WOMEN AND LEADERSHIP
IN EARLY HOLLYWOOD
IDA LUPINO FOUNDED HER OWN
INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION COMPANY:
[TRIGGER ALERT: Rape discussed in this blog post.]
Primarily known for her theatrical heritage — she descended from the British equivalent of the Barrymores — as well as her sultry good looks and acting performances, Ida Lupino was also an accomplished writer-director. In the repressive years leading up to and during the early 1950s, she even founded her own production company — first called Emerald Pictures then The Filmakers [sic] — to address such controversial subjects as unwed pregnancy, rape, and guilt due to societal pressures and mores. Lupino may well have been the only female film director working during some of this period.
After the stricter enforcement of the code in 1934, Outrage (1950) — which she directed and co-wrote — was only the second movie to address the subject of rape, which opened up the conversations both legal and social that continue to grow in this century as documented in such contemporary films as The Invisible War (2012).
But critics such as Andrew Sarris refused to honor her efforts. He believed “that if Lupino had not been a female, her films would have been forgotten long ago.” According to Annette Kuhn, “Her work…has met with mixed responses, ranging mainly from simple disregard via damnation with faint praise to outright dismissal. Thus could critic Andrew Sarris repudiate the entire Lupino oeuvre (together with those of all but a few women film directors) as an ‘oddity.’” Kuhn observed, “Called to account some years later for this piece of sexism, Sarris compounded the insult by dubbing the films Lupino directed ‘weepy social consciousness and snarling paranoia.’”
Martin Scorsese, on the other hand, praised her work, “The five films she directed between 1949 and 1953 are remarkable chamber pieces that deal with challenging subjects in a clear, almost documentary fashion, and they represent a singular achievement in American cinema.”
In the final moments of Outrage, for example, the Reverend Bruce Ferguson (Tod Andrews) tells Ann (Mala Powers) she’s “going to have a wonderful, happy life” as he waits with her at a bus stop to begin her trip home. “Aren’t you?” he asks. “Yes,” she replies, “thank you for everything.” They embrace as a bus drives into frame. After the bus pulls away, Bruce remains on screen alone. The implication is that Ann has found the courage to board the bus and return to her fiancé as well as her parents after she has had time to retreat, recover, and rebuild her psychological strength following the assault.
But Lupino seems to be doing something deeper, more resonant with the construction of this sequence as well. While some feminist critics have shunned Lupino as “not feminist enough” and critiqued the “powerlessness” of Ann, her disappearance from Bruce’s guardianship signals her decision to act. She has hidden away in the bucolic hills of Santa Paula on a kind of spiritual retreat; while there, she’s faced a second aggressor and taken steps to stop his unwanted actions; she’s now refueled and ready to return to the life she’s supposed to live rather than hiding out and resigning to “victimhood.”
In the end, Ann’s rapist doesn’t win. Finding her agency and authority once again, she returns to the “wonderful, happy life” she deserves. Bruce watches after the bus as it pulls away then looks up at the sky as though consulting with a higher power. Evil may exist in this world, Lupino concedes, but good exists perhaps in equal measure. The angelic character of Bruce reminds not only Ann of that fact, but the audience as well. We may not see a happy ending for her on screen, but we are hopeful for one.
With this skillful use of ambiguity, Lupino suggests that with care there may be at least the possibility of positive change, of healing for women. She’s also careful to avoid reductionist plotlines in which religious hypocrisy or the “tyranny of evil men” erases the fact that some people of faith as well as some men persist in doing the right thing. For me, Lupino reaches for the highest form of filmmaking — some ambiguity as in life — while suggesting what we might do to enact positive change for our future.
This film didn’t just sit on an indie shelf, either. Ida Lupino was also clever enough to negotiate a distribution deal with Howard Hughes at RKO. You can read more about her here. You can watch Outrage on YouTube here.
THE WOMAN WHO IMMORTALIZED RITA HAYWORTH:
COLUMBIA EXECUTIVE PRODUCER VIRGINIA VAN UPP
King Cong, White Fang, inventor of the casting couch — these are just a few of the monikers for Harry Cohn, President of Columbia Pictures. A tyrant to be sure, but also a man who knew how to acquire the best talent for a film.
