Here I am again, talking about one of my very favourite subjects: women in silent cinema.
In fact, let’s get right into it – on Monday 30 May I am delivering an online lecture on the very subject. It is called “The Women Who Built Hollywood: A Feminist History of Early Cinema” and I would love you to join me. Here’s the official blurb from the website.
Today it looks like Hollywood is run by men, but it was built by women. In fact, there were more women working in Hollywood in its first two decades than there are now, or have been at any time since. If Hollywood is ever to achieve gender parity in its studios and boardrooms, it should look back to its beginnings.
Anita Loos’s family pronounced their name Lohse, but as an adult she got tired of correcting people and opted for something a little more “Loose”. It suited this true original to reinvent her own name, especially as even that sounded like a good joke. Loos was one of the greatest wits of the 20th century, who wrote one of the best modern American novels, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – but her career kept coming back to the cinema. It’s where she started. She wrote movies – in several different ways – and she wrote some of the best books about Hollywood too. She helped the cinema grow up and she exposed many of the industry’s foibles as well. Her jokes travelled so far that even if you don’t think you know her work, you may well have been laughing at her best gags for years.
A seriously petite brunette, Loos was born in Mount Shastam California in, whisper it, 1888. She didn’t like that fact to get around and so she lied ferociously about her age, with the vanity of a movie star. Unfortunately for her, films have dates on, so to make the timeline fit, Loos claimed to have been in her early teens when she started writing movies, and thus in her own twenties during the Jazz Age. No. She was more like 24 when she started out, and while she remains one of the greatest chroniclers of the Roaring Twenties, she herself was in her 30s and 40s at the time. That’s a grand age for a wit, actually: old enough to make fun of the naivety of youth, and young enough to be aghast at the staidness of the older generation.
Loos had four main topics: sex, fashion, gossip and men. She wrote about what interested her. She was a fashion plate, a storyteller and she loved men, even though they consistently disappointed her. She was briefly married in her youth, which was a juvenile mistake – he was skint and boring – and simply her ruse to leave home. In 1919, however, she married writer-director John Emerson and she stayed married to him until he died in 1956. She was besotted with him at first, but he soon let her down, reinforcing her opinion that sex was some sort of absurd cosmic joke played on unsuspecting mortals.
They worked together, which is to say, as she recalled it, she worked while he lay in bed watching her. “I had set my sights on a man of brains, to whom I could look up,” she later said, “but what a terrible let down it would be to find out that I was smarter than he was.” He was a philanderer, a malingerer and took most of the credit and at least half the money for their collaborations. Sam Goldwyn said “Emerson was one of those guys that lived by the sweat of his frau” and Loos’s friend Charles Lederer called him “Sweet Mister E of Life”. One time, it seems, he tried to strangle her. But he did not write Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, so we won’t mention him again unless we absolutely have to. Continue reading Anita Loos: silent era ‘soubrette of satire’→
This episode of the Sound Barrier features two druggy and slightly dim detectives. We’re talking about Julian Barratt’s absurdly funny TV spoof Mindhorn and the cult favourite that is The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916), starring Douglas Fairbanks as sleuth Coke Ennyday. We talk about outrageous accents, preposterous plasticine, obscene graffiti and excessive amounts of cocaine.
The Silent London Podcast is also available on iTunes and Stitcher. If you like what you hear, please subscribe and leave a rating or review too. The podcast is presented in association with SOAS radio by Peter Baran and Pamela Hutchinson.
If you want to get in touch with us about anything you hear on the podcast then you can post a comment below, or tweet @silentlondon.
The next episode of Sound Barrier will appear in a fortnight’s time. We’ll announce the films for the next podcast about a week before it launches, so you can watch what we’re watching.
Silent London in no way, not even with a wink, endorses the consumption of illegal narcotics. We prefer the consumption of Class-A silent movies.
It’s quite old, and very short, but The New York Hat (DW Griffith, 1912) is one of my favourite films, and I’d really like to explain why. As with Shoes (Lois Weber, 1916), this film looks at the lives of women and their finances through the lens of consumerism, but the ramifications run deeper than the shop window.
The first reason that I love The New York Hat is that it is an early woman’s picture and I mean that in a fully feminist sense. Today we talk a lot about the Bechdel Test, which is basically a test to ascertain whether the women in a film are fully realised characters and not just appendages to the blokes. To pass the Bechdel Test, two named female characters have to have a conversation with each other about something that isn’t a man. Sounds simple. In the field, films that pass this test are rarer than hen’s teeth. It’s really hard to map the Bechdel test back on to silent films in the first place, and so many modern films fail it that you have to assume that older ones will struggle.
However, The New York Hat passes not just the letter but the spirit of the Bechdel test with flying colours, because its narrative is driven entirely by what women want, by what women understand about the world and the values that women have. We have the mother who wants the best for her daughter, the “bits of finery” that she craves, and the daughter who wants to grow up. Then we have some more women, the gossips, who create a conflict for her.
We have two male characters: the father is a no-good man who doesn’t really understand or care about women, and the minister who is a very good man, but also fails to understand women and their world.
The second reason that I love The New York Hat is that even though it was made in 1912, it is like a glimpse at the future, at Hollywood in the height of the 20s. If you are interested in the history of silent cinema then this film is going to give you a real kick because everyone is in it. If The New York Hat were a pop band it would be a rock supergroup. The scenario for The New York hat was written by Anita Loos, who would go on to have a fabulous Hollywood career, writing films and intertitles and also the hilarious novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The New York Hat is pure Loos – it’s very sharp on the way that women interact with each other and it also contains two of her favourite hobbies: fashion and gossip. When the lead character wears her new hat, the gap between the impression she thinks she is making and the one she really is, is a bitterly dark example of Loos’s vicious humour. It’s also a very poignant moment – and those mixed emotions are part of the magic of this enduring film.