Anita Loos (1888-1981) made a name for herself at a time when most of her fellow screenwriters were toiling in anonymity and few women were part of the workforce. She started writing scripts for D.W. Griffith in the early silent era and continued to work well after sound films became the standard.
She also wrote plays, and her novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925) created an international sensation. It inspired not one but two films, the second of which practically immortalized Marilyn Monroe.
While Loos' name is easy to find in some dictionaries and encyclopedias, her actual legacy and her personal life are harder to determine. She cultivated a devil-may-care image that was at odds with her working techniques and private difficulties. She also left behind an enormous collection of screenplays, short stories and one act plays that have never seen the light of day.
Loos' niece, Mary Anita Loos's (who is also a prominent writer) has unearthed volumes of her aunt's writings and has teamed up with Without Lying Down author Cari Beauchamp to edit and annotate Anita Loos Rediscovered: Film Treatments and Fiction by Anita Loos. Beauchamp is no stranger to Loo's life and work because, Frances Marion (the subject of Beauchamp's previous book) was a close fiend of Anita Loos. Contacted at her home in Los Angeles, Beauchamp explains why Loos' work is still vital and entertaining and why her legacy is so important.
Dan Lybarger: What excites me as a film geek is that the book features scripts from the Silent Era, which have not been available previously.
Cari Beauchamp: They are difficult to find, and even when you find them, they're certainly not published. It's very rare that they're published. I know how surprised I was even as a film historian to actually read the full silent scripts and realize how incredibly extensive they were. That's what I like about the book, too.
The first set (in the book), which is literally these two-page little stories, which aren't not scripts at all. And yet they were perfect for Griffith because that's what he did. He didn't use scripts. He used stories and then was truly able to control the direction.
But then as we move on, even in the late teens, I've been able to read scripts, for instance, like Poor Little Rich Girl and scripts for the Mary Pickford films, which surprised me were 50 to 60 pages long. It was very surprising, like a Scarlet Letter, of course, which was a revelation to me because it was not just a script as we would think, with many more stage directions than anything we would dare see today. A screenwriter wouldn't dare put in "close-up midrange shot" and literally do a very ornate set decoration. In the script "camera cuts to close-up of church bells tolling," telling folks not only the director how to do their job, but the editor as well.
Screenwriters today have been humbled over the years. They wouldn't dare put things like that in (laughs). Or they certainly wouldn't bother because they know they'd be changed.
One of the things just like that in terms of and what you see in Anita's and other people's of that time, the writer would go write the script, and at M-G-M in the early 30s, it was the writer and (M-G-M production chief Irving) Thalberg. If the writer was a respected enough, Thalberg would call in the writer, and they would cast the film. This was certainly true of Anita and Frances Marion. They would cast to the film, and then and only then would the director be assigned. That was certainly true with Thalberg until his death in 1936..
Of course it wasn't until Thalberg died that the producer got credits. But even then the producers had much more power than the directors. And they would try to follow in Thalberg's footsteps of doing the same thing of having their writer turn in the script and then the cast and then pulling in the director. Because (the director) was who was available on Monday. It was very much a staple.
DL: You can't totally dismiss the auteur theory, though. Look at Hitchcock.
CB: Remember when that came in. We're talking (Andrew) Sarris, and we're talking at first about people who are talking about European directors. We're looking at late '50s early '60s for the auteur theory. That's part of the roller-coaster for how filmmaking has changed of the years. The director as a power doesn't come in until the early '60s. And then it comes to full crescendo to a fault in the '70s. Yes, there was Hitchcock and Lean, but those were the exceptions.
DL: How did you get the project with this new book started?
CB: In the course of writing Without Lying Down, I was able to meet Mary Anita Loos, Anita's niece, and sole heir. I originally went to her because I knew that Anita had left occasional datebooks and things. And she and Frances wrote some movies together. They wrote a play together. They were friends from 1917 on for 50 years. I knew if Mary Anita had any papers, she was then in her early 80s and remembered Frances, so I went to find her and spent hours going through papers, and we became very friendly.
