The World O' Crap Archive

Welcome to the Collected World O' Crap, a comprehensive library of posts from the original Salon Blog, and our successor site, (2006 to 2010).

Current posts can be found here.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Dude Ranch Looks Like A Lady

I’m probably not qualified to blog against sexism, as witnessed by the fact that I only just noticed that it’s Blog Against Sexism Day.  But I think I can get a post in just under the wire, by virtue of the fact that I live on the west coast, and it’s not even 10:00 PM here yet, and because I’m a man, and everybody knows we’re natural procrastinators and are used to cutting us some slack.

Anyway, by a strange coincidence, I was corresponding today with Dan Domike, proprietor of Jackson Street Books, who has been kind enough to stock copies of Better Living Through Bad Movies, and he casually mentioned his own familial connection to the dream factory:
I grew up in LA, mostly in the Valley before it was the Valley (moved there in 1959) and had lots of ranches and fruit groves. Didn’t get to Hollywood alot, unless to see a movie or visit my older cousin (technically my first cousin thrice removed) who did female leads before talkies and ended up doing screenplays for Republic. She lived in a residential hotel on Highland. Great gal.
Even more strangely, I was talking to Mary last night about just how few women screenwriters I bump into in the course of daily business.  And how it only recently dawned on me what a peculiar state of affairs this is, given that the dramatis personae of your typical pitch meeting (at least, in my limited experience) invariably comprises one or two male writers peddling their wares to a phalanx of female development executives.  And yet, in the early years of the motion picture business, when roles were far more fluid, women screenwriters and even directors were surprisingly common:
Before the film industry became a big business, women were involved in nearly every aspect of production. Writer Lizzie Francke has quoted screenwriter Beulah Marie Dix (1898-1973) on this point: “It was all very informal, in those early days. There were no unions. Anybody on the set did anything he or she was called upon to do. I’ve walked on as an extra, I’ve tended lights (I’ve never shifted scenery) and anybody not doing anything else wrote down the director’s notes on the script . . . I also spent a good deal of time in the cutting room.” As Francke remarked, “In such a relatively egalitarian atmosphere women seemed destined to become equal partners with men in this new industry.” The Library holds films created by many of these pioneering filmmakers, including works by Gene Gauntier (1891-1966), Helen Gardner (1885-1968), Mabel Normand (1894-1930), Cleo Madison (1883-1964), Grace Cunard (1893-1967), Julia Crawford Ivers (d. 1930), Ruth Ann Baldwin, and Dorothy Davenport Reid (1895-1977).
The first person believed to have directed a narrative film is Alice Guy (later known as Guy-Blaché, 1873-1968). In 1896, Guy was secretary to Léon Gaumont, whose French photography company was expanding to include the sale of a motion picture camera. Guy asked permission to make a story film to demonstrate the new device. Gaumont agreed, but only if the project did not interfere with her secretarial duties. Within a year, Guy was head of Gaumont film production; and by the time of her emigration to the United States in 1907, she had produced (often directing) about 400 short films.
In America, she formed her own film studio, Solax (1910-14), where, as president and chief director, she supervised the production of more than 300 movies. In 1913, Guy concentrated on making longer films, eventually directing 22 feature films. 
Before embarking on a film career, Lois Weber (1882?-1939) had already toured as a child prodigy concert pianist, worked as a missionary in Pittsburgh, and appeared on the stage. In 1908, she joined the Gaumont studio in New York City, where she wrote, directed, and acted in motion pictures. Weber eventually moved to Hollywood, where she became Universal Studio’s highest-paid director in 1916. In 1917, she formed her own production company and continued to make films that reflected her moral stand on important social issues. She had addressed birth control and abortion in Where Are My Children? (1916), capital punishment in The People vs. Joe Doe (1916), and drug addiction in Hop, the Devil’s Brew (1916).
In recent years, some of these forgotten female artists have begun to emerge from obscurity.  A documentary entitled Without Lying Down, adapted from the biography by Cari Beauchamp recounts the life and career of Frances Marion, who was the go-to scribe for Mary Pickford, another woman who towered over the formative years of the film industry:
From 1915 to 1939, Frances Marion was one of the most powerful talents in the movie industry, writing more than 200 movies as the world’s highest paid screenwriter, man or woman, and becoming the first screenwriter to win two Oscars. Moguls competed for her stories, and stars like Pickford, Garbo, and Gable brought her characters to life in classics like “The Champ,” “Poor Little Rich Girl,” “Anna Christie,” “Camille,” and more.
June Mathis, like Dan’s cousin, began her career as an actress, before becoming one of the most influential women in Hollywood.  Famous in the 1920s as the only female executive at MGM, she’s best remembered today as the woman who discovered Rudolph Valentino, and wrote the picture, Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, that made him a star.

