Concerns about pay equity and realistic gender representation in front of and behind the screens of major Hollywood films have always hovered around the atmospheres of what’s produced and displayed at our local multiplexes. No matter how we consume this product now, even “big screen” fare displayed on smartphone screens, the issue of representation has always been paramount to our appreciation of films. Certainly 21st century sexual identity is more open to fluidity and non-binary status, so it can get complicated to view cinematic gender status from a financial and thematic perspective. In the days of the mainstream Hollywood studio system things were hidden, closeted, and concealed. Men were leaders and women were supporting players. This was the conventional party line from approximately 1930-1960, but like any commonly understood “truth”, there are many complex shades to consider.
J.E. Smyth‘s Nobody’s Girl Friday: The Women Who Ran Hollywood is a rich history of the studio systems in the times when many might have believed feminism was either dead are dormant, waiting for the next wave to surface. Like any examination of a movement, it’s always difficult to conclusively determine the start and end times of these waves. The women Smyth profiles in this book run from the legends like Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Ida Lupino and Hedda Hopper to lesser-known yet equally important players like Writers Guild President Mary C. McCall, Jr. and producer Joan Harrison. They were products of mothers who had come of age at the apex of the early suffrage movement (19th Amendment Women’s Right to Vote 1920) and their own work during the glory days of the studio system laid a foundation for contemporary Hollywood stars like Reese Witherspoon and Angelina Jolie. Smyth writes:
This book is meant to challenge and to inspire people who love Hollywood and believe in gender equality. It targets the beliefs… that feminism died between 1930-1950, that women were not important … had little creative control, that directors called all the shots…
Her points are clear and effectively laid out. While we may easily cite Dalton Trumbo as a resistance hero against the House on Un-American Activities, there were just as many women. Smyth notes that these women were loyal to the system that provided and nurtured their careers. There were financial and professional opportunity gains for women in the industry during the dominance of the studio system from roughly 1925-1960, but those benefits did not sustain through the system that followed. Smyth is determined to prove that male film historians seemed focused on erasing the role of women in the development of cinema as an art, business, and representation of American culture. Mary Pickford and Mae West were powerful on-screen presences who also had significant accomplishments as producers.
In her Introduction, Smyth’s mission is clear. She wants to provide a comprehensive picture of the diverse careers Hollywood opened up for women from 1925 to 1960. Smyth explains: “Not all of Hollywood’s working women were single, pretty girls waiting for husbands to come along… [m]any were graduates of women’s colleges…” Nobody’s Girl Friday certainly meets the mission statement, and that works both for and against it as a compelling text. As an astute film history text, Smyth manages to fill in the missing pieces in the standard view of the roles women played in Hollywood. She’s working with an embarrassment of riches here, so in that respect any sense of deficiencies in the overall effect are not her fault. Readers unfamiliar with the major names Smyth cites may want to do some homework to best understand the role of the supporting players.
The strengths of this book, however, are effective enough to make the limitations negligible. Among the strongest is the profile of Bette Davis, a woman whose mere presence at the start of her career, in the 30s, was indicative of how strong women could be in Hollywood. She had an unconventional beauty. She never stopped battling for equal pay and treatment. Consider her redefining role as Mildred in director John Cromwell’s 1934 film Of Human Bondage: “It was the first of many shocking physical transformations she made to achieve the cinematic realism she craved.” We think of Lon Chaney’s painful transformations, but we don’t always give as much credit to people like Davis. Smyth writes:
What is striking about Davis’s development… [is that]… she quickly formed a network of like-minded… working women to support and encourage their careers and those of other women. This was Hollywood feminism in action.
There were other supporting rebels that can be seen as Davis’s contemporaries (if not friends), like Olivia DeHaviland and Ann Harding, but Davis stayed a stalwart feminist, an Equal Rights Amendment supporter. In 1941, she became the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. She spearheaded the creation of two separate Academy Awards for documentary (short subject and feature.) Her outspoken liberal political leanings were one element that led to down times in the ’40s, and Smyth brings Davis into the ’50s, at the Academy Awards. She quotes Davis and her reaction to presenting Marlon Brando with his Best Actor Award for the 1954 Elia Kazan film On the Waterfront:
I felt a strange kinship with Marlon [Brando] as I stood there with him. Both of us were nonconformists, battling for realism and individuality.
Smyth’s allegiances are clearly with Davis, and focusing on her this early in the book effectively proves the point. “Of all women in studio-era Hollywood, Bette Davis came close to having it all… she maintained her commitment to engaging a community of women in and outside of Hollywood, and to making New Deal equal-rights feminism a way of life.”
Chapter 2, “Organization Women”, tells the story of Derek Granger Katherine ‘Kay” Brown, who was pivotal in pre-production of Gone With the Wind. She also discovered Ingrid Bergman. This chapter also sheds light on the fact that columnist Hedda Hopper was “…a committed studio era feminist” in her time. The perception now is that she easily caved to the demands of the Communist Witch Hunts of the ’40s and ’50s. This is certainly true, but Smyth manages to effectively put into context the feminist angle. Other stories, such as that of studio executive Anita Colby, paint a clearer picture of the effective roles women played in the production of Hollywood films and the perpetuation of the machine.
In Chapter 3, “Jill of all Trades”, Smyth introduces Ida Lupino, a known name as an actress in her time who was able to effectively segue into production. To Smyth, “Lupino was one of the rare women who, at the height of her career, managed to combine work, marriage, and motherhood.” This theme is strong and can be seen in the life and times of Joan Harrison, who managed as a bit player in front of the screen before settling into life as a producer for TV’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Mary C. McCall, Jr., featured in Chapter 4, “Madam President”, is probably too strong a figure to be contained in this volume. That’s another problem Smyth encounters with mixed success. McCall was first female president of the Writer’s Guild of America. Her story is certainly compelling, from the story of the purchase and development of the Maisie film series to the end, when the Blacklist got her down and basically squeezed her out of the business of show. What works is the potential for something bigger, something more expanded. The comparison is similar to the way people always described Ginger Rogers, that she did everything her dance partner Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels. Smyth sets out a thesis here that’s worthy of further exploration:
…historians… marginalization of McCall in favor of an almost exclusively male cast of valiant… Hollywood lefties is… unsettling. Those same… historians who lambast studio-era Hollywood for institutionalized sexism are even more guilty by omission than the industry that once respected… Mary C. McCall, Jr.
How did female editors factor into the story? As Smyth details it, with the story of the pioneering editor Barbara McLean, their diminished strength and presence seemed to coincide with film critic Andrew Sarris’s auteur theory of the director as sole author of the product. The chapter effectively details the ways editors worked directly in consort with their directors to create a singular vision. McLean discounted director John Ford’s claim that his films were editor proof. Smyth is justifiably frustrated here when she notes:
Film historians remain wedded to the idea that directors such as [Joseph] Mankiewicz did all his own editing on All About Eve even when Mankiewicz himself revealed in an interview that McLean cut the picture without him at her elbow.
Contemporary film students will note that editor Thelma Schoonmaker has worked with director Martin Scorsese for over half a century to help make his classics Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), and The Departed (2006) such strong films. (That their themes were distinctly “masculine” are irrelevant; Schoonmaker helped make them brilliant.) This is not covered in Smyth’s book, nor should it be, but the connection is clear. Women have played vital roles in all areas of film production from the Golden Age and beyond. Smyth’s chapter on costume designers Edith Head and others, like Thea Van Runkle and Dorothy Jeakins, is equally compelling. The story of Jeakins’s apparently Dickensian youth is worthy of a separate book. However, it’s Head that garners most attention and deserves more room to breathe. Consider this anecdote about Bette Davis’s classic 1950 film All About Eve and the unforgettable “Fasten your seat belts!” scene:
When the famous ‘bumpy night’ cocktail dress didn’t fit Davis’ bust properly and began to slide off her shoulders, the actress merely laughed at the mortified Head and pulled the neckline lower, saying ‘Don’t you like it better like this, anyway?’ Davis, always a rule breaker, knew the attraction of casual disarray.
Smyth ends her story with Katherine Hepburn and a chapter suitably titled “Last Woman Standing”. After reading about female writers, producers, union presidents, and actresses who came of age in Hollywood’s Golden age and faded away for one reason or another, Hepburn managed to stay relevant through to the end. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis had to take horror films to remain employed. Politics and a variety of complications took other women, but Hepburn prevailed:
You could leave Hollywood for Europe… You could work for the United Nations… You could keep working, be nice to your colleagues, and brazen it out-but only if you were Bette Davis. Or, if you were Katherine Hepburn, you could kiss Hollywood goodbye twice in one lifetime and live to tell the tale.
Overall, Nobody’s Girl Friday is a meticulously researched history of how women entered, developed, sustained, and grew within the Hollywood dream factory in that mid-century period before World War II and through to the end of the system in the early ’60s. The informed film student might feel that figures like Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, and Edith head are shoe-horned into the narrative in an almost obligatory fashion, but it’s probably unavoidable. What works best is the fact that Smyth’s mission is fulfilled. She’s provided a wise counterpoint to the “Great Man” auteur theory on two levels. We have always been aware that films are not immaculately created. They’re a collaboration between many essential parties. Now, with Nobody’s Girl Friday, we can be assured that the “Great Man” theory is wrong on literal as well as figurative levels.