And when I had finally finished my research, Mary Anita finally said to me, “Oh, by the way, maybe you could help me. I have some more papers. They don’t have anything to do with Frances.” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Anita left me boxes and boxes of her material that I’ve never really been through and maybe you can help me figure out what they are and when they were done, etc.”
So I made arrangements to go back to visit, and we spent the day going through these boxes of manuscripts, many of which were just a couple of pages. Many of which were fully written out plays. And then there were one-act plays, and there were magazine articles. It was an absolute treasure trove of material. So I ended up changing my schedule and spending a week going through all of this with her and ascertaining that some of these were absolute gems and that we would try to see the light of day with it.
At the time it just seemed very natural to go to California UC Press because I knew they would appreciate what it was. I wouldn’t have to deal with agents or proposals or anything like that. I could simply tell them that we have all these papers by Anita Loos that have never been published before. And they knew who Anita Loos was and would appreciate what we were doing with it. So that’s pretty much what happened.
DL: (The one-act play) It Pays to Advertise had me rolling.
CB: Isn’t that divine? It was things like that when I was reading (the material) for the first time. I was just gasping and laughing. I was drawn to it for many reasons. One of which I had been irked a bit by Anita for presenting herself as this “devil-may-care” person who was “I’d do this stuff even if they didn’t pay me for it.” “All I do is just dash this stuff off.” I always somehow knew this wasn’t true. It was truly affirmed to me when I saw the multiple numbers of drafts in some of these boxes. The way she would go back and rewrite.
On one page, there would be a pencil (mark) and two colored pens. She had agonized over every word she was using. It was important to me to be able to present this and show the incredible care she put into her writing. Some of the things that never did see the light of day were real gems, and some were multiple variations of them. We went through them all and sorted them out and sorted them out again.
The other thing to me was that (the selections) not just that they be particularly delightful representations of her writing but they expand (over) 50 years of her writing so they could show the way the styles had changed, the way she changed. There’s some dramas in there. There’s some personal character portraits. The variety of types of writing she did.
DL: Her later stuff seems even more cynical than the early stuff.
CB: So much of what she was writing about relationships she was either figuring out her own relationships, or if she couldn’t get the upper hand in real life, she could get it in her writing and in her characters.
DL: Like the Clark Gable character that Jeanette McDonald subdued in San Francisco.
CB: Exactly. Or if she cared too much in private life, in her writing she could pretend that she didn’t care.
DL: As a guy, I’d have to say her presentation of men has a different tone than I…
CB: Oh, jeez. When you take it to a certain peak, she is beyond cynical. I mean she says that all men are pimps one way or the other. All they do is use us, and yet she doesn’t have that much of a higher regard in her writing for women than she does for men.
DL: The one that really stuck with me was It Pays to Advertise. I love how the husband in it is absolutely worthless.
CB: He’s barely a straight man (laughs). It makes Dinner at Eight look like straight melodrama (both laugh).
DL: I also liked her short story about the fellow with the philosophical pretensions who thinks his romance is going to be a passing thing (The Heart That Has Truly Loved). She gave it a twist ending you couldn’t get away with in a movie.
CB: She loved writing on occasion things that were blatantly unfilmmable. Or like The Moving Pictures of Blinkville, she could just make fun of it all (the film business). And it was as much therapy for herself as anything else.
DL: She has story about a clique of Hollywood women, and you wonder who’s she really talking about, especially one character who has this almost insane attraction toward her dog.
CB: It’s the great old line. “Everything is material.” And she was surrounded at the studio by those kind of women: the starlets and the people who were so desperate to get on the screen. That was the raison d’etre to just to be there no matter what in. No matter how.
He tongue is so often in her cheek. It’s as if she’s trying to pull something off or get her little jabs in one way or another. She was obviously too clever for her own good sometimes, obviously.
DL: Was it difficult to write about a subject her who wasn’t always forthcoming about her own history?
CB: Oh, no, by that time I had access (to the manuscripts). It’s frustrating in a way, but you see I had her own notes about what had really happened. I had her notes to herself about a particularly miserable New Year’s Eve when (her husband John) Emerson goes off with somebody else. And of course, (there were) people like Mary Anita, who had seen her in the throes of these depressions. So when you go back and read A Girl Like I she presents herself as this “devil-may-care” gamine who could care less about anything. You know it’s a balance in between. I’m sure there are times when she really felt that.