I asked Dan for a little more information about the family scribe, and he wrote back:
Her name was Betty Burbridge, or Elizabeth Burbridge. She was my grandmother’s first cousin, and about the same age. She was more like a granny to us than a cousin. She never married. She is listed for both screen appearances and screenplays at IMDB. She did a number of the Three Meesketeer films. She always told me that the films were not particularyl good, but, hey, it was the Depression and it was a living.
According to the IMDB, which is far from flawless or exhaustive, Cousin Betty’s acting career stretched from Slim Turns the Tables in 1913 (one of at least 9 Slim Films) to Charity? in 1916 (although there’s evidence she may have appeared on Broadway in 1919, co-starring in a comedy called Five O’Clock that ran for 41 performances at the Fulton — later the Helen Hayes Theatre).  It appears that Betty embarked on her career as a scenarist the following year, since her first recorded writing gig is a story credit on the 1917 picture, The Brand of Hate.

One of the most remarkable things about Betty is that she specialized almost exclusively in that most masculine of genres, the western.  As Dan mentioned, she scripted a number of the Three Mesquiteers pictures in the late 30s that starred John Wayne, Ray “Crash” Corrigan, and Raymond Hatton, as well as several entries in the Cisco Kid series.  And she wrote a staggering number of of Gene Autry’s films, beginning with Melody Trail in 1935, and continuing right through to her final credit, a 1952 episode of the Gene Autry television program.

Like most writers who toiled on the studio lots, from the opulence of MGM to the Poverty Row squalor of Republic Pictures, Elizabeth Burbridge was an invisible part of the machine, and we don’t have any glamour shots, press releases, or scandalous gossip column clippings to help to reconstruct her life.  But judging by her resume (which includes only those films for which she received screen credit — there’s really no telling how many scripts she may have worked on for a week here or a few days there) she was a creative force behind over a hundred motion pictures, stretching from the days of silent two-reelers cranked out in Nickleodeons to the dawn of television.  And there’s a good chance that at some point, most of us have unknowingly experienced her work, if only a few minutes of Springtime in the Rockies (original screenplay by Betty Burbridge) drowsily viewed at three in the morning on TCM.

Not exactly an Ozymandias-sized footprint, but enough to say, Look on my works, ye mighty/And crack a smile.

When I told Dan I wanted to write something about his cousin, he sent me a few more remembrances:
Funny thing about Cousin Betty was that we called her Tommie, her family name. The story is that her father wanted a boy, she disappointed in being a girl, but was called by family members all her life, Tommie. Betty was her professional name.
My grandmother, years ago, was vacationing in Mexico, (this would have been in the late sixties) when she saw John Wayne at a restaurant, having dinner with his wife. My grannie introuduced herself to the Duke, saying “You wouldn’t remember me, we met at a party years ago, but you would remember my cousin, Betty Burbridge”. And of course he did remember and was very gracious to my grandmother and asked her to say hello to my cousin. He may have been an old fascist, but I will think well of him because of his courtesy.
Very interesting post, Scott. I hour procrastination is forgiven on points.
And in English, that last line is “I hope your procrastination….”
I take contractions to the extreme.
So. Fucking. Jealous.
Not just of the careers and the women highlighted here, but of the article/post itself.
And sooooo proud that I went to film school. In Louisiana. Three screenplays and not a whit of progress from any of ‘em. Whadda shock, eh.
Well-done tribute, Scott. Very thoughtful, very interesting, and an enjoyable read.
Dan & Tammy get more interesting every day, don’t they?
(And hell yes, I’m jealous of the bookstores, too.)
Well, I’m not jealous of any of these women, because they’re all, you know, dead
Woo hoo! I didn’t think I could pan any sparkly, sparkly nuggets of snark outta that post, but I did it!!1! Huzzah!!
And, honestly, those women’s lives were far more exciting (mostly in good ways) than mine could ever be, and had the bonus of being pioneering, too.
The rather large numbers of female producers today traces from a second wave of women who came to prominence in the ’70s and ’80s, like the late Deborah Hill, many of them currently in television. Go ladies!
I love stories like these, mainly because I’m a movie geek. Procrastination is to be forgiven; you can’t rush quality.

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