Before Kathryn Bigelow: Women Directors in 20th-Century Hollywood

March 8, 2010 § 2 Comments

Kathryn Bigelow & Twin Oscars/Courtesy metro.co.uk

Last night I was gratified when the most deserving of this year’s nominated films, “The Hurt Locker” won for Best Picture and Best Director. But rather than excitement, I felt relief–and annoyance that the film industry remains such an inhospitable place for women. Does anyone really believe there aren’t more qualified women directors than the handful working today? The fact is that the average municipal fire department, if only because of affirmative action, is less sexist than Hollywood. Kathryn Bigelow won big last night, but it remains to be seen whether her victory will mean anything for the rest of us.

It’s instructive to note that women directors have existed since the medium’s beginnings. The first woman to have directed a film is generally agreed to be Alice Guy-Blache, a contemporary of the Lumiere Brothers whose “La Fee Aux Choux” (“The Cabbage Fairy”–my apologies about the lack of accent marks) came out in 1896. In Hollywood, the first woman director with a substantial body of work was probably Lois Weber (1882-1939) who directed 40 films, beginning in 1908. By 1920, she had opened her own studio and headed a group of women directors. She also wrote, produced and acted in many of her films and was by far the highest paid woman director of her time.

Dorothy Arzner/Courtesy moah.org

Dorothy Arzner (b. 1897) landed her first job at Paramount in 1921 as a script girl, the traditional way for women who weren’t costumers or makeup artists to get on set. An offshoot of secretarial work, script supervision was a crucial but deadend job that never led to the director’s chair. Arzner’s way up was via editing–also a female-dominated job in early Hollywood. Her first film was the Rudolph Valentino hit “Blood and Sand,” which launched her as a successful editor at Paramount. Then in 1927, Arzner threatened to defect to Columbia unless allowed to direct.

Fortunately for Arzner, her first effort, “Fashions for Women,” was a success. She went on to direct 18 more features, becoming an independent director in the 1930s and the first woman member of the newly formed DGA in 1936. Although she stopped directing features in 1943, Arzner stayed busy: in addition to directing Army training films and commercials, she taught film at UCLA until her death in 1979.

Ida Lupino/Courtesy Wikipedia

Better known than Weber or Arzner was Ida Lupino, an actress (“High Sierra,” “The Hard Way”) who began directing features in 1949. Her films were notable for their exploration of sexuality, freedom and oppression–controversial territory for any director in the 1950s. “Outrage” (1950) was about a rape; “The Bigamist” and “The Hitch-Hiker” depicted the lives of male characters in complex and nuanced fashion.

Although Lupino’s directing career was relatively short, she stayed active as an actress, continuing to work in movies and television. But it was as a director that Lupino attained lasting fame and a posthumous following. Her films are still screened, in part because they have been championed by Martin Scorsese. He wrote of Lupino, ” Her work is resilient, with a remarkable empathy for the fragile and heartbroken.”

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Mary Desti Dempsey: Preston Sturges’s Mother of Invention

October 6, 2009 § 2 Comments

Preston Sturges, ages one to fourteen. His mother, Mary Dempsey, appears in pictures two and three.

Preston Sturges, ages one to fourteen. His mother, Mary Dempsey, appears in pictures two and three./From "Preston Sturges on Preston Sturges," Touchstone copyright 1990.

Preston Sturges was born in Chicago in 1898 to a beautiful mother (and fabulist of the first order) named Mary Dempsey and an unreliable father named Edmund Biden, which seems straightforward but wasn’t, at least to Sturges in his early years. Because his  father left the scene when he was an infant, his mother led Sturges to believe his stepfather was his biological father. She also claimed to have been 15 when Preston was born–she was actually 27–and 16 when she entered medical school, which she wasn’t, and didn’t. But those fibs were mere warm-ups for the Big Lie: deciding she was descended from Italian nobility–on the grounds that Dempsey had to be a mispronunciation of the princely “d’Este”–Mary Dempsey opened a cosmetics business in Europe called Maison d’Este. After threats of litigation from the actual d’Estes, she modified the firm’s name to Desti and used it as her middle name. Sturges summed up the situation by writing:

My mother was in no sense a liar, nor even intentionally unacquainted with the truth…as she knew it. She was, however, endowed with such a rich and powerful imagination that anything she had said three times, she believed ferverently. Often, twice was enough.

