Tuesday, April 17, 2018

J. E. Smyth's "Nobody's Girl Friday"

J. E. Smyth is Professor of History at the University of Warwick and author or editor of Reconstructing American Historical Cinema from Cimarron to Citizen Kane (2006), Edna Ferber's Hollywood (2009), Hollywood and the American Historical Film (ed., 2012), Fred Zinnemann and the Cinema of Resistance (2015), and the BFI classics monograph on From Here to Eternity (2015).

Smyth applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Nobody's Girl Friday: The Women Who Ran Hollywood, and reported the following:
When I turned to page 99 of Nobody’s Girl Friday, I had to laugh—it was the one part of the book where I discuss director Ida Lupino’s career. In old Hollywood lore, Lupino stands out as the lone woman in a male-dominated occupation (her career transition occurred a few years after director Dorothy Arzner’s retirement). But the trouble with most histories of filmmaking during this era is the fixation on the director as a film’s only author. Scholars, critics, and, to a lesser extent, audiences are obsessed with the notion of the director-auteur—something popularized in the 1950s with the French New Wave and critics such as Andrew Sarris. But films aren’t novels or paintings—cinematic authorship is inherently collaborative. Back in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, editors – including Barbara McLean and Margaret Booth—could order retakes on a director’s work and were as responsible for assembling the classic films we love. They consulted with producers and writers. As my book reveals, women undertook many of these jobs, including Joan Harrison and Virginia Van Upp, two writers who transitioned into producing in the 1940s.

Nobody’s Girl Friday will hopefully make readers recalibrate what they think they know about women and power in studio-era Hollywood—but my work also undercuts a lot of popular and academic expectations about directors and authorship.

Lupino began as an actress, but like many of her peers in the 1940s (Bette Davis, Kay Francis, Rita Hayworth, and Constance Bennett), she branched out. Some of her early roles were produced by none other than Mary Pickford, cofounder and head of UA. Industry people today, students, and my historian colleagues are often stunned when I list how many women worked for the studios and the diverse professions they chose. Women rose to top executive positions, they lead their own agencies, ran guilds and unions, won Academy Awards, and controlled gossip columns. And women worked together and even supported each other’s careers—there was feminism and camaraderie (it didn’t just start with #MeToo!). After all, it was during this time that Democratic and Republican women finally came together to endorse the Equal Rights Amendment.

As I mention on page 99, Hedda Hopper (who we often dismiss as a Red-baiting shrew) adored Ida Lupino’s work and supported her career regularly in her syndicated column. Women in Hollywood’s “golden era” weren’t just secretaries and stars—and their industry recognized and even celebrated Hollywood’s leading role in gender equality. Lupino was touted as the new Orson Welles, and she subverted expectations with a lot of her tough, noirish productions. But all good things come to an end, and when the studio system started to fail through a combination of financial pressure, media competition, and the blacklist, women lost most of their power. By the 1950s, Lupino did indeed seem like a lone, embattled woman director. She, and many others moved into the television industry, but never achieved the wealth and influence they once had in Hollywood. It’s time we remembered them all—not only director “auteurs” such as Lupino, but writer Mary C. McCall Jr., secretary Silvia Schulman, executives Ida Koverman and Anita Colby, story editor Kay Brown, editor Barbara McLean, producer Harriet Parsons-- and many, many others.
Learn more about Nobody's Girl Friday at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue