November 19, 2019, 10:10

The Women Who Helped Build Hollywood

The Women Who Helped Build Hollywood

One of the stranger things about the history of moviemaking is that women have been there all along, periodically exercising real power behind the camera, yet their names and contributions keep disappearing, as though security had been called, again and again, to escort them from the set. In the early years of the twentieth century, women worked in virtually every aspect of silent-film-making, as directors, writers, producers, editors, and even camera operators. The industry—new, ad hoc, making up its own rules as it went along—had not yet locked in a strict division of labor by gender. Women came to Los Angeles from all over the country, impelled not so much by dreams of stardom as by the prospect of interesting work in a freewheeling enterprise that valued them. “Of all the different industries that have offered opportunities to women,” the screenwriter Clara Beranger told an interviewer in 1919, “none have given them the chance that motion pictures have.”

Some scholars estimate that half of all film scenarios in the silent era were written by women, and contemporaries made the case, sometimes with old stereotypes, sometimes with fresh and canny arguments, that women were especially suited to motion-picture storytelling. In a 1925 essay, a screenwriter named Marion Fairfax argued that since women predominated in movie audiences—one reason that domestic melodramas, adventure serials featuring acts of female derring-do, and sexy sheikh movies all did well—female screenwriters enjoyed an advantage over their male counterparts. They were more imaginatively attuned to the vagaries of romantic and family life, yet they could write for and about men, too. After all, men “habitually confide in women when in need either of encouragement or comfort,” Fairfax wrote. “For countless ages woman’s very existence—certainly her safety and comfort—hinged upon her ability to please or influence men. Naturally, she has almost unconsciously made an intensive study of them.” Alice Blaché, the French-born director behind some six hundred short films, including “The Cabbage Fairy” (1896), one of the first movies to tell a fictional story, was one of many women to head a profitable production company. She founded hers, in 1910, with her husband and another business partner, in Flushing, New York, and moved it to Fort Lee, New Jersey, the pre-Hollywood filmmaking capital. Blaché wrote in 1914, “There is nothing connected with the staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man, and there is no reason why she cannot completely master every technicality of the art.”

In a way, the early women filmmakers became victims of the economic success that they had done so much to create. As the film industry became an increasingly modern, capitalist enterprise, consolidated around a small number of leading studios, each with specialized departments, it grew harder for women, especially newcomers, to slip into nascent cinematic ventures, find something that needed doing, and do it. “By the 1930s,” Antonia Lant, who has co-edited a book of women’s writing in early cinema, observes, “we find a powerful case of forgetting, forgetting that so many women had even held the posts of director and producer.” It wasn’t until a wave of scholarship arrived in the nineteen-nineties—the meticulous research done by the Women Film Pioneers Project, at Columbia, has been particularly important—that women’s outsized role in the origins of moviemaking came into focus again.

Now we are in the midst of a new round of rediscoveries—this time of women’s behind-the-camera roles well into the golden age of Hollywood. There’s a romance to ushering lost women back into the light. Second-wave feminism has made a particular mission of doing so, starting with poets and novelists, who were in some ways the easiest to find again. There were so many of them, their work had (mostly) survived in libraries, and feminist scholars soon began pumping out theories on how to rethink the canon based on such rediscoveries. Sometimes the work was itself a revelation. Zora Neale Hurston had been well and truly forgotten until Alice Walker published her article “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” in Ms., in 1975. And sometimes the fascination lay in the sheer unlikelihood of such an author existing at all, amid the most inauspicious circumstances: a houseful of children, a ne’er-do-well husband, a spindly desk in a drafty hallway.

The challenges of tracking down lost female moviemakers, on the other hand, have been both material and theoretical. Only a small portion of the movies made in the silent era, when women were particularly active behind the camera, still exist. Many silent films were allowed to disintegrate or were purposefully discarded or destroyed, sometimes by the very studios that had produced them. Fires took others—silver nitrate, the compound in early film stock which makes the images shimmer, is so flammable that a tightly wound roll of such film can burn even submerged in water. As the film historian David Pierce writes, the industry considered “new pictures always better than the old ones,” which had very little commercial value, and so many films “simply did not last long enough for anyone to be interested in preserving them.”

