WOMEN AND LEADERSHIP
IN EARLY HOLLYWOOD
FRANCES MARION: MADAM VICE PRESIDENT
As the most beloved, highest paid, and prolific screenwriter in early Hollywood, Frances Marion displayed leadership in many ways. She won two Oscars for best original screenplay — and is still the only woman in history to have done so. During World War I, she left Hollywood and became one of the few female journalists in Europe — shaping films about the work of Allied women. Indeed, she was the first Allied woman to cross the Rhine River after the Armistice.
Marion wrote the films that made stars of Mary Pickford and Marie Dressler — she even wrote Greta Garbo’s first talkie. But perhaps the most significant role of them all was the courage she summoned to help form the Screen Writers Guild. There, she was the only woman on its Board of Directors and the first Vice President.
During the 1930s, studios struggled due to the Great Depression as well as the expensive transition to sound. Thus movie moguls such as Louis B. Mayer at MGM where Marion worked asked for pay cuts from — among others — their writers. Although Marion’s contract called for $3000 a week, she had agreed to the cuts and was thus paid only $2400.
Even by today’s standards, that’s plenty of money to live on, but Marion was concerned not just for her own well being. She was worried about the writers under her — some of whom could barely make ends meet on $250 a week. Thus, in a compelling act of leadership, she took on her studio bosses — even alienating her beloved chief of production, Irving Thalberg, in the process. He was furious with her for organizing a union “against him,” as he saw it.
Marion even resigned her membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on the belief that the organization worked against labor and was pro-producer. After a few meetings and the payment of membership dues, the Screen Writers Guild held an election on 6 April 1933 and she was elected Vice President. Unopposed.
Frances Marion believed screenwriters needed a union to fight the power the moguls held and the uneven distribution of the profits — exploiting the work of so many. With her actions, she helped solidify the foundation underneath the Writers Guild of America, still functioning today, ensuring that writers receive fair pay, benefits, and royalties for their work.
THE NORMA TALMADGE FILM CORPORATION
Many film history books tell us that men — so called “movie moguls” — invented the movie studio, yet everywhere in the archives of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, we find evidence that women co-founded Hollywood — literally co-founding production companies from the origins of film history. One such Madam Movie Mogul, as I call them, was actress Norma Talmadge.
So what, she lied about being born in Niagara Falls because she thought it sounded more romantic in her press? She was right. Jersey City, New Jersey sounded no better in 1894 than it does today. Fatherless, poor, and sixteen, she started work as an actress at Vitagraph in Flushing, New York, then moved on to the Triangle Film Corporation in California.
Eager to form her own company and thus control her career, fortune, and destiny, she partnered with self-made millionaire Joseph Schenk to form the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation in New York. They married during the first production, Panthea in 1917.
While some have criticized Talmadge as “passive” as they praise the business acumen of Schenk, I make the following case for her importance to the studio: she joined the “star-producer movement”; selected her roles; negotiated a profit sharing contract; critiqued rough cuts and daily rushes; conducted rigorous hair, makeup, and costume tests; and performed well on camera. The dismissal of her contributions unveils the consistent bias that resides in most film history books.
Talmadge was actively involved in the production of motion pictures at her corporation from the day it was formed. Indeed, so successful was she that Norma was oft-mentioned in Photoplay’s fashion column, worked with top fashion designers in New York, and acquired famed publicist Beulah Livingstone.
Due to the box office hit Smilin’ Through in 1922, she was even summoned to Hollywood only to become one of the most sought after, popular, and well-paid actresses of the 1920s.
MARY C. MCCALL, JR.: GUILD PRESIDENT
The screenwriter of such hits as Rosalind Russell’s Craig’s Wife (1936) and the Maisie franchise had another job as well: she was three times elected the president of the Screen Writers Guild.
According to J.E. Smyth, McCall got “the screenwriting profession its first minimum wage, unemployment compensation, minimum flat-price deals, maximum working hours, credit arbitration, and pay raises during WWII.” She also led the Hollywood branch of the War Activities Committee as well as the Committee of Hollywood Guild and Unions.
