Screenwriters Mattered, Too: Week of February 14th, 1920

One hundred years ago the week, Grace Kingsley thought that screenwriters were important enough to include in her column. Alongside news that star Anna Nilsson was to visit her parents in Stockholm in April and Universal was building a new stage, she reported the latest on two of them:

Hope Loring has been made head of the serial and western-story scenario departments of the Universal Company. She has long been a member of the staff, but has just received the promotion.

and

It was announced yesterday that Agnes Christine Johnston, writer of several famous picture plays for Mary Pickford and Charles Ray, and author of Alarm Clock Andy at Grauman’s this week, is shortly to wed Frank Dazle, son of Charles Dazle, the playwright, and himself a film writer. The wedding is to take place in June, in all probability…Miss Johnston, who is under contract to Thomas H. Ince, is at present taking a short vacation in Santa Barbara.

According to Donna Casella at the Women Film Pioneers site, women screenwriters were not unusual during the silent era. She wrote, “Women wrote both original and adapted scenarios. In addition, they contributed story ideas, served as story editors and continuity writers, and wrote titles.” Because writers didn’t always get credit, we can’t know exactly how many there were but Wendy Holliday estimated they were around 50 percent of all screenwriters.

hopeloring
Hope Loring (doesn’t everybody wear pearls and a fur when they sit down to write?)

Both Loring and Johnston had very successful careers. Hope Loring told a variety of stories about her early life, but Dave Miller tracked down her census and other official records. She was born Mary H. Hayes in Ottumwa, Iowa in January 1887. She married Robert Wetherrell, a bank employee, around 1905 and they lived in Tampa, Florida. They divorced some time in 1914-15, and it looks like she supported herself and her daughter Patricia as a dancer in New York City. She probably took the name “Hope Loring” from a popular novel of that name by Lillian Bell. Nobody has found out exactly how she got her first writing job, but in a 1919 interview with Moving Picture World she said she’d been working with Universal’s serial department for two years. She also wrote scenarios for features like A Society Sensation (1918). She went on to collaborate with her husband Louis Lighton on classics like Little Annie Rooney (1925), It (1927) and Wings (1927). Like many other female screenwriters, Loring’s career ended with the coming of sound and the increased bureaucracy in studios.

acj_photo
Agnes Christine Johnston

Agnes Christine Johnston’s wedding did take place in June, in Stony Brook, Long Island. She was born in Swissvale, Pennsylvania in 1896, and the first scenario she sold was to the Vitagraph Company in 1914. It became Tried For His Own Murder (1916). They hired her as a stenographer in 1915 and she continued to sell scenarios to them as well as the Thanhouser Company and the Pathé Exchange.

patsy
Agnes Christine Johnston, Marion Davies and King Vidor on the set of The Patsy.

She moved to California where she adapted Daddy Long Legs (1919) for Mary Pickford. Her career continued to prosper; she was most famous for her screenplays for Marion Davies, including The Patsy (1928) and Show People (1928). She was one of the few women writers who was able to continue working in the sound era, and her credits included several Andy Hardy movies as well as Black Beauty (1946). She even stayed in the industry long enough to write for television in the early fifties. In addition, she frequently contributed newspaper and magazine articles and co-wrote a Broadway play and a children’s book with her husband.

Her marriage was a success, too, lasting until Frank Dazle died in 1970. They raised three children, and she was able to balance her career and family life. In a 1928 interview she said “I think women have too much creative energy to spend it merely on housekeeping. You get neurasthenic if you have only one line.”

stranger_tally

Kingsley’s favorite film this week was a Wild West picture called The Stranger, which

assays more thrills to the square inch than we’ve had in many a day, with its hair-raining riding stunts and its scrapes. In fact, hardly ever in its history has our tame Broadway witnessed anything half so wild. The villain is one of those high-power villains to whom villianing is its own reward, the hero is the most omnipresent in screen literature, and the heroine, charmingly played by little Miss [Beatrice] Le Plante, is the most appealing and persecuted. No 2.75 per cent* thrills here!

The action centers around a young girl whose father the villain is about to railroad to the insane asylum in order to get his land. I suppose, though heaven knows there doesn’t seem to be anything about it that a rich villain, already owning a lively dance hall, could want. If you’re looking for anything high-brow in the way of a picture, don’t go to Talley’s; but if life seems dull and slow, don’t miss this show.

stranger

This now-lost film is remarkably obscure (the ad didn’t lie: it was without a known star). It was the final film of the B.S. Moss Motion Picture Corporation and the last American film of its the director, James Young Deer (he made one more in the U.K.). He’d had quite a career, overseeing nearly 150 one-reel Westerns.

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James Young Deer

Young Deer was the first Native American movie director. This was disputed in 2010, when researchers discovered that he lied about having the same Winnebago heritage as his wife, Lillian “Red Wing” St. Cyr, but Joseph A. Romeo sorted through lots of records to learn that Young Deer, born James Young Johnson, was a member of the Nanticoke Nation of Delaware (Aleiss, 2013). He might not have even known about his family history.

After an unhappy stint in the Navy, he married St. Cyr in 1906, and together they joined a Wild West vaudeville act. In 1909 Bison Films hired them as actors and technical advisors to make ‘authentic’ Western films. Then he was hired by Pathé Frères and they moved to Los Angeles in 1910. There he had three years of making well-reviewed shorts that often showed Native Americans as the heroes. This ended when he was accused of contributing to the delinquency of underage girls, and was caught up in the bribery, prostitution and blackmail trial of George Bixby. He left the country and made a few films in England. By the time he returned for the trial, the accusers had disappeared. However, his career never recovered. Nevertheless, Kingsley’s review shows that he still knew how to make an exciting film.

*She’s referring to low-alcohol beer.  In 1917, President Wilson proposed limiting the alcohol content of beer to 2.75% to try to appease prohibitionists, but it didn’t pass.

 

“And the Greatest of These Is Hope,” Moving Picture World, June 28 1919, p. 1965.

“Has Job, Three Children, Husband—Yet Writes Plays.” Los Angeles Times, February 5, 1928.

Aleiss, Angela. “Who Was the Real James Young Deer?” Bright Lights Film Journal, May 2013.

Casella, Donna. “Shaping the Craft of Screenwriting: Women Screen Writers in Silent Era Hollywood.” In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds.Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2017.

Holliday, Wendy. Hollywood’s Modern Women: Screenwriting, Work Culture, and Feminism, 1910-1940 (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1995)

 

 

 

 

 

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