Issue 6

Park vs. Prominence: How Bread (1918) Speaks for Women of the Silent Era

Since its inception, cinema as an art form has been a site of struggle. The legacy of female filmmakers, in particular, has been privy to a constant power struggle between legitimizing and validating their works, or being made insignificant by the Hollywood elite. Ida May Park’s directorial legacy, as explored through her film Bread, encapsulates the greater history of feminine struggle for recognition and equity wrought by a host of women in Hollywood both past and present. Despite being directly involved in delivering early silent cinema to the world, her and other female filmmakers were forced to constantly prove their existence in the industry as valuable. Additionally, the choices made by historical preservationists and academia communicate which films are worthy of safeguarding for posterity. Though many women fought to obtain recognition, other female auteurs films have faded away into obscurity. Ida May Park is one of the luckless female filmmakers and screenwriters whose cinematic legacy has been cut short due to a lack of archival work. As a result, her film Bread has since taken on a new, alternate meaning due to the film’s lack of proper historical preservation and is a testament to the enduring struggle for equity in the film industry within a medium since overtaken by systemic patriarchy.

 

The legacy of female filmmakers in the early silent film was defined by two distinct periods. One of creative flourish and recognition, the other of being silenced and sidelined. To make lasting art, women learned to obscure their involvement in projects in tandem with the changing nature of Hollywood. As films and filmmaking became an increasingly prestigious form of artistic expression, women found themselves being sidelined until their careers carried little merit. Despite pioneering an industry, they were often forced to choose between public recognition or an elongated lifespan of their films due to the stifling presence of the studio system and power laden male film executives. The idea of auteurship among female creatives was a luxury not afforded to many leading ladies. Actresses such as Mary Pickford often performed a sort of double life, where others took directorial credit for her work. Pickford often operated as a direct pipeline for the film’s directors, who came to rely on her creative vision.1 It is within this context of artistic struggle that Park’s film Bread exists, a story with a central focus on women’s struggle for recognition and equity. However, injustices against women in film were not always as prominent. When film was a fledgling industry, women were at the forefront, experimenting with the aesthetics, style, and structure of visual storytelling. The beginning of the industry was optimistic, if not encouraging towards women. Ida May Park herself had written a chapter for a volume of Careers for Women, in 1920. In it she specifically mentions career opportunities for intelligent female filmmakers by stating, “An industry can develop only as the intelligence which directs it develops. The interest of big minds is a thing that until recently has been glaringly absent from the motion picture. But now converts, intelligent converts, are flocking to the banner and results are bound to come in the form of better pictures.”2 Women were encouraged to take creative risks and redefine what was considered good filmmaking. As an emerging art form with no history, no stature, anyone had the opportunity to try their hand at success in the silent film industry. Women were invited to reinvent themselves from behind the lens of the camera as well as in front.

 

Unlike other mediums of art, there were no gendered jobs or roles within the film industry, nor social norms to be upheld. For the first time women were on the ground floor, helping to create the aesthetics and characteristics of a new form of artistic expression. Women also owned a host of film production companies in comparison with their male peers. However, when filmmaking as an art form became profitable, women were squeezed out of positions of power. As the film industry gained prestige and class that surpassed the medium’s original mainstream audiences, women were forced into early retirement or limited career advancement. Alice Guy-Blaché was aware of such manipulation, confessing that “my youth, my inexperience, my sex, all conspired against me.”3 A weighty statement considering her husband would later partner with her film company until he slowly took over ownership of Guy’s creation, leaving her jobless and penniless. As the legacy of women in Hollywood was quickly being scrubbed away, dynamic female figures, such as Ida May Park, fell into obscurity. Her work suffered due to its lack of historical preservation, further burying the influence of Park in the film industry. However, like so many of her peers, Park’s work persists through to this day.