And yet there’s so many other things about her. I love that she’s this tiny little thing, who’s always at the height of fashion, who was so careful about those things that. You just don’t have 4’ 11” size three. She does all that, cares about her hair. She goes off to the spa, weighs 106 (pounds) and freaks out because she’s so “obese.” She cares deeply about how she presented herself. I find that, knowing everything else about her, very endearing. If that was somebody else, I would find it boring; I would find it superficial if that was all they cared about. But with Anita, it becomes very endearing.
DL: But she had plenty of reason to be cynical about men.
CB: But she always set herself up for being in control and then blame herself for being in control. Remember, one of the attractions about Anita to me is that she’s very much a modern day woman, and we have to remember when she was living at a time when these things were not accepted or even expected of women. Her desire for freedom, her desire for work, he friendships with other women is another thing I find wonderful and fascinating. For as much care as she put into herself, she had her criteria for women is that they didn’t take themselves too seriously.
I love that she adored Marion Davies and that she couldn’t stand Mary Pickford. One of her best friends, of course, was Paulette Goddard, who was just this screen goddess. She was absolutely gorgeous. As long as you were smart and funny. I know women to this day who won't be friends with women who are that much more attractive than they are. They're just intimidated by another woman's good looks. And Anita never was. In some ways, she would have little respect for her own sex, and in other ways she adored them and just reveled them. She certainly loved her friendships. They were very important to her.
DL: In many ways, you're continuing the work you have done in Without Lying Down.
CB: Yeah, we're just looking at it in a different way, looking at a different person. But I was fortunate enough to have had that background and all that research already done. And my knowledge of these people, whom I affectionately call "my dead girlfriends" because I've spent so much time with them myself (laughs), perhaps in a perverse little way.
DL: Without the publication of Without Lying Down, it's doubtful The American Heritage Dictionary would have an entry for Frances Marion.
CB: The ripple effect of that book has been so fabulous on two levels: One is I can't believe how many people I continue to hear from who never knew these women once walked the earth. But also what it means to them today. I meet women who say I'll never feel alone again knowing that this many women (were involved in filmmaking). Behind me at my desk, I mean when I start going "Oh, my God, what I am doing writing-wise, etc?" I turn around and I have portraits of June Mathis, Frances Marion and Anita Loos behind me. I just look and go "whoa, of course, I can do it." It's great knowing what those women give other women is quite wonderful. And, of course, that could happen, and I wouldn't know about it. The fact that I hear about it makes it all the richer.
DL: You didn't go over this in the book, but it might be interesting to compare Clair Booth Luce's play of The Women to Anita Loos' script.
CB: It is really just fascinating, and I am just perverse enough to have sat with Claire's play in my lap and watched the movie. And then of course had the play and the (film) script next to each other. Everybody has to have a hobby (chuckles). I know that's weird. I've done it, and it made me appreciate Anita's skill all the more.
Claire's play is downright bitchy, without as much of the humor. The women come off as just a little more stereotyped.
Anita's main charge wasn't to change the play at all. Her main charge was to get it past the censors. Many of the changes were the double entendres, so she was the perfect choice. By 1939, Harlow, had since passed on by this time, but (Anita) had written six films for Harlow, who was the 30's queen of the double entendres.
DL: "Can you see through this dress?"
CB: Exactly. Is that just not divine? "Thanks. Then, I'll take it." Anita adored "Baby" as they all called her and really appreciated her and appreciated her skill. And appreciated the fact that Jean was "I'll laugh with them. They're not going to laugh at me, cause I'm laughing with them."
One of the films that's good like that is Bombshell, where she literally makes fun of the characters that some people perceive her to be. (Anita) really loved Jean and loved writing for her. That was a really great match, Anita and Harlow.
Harlow wasn't used in that way. Anita hated couldn't stand and just hated the way she thought that (Harlow) was being used by her mother and stepfather.
DL: I interviewed a screenwriter named Irving Brecher (Meet Me in St. Louis), who liked Anita had worked with producer Hunt Stromberg (The Women), and he praised Stromberg to the skies.
