This article addresses the benefits of using women's memoirs as historical sources. Employing a critical framework—the concept of creative labor—taken from recent screenwriting studies scholarship, the author analyzes the way that Frederica Sagar Maas and Lenore Coffee represent their roles in the bureaucratic structure of the Hollywood studio system.
In “This Is What $10,000 Did to Me,” writer Anzia Yezierska states that her success in Hollywood—and the luxuries that followed—was “no accident of good fortune, no matter of luck.”1 It was, she tries to convince herself and her readers, “earned” through hard work. Writing about their careers in memoirs and magazine articles, women scenario writers of the silent era offer disparate descriptions of what was earned, what was luck, and what was denied to them because of the structure of the industry and the lack of rules regarding screen credits. Looking at these women's writings as historical sources reveals ways in which the women try to recover their own labor to film history: through their memoirs, screenwriters such as Frederica Sagar Maas and Lenore Coffee emphasize the specialized knowledge they used while working in film, while also demonstrating their ability to work within the bureaucratic film industry. Their attempts to make their work visible, however, run counter to the ideology of the individual genius that dominated film history from the 1920s until only recently, when new and developing subfields of feminist film history and industry studies began to challenge this narrative. As these women attempt to write themselves into history by publishing memoirs, they, in turn, write themselves out of the dominant narrative of film as art precisely through writing about the labor of filmmaking. By writing accounts of their careers as writers, these women reveal film to be a collaborative craft that functioned much like a multifaceted production line; this is a narrative at odds with dominant film histories that have sought to raise film to the level of art. As such, the marginalization of women writers in film history, despite their dominance in the silent era, can be understood as film history's inability to account for the concept of “creative labor” within its own narrative.2
The aim of this article, then, is to illuminate the ways that women writers have articulated their own experience in the film industry. Giuliana Muscio, Anne Morey, and Donna Casella have provided recent studies of women scenario writers and screenwriters of the silent period, demonstrating the many roles women held as scenarists, writers, and story department laborers.3 Writing for the screen during the 1910s and 1920s was not a uniform experience, and, in fact, the broad category of “writer” might apply to a number of different jobs. Writing departments during the silent period were multifaceted and often required a manager and multiple staff members whose roles might range from script reader to title writer to continuity writer to story editor. Scholars of silent screenwriting practices have used a variety of archival materials to document the work done by both women and men in writing departments, such as completed scenarios, fan magazine articles, screenwriting course advertisements, and studio contracts. A full consideration of the details of working as a scenarist (or working in a story department) in the American film industry in the 1910s and 1920s is beyond the scope of this article; my focus, therefore, is on the aspects of the job that are not normally considered “creative.” The memoirs that I have chosen to analyze—Lenore Coffee's Storyline: Recollections of a Hollywood Screenwriter (1973) and Frederica Sagar Maas's The Shocking Miss Pilgrim: A Writer in Early Hollywood (1999)—demonstrate the parts of the job that require navigation in a business environment.4 But these memoirs serve a second purpose: neither woman enjoyed a particularly remarkable career. Coffee and Sagar Maas are familiar to many film historians because they published their memoirs, but they are not Oscar winners (like Frances Marion) or brand names (like Elinor Glyn). My aim is not to argue that women such as Coffee and Sagar Maas should be reconsidered as film auteurs of the silent period. They are, arguably, typical rather than unique in their Hollywood careers. Their memoirs focus on aspects of commerce, job security, and screen credit, which exemplify the concerns of average laborers in the Hollywood studio system. These women, of course, wrote their memoirs long after they had left the film industry, which may explain their focus on the precariousness of work in Hollywood before the rise of the Screen Writers Guild.5
