In 1914 Phoebe Wolkind was born in New York City. She graduated from Hunter College and worked as a counselor at a summer camp where she met Henry Ephron, a stage manager for famous playwriting team George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. They married in 1934 and shortly thereafter they began writing together after encouragement from Kaufman and Hart.
Yet, it was not until after the birth of their first daughter, Nora, in 1942 that something they wrote, Three’s a Family, found financial backers for a Broadway production. Notably, it began their habit of using personal family experience in their stories. Three’s a Family ran for over a year. Rather than adapting their own play, RKO Studios hired Phoebe and Henry to adapt The Richest Girl in the World, a play by Norman Krasna, turning it into the film Bride by Mistake. With that assignment, they moved to Los Angeles full time and on to a contract at Warner Brothers Studios, where they became adept at adapting plays and writing screenplays based on stories created by other writers, including Reginald Denham’s Wallflower (1948), a second Norman Krasna play, John Loves Mary (1949), and Look for the Silver Lining (1949).
Each month I celebrate the female screenwriters who came before us in an article in Script Magazine. This month’s spotlight comes from one of the first Hollywood memoirs I ever read from my small library in Bedford, Ohio – that of Adela Rogers St. Johns. They called her the Mother Confessor of Hollywood since so many stars of the 30s, 40s, and 50s came to her to help them out of a scandal (or two). A journalist who covered the film industry, she was first known as ‘The World’s Greatest Girl Reporter’ and then became ‘Mother Confessor of Hollywood’. Along the way, she garnered 38 writing or story by credits with the 1991 Final Verdict teleplay based on her memoir of sitting in courtrooms watching her famous father, trial lawyer Earl Rogers.
After meeting Jane Murfin in last month’s column and hearing about her contribution to What Price Hollywood? (1932), it is time to meet that film’s co-writer: Adela Rogers St. Johns. Along with Murfin, she earned the Best Writing, Original Story nomination at that year’s Academy Award ceremony. Yet her true fame came in two titles that spanned her career as a journalist who covered the film industry. She began as ‘The World’s Greatest Girl Reporter’ and became ‘Mother Confessor of Hollywood’. Along the way, she garnered 38 writing or story by credits with the 1991 Final Verdict teleplay based on her memoir.
Before there was the Lady Gaga remake of A Star is Born there was the 1937 original A Star is Born, written by Dorothy Parker (see Column #3 in this series). Before that, there was What Price Hollywood? (1932), written by Jane Murfin (and Adela Rogers St. Johns) which earned a Best Writing, Original Story nomination for the two female screenwriters at that year’s Academy Award ceremony.
Few Hollywood history books ever reference the name Jane Murfin even though she wrote and co-wrote and directed over 60 produced films in a career spanning over three decades and was a founding member of the Screenwriter’s Guild. She was one of the most prolific writers of the 1920s and ’30s.
As with many women in early Hollywood, Gene Gauntier entered the business as an actress. Born Genevieve G. Liggett in Texas sometime in the 1880s, Gauntier had graduated from the Kansas City Academy of Elocution and Oratory. After a couple of years on the New York stage, she auditioned for director Sidney Olcott at the Biograph Studios in 1906. She saw that in the script her character appeared to drown and though Gauntier did not know how to swim, she took the job anyway. On that adventuresome spirit, she built a career in which she served as a writer, producer, director, and production company owner. She also instituted rules that covered adaptations for years.
Ruth Goodman’s family had been involved in theatre even before her birth in 1908. Her father produced shows involving W. C. Fields and Jerome Kern. Those connections, and her education in New York and Paris, brought her jobs as a costume designer and story editor before marrying Augustus (Gus) Goetz on October 11, 1932, after having met onboard ship. Her mother disliked him, but Ruth described Augustus as enchantingly witty. Though a stockbroker when they met, he gave up finances and they began writing plays together, collaborating nearly exclusively throughout their career. Their most famous play, The Heiress, brought them to Hollywood.
