There are many myths associated with Hollywood. One that persists to the present day is the one that asserts that women contributed only marginally to the film industry during its Golden Age (the 1920s to the 1960s) and that male executives ran the show.
Viewers and critics alike often fail to notice that there are roles other than director, producer, and talent (such as screenwriters and editors), and that women in the industry have been working toward gender equality and representation since the era of classic cinema.
As J.E. Smyth, an American-born film historian and professor at Warwick University, demonstrates in her book Nobody’s Girl Friday: The Women Who Ran Hollywood (328 pgs., Oxford University Press, 2018, U.S. $29.95), the motion picture industry has a long — though underrepresented — history as a space for women’s creative labor and empowerment. (“Girl Friday” is an American term meaning helper or assistant.)
Smyth validates her assertion by first turning to the employment records listed in Film Daily, a television- and film-focused publication that for 55 years (before it closed in 1970) offered a comparatively broad overview of who worked where and in which position. “Anyone expecting lists of uniformly male names is in for a surprise,” Smyth quips.
“These women weren’t secretaries fetching coffee, transcribing Dictaphones, and fending off their boss’s wandering hands,” says Smyth. Instead, they were heading research, publicity, wardrobe, sound, and story departments, contributing to studios’ writing rooms, and founding crucial Hollywood guilds and unions, including the Screen Actors Guild and the Screen Writers Guild.
A rigorous revisionist history book, Nobody’s Girl Friday compiles the exceptional biographies of Hollywood women who balanced fame, political commitments, public service, and home life. Smyth pulls from a vast archive of documentation, including payrolls, union lists, local papers, and even phone books, to harken back to what she calls “a golden age of employment” for women.
These women “believed in equal rights, hated socially constructed gender definitions, loved their work, and recognized that men could sometimes be greater allies than other women,” and they never lost sight of “the importance of their identities as women in the workforce,” writes Smyth.
Among the scores of working women in studio-era show business, particular attention is given to silver screen luminaries, including Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn, guild leaders such as the first female Screen Writers Guild president Mary C. McCall Jr. (first elected in 1942), and the women whose professional efforts are often uncredited, undernoted, or dismissed as “women’s work.” The latter consists of the many female producers, editors, executive assistants, publicists, and costume designers working from the Great Depression up through World War II and the postwar period.
As Smyth reminds the reader, “Women fared far better as producers during the studio era,” and her chapter on film production name-checks the three most notable female writer-producers at that time, Joan Harrison, Virginia Van Upp, and Harriett Parsons, as well as Mary Pickford and Constance Bennett, who also produced.
In Smyth’s opinion, male historians and well-meaning feminist film theorists, such as Laura Mulvey, have failed these women. At best, Smyth suggests they’ve done show biz a disservice by portraying the entertainment industry as a lion’s den of men. At worst, they’ve framed the history of cinema as the prolonged objectification of women. Smyth writes, “These classic ‘professional’ studies of Hollywood would later be taught in universities as film history emerged as an academic discipline, perpetuating the belief that women had no creative role in Hollywood save acting.”
The drawn-out end of the studio system brought with it a decrease in the available positions for women. Studio downsizing occurred concurrently with several other factors, including “expensive new contracts (Olivia de Havilland’s decisive victory against Warner Bros. became law from 1944), the rise of percentage deals, government-spearheaded trust-busting initiatives (in United States v. Paramount Pictures, 1948), competition from television, independent production companies, and shifting competition in overseas markets,” lists Smyth.
Blacklisting and the testimonies given before the House Un-American Activities Committee also had an obvious effect on employment in Hollywood, but the results for women differed from those for the men of The Hollywood Ten, who were on trial. “Though Hollywood’s black- or ‘graylisted’ women didn’t go to jail, they were named and shamed in papers, called to testify, lost their jobs, and faced years of poverty and anonymity,” Smyth writes. “The male victims snagged most of the headlines.”
With all of Smyth’s claims and evidence in support of the golden representation and exemplary numbers of women in the film industry’s workforce, it seems obvious that much has been left out or neglected. “For many studio-era Hollywood women, bluntly refusing to recognize gender differences or overt misogyny in the Hollywood workplace was a way of staying true to their core beliefs in equality and their essential resilience in a system they loved,” Smyth writes. Time passing has allowed many of these old Hollywood heroines to speak out against the blatant and behind-closed-doors harassment they faced at the hands of studio moguls from MGM, Columbia, 20th Century Fox, and on. Even some of the women Smyth writes about or references, such as Shirley Temple, Claudette Colbert, and Carole Lombard, have since shared their stories.
While Hollywood is presently dealing with its deeply-rooted and crooked gender politics, which have been brought to the fore with the emergence of #MeToo and Time’s Up, two movements against sexual harassment and workplace inequality, Nobody’s Girl Friday serves as a reminder of the early days before Hollywood turned into what Smyth describes as “a bastion of male privilege.”
“There was a time when things were a bit different,” Smyth writes.
(By Luis Polanco)
Audio Version (a DV Works service)