Filmmaking and Institutional Change in Early Hollywood
By Mark Garrett Cooper
University of Illinois Press
Copyright © 2010 Mark Garrett Cooper
All right reserved.
A Puzzle, Some Premises, and a Hypothesis
This book describes how institutions transform the possible into the all-but impossible. It tells the story of how the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, arguably the most enthusiastic employer of women directors the U.S. film industry has ever known, decided that women should no longer direct. The company reached this decision by the end of 1919 and made it during a time of important changes in the U.S. film industry and the world at large. Scholars of American modernity often mark 1920 as the end of a period of intense social, political, and economic transformation than began around 1880. By 1920, too, filmmakers had developed the type of film that became familiarly known as "a Hollywood movie" along with the industrial apparatus necessary to produce, distribute, and exhibit that type of film globally for profit.
Universal's participation in these changes informed its gendered division of labor. Accordingly, the transformation of possibility into impossibility cannot be understood merely as a foreclosure. It enabled a new configuration at the expense of an older one—new types of films, new sorts of business organization, and a new sense of audience. When Universal banished its women directors, it simultaneously participated in broader cultural and industrial changes and redefined itself. This book describes how a particular division of labor was instituted, made regular by and within the corporate movie studio. In the process, it strives to explain what it means to conceive of the Universal Film Manufacturing Company as agent and object—an entity that, like all institutions, acts and also forms the setting for action. But that gets ahead of the story.
From its inception in 1912 through 1919, the Universal Film Manufacturing Company thought women might make excellent directors. The studio credited eleven women with directing more than 170 films during these years, and its publicity department trumpeted their successes. The superstar Lois Weber accounts for most of the pre-1916 credits, but beginning in 1916 Universal created something of a pipeline. It attributed at least nine titles each to the supervision of Ruth Ann Baldwin, Cleo Madison, Ruth Stonehouse, Elsie Jane Wilson, and Ida May Park. Evidence suggests that these women and others, such as the serials star Grace Cunard, actually directed more often than official credits indicate. Even allowing for an undercount, however, women directors amounted to a small proportion of Universal's total when considered in absolute terms. Yet, in relation to historical figures, their proportion is significantly larger. At their most numerous in 1917, eight out of 113 named Universal directors were women (about 7 percent), and Universal credited them with slightly more than 6 percent of its films. Overall, the average of titles credited to women for the years 1916–19 is lower, about 4 percent. Intriguingly, however, women were concentrated in feature films, as opposed to the large volume of shorts and serials Universal released. In the same three-year period, the studio assigned 12 percent of its Bluebird brand feature films to the direction of women. In the 1990s, Directors Guild of America statistics demonstrate, the industry paid women to direct between 7 and 9 percent of the days worked in film production. Martha Lauzen's survey of credits shows that early in the twenty-first century the proportion of woman-directed titles declined from an anomalous high of 11 percent in 2000 to 5 percent in 2004 and had rebounded to 6 percent in 2007. Allowing for variations in the way work has been organized and irregularities in the way it has been recorded, one can safely say that during the 1910s Universal's record of crediting women directors exceeds the historical industrial average and argue that it exceeds the average for feature films by a substantial margin.
Habits change. In 1919, Universal credited five feature films to women directors. The following year, for the fist time in its history, it credited not a single title to a woman. With the sole exception of Weber, who returned to supervise three features in the mid-1920s, the studio did not name a women director again until 1982, when Amy Heckerling made Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
The change certainly seems decisive, yet it is far from clear who decided or how a decision to change was made. Apart from a few chance survivals, internal company documents are inaccessible, lost, or destroyed. The studio's in-house newspaper, the Universal Weekly, gives no indication of a shift in employment policy. Other trade publications announced the individual departures of the Universal women and continued to follow a few of their careers. Which is to say, their collective disappearance was not noticed until well after the fact. Surviving scraps of private correspondence provide little insight. With a few exceptions, it is unknown whether the members of the initial cohort were fired, left directing for personal reasons, or sought better opportunities elsewhere. This last possibility might seem unlikely in retrospect, but it is well documented. For instance, Park's 1920 entry on "moving-picture director," written for the advice volume Careers for Women around the time of her departure from Universal, confidently describes directing as an "open field" for women who are "hardy and determined." Park might have found reason for optimism in the large number of smaller companies then headed by women. In any case, while it is clear that Universal effectively closed the door to women directors by 1920, we will almost certainly never know whether any of the many individual participants in this historical change foresaw it.
