t thrilled with the “talkies.” When sound began being added to film, she likened it to “putting lipstick on the Venus DeMilo. ”While Mary Pickford was perhaps the most famous actress of the 1920s, as well as a very powerful person behind the camera, it has been said that she was also a fair person who handled her fame and position with grace. The petite actress had no qualms with directing men, though she did so with fairness. Mary and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, are thought to be the first people to leave their handprints at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Given her stardom, Mary Pickford unsurprisingly hosted some very impressive guests in her home. People like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, George Bernard Shaw, Charlie Chaplin, Hellen Keller, Jack Dempsey, Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, even the Crown Prince of Japan sat at Mary Pickford’s dinner table.

Unexpected diversity in 1920s Hollywood

While it was predominantly white women working in film at this time, there were also women of color that worked in independent film. They included producers like Eloyce King Patrick Gist and Alice B. Russell, and filmmakers Tressie Souders and Maria P. Williams. Eslanda Goode Robeson managed the career of her husband, actor Paul Robeson. Chinese American artist Marion Wong produced, directed, and acted in her own films, including her debut, The Curse of QuonGwon: When The Far East Mingles With the West, a film for which she wrote the script, acted, directed, and raised the money to produce.

Given how involved women were in the creation of films at the time, it comes as no surprise that women also made up the majority of picture show audiences in the 1920s. Statistics show that women accounted for 60-83 percent of moviegoers during the decade. Being a woman who loves picture shows, I know that my character Rose Ellington would have definitely been in that percentile!

When talkies came into popularity and it became apparent what a lucrative business the pictures would be, women began to be pushed out of the roles they’d previously held in the industry. Before, filmmaking had been seen more as an eccentric hobby. The full potential of motion pictures hadn’t been realized. Once they discovered how much money could be made from the pictures, men wanted their slice of the pie. With the talkies came the use of technology that required training that women were not allowed to partake in at the time, further edging them out of the industry which they had played such an integral part in building. Given that many pictures at the time were centered on feminist issues, some feared what might happen if women continued to have such control over Hollywood. Into the 1930s, women became less involved in Hollywood and were eventually relegated more to roles as actresses, parts as eye catching femme fatales being the most predominant, and less of them held the jobs as producers and directors and writers that they previously had.

I find it so fascinating that in an era when women had to fight tooth and nail for something as basic as the right to vote, they were also running what is now the world’s biggest industry. We can learn so much from these amazing women. The female population is so much more capable than we have been given credit for in the past. For many years, it has been a secret how involved women were in the film industry in the 1920s, though I hope that by sharing the stories of the women filmmakers of the past, their legacies will live on and inspire.


MURDER AT THE PICTURE SHOW (Miranda Atchley) - On an autumn evening in New York City, amateur sleuth Fiona Clery and her partner Max Gillespie attend the picture house for the premier of a silent film shot in their city. The night is filled with excitement and glamor… until the star of the film, Sylvie Boscombe, is murdered.

About Murder at the Picture Show

Lights.Camera.Murder.

On an autumn evening in New York City, amateur sleuth Fiona Clery and her partner Max Gillespie attend the picture house for the premiere of a silent film shot in their city. The night is filled with excitement and glamor…until the star of the film, Sylvie Boscombe, is murdered. Unable to sit back with a killer on the loose, Fiona pursues the case, leading her across the city, from opulent neighborhoods, to film sets, to the underground speakeasies Sylvie frequented. When a man she believes to be innocent is arrested for the murder, Fiona’s search becomes all the more urgent. Can she solve the case before it’s too late?

Meanwhile, Max gets a shocking surprise about his past that could offer answers to questions he has long held. And Fiona makes a discovery regarding her missing sister that could blow the case wide open.

Murder at the Picture Show is available in paperback and e-book (free for Kindle Unlimited) on Amazon.

About Miranda Atchley

Miranda Atchley is a history enthusiast and complete bookworm whose passion for books and times gone by have compelled her to write several novels, one of which was a finalist for an indie writing award. When not writing at her home in Arkansas’s Ouachita Mountains, Miranda loves getting lost in a good book, spending time with her dogs, watching period dramas, and learning about her favorite period in time, the 1920s.

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It is still not widely known that women ran the industry in the silent film era. Directors, screenwriters, producers, writers were women.

2 Comments

  • Dara
    Posted October 6, 2021 at 10:52

    Fascinating! my great-grandmother played piano and violin at the silent movies in Dublin, Ireland, after her husband died young.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted October 13, 2021 at 20:56

      Oh, wow! That must have been a fascinating job!

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