As Cover Girl (1944) moved into production, no one seemed satisfied with the script. Ever resourceful, he hired the prolific Paramount screenwriter Virginia Van Upp to rewrite it. The film made stars out of Gene Kelly and Rita Hayworth, which presented Cohn with another problem. Hayworth refused his sexual advances — creating a frosty relationship between them. She knew he needed her. He knew he needed her too.
Not only was Van Upp the screenwriter of a hit film, she also understood the “women’s picture” as well as the movie audience, largely female while men were away during World War II. Collaborating with Hayworth, Van Upp befriended her and thus could play mediator between Cohn and his tempestuous star. These soft skills would serve the screenwriter well.
As Columbia moved toward the production of Gilda (1946), Cohn really had no choice. Virginia Van Upp was promoted to Executive Producer — the first woman to hold the position and the only one for another thirty years. Hayworth rejoiced. She had her trusted collaborator and friend involved in this important project.
Under Van Upp’s leadership, Gilda became the iconic role for Hayworth. A box office hit and audience favorite to this day, the film also won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress National Film Registry.
It might bear mentioning that Virginia Van Upp was a fiery redhead herself. You can read more about her here.
WHAT ABOUT ALICE?
I’m a scholar-activist-advocate dedicated to fighting for women’s voices in Hollywood as well as women’s rightful place in the history books.
Nearly all film narratives teach us that the movie industry was invented by men, but what about Alice?
Sure, you’ve likely heard of the Lumière brothers, and their Paris screenings of short “realities” such as workers leaving their factory. But guess who else attended that first 1895 show in the Salon Indien du Grande Café?
Alice Guy Blaché, that’s who.
After she saw a demonstration of the camera technology as well as this screening, she talked her boss into letting her make her own films with the new equipment. Thus the first woman screenwriter/director was born.
Alice grasped the fictional potential of the medium and began shooting scripted stories. Before long, she moved to the US and founded her own production company, Solax.
Here’s one of my favorite films that she produced, wrote, and directed in 1912: The Making of an American Citizen. The movie may have its issues, but I love how she was already thinking about equal rights for women.
And hey, if Jodie Foster thinks Alice Guy Blaché’s important, shouldn’t you? Foster narrated Pamela B. Green’s doc Be Natural, Alice’s motto for her actors.
Learn more about Alice Guy Blaché here.
CARL LAEMMLE AND LOIS WEBER: DREAM TEAM
Some scholars focus on the moment in history when women writer/directors all but disappeared for a few decades. I prefer to focus on the moments when men and women forged alliances and worked together for the best film product.
Perhaps we can learn from them. Their relationships may provide models of behavior to provide more high-level opportunities for women in the film industry today.
One classic example I like to relate is the partnership between the founder of the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, Carl Laemmle, and Lois Weber.
For many years, Weber had been working independently in theater as well as for small production companies such as Gaumont and Reliance. Her exceptionalism brought her to the attention of the man who many still say “invented Hollywood”: Laemmle himself.
“Uncle Carl,” as he was known around the studio lot, hired her at Universal to develop their Rex brand, known for highbrow entertainment. Her work culminated in a four reel The Merchant of Venice. She then left for Hobart Bosworth only to return to Universal. Around that time, she was also elected the first and only woman to the Motion Picture Directors Association.
Laemmle trusted her and gave her free reign to write and direct films that would, as Weber phrased it, “have an influence for good on the public mind.” Courageously, she made social justice pictures concerning contraception, drug abuse, poverty, and the death penalty.
When she left to form Lois Weber Productions, Laemmle didn’t sulk, he agreed to be her distributor. Rather than the “you’ll never work again in this town” mentality, Uncle Carl supported her dream and made it possible for them to team up and make even more money. According to Shelley Stamp and reported by Photoplay magazine, “Weber negotiated extremely lucrative distribution contracts with Universal, making her, for a time, the highest paid director in Hollywood.”
Now that’s a partnership I can get behind.
Read more on Carl Laemmle, Women, and Leadership in Hollywood here.
THE PARTNERSHIP OF ADOLPH ZUKOR AND MARY PICKFORD
A stellar businessman, Adolph Zukor knew how to succeed in the fledgling film industry: he needed a star as a partner. Enter Mary Pickford.
