Each month I have the privilege of celebrating the female screenwriters who came before us in an article in Script Magazine. This month’s spotlight is Edna Anhalt — a screenwriter who with her husband Edward won the Academy Award for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story. Panic in the Streets (1950) was about a gang of petty criminals carrying the pneumonic plague, Sadly, as with so many women who co-wrote with spouses, there is much more published about his career than hers, though she wrote solo short stories and films as well.
To research the writing career of Oscar-winning Edna Anhalt is to be constantly sent to sites detailing her husband’s career with little note about her life outside of that partnership. Edna Thompson was born in New York City in 1914 and married Edward Anhalt in 1935. The dual partnership in marriage and career lasted 20 years. They may have met while enrolled at Columbia University since in 1936 they shared credit on the documentary the Problem Child (1936), produced by the college.
During each of our Stephens College MFA in TV and Screenwriting we take our MFA candidates on field trips around Los Angeles and this January that included the screening of a silent movie – “The Social Secretary” – hosted at the Historic Women’s Club of Hollywood with a full audience. Many attendees had never watched a film shown from a projector, much less a silent film on such a large screen with live piano accompaniment. The MFA co-sponsored the event with the , a group dedicated to promoting education and enthusiasm about the art of silent film.
I was happy to be asked to deliver this introduction to the work of screenwriter and novelist Anita Loos whose work bridged the worlds of silents – where she was instrumental in creating the swashbuckling character for Douglas Fairbanks – to talkies and screenplays to novels to Broadway plays. Her Gentlemen Prefer Blondes remains a classic, never having gone out of print, and it led to several film versions including the famous one starring Marilyn Monroe. Her book for Gigi helped give the play a successful transition to the well-known film that showcased Leslie Caron.
If you don’t know much about this prolific woman writer, check out my introduction and then go watch some of her films, many of which are on YouTube. Yet the experience of seeing it on the big screen became one of this Workshop’s most appreciated events.
…Rosanne Welch. [Applause]
Hello everybody. I am Dr. Rosanne Welch. I run the Stevens College MFA and TV and Screenwriting where we study film with a female gaze.
So we study Anita Loos and so I’m gonna –– we’re here for an hour and a half lecture right?
Very quickly, I just want to make sure people who are here know what we’re talking about. First of all, what we do in our program is we teach the history of screenwriting because in most places they teach you the history of film and that tends to be the history of directors which becomes the history of Great Men. While we love men, women founded Hollywood and need to be remembered.
So I was really pleased when Tom said I have the Anita Loos print and I was like, oh yeah Anita Loos. We study her. We love her and it would be lovely to see it with real live accompaniment.
I’m gonna say a very quick things about Anita. I want people who don’t know her to know these things. First of all, we have to remember her as the first person to put wit in her title cards and today when someone writes a television or film script, in their action lines they use that technique. They use their own voice. They say funny things. They don’t just say the door opens right? They are still doing something essentially we learn from Anita. So I think that is a reason that she should stay with us. I think it’s also important to remember her as a star maker. She’s the reason you know who Douglas Fairbanks is. He was just the stumblebum actor until she made him a swashbuckler and then he became the Douglas Fairbanks –– the founder of the Academy right? She also –– I’m sure many of you can think about Carol Channing and Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. Talk about a character that lived forever in that actress. So I think that’s brilliant for Anita. She was also known for her diligent work ethic. The woman got up at five o’clock and wrote until two or three in the afternoon and then dealt with business –– that and she would tell people she didn’t work very hard. It wasn’t very hard at all. Think about that. So I think that’s really beautiful. I think it’s important to think about all the literary friends she had. She was friends with Theodore Dreiser , and H.L. Mencken – these are major names of their day. Interestingly enough her name is still a little more famous than theirs are. So there’s something about her work. Though people made fun of films and film writing clearly she survived where some of their stuff isn’t read that much anymore and also she was a brilliant friend to other women in the business and we know that that’s how everyone who moves up in the world by taking the next person below you and bringing them up right? So she was friends with the young Ruth Gordon. Y’all don’t remember when she was young but she was and Anita was someone who helped her move forward in the business. She was best friends with Helen Hayes who many people remember. So the idea that she understood that sisterhood was the way to help everybody. So those are the reasons that I still admire Anita. I always say that I met her when I was six years old – not the person but in her memoirs and so if you haven’t read A Memoir of hers you should because they’re funny and witty and teach us a lot about this time period and also we’ve written about her in this book which we will have for sale afterward. There you go. I’ll teach Tom how to sell. Which was written by the first inaugural students in our program about seven years ago and there’s a chapter on 25 different famous female screenwriters of that period. So if you’re interested we’ll have some more of those and we’ll talk afterward and we have three of the original authors of chapters right here with me tonight. So with that, I hope that everybody adores if you haven’t met Anita Loos before you will listen to her voice today and laugh. Have a great night.
The main problem with the auteur theory that allows phrases like “Hitchcock film” to seep into our conversations is that it dismisses the work of the screenwriter who comes up with the theme, the plot, and the characters – or if they are adapting a novel, which themes, which plot lines and which characters they choose to include, combine or leave behind. The auteur theory is a false idea that grants all the credit for a film to one person despite our understanding that film is a collaborative medium. The films written and later produced by Joan Harrison prove this fallacy quite well.
Script contributor Dr. Rosanne Welch celebrates the female screenwriters who came before us with this month’s spotlight on prolific screenwriter and author Lorna Moon. Between her start as a Scottish author to her time as a Hollywood screenwriter Lorna Moon lived a life meant for the movies, yet no one has tackled her bio-pic yet.
It’s been 4 years since publication of ‘When Women Wrote Hollywood’, a collection of essays by the inaugural class of the Stephens College MFA in TV and Screenwriting but reviews continue to arrive in our inbox including this one today:
“WHEN WOMEN WROTE HOLLYWOOD” is a collection of more than 20 essays focusing on the lives of female screenwriters of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Their writings helped create unforgettable stories and characters beloved by audiences to this 2022 year. Whoever heard of Ida May Park, Eve Unsell, Gene Gauntier, Lillian Hellman, Adela Rogers St. Johns, Anita Loos, let alone what they wrote. Absolutely a must read for the serious Hollywood buff, or student of cinema resolute in finding a career in the motion picture industry.”
Many congratulations to all the writers who contributed to this volume. It is a staple of the History of Screenwriting courses in our Stephens College MFA in TV and Screenwriting – and at a few other schools as I’ve been told.
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.