The past is often seen through a distorting prism that selects certain details while omitting other salient facts to present a history more in keeping with a society's traditional biases. This is no less true of what we have chosen to remember about the history of film than with the chronicling of other subjects in our development as a culture. For example, while the male heroes of the silent era have frequently been viewed in retrospect as virile, independent personalities, whether leaping from balconies or racing cars at tremendous speeds, the actresses of those years have too often been stereotyped as either frail, frightened creatures tied to railroad tracks by the villain or pretentious Norma Desmonds waited on by men hand and foot. In reality, most silent film actresses were strong, resourceful women both on and off screen whose careers reflected even as they encouraged the emancipation of women in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Nothing is more illustrative of silent film actresses' assertiveness than their adoption of the automobile during the 1910s when the new invention in transportation, like that other new invention, the cinema, was transforming and reshaping the very fabric of society. In an era when the motorcar was still widely considered the province of men, silent film actresses not only became skilled drivers but also performed daring stunts, broke records and, in one instance, even contributed to the invention of mechanical improvements for automobiles. As the silent film actresses gained wide publicity, both on and off screen, for their prowess behind the wheel, they won greater acceptance for women drivers, simultaneously contributing to revolutions in transportation and social mores as well as the development of a new art.

No actress has provided a more vivid description of women's adoption of the automobile in those years than Gloria Swanson in her autobiography, Swanson on Swanson. Gloria never forgot that exciting day in Griffith Park in 1916 when her fiance, Wallace Beery, taught her to drive a car:
  "First he helped me to memorize all the buttons. Then he blindfolded me so I could find them in the dark. He explained the pedals, the choke, and the ignition, and let me get the feel of the wheel. Then he cranked up the car, the motor caught, and I pushed my foot down. The car moved, and I started steering it down the long dirt road. I'd never had such a thrill. Nothing existed in the whole world but the power of that car. The tiniest turn of the wheel and the whole thing responded. I had the feeling I could go anywhere and nothing could stop me.

Suddenly I realized Wally was not in the car. He had not jumped in as he was supposed to. I could hear him running behind me, shouting. My mind was a blank. I had forgotten everything he'd told me. Finally my foot slipped off the pedal and I knew I'd done the right thing by accident. I just hung on to the wheel until Wally, panting and laughing, caught up with me. He jumped in and pushed in the brake.

There was roaring in my ears. My hands were wet. I was more exhausted than he was. But I loved the feeling of all that power, frightening though it was. No wonder Wally was happy-go-lucky. He'd found the secret of how to escape. And now he was sharing it with me. I had lots more to learn before I could drive by myself, but I would always remember that first thrilling Sunday. It was almost as exciting as being engaged. "(1)
Gloria, like Wally Beery, worked for Mack Sennett's Keystone Company in those days. Cast in a series of sparkling light comedies opposite Bobby Vernon, Gloria had developed a passion for speed that had immediate consequences on her film career as she recalled over 60 years later:
  "Driving a car was exciting for me the way riding horseback had been when I was twelve in San Juan. One morning when I was driving to work I found myself answering some command from deep inside me and started putting on speed until I had Wally screaming in the seat beside me. I tore past the Keystone gates and almost missed the turn into our lot across the street. I roared up to the bungalow, jumped on the brake, and stopped on a dime.

When the dust settled, half a dozen people ran out of the building. They couldn't believe it was Baby Gloria behind the wheel. They hadn't had such a shock since they first saw me smoke a cigarette. As soon as Charley Parrott (2) said, "What a great gag that would be to start off a picture," they were all off and running. Within a week they had rented a racing car and hired a stunt man named LeRoy to give me lessons. They also had a rough script for the picture and a title: The Danger Girl. .

