Dame in the Game: TCM’s Trailblazing Women

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This month, instead of highlighting a single woman, “Dame in the Game” highlights the extraordinary programming coming to Turner Classic Movies this October. The series, Trailblazing Women, premieres October 1st and will run every Tuesday and Thursday throughout the month.

This marks the first year of programming in a three-year initiative TCM has launched in conjunction with Women in Film, Los Angeles that will seek to highlight the contributions of women throughout film history. The first series will focus on the efforts of female directors and is entitled Trailblazing Women: Behind the Camera, Ahead of Their Time. It will feature over fifty different films by as many female directors from the earliest days of cinema through to today. The series is hosted by TCM regular and director/actress/writer Illeana Douglas. Each night, she’ll be joined by a different guest from film historian Cari Beauchamp to directors Allison Anders, Julie Dash, Connie Field, and Amy Heckerling to President of Women in Film, Los Angeles, Cathy Schulman.

The idea for Trailblazing Women first came to Charles Tabesh, senior vice president of programming for TCM, when Lionsgate approached him about TCM airing Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker.” Normally, Turner Classic Movies would not air such a contemporary film, but he thought it might be a possibility as part of a thematic focus on the history of female filmmakers.

As the idea developed, Genevieve McGillicuddy, TCM’s Vice President of Brand Activiations and Partnerships, suggested a partnership with Women in Film in the hopes that TCM could both inspire change in today’s industry while spotlighting the achievements of women in the past.

Tabesh says, “When you think of filmmaking and you think of filmmakers, that’s [directors]the first thing you think about and right now that is a really important topic that is getting a lot of attention, rightfully so. The lack of women directors that are making Hollywood movies is something that is very relevant, and we wanted to both point that out, but at the same time celebrate an important history of women who have made films—the few that have been made in Hollywood and the others that have been made outside of the system.”

Both Tabesh and host Illeana Douglas are excited for audiences to learn about the early female pioneers of the film industry.

Caption: Film Scholar Cari Beauchamp will co-host three nights highlighting early female filmmakers. Courtesy of TCM.

Film Scholar Cari Beauchamp will co-host three nights highlighting early female filmmakers. Courtesy of TCM.

Douglas says, “The phrase trail-blazers is a little bit bittersweet because what it means to me is that the trail was blazed by women. They were there at the inception of the film business, and then they were just pushed out of the way.”

Tabesh explains TCM’s desire to start with early twentieth-century shorts: “At the dawn of filmmaking, women were actually represented fairly well, and it wasn’t until it became a big business and until the sound era and a lot of money became involved that women started to get shut out of the process. But in the early years of Hollywood or the early years of film, women were much better represented, and I think it was important to kind of start there and show a little bit of that history.”

Douglas echoes this sentiment that early Hollywood allowed women more power and opportunities than today’s industry. Her grandfather, Melvyn Douglas, owed his career to a woman after Gloria Swanson requested he appear opposite her in his first film Tonight or Never (1931). Throughout his career, actresses who had the power to request him as their leading man forwarded his success.

“Everybody likes to look back at the past and go, it was awful,” Douglas says. “In terms of the history of Hollywood and what I know from talking to my grandfather, it seems like there was actually more equality back then – if anything, women were the ones calling the shots. They were the ones that started the film business.”

Dorothy Arzner and Clara Bow on the set of “The Wild Party”.

Dorothy Arzner and Clara Bow on the set of “The Wild Party”.

This deep-dive into women’s significant role in the history of early cinema is one of the most revelatory parts of TCM’s programming. As two examples, Douglas notes that the first narrative film in 1896, La Fee aux Choux, was directed by Alice Guy Blaché and Dorothy Arzner directed “It Girl” Clara Bow’s first talkie, The Wild Party (1929). Douglas was unaware of these historical breakthroughs prior to her preparatory research.

“Why has her [Alice Guy Blaché] contribution been edited out of the history books? That was something I saw consistently from 1896-2015, “Douglas says. “The contributions of women are being excluded from this history books and so by presenting fifty films by women, I think that’s going to get the conversation started in a more positive way.”

Visibility and recognition of female filmmakers is a huge problem, and without a proven record of success to point to, it makes it easier for executives to refuse to take a chance on new female directors. Douglas says, “When we start to make AFI lists of movies and there’s not a single female filmmaker on that list, I think that says something about the society and that has to change.”

It’s a common story – the difficulties a female filmmaker faces getting a project off the ground. Even someone with the staying power of Nancy Meyers has noted that it took her years to get The Intern out of development. Douglas says these same stories will be told again and again throughout the month.

She continues to point to not only the difficulties of women getting their movies made, but also the historical record’s tendency to omit their films. Douglas raves about the Barbara Loden film Wanda (1970) airing on Thursday, October 8th and wonders aloud about Loden’s lack of recognition for the project. Loden won the International Critics’ Prize at the 1970 Venice Film Festival with Wanda, yet she never made another film. She was famously married to director extraordinaire Elia Kazan who dismissed and belittled his wife’s talents, discouraging her directing efforts to maintain control over her.

“Having this film fall into obscurity because her husband took credit for writing the script and was really dismissive of that and . . . is that a pattern? Did the movie fall into obscurity because someone really powerful was kind of dismissive of it?” Douglas wonders.

TCM is seeking to reveal that women’s place in the history of filmmaking is simply obscured rather than non-existent. When asked how the women of early cinema might respond to women’s place in the industry today, Tabesh says, “I think that they would be shocked at what happened to the place of women, as filmmakers, as directors.”

Illeana Douglas in the host’s chair for Trailblazing Women. Courtesy of TCM.

Illeana Douglas in the host’s chair for Trailblazing Women. Courtesy of TCM.

For Douglas, who also directs, hosting the series has been a moving experience: “Actually getting to talk to other female directors who’ve made great films and the fact that TCM is showcasing these films is very emotional to me. Because I said maybe we can really do something here. Because these women should be making films, and for some of the ones that have passed on, . . . they should be a part of the equation.”

Douglas and Tabesh, as well as the rest of the team at TCM and Women in Film, hope that the programming will provide insight into women’s role in the history of filmmaking that will inspire change in today’s industry. Both Douglas and Tabesh note that opportunities seem to have shrunk rather than increased for female directors in contemporary Hollywood.

This programming showcases the unique point of view of forty-eight women who left their mark on an industry that often ignores their contributions. We all know and champion the efforts of the likes of Nora Ephron, but how many people know Wayne’s World was directed by a woman? Penelope Spheeris helmed that film and she’s being featured as a documentarian in the programming series with The Decline of Western Civilization (1981).

It’s tidbits like this and the contributions of female filmmakers from 1896-2015 that Turner Classic Movies hopes will enlighten and encourage viewers over the month of October.

As Douglas says, “We save pandas. Can’t we save the female filmmaker?”

For a full programming breakdown, visit http://www.tcm.com/trailblazingwomen/

Maureen Lenker

About Maureen Lenker

Maureen Lee Lenker is a writer, actress, director, and producer. She has written for Turner Classic Movies, Stage Raw, @ This Stage, LA Weekly, and more. She is also working towards an MA in Arts Journalism at USC, reporting on arts, theatre, and entertainment. When not at USC, she works on theatre productions throughout Los Angeles (primarily as an assistant director). She is a native Angelino who hates driving and cites peacoats and scarves as her favorite clothing items. An Anglophile, she attempted to fulfill her dream of attending Hogwarts by completing her master’s in British History at the University of Oxford. She is a cock-eyed optimist, rom-com aficionado, classic movie buff, musical theatre geek, and general pop culture enthusiast.