Elsie Jane Wilson

Elsie Jane Wilson (7 November 1885 – 16 January 1965) was a cinema actress, director, and writer during the early film era. She took part in the productions of the silent film era and starred in over thirty films.[1] Between the years of 1916 and 1919, Wilson was credited for writing two films and directing eleven films.[2] She was best known in the genres of dramas and comedy dramas.


Elsie Jane Wilson was born in Sydney, Australia. She began her career as a professional actress from the age of two. She credits her success to participating in the English Christmas Pantomime every year, allowing her to gain training and experience for the pictures.[3] Wilson toured Australia and New Zealand with a number of J. C. Williamson companies, where she met and married fellow performer, Rupert Julian in 1906. They immigrated to New York, United States in 1911 and eventually found work as actors in Hollywood under Joseph de Grasse.

Film career

Wilson and Rupert moved to Los Angeles in 1914 to pursue Universal Studios’ Rex Company.[2] She briefly worked with The Little Theatre before she went into the movies. Wilson starred in films that were directed, produced and co-starred by her husband, Rupert Julian. She mentioned that her and Julian appeared in everything together until they came to the US. They started working on different movies and she even adds that when she was starring in “Everywomen” she went without seeing her husband for two years. The industry turned to directing, with Wilson later functioning as Julian's co-director. Though she received little credibility for her work and often was out-shined by Julian. Wilson notes that she and her husband had different ideas while sharing the appreciation for the same pictures, making it difficult for them to discuss work.[4]

Wilson took a break from Universal and starred in films from other studios including American Studios.[5] She appeared in Oliver Twist (1916) and other Paramount movies, then in 1917 returned to Universal and started her directorial career,[1] mainly in light comedies. It was noted in The Pittsburg Press in 1916 that her supportive role in Temptation was a "pronounced success".[6] She started her solo director career in 1917 with her film “The Little Pirate” which released on September 10, 1917.

According to the reviews of the day, Wilson was a modest filmmaker, being best appreciated for eliciting good performances from otherwise indifferent talent. Her work was seen as artistic, enjoyable and popular in the film industry. Wilson featured as many female roles in her films and tended to appeal to child and female audiences. When writer Frances Denton of Photoplay visited Universal Studios in 1918, she described the work that Wilson was creating as “sob stuff” and was noticed as one of the female directors at Universal that created films centering around children.[7] “The Game’s Up”, released in 1919, marked the end of Wilson's career.

Universal in the 1910s

Historians noted Universal Studios for their feminist politics. Elsie Jane Wilson's case exemplifies how genre and gender, up until 1918,worked together to establish the institution's division of labor.[8] Work and genres became gendered because the institution thought of gender in a particular manner. During this time, Universal was more hierarchal than collaborative. Moving Picture World began to identify such films as “woman’s features”, including Wilson's solo-directed films, separating “women” from the word “director”. This begins to exclude the women from the director's chair.[8]

Contribution to cinema

Early press established her as “front rank” of directors. Nevertheless, few women directors sustained careers in the 1910s. Actors on Julian's pictures later commented on how she came to set every day, often lightening the mood with jokes at Julian's expense to relieve tension.

In 1917, Wilson began advertising in The Weekly for members to take part in a café scene for her film “The Game’s Up”. During the same time period, the Board of Health shut down many Los Angeles restaurants due to an influenza epidemic leaving cabaret showgirls out of work. Wilson and Universal was addressed with a mob of showgirls trying to take part in her film.[8]

In February 1918, Frances Denton wrote a story for Photoplay that addressed the normative femininity subordinate women in the name of equality. Denton presented Wilson as being a role model for the social standing of women.[8]

Moving Pictures World, a weekly film industry periodical, often published on Wilson and her efforts in the silent film era.[9] The Moving Picture Weekly recorded Wilson as Bluebird's noted woman producer. Her work played upon gender roles. In one of the films directed by Wilson, The Dream Lady (1918), the plot highlights gender visibility and insisting that gender is a performance.[10]


Wilson survived her husband, Rupert Julian, who died in 1943. Elsie Jane Wilson died in Los Angeles, California, at the age of 79, and was buried in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California alongside her husband. Much of Wilson's personal work has been destroyed over the century though her efforts have not gone unnoticed by the “Women Film Pioneers Project” and various other cinematic references from the times.

Selected filmography


  1. "Elsie Jane Wilson". IMDb. Retrieved 10 December 2015.
  2. "Elsie Jane Wilson – Women Film Pioneers Project". wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu. Retrieved 10 December 2015.
  3. Photoplay: The Aristocrat of Motion Picture Magazines. Photoplay Magazine Publishing Company. 1 January 1917.
  4. Mahar, Karen Ward (28 July 2008). Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood. JHU Press. ISBN 9780801890840.
  5. "Google News Archive Search". news.google.com. Retrieved 10 December 2015.
  6. "Feature Photoplays to Be Seen in Pittsburg This Week". The Pittsburg Press. 17 December 1916. Society and Photoplays sec., p. 6.
  7. Neale, Steve (12 November 2012). The Classical Hollywood Reader. Routledge. ISBN 9781135720070.
  8. Cooper, Mark Garrett (4 March 2010). Universal Women: Filmmaking and Institutional Change in Early Hollywood. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 9780252090875.
  9. "The Moving Picture World archives". onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu. Retrieved 10 December 2015.
  10. Slide, Anthony (1 January 1996). The Silent Feminists: America's First Women Directors. Scarecrow Press. ISBN 9780810830530.


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