Featured Guest:
J.E. Smyth

J.E. Smyth is a Professor of History in the School of Comparative American Studies at the University of Warwick in the UK. Her books include Reconstucting American Historical Cinema from Cimarron to Citizen Kane; Edna Ferber's Hollywood: American Fictions of Gender, Race, and History; and Fred Zinneman and the Cinema of Resistance. She has won the AAP Prose Award for Media and Cultural Studies as well as the International Association of Media Historians' Prize in Media and History. Professor Smyth holds a Ph.D. from Yale University.

This fall, we discussed her most recent book Nobody's Girl Friday: The Women Who Ran Hollywood (Oxford University Press, 2018).

What's the most important point you hope readers take away from your book?

During the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood promoted itself and was seen as "a generation or two ahead of the rest of the country" in terms of equality and employment opportunities for women. Twenty-five percent of all screenwriters were women — that's more than today. Over a dozen women worked as top producers. Women headed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the War Activities Committee, the Screen Writers Guild, spoke out at unions, political rallies, lobbied for guild contracts, and called out sexism in the industry. Women today should look back, not only at the silent era but also at the studio system through the 1940s and early 1950s and be proud of the legions of women who worked for the studios and sometimes rose to the top. Hollywood was full of women, and they weren't all starlets and secretaries. Then, in the late 1950s, the studio system fell apart, the guilds lost power, the director-based "auteur" model of film production and criticism took over — and the number of women in the industry and visibility of women behind the camera plummeted. The Easy Riders/Raging Bulls era of Hollywood wasn't all that great a thing. Hollywood's progress for women hasn't been linear at all. Only recently has there been a resurgence of female power in Hollywood — the like of which we haven't seen since the 1940s.

Why did the press change your original book title?

My original title had the notorious F-word in it: "feminism." I was told that I couldn't use that because "'feminism' isn't marketable," and as the press was packaging the book for a trade audience, this issue was a deal-breaker. I was furious, but at least "Nobody's Girl Friday" maintains some of the book's revisionist defiance of traditional views about these women and their "place" in film history. It's a direct reference to Howard Hawks's remake of The Front Page (1931): His Girl Friday (1940). Although Rosalind Russell's performance as a reporter is considered one of the great feminist roles of the studio system, it was crafted by men — and is regarded as a key text in Hawks's auteurist oeuvre. "Girl Friday" is another word for the boss's secretary, a girl who does what she's told and is always working for a more important male (in Russell's character's case, the newspaper editor played by Cary Grant). But these women were nobody's "Girl Friday." The funniest example of this in the book has to be my story of Silvia Schulman, producer David O. Selznick's secretary, who in 1937 wrote a novelistic takedown of her boss and the Hollywood system under a nom de plume. It was a bestseller in 1938, but was virtually forgotten when the studios refused to option the book as a film. But I Lost My Girlish Laughter is the most important Hollywood novel you've never read. There are lots of bits like that in Nobody’s Girl Friday.

What do we need to know about Bette Davis offscreen?

Bette Davis was known as "the Fourth Warner Brother" in Hollywood — and she was every bit as powerful as this title implies. There were a few actresses who made more money working as independent "freelancers" during the studio era, but Davis proved that you could work within the studio system and succeed — not only by earning more money than her male acting colleagues at Warner Bros., but by leading her industry as head of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, being President of the Hollywood Canteen, producing her own films, giving show-stopping speeches for President Roosevelt, supporting the Equal Rights Amendment, and forming a network of powerful women across Hollywood.

MGM wouldn't be the same without Ida Koverman.

I entirely agree — MGM and Hollywood wouldn't be the same without Clark Gable and Robert Taylor. But it was Koverman who promoted both men when others at MGM couldn't see their star potential. Columnist Hedda Hopper wasn't the only person to argue that Koverman was the one really running the studio — albeit, behind the scenes. MGM mogul L.B. Mayer certainly wasn't an easy person to work for, but Koverman had years of experience in the upper echelons of New York and Washington politics before she went to Hollywood at the end of the 1920s. She knew how to network and get things done. Mayer was certainly jealous of her influence and allegedly wanted to fire her, but she kept her job for decades thanks to her close relationships with the studio's top stars and her friends in MGM's New York office. 

Most people have never heard of Anita Colby.

Well, if you've seen Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), then you've seen Anita Colby — she was the basis for Grace Kelly's glamorous character, Lisa Freemont. Colby was one of America's top models in the 1930s, known as "The Face" before she transitioned to Hollywood. But instead of becoming another pretty starlet, she worked as a publicity executive at Columbia and then for Selznick, advising on all aspects of the studios' presentation of women. She made the cover of Time, wrote the bestselling Anita Colby's Beauty Book, and became a major figure in television. She even mentored Barbara Walters.

So Virginia Van Upp called the shots at Columbia?