It’s really sad to think that many of these early women writers – and there were more women writing films in the early silent days than there were men – it was a wild west of a job and so we always let women in the beginning and then when it becomes a business we say oh no no this is now a place where men can make money. You ladies should leave
VO: From the Autry museum located on Tongva homelands in Los Angeles California join us in asking “What is a western?
The Stephens College MFA in TV and Screenwriting is building a relationship with the Autry Museum of the American West since both organizations are devoted to bringing out more diverse and untold stories. Last year we were able to take our cohort of graduating MFA candidates to the museum’s theatre for a showing of Michael Wilson’s Salt of the Earth and we had plans to present a film of our choice this year – but of course the pandemic changed all that. Instead, Autry Curator Josh Garrett-Davis asked me if I would sit for an interview about female screenwriters in the western genre and so “When Women Wrote Westerns” came to be a part of their “What Is a Western? Interview Series”.
I had a great time discussing so many wonderful women writers – from Jeanne MacPherson to D.C. Fontana to Edna Ferber to Emily Andras. If you love westerns I suggest you watch Josh’s other interviews covering everything from the work of Native Americans in Western movies to films in the western-horror hybrid. —
What this entire presentation
As part of a series exploring the significance of the Western genre and the ways in which the movies shape our understanding of the American West, Autry Curator Josh Garrett-Davis interviews Professor Rosanne Welch about the women screenwriters of Hollywood and their contributions to the Western genre.
This month in my monthly column for Script Magazine – which “celebrates the female screenwriters who came before us” — I turn the spotlight on playwright turned screenwriter Laura West Perelman. She wrote 6 films, many adapted from plays she had co-written with her husband, humorist S. J. Perelman. I learned more about her when I researched them both for my dissertation “Married: With Screenplay” which studied several married screenwriting couples from the early days of Hollywood.
What I learned that happened often with married couples is that many of the female screenwriters were lost to history as newspapers referred more often to their husbands as the authors of the works. Unless the woman was equal or more famous than her writing partner husband (such as was the case with Dorothy Parker, Ruth Gordon, and Frances Goodrich Hackett) the contribution of the wifely part of the partnership was ignored, even by later oral historians. So it’s nice to have a place to bring their names back into the conversation about their screenplays.
As with several silent film screenwriters, earlier careers in journalism and playwriting during the 1910s brought Clara Beranger to Hollywood. She would amass 85 credits between 1913 and 1934, bridging the worlds of silent and sound films.
Born Clara Strouse in Baltimore, Maryland on January 14, 1886, to a department store dynasty, she graduated in 1907 as a Phi Beta Kappa at Goucher College. She gained her professional surname when she married Albert Berwanger and kept it (except for the ‘w’) after their divorce. They had one child, a daughter named Frances, in 1909.
What wonderful work journalist Hope Lasater did for BuzzFeed in ranking 50 famous TV shows, from fewest to most episodes written by women. Episodes co-written by a woman and episodes with a woman on a “story by” credit were counted. I Love Lucy ranks 1st with 95% written by a woman – most all the work of the marvelous Madeline Pugh. Other shows that are fun to see on the list are The Mary Tyler Moore Show (since I was able to interview Treva Silverman for my book on The Monkees so we also talked about the 2 Emmy Awards she won while writing on the MTM show). See how your favorite TV shows past and present ranked (or if they made the list at all). – Rosanne
Here are 50 famous TV shows, ranked from fewest to most episodes written by women. Episodes co-written by a woman and episodes with a woman on a “story by” credit are being counted.
Hope Loring co-wrote Wings (1927), the first film ever to win the Academy Award for Best Film at the inaugural ceremonies in 1927. The story of World War I fighter pilots involved in a love triangle starred Clara Bow and is the first on-screen appearance of a young Gary Cooper.
Born in Barcelona, Spain (or maybe Madrid) in 1894 Loring had moved to England at the age of 2 to live with an aunt after her parents died in a car accident. At the age of five, the aunt moved her to the United States where she studied dance and literature at various boarding schools. At 14 Loring sold her first short story to a magazine. She reported that she had come to Los Angeles by 1916 after stints as an extra in New York and drama critic in Florida.