The Time Mary Pickford Started a Film Studio

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Credit: When Women Inspire

Mary Pickford was an actress who is synonymous with silent film and early Hollywood. In 1919, she formed the film studio United Artists alongside other screen legends of the day; Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith. Chaplin had become famous playing the Tramp in comedies and was known internationally. Fairbanks was one of the most sought after male leads of his era and known for doing his own, dangerous stunts. At the time, he was also married to Pickford. Griffith was one of the first great directors. He popularised many common camera techniques and angles that, as a modern audience, we take for granted today. One of the first close-up shots in a Hollywood film featured Pickford in Friends (1912).

Pickford had been acting in plays since an early age to support her family. Her mother, sister and brother – Charlotte, Lottie and Jack – were all vaudeville actors too. Pickford’s father died when she was young. The family never stayed in the same place for long as they went where the work was. They saved what money they could and clocked up many miles on the road.

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Credit: The Photo-Play Journal

In 1909, when times were especially hard, Pickford went to the least respected place an actor could go – a film studio. The motion picture camera was invented in the later half of the 19th century and the technology was seen as a novelty. No respected Broadway actress, like Pickford, would ever sink so low. But with only the clothes she had on to her name, Pickford walked through the doors of the Biograph Company. She was noticed by Griffith, who called her fat and little. But her determination stood out and he began casting her in many films. Pickford was now making $10 a day. (No figures in this article have been adjusted for inflation.) Within a few short years, Pickford had become a household name and one of the first international movie stars. The media adopted many nicknames for her: “Queen of the Movies”, “The Girl with the Golden Curls” and “America’s Sweetheart,” even though she was Canadian. Her salary increased with her popularity. By the mid-1910s, she was making tens of thousands of dollars a week, something unheard of for a woman at the time.

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Credit: Heavy

The American film industry was expanding at an unprecedented rate. In the ten years Pickford had appeared on screen, movie production had become big business and was now taken seriously. The storytelling had found its own unique style and feature films were becoming the standard. Audiences had developed a hunger and couldn’t get enough of their favourite actors, especially Pickford. Some elite executives and producers felt that the stars had too much power and demanded ludicrously high salaries. Tension was ensuing throughout Hollywood.

Hearing whispers of a new company forming that would effectively block actor’s creativity and stagnate salaries, Pickford, Chaplin, Fairbanks and Griffith began talking amongst themselves. They were also joined by Western movie star William S. Hart. Their first act was to hire two private investigators to look into the rumours. The investigators were known as Operator 5 and Operator 8.

The Operators uncovered evidence of a conspiracy. The movie stars had an emergency meeting. It was decided they would start their own production company that would better serve their needs. The group called a press conference and announced they had banded together to form United Artists. The contracts were signed and United Artists officially began business on February 5, 1919. Hart dropped out in favour of a better business venture.

Pickford, Chaplin, Fairbanks and Griffith all invested their own money to start United Artists. Each owned 20% of the studio with the remaining 20% being controlled by lawyers. United Artists was unlike any other production company of the time. Where a traditional production company handles all stages of movie making – from script writing to filming to release – United Artists was solely designed as a distribution company. This meant that it only circulated films to theatre chains, both nationally and internationally. In theory, United Artists guaranteed greater profit returns for the actors. Pickford, Chaplin, Fairbanks and Griffith already had their own units for the writing, filming and editing processes. At its height, United Artists was the largest independent film production company in the world.

The 1920s was a very successful decade. Pickford’s first release was Pollyanna in 1920. It grossed over $1.1 million. This was followed with other hits – such as Griffith’s Way Down East starring Lillian Gish – and countless awards. Pickford herself won the 1930 Best Actress Academy Award for her role in Coquette. She was the second woman in history to win the award.

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Credit: The Internet Movie Database

Griffith left United Artists in 1924. Fairbanks and Pickford’s marriage fell apart and, sadly, he died of a heart attack in 1939. He was 56-years-old. Pickford retired from acting in the early 1930s, but continued to produce films up until 1949. Chaplin sold his United Artists shares in 1955, with Pickford doing the same the following year.

United Artists is still around today. The studio has made many notable films throughout the years. Some include: Secrets (1933), Of Mice and Men (1939), The Great Dictator (1941), High Noon (1952), 12 Angry Men (1957), West Side Story (1961), It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and Rocky (1976). New films are in development.