CB: I mentioned in one of my essays that she adored Hunt as much as anybody after Thalberg. She and certainly most of the women writers worshiped Thalberg in large part because they felt respected by him in a way they didn't by other people there. They felt that even when he didn't agree with them, he listened to them first. That was unfortunately a rarity.
He loved, as she affectionately called him, "Stromby." He was without a doubt their best producer. I did love putting in the stuff about (producer) Bernie Hyman and (his) always changing his mind. How frustrating that must have been. Can you imagine if you were Anita, and here she's been writing movies for over 25 years, and the producer she's been working with turns to the secretary and says, "Wait a minute. What do you think of the script?" Anita just died, and rightly so. That was the bottom line. That's why she left Hollywood. It was just too insulting.
DL: She and Frances Marion left around the same time.
CB: They became script doctors. That was it.
DL: It was a shame because these two women really built the industry.
CB: And they didn't even need that acknowledgement, but they did need their work respected, and they didn't feel they had that. They felt used because their scripts weren't wanted. They were just there to doctor everybody else's, and after having had the power they had had, i.e. the incredible power to cast films, not just write original stories or adaptations, to pick the director of the film and to be on the set of their movie. It was considered to be their movie. To then be put in a writers room and produce nine pages a day or whatever it was or not to produce anything but to read these other things and see if you can punch it up. Here's Anita who's done all this stuff punching up the third Thin Man. This was not good. They weren't paid as much was they had been, so they left at slightly different times and in slightly different ways, but they both left the business.
Anita loved being a New Yorker, when she moved to New York, and her first play was Happy Birthday with Helen Hayes, which was a huge success, so she arrived as a successful playwright, and she loved that role. By then Emerson was in the sanitarium, and she was her own person with her own life. She had her own apartment across the street from Carnegie Hall and stayed there for 40 years. Thank you very much and established a very nice life for herself.
DL: It was very unusual for a screenwriter to be as public as Anita Loos was.
CB: It amazed me going through Photoplays (of the 1920s), and the trades of the days mentioned them, but there were pictures of Anita Loos and Frances Marion in the fan magazines and in the gossipy columns. There were these pages of "three dot" journalism. "Someone's doing this. Someone's doing that." So you'd have Greta Garbo dancing with Jack Gilbert, and then you'd have Anita Loos in Paris, and Frances Marion's doing this. The screenwriters got as powerful and played as attractively, and their pictures would be in there. The picture that ran in the book of Frances and Anita with going dressed in costume for a William Randolph Hearst costume party ran in Photoplay.
I was particularly pleased by the cover (of my book) photo, especially the way the eyes look out at you. That's one of Mary Anita's photos, and it was signed, "Love, Auntie," which makes it particularly sweet. It's the one, Mary Anita kept on her desk.
DL: It's important to remember that Mary Anita has a formidable reputation of her own.
CB: Absolutely. And thank you for mentioning it for me. What that woman went through, and her story is just incredible. She was married to Richard Sale. They had a child, who was born at a pound and a half. Mary Anita didn't tell me about a lot of this. I went to the Academy (of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) and found the press clippings. Here's 1948, and this tiny little blurb, and Louella Parsons covered Mary Anita, that this little baby had been born remarkably premature at only a pound and a half, and "our prayers are going out to him," assuming that he didn't have long to live.
He's still with us today, God love him, Edward is. He's in a wheelchair. He's never been able to really walk. But he's an incredible musician, and Richard Sale, Mary Anita's husband, proceeded, like so many other men in Anita's life, took to the bottle. Mary Anita arranged her life so that she would stop making movies with Richard. She and Richard had produced television and movies. So she set herself up in a little house with a swimming pool so that Edward could swim every day for his exercise and muscle development, and proceeded to writing novels, which sold millions. They were the first of the so-called "super paperbacks." She did a trilogy of California trilogy with sexy pictures on the cover, and they sold millions. That's where her family, i.e. her and Edward, together.
DL: We're lucky because there are lot of writers of Anita Loos' prominence who don't have relatives in a position to preserve their legacies.
