Recently, I purchased a DVD of “Cleopatra” with Theda Bara’s picture and name on the cover with other members of the cast of her version. Even after reading that all but 6 minutes had disintegrated and members of the movie industry are praying for a copy will suddenly show up in some obscure attic, I thought I must have gotten lucky. With great anticipation, I cued it up, only to find, despite the claims on the box, the production was by The Helen Gardner Picture Players starring Helen Gardner, herself. Moreover, the photo of Ms. Bara on the cover bears little similarity to Ms. Gardner whatsoever.
I was irritated until I read that Gardner was the first actress to form her own production company without the aid of a man. Furthermore, on a visit to prison, she presented an autographed photo of herself to Eugene Debs, known for helping found the Wobblies — which told me a little about her politics.1
Wanting to know more about Gardner, I found an eponymous website that said a shocking 27% of her nitrate films have survived, a peculiarly high percentage.2 Moreover, her first independent production, “Cleopatra,” was the first full-length feature film ever.
To my delight, her granddaughter Dorin Gardner Schumacher has been collecting information about the grandmother she never knew. Obtaining a grant from the Women’s Film Preservation Fund of the New York Women in Film and Television organization, she had the production company’s third independent feature “A Sister to Carmen” restored. Now, she gives talks about her grandmother and exhibits the film.
Last year, my cousin once removed Jane Neff Rollins, a professional genealogist3 discovered a newspaper article about my paternal grandmother Lydia announcing that she took first prize in a poetry contest. I realize that does not compare with forming a production company on your own, but it, too, typifies why genealogy has become the rage. Whether it’s an average life with amazing moments (as we all have) or an astounding life with very little time for mundane moments, a particular brand of inspiration lies in hidden history.
I find it so easy to imagine Schumacher’s joy learning how much there was to her enigmatic grandmother: Not only was she a famous actress on stage and screen, but she was a pioneering producer, director, writer, and practitioner of many of the film crafts. Also, you can imagine my disappointment—and embarrassment—learning that my distant cousin, Buffalo Bill Cody, beloved through the ages, fought to keep slavery out of his state because he didn’t want nonwhite neighbors4–despite the antislavery sentiments his Quaker father Isaac Cody died for.5 Buffalo Bill bore no racial animosity toward indigenous people or women. He just didn’t want to see African immigrants in his neighborhood.
Historically, women like Gardner were passed over for recognition while the weaknesses of “great” men were ignored. This reality of this white male privilege has led to the myth of the perfect male and a shocking era in US history—an era in which a woman can be verbally battered in public and, whether or not the lies spread about her were believed, too many were willing to accept a man they knew to be fatally flawed rather than face being governed by a qualified, intelligent woman, and an era in which male politicians still sit in judgement on women’s physiology, something they know nothing about, hoping their decisions will shove women back into the shadows.
The immeasurable joy of learning about the hidden achievements of our ancestors, both familial and spiritual, will continue to inspire us. Perhaps, next to getting out the vote this year, the best way women have of overcoming the current political bullies is to continue to share the previously suppressed accomplishments of women of the past like Helen Gardner as they are unearthed.
1. Internet Movie dataBase Internet Movie dataBase
2. HelenGardner.org, All the photos of Helen Gardner appear on her website
3. Sherlock Combs Genealogy
4. Buffalo Bill Centennial program, of the Buffalo Bill Museum of the West
The family tree graphic came from https://wordpress.com/post/judymgoodman.wordpress.com/608