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Credit: Library of Congress

This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on April 19th, 2017. (http://thesydneyfeminists.blogspot.com.au)

Sources:

Dream factory (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2008/feb/23/film)

Film History: How Mary Pickford Helped Create United Artists (https://whenwomeninspire.com/2014/09/25/film-history-how-mary-pickford-helped-create-united-artists/)

Mary Pickford Chronology (http://marypickford.org/home/mary-pickford-chronology/)

Star Power: The Creation of United Artists (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ri0ln17jaD4)

“The Lot” (http://www.cobbles.com/simpp_archive/ua-studio-lot.htm)

United Artists – The Boutique (http://www.filmreference.com/encyclopedia/Romantic-Comedy-Yugoslavia/United-Artists-THE-BOUTIQUE.html)

The Life of a Disney Inker and Painter

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Credit: Playbuzz

The alarm clock sounded and she stirred in bed. It was 4:30am and too early to get up. She felt like her head had only hit the pillow a moment ago. She couldn’t remember what day of the week it was; the days were blurring into one continuous shift. She and other women, of the Disney ink and paint departments, had been working double shifts to get the celluloid prints for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs finished in time for its premier. She reluctantly placed one foot out of bed and onto the cold surface below. She got up and raced to get ready before her mind had time to catch up, and complain about the sudden exertion. After leaving her apartment eating the last remnants of a quick breakfast, she shivered waiting for the bus. It was still early, but she fretted because anything could still happen to make her late. After hours of zigzagging on public transport, she had made it to the studio. She was just in time for the 9:00am start. Managers rhythmically walked back and forth, taking notes, of inker and painters who were not yet at their desks. Anyone late would be docked pay for every minute they were not working. She let out a sigh of relief; she had made it, again. She reached over and picked up one of her many pencils and began another very busy, but satisfactory, day.

Nearing the end of Snow White’s production in 1937, the ink and paint departments were made up of 100 hardworking and dedicated women. The last couple of months saw them sitting at their desks for an 85-hour working week. Many of them fell asleep where they sat but never complained about the long hours. Many of the inkers and painters became lifelong friends.

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Credit: Matterhorn

Both of the departments were responsible for the celluloids, or cells, for a Disney feature. The inkers would sketch the outlines of characters and environments. Once this was done, the cells were passed onto the painters who would add colour. Walt Disney was a perfectionist and some iconic characters were quite complicated. Pinocchio’s Jiminy Cricket alone was made up of 27 different colours. A relatively new process at the time, celluloid backgrounds could be made of up to six layers before they appeared on screen. The women had to work fast. Inkers had to be accurate and make sure no lines smudged. Painters had only moments to work as the paint dried quickly. To make the process even harder, two women were left handed and had to learn everything backwards. The paint was expensive and made in house in the studio lab. One production day would, usually, add up to approximately one minute of screen time. Each woman averaged between eight and ten cells an hour. Productivity was closely monitored and the inkers and painters refrained from talking while they worked.

Walt Disney only wanted the best and many of the inkers and painters were recruited right out of elite art schools, such as the California Institute of Technology. The average age was 25. Hiring was a rigorous process. Out of an initial group of 60, only three were employed. In fact, one of the three dropped out early on as well.

The male animators joked and laughed as they didn’t consider inking and painting artistic. The women were only expanding on earlier creative content that the men had already designed and fleshed out.  In 1941, top animators made $300 a week while the average inker and painter made only $18 a week. Many of the women, such as painter June Walker Patterson, could barely pay the rent. Inkers and painters were only allowed in the animation department “with good reason”. Disney initially shyed away from having female animators.

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Credit: CBR

There were a handful of women who made the transition to animation, but they were rare. The common belief was that Disney felt women would soon be leaving to get married and start families. It took ten years of study to become an animator, while only four years to become an inker or painter. Training new animators was a costly endeavour. When World War II broke out, a number of the male animators were drafted. During this period, Walt Disney gave women a chance to make the move across to the animation department. Male animators returned to their former positions when they came back from the war. The women either went back to the ink and paint departments or left Disney all together.

In May 1941, a large group of the women went on a 14-week strike to campaign for better working conditions. The event gained sympathy from other Hollywood animation studios, such as Warner Bros., with a number of them offering support. The strike resulted in an increase in pay. Some women also received screen credits, recognising their contributions to films that are now considered Disney classics.

