- Nobody’s Girl Friday by J. E. Smyth
J. E. Smyth. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018, 328 pp.
Hollywood is not the first place that comes to mind when discussing workplace gender equity. Reeling from the emergence of all things Weinstein et al. and glaring examples of pay inequity, exemplified by Mark Wahlberg’s $1.5 million versus Michelle Williams’s $1,000 for [End Page 115] the All the Money in the World reshoots, Hollywood still manages to pat itself on the back. Nominating Rachel Morrison, Dee Rees, Mary J. Blige, and Greta Gerwig for Academy Awards does not eliminate the fact that the number of female Oscar nominees grew only slightly in non-acting categories. According to the Women’s Media Center’s sobering and oftquoted 2019 report on the status of women in media, the share of women among nominees rose slightly from 23 percent in 2018 to 25 percent in 2019, but women were shut out of nominations for cinematography, directing, editing, original score, and visual effects, so if things keep going the way they are, it will take another fifty years for women to be equally represented by the Academy. Although whether the Oscars matter outside Hollywood is arguable, the fight for women’s voices to be heard in the film industry continues the same as always—or does it? J. E. Smyth’s book, Nobody’s Girl Friday: The Women Who Ran Hollywood, provides a timely and very necessary examination of the hidden and ignored role of women behind the camera in the heyday of the studio system, from approximately 1930 to 1950. The period featured Selznick, Cohn, Mayer, Warner, and Zanuck, yes, but also Mary McCall Jr., Joan Harrison, Virginia Van Upp, Dorothy Jeakins, Ida Koverman, Margaret Booth, Anita Colby, Harriet Parsons, and Kay Brown, who, along with their better-known colleagues such as Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, and Edith Head, made up approximately 40 percent of the film industry as directors, writers, producers, editors, agents, publicists, and designers. In this volume, Smyth provides a crucial and engaging chronicle of the legacy of women in the industry and their erasure from much of Hollywood history. Time’s up!
Film history is often like the old game of Telephone. Gossip, legend, innuendo, exaggerations, and downright falsehoods have become calcified in the narrative. Hollywood is all about invention, on- and offscreen. Samuel Goldwyn was a glove salesman. L. B. Mayer dealt scrap metal. Carl Laemmle was a bookkeeper. Harry Cohn was a streetcar conductor. The dominant legends of the golden age of Hollywood have been filtered through the prism of Hollywood’s own mythology as well as the male-dominated legacy of the auteur theory. Women’s power in the film business, what there was of it, was purportedly reserved for the stars. Smyth posits that this is simply false. The studio system actually gave women much more opportunity than other industries. Smyth’s reasoning for the decline of women in film production and their subsequent disappearance from film history is the decline of the system, not the system itself. She has done an admirable and thorough job researching the sometimes spotty, often hagiographic records, correspondence, and even studio phone books to piece together a vivid history of women at work in the movies that is timelier than ever.
The book’s chapters are organized as overviews of roles women played in Hollywood history. The book wisely concentrates narrowly on the studio system. Smyth’s style, weaving together the stories of these women working in similar yet not always identical capacities for different studios, keeps with the fluid career paths in film. Director Dorothy Arzner was also an editor. Gail Patrick went from acting to executive producer of Perry Mason. Screenwriter Virginia Van Upp was elevated to producing by Harry Cohn. Smyth also gives due to executive assistants, who wielded great influence in production, development, writing, and talent management. Smyth weaves these complex histories together, success and cautionary tales alike, given that not all women landed on their feet when the studios declined. The chapters cover talent, administration, producing, writing, costume design, and editing. Smyth’s...