Though she never wrote a horror film, to celebrate Halloween this month’s focus is screenwriter, poet, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Zoe Akins, born on October 30, 1886. In 1935 Akins would become the third woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the highest honor for a Broadway play in the United States, after Zona Gale (1921) and Susan Glaspell (1931). Akins’ win came from her dramatization of Edith Wharton’s The Old Maid. Four years later the play was adapted by Casey Robinson into a film starring Bette Davis, even though Akins had begun adapting plays and turning out her own screenplays in the early 1930s. Throughout her career, she collaborated with some of the most important women both behind and in front of the cameras which has kept her work in the public eye.
If you love seeing dinosaurs come to life on screen and you think they first appeared on screen in Jurassic Park, think again. In 1926 renowned screenwriter-director Marion Fairfax adapted Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World to the screen complete with the most advanced special effects of the time. It was an amazing feat for a filmmaker born in Richmond, Virginia, just ten years after the Civil War (October 24, 1875). While screenwriter Marion Fairfax lived into her 9th decade, seeing the administration of a second President Johnson, she only worked in Hollywood from the eras of Woodrow Wilson through Calvin Coolidge (1915-1926) despite being a powerhouse writer-director of her day.
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.
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.
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.