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Frederica Sagor Maas

Frederica Sagor MaasFrederica Sagor Maas: Silent era screenwriter dead at 111

Frederica Sagor Maas, who had a handful of screenwriting credits in the 1920s, died January 5, 2012, at a nursing facility in La Mesa, in the San Diego metropolitan area. Sagor Maas was 111. (Image: Frederica Sagor Maas ca. 1925.)

The daughter of Russian immigrants (one Jewish, one Christian), she was born Frederica Alexandrina Sagor on July 6, 1900, in New York City. As related in her autobiography, The Shocking Miss Pilgrim: A Writer in Early Hollywood, she studied journalism at Columbia University, but quit before graduation to work as an assistant story editor at Universal Pictures' New York office.

While at Universal, Sagor kept herself busy going to star-studded parties and premieres, and – according to herself – having the studio buy the rights to Rex Beach's novel The Goose Woman. The well-received 1925 movie adaptation (credited to Melville Brown) gave a solid boost to the careers of actresses Louise Dresser and Constance Bennett, and of future five-time Oscar-nominated director Clarence Brown.

Frederica Sagor, Clara Bow, and Theda Bara

Frederica Sagor left Universal when film executive Al Lichtman and future Paramount chief B.P. Schulberg founded the independent studio Preferred Pictures. At the new studio, Sagor's top assignment was to write an adaptation of Percy Marks' novel The Plastic Age. Released in 1925 as a showcase for the up-and-coming Clara Bow, the movie helped to solidify Bow's reputation as the embodiment of Jazz Age youth. On screen, Sagor shared screenwriting credit with the more experienced Eve Unsell (Lon Chaney's Shadows, Clara Bow's Wine).

Sagor would claim in her memoirs that B.P. Schulberg was not content in having her laboring away as a mere screenwriter, telling her: "I could turn you into another Theda Bara." As per her autobiography, Sagor's response was "I'm not an actress. I'm a writer."

Curiously, Theda Bara, the foremost movie vamp of the 1910s (and by 1925 a has-been), would resurface in Sagor's life once again in the near future. In The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, she talks about fending off the advances of triple-crossing director Charles Brabin – Bara's real-life husband, and, according to Sagor, the lover of her then-roommate.

Frederica Sagor at MGM

So, instead of starring in a remake of Theda Bara's old hit Cleopatra, later in 1925 Sagor found herself working as an MGM screenwriter. In her book, she talks about signing a three-year contract for $350 (approximately $4,500 today) per week "and increasing to $500 the second year." MGM files, however, show her getting paid $100 (approx. $1,300 today) a week in summer 1925.

As per the AFI catalog, Sagor's sole screen credit during her MGM stint was Robert Z. Leonard's low-budget comedy Dance Madness (1926), featuring Claire Windsor as the girl and Conrad Nagel as the guy. In her book, Sagor asserts that Dance Madness was "a big moneymaker," though in reality it earned MGM a very modest $74,000 in profits – and simply because at a cost of $125,000 it was the studio's cheapest 1926 release.

Additionally, Sagor claims that while at MGM she wrote scenarios for the Norma Shearer comedies His Secretary (1925) and The Waning Sex (1926), and began working on a treatment for what would eventually become the Clarence Brown-directed John Gilbert-Greta Garbo smash hit Flesh and the Devil (1926). Credit for those efforts, however, went elsewhere; according to Sagor, that was partly because of her naiveté, partly because of studio politics, and partly because she was a determined woman: "a troublemaker."

Referring to His Secretary, Sagor wrote:

"Adaptation and Scenario by Carey Wilson?! There it was, in black and white. By Carey Wilson – he, who had not contributed a comma, a single idea. It was mine! All mine! I could not believe it, yet there it was. ... My anguish showed.

"'If you don't see your name, Frederica,' he said, 'don't worry about it. You'll get screen credit in the end.' Oh yeah? I never did – Carey Wilson did. This was the way I was used for a series of Norma Shearer pictures. All moneymakers. I wrote every one of them, practically from scratch, and received credit for none. None. The worst part was that there wasn't a blasted thing I could do about it."

Important: Carey Wilson, whose screenwriting credits included the mammoth blockbuster Ben-Hur and the prestigious hit He Who Gets Slapped, was credited for His Secretary's "story" – or original draft. The film's actual screenplay was credited to Hope Loring and future producer Louis D. Lighton, with titles by the renowned Joseph Farnham.

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