Hollywood's Forgotten Legacy of Female Agency
By Emily Carman
In my new book Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System I argue that this presumed audience demographic created a demand for female talent that in turn enabled some business savvy actresses to bargain for lucrative contracts with the studios and to freelance and work independently in Hollywood, foreshadowing the current system for movie talent. I have complied a list of the top ten most innovative moments for female agency in Hollywood – what I call independent stardom – that resonate with contemporary industry practices and with women in Hollywood today. The actresses listed below are not in any particular order as all of the contributions are equally important, but I will start with the woman who graces the cover of my book, Carole Lombard, because, in my opinion, she was the vanguard of female independent stardom in Hollywood.
You might remember her as Clark Gable’s famous wife, or for her screwball comedies of the 1930s (in fact, the term "Screwball" comedy was coined for her after her Oscar-nominated performance in My Man Godfrey in 1936). But by 1937, Lombard was Hollywood’s most visible freelancer and Hollywood's highest paid actor, working concurrently at Paramount, Warner Bros. and for producer David O. Selznick. She chose her own roles, co-stars, directors, and even her own cinematographer to make her films. Moreover, she was a savvy businesswoman who negotiated for a cut of her films’ box office gross to supplement her salary and for the right to approve and create her publicity campaigns (which she often used to showcase her independent career). She also had plans to form an independent production company with her ex-husband and fellow actor William Powell, her agent Myron Selznick, and auteur director Ernst Lubitsch, prefiguring the now ubiquitous trend of movie stars who have their own companies to produce films. Her trendsetting career was cut short in 1942 after her death in a plane crash returning to California from a WWII bond tour.
Any discussion about women in Hollywood forging independent careers merits a mentioning of Pickford, a film pioneer in a myriad of ways. By 1916, she had the right to choose her own projects, the talent she worked with, and was the first film star to found her own production company. In 1919 she went further, co-founding the studio United Artists with fellow actors Douglas Fairbanks and Charles Chaplin and director D.W. Griffith in order to have total creative and financial control over the production and distribution of their films. In fact, Chaplin asserted that it was Pickford’s business acumen that kept the fledging company afloat in the 1920s.
Dolores del Río
Olivia de Havilland
The “It” girl icon of 1920s Hollywood is perhaps my personal favorite on this list. Her vivacious screen personality first captivated me over twenty years ago after seeing her most famous flapper films of the 1920s (Man Trap, It, and The Wild Party, which was her first sound film directed by Dorothy Arzner, the only female director in Classic Hollywood). Bow is remembered as a silent film actress, nevertheless, she made the transition to sound film and negotiated a brilliant comeback in 1933 in a lucrative deal with Fox studios. Like de Havilland, Bow felt that her former studio Paramount misused her talents and damaged her career by ruthless typecasting in sub-par films. In a two-picture Fox deal, Bow bargained for costar, director, and story approval, as well as a closed set during filming. The two films that she made, Call Her Savage and Hoop-la, finally enabled her to take ownership of her career and star persona by showcasing her acting talent alongside her sex appeal.
Lupino’s foray into independent stardom expanded to multiple roles behind the camera as the actress turned to directing, screenwriting, and producing after the conclusion of a long-term contract with Warner Bros. in the late 1940s. At Warners, the actress proclaimed that she was “a poor man’s Bette Davis,” as the studio’s best parts went to their top actress, Davis. Undaunted, Lupino negotiated for the right to do outside pictures in her contract at rival studios in the 1940s, and she even sold some screenplays on the side. In 1949, however, the actress followed the precedent established by Pickford and formed her own production company, The Filmmakers, with ex-husband producer Collier Young and writer Malvin Wald. Their mission was to produce high quality but low-cost films on unorthodox and provocative subject matter without being “preachy,” as well as to provide opportunities to cast new acting and technical talent. Between 1949 and 1954, Lupino’s company produced twelve films that tackled subjects ranging from rape and polio to unplanned pregnancy, bigamy, and more. Of these, the actress directed six, wrote four, and starred in three. Among my favorite films that she directed are Hard, Fast, and Beautiful and The Bigamist.