Every time a female screenwriter is told that she’s not qualified to write the show she came up with and needs to work under a male show runner, something has gone wrong.
Every time a female director hears she hasn’t quite proven herself while a dude who made a single low budget feature is whisked off to the latest multi-million dollar franchise, something has gone wrong. Every time an actresses agonises over whether to grit her teeth and play the prostitute/rape victim just once more for exposure, something has gone wrong.
It’s now how it is supposed to be.
This, is how it’s supposed to be:
In what other business could this delightful elegant creature be completely independent, turning out her own pictures, dealing with men as her equals, being able to use her brains as well as her beauty, having total say as to what stories she played in, who designed her clothes, and who her director and leading man would be?
— Gloria Swanson, 1916
She was talking about actress and producer Clara Kimball Young, but opportunities for women weren’t limited to big names. As Women Filmmakers of Early Hollywood tells us:
In any given production the screenplay was likely to be penned by a woman, as was the continuity script. A female director may have guided a female star, who quite often worked for her own production company… After the shooting ended, a woman may have edited the film, a female censor may have re-edited it, a female exchange owner may have distributed it and a female manager might have exhibited it in her theatre.
One of the reasons I think it’s important to talk about these women - these random women who just went to work and came home again and didn’t necessarily make film history as individuals - is because, when we’re talking about equality, exceptional people aren’t enough. Frances Marion and Lois Weber and Mary Pickford were fascinating, important women; incredible filmmakers who were crucial to film history — but they were exceptional. Exceptionally talented, ambitious, lucky (and except for Pickford, exceptionally privileged). It’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t have had a shot today despite the odds, just as Shonda Rhimes, Katherine Bigelow and Reece Witherspoon all exist.
What really differentiates the Hollywood of the teens and early twenties from today isn’t just the major stars and the powerful directors and screenwriters.
It’s the script girls and art directors, the “clippers” who painstakingly airbrushed moles out of every frame of hundreds of feet of film. The secretaries riding streetcars from the wilds of Beverly Hills at dawn to spend their days typing up notes and letters and accidentally inventing screenwriting*.
*I’ll get back to that in a later post!
Women like Valeria Belletti.
She worked as secretary Sam Goldwyn ( as in Metro Goldwyn Mayer) in the mid twenties, and offers a captivating insight into studio life:
As Mr Goldwyn’s secretary, I come in contact with every phase of the movie industry; looking for new material; keeping in touch with producers in New York; reading new books; turning over possible material to the scenario writer who happens to be Frances Marion; hiring actors and actresses, directors, camera men; keeping in touch with the art director, publicity man, the projection and cutting rooms and ever so many other things. Everything is so new and interesting that I just love to work.
I have to talk, talk, talk all day long. People are constantly wanting to see Mr Goldwyn about getting into pictures, or they have a “marvellous story” that they can’t mail to the office but must see Mr Goldwyn personally about it. I have to smooth things over and keep them away… Sometimes when some of the actresses call up they are very persistent about seeing Mr Goldwyn, I tell them to call me and see me and I take their photographs, experiences and all other data and enter on my records and then I tell them that as soon as I can arrange an appointment with Mr Goldwyn or Mr King I’ll be glad to let them know. This invariably pleases them and they go away and leave me alone for a while.
I would defy any assistant in Hollywood today not to identify with all of that!
Her letters home to a friend are edited by film historian Cari Beauchamp in Adventures of a Hollywood Secretary, and I cannot recommend the book enough — I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve re read it over the years.
Valeria’s sense of adventure is just captivating. She learns to ride and play golf, she travels to Italy alone to meet relatives. She has men friends who come and go (a few propose, and she’s just like ‘...no’). And the gossip! Her take on Valentino having an affair with leading lady Vilma Banky is delicious (“You know of course the marriage bond is quite flexible amongst theatrical people”).
One of the many things I love about is that she’s always on the lookout for raises, and that within months of starting work at the studio she’s thinking about becoming a writer herself — even if she does accept it when told that being a director’s secretary would be too strenuous for a girl! We’ll forgive her, because anyone who has ever swooned over Gary Cooper (🙋♀️) has Valeria to thank. She writes:
Do you remember that boy I raved to you about, Gary Cooper? Well I raved so much about him to Mr Goldwyn, Mrs Goldwyn, Frances Marion and and our casting agent - and in fact to anyone who would would listen to me - that Mr Goldwyn finally wired and asked our manager to sign him up under a five year contract. I was happy that he did this. Of course, this only makes the rift between us wider because he wouldn’t have a thought for me now he is on the road to bigger things, but I am happy anyway and I shall always cherish the thought that I helped him.
As it turned out, negotiations fell apart when Cooper (the son of a judge) demanded $1000 a week. Goldwyn refused, so he signed to Paramount and became… well, Gary Cooper. Frances Marion later said that she didn’t know if she “felt sorrier for Sam Goldwyn losing a star, or his secretary for losing a boyfriend.”
Entirely gratuitous picture of Gary Cooper:
1926’s Stella Dallas was a make or break production for Goldwyn, as the impending merger with Metro and Louis Mayer’s company more or less depended on its success. It was directed by Henry King and starred Ronald Coleman and Belle Bennett.
Goldwyn asked Valeria to come in over Labor Day weekend to attend a screening.
I was so disappointed in the picture. I don’t know what to say - it looks like a flop to me. When the picture was over, Mr Goldwyn and Miss Marion asked my opinion regarding it. I told them what I thought, so Mr Goldwyn wants me to come in with him tomorrow and we are going to go through the picture again and see what can be done about it
If you’ve heard of MGM you know that they must have succeeded because the picture was a hit and the merger went through. I love how, not only does Goldwyn listen to Valeria’s opinion, she doesn’t hesitate to pipe up with it. She saw herself, and indeed was, as an integral and crucial part of the team. Very few people may have heard of her today -- but there might not be an MGM without her.