How a Dream Became Reality by Susan Goldman Rubin
During the pandemic I wanted to do anything rather than straighten up my messy sock and lipstick drawers, or do gardening like many of my writer friends. I wanted to keep writing. I love movies, and for a long time had the idea of writing a book about the early silent screen actresses such as Mary Pickford who were exactly my height, five feet, and had curls like me, and were therefore able to play the roles of little girls and teenagers when they were adults. Over the phone, I pitched the idea of a book called Girls with Curls: Stars of the Silver Screen to my editor. To my surprise she liked it, and suggested expanding the idea to write about the women who had worked in various branches of the early movie industry— writers, directors, editors, even stuntwomen! So happily I went to work on a YA anthology, The Women Who Built Hollywood: 12 Trailblazers In Front of And Behind the Camera.
There were many fascinating people to consider as subjects. A few were featured in books I already had on my shelf such as Mary Pickford Rediscovered by Kevin Brownlow, and Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood by Cari Beauchamp. I learned that Frances Marion was the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood for more than twenty years and worked closely with Pickford on many classic films. And because of my earlier idea, I had a book titled The Griffith Actresses by Anthony Slide, that included Lillian Gish, and she became one of our twelve.
I wanted diversity in my anthology and knew I would include Hattie McDaniel, the first Black actress to win an Oscar for her performance in the movie Gone With the Wind. Presenting that movie raised controversial issues involving racial stereotypes, so I turned to film historians who placed the movie and similar films of the period in historical context. I also searched for lesser- known Black actresses. Having written a YA biography of Paul Robeson —athlete, activist, singer, scholar, and actor –-I knew about his co-star Fredi Washington. She was profiled in another book I owned, Bright Boulevards Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood by Donald Bogle. There I discovered actress Louise Beavers who was one of the first and best-known Black actresses in Hollywood, appearing in more than 200 movies. It turned out that she and Hattie McDaniel were not only friends and competitors for plum roles, but fellow activists here in Los Angeles, making the story more relevant and meaningful.
My editor and I narrowed down our choice of “firsts” to include Chinese American filmmaker Marion Wong, actress Anna May Wong, director Dorothy Arzner, editor Margaret Booth, costume designer Clare West, and stuntwoman and film writer of serials, Helen Holmes.
Since the libraries were closed in the shutdown, I had to figure out other ways to research. I scoured the bibliographies of books I already owned and sent for more. Online, I contacted the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and a wonderful curator came to my rescue. Remotely, she showed me how to access materials such as pertinent articles in movie magazines of the 1920s, transcripts of oral interviews, unpublished essays, and the first textbook on screen writing by Frances Marion.
When I began photo research, the same curator helped me click on the right headings to find photos of my twelve women,and still frames from their movies in the library’s digital collection. I found more images in archival collections at the Library of Congress, the George Eastman Museum, and the University of Southern California Libraries. Many excellent pictures came from the commercial sources, too. It was exciting to find pictures that I had never seen published before. At last I gathered all the possible picture choices for each chapter devoted to each of my subjects, made two sets of copies, and sent one to my editor. Over the phone, we reviewed the photos, and decided which pictures to use. At the last minute the U.S. mint featured the image of Anna May Wong on the quarter, and we quickly added a picture of it.
One of the best parts of research was viewing old movies and clips created by my twelve female filmmakers. Ultimately I hoped that readers would be inspired to watch these movies, and enjoy them as I did. I still marvel at the remarkable achievements of women in the beginning of the movie industry.
To bring my book up to date, I added an epilogue discussing the discrimination against women in Hollywood today. Things changed over the last hundred years as movies became a huge money-making industry. Men took over. I discovered that women are fighting for equality and diversity in front of and behind the camera. The good news is that women are successfully regaining their place in Hollywood. My awareness is heightened as I go to the movies, now that theaters are open, or see movies on streaming channels. I follow the credits to note the names of women and their contributions.
I was tremendously grateful to Ruth E. Carter, the Academy Award winning Costume designer of Black Panther, for agreeing to write the foreword to my book. Her comments brought the anthology full circle up to the present. I personally cheered her on when she won her second Oscar for costume design of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Ms. Carter beautifully summed up the stories of my twelve trailblazers. She wrote, “Because they dared to dream, I was able to dream.”
Susan Goldman Rubin is the author of Fireflies in the Dark; Margaret Bourke-White; Degas and the Dance; Steven Spielberg: Crazy for Movies; and numerous other nonfiction books for children.
Wow this is so wonderful that you wrote your book and what a great topic. You have inspired me to keep going with my art. Thank you.
Congratulations on an interesting book. I really enjoyed hearing about your research process.