Given the nature of available evidence and the lack of a distinct culprit, it is tempting to class the entire phenomenon as one of history's many insoluble mysteries, a product of contingencies too numerous and choices too poorly recorded to submit to a plausible narrative of cause and effect. And so it would be, if not for the web of connections linking changes at Universal with the evolution of the industry in general.
Put simply, the Universal women flourished during the decade that called "Hollywood" into being. They were among the filmmakers and businesspeople who assembled, in rough outline, the ensemble of practices and the cultural geography bearing that name. Granted, there have been major revisions. Nonetheless, a number of Hollywood's defining characteristics congealed in the 1910s. Most importantly, the decade established the feature-length film as the industry's primary product, a change that made weekly programs of one- and two-reel films obsolete. Secondly, now-familiar lines separating a variety of filmmaking occupations were established, along with a hierarchy relating them; for example, the producer's role was distinguished from that of the director and the screenwriter. The star system developed, with all that it entailed for the production, marketing, and consumption of movies. Finance capital became seriously interested in the industry, which in turn adopted business practices developing within the corporate sector more broadly. Finally, the Los Angeles area displaced rivals such as Chicago; Philadelphia; Fort Lee, New Jersey; and Jacksonville, Florida, as the center of U.S. film production for a global market.
Universal led the industry in some respects and trailed it in others. The "Big U" was unarguably a pacesetter when it opened its huge, state-of-the-art facility at Universal City in 1915. A decade later, however, the studio had acquired a reputation for being outmoded. President Carl Laemmle, the legend goes, made two miscalculations. First, he was slow to invest in theaters, a move that relegated Universal to "minor" status as a producing and distributing firm through most of the 1920s. Second, he continued to market a weekly shorts program to smaller theaters while the rising industrial powers, led and emblematized by Paramount-Famous Players-Lasky, emphasized big-city premiers of select feature films. Nepotism is said to have compounded both errors; "Uncle Carl" liked to find jobs for his relatives.
While not without foundation, this explanation of Universal's change in fortune is misleading to the degree that it casts the company as a relic of an earlier, less businesslike age. True, Universal outlasted other major brand names of the early 1910s (such as Vitagraph, Selig, Lubin, Essanay, Mutual, Biograph, Triangle, and Thanhouser). It did so, however, not by maintaining the status quo but by developing the type of bicoastal business organization that would come to define the studio era. From New York City's Mecca Building, Universal's senior administration planned national advertising campaigns and coordinated production at Universal City. There, according to a 1916 report, some 1,500 persons cranked out 150,000 feet of film per week. By year's end, this amounted to 914 films released, over one hundred of them feature-length. The City's general manager supervised a complex hierarchy including screenwriting and other support departments. In addition, he oversaw forty producing companies, each of which comprised a director/producer, assistant director, property man, leading actor and actress, and miscellaneous cast members. In so organizing production, Universal helped pioneer the role of central producer, which remained a standard position through 1930. And although Universal came late to the table in buying U.S. theaters, it was an early mover in international markets, cultivating distribution circuits as well as theater holdings abroad. In key respects, Universal was not so much the last of the old movie businesses as the first of the new ones.
Other firms of the 1910s that grew to become majors in the 1930s—Paramount, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Fox, and Warner Bros.—assumed that directing would be men's work, and the business historian Karen Mahar argues persuasively that the increasing influence of finance capital, necessary for the creation of the giant producing-distributing-exhibiting firms, played a central role in more clearly gendering the occupation. It is well known that, industry-wide, women found more opportunities to direct before the mid-1920s than they did from that point until the 1970s. Mahar shows that vertical integration proved especially lethal to the remarkable numbers of independent and semi-independent firms headed by women in the late 1910s and early 1920s. At the same time, industrial standardization tended to rigidify work roles, limiting the ability of actors and screenwriters to move into directing and thereby closing the professional road most early women directors had traveled.
