Why Was Movie Business Less Sexist Back in the Griffith-Pickford Era?
In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis writes:
The industry’s silence has historically shielded the men who make movies, including the old studio bosses like Louis B. Mayer to whom Mr. Weinstein has often been nostalgically compared. In histories, these old-studio chiefs are genteelly referred to as womanizers, a polite metaphor for conduct that ranges from time on the casting couch, another odious euphemism, to what sounds a lot like prostitution. According to the historian Scott Eyman, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer — the studio that bore Mayer’s name and boasted that it had more stars than there are in heaven — had a supply “of what were known as ‘six-month-option girls’ to be passed around the executive offices.”
If this seems, well, normal it is because this tawdry glimpse into the industry — with its powerful men and passed-around girls — is deeply embedded in its history, its lore and its very identity.
And yet, if you go back before the Studio System fully emerged in Hollywood in the 1920s, you’ll see that women were more integrated into behind the scenes jobs than after the Mayers came to dominate the business. As I wrote in Taki’s Magazine in 2013:
For instance, back during the D. W. Griffith era of filmmaking, women were widely employed as screenwriters, editors, directors, and even producers. Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart,” produced her own movies from 1916 onward and became a mogul in 1919 when she, her fiancé Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Charlie Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith founded United Artists.
In the later 1920s, Gloria Swanson, backed by her boyfriend Joseph Kennedy, Sr.’s money, attempted to follow Pickford’s path into controlling her own career. But the now dominant studio system had little use for such presumption. Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard, starring Swanson as washed-up silent star Norma Desmond, reflects studio Hollywood’s view of the powerful women of the industry’s early days as uppity broads who deserved to turn into crazy old bats. In the real world, though, Swanson, an extremely enterprising woman, had found numerous ways after leaving Hollywood for New York to make money (and would continue to do so up until her death in the 1980s).
There were two main reasons for this change from the Mary Pickford Era to the studio era when ambitious women were turned into quasi-horror figures like Norma Desmond.
One involved a broad reaction among bohemians against women in power. Feminism had been in the ascendant in WASP-dominated American culture in 1910s, eventually achieving two huge nearly simultaneous triumphs: Women’s Suffrage and Prohibition.
Prohibition proved a disaster for Feminism, however, by discrediting Feminism among America’s bohemian culturati. For example, Wilfrid Sheed wrote of the mid-20th Century New Yorker:
[James] Thurber’s world cannot remotely be understood without understanding Prohibition, or the locker-room version of it: a plot brewed up by women and Protestant ministers while our soldiers were overseas, in order to end America’s men-only culture and bring the boys all the way home, not just as far as the nearest saloon.
Within the movie business itself, another reason for the swing away from feminism after WWI was the triumph of non-WASP moguls like Mayer in taking over the industry. They came from more patriarchal and ethnocentric backgrounds, and didn’t see much reason to respect shiksas. As I wrote then:
The rise of the Ellis Island immigrant populations helped delay feminism’s triumph that had once seemed imminent in WASP-dominated America. But that’s the kind of paradox likely to be met with blank stares in 2013.