In her discussion of women screenwriters, Giuliana Muscio argues that the fledgling studio system of the 1910s and 1920s was especially suited to a form of feminized labor: women “perfectly functioned for this stage of the division of labor within the studio system, because of their generosity, cooperative spirit, and for their typical feminine ability to know a little bit of everything, and be able to do several things at one time, as their complex filmographies amply demonstrate.”6 In other words, scholars can glean from the multiple roles that women played—not just as writers but throughout a film's production—that the corporate structure of early Hollywood studios was drastically different from that of later years.7 Lenore Coffee and Frederica Sagar Maas, who both entered the film industry in the late 1910s, filled multiple roles throughout their careers—story purchasers, story department assistants and managers, writers, freelance film “doctors,” agents, title writers—thus demonstrating Muscio's assertion that the early studio system thrived on the labor of people who could perform more than one task.8
In their memoirs, which attempt to reinsert their work into the history of film, Coffee and Sagar Maas meditate on their roles working within a highly bureaucratic and commercial industry. Recounting their work in the film industry years later, these women had to prove their business savvy and demonstrate how well they had worked with men. In emphasizing these qualities, they downplayed their own creativity—although business sense and creativity are not mutually exclusive, in the case of women they seemed to lose one for the other—effectively writing themselves out of conventional accounts of popular Hollywood history for a large portion of the twentieth century. Early histories of the film industry—such as those published by Terry Ramsaye and Lewis Jacobs—celebrate individual artistic genius, particularly that of the director, over collaborative workers and laborers such as Coffee and Sagar Maas.9 Steven Price aligns film history's emphasis on directors with Romantic ideologies celebrating film as an art form.10 In contrast, he argues, the screenplay “is clearly a product of the kind of advanced industrial practice to which Romanticism is in direct ideological opposition.”11 In Coffee's and Sagar Maas's memoirs, it is precisely this “industrial practice” of writing for film that is foregrounded. The history these women tell is at odds with the history traditionally celebrated in film studies. This article, then, suggests that in the convergence of feminist film history and the burgeoning field of screenwriting studies—which seeks to define and theorize “creative labor” so that it may be incorporated into a broader understanding of film industries—it is possible to include these women's stories in a more nuanced understanding of film history and production.
PICTURING THE WRITER: THE HIDDEN-IN-PLAIN-VIEW HOLLYWOOD SCENARIST
I turn to women's memoirs as historical evidence, then, because women such as Coffee and Sagar Maas were well aware of the dominant narrative of film history, which excluded both women and scenarists, and they fought hard to reinsert their own labor into an understanding of early film production. Antonia Lant and Ingrid Periz suggest that researchers of women in film are faced with the “absence of documents and remembrance.”12 Jennifer Bean also argues for the importance of revisiting the types of historical texts under examination.13 In her book Cupboards of Curiosity: Women, Recollection, and Film History, Amelie Hastie calls for a reexamination of the primacy of conventional archives in historical research when memoirs, scrapbooks, cookbooks, and other traditionally “feminine” materials are available and yet so often overlooked.14 Arguably, in sensing their exclusion from popular film history, many women wrote memoirs about their experiences in the film industry in order to write themselves into history. As Hastie suggests, memoirs should not be taken as historical fact, but as writers' rhetorical attempts to situate themselves in history or to revise how history has remembered them.15 The memoirs I examine are both historical and historiographic in that they reveal as much about the construction of film history as they do about the reality of scenario writing in the 1910s and 1920s.
Feminist film historians are well aware of the systematic “forgetting” of women working in early Hollywood and other film industries, which in turn requires historians to perform historical work that maps women's careers through the careful selection of found evidence.16 The historian of women scenarists is in a particular double bind because of screenwriting's marginalization in the film industry and the erasure of women from film history. Since the archival turn in film history, the study of film has been shaped by what the archives have to offer. In particular, the archives have given scholars the evidence needed to pursue studies of directors, producers, stars, and film texts themselves. While archival copies of scenarios and screenplays are available, Lizzie Francke suggests that even the scenarios available through the copyright office at the Library of Congress are fading and facing the same fate as so many lost nitrate films.17 Memoirs, then, function as a source for understanding both institutional histories and why women's and screenwriting history has been marginalized. Through the memoirs of several women scenarists runs a similar theme: the tension among luck, skill, and hard work.
