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If, as Gertrude Price claimed in 1914, the movies were “a great new field for women,” 1 that field encompassed far more than acting, which drew many star-struck girls to Los Angeles, or being hired for a range of professional positions in producing and marketing films. Indeed, extending that field to include newspapers, for instance, allows one to argue that women journalists played a significant role in the emergence of early American popular film culture in the mid-1910s. 2 Specifically, that role involved women with writing skills who edited pages devoted to the movies in weekend newspaper editions as well as compiled gossip on stars and reviewed films, often in daily columns. In Chicago alone, at least three women quickly exerted considerable influence: Mae Tinee (Frances Peck) and Kitty Kelly (Audrey Alspaugh) at the Chicago Tribune, and Louella Parsons at the Chicago Herald. But did many women continue to write about the movies in newspapers beyond the mid-1910s; and, if they did, in which papers, in what capacities, and with what kind of impact? Samantha Barbas and Hilary Hallett, from different perspectives, 3 have shown that Parsons became even more influential in the late 1910s and early 19120s, but was she at all representative, one of a select few, or an anomaly? And how can a historian go about addressing such questions?
One initial source to consult might be the “First Annual Newspaper and Theater Directory” that Motion Picture News compiled in late 1919. 4 The trade journal had sent out “a questionnaire to all newspapers in cities of over twelve thousand population” in the United States and Canada and compiled a “census” of their responses. The census obviously was selective because newspapers in a great number of cities were not included, from the Tribune and Herald in Chicago or the Times in Los Angeles to the Constitution in Atlanta or the Herald in Syracuse—belying the trade journal’s claim that those not responding seemed to have no interest in motion pictures. In the case of Chicago, Mae Tinee continued editing and reviewing at the Tribune through the 1920s; Kitty Kelly wrote reviews for the Examiner at least through 1918; and Parsons that year moved to the New York Telegraph. Moreover, most of the hundreds of “photoplay editors” or writers listed had only initials and last names, so that the two dozen with definite women’s names may have been a fraction of the real number. 5 An added problem arises when one searches the Internet for digital copies of those women’s newspapers; then, the number of confirmed writers is reduced to no more than a few. Still, those few that are accessible allow one to gain a very limited sense of how women were writing about the movies in the period of 1918-1919.
Two of those women were already familiar to their newspaper readers. For the New York Sunday Tribune, Harriette Underhill had been writing a weekly column since late 1916 based on lengthy interviews with a single actor or actress. 6 In Ishbel Ross’s words, Underhill “was cynical to the core, scorned sentiment, [and] had a sophisticated wit,” but the interviews, full of dialogue in which she engaged with her subjects as “we” or an inquisitive “visitor,” also revealed that she could be generous and unobtrusive. 7 In late 1918, after the peak of the influenza epidemic, she let Enrico Caruso talk about his career by describing the photos, books, and scrapbooks in his hotel suite and then open his mail and comment on one or more letters from fans. 8 Others Underhill interviewed ranged from D.W. Griffith in rehearsal or “Bill” Hart, who acknowledged the cowboy Snowy Baker as an inspiration, to Bryant Washburn whose fans wondered if his dimple was real or painted on. 9 The latter interview led her to briefly take up similar questions from fans: is Olga Petrova’s figure “all her own”; “how tall [is] Marguerite Clark”; does Douglas Fairbanks “act like that in real life”; does Bill Hart “have any one to double for him”? Searching for Underhill’s interviews also turns up another column on the same page in the Tribune written by Virginia Tracy. While Tracy sometimes did profiles—i.e., of Fairbanks or director Maurice Tourneur—she more often addressed broader issues—i.e., intellectuals’ persistent disdain for the movies; the “curse of sweetness” for ingénues; or the need for more than plot to make a good picture. 10 She even offers a lengthy review or two, as in her pithy put down of A Scream in the Night (1919): The heroine “is very pleasant to look at, swaying and flashing about in the jungle on her rope of moss, but as soon as she comes down to earth she shows us that her wildness is of the hop, skip, and a jump variety.” 11 For reasons yet to be determined, neither woman’s byline appears in the Sunday Tribune after early November 1919.
For the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a young journalist, Mary B. Lefler, had been writing two daily columns, “Flashes from Filmland” and “Gossip of the Film World,” beginning in the summer of 1914, and then editing a full Sunday page, “In the Photoplay World,” by the following summer. Four years later, under her own byline, she still was editing that same Sunday page, now headed “Reel News and Views” of the “plays and players to appear here the coming week.” 12 Among the star photos, theater ads, and stories (probably summarized from publicity material shared by those advertising theaters) was a column, “Reel-Y True,” that fulfilled the promise of “little chats about your screen favorites [with] questions and answers.” 13 By summer 1919, Lefler’s coverage of the movies—apparently compiled from the trade press, fan magazines, and studio publicity—included part of a second page, and she gave special attention to Griffith’s “supreme triumph,” Hearts of the World (1918), in a separate article that added to the distributed publicity a quoted paragraph of high praise from an unnamed “famous Western critic.” 14 In late August, “Reel News and Views” turned into “At the Movies,” with the same kind of photos, ads, and stories, including the “Reel-Y True” column and one or more ads that ran onto a second page. 15 But Lefler’s byline had disappeared; if someone replaced her, that writer went unnamed.
