Let’s chat about Anita Loos.
Today, if people have heard of her at all, it’s probably as the author of the book that would form such an iconic role for Marilyn Monroe.
But Anita wrote over 200 screenplays during a career that spanned decades. She titled DW Griffith’s Intolerance and her original stories made stars out of Douglas Fairbanks, Jean Harlow and Audrey Hepburn. As Cari Beachamp says in Anita Loos Rediscovered, “Anita began writing for the movies when they were still shown in nickelodeons and between vaudville acts; she was still working when Cinerama was introduced.”
Historian Kevin Brownlow calls her “the most celebrated of the early scenario writers” and she is credited with turning title cards into an art form, or as her biographer Gary Carey put it, “a legitimate form of screen humor”.
Until Anita Loos came along, title cards were simply informative.
They established that, for example, two days had gone by since the last scene. Anita started putting funny little asides and commentary, and made them an integral part of the film’s storytelling and wit. Every iconic movie line, from here’s looking at you, kid to you had me at hello, has Anita Loos to thank.
She became the very first staff writer in Hollywood in 1915, when Griffith put her on salary at the Triangle Film Corporation for $75/a week. She was also a novelist of course, and a playwright, a columnist - and quite a complicated personality.
On the one hand, she comes across like a flapper through and through.
She was famed for her fashion and her glamorous lifestyle, once saying, “I’ve had my best times when trailing a Mainbocher evening gown across a sawdust floor. I’ve always love high style in low company.”
Her obituary in the New York Times states:
...until her eyesight and hearing began to fail last year (she died in 1981 at the age of 93), Miss Loos was an assiduous partygoer and diner-out, conspicuous at fashion shows, theatrical and movie events, balls and galas. She lived on West 57th Street across from Carnegie Hall and virtually had been a New York social institution.
And yet for all that, I can’t help but thinking that she was a bit of a lost soul as well. Her niece Mary Anita remembers her aunt admitting that when she was alone in a city she would write entries in her diary like “go to library” so that she tell herself she was busy. There’s also a rotten irony in the fact that the creator of the most famous gold-digger of all time was married to a freeloading jerk who spent all her money and insisted on getting credit for her films.
Her husband John Emmerson was once quoted as saying that "had never been, nor could be, faithful to any one female." Anita consoled herself that “beauties were around every corner, but a brain that could support him was a once in a lifetime encounter.”
As is the case with so many writers, it was Anita’s insecurity that led to her greatest success. In 1925, she was on a train from New York to Los Angeles, when, according to her niece Mary Anita, she “began to think about the fact that blondes seemed to attract much more attention than brunettes.” (Anita was very much brunette!) She was devoted to the witty author HL Mencken, who at the time was interested in a young blonde.
Anita suddenly realised that although this girl was her age, and although my aunt was just as pretty and a great deal smarter, somehow or other, the blonde attracted more attention and eventually ended up with more diamonds than her brunette counterparts did. In the long train hours from New York to Hollywood she wrote the nucleus of what was to be Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
If you’ve only seen the 1957 film with Marilyn Monroe, I really urge you to seek out a copy of Anita’s book. The 1957 film is fun and frothy and apparently Anita quite enjoyed it, but it didn’t really grasp biting satire of the novel that truly makes it an American classic. Or at least it should be an American classic. While it’s contemporary counterpart The Great Gatsby is still read the world over, how many of you even knew Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was based on a novel before opening this email?