An excellent concept for understanding this tension—or “creative labor”—is found in the writings of current screenwriting studies scholars, creative industries scholars, and production studies scholars.18 How researchers define and understand creative labor in turn shapes our understanding of film and production history. This term highlights the seemingly paradoxical identity of screenwriters as both creative artists and employees working in a highly controlled commercial industry, as Miranda Banks explains in her book on the history of the Screen Writers Guild.19 This tension between creative work and industry labor is constantly at play in the memoirs of women who worked as scenarists in the silent period. Furthermore, how does one measure creative work in the archives of an industry that worked so hard to take creative credit away from its writers? Banks demonstrates that the “author” of a film, based on contracts of the time, was the production company.20 In turning to the memoirs and memories of women like Coffee and Sagar Maas, we can analyze the ways in which they navigated their positions in an industry that assigned them little to no credit. Sagar Maas, for instance, recounts her work on numerous scripts that do not bear her name.21 It is this “collaborative” aspect of scenario departments that both erased many writers from film histories and obscured the contributions of those who did receive credit. Bridget Conor's study of screenwriting engages with the ways in which writing for film complicates the notion of “individualized and collaborative forms of work and practice.”22 Again, it is the tension between film history's traditional narrative of individual geniuses and the reality of collaborative work in scenario departments that results in the marginalization of screenwriting in histories of Hollywood. However, in certain examples, memoirs reveal that women writers were already aware of their exclusion from popular histories of film and thus attempted to write themselves alongside the great men who were unanimously heralded as “artists.”
HER SIDE OF THE STORY: THE MEMOIRS OF FREDERICA SAGAR MAAS AND LENORE COFFEE
Lenore Coffee's Storyline: Reflections of a Hollywood Screenwriter was published in 1973 and relates numerous salacious stories about well-known stars and directors, in addition to business deals such as the merger that created MGM Studios. Coffee says less about her own work as a scenario writer, but what she does write provides an interesting insight into the development of Hollywood standards. Her version of history suggests that the creative work of writing is part innate talent and part training. Throughout her memoir, she provides brief segments that suggest how she developed her skill as a screenwriter.
Coffee grew up in San Francisco, attending the theater, vaudeville, opera, ballet, and the movies with her parents. Her first experience in writing for film—after having spent much of her free time watching films—was when she happened to buy a copy of The Motion Picture Exhibitors' Herald and discovered that famed actress Clara Kimball Young was soliciting stories. Coffee submitted a story inspired on her belief that Young had never played a mother, crafting a plot about a woman who falls in love with an unmarried man with a child. What is telling about Coffee's account is her recollection that she would accept the offer to purchase her scenario only if she received proper screen credit. She was paid $100 and given credit for the story.23 Her memoir recounts that later in the year the producer, Harry Garson, was visiting San Francisco and she sat in the lobby of his hotel until he passed by, at which point she introduced herself and secured a year long contract. After the Garson Studio closed, Coffee worked as a “free-lance doctor,” a task that she describes as fixing films by reordering scenes and changing titles to salvage movies that did not initially appeal to audiences.24 Though she does not name the films in her book, she states that Lou Anger hired her in 1919 and that the two films starred Lew Cody. Fixing the films, Coffee relates, was “fascinating” and involved note-taking, restructuring, and cutting and resplicing scenes until a new narrative with greater audience appeal was achieved. Her detailed account of saving these films relies heavily on technical details: matching dialogue the actors' gestures; the ways that film could be cut and then cemented together with glue that smelled of bananas; and making temporary intertitles so she could project a film back to herself and ensure it made sense.25 After this freelance work, she met with other producers and negotiated her way into work that kept her in Hollywood for the remainder of her career, including her shift to television writing throughout the 1950s. Coffee writes the narrative of her career, which had as many losses as successes, to demonstrate the ways in which she negotiated the precariousness that a Hollywood career entailed.
