In celebration of Women’s History Month, the Museum presents this restored treasure and landmark of women’s cinema, directed by Lois Weber (1879–1939). Weber was the first truly established American woman movie director. An actress first, she had gained recognition as a top director by 1916, making her the highest-paid filmmaker in the world.
The first blockbuster ever directed by a woman, The Dumb Girl of Portici stars world-famous ballerina/choreographer Anna Pavlova as Fenella, a mute fisher-girl during the Spanish occupation of Naples in the mid-17th century. Her ill-fated tryst with a Spanish nobleman, coupled with the oppression of Neapolitan people, incites a revolution. The film has been restored by the Library of Congress and An Affair with Film. Music score by John Sweeney.
“Pavlova’s performance in the movie is no fluke or stunt—it’s a fully realized, deeply committed performance that reveals Pavlova to be, from the very start, one of the greatest movie actors, a charismatic and expressive actor who’s as forceful in repose as in action, as vital in quiet scenes as she is screen-bursting in melodramatic ones. What’s more, The Dumb Girl of Portici is directed by Lois Weber, one of the most prominent—and one of the best—directors of the time, whose place in the business and, more important, in the art of movies is only belatedly achieving the recognition that it deserves. Weber’s bold and imaginative direction has its own independent artistic identity, in which the composition of images for and with Pavlova is only one part. Despite the distant historical setting, she invests The Dumb Girl of Portici with a strong and bracing physical power. Filming the dilapidation of seaside huts and the turbulence in the town, the rats swarming about Fenella in her cell and the anguish of desperate hunger, she depicts poverty with unflinchingly detailed specificity and ardent empathy.” —New Yorker