The case of Universal plainly shows, however, that to attribute a shift in the gendered division of labor simply to the triumph of big business risks oversimplifying that transformation to the point of mystifying it. Universal was a big business in the 1910s; it helped develop professional specialties; and nonetheless its practice of promoting women to the director's chair distinguished it from its contemporaries. Vitagraph, its nearest rival among the larger studios, credited perhaps three women as director. Nor did the structure of Universal's business change fundamentally when the studio closed its doors to women directors in 1920. Thus, the case of Universal suggests that the connection between the growth of the film business and the establishment of a particularly gendered division of labor was not inevitable, and this difference makes the puzzle of its women directors impossible to set aside. Here is the test case, the exception through which we might better understand what made the rule.
Thanks to decades of historical research, it is possible to exclude several hypotheses that, singly or in combination, might have accounted for Universal's peculiarity. First to go was the claim of Carl Laemmle's 1931 biographer, John Drinkwater, that the phenomenon derived from the founder's "revolutionary suffrage." In his 1977 Early Women Directors, Anthony Slide set the tone for subsequent investigation by doubting Laemmle's "concern for women's rights" and seeking an explanation grounded in business sense. Appeals to Laemmle's beneficence also pose a problem for explaining why Universal stopped hiring women directors after 1919, when he remained at the helm.
Slide speculates that Universal, facing a labor shortage given the number of films to which it was committed, found it easier and cheaper to promote women from within than to recruit men from outside. The lack of reliable comparative salary and employment data makes this proposition difficult to confirm, and it is called into question by Richard Koszarski's observation that Universal "was certainly not the only cheap studio in town." Moreover, at least two of the directors, Cunard and Weber, were highly paid by industry standards.
The historical record also emphatically rules out the hunch that the Universal women directors replaced men called to war. The upward trend in women's director credits precedes the signing of the Selective Service Act in May 1917, and they continued to win directing jobs after the studio slashed production later that year in response to a wartime tax on entertainments and the declining popularity of its shorts program—a fact that further troubles the hypothesis that Universal turned to women simply to meet production quotas.
The timing of the women's departure coincides a bit better with the extension of the franchise via the Nineteenth Amendment, which was proposed in June 1919 and ratified in August the following year. Yet the theory of a backlash inspired by impending or accomplished ratification finds no support in existing documentation. More notable is the upwelling of corporate enthusiasm in 1913 for the fact that its female employees could vote in California. (Male voters there extended the franchise by referendum in 1911.) Suffrage struggles encouraged the phenomenon of woman directors far more than they thwarted it.
Finally, an early professional association of directors (the Motion Picture Directors' Association [MPDA]), while clearly a "boys' club," was not organized enough to have played a decisive role in shaping employment practices at Universal, or indeed at any other studio. The MPDA lacked formal mechanisms to encourage the hiring of its members or to compel wages and working conditions, and although the association probably did give definition to the emerging profession through its network of personal relationships, it is not clear that women directors were outside that network. In 1923, for example, the nominally all-male MPDA listed two of the Universal women, Park and Weber, as "honorary" members, and Motion Picture News reported Weber as "the only woman member" in 1917.
Universal plainly had more substantial, or at least more complex, reasons to promote women directors than a mere quest to cut costs or to overcome a labor shortage. The most potent explanations for the phenomenon of early women filmmakers in general presuppose that it had something to do with how the culture understood "women" and refer us to the shifting and often contradictory terrain of early-twentieth-century gender roles.
Mahar, for example, notes a concentration of women directors in serials and short comedies, on the one hand, and feature-length social-problem films, on the other hand. Developing the work of cultural historians and film scholars, she associates serials and comedies with the figure of the New Woman and points us to the contemporary fascination with that independent, mobile, public, and sometimes unruly figure. The social-problem film participates in related but distinct contemporary discussions that sought to specify women's social authority. For example, in their address to viewers they tested the proposition that the moral influence of the nineteenth-century middle-class woman could be extended outside the home. For Mahar, Progressive Era contests over the meanings of "women" thereby complement a flexible division of labor (inherited from the theater) in encouraging women directors. Accordingly, finance capital had a cultural collaborator in banishing the women in the form of the postwar consensus that transformed the Progressive Era's version of the New Woman into a flapper. This change established that "women" were better understood as consumers and as men's sexual playmates than as globetrotting adventurers or uncontainable comic bodies. Meanwhile, on a slightly different schedule, courts, filmmakers, and a number of institutions and pressure groups concerned with regulating cinema's effects joined forces to develop the consensus that movies should entertain rather than polemically engage social problems.
Excerpted from Universal Women by Mark Garrett Cooper Copyright © 2010 by Mark Garrett Cooper. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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