When Mary Dempsey was between marriages, she took the 2 1/2-year-old Preston to Paris, where she ostensibly planned to study theater. On her first day in town, Mary met a Mrs. Duncan whose daughter, Isadora, was a dancer. Isadora Duncan and Mary Dempsey not only became instant best friends but maintained a lifelong bond that outlasted their many relationships with men.  Though Mary soon returned to Chicago to marry Solomon Sturges, she managed to exact an agreement to live with him only half the year. The remainder of her time–which often stretched well beyond six months–would be spent in Europe,  accompanying Isadora to Bayreuth and other venues.

The result was that Preston Sturges not only spent his formative years in Europe but at one point, after being left for a long period with a French family while his mother traveled, spoke English with a French accent. After his adored stepfather divorced Mary in 1911, he spent nearly all his time in Europe. By the time his mother had married a Turk, learned a secret Ottoman skin cream formula from her new father-in-law and started Maison Desti, Preston was a full-fledged expatriate child, fluent not only in French and German but able to fend for himself during his mother’s frequent absences. The culmination of his European childhood involved running her shop in Deauville as a 15-year-old on summer vacation. When WWI broke out in August, he packed up the business and got himself to New York just ahead of the fighting. (His mother had gone to the front to volunteer as a medic, citing her non-existent Chicago medical credentials.)

Eventually mother and son were united in New York, but the pull of Europe was too strong for Mary to resist. One night in 1915 they were seeing Isadora off on a ship to Italy when she called from the deck, “Mary! If you don’t come with me, I don’t know what I’ll do!” Despite having no money and only the clothes on her back, Mary Dempsey walked up the gangplank, saying to Preston, “Do the best you can, darling. Keep things going. I’ll send you some money as soon as I can!”

Anyone familiar with Preston Sturges’ heroines can see where he got his inspiration. His movies are loaded with smart, hilarious and devious babes who bedevil the hapless and innocent men who love them. In “The Lady Eve,” Barbara Stanwyck plays a shipboard fortune hunter who snags a rich but naive heir (and snake expert) played by Henry Fonda. Madcap adventures ensue. “The Palm Beach Story” features two Mary Dempsey-like characters, the gold-digging runaway wife played by Claudette Colbert and the talkative, much-married heiress played by Mary Astor. A key scene in the movie, in which Colbert leaves the rowdy Ale and Quail Club car and returns to find that it, along with her clothes, has been left on the tracks, was taken from Sturges’s life. As a boy traveling by train through Germany, Preston and his mother had left their compartment–and all their belongings, including two dogs, some canaries and a parrot–for the dining car and come back to find it gone.  This presented a problem, not least because–like Claudette Colbert–Mary Dempsey had left her purse in the missing car. Madcap adventures ensued. Fortunately,

…everything was straightened out when we pulled into Cologne, where a soldier with a bayonet was guarding our pile of stuff, with the parrot insulting him in French.

Preston Sturges inherited not only his mother’s enthusiasm for culture and her sense of humor but her impulsive nature. Like her, he married often and sometimes suddenly, as in the case of his third marriage, which occurred during a brief separation from another woman with whom he’d spent a decade. The maternal source of his behavior seems obvious, though apparently not to him. In his memoir Preston Sturges on Preston Sturges, he wrote:

And yet, except that she chose the schools in which I was placed and made a few wise remarks which I remember with pleasure now but thought totally inconsequential at twelve, Mother had absolutely nothing to do with my development or what I grew into. Strangely, Father, though he was not my true progenitor, had very much more to do with the shaping of my character than Mother ever had.

