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Women Screenwriters in Old Hollywood: Discrimination?

Norma Shearer Women Screenwriters
Norma Shearer in ‘His Secretary’: Women Screenwriters in Old Hollywood

Women screenwriters kept busy during silent era

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Frederica Sagor Maas, who had a handful of screenwriting credits in the 1920s, died Jan. 5 at a nursing facility in La Mesa, in the San Diego metropolitan area. Sagor Maas was 111.

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.

Frederica Sagor Maas’ various tales about misogyny and discrimination in the American film industry have been taken as the absolute truth by the politically correct crowd. The way Hollywood men treated Sagor and/or other women – plagiarism, prostitution, abuse of power, etc. – have served as proof of how intelligent, driven females suffered in the hands of ruthless, sex-crazed male animals.

Now, whether or not Sagor’s Hollywood Babylon-like stories bear any resemblance to what actually happened at studio parties and private soirees, I can’t tell. But on the professional side, one problem with the information found in The Shocking Miss Pilgrim is that studios invariably used numerous writers, whether male or female, in their projects. Usually, in those pre-Writers Guild days, only two or three contributors, regardless of gender, received on-screen credit. And that was chiefly because the final product oftentimes had little – if anything – in common with the earlier drafts.

While doing research for my Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise, I went through various screenplay drafts, written by various hands, of his movies. A Certain Young Man, for instance, went through so many changes (including director, cast, and title), that the final film had almost nothing in common with the original project. Every contributor had something to say, something to change. That was normal procedure, which makes Frederica Sagor’s His Secretary story – “All mine!” – sound quite odd.

In fact, in her book Sagor herself says that Dance Madness had been initially written by the eventually uncredited Alice D.G. Miller. However unfair, that was how the pre-WGA-arbitration studio system worked – though, obviously, that doesn’t mean studio politics played no role in who would get credited for what.

Women screenwriters in 1920s Hollywood: Discrimination?

Also worth noting is that among those receiving final credit in MGM productions of the 1920s were the following women screenwriters: Bess Meredyth (Ben-Hur, A Woman of Affairs), Lenore J. Coffee (Desert Nights), Adela Rogers St. Johns (Lady of the Night, Pretty Ladies), Dorothy Farnum (The Temptress, The Pagan), Josephine Lovett (Our Dancing Daughters, Our Modern Maidens), Ruth Cummings (The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, Quality Street), Lorna Moon (Upstage, Mr. Wu), Irving G. Thalberg’s sister Sylvia Thalberg (Lovers?, Untamed), and – the studio’s most important screenwriter at the dawn of the sound era – Frances Marion (The Scarlet Letter, The Wind).

As for Alice D.G. Miller, her work on Dance Madness may have gone unacknowledged, but she did get credit for efforts such as the Mae Murray star vehicle Valencia and the John Gilbert and Jeanne Eagels pairing Man, Woman and Sin.

At other studios, women screenwriters were also thriving: At Paramount, His Secretary co-scenarist Hope Loring kept herself busy, receiving credit for, among others, the seminal Clara Bow star vehicle It and for the very first Best Picture (or Best Production) Academy Award winner, the war drama Wings. Also, Loring and Louise Long were two of the screenwriters credited on Interference, Paramount’s first all-talkie.

At Paramount and elsewhere, director George Fitzmaurice collaborator Ouida Bergère was writing major star vehicles for Barbara La Marr (The Eternal City), Pola Negri (The Cheat, Bella Donna), and Betty Compson and Bert Lytell (To Have and to Hold). Director William C. de Mille collaborator Clara Beranger, for her part, was penning prestigious screenplays for top Paramount star Wallace Reid (Clarence), in addition to Irene Rich (Craig’s Wife), Lois Wilson (Miss Lulu Bett), Richard Dix (Men and Women), and John Barrymore (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). At Warner Bros., Maude Fulton’s credits included the intertitles for Ernst Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan and the John Barrymore / Mary Astor pairing Don Juan, the studio’s first movie with a synchronized score.