Perhaps the most shocking erasure of her contributions comes in the film history books about the Hollywood Ten male screenwriters who were blacklisted by HUAC.
McCall lost her movie career after she stood up to such outrages as Howard Hughes and RKO’s refusal to grant Paul Jarrico credit on a film he had scripted due to his communist sympathies, yet nowhere is she mentioned as a heroine for the screenwriting underdogs of the day.
Serving six terms on the Executive Board of the guild, McCall should be remembered for her leadership during one of the darkest hours in Hollywood history.
She was a witty writer too…
HATTIE MCDANIEL: CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST
Taken in front of her house on South Harvard Boulevard in the West Adams Heights of 1942, this photograph features actress Hattie McDaniel as Chairman of the Negro Division of the Hollywood Victory Committee. Here we can literally view her leadership as she marches from the front steps of her home to Minter Field where many Hollywood stars performed for the troops during WWII.
The photo’s location in what came to be known as Sugar Hill – an homage to the historic Harlem neighborhood – reminds us of another way in which McDaniel demonstrated leadership. When eight white families bound together to throw the incoming black residents out in 1945, McDaniel organized meetings with black neighbors, fought the case in court, and won.
Rejecting the restrictive covenant, the judge ruled, “It is time that members of the Negro race are accorded, without reservations and evasions, the full rights guaranteed them under the 14th amendment of the Federal Constitution. Judges have been avoiding the real issue too long. Certainly there was no discrimination against the Negro race when it came to calling upon its members to die on the battlefields in defense of this country in the war just ended.”
While McDaniel was oft criticized for accepting the domestic roles that Hollywood offered, her talent for subversion as well as outshining her white co-stars – even the most eminent such as Katharine Hepburn and Vivien Leigh – earned her the first Oscar for an African American. She famously quipped, “Why should I complain about making $7,000 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week actually being one!”
In her seminal role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, for example,
she emerges as an authority figure for Scarlett – scolding her for showing her “bosom” and yanking the neckline higher in the acclaimed bedroom
scene. By the end of the argument, Mammy has even gotten the spoiled brat to do the one thing she refuses: eat. Cleverly outsmarting the vain Scarlett, Mammy observes, “What a gentlemen says and what he thinks are two different things, and I ain’t noticed Mr. Ashley asking for to marry you.” Checkmate. McDaniel plays the role with agency, guts, verve, power, intelligence. Indeed, Clark Gable as Rhett seems only to respect one person in the film, and that person is Mammy.
ANNA MAY WONG: REBEL WITH A STEREOTYPE
By 1924, Anna May Wong had achieved international fame as the first Asian-American actress of note when she played a slave in the Douglas Fairbanks vehicle The Thief of Baghdad.
Disappointed with the stereotypical supporting roles she was offered acting the lover, the exotic, the seductress, the schemer, the “Dragon Lady,” the dying forlorn, she began to divide her time between Europe and the US, stage and screen. Here we see an actress maneuvering to gain more control over her career, sending a signal to decision makers in Hollywood, as well as modeling behavior for future generations.
Unfortunately, Hollywood wasn’t ready to listen, and, in 1935, Wong lost the star part of O-Lan in The Good Earth (1937) to Luise Rainer who played the role in yellowface. MGM offered her the supporting Lotus, but Wong turned down the unsympathetic character to send yet another signal to executives and the industry at large.
To heal from such a slight, she then spent some time in China connecting to the culture of her ancestors and filming a documentary. In the 1930s and 1940s, she went on to play more positive Asian-American parts for Paramount and smaller studios such as the Producers Releasing Corporation.
In Lady from Chungking (1942), for example, Wong plays Kwan Mei, a woman who leads a rebellion against the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. Rather than the usual role of concubine, she plays a spy only pretending to such an affair with an enemy officer. When he has her killed by firing squad for her betrayal, she continues to live in spirit while he’s the one who, in fact, dies from a wound she gave him mere moments before.