My interest in Coffee's memoir lies in the anecdotes she uses to illuminate the business of film: her request for screen credit, her demand for a contract to work for Harry Garson and Clara Kimball Young, and the way she describes taking multiple meetings with producers when she was looking for work. While each of these anecdotes is simple on its own, taken as a whole, they demonstrate the importance of navigating the early industry. Coffee balances descriptions of her writing with these brief allusions to business acumen. Recounting the first scenario she wrote for Young, Coffee writes, “From that small seed the story grew; and that is precisely the way I work today. Find just one small idea, or the germ of an idea, then build a story around it.”26
Coffee also describes her work in the film industry as a series of negotiations. After arriving in Hollywood, she had to search for alternate work; Harry Garson was leaving and her initial contract was void. While searching for work, Coffee recounts, she was offered year-long contracts by both Irving Thalberg and Bayard Veiller within the same week. Writing in the 1970s, Coffee knew that Thalberg's name was far better known in the history of film than Veiller's. The reason Coffee gives for choosing Veiller (who offered her more money per week) over Thalberg is telling:
Now I was not unduly influenced by the money, but I was greatly influenced by the fact that for a writer to have the opportunity of working under a fine dramatist would do me more good than working under a brilliant but not yet experienced producer. When I told Thalberg this, to my surprise, he said, “I think you're right,” and I was to work for him time and time again. I accepted his [Veiller's] offer and I could not have made a wiser choice, for I learned to write dialogue, with talking pictures still nine years away. I was to start work right after Christmas.27
In hindsight, Thalberg is the better known of the two, and, of course, money was likely a deciding factor. Coffee's telling of the series of events, however, emphasizes the training and the development of her skill as a writer. Coffee's anecdote thus balances three key aspects of her memoir: learning skills, business acumen, and the creative industry.
In addition to the blending of business and creativity demonstrated above, Coffee emphasized the technical knowledge needed to work in a story department. One of Coffee's earliest jobs was, as noted, at Garson Studio, which allowed her to write while observing other aspects of the filmmaking process. She describes a conversation she had with another writer and tells us of her knowledge of all parts of film production:
I've been here only a few months; it is a one-company studio and they let me take on any job no one else was doing. I know more about picture making than you'll ever know if you just sit in a room and write. It's like having a room in a hospital where you're sealed off and haven't the slightest idea of what is going on in the hospital itself. You don't know about the drama of the operating room—its triumphs and its tragedies.28
Despite her secretarial role, Coffee would spend time on set and take copious notes about scenes and continuity. According to Coffee, it was her self-motivated note-taking that taught her much of what she knew about film form and structure. As such, when she was later unemployed, she promoted her talent for rescuing “sick” films—those films that sat on studio shelves because the story did not sell. Coffee would make detailed notes before restructuring and retitling the films so that the stories would have greater appeal to audiences. Coffee states that she asked $1,000 per film rescued, and she argued her case when producers felt her asking price was too high. In this part of her memoir, Coffee demonstrates not only her knowledge of film form and her skill in structuring and writing a successful film, but also her skill as a negotiator and successful businessperson. Coffee's retelling of the past situates her creative work alongside her acumen for securing contracts and playing hardball with the men in the studio. In her interview with Pat McMilligan in Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood's Golden Age, Coffee was asked if it was difficult to work primarily with men during her tenure at Warner Brothers. She replied bluntly, “No, I'm not afraid of men.”29 Rather than merely recounting her work in a creative industry, Coffee's recollections demonstrate a constant need to account for being a woman in a male-dominated industry. Coffee must prove that she was a good businesswoman over and above recounting her creative work.
Time and again in her memoir, Coffee returns to the skills she learned from working with Veiller. Early in her contract with him, Coffee relates advice he gave her when she was having trouble writing a script:
“My dear child, how could you possibly be expected to? I've been doing it for more than thirty years.” He added very seriously, as if they were words to be remembered, as indeed they were: “If you want to wake up every morning knowing you can do today precisely what you did yesterday, then you should be a bricklayer, not a writer. You have talent, but talent is a delicate thing and responds to kind treatment. So, for God's sake, be a little easy on yourself.”30
Again, Coffee's retelling of this incident emphasizes the job of a scenario writer as that of a creative laborer: one has a particular talent for creative thinking but needs to develop skills and grow as a professional writer. What this incident also reveals is a main feature of Coffee's memoir: her working relationship with male superiors.
