Welcome back to Women of Hollywoodland, the podcast that explores the feminist dawn of Hollywood. This is episode number six we’re talking about Gentlemen Prefer Blondes author and one of the most important screenwriters of the 20th century, Anita Loos.
Anita Loos wrote over 200 screenplays during a career that spanned decades, and her stories made stars out of Douglas Fairbanks, Jean Harlow and Audrey Hepburn. As Cari Beachamp says in Anita Loos Rediscovered, “Anita began writing for the movies when they were still shown in nickelodeons and between vaudville acts; she was still working when Cinerama was introduced.”
Historian Kevin Brownlow calls her “the most celebrated of the early scenario writers” and she is credited with turning title cards into an art form, or as her biographer Gary Carey put it. “a legitimate form of screen humor”.
Until Anita Loos came along, title cards just really did the work that today would be in the slug line of a screenplay: they established that we were in so-and-so’s house and it was now night time. But Anita Loos started putting funny little asides and commentary – essentially the ancestor of dialogue.
In 1917 Griffith told Photoplay magazine: “The most important service that Anita Loos has so far rendered the screen is the elevation of the subcaption [sic], first to sanity then to dignity and brilliance combined.”
In fact in many ways, it could be argued that as a silent film screenwriter, Anita Loos was wasted, or at least ahead of her time – many of the first few stories that Biograph bought from her proved to be unfilmable because so much of the comedy and wit were in the words themselves.
Still it hardly held her back: she became the very first staff writer in Hollywood when Griffith put her on salary for the Triangle Film Corporation in 1915 for $75/a week. She was also a novelist of course, and a playwright, a columnist – and quite a complicated personality. In fact, I struggle a bit to get a handle on what she was really like.
On the one hand, she comes across like a flapper through and through. She was famed for her fashion, her glamorous lifestyle, once saying, “I’ve had my best times when trailing a Mainbocher evening gown across a sawdust floor. I’ve always love high style in low company.”
She and her husband John Emmerson once blagged their way into a suite at the Savoy which belonged to some Lord who was away in Scotland after they arrived in London without hotel reservations. Her niece Mary Anita described her arrival back in Hollywood after Gentlemen Prefer Blondes became a hit: “I will never forget how elegant she looked stepping out with all her fancy French Vuitton luggage and her fancy new husband John Emmerson. And there waiting for them was a tremendous limousine, compelte with two crystal vases for orchids at the sides of the backseats and a very elegant liveried chaffeur.”
She was friends with Dorothy Parker (and a fringe member of the famed New York ‘Round Table’), and friends too with Cecil Beaton and H L Mencken (whose penchant for “witless blondes” inspired her famous novel – more on that later).
Her obitiuary in the New York Times states: Until her eyesight and hearing began to fail last year (she died in 1981 at the age of 93), Miss Loos was an assiduous partygoer and diner-out, conspicious at fashion shows, theatrical and movie events, balls and galas. She lived on West 57th Street across from Carnegie Hall and virtually had been a New York social institution.
And yet for all that, I can’t help but thinking that she was a bit of a wee soul as well. For one thing there’s the rotten irony that the author of original gold digger Lorelai Lee was married to a freeloading jerk who threw fits of hypochondria whenever he felt that she was getting too much attention.
Then there’s the fact that her niece Mary Anita remembers her aunt admitting that when she was alone in a city she would write things like “go to library” so that she tell herself she was busy.
It almost makes me think a little bit about the famous F Scott Fitzgerald quotation that hedonism is despair turned inside out – her high fashion and living the roaring twenties lifestyle to the hilt seems to have been an attempt to outrun some kind of sadness.
She was famed for her wit on screen, and off it too, in 1916 Photoplay magazine labeled her “The Soubrette of Satire”. She described the famed Algonquin Hotel set as having ‘IQs as high as their talk was rowdy’ and once wryly described her work writing for Douglas Fairbanks as finding the widest variety of places from which her could jump.
There was a healthy dose of bitchiness in her wit too: when bored by Zelda Fitzgerald’s shocking antics at yet another wild party, Anita commented that her face was extraordinary but she really should have kept her bosom under wraps.
And yet, when Karl Brown, who worked with Anita on the Griffith lot, asked how she was “so fast on the comeback” she replied – “As long as I can hang onto my copy of Voltaire, there’s nobody going to catch me without a snappy comeback.”
Cari Beachamp’s theory is that “Her bon mots were her armour, yet by not accepting the credit for her wit, she felt safe in the knowledge that if the gag backfired, she had Voltaire to blame.” I can’t help but agree – Anita Loos seems determined to play down both her talent and her every achievement.
In fact, in many ways she seems to sum up the spirit of the twenties, and in particular the conflict between image and substance that was at the heart of the flapper generation – maybe even more so than Zelda Fitzgerald.
It’s this sort of “all that glitters is actually pretty gold but pretends not to be because that would be taking life too seriously.”
First though, let’s fill in a bit of background. Corinne Anita Loos was born on the 26th of April 1889 in Etna, in California.