Her concluding speech enlivens and inspires us, “You cannot kill me. You cannot kill China. Not even a million deaths could crush the soul of China, for the soul of China is eternal. When I die, a million will take my place. And nothing can stop them. Neither hunger, nor torture, nor the firing squad. We shall live on until the enemy is driven back over scorched land and hurled into the sea. That time will come soon…China’s destiny is victory.” Indeed, the speech almost sounds like Wong’s own departing words to Hollywood.
Throughout her career, this actress was outspoken against the practice of yellowface. In one popular movie magazine, she complained that producers preferred others for Chinese roles. The negative stereotypes irritated her as well. “Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain?” she asked in an interview. “And so crude a villain – murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass! We are not like that. How could we be, with a civilization that is so many times older than the West?”
Although Wong may not have solved Hollywood’s casting problems within her lifetime, she paved the path for many Asian-American actors who can now follow and continue the rebellion she led against stereotypes, whitewashing, and yellowface.
DIRECTED BY: DOROTHY ARZNER
Women directors may have been the norm in the early days of Hollywood with pioneers such as Alice Guy Blaché and Lois Weber leading the charge, but after films transitioned to sound as well as a corporate structure backed by Wall Street, females were pushed to the margins. Lois Weber, for example, has but one credit post-1927 while Ida Lupino’s directing credits don’t begin until 1949. It may be that only one woman director successfully transitioned from screenwriting and editing work into directing for the major studios post-1927, and that woman is Dorothy Arzner.
Unfortunately, some historians dismiss her work as B-picture level while others argue that she survived because her films eschewed the feminist principals that may have driven men to excise women screenwriters and directors from making movies in the first place. After all, who wants a plotline that might influence the female filmgoer against the patriarchy? Not 1930s Wall Street, that’s for sure.
At any rate, these arguments about Arzner’s work falter once we examine it. Let’s take Craig’s Wife (1936) as a case study.
One reading of the film positions Mrs. Harriet Craig (Rosalind Russell) as a materialistic shrew who loses everyone around her by film’s end — and deserves it. The screenplay, adapted by Mary C. McCall Jr. (an instance of a female screenwriter who excelled during this period, but that’s for another blog post) from the Pulitzer Prize winning play by the same name, certainly underscores that theme with a final title insert reading, “People who live to themselves — are generally left to themselves.”
Yet, I argue, a feminist subtext emerges from this picture as well.
During her argument with her spouse, Walter Craig (John Boles), Harriet explains that her mother died of a broken heart after discovering that her husband had mortgaged their home in order to support his dalliance with another woman. Here the home symbolizes the security-insecurity double bind for women who don’t have their own money or advanced education. They are beholden to the whims of men. As we know, among others, Virginia Woolf documented the impossibility of this position for women in a series of early twentieth century lectures, collected and published as the oft-cited A Room of One’s Own (1929).
In several of the film’s scenes, we see Harriet’s concern about her husband’s interactions and whereabouts. This information plays into the security-insecurity dynamic. In her argument with Walter’s aunt, for example, Harriet expresses concern about the neighbor’s interest in Mr. Craig. Likewise, she checks up on the scrap paper phone number thus keeping tabs on her husband’s activities and the impact they might have on her domestic security.
Indeed, Harriet’s interest over keeping the help in line and the decor perfect may have more to do with this obsession over the very security that her own mother had lost than represent only vanity and materialism. Some feminists may even listen to Mrs. Craig’s lecture to her niece on the train and nod with sympathy and understanding. Harriet asserts: “I saw to it that my marriage was a way toward emancipation for me. I had no private fortune, no special training, so the only road to independence for me was through the man I married.” Incredulous, her niece asks, “You don’t mean independent of your husband too?” Harriet continues, “Independent of everybody…my home could be destroyed at my husband’s will, couldn’t it?”
