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Uncovering the secret history of women in Hollywood

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

LAWRENCE — After working for many years as an actor and producer, Laura Kirk returned to her native Kansas in 2012 and joined the University of Kansas Department of Film & Media Studies as a lecturer, teaching film acting.

Now, in her first big work of academic scholarship, Kirk has contributed two chapters to “When Women Wrote Hollywood” (McFarland), a new book aimed at bringing the secret female history of Hollywood to light.

Kirk wrote about Kansan Eve Unsell, a screenwriter whose career spanned the silent and talkie era, and Bella Spewack, the journalist, author and screenwriter best known for “Kiss Me Kate.”

“When this industry started, women wrote 50 percent of the screenplays,” Kirk said. “And yet Eve Unsell was not in the index of any history book. Many of the women who have chapters in this book have not been written about in any real way.”

Unsell, for instance, got a two-line obituary in the Los Angeles Times when she died in 1937 at age 50. She was born in Chicago and grew up in Caldwell, a small Kansas town in Sumner County.

“She has 96 credits on IMDb,” the Internet Movie Database, Kirk said. “She was credited with training Alfred Hitchcock. She ran the Paramount studio in England. … I talk about how she was one of the first people to settle in Malibu when it was wild and natural and scenic.”

Kirk’s other book chapter is about Bella Spewack, who, together with her husband, Sam, wrote the musical play “Kiss Me Kate” in 1948 and adapted it for the screen several times, starting with the 1953 movie version starring Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson. Bella Spewack was a journalist before she became a playwright and screenwriter, having advanced the Anastasia Romanov survival-hoax story in the years after the Russian Revolution.

Because Spewack came along later and wrote a memoir, Kirk said, more is known about her than Unsell. Thus, researching the Unsell chapter, which Kirk titled “Smart Girl in Charge,” was a challenge, she said.

“Women were always called girls, no matter how old they were or what they were doing,” Kirk said, pointing out a newspaper clipping from the era. “Here is someone basically running the British arm of Famous Players-Lasky (Paramount), but she’s being called a girl. ‘Fame for a Kansas girl’ is the title of the article.”

Kirk said she went through all of Unsell’s film credits, looking for patterns among the actors, directors and producers with whom Unsell worked. Unsell collaborated closely with pioneer film producer and studio executive B.P. Schulberg, father of Budd Schulberg, screenwriter of such films as “On the Waterfront” and “A Face in the Crowd.” While in England, she trained Hitchcock in the writing of title cards.

After Paramount, Kirk said, Unsell started her own company, offering screenwriting services. She specialized in adapting novels into film. At first that meant writing the text for the title cards interspersed with silent-movie images, but she also transitioned into the talkie era, penning one of Jack Benny’s earliest movie roles in 1930’s “The Medicine Man.”

Unsell also had prominent creative roles in several films produced during the so-called “Yellow Peril” era of the 1920s. For instance, she wrote 1922’s “Shadows,” which featured Lon Chaney Sr. and reflected an inchoate, racist fear of Asian people that was rampant in the land.

“It’s an important part of history to be aware of,” Kirk said, “although when I present it, people can get really offended and say, ‘Maybe she shouldn’t be written about because she did that.’ And my response is, ‘It’s history. That’s what they were doing.’”

Kirk said her research for the book included attending the Kansas Silent Film Festival in Topeka “to watch how they told stories in that era; it’s so different.” She also examined photoplays – books based on films that Unsell wrote and featuring movie stills – at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library. She also visited the archives of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles.

“I’ve studied film,” Kirk said. “I knew about D.W. Griffith and all these guys, but I had no idea there were female filmmakers back then. In this new book, every chapter is about a fascinating woman with a fascinating story. And some of them are behind some of the biggest names you will see in Hollywood.

“Every chapter covers someone you haven’t heard of, but you should have if you’ve heard of D.W. Griffith or Cecil B. DeMille. They should be equally respected.

“I think this is where we get into the equity question. We talk a lot about what gets covered and what you teach. It’s not like these women weren’t there doing the work. It’s not that the art doesn’t exist for us to look at. But they aren’t in the books. So I am really proud of contributing to a new one so that people like me, or anyone doing grad school, can learn about it. We covered every era of Hollywood; they just weren’t written about.”

Top photo: A lobby card for the 1926 film “Her Second Chance,” which Kansan Eve Unsell adapted for the screen. Credit: Wikimedia Commons 

Top right photo: Eve Unsell, 1919. Credit: Wikimedia Commons 

Bottom right photo: Laura Kirk, KU film & media studies lecturer. Credit: KU Marketing Communications