Rewinding Time: Women Screenwriters of the Silent Era

“It’s the writer’s job to get screwed. Writers are the women of the movie business” – Nora Ephron, 1993

Writers have always received the short end of the movie making stick, going unnoticed as actors and directors are given credit for the stories, characters and dialogue that they dreamed up. Even though American Copyright Law was officially amended in 1912 to recognise motion pictures as pieces of work created by authors and not improvised by the actors on screen, as some early audiences and critics had misunderstood, writers are still often the last people to be given their fair dues.

Ephron’s bleak early nineties outlook, however, hits a double target, both lashing out at a system that has chronically undervalued those responsible for laying a film’s foundations and recognising that, as much as it has sucked to be a writer in Hollywood, it’s worse to be a woman. You only need to consider the dire statistics of today, with women accounting for just 10% of writers working on the top 250 films of 2013, to understand her frustration.

Courtesy of: The Guardian

Courtesy of: The Guardian

But look back to the silent era of Hollywood and it seems that it wasn’t always so.

It was Anita Loos who was the first staff screenwriter and Frances Marion who was the highest paid of her time. These two were at the forefront of the most successful group of women screenwriters ever seen in Hollywood. They were astoundingly prolific in their output: half of the 25,000 scripts registered between 1911 and 1929 were written by women. Their films rank among the highest grossing silent films of all time and audiences revered many of them as stars. Number 2 on Turner Classic Movie’s list of most influential silent films is The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse written by June Mathis – case and point. They wrote on pretty much everything, tackling serials with their daring heroines, comedies, romances, westerns, thrillers and more.

And yet, their success seems to be undeniably at odds with their contemporary society, one which took until 1920 to even allow women to vote and for whom the word ‘feminism’ was a long way off being included in the vernacular. But there were three key factors that go some way in explaining how women writers managed to be so successful within a system that today seems ever determined to shut them out.

Courtesy of: Wisconsin History.org

Courtesy of: Wisconsin History.org

First off, and most crucially, Hollywood was very far from being business-minded behemoth it is today. As production companies began to rock up to sleepy village of Los Angeles in the early 1900s, they were small, often family-run outfits, renegades from the dominance of the East Coast nickelodeons. With their relative lack of hierarchy and moderate profits, there was room enough for women to help out with a range of tasks and find their own place. As Frances Marion herself laughed, “I did every kind of job I could find except emptying the garbage pails”.

Secondly, the role of scenarist (essentially silent era jargon for screenwriter) came to be thought of as feminine. As studios began to find their footing, the role, though not yet imbued with any gravitas, became crucial: the pace of production quickened and stories needed to be churned at an ever increasing rate. It was women that the business looked to: supposedly quiet, empathetic and conscientious and with writing being a traditionally female pursuit, they seemed to fit the lowly role better than men who could aspire to greater things, becoming directors, studio bosses and producers. In an era where even the roles of teacher or nurse forbade marriage, women were grateful for a space in the relatively liberal environment of Hollywood.

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Silent star Mary Pickford with longtime collaborator Frances Marion/Image credit: Women and Film History International

And lastly, the women screenwriters in Hollywood supported each other. “I owe my great success to women.” Frances Marion once said, “Contrary to the assertion that women do all in their power to hinder one another’s progress, I have found that it has always been one of her own sex who has given me a helping hand when I needed it.” There existed a community of women who relied on each other for tea parties and job contracts alike: Marion herself was once accused of being a one woman employment agency! Even prickly Anita Loos, whose disregard for Women’s Liberation is threaded throughout her autobiographical work, admitted that the most reliable studio writers were women, even making friends from among them.

But, for all their eventual success and value within the studio community, women weren’t safe from being taken advantage of by a wider misogynistic system. They were often underpaid, sexual harassment was rampant and they were almost uniformly reliant upon benevolent male studio bosses at MGM, Paramount and others in order to rise up the ranks. In a 1915 newspaper column “How to Become a Movie Actress”, Louella Parsons helpfully wrote: “find out the name of the man who holds your destiny in his hands”. The ever sardonic Anita Loos was required to bend to the will of D. W. Griffith and, while Irving Thalberg at MGM was a sympathetic figure, he nevertheless controlled the fates of Frances Marion, Bess Meredyth and countless other talented women writers.

D. W. Griffith

D. W. Griffith/Image credit: New York Public Library Digital Collection

They were also treated with suspicion by their male counterparts and Marion admitted in a 1970 interview that during her career she “knew male writers were complaining about the ‘tyranny of the woman writer’ supposedly prevalent at all the studios then”. Their ideas were often stolen and credit given to male writers or bosses, something legendary screenwriter Frederica Sagor Maas complains of bitterly in her brilliant 1999 biography.

Maas’ career got off to startling beginning: the firing of her alcoholic and incompetent male boss led to her being appointed head of the story department at Universal while in her early twenties. But once she moved out to Los Angeles, the sexism of the industry tore her career apart. From having countless ideas filched by lesser male colleagues, to witnessing male studio figureheads inflict sexual depravity on innocent young things, she eventually left the industry in the 1940s, broke and beaten.

As you might imagine, women screenwriters didn’t just suffer at the hands of men while on the studio lot, the same could be said for the men at home. While Maas’ husband was a figure of constant support, the same cannot be said for Anita Loos whose husband demanded credit on her projects and yet whose input amount to little more than listening to her ideas over breakfast. Women’s success may have been great, but often it was only on the terms of the men who were closest to them.

And sadly, in spite of their strong network, they were often undervalued by each other. Cecil B. DeMille’s frequent collaborator, the legendary Jeanie Macpherson, was dismissed by fellow female screenwriter Beulah Marie Dix who “never really thought of [Macpherson] as a writer, but as an exceptional collaborator for an exceptional man”. Anita Loos, one of the silent era’s brightest writing stars and author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes went even further, contradicting her earlier sentiment by saying in one of her autobiographies, “although I enjoyed writing as a pastime, I never had much respect for female scribblers, least of all myself”.

Studio_Promo_Anita_Loos_Jean_Harlow

Anita Loos with Jean Harlow Image credit: Wikipedia

As the silent era led into the talkies and Hollywood slowly became the immensely wealthy movie making machine it now is, women were increasingly shoved off studio payrolls. By 1938, screenwriter Lenore Coffee reported that she was the only women screenwriter on Warner Bros. docket. Some of the old guard including Loos and Marion made attempts to return to their former stomping grounds to varying degrees of success. At the same time as the late 1920s gave voice to the movies, the voices of women screenwriters were increasingly silenced.

In spite of much room for improvement, the silent era did present a unique opportunity for women both then and now: the chance to have their voices heard through a media on a massive scale. The fact that women screenwriters of 2014 struggle to achieve this, even when supported by a range of helpful legal reforms and a society in which successful working women is no longer a rarity, only serves to show quite how special this was.

As we head onwards to look at women screenwriters once sound arrived in Hollywood, we owe it to their predecessors to recognise the achievements of the creative, ambitious and diverse women who silently paved the way…

Sources: Ward Mahar/Francke/McCreadie/Beauchamp/Loos 1/Loos 2/Coffee/Marion/Sagor Maas/Lauzen/Scott

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