As time went on, technology advanced. Handmade Ink and paint work began to be replaced by the photocopier and Disney downsized. Some of the women would return to animation production in the 1960s. Their families were all grown up when they went to work part time for Hanna-Barbera Productions. The studio responsible for TV cartoons such as The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, The Jetsons and Scooby-Doo. The environment was laid back and, unlike Disney, they could take their work home. Even after all these years, they were still surrounded by good friends and felt passionate about their work.

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Credit: Matterhorn

This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on March 22nd, 2017. (http://thesydneyfeminists.blogspot.com.au)

Sources:

Coloring The Kingdom (http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2010/03/disney-animation-girls-201003)

Look Closer: Women in the Ink and Paint Department (http://waltdisney.org/blog/look-closer-women-disney-ink-and-paint-department)

Movie Legends Revealed | Did Disney Really Not Allow Women Animators? (http://www.cbr.com/movie-legends-revealed-did-disney-really-not-allow-women-animators/)

The Unsung Heroine Animators of Disney’s Golden Age

In 1937 Walt Disney Animation Studios released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The film was a commercial success with ground breaking visuals. It was the world’s first feature-length animation with over 1.5 million hand drawn cells being used for its production. With a number of timeless classics following in only a few short years (Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi), the studio quickly obtained a reputation for pioneering innovation. Like Walt Disney himself, the studio’s Nine Old Men animators (as they were affectionately known in later years) had reached a level of celebrity and praise for their work. Little was publicly known about the handful of women that had made the transition from the ink and paint departments to join the male animators. They worked for less money and, in many cases, didn’t even receive a credit on the final film to acknowledge their contributions. Though the records are scarce, there are four female animators who standout: Bianca Majolie, Sylvia Moberly-Holland, Retta Scott and Mary Blair.

Bianca Majolie

Bianca Majolie
Credit: The Mary Sue

A chance encounter in 1934 would change Majolie’s life. While out for lunch, Walt Disney happened to see her work. Impressed with her artistic talent, Disney hired her on the spot. Majolie was the first female employee for the studio’s story department.

Learning of the lead, journalists from the Hollywood Citizen News approached Disney to write a feature article on Majolie. It was published without any mention of Majolie’s name. She jokingly wrote “Who is she?” on the copy of the article that was passed around the office.

Majolie is probably best remembered for the Silly Symphony’s 1936 short “Elmer Elephant”. While the rest of her male counterparts were busily coming up with the newest gag, Majolie was crafting a tender-hearted story about an elephant who was bullied about his looks. Many historians consider the animation a precursor to Dumbo. Two of the Nine Old Men, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, admired Majolie’s contributions and, in their 1987 book Too Funny for Words: Disney’s Greatest Sight Gags, wrote the following about her: “We could not have made any of the feature films without learning this important lesson: Pathos gives comedy the heart and warmth that keeps it from becoming brittle.” She also worked on early versions of Fantasia’s “Nutcracker” scene, Cinderella and Peter Pan.

Majolie was fired in 1940. Her work was passed to Sylvia Moberly-Holland.

Sylvia Moberly-Holland

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Credit: The Mary Sue

Sylvia Moberly-Holland saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs during its first theatrical run and was mesmerised by what she saw. In that moment, she made up her mind that she would work for Walt Disney Studios. Her dream was realised in 1938 when she became the second woman in Disney’s history to join the story department.

Not only was she an accomplished artist, but Moberly-Holland was a talented musician. This came in handy when she began work on The Concert Feature, that would later be renamed Fantasia. Moberly-Holland contributed many story elements and character designs to Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony”, “Waltz of the Flowers” and “Nutcracker Suite” scenes in the film.

She was also assigned to story lead on the Fairy sequence. A number of male animators left the team because they couldn’t handle being subordinate to a woman or for homophobic reasons. This was due to the nature of the sequence involving fairies and the jokes that were spreading around the studio. Despite these setbacks, Moberly-Holland and her team created some of the most memorable and beautiful imagery of the entire film. This was the closest a woman would come to directing a Disney feature until 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph.

When World War II ended in 1945, Moberly-Holland was dismissed from Disney. She passed away in 1974.