Women screenwriters, in fact, were getting credited for movies of all types and budgets, from historical spectacles like Ben-Hur, Hollywood’s most expensive production until Gone with the Wind, to star vehicles for the likes of the aforementioned Ramon Novarro, John Gilbert, Clara Bow, John Barrymore, and Mae Murray, in addition to – at MGM alone – Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, Lillian Gish, Alice Terry, Joan Crawford, Marion Davies, and Lon Chaney. The politically correct crowd’s claim that women in those days were relegated to writing solely fluffy material is both ludicrous and ignorant.

I should add that in mid-1926 Dorothy Farnum and Joseph Farnham were MGM’s highest-paid screenwriters, each earning $1,000 a week. (Future Oscar winner Farnham specialized in the art of title writing.) Circa 1930, Frances Marion was reportedly the top-paid screenwriter in Hollywood.

Elsewhere, there were female directors (Lois Weber, Dorothy Arzner, Dorothy Davenport), a top-level producer-screenwriter (June Mathis), and even a studio co-owner (Mary Pickford, one of the four founders of United Artists).

Frederica Sagor and MGM part ways

According to The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, after a disagreement with MGM executive Harry Rapf and fellow The Waning Sex screenwriter F. Hugh Herbert, Frederica Sagor left MGM. In her book, she says she was eventually credited for her work on The Waning Sex. Her name, however, is not included in the AFI file for the film.

Sagor would later receive credit for two movies made at the independent Tiffany Productions: That Model from Paris (1926), featuring former top star Bert Lytell, by then reduced to leads in low-budget fare, and minor leading lady Marceline Day; and The First Night (1927), with Lytell and another minor leading lady, Dorothy Devore.

Plagiarism consequences in Hollywood? ‘The Way of All Flesh’ story

Frederica Sagor also received story credit for two additional 1927 releases: Paramount’s campus comedy-drama Rolled Stockings and Fox’s romantic comedy Silk Legs. The former is one more Jazz Age tale, directed by Richard Rosson and featuring Louise Brooks as the object of desire of brothers James Hall and Richard Arlen. Directed by Arthur Rosson (Richard’s brother), the latter features Hall and popular leading lady Madge Bellamy as two bickering lingerie salespeople who fall in love.

Sagor’s reported final Hollywood screenwriting credit was for the minor 1928 slapstick comedy The Farmer’s Daughter, directed by Arthur Rosson at Fox. Marjorie Beebe, previously featured in several comedy shorts, had the title role (no relation to Loretta Young’s 1947 Oscar-winning Congresswoman-to-be). In her book, Sagor claims she was paid $750 a week (approx. $9,700 today) to write the story for this low-budget programmer – which she hated – about rural lovers and piles of manure.

The previous year, Sagor had married screenwriter Ernest Maas, who has two listed screenwriting credits on the IMDb: the minor dramas Uncle Sam of Freedom Ridge (1920) and The Country Beyond (1926). In her autobiography, she states that Maas held an executive post at Fox, and that the couple wrote a story named Beefsteak Joe, inspired by the life of Maas’ father. But their tale, Sagor adds in her book, was misappropriated by Paramount and released as The Way of All Flesh (no connection to the Samuel Butler novel of the same name).

Plagiarism and ‘The Way of All Flesh’

Directed by Gone with the Wind‘s Victor Fleming, the now-lost 1927 melodrama – Madame X meets Stella Dallas in male form – earned Emil Jannings the first Best Actor Academy Award (also for The Last Command). (Don’t believe the b.s. about Rin Tin Tin being the first Best Actor Academy Award winner.) Novelist and screenwriter Perley Poore Sheehan was credited for the story; Lajos Biró and Jules Furthman for the adaptation; and Julian Johnson for the titles.

Of note: Perley Poore Sheehan was a well-known author at the time. As pointed out by Simon Louvish in Cecil B. DeMille: A Life in Art, Paramount’s The Way of All Flesh shared a number of key elements – reversal of fortune, change of identity, loss of family – with Cecil B. DeMille’s 1918 melodrama The Whispering Chorus, itself based on a story by Sheehan serialized that same year. Paramount (via Famous Players-Lasky) had acquired that property, which could well explain both Sheehan’s “story” credit on The Way of All Flesh and the film’s actual origins.