She was the middle of three children, her older brother Clifford became a doctor and sadly her younger sister Gladys died of appendicitis at the age of eight. Her father was one of those dreamers whose heart was in the right place even if he verged on feckless when it came to supporting a family. They seem though to have been a fairly close family.
The family moved first to San Francisco and then San Diego as his various professions and business ventures dictated. Her dad also seems to have had a bit of an eye for the ladies. In Anita Loos Rediscovered, Cari Beachamp recounts the story of a “wistful beauty who came calling one day when Anita and her mther were home alone. The woman announced the purpose of her visit: to ask Minnie (Anita’s mother) to divorce her husband so he would be free to marry her. Minnie graciously invited the woman in for tea and calmly informed the visitor that she was hardly the first to make that reques, but since her husband had yet to ask her for a divorce, he would not be getting one.”
Anita once said that she knew she wanted to be a writer from the age of eight, and it appears that she began to make a living at it not very long afterwards. The actress Louise Brooks described her in an interview to Kevin Brownlow: “She is a brilliant woman. Do you know what she was doing when she was fifteen? She was writing three scripts a week for Griffith, she had two vaudeville acts playing in top vaudeville, and she was writing a Broadway colum for a New York paper and she had never been out of California.
At some point in her early teens, she began to be fascinated with this brand new medium of the movies. “I saw them all and it occured to me that they must need stories. So I wrote one. It was inspired by Mary Pickford. I mailed it in and it was accepted immediately. The title was The New York Hat; Mary Pickford played the lead and DW Griffith directed. I got twenty five dollars. I was twelve years old.”
Cari Beachamp points out in Without Lying Down that The New York Hat was in fact the third screenplay she sold – and a little maths tells us that if she was born in 1889, she wasn’t twelve in 1912, but Anita was often quoted as saying she would never let facts get in the way of a good story.
Either way, from around 1912 the Biograph company regularly bought film scenarios from her on a freelance basis, one source suggests that she sould around 105 over a two year period. So she was a woman with a successful career, yet one of her early films, released in 1913, was actually an anti-women’s suffrage satire called ‘A Cure for Suffragettes’ which starred Dorthy Gish. A 1919 review of it read: To a ‘regular female woman’ it will appeal as a masterpiece of anti-suffrage wit and humor. Nobody but a hide-bound suffragette in pinched shoes could possibly object to the picture.”
A couple of years later, Frank Dougherty invited her to become a staff writer for Biograph in Los Angeles, but her mother forbade her, fearing for her daughter’s reputation if she lived alone in LA at such a young age. Ever the pragmatist, Anita, in her own words, began to plot her “escape by an arcahic method that belonged back in the generatin of my poor helpless mother.” I.e. – she got married.
She later claimed that the marriage lasted just a night before she pretty much snuck out the window and headed for Hollywood, but other sources confirm that she was married for around six months before she headed for the hills.
By this point – it’s 1915 by now – Griffith had formed the Triangle Film Corporation with Thomas Ince and Mack Sennett, and he signed Anita on as a staff writer. One of her first assignments was to write the titles for his epic feature and follow up to Birth of a Nation, Intolerance. Again, we see this frustrating anti-feminism coming from a working woman. One of the most famous intertitles in Intolerance reads: When women cease to attract men, they often turn to reform as a second option.
She later said of her early years in Hollywood:
“I would sit in on set during rehersals and if one particular actor showed special talent, I could put something in for him. It was all very easy in those days. We had so much fun that I don’t really remember when the work got done.”
Quotes like that make me want to jump through time and shake her: Anita Loos got up at 5am for most of her adult life to write and famously laboured over every last word, and yet time and time again she pretended that she just dashed stories off quickly whilst thinking about something else. Dedicated writer or not, not long after Intolerance’s release, Anita became the main writer for rising star Douglas Fairbanks.
Despite apparently doing no work, she wrote five smash hits in a row for Douglas Fairbanks which solidified his reputation as a swashbuckling action star.
In 1918 she and Emmerson were offered a four picture deal by Famous-Players Lasky in New York, so they headed East. Anita was hopelessly in love with Emmerson at this point, even though he was quoted as saying that he “had never been, nor could be, faithful to any one female.” Anita consoled herself that “beauties were around every corner, but a brain that could support him was a once in a lifetime encounter.” Sigh. She and Loos married not long after their arrival in New York, and collaborated to release two of the very first movie industry how-to books, Breaking Into the Movies, published in 1919, followed by How to Write Photoplays in 1921. And it’s here that we come across another contradiction: despite her apparent subservience to Emmerson, Anita Loos did not take his name. She even joined a society that fought for women’s rights to keep their own surnames – so she will make fun of the fight for the vote and would share screen credits on films everyone knew her husband had nothing to do with, yet objected to being known as Mrs Emmerson? It’s so weird.
The Famous Players Lasky films weren’t quite the smash hits she had written on for Fairbanks back in California, and a play, The Whole Town’s Talking only seems to have been a moderate success.