CB: That was part of the joy of this. I was going through these boxes knowing full well that Mary Anita's opened them and not really gone through them. Mary Anita made me feel really special by saying, "Somehow I always knew somehow I'd always keep them, and someday, somehow, somebody would come along." And when (Anita) would write first names, I could say, "This was from this; this was from a book published at such and such" because I knew these things—don't ask me my own children's birthdays (laughs), but I know Mary Pickford's." In some instances I was struck by the pristine conditions of these manuscripts that I knew that Anita had kept them this neat. You could feel her almost speaking. She kept it this neat in the hops that somebody would find them and see them published.
DL: You described multiple drafts and even handwritten corrections.
CB: That's what made it a challenge, and that's how I became the "lucky winner." I retyped them on to disk for publication. That's why I know what they are and where they are.
DL: Frances Marion was exceedingly lucky in that group because she had a wonderful relationship with Fred Thompson, but a lot of the men in Anita's life were like this John Emerson guy.
CB: In fact, when I first met Mary Anita, and we talked about Frances. Mary Anita had met Frances and knew her. But after she had talked about how Anita had respected Frances and adored her at certain levels, she also said that she was very jealous at Frances. In some ways that's why I was drawn to both Frances and Anita because one of them had one thing, and the other had another. They were different. Mary Anita said that at the heart of it, Anita was frankly jealous of Frances because of her happy home life and her ability to be so comfortable within her own skin. Frances knew who she was and was not as sensitive to (other people's opinions). Anita was more dependent on what other people felt and thought.
DL: And what's amazing is that she got approval from some of the most unlikely sources. To think that H. L. Mencken inspired her to write Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
CB: The other result of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was that it brought these incredible other people into her life. She first met (Aldous) Huxley because he literally sent her a fan letter. As did H. G. Wells, having read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and that's how they came into her life.
I don't know how many times I've read it. You do have to go back to the book. It's certainly not the Marilyn Monroe movie. Nothing like it. You laugh out loud. I remember I was alone on the beach reading it and laughing out loud. I had found a used copy in a store in Jacksonville, Florida. I had an afternoon to kill, so I'm reading it. And there's all these people around me, and I keep laughing out loud. They keep looking and wondering "who's this weird woman all by herself laughing out loud?" It's just so ribald. It's hilarious and clever.
DL: How would you compare it to the Marilyn Monroe film and the book?
CB: The Marilyn Monroe film. The character isn't like Lorelei. Dorothy isn't even like Dorothy. It's sendup. The book sends up scenes. (Anita) used "The gold-digger with the heart of gold." So in that part it's the same. There are things like where Marilyn sings "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend," which are just beyond divine. But at the same time it's not the book. Every line is so finely crafted. And she caught a wave with that book. You can read it today. Of course, it's a very period piece. But at that time in the 20's, it just caught a wave at that moment with the flappers. What everybody was feeling or questioning, she just managed to catch the wave at the perfect time and poke fun at it.
DL: How did Frances Marion and Anita Loos differ in their writing?
CB: I don't think it did much. They were both incredibly able. They could do comedy, and they could do drama, and they could pull the heartstrings. They both had that ability, which is why their work stands out, is to make their secondary characters three dimensional.
Frances said when the worked together, and I love this little quote, "Anita would start early in the morning, and Frances would drag herself in at 6 a.m." (laughs).
I know John Sayles, who can write incredibly quickly, who could turn out a script in under 30 days, and it's good. Both Frances and Anita were very social people who had a lot friends. They both were early risers, and they both wrote pages before nine in the morning and off and on again till nine at night.
Both of them had hired help who took care of the more mundane things other writers might actually deal with (laughs).
DL: It must be nice to have a corner on this sort of study.
CB: I just wish there was money in this corner (laughs). It's very satisfying in all respects except financially. The Anita thing brings me particular satisfaction because I feel like as I say in my preface, or whatever, that I feel like this isn't a standalone, although you could read it that way, but I feel like it puts a bookend to her works. Don't read this in spite of her other works. Read those, too. In between all of them you'll have the full picture of Anita. It's part of her, but this is the part she left out. I feel like I've completed the picture.