Women Who Made the Movies: Part 1


There was a report recently released by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University entitled “The Celluloid Ceiling” which found that women held an even smaller percentage of jobs on the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2013 than they did in 1998. For example, among directors, women accounted for just 6% in 2013, and when you include writers, producers, editors, and cinematographers working on top films, the figure is still just 16%. With all that being said, the natural assumption could be that, when looking back at Hollywood’s golden age from the 30’s to the early 60’s, the involvement of women on any level behind the camera would have been virtually non-existent.

This would not be far from the truth. However, though that may be the case, the reality also is that the few women who were able to work behind the scenes made great contributions to moviemaking of that era and their work has stood the test of time, with some classics on their resumes that have entertained and continue to entertain many.

First of all, when it comes to women producing movies in the classic era, there were the big 3- Virginia Van Upp for Columbia, Harriet Parsons for RKO, and Joan Harrison for Universal. They were the only three women working as producers for Hollywood studios between 1943 and 1955, an achievement for that time.  And what they produced was top-notch,  with Van Upp producing the film-noir classic “Gilda” starring Rita Hayworth (Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford pictured above) among other things, and Parsons producing the beloved “The Enchanted Cottage”, “I Remember Mama”, and the powerful “Clash By Night”starring Barbara Stanwyck and an up and comer by the name of Marilyn Monroe (Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Ryan pictured above).

But that’s not all they did. Van Upp was also a talented screenwriter, with the  musical “Cover Girl” to her credit, one of Rita Hayworth’s best vehicles. And Harrison was a screenwriter as well who worked with a director you may have heard of, Alfred Hitchcock, and wrote some of his earliest Hollywood classics, such as “Rebecca” (Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson pictured above), “Foreign Correspondent”, and “Suspicion”, receiving Oscar nominations for both “Rebecca” and “Foreign Correspondent” in the same year.   Certainly this is a testimony to the level of female talent, though small in number, that was able to make its mark in the executive offices and beyond at that time.

As far as directors are concerned, Dorothy Arzner (pictured above, top, with Clara Bow) was the first woman to be admitted to the Director’s Guild in the 1930’s and was the only one for quite a few years. In addition, she was the only female director to work within Hollywood’s studio system, from the years 1927 to 1943, and still has the largest output of films from a female director in Hollywood down to this day. Then there was Ida Lupino (pictured above), the second woman to be admitted to the Director’s Guild, who set up an independent production company with her husband and wrote, produced, and directed several low-budget melodramas in the late 40’s and 50’s tackling powerful social issues, along with the gripping “The Hitch-Hiker” (pictured above), considered the first film noir to be directed by a woman.

When it comes to screenwriters, Anita Loos is considered one of Hollywood’s foremost early screenwriters, male or female. Her work dates back to 1912, working with famed director D.W. Griffith on “Musketeers of Pig Alley”, considered the first gangster film, to his gargantuan epic “Intolerance” in 1916, to the classic “The Women” in 1939, all the way to “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” in 1953. All together, she worked on over 100 films during her career. There are very few women, then or now, who have been able to have such a prodigious output as screenwriters in the film industry. However, besides Loos, there were others who left an indelible mark during Hollywood’s golden age.

With that in mind, here are two lesser-known female screenwriters who were able to put together an impressive body of work during Hollywood’s heyday.  They are as follows:

(1) Leigh Brackett (pictured above, 2nd row, on right)- Quick! Name a screenwriter who worked on both the classic “The Big Sleep” from 1946 and “The Empire Strikes Back”?  Leigh Brackett is the only screenwriter who has that distinction, which gives some idea of the range of her talent.  A noted science fiction/fantasy author of the 1940’s, she was a mentor of Ray Bradbury. It is said that the director Howard Hawks thought she was a good writer because, according to him, she “wrote like a man.” Whether she considered that a compliment or not is debatable, but what can’t be debated  is her skill as a screenwriter, which is amply demonstrated by the classics that bear her name.

Must-sees: The Big Sleep (1946), Rio Bravo (1959, pictured above), Hatari! (1962), El Dorado (1966)

(2) Virginia Kellogg- She has the distinction of being nominated for 2 Academy Awards in consecutive years for her work, 1950 and 1951. Though probably less-known than any of the other names mentioned, both the quality and grittiness of the films she wrote testify to her superlative ability as a screenwriter.

Must-sees: T-Men (1947), White Heat (1949), Caged (1950, Eleanor Parker pictured above)

Hopefully this provides some basis for more fully appreciating the work of all of these women during those years and getting a better idea of what contributions they made to what today is considered a period of classic Hollywood moviemaking. In my next post we’ll go from behind the screen to the screen itself and take a look at some actresses you may or may not know who may have been less famous than some of their contemporaries but made whatever they were in that much more interesting and enjoyable due to their being in it. Stay tuned.

About bjbradford

An avid collector of classic movies for over 20 years ranging from the silent era through the early 1960's, from the justly famous to the unjustly obscure and quite a bit in between.
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