6 June, 1922
In which Callie makes it to a studio...
I’m Claire and this is Letters from Callie, a fictional screenwriter in 1922. If you thought Hollywood was always a boys’ club… you need to read this newsletter 😎
Today, Mrs Atherton — that is, Thelma, Hildy's mother — made good on her promise to take me to the studio to begin my education on the construction of a picture.
Ever since we spoke at her party a few weeks back, I have paid extra special attention whenever I watch a movie, and I already feel much more knowledgeable than before. You see, when a clipper like Mrs Atherton has done a good job, one barely notices the “cut” from shot to shot. That, she told me, is the magic.
"The director thinks all the power is his or hers," she explained. "For they envision the picture and create the shots that will bring their vision to life. But I can take the footage they filmed and turn a comedy into a tragedy just like that-" She clicked her fingers. "Or vice versa."
Mrs Atherton is employed by one of the newer studios, Players Incorporated. Though they haven’t released a picture yet, you may have heard of them on account of the furore that their establishment caused. You see, Players Incorporated is the second studio to be run entirely by artists.
Three years ago, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charles Chaplin and DW Griffith launched their United Artists. Despite the four of them together earning millions of dollars at the box office, even they couldn’t get the money men to approve the budgets or contracts they required — and so they decided to go it alone.
“We think that this step is positively and absolutely necessary to protect the great motion picture public from threatening combinations and trusts that would force upon them mediocre productions and machine-made entertainment.”
Well, nothing in Hollywood is simple. The story goes that it was really Esme Holt who brought the idea to Pickford and Fairbanks, and that cowboy star William Hart was supposed to be involved — yet by the time of the launch, Holt and Hart were out and Chaplin and Fairbanks were in. Even Hildy doesn’t know for certain what transpired — but she does know that Esme and Mary were close friends before, and supposedly haven’t spoken since.
Then two years later, Esme Holt surprised everyone by launching her own studio, along with her fiancé Archie Tanner and director Aleksandr Sirotov. Mary Pickford maintained a dignified silence when asked what she thought of the development by reporters at the premiere of The Three Musketeers last August. Chaplin, however, allegedly made a rather unpleasant comment about Esme’s competency to run a studio — Hildy says he is sore since Esme challenged him about how badly he treated his first wife Mildred Harris, who is a dear friend of hers.
Well, anyway. Mrs Atherton met me at the gates at the north-west corner of Sunset Boulevard. There was the same line of extras I had observed over at the Goldwyn studio last week, and I don’t mind admitting I wasn’t sure whether what I felt was guilt or thrill as Mrs A waved me past them and through the hallowed gates.
The air was filled with a cacophony of noise. It seems that actors like to have music playing as they perform, to help them feel the emotions required of them. Consequently, violinists, accordionists and even pianists are assigned to different sets. The problem is that they are all right next to one another and so the different tunes and instruments clash into the most terrible din.
In addition, directors were shouting instructions to laugh or be terrified or make love*, extras and crews were gossip and laughing, horses stamping, motorcars backfiring — not to mention a great deal of hammering and sawing as future sets were built.
I was of course a little bit nervous and excited at the prospect of happening across Esme, Archie or any other famous face. Hildy thought that Gloria Swanson may be working on the lot this week, or even Rudolph Valentino, but I did not spy a single luminary.
By an Alaskan set, great bears of men with weatherbeaten faces and calloused hands sweltered in furs as they played cards. A couple of cowboys sauntered by, one of them staring rather lewdly at a group of dancers in carnival dress, who were teaching one another the latest Charleston steps. An elderly lady in Victorian mourning garb supped on a pipe as she regaled some extras with a story, and as we passed a set where a love scene was being played, I could hear the male actor discussing cricket while the woman playing accepting his proposal jabbered away in some European language.
I was really quite overwhelmed by the time we reached the cutting barn. And barn it quite literally is: Mrs A explained that Esme purchased a ranch that had fallen to rack and ruin. Her offices are situated in the original ranch house, while rows of stables have been converted into dressing and makeup rooms for actors.
The largest barn that dominates the lot was once used to house prize bulls, and is the reason that Esme had her heart set on the land, out bidding both William Fox and Jesse L Lasky for it. You see, some clever clogs (reputedly Esme herself) thought of removing the roof of the barn so that daylight floods in, but the walls that remain are more solid than those normally used as backdrops. They have quite an unfortunate habit of toppling over and injuring actors and crew alike. The old bull barn has been established as a permanent “film stage” and a picture being assigned to it is a real mark of prestige.
The cutting barn isn’t quite so distinguished. Though it has been many months since any horse darkened the door, Mrs A is quite certain that the odd whiff of manure remains. The “clipping women” as they call themselves (for it is all women, save for one very quiet, bespectacled little man who didn’t speak and seemed generally rather baffled and lost), have decided that the ghost of a horse named Mickey haunts the place. Whenever anyone makes an error, they all unanimously decide it was Mickey’s fault.
I don’t mind telling you that after watching Mrs A work all day long, I am still not quite sure how she does it. She holds a piece of film against a ground-glass screen which has a light behind it. She then frowns, marks a place with a wax pencil, snips then glues the cut together, lining up the sprocket holes perfectly so that the cut is invisible. She explained that all pictures must tell their story economically and dramatically, and so every frame must count.
That much I can follow, but how she judges dead spots or senses the rhythm and pace of a comedy just from frowning at the film itself I cannot tell you.
“Experience,” she smiled, when I asked.
One of the cutters, a woman who wore skirts even shorter than Hildy’s and whose hair curled barely below her ears, has recently arrived from New York. She quit her job after spending weeks attempting in vain to persuade Erich von Stroheim to cut a single frame from his film Foolish Wives.
“The man is impossible,” she announced when the clipping women broke for coffee and cake. “He feels that every inch he shoots is sacred, and he shoots enough for three pictures, at least — you should have seen the office, thousands and thousands of feet of film one could quite drown in. If he had his way, audiences would set up camp in movie theatres to watch his seventeen-hour epics. Utterly unreasonable.”
“Production costs were over a million dollars by the time it was released, I heard,” Mrs A added, stirring four sugars into her coffee. “Pappa Carl must have been tearing his hair out.”
I later realised she was speaking of Carl Laemmle, founder and chief of Universal Studios. Another of the cutters, a matronly type in a sensible skirt and blouse, mentioned that there was a new story editor of Universal in New York. Her name is Frederica, and she is determined to invest in stories to improve the studio’s output.
“That’s where you want to be, Callie,” Mrs A nodded approvingly. “An established studio ready to up their sights on some quality material. All the scenario writers will be clamoring to write for them.”
The flapper from New York promised to put a good word in for me over at Universal, which I gratefully accepted of course. I have already learned that in this business, it’s all a question of “who you know.” If I want to get anywhere, I must be prepared to take advantage of any opportunities that come my way.
However, something about the wild chaos of Players Incorporated just captured me. I can’t quite explain it, but somehow I just know it is where I am meant to be. Later, as the sun set and I made my way back to the streetcar, I quietly promised myself that one day I would return as their writer.
With love to you and all back in New York,
Thank you so much for reading! If you’re enjoying Callie’s story, the best thing you could do is SHARE — post to social media, forward to friends, stop random passersby on the street and tell them all about it. Thank you!!
*get your minds out the gutter! In those days, it meant what we would now describe as hitting on someone ☺️