It really is unfortunate that Columbia Pictures mogul Harry Cohn has such a poor reputation in film history. Critics tend to refer to him as a crude, roughneck thug — but he employed more women as film producers than all of his colleagues at rival studios. Van Upp began her life in Hollywood as a child star before transitioning to a screenwriter and then producer (she's most famous for producing Gilda in 1946). She nurtured the career of Rita Hayworth, and, under her influence, the star even took a hand producing her own work at Columbia. But Van Upp rose still higher when Cohn appointed her executive producer over several other male candidates. The story goes that when Cohn found out the men hadn't congratulated her, he fired them.

Tell us more about the female gossip columnists. Did they help or hurt women working in Hollywood?

Hedda Hopper is best known today as an unscrupulous anti-communist virago, instrumental in smearing the names of left-leaning filmmakers during the blacklist. She certainly was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, but Hopper was unflinching in her support of women's careers in Hollywood. It didn't matter to her if Bette Davis and Ida Lupino were Democrats — she cheered all of their career gains in her nationally syndicated column. She was less enthusiastic about the men. For example, in her annual report on the industry's most powerful stars, she named Bette Davis and Mickey Mouse as top actress and actor. Hopper was one of many powerful Republican women in Hollywood who worked collectively to support women in all branches of the film industry. Columnist and radio star Louella Parsons, although on the other side of the political spectrum, was also a lifelong supporter of women in Hollywood. It was said, however, that the legendary press rivals only met together at lunch on one occasion — to celebrate the career success of producer Harriet Parsons (The Enchanted Cottage, 1945) — Louella's daughter.

At the end of your chapter "Madam President," you criticize the marginalization of Mary C. McCall Jr. by journalists and historians who focused on the male victims of the blacklist such as Trumbo. Tell us more about that.

The historiography of the Screen Writers Guild focuses overwhelmingly on the men of the Hollywood left who starred in the drama of the blacklist. Certainly, the Hollywood Ten were ten men, but the anti-communist purge of Hollywood affected many great, important women, regardless of their true political affiliation. McCall was a Democrat and political moderate. Even before her election as the first female president of the guild in 1942, she was responsible for negotiating the first writers' contract with the producers. During her terms in office, she outmaneuvered the producers and got her colleagues impressive wartime pay raises. She was enormously popular with most of her writer colleagues, but over the years, after so many run-ins with producers ready to underpay, scam, or fire writers, she made powerful enemies. When RKO head Howard Hughes took writer Paul Jarrico off the credits for The Las Vegas Story during the blacklist, she took Hughes to court, saying that Jarrico should not lose credit on contracted work due to his communist politics. In a landmark decision, they lost the credit dispute and the guild's contract was rewritten to allow producers to fire writers based on their political views. But ironically, while Trumbo and other blacklisted male writers got back into the business after a few years (Trumbo's big breakthrough was getting credited for Spartacus, 1960), McCall remained a marginal figure in television and was graylisted. Even today, there still are many tributes to the heroes of the Hollywood blacklist, but little interest in one of Hollywood's true heroines.

Women were always important in the edit bay.

During the silent era, many women worked as producers, directors, writers, and editors, but the popular consensus holds that women were forced out of the industry when it truly consolidated as a serious integrated business enterprise. It may be true that the number of female directors sharply declined, but women remained a powerful force in film editing — and they even became more powerful when producers took over the final cuts of films in the late 1920s, transferring stylistic oversight to editors. I remember reading one history which claimed that only eight women worked as editors during the 1930s. In going through union lists, I found sixty women working as editors. Viola Lawrence was Harry Cohn's top editor at Columbia, but editor Margaret Booth was also an associate producer at MGM and had the final say on all of the studio's feature output. She could order retakes, covering shots, and close-ups on anything when she felt the director wasn't doing his job. And during her career at Twentieth Century-Fox, Barbara McLean had more Academy Awards than anyone (her record was only bested after her death in 2002). She was known as "Hollywood's editor-in-chief." Under the studio system, editors put the films together with producers and are often as responsible for the style, rhythm, and overall look of our most cherished classic films as any film director.

What further work needs to be done in terms of research and writing about women's contributions in Hollywood?

In Nobody’s Girl Friday, I've tried to name as many names in as many branches of the screen professions as I could, but we need to establish overall numbers of employment and that has been notoriously difficult to do over the years given the fragmentary nature of the extant studio material. But what is truly radical about this book is its critique of director-based auteurism in film historiography. This focus has excluded interest in writing, producing, editing and designing — professions that had more authorial control in the collaborative studio system. And in the #MeToo era, there has been a lot of repetitive criticism of the big, bad studio system — rhetoric claiming that things have always been awful for women in Hollywood and that it is only recently that things have improved. These claims are not only untrue, they are damaging to women's history and the next generation's awareness of these women's achievements. Women not only had power in cinema's early days, they had power in the studio system. Things weren't perfect, but Hollywood was actually seen as a leader in the fight for women's equality. Feminism didn't die between 1920 and the emergence of the "second wave" in the 1960s. We should be proud of this fact — and, for what it's worth — what Hollywood represented seventy and eighty years ago.


Fall 2018

Leslie Kreiner Wilson, Editor



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