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How Women Built Early Hollywood – And Transformed Los Angeles

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S2 E4: Dream Factory

“The world of 1916” was not just “a man’s world,” but a “business run entirely by men,” sighed actress Gloria Swanson about the career opportunities available to women the year she traded her hometown of Chicago for Los Angeles. The “flickers” – as many called the early moviemakers – had just begun migrating to the area when Swanson made her move.

In 1911, not a single foot of celluloid had been shot in Hollywood. By 1921, Los Angeles produced 85% of the movies shown in the United States and nearly two-thirds of those watched around the world. In this same decade, Los Angeles grew faster than all other cities on the Pacific Coast combined, becoming the West’s largest metropolis in 1921.

Women workers like Swanson – and the female fans who loved her – were at the center of the story of how the run-amok, déclassé, and decentralized business of making movies in America transformed into the glamorous, highly centralized, and enormous industry called “Hollywood.” And migrants like Swanson who went west to seek work in the picture business turned Los Angeles into the first boomtown heavily populated by female pioneers.

Undated photo of Gloria Swanson, courtesy of the George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).
Undated photo of Gloria Swanson, courtesy of the George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).

Swanson found work the year she arrived at Mack Sennett’s Keystone comedy studio, but she quickly feared “succeeding too well,” playing a “dumb little cutie” and “having her skirts lifted and dodging flying bricks.” So she quit Keystone in 1917 and soon after met the actress-producer Clara Kimball Young. Young had recently opened her eponymous production company. Her example led Swanson to reimagine the possibilities that this gold rush business offered an ambitious working-class white woman like herself.

“In what other business, could this delightful elegant creature be completely independent,” Swanson later marveled, not just “turning out her own pictures,” but “dealing with men as her equals, being able to use her brains as well as her beauty, having total say as to what stories she played in, who designed her clothes, and who her director and leading man would be.”

Clara Kimball Young. Photo courtesy of the California State Library.
Clara Kimball Young. Photo courtesy of the California State Library.
"Big Women of the Screen: Concerning Talents That Are Not Expressed With Long Eyelashes" from the Jan. 1922 issue of Screenland
"Big Women of the Screen: Concerning Talents That Are Not Expressed With Long Eyelashes" from the Jan. 1922 issue of Screenland. Courtesy of Shelley Stamp.

Over the next few years, so many women imitated Young that the (male) editor of the fan magazine Photoplay worried about the effect of this “‘her own company’ epidemic” on the industry’s health. In 1919, Mary Pickford – the actress, writer, producer whom Charlie Chaplin called “Bank of America’s Sweetheart” – spearheaded the most enduring example: United Artists.

The women’s rights movement was at its height (Congress finally ratified the woman suffrage amendment the next year) and the press fixated on women breaking old barriers. But the vast majority of women wage earners still labored in sex-segregated occupations – as domestics, in manufacturing, or agriculture – that permitted no opportunity to rise. A close-up on the professional terrain of motion pictures in this period feels like falling down a rabbit hole with Alice into another world. In these years, women outnumbered men as stars; they also wrote, publicized, directed, edited, and produced films in numbers unequaled until the 1980s – or beyond.

Mary Pickford. Photo courtesy of the California State Library.
Mary Pickford. Photo courtesy of the California State Library.
Postcard of the entrance to the Pickford studios, circa 1920s, courtesy of the California State Library.
Postcard of the entrance to the Pickford studios, circa 1920s, courtesy of the California State Library.

Women journalists did the most to help Americans imagine this New West. In “Breaking into the Movies” (1927), publicist Virginia Morris explained how the industry’s preoccupation with attracting female fans – the first movie audience was primarily composed of working-class immigrant men – had turned publicity writing into a field wide open to both sexes. By the time Morris wrote, things had changed so much that she confidently asserted that since “the large majority of film audiences consisted of women” eager to know about “the feminine star,” producers decided “that the woman picture patron could be most easily reached by information written from the feminine angle.”

The strategy of using women writers was just one of many tactics – including theater promotions offering child care and beauty products, talent contests promising to help hopefuls find work, and film stories about the dashing exploits of serial-queens like Pearl White – that worked a magic on the film audience. By 1914, publicity departments advised theater owners that women and girls were the principal readers of moving picture news. By 1922, Photoplay estimated that women made up 75 percent of movie fans.

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Like all good mythmakers, writers shaped their tales as much to fit the perceived needs of readers as the facts; like western myths more generally, they blended wish fulfillment and social reflection. Journalists downplayed some aspects of women’s accomplishments, such as their managerial roles, while they exaggerated others, such as the frequency with which extras became stars.

But, as women writers explained to women readers how ordinary women workers became extraordinary personalities in the picture business, they reinforced the impression that Hollywood supported women’s desires for professional advancement as a sex.

No single person publicized these liberating possibilities like journalist Louella Parsons. A divorce sent Parsons to Chicago in 1912, where she worked as a secretary until Essanay Film Company held a contest offering cash prizes for promising “scenarios” (short plot summaries that served as early movie scripts). She landed the job and two years later turned her “inside knowledge” of Essanay into a qualification to write a newspaper column focused on the industry’s personalities. By 1916 Parsons was a nationally syndicated daily columnist who specialized in spinning romantic stories about women’s professional opportunities out west.

Louella Parsons. Photo courtesy of the Photo Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
Louella Parsons. Photo courtesy of the Photo Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

A piece about a screenwriter’s move from New York to Los Angeles marshaled Horace Greeley’s old idea for new ends. “When Horace Greeley penned those immortal words, ‘Go West, Young Man,’ he failed to reckon with the feminine contingent,” Parsons observed, excusing, “That of course was before the days of feminism.” “In the good old days when Horace philosophized over the possibilities in the golden west he thought the only interest the fair sex could have…was to go as a helpmate to man.” But “in the present day, if milady goes west she travels not to sew on buttons or do the family washing, she goeth to make her own fortune.”

And so the hopeful responded, traveling westward as before. By the time Parsons urged her readers to follow Greeley’s advice, Los Angeles had become the first boomtown in which women outnumbered men.

The city’s female residents were unusual in other ways: Nearly one in five was divorced or widowed. Since single women typically worked outside the home much more than their married counterparts, which helps to explain what one demographer called the most noteworthy characteristic of the Los Angeles labor force: the high number of women who worked after the age of 25.

These gender dynamics were sharply at odds with other western boomtowns. Young single men swarmed cities and towns along the northern Pacific Coast to work in sex-restricted occupations like railroad construction, mining, and lumber, creating an urban version of the hyper-virile, ethnically polyglot masculine culture associated with the Wild West. But Los Angeles’ economic base in real estate, tourism, and motion pictures created the kinds of jobs that attracted women. In all these ways, Los Angeles better reflected the direction of 20th-century urban development than Chicago or New York – and it all began with the promises that motion pictures offered to women like Swanson and Parsons for something more.

Further Reading

  • Cari Beauchamp, Without Lying Down (Berkeley, 1997).
  • Mark Garrett Cooper, Universal Women (Urbana, Ill., 2010).
  • Hilary A. Hallett, Go West, Young Woman! The Rise of Early Hollywood (Berkeley, 2013).
  • Karen Ward Mahar, Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood (Baltimore, 2006).
  • Shelley Stamp, Movie-Struck Girls (Princeton, 2000).
  • Melvyn Stokes and Richard Maltby, eds., Identifying Hollywood’s Audiences (London, 1999).

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