"Grace Cunard” was the professional name of Ohio native Harriet Mildred Jeffries. She began acting at thirteen, joining a traveling theater group. Her first film, The Duke’s Plan (1910), was directed by D.W. Griffith, and she continued to make a name for herself with roles in serials. After acting in many films, she moved on to the executive level: she formed a partnership with Francis Ford, brother of the director John Ford, and together they wrote, directed and starred in many serials for Universal Studios, which soon became known for its creative women.
She is especially notable for her wrote strong, action-oriented female protagonists: indeed, Cunard and Ford are credited with some of the strongest heroines ever on the screen. Their most famous collaboration was The Broken Coin (1915), in which Cunard starred. This serial began the use of a “cliffhanger” that would encourage audiences to return for the next episode, and although Cunard was not credited as director, it is widely known that she had a strong part the serial’s development.
According to one film historian: “Cunard’s depiction of strong action heroines marks an important, almost completely lost, cultural moment in which women were portrayed as active, clever, physically adroit warrior archetypes who were quite capable of saving themselves and others.” Among the most popular roles that Cunard created and played was Lady Raffles, a sexy thief and female Robin Hood who was always able to outsmart her pursuers. Her characters presented a decided contrast to the “damsel in distress” stereotype often produced at other studios.
The acme of her career was prior to the invention of “talkies,” when strong plots and emotive acting had to substitute for dialogue. Both the transformation to sound and the Great Depression of the late 1920s negatively affected her career, and soon after her 1925 marriage to Jack Shannon, Grace Cunard retired. That was the case not only for other female fim pioneers, but also throughout industry: as the economy crashed, women were pushed out of executive-level positions. She died of cancer in 1967.