Throughout the memoir, Coffee's anecdotes revolve around the men with whom she worked closely: Harry Garson, Bayard Veiller, Thomas Ince, Lou Anger, Irving Thalberg, Cecil B. de Mille, Louis B. Mayer, and others. Coffee relates of Thalberg:
Although we did not know the term in those days, he had what is now called a “love-hate” feeling towards women. And he had precisely the same thing towards writers, for au fond, he was himself a frustrated writer. He knew he needed writers, but that very need irritated him. He once said to me with ill-concealed contempt, “What's all this business of being a writer? Just putting one word after another.” My reply was, “Pardon me, Mr. Thalberg—putting one right word after another.”31
Perhaps, writing her memoir in the early 1970s, Coffee knew the dominant narrative of film history—the famous directors and producers who were still remembered—and chose her anecdotes accordingly. However, Coffee worked with stars as well—arguably stars are central to popular histories of film—and yet her memories reveal the importance of her interaction in what she depicts as a male-dominated industry. Throughout the memoir, Coffee emphasizes her witty exchanges with producers and directors both in the realm of business—in negotiations—and in defending her creative labor, as her response, “one right word after another,” reveals. The narrative that Storyline reveals about work in the film industry—especially for women—is that a combination of business acumen, creativity, and social skills in male-dominated situations was necessary for success in Hollywood.
Frederica Sagar Maas was born to Russian parents July 6, 1900, in New York City. She attended Columbia University for journalism but left in her last year to pursue a job as an assistant to story editor at Universal Pictures.32 Her memoir, written in 1999, recounts how much she had learned under her first boss, John Charles Brownell, and how her next manager, story editor Robert Rodin, was so incompetent that she was required to manage the office: “I kept this up for six months, handling the department by myself, making all the decisions, signing his name, making excuses, and covering for him in the downstairs offices.”33 She was promoted to story editor soon after upper management learned of Rodin's incompetence. Before accepting the position, Sagar Maas recounts that she stipulated one condition: “At the end of the year, I want Universal to send me to the West Coast to join the writing staff. I want to write, to work on films.”34 She moved to Hollywood later in the year, and her memoir recounts the numerous roles she played as a writer throughout the silent period and into the 1930s.
Like Coffee, Frederica Sagar Maas states that her training involved learning about film technique through constant exposure to it:
He [her supervisor] accompanied me to the theaters and explained camera shots and techniques of telling a story economically and dramatically. The Strand, the Rialto, the Rivoli, the Capital, the Roxy—they were my schools. I saw every new picture that came out—not once, but again and again. I might see a good picture as many as three or four times, analyzing it, making stenographic notes of sequences, frame by frame, that was the way I learned the techniques to screenwriting.35
Rather than emphasizing an innate talent for creative thought, Sagar Maas's retelling of history emphasizes the process of learning film techniques in order to make it in the industry. She provides this example in direct contrast to the Palmer Method, which was a screenwriting manual advertised to the many audience members who believed they could find success as writers in the film industry.36 Anne Morey provides an illuminating analysis of Palmer Photoplay Corporation's promotion, arguing that while the overt message of the Palmer method was to create better screenwriters, the underlying process was to create “an audience sympathetic to (because knowledgeable about) the industry and the medium.”37 In other words, the Palmer method was about training a moviegoing public about the film industry and not about teaching technical details of the screenwriting craft. Sagar Maas claims that she learned this the hard way, paying $50 for a manual that taught her very little of use to her job. Instead, she learned from the experience of working in the story department long enough to advance her career.
What both Sagar Maas and Lenore Coffee claim to have learned from observation, and from working in the industry long enough to see all aspects of the production, is the technical aspects of filmmaking that must be known to write films. Clara Berenger gave a lecture about screenwriting to students at the University of Southern California in 1929, emphasizing that scenario writers must know the technical side of filmmaking. To write the treatment, Beranger states, is to write for the “screen,” but to write the scenario, you must “begin to write for the camera.” She says,
You sketch in the technical devices and you block off the scenes with some indication of the ground plans—although you get the complete plans later after you talk to the art director. You roughly write in the titles and the inserts, such as telegrams, etc. You put in fade-outs and dissolves and all the various devices that you are supposed to know about.38
This lecture highlights a way in which Beranger and many other women scenario writers conceived of their work: success as a scenario writer in Hollywood required specialized knowledge. While there were different roles one could play in a writing department—story reader, treatment writer, continuity writer—it was beneficial for writers to learn as many parts of the process as possible to ensure their ability to fill the writing roles required of them.