In his autobiography The Public Is Never Wrong, Zukor describes the first night Pickford’s name went up in lights on the theater marquee for a picture they had produced together. She “put her head on [his] shoulder and wept.” His “eyes were not dry either.”
From the start, he promoted “Famous Players in Famous Plays” and pursued Pickford for a part in one of his films. His first meeting with her, they ate lunch at Delmonico’s — her mother Charlotte came as well.
Pickford argued that she only wanted to work for Belasco in the theater. Zukor countered that Belasco would be directing films at Famous Players Film Company. Zukor believed, “The screen public will choose its favorites.” Soon “there will be a star system rivaling — maybe outshining — that of the stage.” Mary thought it over, and in a few days her mother called him and negotiated terms.
With a contract signed, Zukor moved film production to Hollywood, and soon they had a big hit with Tess of the Storm Country “to lift Famous Players onto the high road.”
He explains, “The studio favorite was Mary Pickford. Rather than an actress rising to stardom, she was to the Famous Players family a favorite sister and daughter. Mary had her hand in everything, writing scripts, arguing with directors, making suggestions to other players. But everyone knew she did it for the benefit of the picture, and her ideas were helpful.”
Zukor admired her “tremendous drive for success and the cash-register nature of a segment of her brain.” During their partnership together, she became a household name “all over the land.” She was “America’s Sweetheart — an understatement. Her popularity was equally high with countless millions in foreign lands.”
Zukor explains, “We had moved in almost total darkness as Mary led the way upward and across the skies. It takes nothing from her achievement to say that I was always at her side, trying to guide, lend strength — and to guard.”
While the history books may point to Zukor as one of the movie moguls who founded Hollywood and dismiss Pickford as a a mere actress. Zukor’s reflections tell another tale: Mary Pickford was a mogul in her own right and ran the Mary Pickford Company from within Famous Players. Indeed, she was nothing short of Zukor’s partner in growing the company that would one day become Paramount.
Learn more about Mary Pickford here.
MAE WEST RESCUED PARAMOUNT
In 1929, the stock market crashed, launching the United States into the Great Depression. Head of Paramount-Publix at the time, Adolph Zukor faced bankruptcy, reorganized the company, and emerged from the crisis as Chairman of the Board for Paramount Pictures — due in no small part to his partnership with Mae West.
In 1930, Zukor signed West to a contract for a supporting role in Night After Night (1932). The role may have been small, but it was vital — it was also a way for Zukor and others at Paramount to test West’s appeal on screen following her stage success. Soon after, the script ran into trouble, delaying production by four weeks. Once the studio felt the script was ready, they gave it to West — who flatly rejected it.
According to Zukor in his autobiography The Public Is Never Wrong, “She had always written her own material and this was not the Mae West of her creation.” Executive Al Kaufman took West and her manager, Jim Timony, out for a nice dinner with a dash of persuasion. At the end of the evening, “Mae opened her handbag, took out a check, and handed it to Al. It was for twenty thousand dollars — her salary up to date.”
West told Kaufman she was leaving for New York; he told her she could rewrite her part. She did, and in Night After Night she “stole the show” with one particularly memorable line. A cloakroom girl exclaims, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds.” West as Maude Triplett replies, “Goodness had nothing to do with it.”
Zukor reflected in his autobiography years later, “It seems to me that the incident described above portrays the true Mae West — honest, direct, extremely knowledgeable in her craft.” The line was memorable enough for the title of her autobiography; it was also memorable enough to get her the starring roles in She Done Him Wrong (1933) and I’m No Angel (1933). The success of these films was one factor among many that helped Zukor rescue Paramount from bankruptcy by bolstering the company’s financial position. West’s screen success also provided Zukor with a certain cachet in his negotiations. After all, he had an international sensation among his ranks. He wrote, “I must pay tribute to another durable trouper, Mae West, for the powerful lift she gave us out of the depression mire.”
West wasn’t just another “witless blonde.” She co-wrote her scripts, which displayed the best in social satire and double entendre. You can watch a reel of her memorable one-liners here and read more about the production of She Done Him Wrong here.