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HOLLYWOOD ONCE A WOMAN'S STORY; FEMALE SCREENWRITERS PLOTTED TINSELTOWN'S EARLY RISE.

Byline: Marla Matzer Daily News Staff Writer

Imagine a Hollywood where women wrote half or more of all the movies made. A pie-in-the-sky, unattainable dream?

No, this was the reality 75 years ago, in the silent era of filmmaking. ``The film industry was open to anyone with talent and determination and a dream,'' Linda Seger said in her 1996 book, ``When Women Call the Shots.'' When it was still a scrappy, young industry, the film business actually provided more writing jobs for women than it has for the past few ``enlightened'' decades.

``Hollywood was a magnet for misfits: women, immigrants who weren't accepted in traditional business in Boston or New York,'' says Cari Beauchamp, author of ``Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood.'' ``Women were already popular novelists and story writers. This was a natural leap for them.''

Their on-screen sisters were also in an equitable position to their male counterparts. Top female stars like Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish got paid as much or more than their male counterparts. Compare that to today, when a handful of men command $20 million a picture - while women find it almost impossible to get even half that, because of the conventional wisdom that women don't ``open'' or ``carry'' pictures.

Strong roles, writers

It was no accident in early Hollywood that there were so many strong female roles for actresses: Their parts often were written by women. Pickford made Frances Marion her exclusive screenwriter in 1917. Beauchamp and other film historians call Marion one of the most influential and successful screenwriters of any period. She was given the then-astronomical salary of $50,000 per year. By 1925, she was making at least $3,000 a week ($156,000 per year).

That meant that from 1915 to 1933, according to Beauchamp, Marion was the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood - male or female. Few other screenwriters of either sex or any decade have matched her dominance.

Marion's colleagues in the silent and early sound period included June Mathis (``Ben-Hur,'' ``The Shiek'') and Anita Loos (``Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,'' ``Red-Headed Woman''). But there were dozens more whose names and films are largely forgotten today. Even Marion and these other top stars do not have stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Beauchamp's research at the Library of Congress revealed that women wrote nearly half of all the films made in the silent era. Though they created many strong female roles, they by no means only turned out ``chick flicks''; the boxing film ``The Champ'' and the influential prison drama ``The Big House,'' for example, were both written by Marion.

Though screenwriting was the most fertile field of work for women in Hollywood, there were also notable female directors and producers in film's early days. Parisian-born Alice Guy Blache parlayed a secretarial job with the Gaumont organization into a career directing scores of silent films. These included an adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel ``La Esmerelda'' in 1905, and a 1912 film titled ``In the Year 2000'' - about a future in which women ruled the world.

American-born Lois Weber moved into writing, directing and producing films after starting as an actress. According to Seger in ``When Women Call the Shots,'' Weber by 1915 ``was reputed to be the most important and highest-paid director at Universal Studios, making $5,000 a week.'' In 1917, she formed her own production company, Lois Weber Productions. She became known for tackling ``controversial issues such as birth control, divorce, abortion and promiscuity,'' Seger says, in such films as ``The Price of a Good Time'' and ``Sensation Seekers.''

In the early sound period, Dorothy Arzner became the only prominent female director - and one whose accomplishments were not matched by any other female director for decades afterward. Arzner, who started as a film editor, went on to work with virtually all of the top female stars of the 1930s, including Katharine Hepburn (``Christopher Strong'') and Joan Crawford (``The Bride Wore Red'').

The Writers Guild of America boasts that it was the first guild to focus on affirmative action, to hold workshops on the subject and to encourage ``access programs'' on the part of studios and TV networks. Yet the structure and hierarchy brought about by the unions - in concert with the ascendant movie studios - is one reason women abruptly started to disappear from Hollywood in the 1940s, Beauchamp says.

Although Marion was the first vice president of the Writers Guild and a ``big believer'' in the benefits of a union, says Beauchamp, ``One of the net results of the (formation of the) unions was the delineation of all the jobs. You no longer did everything: Frances and her friends not only wrote movies and were on the set, they helped edit and cast movies as well.''

`Big business'

At the same time, by the time men returned from World War II seeking jobs - and displacing women in a number of fields where they'd gained newfound autonomy in their absence - filmmaking had transformed from a seat-of-the-pants enterprise with relatively low barriers to entry into ``a big business, with all its ramifications,'' Beauchamp says.

A few, like Marion and Loos, packed up and went back to other forms of writing: plays, novels, short stories. Others, Beauchamp says, ``took to their beds or hit the bottle because of depression'' as the sands shifted underneath them and women no longer were welcomed into powerful positions in Hollywood.

``It's a complicated history,'' admits Beauchamp of the rise and fall of women in early Hollywood. ``It's not easy to put on a bumper sticker, so it's easy to forget or ignore.''

But Beauchamp says the best reward from her most recent book has been the ``incredible'' response from women in Hollywood today. She says women from producer Lynda Obst to Paramount Pictures Chairman Sherry Lansing have thanked her for telling them ``I'm not alone.''

``For a long time, I've believed that you get an awful lot of strength from knowing your history,'' Beauchamp says. ``This experience has just reinforced that.''

CAPTION(S):

2 Photos

PHOTO (1) Top female stars like Lillian Gish, shown in ``The Wind,'' got paid as much or more than their male counterparts in Hollywood's early days.

(2) Mary Pickford, shown in 1927's ``Little Annie Rooney,'' made Frances Marion her screenwriter.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 18, 1999
Words:1049
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