In addition to technical expertise, Sagar Maas describes many of her interactions with the bureaucratic aspects of the film industry. In her chapter on becoming the story editor at Universal, she discusses her first meeting with “company brass”:
I must say they listened closely. Up to that time, no story editor had ever presumed to address them with such candor. Here was this young woman lecturing them, pointing the way to the future, asking for a mandate to go forth into the marketplace and bid for the best that money could buy.39
Sagar Maas continues by explaining that Carl Laemmle was reluctant to spend more on stories—a branch of the filmmaking process that had hitherto seen small budgets—but that he had the “instinct to defer to more educated, cleverer minds in areas where he lacked expertise and judgment.”40 Sagar Maas's memoir underlines the bureaucratic nature of work in the film industry: the story editor is not performing creative labor as much as she is functioning as a manager in the story department. What her memoir reveals is the ways in which women and writers in the industry performed multiple roles and were instrumental in the creative decisions for which many of the producers and executives have been given historical credit.
Sagar Maas recounts her involvement with the film The Plastic Age (1925) from the first time she saw it as a stage production. Immediately, as part of her role in the story department, she bought the rights to the play's screen adaptation. Having paid $30,000 for the rights, Sagar Maas was reprimanded by Carl Laemmle and ordered to sell it immediately. Sagar Maas states that she sold the rights for $40,000, making a profit for her company almost overnight.41 Her retelling of this story in her memoir emphasizes both her eye for a good story and her ability to negotiate and sell at ease.
Later in the memoir, Sagar Maas writes about having to work as an agent for writers trying to sell scripts to the studios. She refers to her position as a “motion picture peddler” but claims, “I hated being an agent. Even if I had had a roster of good writers and a desk covered with good material, I think I would have hated it anyway. I disliked selling. I had been trained to buy material, not sell it.”42 While women could fill multiple roles in the 1920s, after the industry had undergone massive change into the 1930s and 1940s, Sagar Maas was forced to take up jobs that veered far from the creative endeavor that writing entails.
Frederica Sagar Maas's final chapter before the epilogue tells of Ernest Maas's (her husband) and her failures to sell scripts they had cowritten. The rejections, in 1946, led the couple to contemplate suicide. They ultimately decided against it but realized “beyond a shadow of a doubt [that] our Hollywood days were over.”43
The memoirs of Frederica Sagar Maas and Lenore Coffee provide evidence about the careers of creative laborers. They reveal as much about the films these women helped to create as they do about the work that goes on between the films: the negotiations, the meetings with producers, and the search for work between contracts. These depictions reveal women with a strong sense of how to tell a good story and how to navigate the choppy waters of the early film industry. Miranda Banks notes that one term employed to describe screenwriters is the “bureaucratic artist,” because they are part of a culturally elite and sophisticated industry but are also contributing to the creation of a commercial art form.44 The commercial aspect of the artistry of filmmaking places the writer in a precarious position: beholden to managers and executives while also performing a form of creative labor. The memoirs of women scenarists demonstrate that negotiating with managers was a large part of the process of working in story departments in the 1910s and 1920s.
I conclude with a passage that appears early in Frederica Sagar Maas's memoir. Her words are tinged with bitterness because Sagar Maas so often experienced Hollywood as competitive and fickle. She recounts the story of a restaurant that went from being Hollywood's most popular to empty almost overnight. She states: “I tell this story because it reveals like nothing else the tinsel of the Hollywood scene, its basic insincerity, its hypocrisy, its cruelty, its shabby neglect of the worthy and deserving—the desertion at the drop of a hat of the old for anything new and in the groove.”45
Perhaps Sagar Maas was not writing just about Hollywood, but also about the history of film. The knowledge of women's roles in early film scenario departments has never been hidden, though it is so often ignored. Arguably, in writing down their histories in the form of memoirs, the stories these women told—of Hollywood as a business, of writing as a skilled trade, and of women as integral parts of the industry—were no longer “in the groove.”
This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. I also thank Shelley Stamp for her feedback and suggestions at various times throughout the development of this project.