During the cinema's early years, the burgeoning industry was a much less structured art and industry than it would become in later decades. Popular players often took on tasks or developed skills in filmmaking beyond the craft of acting. Actresses like Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand, Lillian Gish, Gloria Swanson and Bebe Daniels branched into writing, directing and producing. At a time when the new art offered women opportunities for expression consonant with the feminism of the suffragette era, some went even further in their mastery of the medium. In particular, there were actresses who became skilled in the operation of the motion picture camera itself. Lillian Gish learned to handle the wonderful new machine while Norma Talmadge also took her turn cranking the camera. Florence LaBadie not only operated the camera at times but also often ran the projector when the day's rushes were shown. For a woman in those days to master the heavy, powerful motion picture camera--so much more complex than small still cameras and the later portable home movie cameras--amounted to yet another assault on traditional male stereotypes of female helplessness in the face of advanced technology. It was an attitude that women in those years--notably including the actresses--successfully challenged with respect to automobiles as I have related in "The Speeding Sweethearts of the Silent Screen." While the feminine challenge to the masculine monopoly of the motion picture camera would ultimately end in defeat, it is a tribute to the enterprise and daring of the silent actresses and the liberating environment of the early studios that some of them were able for a time to work as cinematographers.
Especially outstanding among the actress-camerawomen was Francelia Billington, a popular player for much of the 1910s. She was born on February 1, 1895 in Dallas, Texas and began working in films for the Kalem Company's West Coast studio in 1912. She moved to Reliance-Majestic the following year and continued starring in films under its banner when D. W. Griffith became the studio's director-general. Writer Katherine Synon interviewed her for the December, 1914 issue of Photoplay Magazine:
© William M. Drew
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