Trying to figure out who actually worked on films is not as easy as you might think. Credits were assigned haphazardly in the early days of filmmaking. Then, too, the first generation of feminist film scholars, in the nineteen-seventies, didn’t tend to look for evidence of women exercising creative or administrative authority in Hollywood, because they wouldn’t have expected to find it: they were preoccupied with theorizing the male gaze. And auteur theory had little time for creative figures other than the director.

In the tendentious but mostly persuasive book “Nobody’s Girl Friday: The Women Who Ran Hollywood” (Oxford), J. E. Smyth, a film historian at the University of Warwick, documents the movie-production jobs that women succeeded in, even after the silent era. In fact, she argues, they held such jobs in greater numbers between 1930 and 1950 than they would for decades after. Although there were few women directors left at the height of the studio system (you can basically count them on two fingers: Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino), Smyth tots up an impressive array of women film editors, costume designers, talent agents, screenwriters, producers, Hollywood union heads, and behind-the-scenes machers whose titles—executive secretary to a studio head, for instance—belied their influence. It’s little wonder that studios of the era catered to female audiences, with scripts built around the commanding presence of such actresses as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and with stories thought to reflect women’s prevailing concerns. Smyth quotes Davis, who pulled enough weight in Hollywood to have been dubbed the Fourth Warner: “Women owned Hollywood for twenty years,” she said in a 1977 interview, so “we must not be bitter.” Smyth may have a point when she says that academics and media critics, intently depicting “the industry as monolithically male and hell-bent on disempowering women,” sometimes overlooked the women who thrived there.

Smyth burrows enthusiastically into humble sources that, she suggests, other scholars have looked down on: studio phone directories, in-house newsletters. Researchers on similar quests have come upon evidence in still more unlikely forms and places. Reels of film forgotten or lost sometimes turn up randomly—interred in an archive in New Zealand, or sealed into a swimming pool in a remote town in the Yukon. Esther Eng was a Cantonese-American director who lived openly as a lesbian and, in the nineteen-thirties and forties, made Chinese-language films with titles like “Golden Gate Girl” and “It’s a Women’s World” (the latter of which had an all-female cast of thirty-six). Sadly, very little of Eng’s cinematic work still exists, but her photo albums, discovered in a San Francisco dumpster in 2006, became the basis of a documentary by the filmmaker S. Louisa Wei. Pamela B. Green, the director of the 2018 documentary “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché,” tracked down photos and letters of the director’s that distant relatives had stashed in cardboard boxes in garages and basements, on the hunch that Tante Alice had been an extraordinary person.

Mallory O’Meara, a young horror-movie writer and producer, is the author of “The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick” (Hanover Square), an intermittently entertaining and exhausting work about rediscovering the stylish life and scary art of its heroine. Patrick designed the memorable fish man in the black-and-white, drive-in-ready, atomic-age tingler “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” O’Meara located a niece of Patrick’s who’d held on to bins full of her aunt’s photographs and papers, and a horror-movie writer who’d kept files on Patrick in an office crammed with monster-movie ephemera, “like something out of an episode of Tales from the Crypt.” But it was in an archive at the University of Southern California that O’Meara found the telltale heart of her story: through internal Universal Studios memos, she pieced together the story of how Patrick’s achievement had been discounted.