This jaw-dropping lack of awareness didn’t serve Sturges well in his personal life. He found domestic happiness only in his fourth marriage, which lasted from his early 50s until his death at 61.  He had a talent for alienating friends and co-workers, abruptly cutting off relationships that had lasted for years. His hasty departure from Paramount, home to all his hits, was a mistake from which he never recovered. By the time he died of a heart attack in 1959, Sturges was struggling to pick up the pieces of a brief but astonishingly fertile and lucrative career. Twenty minutes before his death, he wrote:

…I have suffered so many attacks of indigestion that I am well versed in the remedy: ingest a little Maalox, lie down, stretch out, and hope to God I don’t croak.  

When Harold Lloyd Met Preston Sturges: How a Career Comeback Became a Career Ender

June 10, 2009 § 3 Comments

Preston Sturges, circa 1940. Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Preston Sturges, circa 1940. Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Preston Sturges is revered in Hollywood as the writer and director of some of the wittiest comedies ever written; in an unparalleled winning streak between 1940 and 1943, he wrote and directed eight classics, including “The Great McGinty,”  “The Lady Eve,” “The Palm Beach Story,” and “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.” Sturges was also Hollywood’s first writer-director (and later, writer-director-producer), commanding such princely sums that at his career peak he was the third-highest earner in the film industry. (More on this period, as well as his madcap European upbringing, in future installments.) 

But by the late 1940s, Sturges was in a career slump. In 1944, he had left Paramount, the studio where he had all his hits, to team up with producer Howard Hughes in order to gain Chaplin-like filmmaking autonomy. The partnership–called Cal-Pix–instead deprived Sturges of both his stock company and the studio’s vertical integration. Instead of having access to Paramount’s expert crews, Sturges now how to hire every grip and makeup person–as well as favorite actors like William Demarest, who was under contract at Paramount and would have to be “borrowed” at huge cost.  

Sturges’s volatile personality met its match–and not in a good way–with that of Howard Hughes. (More on him later, too.) Hughes, who had suffered repeated concussions in car and plane crashes, was already displaying the paranoia and obsessive-compulsive disorder that would characterize his tragic end as a Las Vegas recluse, while Sturges had a talent for alienating everyone around him–bosses, co-workers, friends, wives and lovers. By 1945, he needed a slump-buster. Enter Harold Lloyd.

Harold Lloyd didn’t need an acting  job (see below), but the idea intrigued him. He was 52 and hadn’t been in front of the camera since “Professor Beware,” in 1938, though he stayed in the public eye via radio shows and the movies he produced for RKO. A man of considerable energies, Lloyd’s hobbies ranged from 3-D photography to chess to breeding Great Danes, but they couldn’t compare to his feat of making an average of 11 films a year between 1913 and 1929.

Preston Sturges was a huge admirer of Harold Lloyd, and Lloyd’s influence can be seen in the slapstick in his films. Sturges came up with an amusing story incorporating footage from Lloyd’s film “The Freshman,” that would trace the accidental football star’s life through thirty years of non-events, until forced unemployment leads him to take his first drink. Success and adventure, including the purchase of a circus, follow.

Harold Lloyd as Harold Diddlebock

Harold Lloyd as Harold Diddlebock

“The Sin of Harold Diddlebock” was plagued with cost overruns, hiring problems and creative differences between Lloyd and Sturges. Lloyd’s comedy style was physical and Sturges’s cerebral, with slapstick used mainly as a respite from copious dialogue. When the film finally wrapped, it was $600,000 over budget and 52 days late.

After releasing “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock” to mixed reviews in only a couple of theaters, Hughes pulled the film, cut it substantially and–after buying RKO–re-released it in 1950 as “Mad Wednesday.” That version didn’t work either; moreover, it provoked Lloyd into filing a $750,000 breach of contract lawsuit against RKO for removing his above-the-title credit. Lloyd settled the suit for $30,000 and never acted again.

Sturges directed three more films, including the underrated “Unfaithfully Yours,” but all were box office bombs. He spent what was left of his career writing scripts and died broke, at 62, in 1959. His passing was sudden and occurred in New York, where he was writing a new play and an autobiography called The Events Leading Up to My Death.

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