I turned out to be a natural. I couldn't wait for LeRoy to pick me up in the morning. Each day he set up a new obstacle course, and I quickly learned to wheel around in tight circles, go into instant reverse, and take bumps and curves. He told me I had good reflexes and a good eye for measuring distances. I also had plenty of confidence and a fair amount of courage." (3)
The Danger Girl, directed by Clarence Badger, is one of the most delightful of all the Keystone films and Gloria, only seventeen, already radiates a dazzling, youthful beauty. Racing down the road behind the wheel of her roadster in scenes filmed "in the garden behind the Beverly Hills Hotel, a quiet, secluded hotel a long way out of town" with "plenty of curved cement driveways," (4) Gloria is as enchanting and daring on the screen today as when the film was first shown in 1916. In pursuit of thrills, Gloria disguises herself as a man complete with top hat, tuxedo and cane, smoking a cigarette and even flirting with another girl. The pantomimic genius that Gloria later demonstrated in her brilliant silent film performances in both comedy and drama was first apparent in The Danger Girl. During its filming, Gloria was even able to fool a visiting matron into thinking that she was a young man. Gloria momentarily felt what it was like to be a man and asked herself why she had decided to be born as a girl. (5) Yet in truth, from her first appearance in The Danger Girl, while maintaining her femininity, wearing a dress as she races her car and switching to overalls when she changes a tire, Gloria had stamped herself indelibly on the screen as part of that first generation of women to challenge male supremacy on the highway--and in public life.

Her portrayal is a striking departure from the restrictive values of the Victorian age which still shaped American society in the first years of the new century. Women then were viewed as by nature too timid and fragile to either deal with public affairs, take part in strenuous physical activity or operate complex machinery. In her history of women's adoption of the automobile, Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age, Virginia Scharff points out that when women began driving, "they invaded a male domain." (6) The same entrenched attitudes that opposed woman suffrage, feminine participation in athletics, higher education for females and woman's entry into business and the professions, offered resistance to women who drove gasoline cars. Only electric cars with their limited power and range were favored for a time as vehicles easily mastered by ladies while those women who drove the early smelly, noisy gasoline cars "challenged prevailing notions of the feminine." (7)

Indeed, the kind of gender bias which discouraged many American women from driving in the early years of the century would continue in full force in other parts of the world even at the close of the century. For example, for decades, very few Russian women drove cars, so heavy was the opposition in the highly male-dominated Soviet society, until the Soviet Union itself was no more. And Saudi Arabia is notorious to this day for making it a criminal offense for women to drive.

Fortunately, for all the male chauvinist attitudes about driving being a man's exclusive right, such a draconian environment never fully took hold in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. In fact, there were those forces in popular culture that increasingly began to glorify the bold new women at the wheel. In the first decade of the new century, counterpointing the Victorian ideal of femininity, women motorists were celebrated in popular songs ("The Lady Chauffeur"), stage shows (The Motor Girl), and several series of adventure novels for girls such as The Motor Maids. Newspapers began to emphasize the exploits of women drivers like Alice Huyler Ramsey who drove a group of friends across the continent in her Maxwell in 1909. Scorning the slow-moving electrics, popular stage stars including Anna Held, Blanche Ring, Elsie Janis and Billie Burke (all of whom would go on to make silent films) were as adept at driving their own "gas buggies" as performing on Broadway and publicity for these actresses' motoring skills was yet another factor in the ascent of women to the driver's seat.

At the beginning of the 1910s, women drivers in the United States were still only a small minority--perhaps no more than five percent of the total number of drivers. But throughout the decade, the number of women drivers increased dramatically so that at the start of the twenties, while still a minority, they were numerically much more significant--as high as twenty percent or more in many localities. The rise in the ranks of women drivers in those years has most often been attributed to the introduction in 1912 of Charles Kettering's invention of the self-starter which did away with the necessity of cranking, an arduous, sometimes dangerous task that had allegedly deterred many women (and no doubt, numerous men as well) from driving. But there were other reasons for the proliferation of women drivers. While car ownership in general experienced a tremendous growth in the wake of Henry Ford's introduction of the mass-produced Model T in 1908, the increase was undoubtedly attributable in part to the emphasis on women's rights as the movement to establish woman suffrage gathered momentum. Commentators at the time often drew parallels between women's fitness for driving and their aptitude in using the ballot. (8) As Scharff writes: "Racing and touring also focused attention on the auto as both a symbol and vehicle of female emancipation. . .Women drivers pursuing thrills, new experiences, and political rights successfully promoted the idea that the auto would serve as a key to greater female freedom." (9)

Copyright 1997 William M. Drew

Banner courtesy Marlene Weisman Abadi

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Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11

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