In addition to designing monster makeup and special effects, Patrick was a glamorous bit actress with lush, dark hair and a penchant for cocktail dresses that showed off her shoulders. Universal’s publicity department grasped the possibilities right away: when “Creature from the Black Lagoon” came out, in 1954, the studio sent her on a promotional junket that was to have been billed “The Beauty Who Created the Beast.” But Bud Westmore, the domineering head of the makeup department, complained, and the publicity team dutifully rebranded the tour as “The Beauty Who Lives with the Beasts,” downgrading Patrick, in O’Meara’s words, “from creator to the monsters’ cute roommate who had to deal with dirty dishes and nag at them to put the toilet seat back down.” Worse, though Patrick’s tour seems to have been a great success—she charmed the press and travelled like a trouper—Westmore evidently couldn’t abide being upstaged, and when Patrick returned to L.A. he fired her. She lived out her life as a small-time society lady, attending charity events and the like, and making an occasional onscreen appearance.

Being the first woman to design an iconic movie monster might not seem the most exalted of feminist achievements. But O’Meara makes a good case that it matters, because women’s psyches matter. The forms in which women project and objectify their fears ought to have the chance to scare the bejeezus out of us as often as those of men do. “Almost every single iconic monster in film is made and was designed by a man: the Wolfman, Frankenstein, Dracula, King Kong,” O’Meara writes. (If only Mary Shelley could have been a creative consultant for the screen versions of her creature.) “The emotions and problems that all of them represent are also experienced by women, but women are more likely to see themselves as merely the victims of these monsters.”

Sometimes the key to women’s success in Hollywood was fairly simple: to work in a place where the men in charge did not act like monsters. One of those places, it turns out, was Walt Disney Studios. That might seem surprising for an enterprise associated with pliant storybook princesses. But Disney heroines were always more varied than detractors would have it, and certainly have become more so as of late. And perhaps there’s something about bringing imaginary worlds to life every day that can make anything seem possible. Milicent Patrick, for one, got her start at Disney. And she wasn’t sketching princesses; she was helping to create the brooding monster in the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence of the 1940 movie “Fantasia”—a task that perfectly suited her talents.

In a sprightly new book, “The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History” (Little, Brown), Nathalia Holt, a science journalist and a popular historian, introduces us to a handful of women who worked on some of the classic Disney Studios films, spins them around, sprinkles some pixie dust, and has them take a bow. She’s a little like a fairy godmother, wanting us to think nothing but the best of her charges, perhaps wishing that she could send them back out into the world with a bluebird or two twittering at their shoulders. I wasn’t always convinced that the five women she focusses on were as influential as she suggests, but I enjoyed reading about them in the workplace they shared.

“Fine, I’ll get up and feed you! No need to get the lawyers involved.”Cartoon by Pia Guerra and Ian Boothby

Bianca Majolie, the daughter of Italian immigrants, moved with her family to Chicago and attended the same high school as Walt Disney. Later, as a thirty-three-year-old commercial artist, she wrote him a letter telling him about the comics she drew at home. It was 1934, and by then Disney was ensconced in Los Angeles, where he’d launched a company on the success of his early Mickey Mouse cartoons and was beginning to plan an ambitious, full-length animated feature based on the fairy tale “Snow White.” To a teasing comment in Majolie’s letter—“I am only five feet tall and don’t bite”—he replied, “I am sorry you don’t bite, but nevertheless I should be very glad to have you drop in and see me any time at your convenience.” Disney ended up hiring her as the first woman among his dozens of story artists.

Majolie created the lead character for a Disney short called “Elmer Elephant,” in which poor, sweet Elmer is bullied by the other animals until he proves his usefulness through a trunk-mediated rescue. The longtime Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston later credited it, and Majolie, with a revelation: “We could not have made any of the feature films without learning this important lesson: Pathos gives comedy the heart and warmth that keeps it from becoming brittle.”

