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From Ireland to Palestine Gene Gauntier Invented Location Filming

Script contributor Dr. Rosanne Welch celebrates the female screenwriters who came before us with this month's spotlight on filmmaking trailblazer Gene Gauntier.
Ruth Goetz Goodman-Script

As with many women in early Hollywood, Gene Gauntier entered the business as an actress. Born Genevieve G. Liggett in Texas sometime in the 1880s, Gauntier had graduated from the Kansas City Academy of Elocution and Oratory. After a couple of years on the New York stage, she auditioned for director Sidney Olcott at the Biograph Studios in 1906. She saw that in the script her character appeared to drown and though Gauntier did not know how to swim, she took the job anyway. On that adventuresome spirit, she built a career in which she served as a writer, producer, director, and production company owner. She also instituted rules that covered adaptations for years.

In 1907 Olcott joined the Kalem Company and convinced Gauntier to do so. She aced her first writing assignment, adapting The Adventures of Tom Sawyer which became the first of Mark Twain's stories to appear on film. On the strength of her ability to condense long novels into short silents, she adapted Ben Hur. This box office success started a lawsuit. Upon seeing the film the Harper Brothers and General Lew Wallace, the publishers of the original book filed suit against the Kalem Company, alleging that their copyright had been infringed. Four years later the suit was settled in favor of the plaintiffs. The case established new laws and rules for adaptation and screenwriting.

Despite the rocky start, Gauntier became known for the fact that the films she wrote and starred in created location filming. In 1910, the Kalem film company sent Gauntier and Olcott with a crew to County Cork, Ireland, where they shot the emigrant drama The Lad From Old Ireland, reportedly the first American film made outside the United States.

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Gauntier’s filmography as an actress and screenwriter includes Hulda’s Lovers (1908), The Girl Spy (1909), The Further Adventures of the Girl Spy (1910), The Girl Spy Before Vicksburg (1910), and When Lovers Part (1910). Quickly, Gauntier earned a promotion to become head of the Kalem foreign companies, writing all films produced abroad in Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany, Italy, Gibraltar, Algiers, and Egypt. Her last location film, filmed in Palestine, From the Manger to the Cross, is historically significant as the first telling of the biblical story. She managed 42 actors and a budget of $100,000.

Photo sourced from Sidney Olcott, le premier oeil

Photo sourced from Sidney Olcott, le premier oeil

In 1912, she left Kalem to form the Gene Gauntier Feature Players Company with Olcott and her actor husband Jack Clark. There she wrote, produced, and starred in His Mother and Come Back to Erin (1914). In 1915 Olcott started his own company and Gauntier moved to Hollywood but soon tired of the new conditions created by the burgeoning studio system that compartmentalized all the crafts. Where once she had written, acted, chosen locations, supervised sets, co-directed, edited, and approved advertising, all the new contracts allowed a writer to do was write. Then someone else produced the piece, not always following the writer’s vision.

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In 1920 Gauntier left Hollywood, writing an autobiography in 1928, appropriately titled Blazing the Trail

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If you’d like to learn more about the women highlighted in this column, and about the art of screenwriting while earning your MFA, our low residency Stephens College MFA in TV and Screenwriting is currently accepting applications.


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