One woman not listed in the Motion Picture News directory would have been familiar to readers of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where Harlowe R. Hoyt, in the fall of 1917, had expanded its Sunday coverage of the movies to three pages—with lots of photos, half a dozen or more theater ads (often large), a syndicated gossip column from “Gertrude,” 16 and other regular columns (among them, one bylined “The Answer Man”). In June 1918, Marjorie Daw introduced a column profiling people in the industry with links to Cleveland; 17 that fall, when Hoyt turned to editing the theater pages, Daw assumed his former position as photoplay editor. 18 Like Lefler, Hoyt, and other such editors, Daw compiled columns of publicity material and wrote up summary program descriptions supplied by the theaters sponsoring these pages with ads. Additionally, she framed those summaries with chatty, playful introductions. 19 In mid-September 1918: “This is ‘ladies week’ at the first run photoplay houses, not a single male star being listed…the fair sex holds sway…” 20 In late November 1918: “By their stars ye shall know them—the movies! The best story, the wisest direction, the most splendid settings, the wildest of scenery, the most costly of stagings, will avail nothing if the star be not popular.” 21 In June 1919: “Summer is with us once more in theory as well as fact…In the words of Kipling, [some may] exclaim ‘It’s pretty, but is it art?’ The real movie fan doesn’t worry about anything so banal.” 22 Daw also voiced her own impressions of films for readers, as in her concise comments one week on John Barrymore and Douglas Fairbanks. 23 In the stage adaptation, On the Quiet (1918), “Barrymore’s skill as a comedian saves the picture from a single dull moment.” A “typical” Fairbanks vehicle, Bound in Morocco (1918), has “a paucity of plot, perhaps, but plenty of action, unusual situations, and numerous ‘stunts.’” A few weeks later, she noted the “little German plot” added to the western, Mr. Logan U.S.A. (1918), in which Tom Mix wraps up the film by “capturing a girl and a spy with the same rope.” 24 By the summer of 1919, she had a weekly column of local movie news, one of which reported an interview with Clara Joel and Maggie, her pedigree bulldog, registered as “Marjorie Daw.” 25 That earned the quip: “one Marjorie at least is registered.” In September, Hoyt returned as Sunday photoplay editor, and Daw’s name, like Lefler’s, disappeared from the newspaper.
Although one obviously has to question how representative these four women may be, their disappearance as newspaper editors, columnists, and reviewers in 1919 does pose a puzzle. And that puzzle has an uncanny parallel, around the same time, in the declining number of women who could work as filmmakers in the industry. Karen Ward Mahar was one of the first to highlight this decline and the broader phenomenon of an increasingly gendered division of labor defining the industry as big business. 26 Accepting in part her argument that this division was due to the impact of finance capital, Mark Cooper examines the case of Universal, which employed the most women directors in the 1910s, and argues that the development of more standardized genre conventions was equally important, linking women filmmakers to an outmoded concept of the “woman’s film,” with the result that the company released not a single film credited to a woman director in 1920. 27 In the specific case of Lois Weber, Universal’s highest salaried director at one time, Shelley Stamp attributes her marginalization in the late 1910s not only to the formation of her own independent company (affiliated initially with Universal) but also to her choice of directing films that critiqued the American consumer society of which the movies were a crucial part. 28 A gendered division of labor also may have characterized the newspaper industry, for it seemed to mark most newspapers’ coverage of the movies, according to that Motion Picture News directory. 29 Although the cause of this apparent decline in the number of women editors and writers in the late 1910s may be beyond the scope of this short essay, one can wonder whether, besides the increasing influence of finance capital and institutional professionalization, other systematic socio-economic changes and masculinizing cultural patterns following the end of the Great War and the return of American soldiers had just as much impact. 30 Still, a later source, a 1926 New York Film Arts Guild document, seems to question that decline, suggesting that their number actually may have increased in the 1920s. For, of the fifteen film reviewers affiliated with newspapers that were named as members of the guild’s Advisory Council, at least six were women.