Majolie generated concepts and drawings for a number of other movies, but most of her work never made it to the screen, Holt writes. She was shy, and at a chronic disadvantage as the only woman in boisterous story meetings, where the standard practice was to pitch ideas by acting them out, complete with cartoon voices. She escaped her desk on missions that would fill any office-bound introvert with envy: heading deep into the majestic hush of the downtown-L.A. library to study Italian editions of “Pinocchio,” or settling into record-store listening booths to try out potential movie scores. On one of those trips, she found Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” which, strange as it might seem to anyone who has lived through an American Christmas season, had never been performed in the U.S. Walt Disney was as taken as she was with “Waltz of the Flowers,” and it inspired one of the loveliest chapters in “Fantasia,” a sequence for which another of Holt’s subjects, Sylvia Moberly-Holland, became the story director, the person responsible for conceiving the over-all action and feel of a piece. Moberly-Holland relied on Majolie’s sketches of fairies flitting from flower to flower, which some men at the studio were reluctant to draw, deeming the task too girly. But Disney was enchanted, and said that the sequence was “like something you see with your eyes half-closed. You almost imagine them. The leaves begin to look like they’re dancing, and the blossoms floating on the water begin to look like ballet girls in skirts.” In 1940, though, Majolie, who had grown depressed at work, took a vacation to recuperate; when she came back, she was fired.

Two of Holt’s other subjects had similarly brief careers at Disney. Grace Huntington was hired in the story department in 1936, and was gutsy as all getout—as an amateur aviator, she set altitude records. But she doesn’t seem to have left a profound mark at the studio. Retta Scott grew up in rural Washington State and moved to Los Angeles with a scholarship to attend art school. She proved particularly adept at drawing animals. In 1942, she became the first woman to receive a screen credit as an animator on a Disney film: she did storyboards for “Bambi” and drew the hunting dogs that menace the deer and his mate.

By and large, Disney in the thirties and forties seems to have been a fairly rewarding place for women to work. True, there was a male-only penthouse club at Disney’s Burbank studios that featured, along with a stupefying mural of naked and half-naked women, a restaurant, a barbershop, a bar, a gym, and a section where men could sunbathe in the nude. It couldn’t have been easy to be a woman of that era trying to assert her ideas—especially, perhaps, if you were young and pretty, like Huntington. Holt includes two wonderfully evocative pencil sketches made by Huntington. In one, she depicts herself striding past male colleagues into a story meeting wearing full armor, and in the other, a two-panel drawing, a bloated Mickey Mouse looms over her desk, declaring “I luv you!” while she recoils, hair standing on end. “Grace’s desire to flee was represented in the next frame,” Holt writes, “where all that was left of her was a cloud of dust and the word Zip! ”

On the other hand, the studio’s Ink and Paint Department—where the animators’ character drawings were painstakingly copied onto clear plastic sheets, or cels, then colored in—was made up almost entirely of women. The basis for that arrangement may not have been uplifting; women were thought to be delicate and precise, rather than bold and creative. But the job did have its artistic satisfactions, and it paid a decent wage. The women from Ink and Paint got to see their work (if not their names) onscreen, preserved in beloved movies, and their camaraderie was palpable. Mindy Johnson’s unusually informative coffee-table book, “Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation,” features delightful photographs of the women at work and on their breaks, lounging on the lawn in the California sunshine, laughing and goofing around for the camera, sipping tea from cups and saucers. (At breaks, tea, not coffee, was the norm for inkers—too much caffeine made your lines shaky.) The department, which was headed by Walt Disney’s sister-in-law Hazel Sewell, gave clever women an ambit for their ingenuity: they devised airbrushing techniques that made it easier for the films to evoke effects such as smoke or fog or moon glow; invented celluloid-friendly tools, such as a wax pencil that could bring a soft blush to Snow White’s cheek; and established an on-site lab to concoct and test new paint colors.

By the end of 1940, Walt Disney had inaugurated a program that would train women from Ink and Paint so that they could be promoted into animation, where the original drawing was done. After male employees grumbled, Disney called a meeting in which he justified the new policy. It was intended partly, he said, as a hedge against losing male staff to the military should America enter the war. But there was another important rationale: “The girl artists have the right to expect the same chances for advancement as men, and I honestly believe that they may eventually contribute something to this business that men never would or could.” Don Peri, a historian of Disney Studios who has conducted oral histories of many of the employees from that era, told me, “Walt Disney was a product of his time,” but “I think he cared about the women who worked for him, especially the women in the Ink and Paint Department. He was a very moral person, and I am sure the women who worked for him appreciated that.”