 

Park was an influential multi-faceted filmmaker whose legacy helped establish not only the art of moviemaking, but further established Universal Studios as a powerhouse of filmmaking talent, being one of the many women working or employed there dubbed “the Universal women.”4 These women were a bit of an anomaly in the silent film era because their works were both promoted and hidden from the public eye. Their works were promoted using a gender binary as a means to market to a target female audience while being obscured from general, male audiences.5 These reasons in part kept Park’s legacy from reaching its full potential, her films scattered across historical archives, partially intact. However, Park attempted to bridge this gap personally during her time as a career woman. In addition to her directorial and screenwriting abilities, Park was one of the few women who also wrote extensively about the creative process.6 She advocated that directing seemed a natural fit for most women, as they were more “imaginative, more romantic and more spiritual.”7 She also claimed that movies were better suited for a female audience because women were able to tell stories that captured female struggles and experiences. Park additionally possessed an impeccable work ethic, often to the dismay of her crew, with frequent collaborator, actress, and star of Bread, Mary MacLaren often comparing her to a slave driver.8 Additionally, in a 1997 interview, her son Joseph Paul De Grass recalls the strength and grittiness of his mother, distinguishing her as “a strong character, much stronger than my father was… that was one of her strengths I believe. She made a very good boss.” Throughout his interview, Joseph reiterates the perfectionist, strong-willed nature of his mother.9 Park was tough, the type of filmmaker whose tenacity and intuitiveness could not help but be noticed and praised by others. She was determined, self-assured, and demanded that her fellow women think of themselves in similar terms. However, despite her work on behalf of her female peers, her name is not as widely recognized as the likes of Alice Guy-Blaché or Mary Pickford. Unfortunately, a majority of her works are either absent or exist in fragments, such as the case with Bread, the only one of Park’s remaining films that feature actress Mary MacLaren as the lead.10 Though the film is incomplete, Bread may arguably be the most poignant film of Park’s when analyzed with a modern lens.

 

Bread, co-written by Park and Evelyn Campbell, has gained appreciation and cultural commentary since the film’s release in 1918. The remaining nineteen minutes of footage capture the struggle of protagonist Candace Newby as she grapples to establish herself in the filmmaking industry as an actress. The film begins abruptly, set on Candace sitting in the office of Emil Krause, a slimy theatrical manager, as he begins to make sexual advances towards her. Though Candace seems uneasy, she permits his questionable behavior, that is until he aggressively jumps Candace, locking the door to his office. As Candace struggles to wriggle out of Krause’s hold on her, the entrance of a younger, male playwright interrupts the assault, providing Candace with the chance to escape. Following this grim encounter begins what the film describes as “dark days” for Candace, as she struggles to afford her apartment and find work. As Candace, feeble, attempts to patch a dress of hers, she decides she needs sustenance and counts the coins in her change purse. She has just enough to purchase one loaf of bread, and upon buying the bread, she drudges her way through the rain to her apartment, when a passerby bumps into her, causing Candace to drop her only means of food onto the ground. As she struggles to pick up the bread, the playwright and executive from earlier are seen speeding by in a stagecoach, celebrating the success of their latest play. The film abruptly ends after a title card declares, “She would not give up! The bread meant more than sustenance to her… it symbolized all the good things in life.”11 The thesis of the film in a sense is those final title cards, that Park’s film is about more than just bread.

 

The message of persistence present in Bread symbolizes the steadfastness and perseverance that many women also experienced and live by. Much like Candace Newby, an internal sense of tenacity is the driving force behind the creative female minds in the film industry. Additionally, Candace’s scrape with the theater executive eerily parallels the modern accounts of the #MeToo movement, and other social campaigns. How women in the entertainment industry grapple with the cost of success is a struggle Park portrays in a direct guttural way. Her bold directorial style utilizes the bread as a storytelling device that mirrors Candace’s hunger for success and recognition as an actress.12 Ideological change is slow but disrupting cultural and systemic perceptions of gender is important to encourage social change. Even today, there is a staggering lack of female directors being represented as a result of the patriarchal presence during the late silent era. Though women once were the majority of film producers and directors, the Celluloid Ceiling Report stated that women comprised 20% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers in 2018.13 Such statistics point to the stranglehold of systemic patriarchy that still dictates the future of film. Women now, as was the case then, must also fight tooth and claw to carve a place in the larger canon of Hollywood texts.