To be clear, Craig’s wife is trapped in a patriarchal system and forced to abide by rules that she had no part in setting up. Indeed, Walter’s aunt and Harriet’s niece portray women who have subscribed to the dominant moral codes regarding women’s role within a heterosexual marriage. As a lesbian woman, Arzner might have had a sensitivity toward this topic, which emerges in the final cut of the film itself. Rather than dismissing feminist ideals, the picture complicates the matter. We can read it one way — Harriet is punished by abandonment for disobeying societal law regarding her duties as a wife in the 1920s and 1930s — but the resistant spectator can also admire Mrs. Craig’s desire for independence. Both ways challenge early twentieth century assumptions about gender and marriage.
An interpretive complication arises as to whether or not the audience member agrees with the decisions to abandon Harriet for her “cold heart” or empathizes with a powerless woman negotiating a position of strength. It may even be true that some viewers feel a mix of both emotions. Therein may lie the genius of Arzner — and screenwriter McCall for that matter. They created a work of art that would satisfy conservatives and the censors who wanted women acting outside of societal norms punished by movie’s end while preserving a clever subtext.
You can read more about Dorothy Arzner here.
RUTH GORDON, SCREENWRITER
Primarily known as the Oscar-winning actress from Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and the quirky lead in films such as Harold and Maude (1971) as well as Clint Eastwood’s Every Which Way But Loose (1978), Gordon was a noted playwright and nominated for three best screenplay Oscars, including the gender-sparring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy vehicles Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952). This last accomplishment remains rarely mentioned in biographies about her career.
Some dismiss such films as mere screwball comedy. These scholars fail “to understand the cultural work of the genre,” as one critic phrases it — a point I fully endorse. He and I part company, however, when he argues that these movies only bolster “patriarchal interests and ideologies.” For him, screwball comedies are merely about the “instantiation of patriarchal dominance.” While he does concede a “reversal of some of the conventions of the screwball genre” in Adam’s Rib, the husband’s new judgeship at the end of the film “makes us happy” and “unworried by any significant change in the patriarchal order.” This script does no more than “affirm the status quo.” I challenge this reductive interpretation and argue a transgressive plotline exists, redefining the terms of gender relations.
Another scholar has argued, the female protagonist is “‘redeemed’ only by the film’s happy ending…the couple’s reconciliation, and the closing scene’s implication that in the future [she] will be more careful in challenging her husband.” For this critic, the film’s logic adjudicates the heroine; the “threat her behavior poses to the film’s family values…invite[s] the viewer to judge [her] and her feminist legal crusade, and find them dangerous.” There’s nothing particularly wrong with these statements. Except perhaps one thing: the concluding moments of the film refute them.
In the final cut of the picture, co-written by Ruth Gordon with her husband Garson Kanin, Amanda (Katharine Hepburn) continues to spar with her fellow lawyer of a husband Adam (Spencer Tracy). Contrary to some scholars’ interpretation of this scene, her challenge underscores the conflict in their relationship as she persists in her destabilization of masculine privilege.
During the last minutes of the film, Adam tells her, “We’ve got a big thing to talk about tomorrow. They want me to run for that county court judgeship…the Republicans…” Amanda tell him she’s proud of him. He tells her, “I’d rather hear you say that than anything.” Then he exits the bedroom while she ties on the angelic, flower hat he gave her to emphasize her feminine appearance — clearly designed in order to influence the jury of one — just as she had given it to the woman she defended in court to influence the jury of her peers.
“Adam,” Amanda calls out coyly, “have they picked the Democratic candidate yet?” Silence. Listening, he re-enters the room. “I was just wondering,” she says as she wears a smug look of superiority folded into satisfaction. In truth, perched on the edge of the bed, she looks the fabled cat who just ate the canary. The donning of the hat, the dimming of the lights — all a performance akin to a drag show as she softens her aggressive edges even forming her challenge into a question — lessening the force of a straight-out assertion sure to incite another fight. She becomes an actor in this scene — much like the woman who co-wrote it — she enacts femininity in order to manipulate her husband and conjure the result she desires. An empowered position.
