Finding Elizabeth Wheeler: Rediscovering a 1940s Woman Filmmaker

Today’s guest blog post is by Sharon Thompson, Executive Director of the Lesbian Home Movie Project (LMHP). A writer, editor, and film archivist, Thompson has used NARA records in her research into women filmmakers. We asked her to write about one of her research projects to close out Women’s History Month.

Between one question and another, I’ve spent many charmed hours researching women’s history in local archives and libraries where it’s not unusual to come across a tea bag, a pressed rose, a slice of wedding cake, a lover’s secret note boxed with important documents. Estate sales sometimes open similar doors to the past.

In 2014 I visited a small Maine gallery which had just acquired an estate—the photographs, paintings, and documents of photographer George Daniell (1911-2002), who is best known for his photographs of Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren. When I first visited, the gallerists were sorting the work and considering how to do best by it. Among the materials was a film. It might be nitrate, I warned, and advised them to consult the nearby regional film archive Northeast Historic Film (NHF). There were also many early family snapshots and photos from Daniell’s personal life. One intrigued me particularly. The gallery allowed me to take a snapshot of it on the proviso that it be clear it’s not an original.

Author snapshot of "Gina and Lizzie" from the papers of George Daniell. The original photograph is held by the George Daniell Museum.
Author snapshot of “Gina and Lizzie” from the papers of George Daniell. The original photograph is held by Gina & Dwayne DeJoy and the George Daniell Museum.

The scrawl on the top reads “gina & lizzie.” “Lizzie” was a cousin of Daniell’s, the gallerist said. She was a lesbian and filmmaker. The gallerist wasn’t sure how she knew that. The image of two women holding hands and walking toward a beautiful young man in swim trunks did seem implicitly queer to my eye and my attention sharpened further when the gallery partner shared this album sheet.

Author snapshot of an album sheet showing stills from Elizabeth Wheeler's "Light for the Traveller", from the papers of George Daniell. The original album sheet is held by Gina & Dwayne DeJoy and the George Daniell Museum.
Author snapshot of an album sheet showing stills from Elizabeth Wheeler’s “Light for the Traveller”, from the papers of George Daniell. The original album sheet is held by Gina & Dwayne DeJoy and the George Daniell Museum.

The pencil script at the bottom reads: “‘Light for the Traveller,’ documentary movie by my cousin Elizabeth Wheeler 1944.” Although we were in the process of conceptualizing the Lesbian Home Movie Project (LHMP) and I had put a certain amount of study into lesbians with Maine connections, especially those who made movies, Elizabeth Wheeler wasn’t on my radar. Who was she? How could she have made a film that no one knew about?

I hoped Daniell’s journals and correspondence would answer those questions. The gallery had already committed the written material to local historian Sanford Phippen, and some time later Phippen allowed me to view a few sections of the journals. They turned out to be more obfuscating than clarifying because Daniell had a practice of switching from fact to fiction, sometimes with a single paragraph. What was fact, what was fiction? No way to tell.

There was one clue left. The film. It was in fact nitrate, and fortunately, the gallery donated it to NHF while it was still in good condition. NHF in turn donated it to the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University, which committed the funds to digitize it. The credits identified it as Last Night We Attacked, directed by Daniell’s cousin Elizabeth Wheeler.

So, Elizabeth Wheeler really had directed at least one film. But who was she? How had she become a director? Her name did not appear in standard texts or articles on the film circles—the Photo League, Amateur Cinema League, or Frontier Films. A suggestion that she worked for a time at the Office of War Information (OWI) in New York led to NARA’s extensive Office of War Information files (RG 208), which revealed that World War II’s much-researched OWI maintained a largely overlooked film studio at 35 West 45th Street in New York City, where a number of film editors, including several women, assembled newsreels and documentary shorts. These were distributed to play before the weekly feature in movie theaters as well as at meetings of local community organizations all over the country. This is a personnel roster for that office from NARA’s OWI files.

OWI Memo dated November 18, 1942, containing a list of personnel, including Elizabeth Wheeler
OWI Memo dated November 18, 1942, containing a list of personnel, including Elizabeth Wheeler. (RG 208 [Office of War Information]; NC-148; Entry 269; Box No. 1487; PRODUCTION, General file)
There she is, Elizabeth Wheeler, along with three additional unknown or barely-known women editors. NARA also turned out to hold two newsreels Wheeler edited as well as a short film and it has now digitized them: U.S. News Review #2, U.S. News Review #3, and—the piece de resistanceIt’s Up to You, a World War II film discouraging people from turning to the black market for rationed goods.

While to a contemporary eye It’s Up to You may feel didactic and stiff, the opening credits reveal it is an extremely important film of its time.

With the exception of Wheeler, all the names belong to well-known figures on the cultural left of the day. Earl Robinson wrote the music and Lewis Allan the lyrics for the haunting “Joe Hill,” first sung by the great Paul Robeson and covered by singers of virtually every generation since, from Pete Seeger to Bruce Springsteen. Director Henwar Rodakiewicz was a central figure in New York film circles, belonged to the Camera Club and the Amateur Cinema League, worked on “Redes” (1934) and “The City” (1938, available to view here), and created the avant-garde “Portrait of a Young Man” (1932) as well as “Georgia O’Keefe” (1947). Paul Strand, a revered early modernist American photographer, was a founder of the Photo League and Frontier Films.

Wheeler’s previous experience remains opaque beyond the fact that she went to the Brearley School and spent a year at Smith College, but the fact that her father John Wheeler founded both the Wheeler and the Bell newspaper syndicates indicates that she grew up in the news business. It is newspaper tradition that most infuses the style of It’s Up to You, which bears its strongest relationship to the Living Newspaper genre*, pioneered in the Soviet Union and developed in the United States by the Federal Theatre Project under Hallie Flanagan. It’s Up to You screenwriter Arent wrote a number of Living Newspaper productions and succeeded Flanagan as the project’s director. In fact, It’s Up to You itself toured as a multimedia theater production. Another aesthetic source for the piece is Paul Strand’s admiration for the work of Soviet documentary-maker Sergei Eisenstein who pioneered cinema montage.

Wheeler’s career was cut short by her early and somewhat mysterious death at age thirty-seven. But she did make at least two more films after the war, Home Are the Hunted (1946) and Last Night We Attacked (1947). The second of these was the film the gallery donated to Northeast Historic Film. Home Are the Hunted is listed in the British Film Institute catalog but is not available to view. So far there’s no trace at all of Light for the Traveller beyond the stills. The gallery which initially acquired Daniell’s work has closed but there is now a George Daniell Museum in Miami Beach and his estate is still represented by the original gallerist, Gina DeJoy.

There’s a moral in all this for women’s history month. Women’s scholarship has accomplished so much it can sometimes appear that the work is largely complete; but there’s so much more to find, document, and preserve. It’s up to you!

Footnote:

* Laura Browder’s “Finding a Collective Solution: The Living Newspaper Experiment,” in NARA’s Prologue magazine (Summer 1998, p. 87-97) is an excellent introduction to the Living Newspaper.

One thought on “Finding Elizabeth Wheeler: Rediscovering a 1940s Woman Filmmaker

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.