Luckily then, in 1925 Anita was on a train when, according to her niece Mary Anita, she “began to think about the fact that blondes seemed to attract much more attention than brunettes. She was devoted to the witty author HL Mencken, who at the time was interested in a young blonde.
Anita suddenly realised that although this girl was her age, and although my aunt was just as pretty and a great deal smarter, somehow or other, the blonde attracted more attention and eventually ended up with more diamonds than her brunette counterparts did. In the long train hours from New York to Hollywood she wrote the nucleus of what was to be Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
Now, if you’ve only seen the 1957 film with Marilyn Monroe, I really urge you to seek out a copy of Anita’s book. The 1957 film is fun and frothy and apparently Anita quite enjoyed it, but it didn’t really grasp biting satire of the novel that truly makes it an American classic.
I would say that next to The Great Gatsby it is *the* novel the encapsulates the 1920s and it actually has a lot more bite than Fitzgerald’s worth – the joke, incidentally, isn’t on Lorelai, but on the men daft enough to let her take them for a ride.
Luckily, the inspiration for the novel HL Mencken was able to see the funny side, and announced that she was the ‘first American writer to make fun of sex.’ He encouraged her to publish it – it was first serialised in Harpers Bazaar (like a prototype Bridget Jones Diary) then as a book in 1926. On its release day, every copy was sold by noon and by the end of the year it was in its seventeenth printing.
Loos then semi retired for a few years to enjoy the spoils of her success – at least in theory, in reality she spent most of her time tending to Emmerson’s non existent illnesses at various pricey spas around Europe. In the late twenties, a doctor actually suggested that he put Emmerson under anasthetic, scratch his throat a bit then tell him he was all better – it was so bizarre, that it worked – temporarily at least.
According to Anita Loos, A Biography, in 1931, when a combination of the Depression and Emmerson’s talent for spending meant that even the profits from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes had started to run dry, Emmerson announced that “one of us will have to go to work”. Anita alone was contracted to MGM by Irving Thalberg for a staggering (bear in mind this is the height of the Depression) thousand dollars a week.
She continued to work in Hollywood for another fifteen years or so, most notably writing the classic Pre-Code smash The Red Headed Woman and The Women both for MGM. She finally divorced Emmerson in 1937, then in 1946 retired from Hollywood. She told Kevin Brownlow: “Next to DW Griffith, Thalberg was the greatest man in pictures. I was with him for eight years and when he died, I said ‘Hollywood is finished. I’m going to get out. And I did.’
She moved to New York, where she spent the rest of her life writing plays and books, and apparently had an affair with Maurice Chevalier, which frankly after 17 years of John Emmerson, I think she deserved.
But frustratlingly, her back and forths on feminism didn’t stop. In an interview given in the seventies, she said of the second wave/women’s lib movement: “They keep getting up on soapboxes and proclaiming that women are brighter than men. That’s true, but it should be kept very quiet or it ruins the whole racket.”
In From Reverence to Rape, the treatment of women in the movies, Molly Haskell doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to this deliberately non-threatening brand of feminism, saying:
“But it is precisely this kind of duplicity, the holy fallacy of women’s inferiority that current feminists – and yesteryear’s suffragettes – challenge. For the Anita Loos flapper, who wanted social and sexual, rather than political and intellectual, power, this was a gold-plated philosophy. As long as she played dumb she could stay on her pedestal.”
And I feel as though a somewhat depressing pattern is beginning to emerge. We’ve got, on the one hand, our Mabel Normands, Julia Crawford Ivers and our Lois Webers who overtly challenged comfortable notions of femininity either on or off screen or both. Their careers fell off a cliff when Hollywood started to “legitimise” itself around 1922.
On the other, we’ve got the cool girls – Mary Pickford and Anita Loos, feminists who weren’t feminists, who portrayed themselves publically as less than they were. And they got to stick around
Of course it’s not a perfect theory, Frances Marion kind of had feet in both camps, and Anita Loos’ talkie scripts certainly came up against the censors more than once. Also Carol Channing, who worked with her on the 1949 stage version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, said that Loos “didn’t waste a great deal of time focusing on whether the men were happy with her or not. She just did what she knew had to be done.”
So she wasn’t exactly a doormat, or at least not in later life. But this takes me back to where I started with this episode – Anita Loos is a bit of an enigma. I kind of go back and forth as to what extend this was playing the patriarchy’s game and winning – as opposed to simply a complicated and somewhat contradictory personality.
But maybe you’ve got a better handle on her than me – I’d love to know what you think. Come and chat on Facebook Hollywoodlandthepodcast, or feel free to drop me an email – firstname.lastname@example.org.
I really hope you enjoyed this episode on Anita Loos, and as always, any help in spreading the word about this podcast is a surefire way to find a place in my heart, whether you want it or not.
Next week, we’re going to throw a bit of a spanner into the works of any theories or patterns we might be developing, and chat about a woman who broke just about every mould going – the original Swedish siren, Greta Garbo. Thanks again, and see you next week!