After the credits roll, we suspect she will indeed run against him for the office — and win — just as she won their epic court battle proving to the jury that women and men are indeed treated differently in a court of law. While some scholars assert Adam’s courtroom argument holds more legal weight and therefore infects the audience’s perspective on the female lawyer as well as feminist logic, the writers, the actors enlivening those roles, and viewers alike also understand that her assertion rings more true to their lived reality. In other words, he may hold legal sway, but she’s right: a double standard existed then and still persists today.
In her memoir An Open Book, Ruth Gordon encouraged her readers: “Don’t Face Facts.” None of the women featured on this blog faced the fact that females can’t be screenwriters, good screenwriters, even great ones — or hold any leadership position in Hollywood. They also didn’t face the facts of race, class, gender injustice and inequality — frequently returning to these themes in their work in order to inspire cultural change. They believed, as Gordon believed, that success in the arts and with the arts “takes courage. It takes believing in it. It takes rising above it. It takes work…It takes the dreaming soul of the human race that wants it to go right. Whatever you do,” Gordon would say, “never stop dreaming.”
JUNE MATHIS: ARTIST?
As some of you may know, I’m a scholar-advocate dedicated to fighting for women’s voices in Hollywood as well as women’s rightful place in the history books. Much of their work has long been dismissed, which leads to the systemic sexism still in place to this day.
For but one example, some scholars have been quick to diminish the contributions of screenwriter, producer, executive, and director June Mathis. Remarks like the following from one scholar remain commonplace: “Mathis was not a great artist. The great majority of her screenplays were adaptations made in collaboration with male directors and executives who ran the studios.”
This criticism fails in so many ways. Let’s begin with its understanding of the manner in which the film industry operates. Filmmaking was and is a collaborative medium. All media professionals work in tandem. Those who work well with others rise in the industry as evidenced by Mathis’s astounding record as the first woman executive at a major studio, the highest paid executive in Hollywood, a 1926 ranking as the third most influential woman in the movie business, her role as a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as well as the fact that she’s credited along with a few others for developing the screenplay formatting conventions. Virginia Wright Wexman even believes it was Mathis, not the credited Rex Ingram, who directed Rudolph Valentino in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921).
Mathis’s power grew so great, in fact, she even had purview over directors and stars in her films. In a 1923 article conducted via telegram and published in The New York Times, Mathis explained that in the beginning she worked with disagreeable directors, but as time went by, “I began to get my own way so far as the story was concerned.” She continued, “I think I can claim that directors felt that adherence to a good, smooth scenario was easier for them.”
In addition, adaptation continues to be a highly regarded skill — so much so that the Academy grants an Oscar for the best adapted screenplay every year. The vast majority of films are adapted from underling IP — intellectual property or source material — still today. Her adaptations of Vicente Blasco Ibanez’s Blood and Sand (1922) as well as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse conformed these sprawling novels into box office bonanzas.
This process required a sophisticated screenwriter with an understanding of such issues as telescoping plot, discarding portions of the narrative, creating new plot for the story, outlining characters more “sharply,” discarding or collapsing characters, creating new characters, targeting action, and increasing pace in order to elide several hundred pages of fiction into a feature film lasting only a few hours or so. Not only did Mathis accomplish these things, she preserved the powerful polemic against violence in all its forms.
June Mathis also critiqued Hollywood’s racism by creating roles for and casting a dark-haired, dark-skinned protagonist as leading man, Valentino. As debates regarding race and class accelerated in the US and Europe leading up to World War II, Mathis courageously cast a southern Italian despite the preference for northern European, “white” stars. In both of the adaptations mentioned above, she paved the way for more diversified casting in the future. The swarthy Valentino himself remarked that he had been stuck playing “heavies” until Mathis “discovered” him.
You may even come out of it believing Mathis was a great artist after all.
IDA LUPINO: THE FILMAKERS
[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.