Retta Scott

Retta Scott
Credit: D23

Retta Scott enjoyed art from an early age. After completing High School, she studied it at the California Institute of Technology. She regularly attended the nearby Griffith Park Zoo where she would draw and sketch animals in her spare time.

Many male animators were drafted during World War II. In 1942 Walt Disney made it possible for a woman to be trained up as an animator to fill the empty spots. Scott was Disney’s first fully fledged female animator. She worked on Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi.

Her raw skill caught the eyes of Walt Disney and Bambi director David Hand. Scott was responsible for the ferocious dogs who chased Faline through the forest. The men couldn’t believe that such a petite, bubbly woman had created something so terrifying.

In 1942 Scott moved to the Ink and Paint department. The studio was suffering financially and had to downsize. Scott stayed with Disney until 1946 when she moved across America to be with her naval officer husband (though she did continue as a freelancer with Disney for a number of years afterwards). Her most well-known work during this period was her illustration contributions to the Big Golden Book of Cinderella and Cinderella Puppet Show books.

Scott was the first ever woman to have a Disney screen credit. She passed away on August 26th, 1990, and, ten years later, was inducted as a Disney Legend.

Mary Blair

Mary Blair
Credit: The Walt Disney Family Museum

Not only an iconic Disney animator, but Mary Blair is regarded as one of the most influential artists in the history of American animation. Her unique style and attention to detail set the Disney standard for many years after her departure from the studio.

Like Retta Scott, Blair studied art at the California Institute of Art before joining Walt Disney Studios in 1940 as a concept artist. She worked on The Three Caballeros, Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland. Fellow animator, Frank Thomas, noted how she used multiple shades of red together – something you don’t do – and made it work. Walt Disney regarded her as one of his all-time favourite Disney artists.

After the production of Peter Pan wrapped in 1953, Blair resigned from Disney. Around this period, she dealt with personal demons such as alcoholism. She continued working as an artist before returning to Disney to work on the It’s a Small World attraction at Disneyworld. The majority of her concepts and illustrations would be used in the final aesthetic of the ride. It’s a Small World opened in 1966 and still runs today.

In July 1978, Blair died from a cerebral haemorrhage. She received a Disney Legend Award posthumously in 1991. Google honoured her with a caricature logo in 2011 for her birthday.

These women achieved so much in their careers. Their legacy has opened up opportunities for many women in animation. As role models, they will continue to inspire and influence generations to come.

This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on February 14th, 2017. (http://thesydneyfeminists.blogspot.com.au)

Sources:

D23 – Retta Scott (https://d23.com/walt-disney-legend/retta-scott/)

A History of Women in Animation: Mothers of a Medium (http://www.themarysue.com/history-women-in-animation/)

Look Closer: Women in the Disney Ink and Paint Department (http://waltdisney.org/blog/look-closer-women-disney-ink-and-paint-department)

Magic of Mary Blair – About Mary (http://www.magicofmaryblair.com/about-mary.htm)

Not just Ink and Paint Girls. Women pioneers in the Golden Age of American Animation

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8S289zZJzTI&t=326s)

Worth as Much as a Man: Cracking the Celluloid Ceiling (http://waltdisney.org/blog/worth-much-man-cracking-celluloid-ceiling)

D. C. Fontana: The Woman Behind Star Trek

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Credit: StarTrek.com

A television series is only as good as its creative team. Star Trek is no exception. For 50 years now the franchise has been a cultural phenomenon, pulling in new fans with each new incarnation. The original series (1966-1969) pioneered many things and seriously went where no TV series, of the time, had gone before. It presented a unique view of the future where humanity had put their differences aside and explored the galaxy peacefully in starships. Our hero ship, the USS Enterprise, was led by Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) with Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Doctor McCoy (DeForest Kelley) not too far behind. A big behind the scenes imprint came from writer D. C. Fontana. Not only did she write some of the most notable episodes, but she held a position very few women had in the male-dominated era of 1960s Hollywood.

Dorothy Catherine Fontana was born in Sussex, New Jersey, on the 25th of March, 1939. From an early age, Fontana had a great love for reading and writing. She would read whatever she could get her hands on and write short stories and plays, acting them out with friends. Her other great love was the western film genre. This love would go on to play a significant part in her writing style and television career, where she wrote for many series such as The Tall Man, Frontier Circus, The Road West and The Big Valley.