Refocusing attention on Chicago in the early 1920s, one finds that women continued to edit pages and/or write columns devoted to the movies in most newspapers. 31 Virginia Dale, for instance, whom the Motion Picture News had named as photoplay editor of the Chicago Journal, 32 held that position at least through 1925, editing the Saturday edition’s “News of Photoplays and Players” page and writing a daily film review column. 33 Each Saturday, Dale’s long column compiled not only gossip of the stars and brief notes on major theater programs but also discussed current issues such as Carl Laemmle’s effort to educate censorship boards, industry leaders testifying in Congress against “the 5 percent film rental tax” (a carry over from the war), and the “menace” of German film imports—i.e., Passion (1925), Deception (1920), and The Golem (1915)—denounced by no less than Cecil B. DeMille. 34 As for her reviews, the Journal promoted those with frequent ads. 35 Some highlighted the personal attraction of certain stars: in Wedding Bells (1921), Constance Talmadge displays “that delightful air of detached recklessness as she defies the various conventions that threaten to curtail her pleasures”; in Salvage (1921), Pauline Frederick is “a deeply intense, vividly emotional actress, playing as she loves to play, running the whole gamut of human emotions as she unfolds the involved threads of this rather improbable drama.” 36 Others could be unkind even to a film by Lois Weber. Too Wise Woman (1921), “another effusion from the workshop of Lois Weber,” sadly, had “a too superficial thought structure on which to build and project ideas.” 37 By contrast, The Woman God Changed (1921) she thought would only have “an appeal for those who like their religion sugar-coated and who swallow an idea whole.” 38 One of Dale’s more interesting columns showed how closely she was connected to the industry by printing “a list, as accurate as any such list can be, of the greatest money-makers” among American films. 39 The top five were The Miracle Man (1919) ($2,475,000), Birth of a Nation (1915) ($2,125,000), Traffic in Souls (1913) ($1,260,000), A Dog’s Life (1918) ($1,140,000), and Where Are My Children? (1916) ($990,000)—but she was silent on the source for these figures.
Finally, one of the six newspaperwomen named as members of the New York Film Art Guild’s Advisory Council was Elizabeth Kern, a young writer for the Omaha World-Herald. Like many other papers, the World-Herald had covered the movies extensively since the mid-1910s. By summer 1922, that coverage included not only several Sunday pages (no editor was named) but also a Monday review column, “This Week at the Movies,” signed by A.H.M. 40 At the same time, the paper was running a syndicated series, “Opportunities for Women in the Movies,” that for each of seventeen weeks through November focused on a single industry position and one exemplary woman. 41 In the midst of this series, in mid-September, Kern took over the film review column with a slangy riff on Rudolph Valentino’s rift with Famous Players: “This famous he-vamp announces that he will ‘take his doll rags and go home’ if the business of publicity and advertising doesn’t straighten out.” 42 That first week, while praising Grandma’s Boy (1922) as “the best picture Harold Lloyd ever made,” Kern seemed ambivalent about the “regular fashion show” in No Trespassing (1922), where Irene Castle showed off “evening gowns, the smartest of street dresses, riding and bike outfits, and motoring garb.” 43 The following week she exhorted “any little flappers in Omaha who think existence is drab [to] go see Colleen Moore in The Wall Flower …” 44 She also could pan a film like Devotion (1920), starring Hazel Dawn, “an outstanding example of what we mean when we say motion picture hash, with all the melodramatic punch of the old ten-twenty-thirty shows…” 45 Intriguingly, Kern also drew on trade press and other sources to “teach” Omaha fans about the movies. She reported on Will Day’s London “exhibition of moving picture relics,” reprinted an interview with Alvin Wyckoff in which he made trenchant comments on “atmospheric lighting,” and challenged them to see how a film like The Impossible Mrs. Bellew (1922) seamlessly integrated location and studio shots within a scene. 46 In classifying fans one week, she even used the pronoun, “He,” whether as a sign of accepting the masculine conventions of discourse at the time or as an explicit means of enticing more men in Omaha to become moviegoers. 47 By 1925, Kern’s reputation was such that Douglas Fairbanks sent her a telegram personally thanking her for “a most wonderful review of ‘The Thief of Bagdad.'” 48
In 1914, Gertrude Price’s claim had merit—the movies indeed were a great new field for women—a field that definitely included professional writing for the newspapers. But would that claim have held up five or ten years later? The answer, at least for now, has to be inconclusive—and the reasons, one way or another, speculative. While some women like Mae Tinee and Parsons enjoyed “starring roles” for more than a decade, others such as Underhill, Tracy, Lefler, and Daw apparently left the spotlight, perhaps not of their own volition. New recruits like Dale, Kern, and others may have heralded a new generation of women editors and reviewers in the early 1920s, and others may remain “hidden” behind the apparent practice that had writers identified only by last names and first name initials. Furthermore, were the targeted readers/fans of these new recruits largely women or, rather, were they just as often men; if the latter, did the reviews and commentary seeming to address them complement an apparent industry strategy that sought to broaden and transform what was assumed to be a predominantly female audience for the movies? More definite answers will depend in part on future researchers continuing to construct useful databases not only by accessing and reliably searching more and more digitized newspapers but also by “getting dirty,” that is, examining all kinds of material remains in local and regional libraries and consulting with their knowledgeable curators. Perhaps this short essay will have turned up more clues for them to follow and that may lead to even more challenging questions, given the sources referenced, the women writers briefly studied, and those with unfamiliar names much in need of becoming more known. 49
This essay does not have a selected bibliography, please see the footnotes and the complete project bibliographies for more information.Complete Project Bibliographies....