I was quite honored when Script Magazine editor Sadie Dean asked me to write a monthly column giving short biographies of female screenwriters across the decades – those who came before us as I like to say – so imagine how shocked I was to find out this is my 30th one to date. Meet Bella Cohen Spewack, born in Romania, a journalist who grew up to write movies that satirized her new career as a screenwriter.
1899 saw the birth of two future American screenwriters: Bella Cohen in Romania and her future husband and co-writer, Sam Spewack in Ukraine. They each experienced the childhood of an immigrant brought to New York City and each worked as a newspaper reporter in their early careers, Bella for The Call and Sam for New York World. Eventually, they moved to Hollywood to adapt their own play to the screen and much of their later work involved adapting Broadway plays into films.
On Friday, May 5th I had the honor of delivering the commencement speech at the 2023 Stephens College Commencement Ceremony for Graduate & Continuing Studies as part of having received the Distinguished Faculty Award for the year. The full commencement ceremonies for the 2023 Stephens College MFA in TV and Screenwriting include speeches by MFA student commencement speaker Natalie Cash Petersson and Stephens College President Dianne Lynch.
Together we covered the gamut from “How Watching 1970s TV Gave me the Female Role Models to Succeed in Life” through “How to Channel your Knowledge into Action” and “How to be a Lifelong Learner – After a Well-Deserved Break”.
You can listen to the short ceremony here (the audio is a series of slides but the audio is smooth).
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.
American Women’s History on Film, my newest book co-written with my colleague Dr. Peg Lamphier is out now and so some reviews are beginning to roll in. While this review in Booklist (March 2023) is mostly informational it’s always nice to hear that our writing style is “informative and engaging” and that this “makes the book a welcome addition to women’s and film-history collections.” That’s been our hope since being commissioned for the book a few years ago.
Yep, it takes a few years from being commissioned to do the research, do the writing, do the rewriting, do the editing, and then for the publishers to print and distribute the book. Our first book in the series covered Films of the Civil War – with that historical period being Peg’s academic specialty and film being mine. Covering women’s history and film this new book fits perfectly in each of our wheelhouses.
The icing on the cake for me was the chance to celebrate films I adored in my childhood and that I now have on the viewing list for the Stephens College MFA in TV and Screenwriting like: Norma Rae, and Silkwood alongside films written and produced by friends of mine such as On the Basis of Sex (produced by Karen Loop) and Hidden Figures (written by Allison Schroeder).
Thanks to all the current MFA candidates and alums who sat for interviews so that we could create this video for the Stephens College MFA in TV and Screenwriting and thanks to the Stephens College videographer, Andrew Church, for all his work on the project. Who knew a 2-minute video could take so many hours of interviewing and editing – oh, yeah, anyone else who does this for a living.
Panelists included MFA alum Sahar Jahani (Writer, Hana Khan Carries On, The Bold Type, Ramy), Tracy Andreen (Writer, The Holiday Sitter, All Saints Christmas, Two Tickets to Paradise); Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith (Writer/Producer, Trinkets, Legally Blonde, 10 Things I Hate About You, The Ugly Truth); and Nia Vardalos (Writer/Director/Actor, My Big Fat Greek Wedding films, Larry Crowne, I Hate Valentine’s Day).
It was an engaging, entertaining, and especially supportive group of women talking about the importance of stories about choosing our partners in life.
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.
Host: I know it’s always so heartening when something turns up that was thought to be lost and there may still be some Treasures out there and people are discovering new things every day and that’s what you know of course of interest to us at the Museum – finding those rare rare voices that luckily were preserved in some way or other and just bringing them to light more.
Rosanne: Well and that’s what I always tell students too. If you go to places like museums you know when my students are in town – they’re low residency but they come in town once twice a year – and we’ll go to The Autry. We’ll go to the Herrick. We’ll go to different places but what – even long before I did this job – I would go to The Autry with my son because of course cowboy stuff cool but also you look at the photographs of who the Cowboys right and we all know they weren’t John Wayne. We all know that wasn’t who it was right? They were the Mexican Americans and they were Chinese Americans and you see that in the photographs but movies came along and made them all Caucasian and that’s ridiculous but that became the myth right? So the more we look at the real history the more we can tell those real stories. I love research.
Host: Me too. Well, thanks so much for joining us it was such a wonderful conversation and I especially I think I’ll take away this idea of a sort of community type stories in westerns particularly from our perspective – what are those western films that feature that Community story and is that a sort of more feminine point of view or a kind of women’s view of the West. That’s going to stick with me but as will many other points thanks so much for joining us.
Rosanne: Thanks for asking me. I love to talk about this clearly and I love The Autry
the archery Museum of the American West thanks our members and supporters
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.