Of the five women Holt writes about, the one who left the strongest imprint on animation in general, and on me, was Mary Blair. She worked for Disney for more than a decade, longer than the other four women Holt profiles, generating concept art for such classic films as “Cinderella,” “Peter Pan,” and “Alice in Wonderland,” as well as for the Disneyland ride It’s a Small World. (Don’t blame her for the earworm of a song, though.) Blair was an exuberantly imaginative artist with a trippy color palette, rich in pinks and violets and teal blues, and a cool mid-century aesthetic. Walt Disney loved her work, at one point telling her that she “knew about colors he had never heard of before.” She could evoke the childlike whimsy and nostalgic, folk-art-inspired Americana that he craved, combining them with something chic and modern—evident both in her personal style and in her art—that struck him as highly valuable.

John Canemaker’s earlier book “The Art and Flair of Mary Blair” is better when it comes to what makes Blair’s work distinctive, but “The Queens of Animation” fills in more of her personal life. Blair was married to another well-regarded Disney artist, Lee Blair, whom she had met in art school. Both Blairs drank to excess, and Lee was sometimes verbally and physically abusive. The couple had two sons, the elder of whom was ultimately institutionalized with what may have been schizophrenia. As Holt says, few people knew that Mary Blair’s joyful art was created in domestic circumstances that were often dark and dispiriting.

Holt suggests that the jealousy of male colleagues made it hard for Blair’s concept art to reach the screen in anything like its original form—she was a favorite of Walt’s and a woman, and some of them resented her. After Walt died, in 1966, her work at the company dried up almost entirely. “Perhaps if he had loved her less,” Holt writes, “she might have been more readily employed after his death.” Canemaker emphasizes the difficulty of translating Blair’s stylized, decorative, collagelike art into the more familiar, approachable Disney style, with its detailed, rounded characters. As much as Disney admired her work, he also feared “losing the believability that his mass audience expected,” Canemaker writes. As for It’s a Small World, if the ride had “been built the way she suggested,” Karal Ann Marling, an art historian who has written on Disney’s theme parks, told Canemaker, it “would have looked more like Frank Lloyd Wright married to Andy Warhol.”

Still, elements of Blair’s background design did make their way into Disney films—the surreal playing cards in “Alice in Wonderland,” for example, and the tropical train on a black background in “The Three Caballeros”—and this, along with her sense of color, Canemaker points out, had an effect on Pop art, from Peter Max to Keith Haring. The concept art for the Pixar director Pete Docter’s films “Monsters, Inc.” and “Inside Out” was influenced by Blair. As Docter told Canemaker, “In every production, there’s a phase where we say, ‘Let’s look at the Mary Blair stuff!’ ” So it’s odd that she was scarcely mentioned in the standard books on Walt Disney and that, when she was, it was often only in tandem with her husband. Neal Gabler’s massive 2006 biography of Disney contains just three brief references to her. Michael Barrier’s “The Animated Man,” from 2007, mentions her once, in connection with It’s a Small World.

For women in the film industry, there is a cost to such forgetting. Without a history, there seemed to be less of a future. In Hollywood, script supervisors, who have historically been women, were once known as “continuity girls.” I’ve always liked that term, because, although it actually entails noting down all the information about each take for the benefit of the editor, who will put everything together, it sounds like a more philosophical sort of task—insuring the internal consistency and, therefore, the integrity of the narratives we tell ourselves. Reading about the history of women in film, the way they dropped out of the frame time and again, I’ve started hearing that phrase in my head less as a job description and more as a rallying cry, a protest against selective amnesia. Continuity, girls, continuity! ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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