 

Another aspect of women’s legacy in the filmmaking industry is what messages are being communicated via the lack of historical preservation. There is a relationship between archival work and intentionality, and it seems more than just a coincidence that a major portion of female filmmaker’s work has gone unnoticed. To be remembered is synonymous with possessing an important or memorable quality, and as women’s role in Hollywood is being rediscovered, so is their work. This term, coined as the ideology of loss (or the meaning embedded onto historical texts as a result of historic preservation, or a lack thereof), places further value onto the work of Ida May Park’s Bread, due to its state of preservation. In this way, Park’s film takes on an alternative reading separate from her original authorial intent. Once a piece of media text is threatened to be lost to history, it cultivates a compulsive need to restore and discover that which was previously deemed unimportant or hidden.14 Such ideas have also added to the almost mythic quality of Park’s work, as historians today struggle to piece together and restore her work.

 

The tragic history of women in Hollywood will always loom large over the glitz and glamour of the film industry; another in a host of stains that dirty the public’s perception of what was once considered to be a source of prominence and poise. Women were always under the thumb of profit-oriented studio systems and the men that amassed power through them. Ida May Park illuminated these inner torments in an intelligent, vulnerable way that rings true to the modern struggle for power, recognition, and equity that women face. Though modern Hollywood has slowly progressed to adopt more gender-inclusive practices, there are still many direct correlations between the Hollywood of the 1920s and the 2010s. The animalistic desire portrayed in Bread reflects the lives of women today, even though the legitimization of female presence in the media is an ideological battle still being waged. The fact that such similar struggles for validation are presented so eloquently in Bread causes modern audiences to question the lasting impacts that recent social movements have made in the Hollywood hierarchy.

 

Notes

1 Slide, Anthony. The Silent Feminists: America’s First Women Directors Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1996.

2 Slide, Silent Feminists, 145.

3 Weitzman, Elizabeth. Renegade Women in Film & TV. New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 2019, 8.

4 Cooper, Mark Garrett. “Ida May Park.” Ida May Park – Women Film Pioneers Project. Women Film Pioneers Project. Accessed November 7, 2019. https://wfpp.columbia.edu/pioneer/ccp-ida- may-park/.

5 Cooper, Mark Garrett. “Tackling Universal Women as a Research Problem: What Historiographic Sources Do and Don’t Tell Us About ‘Gender’ in the Silent Motion Picture Studio.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 51, no. 2 (October 1, 2010): 334–342.

6   Slide, Silent Feminists, 55.

7   Slide, Silent Feminists, 56.

8   Slide, Silent Feminists, 56.

9 Joseph De Grasse (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick Library), interviewed by Anthony Slide, 1997.

10 “Ida May Park.” Ida May Park – Women Film Pioneers Project.

11 Bread. Universal Film Manufacturing Company, 1918.

12 Saccone, Kate, Amanda Walencewicz, Madison Miller, Travis Woods, and Roxana Hadadi. “Gender & Power in Ida May Park’s ‘Bread’ (1918).” Bright Wall/Dark Room, December 17, 2018.

13 Lauzen, Martha M. “The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 100, 250, and 500 Films of 2018.” The Celluloid Ceiling Report, 2019, 1–7. https://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu/wp- content/uploads/2019/01/2018_Celluloid_Ceiling_Report.pdf.

14 Gaines, Jane. Pink-Slipped: What Happened to the Women in the Silent Film Industries?

Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018.

Filed under: Issue 6

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Hannah Cummings graduated OU with a major in Communication and a minor in Cinema Studies in 2020.