When she left the film industry in 1920, Gene Gauntier had written, directed, acted in and/or produced over 300 pictures, including the first adaptation of “Ben-Hur” and a “Girl Spy” adventure series. She had traveled the world and formed her own production company. She’d been hailed as the biggest star at Kalem Studios, and sued for copyright infringement.
All by the ripe old age of 35.
Born Genevieve Liggett in Kansas City, Gauntier took her love of the theater – and her new stage name – to turn-of-the-century New York, where the movies were already having a cultural impact. In between stage appearances, Gauntier acted in films for Kalem Studios beginning in 1906, and was soon turning out scripts for one-reelers. She was dubbed the “Kalem Girl,” often starring as daredevil young women in movies she’d written herself. “Adventures of a Girl Spy,” based on the real exploits of Confederate spy Belle Boyd, was especially popular, leading to a handful of sequels and what may be cinema’s first prequel, “A Hitherto Unrelated Incident of the Girl Spy” (1911).
Gauntier was responsible for other firsts as well, including the original 1907 adaptation of “Ben-Hur,” which led to a ground-breaking lawsuit establishing filmmakers’ legal responsibilities to authors. The estate of novelist Lew Wallace won compensation from Kalem for the use of his famous book, and the studios’ free-for-all violation of copyrights came to an end.
Gauntier also wrote and starred in “From the Manger to the Cross” (1912), one of the earliest depictions of the life of Christ. By this time in her career, Gauntier was traveling extensively, collaborating with director Sidney Olcott. While in Egypt on another project, she proposed filming the Biblical story in its historical locations. The result was one of the first motion pictures to go beyond the short, one-reel format, a distinction which helped it secure a place on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
As the industry became more entrenched, people like Gauntier no longer fit the business model, and she opted to leave altogether. She wrote an autobiography for “Woman’s Home Companion” in 1928, and continued working as a novelist and magazine writer until her death in 1966, at the age of 81.
Although contemporaries like Lois Weber and Alice Guy-Blache have received attention from film historians, Gauntier’s work has been largely forgotten. She remains a fascinating figure, and one of Kansas City’s most important contributions to the cinema. She deserves to be rediscovered.
Excerpts from Gauntier’s autobiography, “Blazing the Trail” http://www.cinemaweb.com/silentfilm/bookshelf/4_blaze1.htm
Article at TCM’s Movie Morlocks blog –