In any case, according to Sagor’s book, the Maas couple opted to drop the matter for fear that they would be blacklisted in Hollywood. Yet, their careers went quickly downhill all the same. In the ensuing years, money became scarce and Sagor would later write that the couple got close to committing suicide. She added that years later they were investigated by the FBI because of their liberal politics.

In the late ’40s, Frederica Sagor and Ernest Maas received screen credit one last time for the story Miss Pilgrim’s Progress, which was made into the 1947 Betty Grable movie The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, directed by George Seaton.

Finally giving up on Hollywood, Sagor became an insurance broker in the 1950s, while Maas worked as a story editor. He died of Parkinson’s disease at the age of 94 in 1986. Sagor’s autobiography The Shocking Miss Pilgrim: A Writer in Early Hollywood was published in 1999.

Hollywood gossip and sex tales

In her book, Frederica Sagor mostly reminisces about 1920s Hollywood. With just about everyone from that era already dead by the time The Shocking Miss Pilgrim came out, her stories have been generally accepted and disseminated as unquestionable fact.

Besides the account of how the ruthlessly misogynistic studio system crushed her – and later, her husband’s – professional dreams, Sagor’s book also offers tidbits about MGM’s second-in-command Irving G. Thalberg as a “mama’s boy” who took part in orgies, popular actor Norman Kerry as too drunk to be functional on the set of his films, top MGM screenwriter Carey Wilson as an unscrupulous backstabber, Jazz Age star Clara Bow dancing naked on a tabletop at a “wild party,” and directors Marshall Neilan and Edmund Goulding enjoying a healthy “bacchanal” every now and then.

Perhaps it’s all true. But as mentioned above, it’s good to remember that those people had all been dead for decades. They couldn’t tell their version of the story.

Sagor told back in 1999:

“I know I’ve been hard on the motion picture industry [in The Shocking Miss Pilgrim]. The facts and the stories I tell – about the plagiarism and the way I was handled and the way other writers were handled – are true. If anybody wants to take offense at the fact that I tell the truth and I’m writing this book … I can get my payback now. I’m alive and thriving and, well, you SOBs are all below, because I’ve lived to 99.”

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Betty -

It does seem that Ms. Maas has an axe to grind doesn’t it? As Andre so thoughtfully pointed out, there were many women writers who shared or didn’t get screen credit because many writers would have their hand in one script. It was just the ways things were in those days, especially in the days before unions.

I won’t repeat the famous women writers here as Andre has done it in the above article, enough to say that I too have doubts about Ms. Mass’ memory on how she precevied them and how things really were. As for the stories on the personal life she said it best.

… I can get my payback now. I’m alive and thriving and, well, you SOBs are all below, because I’ve lived to 99.” With “payback” being the operative word.

Betty -

I am sure that this woman had a lot of information to share but as we know, auto-biographers only share what they want you to know.

She was pretty enough to have been in movies. Thanks (as ususal) for an interesting article Andre.

janet Atkinson -

I met Alice Miller in 1969 when I had a shop, Jan Irene Imports near the Motion Picture Home. We had many visits together and eventually, I have included her in one of my chapters for a forthcoming book: Mind Song.

Evelyn -

Mr. Soares,

I wish you’d had a chance to know Frederica. You couldn’t have helped but find her to be the delightful, funny, generous-of-spirit person she was. You would have seen the passion, directness and honesty that ended her career. She had a laser-like perceptiveness that recognized and relayed the truth, spot-on. She may have been rightfully bitter about being man-handled, but far beyond that she made a happy life for herself and those of us fortunate to have loved her.

If you doubt sexism limits women in Hollywood (and everywhere else) just attend any premiere to see us ignoring the chill in sleeveless gowns and the pain of 5-inch heels, because that is expected, no required, to succeed in film. Kathryn Bigelow couldn’t have won that first directing Oscar for a female (more than a century after film-making began!) based on talent alone. She had to be “hot” too. Women of color have told me that gender poses more barriers to them than race. I hope that you, Mr. Soares, do not hold some bitterness towards women.

It’s a pity you’ll never get to know Freddie. I feel so lucky that I did.


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