After completing a degree at Fairleigh Dickinson University, majoring in Executive Secretarial, Fontana moved to New York City where she became a junior secretary for the president of a television studio. Her position at Screen Gems didn’t last long as the president fell ill and passed away. With no job waiting, Fontana moved back home. She then tried her luck in Los Angels. She landed employment in the typing pool at Revue Studios. Along with a group of other secretaries, Fontana typed up documents for producer Samuel A. Peeples.

One day Fontana tried her luck pitching a story idea to Peeples. This was her first sell; she was 21-years-old. As time went on, Fontana continued her secretarial responsibilities during the day and wrote at night. She was dedicated making sure neither affected the other. Fontana followed Peeples to the production of The Lieutenant. Here she met Gene Roddenberry for the first time. When filming was wrapping up – The Lieutenant wouldn’t be returning for a second season – Roddenberry slid a document across a desk towards Fontana. He asked her what she thought. The document was the original network pitch for Star Trek.

Around the time she started on Star Trek, Fontana had some stories knocked back from other television series due to gender bias. Male producers rejected her proposals when seeing a woman’s name on the document. She changed her screen credit from “Dorothy C. Fontana” to “D. C. Fontana”. From then on when she met producers for the first time, they were surprised to find a woman behind the script. Many got over the initial shock as they only wanted a good story for their show.

While submitting pitches to other shows (she was quite successful), Fontana focused the majority of her attention on Star Trek. She was still a secretary when Gene Roddenberry asked her to write an episode. “Charlie X” was the second episode of the show to air on television. Fontana penned many notable episodes such as “Tomorrow is Yesterday”, “This Side of Paradise” and “Journey to Babel”. Roddenberry noticed Fontana had a unique understanding of Star Trek and promoted her to story editor. She juggled the responsibilities of the position while still writing episodes. It was extremely rare for a woman to hold such a title as story editor in the mid-60s. Fontana fleshed out much of the Vulcan race’s history and added a lot to Mr. Spock’s background.

Fontana left the production of Star Trek towards the end of the second season. She would write two episodes, including “The Enterprise Incident”, as a freelancer for the third season. Fontana felt she had done all she could on Star Trek and wanted to explore other writing opportunities in Hollywood.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Fontana wrote for shows such as Bonanza, The Six Million Dollar Man, Logan’s Run, Dallas and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. She contributed one episode to the short lived Star Trek animated series, “Yesteryear”. Fontana also started getting further involved with the American Writer’s Guild. She and others felt there was hardly any female representation in the industry and formed the women’s committee. At the time the guild was made up of 90% men and 10% women. Fontana would serve as a board member for the Guild in the late 1980s.

Gene Roddenberry approached Fontana for the production of Star Trek: The Next Generation in the late 1980s. She co-wrote the pilot, “Encounter at Far Point,” with Roddenberry and, again, served as story editor for the show. She pitched a number of ideas and wrote a few episodes for the first season. Fontana and other Star Trek production veterans left the show early on due to conflicts with Roddenberry. Fontana’s Star Trek days weren’t over just yet. The episode “Dax” was written for the first season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in 1993. Fontana also wrote three episodes for Babylon 5, another sci-fi series set on a space station.

Since 1998 Fontana has been teaching screenwriting at the American Film Institute. She gives this advice to aspiring writers: “…you can listen to experts tell you how to do it…but you have to write. You have to put the words on the page. You’re the one who has to tell the story”.

Fontana retired from professional screenwriting in 2009. She continues to teach and attends the occasional Star Trek convention.

This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on January 13th, 2017. (http://thesydneyfeminists.blogspot.com.au)

Sources:

D.C. Fontana – IMDb (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0284894)

D.C. Fontana – Memory Alpha (http://memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/D.C._Fontana)

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Dorothy Fontana, Part 1 (http://www.startrek.com/article/exclusive-interview-dorothy-fontana-part-1)

Star Trek Fontana, Dorothy (D.C.) (http://www.startrek.com/database_article/fontana)

Writer Speaks: D.C. Fontana, The (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCSp8TnnbNU)

Lights, Camera, Action…

Hello and welcome to Film Niche!

A website dedicated to the history of cinema, both past and present. The articles will focus mainly on movies but will delve into television from time to time.

If you have a topic you’d like explored, please feel free to send me an email.

All the best and have a great day.

Matt.

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Credit: Photo Collection – Los Angeles Public Library